Archives for category: Fulfillment

We’ve had our last day of “professional development” for the nonce and that’s  good thing.  You can only take so much.  It took a little while and some kind companionship (a.k.a. complaining with colleagues) to correct  course.

What happens sometimes is that we are given an article to read that touts some new method for engaging students and fostering learning.  New methods are great and engaged students who learn is what it’s all about, so you’d think that would be helpful.  The problem is that the method is overhyped.  Always.  It’s not just an answer, it’s the answer, the be-all, end-all, slam-dunk, fool-proof, can’t-miss solution to every problem any teacher ever had.  A classroom library of wonderful books will mean that literally Not One Student will fail to learn to love reading!  Postcards of fine art (Matisse, Kahlo, Klimt) will mean that every single, solitary, disengaged, angry kid will suddenly fall in love with creative expression and analyze poetry like Ph.D!  And I mean all of them:  Jose, Marisol, Eduardo, Spike, Dylan, Natasha, Olivia, and Sven.  The postcards will transform your classroom into a thrumming hive of learning and never again will you know the doldrums.  Your students will all win Pulitzers and thank you.

It stems from a fervent wish that teaching were a science rather than an art.  A lot of bad thinking about education stems from this wish.  Standards imply that if teachers just knew what to teach, they could succeed with every kid.  Merit pay rests on the assumption that if teachers were more motivated (by money) they would succeed with every kid.  There has to be some foolproof, can’t-miss, slam-dunk way that we could make all those interchangeable non-entities called teachers do stuff that would guarantee success with every kid.

But teaching is not a science.  Parenting isn’t either, and every attempt (Dr. Spock, are you listening?) to treat it as a science ignored the essential role of loving, creative, good-humored parents.  Parents are unique.  Kids are unique.  Families are unique.  Parenting comes out of the deepest values of the mum and dad as they love their ever-changing and one-of-a-kind kid.  Sometimes that works out great.  Sometimes kids don’t get what they need or parents can’t figure out how to help their kid.  But standardizing it is the opposite of the answer.  You wouldn’t get better parenting if you offered parents bonuses for meeting some criteria or other.

By now I hope we know that if someone says to a parent with a kid with a problem, “Oh, that’s easy.  All you do is.  .  . ” they should walk away.  When someone talks like that, all it means is that their kid didn’t have the problem your kid does.  Lucky them.  Or they found a solution that worked, for a while, with that particular kid.  Again, lucky them.  You can try their idea, but you go into it with wisdom, prepared to abandon the method of it antagonizes your kid.  There are very few universals.

And so it is with teaching.  I have a lot of tricks up my sleeve, lots of methods I can trot out when they seem promising, but any lesson might work with some of the kids but never all.  Or might work, mostly, with one class and fail totally with another.  What remains is my love, my excitement about learning, my faith in them as smart people who can get excited about learning, too.  Just as you only ever learn to be a parent to the kids you actually have, so you only ever learn to teach the students you’ve actually had.  Each class poses new challenges and while some of what you’ve learned may work, you’re also probably going to have to figure out all new ways to reach them.

Teachers aren’t cogs or widgets (nor are students).  Our passion, ingenuity, and love are what make the thing work.  The methods don’t mean any more than whether a family likes to read Dr. Seuss or Beatrix Potter to their kids.  It depends.

Sorry, Powers That Be.  You’re never going to help teachers do a better job until you recognize our individuality, our own creativity, our passionate motivation, and our un-bribe-able love as the heart of it all.

But yeah, it is nice to show them some Matisse.

Image result for matisse dancers


Today was a three hour faculty meeting.  I couldn’t even tell you what all we heard about, although all of it was (no doubt) vital.  We heard about what tech platforms will be discontinued, which will be coming on, who’s new in the building, what the bell schedule will be for extended advisory, oh me oh my.  If we taught our classes the way they run faculty meetings.  .  .

But I know they’re doing their best with directives from above.  The point is that it’s all disorienting and confusing yet somehow we have to get ready to meet our kids.  Then add to that our A.L.I.C.E. training, which means we watched videos on our computers about how to climb out a window if an armed intruder tries to kill us and our kids.  No kidding.  A.L.I.C.E.  stands for Alert, Lock-down, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate.  Such is the first day back for teachers.

