Archives for category: Time and focus

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.

There are three strands to this post and I hope to braid them together into something coherent.  We’ll see.

First, I’ve been thinking lately about self-improvement and how it can feel like self-rejection.  Alan Watts talks about this, the sense that we have to white-knuckle our way out of being who and what we are to become something a whole lot better, and how the real message there is self-hatred.  I had a big checklist at the New Year, with all sorts of improving things to do each day (exercise! practice guitar! floss!) and I kept it faithfully, most unlike me, for twenty plus days, to find life had become miserable.  The whole time I was doing one thing, I was eying the rest of the undone tasks and scheming on how to cut corners on each so I could squeeze them all in.  It was horrid and I’m still recovering.

I think about this with some of my students, who, some of the time, are playing me.  They don’t want to do the work I set for them and they find ways to kick against it.  The message of an assignment is, after all, that I’m not accepting them the way they are.  I want to see them grow.  That’s not bad, but it is a potentially annoying part of the relationship.

Second strand: this morning I read a long article in about Steinbeck and the journal he kept while writing Grapes of Wrath, detailing his many crises of confidence, his self doubt, his granite commitment to this important novel, and his fears about not having the skill to bring it off.  He suspended his life to write the book, all the while wondering if his ability could do justice to his conception.  And yet not to write it!

Inspiring to think even these kinds of writers have doubts.

Inspiring to think even these kinds of writers have doubts.

Third strand:  Mister Rogers.  Watch this:

Mister Rogers Good-bye.

My transcription of part of it: “I’m just so proud of all of you who have grown up with us.  And I know how tough it is some days, to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead.  But I would like to tell you what I used to tell you when you were much younger:  I like you just the way you are.  And what’s more, I am so grateful to you for helping all of the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe and to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods.  It’s such a good feeling to know that we’re lifelong friends.”

So how do they go together?  Is the answer to refuse to write a Pulitzer/Nobel book, since it’s so painful?  Or to accept that some kids will take advantage of their teachers and brag about it to others?  Or to grind our molars and force ourselves to do what we think we ought, regardless of the heartbreak?

No.  I think there may be a quietly insistent inner calling.  We know what seeds we contain.  Having a baby isn’t the easiest thing, either, but some of us wanted to be mothers badly enough that we braved it.  And it was magnificently, opulently worth it.

We have to love ourselves and one another just the way we are, and know that that also means loving the seeds we contain.  Some, like Steinbeck or my mentee, are going to have to give up the present to grow those seeds to fruit– but the cost of not doing it is so great that we can’t bring ourselves to pay it.

And I must continue to love my students, even the advantage-takers, just the way they are and hold out faith for the seeds that they contain, even if right now they cannot muster Steinbeckian courage.

A master teacher.

A master teacher.

Teachers need and ask for more time, which is one reason why we rejoice when we have a snow day. Yes, there’s some extra sleep in it for us, but what it really means is that we have a few extra hours in which to get the grading and prep done. There is more of this than layfolk may believe.

A former student of mine is now a teacher in my building. She is having to force herself to take off one day per week, either Saturday or Sunday. I would estimate that she spends two or three times as much time planning and grading as she does in front of her students, which is 4 and a half hours per day. In addition to the 90 minutes of plan time she has per day, she puts in 3+ hours after school and 6+ hours each weekend day. At this rate, she will burn out.

I’ve been doing this for a long while and the longer I teach, the more efficient my use of time. It used to take me a half hour to grade each paper, back when I was unclear on what the kids were likely to master or find challenging and when it was harder for me to put what I wanted to tell them into words. Now it takes me about 10 minutes for a good paper and 15 or 20 for a bad one. So let’s say I have 25 kids per class. Each time I collect papers, that means

25 x 15 (average amount of time per paper) = 6 ¼ hours x 3 classes = 18 ¾ hours

That’s in addition to my contracted hours, plus meetings (faculty and department), clubs and activities, extra help for kids after school, and all the rest.

