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.

 

c-and-i-play-guitar

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.

cowardly-lions-medal

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

“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.

beech-nuts-2

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.

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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.

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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.

 

I think I may have mentioned to some of you that I had a hard, hard first year of teaching. How hard was it? I remember once standing at the top of 3 flights of stairs considering, merely hypothetically, how much damage I’d do if I flung myself down. Like, going to the hospital for a couple of weeks would be great, but permanent disability would not. What held me back was that I didn’t want anyone to know the haphazard and flighty state of my lesson planning. The only reason I didn’t quit is that I couldn’t come home and tell my husband. We needed the money and it wouldn’t be fair to him. But I really, really wanted to.

On my way to work, I would see the guys out collecting the trash and long to trade places. That was a job with such fantastic advantages. You make the world cleaner and better, you don’t take work home, you see the results of your work right there in front of you, you hang out with your buds all day, you get good exercise, you enjoy nature. . . What’s not to like? And literally none of that is true of teaching—except maybe in time making the world better, although you’ll never know about it if you do.

trash

Enviable.

Teaching is unpredictable, labor-intensive, typically isolating, frequently embarrassing, indoorsy, stationary, and never, ever done no matter how many hours you put in at home. If you haven’t done it, you can’t probably picture how stressful it is.

And yet. There is just something about spending time with a roomful of fractious kids, and a topic comes up, and (usually because it’s personal and about you) they go entirely quiet, and you know they are all listening with their whole selves to what you’re saying. When you are honest about something hard that happened to you, every ear is grasping what you say. You know that what you learned back then was important, and you know that all those kids hunger for the wisdom you pried out of the experience. You can imagine, maybe, that you’re giving them what they need.

And like collecting the trash, no matter what, you have to show up.  All the suffering you do in your first few years is best done on the job.  Even if it’s cruelly hard and you’d rather be in a hospital bed in traction (or imagine you’d rather that), you will learn a lot just by being there, even if you feel ineffective.  Show up.  Do what you can.  Go home and apply the palliative measures.  Then get up and do it again.

Slowly, by degrees, you’ll have some successes.  A kid will say good morning or make a funny joke, or you’ll help someone write a better sentence or be there with a tissue when they needed one.

Not as tangible as a nice, clean curb with a nice, empty garbage can, but motivating nevertheless.

trash-cans-empty

Job well done.

Well this is a pretty big topic, not easily addressed.  Colleagues come in so many forms, from people you see at lunch to those you must work closely with, as in co-teaching or team teaching.  I heard the advice that you should just avoid the teacher’s lunchroom altogether and do your own thing, insulating yourself from others at your school.  That is wise if a culture of negativity and complaint has taken root, but kind of depressing and limiting even then.

Basic rule: you should want your colleagues to think well of you and cheer you on.  Especially in your first few years, they can provide a lot of help you didn’t know you needed and shield you from some real problems.  Even as you depend upon them, try to take good care of them.  Make some funny jokes.  Cut out the odd cartoon and post it.  Offer a good article (assuming you’ve had any time to read and find a good article).  Maybe bring in coffee or treats or flowers one day.  See Blondie Brownie Recipe below.

In my first year, they voted me team leader, which was absurd– a way for those who knew the ropes to dodge some responsibility.  I was so naive I thought it was a compliment and a chance for me to show my merit.  I did all right with it, but they shouldn’t have done it.  It was dumping.

But one good thing I did do:
Our 8th grade team had a difficult kid named Peter whose mother had been angry with us.  She said she felt we had thrown him to the wolves, and we were the wolves.  How it was that we threw him to ourselves she did not explain.  We listened and soothed as best we could.  Not too long after that, I invited my team to a little party during our usual meeting.  I gave out invitations with wolves on them, stipulating a howling good time.  They arrived and I had “Peter and the Wolf” on my boombox as I poured soda and gave out cookies.  We cohered as a team over sugary snacks.

wolf-pack-many-wolves-animals

My first team.

There are a number of lessons here:

  1.  Folks might dump on you, even if they know better.
  2.  Don’t let them.
  3.  If they do and you can’t get out of it, be gracious.
  4.  When you make people laugh, they will like you even if they don’t want to.
  5.  Cookies, soda, snacks, etc. aren’t expensive and they win people to you.  But don’t overdo it.  They should be on your side whether you feed them or not.

Another team I taught with was wonderful: every one of them a crack teacher.  One day someone wandered into our meeting with a bewildered look, holding a piece of paper.  One of my teammates asked if they could help her.  She just handed the paper over.  My teammate said, “That’s okay.  It doesn’t apply to you.”  “Oh, okay,” she said, and left.  Someone else said, “Didn’t that come out a month ago?”  The reply:  “Yes, but she’s new.”  Oh, they all said.  Right.

Basic rule there:
Any team worth its salt knows that when you are new, you have more than you can handle.  So they take it easy on you.  If they don’t, speak up and tell them that you’re willing to do what you can do to help them plan the field trip or assembly today and tomorrow and after that, you’ll be buried in grading.  Be clear that you want to help.  Be equally clear that you can’t wait till the last minute.

But the most important basic rule:
No matter what anybody says or legislates, teaching with someone is as intimate and personal as any other deeply felt human interaction.  If they put you with a co-teacher or team you don’t respect and love, the chemistry won’t happen and that’s nobody’s fault.  There is nothing more helpful than a soulmate at work.  There is also no way to force it.

Once or twice I have co-taught or just taught alongside someone I loved and respected, a true friend.  Those are good days. If you have that, treasure it.  It’s rare.  If you don’t have it, don’t despair.  You can go it alone– it’s just lonelier, is all.