And that’s all important.  I’m not suggesting that any of it was wasted: it’s just hard.  They know it’s hard.  They wish we could talk about education.

As my principal did.  He ended with a plea: we’re here for the kids.  All of this was about how to make it better for kids.  Even A.L.I.C.E. is about kids.  No matter what we seem to be talking about, what we’re really talking about is kids.

That can be hard to remember, but it’s always true.  In the midst of all of it, don’t forget what we’re here for.  They’re all just somebody’s kid.

K feeds Zoe

(Note: when overwhelmed, it helps to cuddle a baby)


The house we used to live in had a skylight in the living room, and outside that room there grew a number of mature trees.  One day, my grandson, who was then about 3 years old, said to me, “Mimi, circles are here.”  I had never noticed that the sun, when filtered through leaves (as if they were a pinhole camera), projects itself in circles of light.  Here is the best photo I can find to show you what I mean if you haven’t noticed this before:

Related image

That dappling, if you could see it without the texture of the ground, is made up of circles.  I had lived in that house for years and never noticed it.  It took the fresh attention of a little child to see it.

We used to lie on our backs and watch them shift around when the breeze stirred the leaves.  It was Zen T.V.  Very beautiful.  One day a cloud came and covered the sun and the circles vanished, and then, as the cloud blew across the sky, they came back.  My grandson said to me, “Do it again!”  As if I had the power to move the clouds.

It was very strange to me that I had never seen them, that I needed his help to see what was happening in my own house so frequently– and I have never stopped loving those circles, whenever they appear.

Yet another miracle of the eclipse is this:

Circles are cescents

The circles became crescents.

I couldn’t tell you why this is so lovely to me.  Partly it has to do with having been taught to see them by my beloved little boy, partly it has to do with beauty and mystery hiding right before our eyes, as much as to suggest that the world is far more exquisite than we have power to imagine or perceive.

But one thing is for sure: teaching involves making these overlooked marvels visible to our kids whose lives, we hope, will forever contain a little more of the numinous than they did when they arrived.

It’s all about the noticing.  Thank you, A., for teaching me to notice the circles.

As I mentioned, I went to see the eclipse.  My brother had said months ago that this was an experience we would never forget, a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and worth all the driving it would entail.  So we drove.  It was my sister and brother-in-law and me.  We broke the trip in Roanoke, VA with a memorable dinner at the Three Little Pigs Barbecue, a restaurant in a strip mall that managed to nail it on food, service, ambiance, location, and regionality.

The next day we drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway to Asheville, NC.  Beckham, the scruffy little rescue dog, found that the bbq had not entirely agreed with him.  We gave thanks for the beautiful cool mountain weather and rolled down the windows.

Arrival in Asheville and off to Biltmore, a Vanderbilt mansion on an unimaginable scale.  Go there and see Frederick Law Olmstead’s work as he could only imagine it– the trees are now what he planned they would be.  I wish I could bring him to life for one day to show him in its mature form what he dreamed and created.

Then a dilemma– do we chance traffic and congestion to go to the glider port in Benton TN to see our brother and meet up with old friends who were already there?  Or should we heed the warnings of quadrillions of cars on the road and just hop south a few miles?  We went for it, along the Nantahala river and some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen, to arrive at the Chilhowee Gliderport.  This was what it looked like:

Glider port

(That’s my sister in white, walking Beckham.  He feels a lot better now).

People were parked all along those trees there– maybe 300 or so?  And here was some pre-game celebration:

Corona tailgate

Coronas, to honor what we hoped to see, from a dear old friend (none for Beckham).

Then we waited.  We told stories and jokes and passed the time with friendship.

Telling stories


Then a bite out of the sun, then a bigger bite. We kept on looking!