And that’s just the papers. There is also all the other work that needs to be graded (quizzes, classwork, projects, etc.). And that’s not even glancing at the time I need to prepare lessons—and no, I don’t recycle them from year to year. It’s far more effective to make up lessons with these particular kids in mind.

And don’t forget college recommendations. And helping them with their college essays. And reading their poetry and short stories, which they’d like to share out of pure exuberance at loving to write.

Does this strike you as a complaint? It isn’t. I love my work and see the grading and preparing as an integral part of it. It’s a fact that, no matter how long you do it or how efficient you get, teaching is a labor-intensive art, requiring enormous skill and oodles of time out of the classroom.

Time in the classroom is only the tip.

Time in the classroom is only the tip.

TIME is what we could give teachers that would help to make them more effective. Not money. Merit pay is a stupid idea that works absolutely nowhere—and it’s been tried many times and in many places. Merit pay posits that money is the main motivation for all people and that teachers aren’t trying as hard as they would if you dangled a bonus in front of them. Both assumptions are wrong.

No, what we need is time: days in the building, built in days for which we could plan, when we could collaborate, plan units together, meet with kids, catch up on grading, college recs, etc. We ask and ask and ask, but generally, it seems that to mollify crankypants columnists and their ilk, administrators feel constrained to fill what little time there is with more responsibilities.

There should be designated days, built in to the calendar at regular intervals, for teacher collaboration and planning, for assessment, and for meeting with kids who need extra help. The suggestion that we use snow days, which happen rarely if at all, for that crucial work shows how little it is actually valued.

Somebody has an issue with teachers staying home when there aren’t any students in the building.

Why does he care?  We have a lot of work to do that isn’t place-dependent.  Why can’t we do that work at home, as we do all week when we don’t have snow days?  Do you care where a columnist writes his column, whether office, coffee shop, or living room?  What difference does it make as long as he gets his work done? (in this case, I’d have been just as happy if he’d been watching TV instead).

But this writer says he believes teachers do no work on snow days and loll about eating bonbons, so we ought to be forced to go in to work like “everybody else.”  Why the malice and distrust?

Are teachers professionals who must be counted on to prepare for and follow up from their time with students?  Then let teachers figure out when and how to do that.  Or are we clock-punchers who don’t have to take work home?  We’d be very glad to go in on snow days if the only work we did was in the building.  Either way is fine with us.  You guys figure yourselves out and let us know and quit griping at us.

It gets down to whether teachers are professionals or not.  We have master’s degrees and courses beyond, equivalent to the course work for a Ph.D.  Why must people be so angry if we do a wonderful job by giving our own time at home?

Somehow teachers are the new “welfare queens.”  If we say that we work really hard, the angry public responds, “Yeah, we do, too!”  But weren’t you just saying that we didn’t work hard?  I don’t get it.  Nobody is attacking lawyers, who can write briefs at home, or college professors, who work far fewer hours in the classroom, or nurses, who can’t take work home, or sanitation workers, who also got the snow day off.

Why the special hatred for those of us who work hard to get kids interested in learning difficult concepts and skills?

Note:  when I get a snow day, I am thrilled to have some time to get caught up with all the work there is never enough time to do.  No bonbons.

Besides, I’ll be making up all snow days at the end of this year, as all public school teachers do.

Teachers, stay home and get some work done.

Teachers, stay home and get some work done.

Stephen in his backyard playground.

Stephen in his backyard playground.

A student sent me the following link and implored me to watch it, saying that this guy lives so much of what I’m trying to teach:

Stephen Jepson:  Growing Bolder interview

Boy did she get that right.

Beside the inspiration of his energy, humor, agility, coordination, and all the rest, I came away with this urgent question: How did we let our lives get so boring?

I used to play jacks, climb trees, jump rope, and ride my bike so much that when I was finally snatched off the seat and forced into bed, it felt as though my feet were still going round and round and round. Exploring in the woods, making up games, hopscotch, tossing a ball in the air and seeing how many times I could clap my hands before it came back down—what happened to that spirit?