Look up

K looks up

Then a lot of it was covered and the world looked odd– not quite twilight, but not normal either, as if it were blowing up a storm but the leaves were the right side up and no cool wind.  Then most of the sun covered.  Nearing totality, it looked like a movie that was meant to look like nighttime but it was really filmed in the day and put through some kind of filter that was fooling nobody.  Then, Then.  .  . Then!  The glasses on, the glasses off, and “Oh my God” on a loop– ohmigodohmigodohmigod.  The “diamond ring”, the darkness, the corona like an image of the Star of Bethlehem, a sense of cool, or was it chills?  I wanted to be alone so I could just cry and everyone around experiencing the same.  “Bailey”s Beads”– a pink jewel at 5:00 on the rim, pulsing.  .  .  Then the whole thing repeated on the other side.

daytime darkness

There’s no point in trying to sum it up.  It’s unsummable, numinous, ennobling.

Nature is the first and best teacher.  She knows that if you inspire awe, the rest will follow, as the night the day.

And when you’ve learned it, there you are with one another, closer than you were before.

all of us

Closer with family, when your brother was the one who told you to go and your sister who traveled all the miles with you.

3 siblings

Closer with the sweet family who took the photos and made it better by being there.

sweet fam

Closer with the world and all that’s in it and around it, including the sun, which I’ll never look at quite the same way again.

Would it be possible to imagine bringing awe into the classroom?  To re-envision our work as teachers as inspiring awe and fostering connection among seekers?

Who knows?  All I know is that I saw the moon pass across the sun and darkness fall in the afternoon.  And it made life better.


Hi, readers.  Are there 2 or 3 of you now?  Yay!

Today I returned from the eclipse, which I saw near Benton, TN– more on that later.  But I did want to let you know that I have you much in mind as we think about bidding summer farewell and undertaking our vocation and life’s work, for which, I hope, we’re a little more energized than we were in June.

This is just to let you know that I hope to write to you again this year, and maybe not go dark in November as I did last year.  I can’t promise anything.  Who knows what will happen?  Not me.  But as long as I don’t fall off the cliff of meaning into the chasm of dread, fear, and despair, I hope to write to you all the things I wish I had known when I was a newish teacher and all the things I’m still learning as an oldish one.

Interesting focus fact: my husband and I calculate that, if all goes according to plan, I have 9 more years of teaching.  I plan to retire 6/26.  For many teachers, the retirement date is a fetishistic countdown.  Not me.  While I am listing the travels I’d like to make in the off season (Hawaii, Venice, Yosemite) and the things I’d like to learn or ply or bathe in (guitar, weaving, more guitar), I’m also looking at these last 9 years as nearly a third of my career.  What will they be about?  What’s their special job?

And I know the answer!  (naturally):  trying to prepare newish teachers to bring their whole selves to the classroom and create a body of work, to make the world a better place through their cataract of love and knowledge.  My career goal has been to be able to know when I announce my retirement, colleagues, administrators, parents, and students will consider it a loss to my school.  And now I undertake to add to that career goal that I wrote to and for newish teachers in ways that helped them meet the same career goal.

So here we go, into the school year and for me, into the last third.  May we undertake it all with wisdom, courage, honesty, and enthusiasm.  But above all, with love.

(Image courtesy of the internet– “One Year Bible Blog”)

This is a big topic. It might be the biggest topic. In the last post, I suggested it was possible, doable, and good to bring your whole self, with all your loves and passions, to work (as the old prayer book said, “It is meet and right so to do.” I don’t know why my Episcopalian background is surfacing. Maybe it was writing about Saint Paul’s)

I believe that’s true and I’ve found my best work at work from having been fully there with the kids, talking about something true in my life. Possibly painful. Utterly true.  That’s when they get quiet and stop fidgeting and absorb what you say.  You know you’re speaking to their unique, individual hearts.

But if the kids look to you like an undifferentiated mass, and you believe that they will snigger and deride your true self, what to do then?

Hmmm. That, my dears, is a good question. Do you hide yourself or withhold yourself? Sometimes you might. Sometimes you might have to. But that’s the path to survival, not flourishing.

Survival is good! Survival is necessary. In your first few years, survival is your main goal. But there will come a time when you will want to do more than survive.

I sometimes play my guitar a little, at the end of class. I am not a talented nor accomplished guitarist and that’s not modesty but the pure unadorned truth. But I’m lucky enough to have sufficient understanding with my students that they know I know I’m not good and that’s not why I’m doing it. I want to show them what learning looks like. I want to offer them everything I have, even if it isn’t very much, at least not yet. They know they are to ignore my strumming or picking and pretend they can’t hear, because if I think they’re listening I’ll do even worse, but that this is my way of leveling the playing field, being a beginner at something some of them are pretty good at, right out there in front of them.



The encouragement of someone you love helps a lot.

I didn’t have the courage to do this in my early years, but I do now. One of you who (I hope) follows this blog asked me one day after observing my class, “What do you do if they ask you a question and you don’t know the answer?” Oh, T. I love you so! I replied, “You say, ‘Gee, I don’t know! Let’s go find out!’”

Maybe teaching courage is more important than anything else we do, and maybe teaching courage is best done by having it palpably right there in front of them by being goofy or unskilled or ignorant and owning that and going to work on it then and there.


Teachers get a medal for courage, no matter how scared they feel inside.


A new teacher of my beloved acquaintance asked me recently, how do you bring your sense of social justice to a classroom in the culture of your school? He put it really well and I didn’t, but I know what he means. There is the school, and there are the principals and parents and community members with all their expectations and beliefs about what we ought and ought not to teach (everybody has an opinion)—and yet we have ideas about that, too. How do you reconcile all that and not lose your soul?

That, my dears, is a good question.

To answer it, I will tell you a story. But first, let me say that parents do get to trust that teachers aren’t lobbying kids out from under them. They send their kids to school with faith that their teachers are partners in their weighty job of rearing good humans to take up the mantle.  They must not fear that you’re dissuading the kids from all the lessons parents have labored to impart.

Also, kids get to expect that their teacher is there for each of them, not just the ones you love or agree with politically. You’re everybody’s teacher. Period. You may not say or do anything that imperils their trust that you see each student’s noblest potential and aim to teach them toward it.

Okay, here’s the story. I try to remember to tell this to every class. One day, when I was 21 years old, I was walking along with my toddler son under the beech trees of William and Mary. My head was full of all the things I needed to think and he lagged a bit behind, so I turned to wait for him to catch up, and saw him crouching, reaching for something with his hand. Another cigarette butt, I wondered? Toddlers will put anything into their mouths. No, it was something far more interesting.


“Beech nuts! Christopher, you found beech nuts!” And I looked up and noticed those regal trees for the first time. “They are the seeds of these big trees. Imagine! If you planted one of these, in time, one of these beautiful trees would grow from it. But these aren’t fertilized. You can tell because they are skinny on their sides. See how they cave in? Let’s look for fat ones. Then we could plant it and make a beech tree!” I was giddy. Looking up, looking down, looking at my son’s fat little hand with the beech nuts in it.


Then, I suddenly wondered: how do I know this?

Flashback: I am maybe 8 years old. We’re at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on East Avenue in Rochester, New York.


It’s after the Sunday service and we’re out under the beech trees. My father is walking along, his hands clasped behind his back, looking down. He was always finding 4-leaf clovers and Indian arrowheads—yes! They’d rattle around in the silverware drawer in the kitchen.

“Daddy, what are you looking for?”

“Beech nuts, fertilized ones.”

And he explained to me about the fat ones and thin ones. And he added, “If you could plant a beech tree, you would not have lived in vain.”

Flash forward: my baby’s face, my hands full of beech nuts, my father gone, never to meet this child, a memory recovered, and teaching, in its fullness, revealed. I didn’t even know I knew it, but it lived inside me, waiting for that man’s grandson to spark the memory of love and stewardship.

Teaching, it’s often been said, is like planting a seed. Like planting a beech tree. Like giving your soul in its purest form to a child, for love and no other reason. Because beech trees are sublime and children should walk along beneath them and ponder planting one themselves.


So that’s how you bring yourself to work. You give them the best you have, at all moments, out of pure love of the world, a love that surpasses your love of yourself or the kids themselves. You do it for the beech trees.


Life is a little like floating on the face of the ocean. There can be beautiful, peaceful swells and you can keep your face out of the water and enjoy the sun and stars, or the storms can toss you around and try to drown you. At all times, the breakers or swells play only on the surface. Most of it is down underneath you, and it’s all connected anyway. It’s not as if you could go to the part of the ocean where the water is always calm. No, you’re always going to be treading water and sometimes that’s going to challenge you.