When I mentioned the tyranny of goals and checklists and doing this to get that and purpose and all the rest of it to a friend, she said of those folks they are trying to pave a road rather than following a path. Stephen Jepson does what he does for the joy of it and the results he receives are a bonus.  He’s following a path of play.

My poor students. So many of them have already drunk the poison of thinking that what we do today is merely so we can get what we want tomorrow. Our culture is full of that poison. I’m full of that poison and I’d like to find the antidote.

Stephen Jepson:  making the world less fall-y-down-y and also less goal-y-obsess-y.

Here is his website:  Never Leave the Playground.

Is this his morning's  commute?

Is this his morning’s commute?


Erich Brenn turns out to have been an important person in my life and the lives of many teachers of a certain age.  He was the guy who spun plates on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Check him out here. (and do do it, all the way to the end– a real variety act from back in the day).

We used to watch enthralled, never dreaming that that’s what our days would one day resemble.

I don’t mean to complain or brag, for there are many demanding jobs in this world and lots of us run around at hectic paces.  All I wish to do is comfort those who are new to teaching.  It feels at first undoable.  How do you keep even one plate spinning?  And then there are so many classes, so many kids, so many requirements that have nothing to do with either classes or kids.  .  .

Once long ago I was in a team meeting (where teachers who teach the same students at different times in different subjects come together to plan and facilitate) and a brand new teacher came in looking dazed, a piece of paper in her hand. Someone asked if they could help. She presented the paper, as if she’d just escaped from a space ship, mute and fazed. The experienced teacher looked at the paper and told her, “No worries. Not an issue. Just throw it away.”

“Gee, thanks,” she replied and trailed out the door.

Someone asked, “Didn’t that come out 6 weeks ago?”

“Yes,” was the response, “but she’s new.”

Understanding smiles and nods all round the table.

Perhaps one day they will backtrack on this statistic, but we’ve been told that nearly half of all new teachers quit within the first five years.  That matches my anecdotal experience.  It’s definitely a throw-you-in-the-deep-end profession and many find they can’t make it work.  The plates smash on the floor.

But for all those who secretly harbor shame that their act is not more together, that their plates are wobbling, that they’re having to ignore one class to prepare for another brand new one:  that’s just the way of it.

Perhaps one way to retain more of our new folks is to help them more?  To provide a little more collaborative time?  Plus time to do those all important assessments we hear so much about?  Just a thought.

Spin away, brave Erich.

Spin away, brave Erich.


I came across this passage in Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat Zinn:


Attention and Awareness Are Trainable Skills

Probably what teachers want most is to have their students’ sustained attention.

But this itself is hard to get unless the teacher is able to make the subject matter of the moment, whatever it is, come alive, to make it compelling and relevant within a classroom atmosphere of safety, inclusion, and belonging, along with a sense of learning as an adventure. It doesn’t help to yell at a class to pay attention when the children are being unruly. But it can help a lot—in fact, it can be a precious gift—to teach students the how of paying attention themselves and turning the process itself into something of an adventure.

Paying attention is a trainable skill, capable of ongoing refinement. As no less a luminary than William James, the father of American psychology, well knew, attention and the awareness that arises from it are the doorway to true education and learning—life-long gifts that keep deepening with use. It may very well be that the capacity to rest in awareness without distraction, in addition to simply balancing the power of thought and bringing a wiser perspective to it, may give rise to an entirely different kind of thinking.

It may be that future research will show that mindfulness training actually enhances creativity, freeing the mind to produce less routinized kinds of thoughts and freer and more imaginative associations.


This is an interesting passage on several levels. First, check out that description of what teachers must do to win their students’ attention. Safety, inclusion, belonging, spirit of adventure—just what I’ve been saying. And completely contrary to the “no excuses” testy culture.

But also the bit about teaching the skills of attention. I wonder if there is a place for that in schools. If mindfulness went by a different name and if it were aimed at students’ attentional skills, would that help parents and administrators see it as relevant and useful?