It’s so great when the conditions are right.


The first year(s) of teaching feel(s) a lot like trying to tread water in a tempest. You want so much to be out there splashing around with abandon and freedom, but instead you’re swallowing a lot of salt water and it’s making you sad, mad, and rarely ever glad.




Meditation can help. With meditation, we watch the waves instead of being out there struggling with them. We allow ourselves a little rest from the treading and swimming and striving to get somewhere and just observe the waves and get in touch with the reality of all the water underneath us, all the creatures living in that water, all the connectedness of all the everything, including us. We’re just part of a whole big connected thing.

We can do almost any daily ritual with a meditative spirit: eating, washing up, walking, making the bed. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Washing dishes, I know that I am washing dishes.” He washes the dishes to wash them, not to get them done so he can get on to the cup of tea he’s promised himself when they are finished.


Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Happy teachers will change the world.”

But in order to bring this level of presence to our daily activities, including teaching, it helps a lot to do some formal practice. I’ll talk more about what that looks like in another post, but first, there is the building it in, not fitting it in. Fitting it in won’t work. You’re already too busy with all the other things you have to do. Meditation is deliberately not doing anything so you can experience and practice being with each moment, not squeezing it for what you can get out of it. It’s a rest from striving. As long as your day is full of striving, meditation won’t look to you like something to do.

So. Find a place in the day. I do mine as a walking meditation on my way to school, where there is a labyrinth. When the cold weather comes and the snow covers the labyrinth, I’ll switch to eating meditation over breakfast or sitting meditation firs thing. I recommend early in the day, before the duties ramp up. Once the day gets going, I never do find a quiet moment.   Fifteen or twenty minutes is a good amount of time to start. Don’t try to do more than a half hour.

Find a place in your house. For sitting meditation, you need a quiet spot where you can sit comfortably and at restful attention. The side of the bathtub works pretty well, or on the stairs, or you can buy a meditation bench or cushion. Where you meditate is important. You have to know you won’t be disturbed and interrupted. You won’t answer the phone or hear it. You don’t want to have to hear music or talking, which will suck your brain off the object of attention. Don’t try to meditate with a pet. They don’t get it.


Your meditation set-up can be flexible and movable.

Most people find that a dedicated meditation spot helps them. It shows respect for your practice and you will start to associate meditation with being in that spot.  But if you don’t have a dedicated spot, that can work, too.

You need a timer. That’s so you won’t be checking the clock all the time and interrupting yourself. There are lots of apps you can download if you would like to hear someone narrate and guide your meditation, or if you would like bells at regular or random intervals to remind you to go back to the breath. Or you can just set a timer and watch the breath in silence.

And that’s all you need: a place in the day, a place in your house, a supported sitting spot, and a timer. When you have all those, you’re ready to start experiencing the ocean of life in all its imponderability.

A small number of my beloved acquaintance is new to teaching this year, and I’ve asked to hear questions they’d like to see discussed. T asked me how can you maintain any kind of life outside the responsibilities of lesson prep, grading, and all the rest. Good question, T!

Simple answer: you can’t, not if you’re going to get it all done.

More nuanced answer: you must, but it won’t be easy. And you’re not going to “get it all done” anyway.

Teaching, as a short period of non-judgmental observation in any classroom will reveal, involves (let’s just say) countless variables. Kids, each with their own infinite considerations; curriculum; school routines and expectations; weather. . . even if the teacher’s mood were entirely stable (robotic?), the whole enterprise taxes the working brain power of the most focused and broadly attentive people. It’s overwhelming. So there’s a lot to think about on the job.

And when you go home, you continue to think about it, which is the natural process of a conscientious person trying to do their best and learn their craft. But if you start out with infinite variables, each of which could provoke limitless pondering, you quickly run into meltdown.

There’s an additional problem: you can’t always find an answer, even if you cogitate and ruminate. Some problems/issues just need time for you to find how to meet them. I remember well sitting down in a quiet room on a Sunday morning, my husband minding the kids for an hour or two, so I would have time to “plan.” After the hour + was up, I’d put the cap back on the pen, sigh, and leave the blank page there on the desk. I had no idea what I wanted to do, no idea how to come up with an idea—all I had a lot of was panic and fear.

Then factor in the insurmountable workload. What you’re supposed to do cannot be done. You would need ten more quiet, unsleepy, inviolate hours in every day to fulfill all the duties.


New teachers need to know that they’ve undertaken something that one day, by degrees, will become doable, but it is not now.   You can’t bring it under control by working harder. You can indeed kill your life and enthusiasm by working harder.

My advice is to set aside time to work and time to quit work. Quitting time should come every day, not merely sometimes on alternate weekends. You need to stay alive. That, in fact, is the goal of the first year of teaching: survival. Cook or order a nutritious dinner and eat it.


Or go for a nature walk.  Or any walk with a friend.

Watch a funny movie (I recall with warmth the immense gratitude I felt for Babe in my first year).


Or just stop for a quiet cup of coffee.

Have a hot soak in the tub.


Here is a wise new teacher enjoying her life a little

Read a magazine or book. P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster novels are good when the chips are this down.


Funny!  No challenge.

What you want and need is to escape your overwrought brain. Make this part of your discipline.

The time will come, and no one can say when, that you’ll resume living your life fully. You’ll feel like a whole person, with maybe a little less sleep than you’d like. But in the meantime, you will learn what you need to learn more effectively and faster if you make a point of having some time to live your life every day, even if it means leaving some work undone.

Note: there is no day on which all my work is done, from late August until mid-June. I have learned to triage and live with dangling loose threads. I make a lot of lists.

Someone I know is going to have a baby. She said to me, “I just wish I could be doing something about it. It’s so hard just to wait!” Yes, I said, it’s hard to wait, but if it depended on mothers doing stuff somebody would be sure to mess it up. This is strictly a growing kind of thing. You cannot grow taller by trying and you can’t make a better baby by trying, even if you could decide what a better baby would look like.

But other things take a fantastical amount of doing, yet they can’t be hastened, either. This is what discovering our ability as a teacher feels like. I keep going back to John Steinbeck in my mind. He had to discourage the thoughts of the past and success he had already met, which was worse than useless on the project of Grapes of Wrath, and he had to fend off thinking about the future, with all its attendant worries about whether the book would be good enough, or an abject failure. What mattered was the work each day.

Not built in a day.

Not built in a day.

And so it is for new teachers. What matters is the work each day. In fact, this is equally true for our students. Measuring ourselves just isn’t very helpful. Projecting to the future is irrelevant and fears from the past are actively harmful. It’s as if we are pregnant with our future selves and we have to allow that gestation to develop in its own way and time, yet with this pregnancy there is nothing but doing the work with a will.

This slow, laborious process is made all the worse by others around us offering well meant advice about taking it easy. You ought to have more fun! Come on, live a little! But we can’t. We’re laboring.

Or, if it makes more sense to you, rather than being pregnant with your future self, the first few years of teaching are like having at least twins, or possibly, depending on how many students, how many preps, how well you know the content, and other circumstances, triplets, quadruplets, or quintuplets. You would not say to a new mother of multiples that she ought to live a little. You would congratulate her on survival. Is she getting any sleep at all? Is she getting to the end of the day with a shred of sanity? That’s success.

Now the fun can begin.

Now the fun can begin.

New teachers: I congratulate you on your survival! Those infants will grow up and one day they’ll go to school. They will still be lots of work and your major concern, but it will get progressively more doable. Yes, you have to give up many pleasures and joys for now. Your life can’t be the same. You walk around in a daze and with a wet spot of drool on your shoulder and you can’t go out with your friends but ever so rarely. But it’s so, so worth it.

One day, you’ll be born as a teacher, and you’ll know it. As Aeneas said on the beach to his desperate men, fled from Troy, “One day perhaps we will remember even these our present hardships with joy.” (Except you won’t. Nobody likes to remember the first year or so. I just said that to cheer you up.)

Aeneus and Achates meet Venus. Illustration by Warwick Goble, posted at

Aeneus and Achates meet Venus. Illustration by Warwick Goble, posted at

Somehow all of us must find a way to balance what needs to be done with what we can do, remembering that sometimes, for new mothers, Steinbeck, Aeneas, the builders of Rome, and teachers, it’s going to mean a lot of work here and now.

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

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