Perhaps the emotional benefits of mindfulness are more threatening and less apparently relevant to schools than its academic and intellectual benefits—as counterintuitive as that feels.

Just as medicine has come to acknowledge and embrace the mind/body connection, I believe that education is going to have to acknowledge and embrace the brain/heart connection. When we do, I predict we’ll see a big improvement in what kids can learn and do.

Jon Kabat Zinn has an awful lot of good ideas.

Jon Kabat Zinn has an awful lot of good ideas.




Okay, so I was posting pretty regularly in the summer, but then all sorts of things happened (including the start of school), which kind of got in the way. Funny to think that actually teaching gets in the way of talking about teaching, but there it is.

But among all the distractions and needful tasks, I’ve been writing a mindfulness blog for my mindfulness students, who are also teachers. If you are interested in getting a sense of what’s been going on over there, here is the link:

Breathing Across the Curriculum

The good thing is that I’m getting a handle on it all: what I have to say about schools and teaching, plus how to find the time to say it. So for those of you who have been supportive and subscribed and let me know you are thinking about teaching and schools along with me (I’m looking at you, dear Katherine B.!), I’m gearing back up.

In the meantime, I hope you’re all reading Diane Ravitch– all the time.

Love and will be back soon,

There are a number of splendid blogs committed to battling the rubbish that goes by the name of school “reform”, Diane Ravitch’s being perhaps the best.  If you don’t already know her work, her blog is an excellent place to start.

I would like to do something a little different.  Instead of concentrating largely on the fight for public education, I would like to focus on what teachers, parents, administrators, and communities can do to strengthen their neighborhood schools.  This includes sometimes condensing talking points about contentious issues, such as unions and tenure, so that when we are called upon to explain their merits at dinner parties or family gatherings we have something to say (other than, “Why are you directing all this anger at me in what was otherwise a nice evening?”).

When I was a young mother, it seemed there was a rash of articles about how rotten mothering would ruin kids’ lives.  All the focus seemed to be on how horrid most mothers were, how messed up most adults were because of mothers, how if mothers would just get their crap together the whole world would thrive, and how mothers were to blame for every ill.  It was a drag, but I managed to ignore it and just hang out with my kids.  Now it’s deja vu all over again, when teachers are the scourge of society.  Once again, I’m in the demonized group.

So fine.  As they say on the internet, haters gonna hate.  But we don’t have to become haters, not even to debunk them.

Teachers do challenging work.  Not only need we deflect attacks, we also need to continue to sharpen our skills, to create a larger and more supportive community around our work.  This is necessary not only for us, but for our students.

This blog is for collaboration, mindfulness, inspiration, whole teacher/whole child, sustainable, vibrant education in its largest sense.  I would like to do what I can to speak to those who, like me, want to move from this:

The testy vision of education.

The testy vision of education.

To this:

Fragile, yet filled with potential.

Fragile, yet filled with potential.

Each person, highest potential.  That’s the ticket.

Come breathe.

Come breathe.

Join our mindfulness class for teachers!  This class will have nothing at all to do with the district, with the students, with the parents:  this is exclusively for teachers who would like to explore some mindful practice, utterly untethered from our school lives, on private, non-contractual time.

Here are the dates.  They are the same ones we were going to hold it before minds were changed:

Tues Sept 17

Tues Sept 24

Tues Oct 1

Tues Oct 8

Tues Oct 15

Tues Oct 22.

Each session would be 3:15 to 5:15, give or take.

We hope to meet at Dragonfly Yoga Studio, on Green Street opposite the Mercer Museum:

map of Dragonfly Yoga Studio

Friendly place in Doylestown Borough.

Friendly place in Doylestown Borough.

Dragonfly has the space for us, but we need to pay for it, so a donation will be requested.

If you’d like to do this, and you can commit to all the sessions, find a way to reach me on my home phone or leave a comment here telling me where to reach you.  I’ll put your name on the list.

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

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