And no matter what you do, take good care of the administrative assistants.  Those ladies (they’re always ladies, so far in my career) make the school run and can spare you a world of pain.  They get yelled at and they don’t like it any more than anybody else does.  Look after them.  They may just look after you.

And now, if you’d like to cook something to bring in, here is the easiest treat I know:

Blondie Brownies

¼ c melted butter
1 c sugar
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla
¾ c flour
1 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 c chocolate chips
(optional) ½ c nuts

Pour the sugar into the melted butter and stir.  Beat the egg lightly and stir into the butter/sugar mixture.  Add the vanilla and mix.  Add the flour, baking powder, and salt.  Stir until mixed.  Stir in the choc chips and optional nuts.
Pour the mixture into a buttered 9×9 pan.  Bake them at 325 degrees for about 25 minutes or until a knife comes out clean from the center.  Cool well before cutting into squares.  Yummy!  Easy!  Almost unbelievably sweet!

blondies5

When buying friendship, this is the coin of the realm.

Here is a happy scene I happened upon at the wonderful Doylestown Bookshop.

b-and-t

Brittany and Tyler, both former students of mine, working away at their grading on a Sunday afternoon.  So many good, healthful things here in support of their hard work as teachers: a change of scene, good food and drink, companionship, a stretch of the legs– all while the grading gets done (which pays of big-time with the sense of accomplishment).

There will always be grading, but good thing there will also always be friends and bookstores and coffee and weekend afternoons when we can do a little catching-up.

overcoat

Do you know this sweet old song?

Button up your overcoat. . .

“Button up your overcoat when the wind blows free. Take good care of yourself: you belong to me.” I would like to sing that song and do my best Betty Boop impersonation for all new teachers. You should be taking extra good care of yourself: go to bed early, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, get some exercise every day, eat a good breakfast, and all the rest of the homey ways you can think to boost your health and spirits.

But there is a fly in the ointment. Now that you are so busy and stressed to do what can’t actually be done, you may find you can’t sleep, can’t eat, can’t move.

Let’s look at sleep first. I have a relative who is a sleep tech. He’s the guy who hooks insomniacs up to the monitors and tucks them in to bed, watches over them during the night, and unhooks them in the morning. He told me that it’s not rare that when he goes in in the morning, a patient will say, “Well, that was a waste.” They perceived the number of hours they slept as zero. He replies, “You were asleep 90% of the time.” I’ve experienced this myself. I’ll be lying there, waiting patiently for sleep to come, thinking about my crazy 4th period class, and my husband will give me a nudge and ask me to please stop snoring. How can you be snoring when you’re wide awake?! You can’t. But you can be asleep when you don’t know you are. (so in my opinion, you should ignore the advice that says if you can’t sleep, get up and do something else until you can)

My relative also tells me that it’s normal for humans to experience diphasic sleep. They go to sleep, get about 4 hours, then wake up and ponder for an hour or so, then back to sleep for 4 more. That’s normal. Not weird. It doesn’t mean you’re coming apart at the seams.

Honestly, the worst thing about not sleeping isn’t even being tired, it’s the fear of being tired. You lie there, wishing you were asleep, pining for sleep, yearning for sleep, telling yourself that if you don’t go to sleep all is lost and you’ll be useless in the morning. Yeah, way to de-escalate the consequences. Much better just to take what comes.

Try this article about the second dart.

Sometimes the universe likes to play tricks on us. It’s like a game. “You think you’re stressed out now? I’m going to show you that you’re actually just fine by stressing you out more and you’ll survive that, too. You’re better than you think you are, kiddo!” We meet a whole new normal.

It’s like being a new parent. You’re overjoyed, panicked, anxious, desperate to do a good job if only you knew how, overwhelmed, confused, gob-smacked by love, deeply suspicious that you should have been given this responsibility, and sleep-deprived. Now, go! Do a great job!

Or maybe your issue is that you sleep all the time and you can’t get any exercise and you’re just a giant slug on the couch. Or maybe you can’t eat and food disgusts you and you’re hungrier and hungrier but you and food are not getting along. It’s all okay. Not pleasant, but okay. Most young teachers are far stronger than they can know. Just try to stay calm and accept what comes with good grace and, if possible, humor. Do the best you can. As Thurgood Marshall’s mother used to say to him, “Do the best you can and then be satisfied with that.”

thurgood

He got good advice from his mom.  He went far with it.

Button up your overcoat when you can. Have faith in your own survival when you can’t.

button-up

Baby, it’s cold outside.

 

 

 

Some time ago, but well after age 50, I determined to learn to play the guitar. I can’t say why I did, but all of a sudden it mattered to me. Since I last learned anything really hard, I’ve developed quite a lot of discipline and stamina—surprise!—and I worked hard at it. Then I lost my teacher and found a new teacher and to my sorrow, discovered that I’d learned some bad habits that were going to hold me back if I didn’t reform my ways. This felt like going back to the beginning. Discouraging. Very.

Yesterday at my lesson, my new teacher, Dan C., cautioned me against overthinking and trying to get too far too fast. He said if he were going to try to learn gymnastics, he wouldn’t start on the parallel bars. First he’d have to lose some weight and get stronger—before he even approached any of the equipment. He said just as you don’t start teaching babies the Latin name for fruit trees before they’ve learnt “apple,” so you can’t get ahead of yourself in any other enterprise.

But I don’t want to be where I am! I want to be farther ahead. Now.

And that driving, striving attitude will defeat the most disciplined learner. You can’t be where you aren’t. You have to be where you are, fully, deeply, without judgment. You have to live rich and open in the place you are. Only in that way can you move forward.

It’s a little like walking along with a stack of books piled high on your arms.

 

guy-with-books

This guy is content to be where he is.

As you learn, the books go inside you and your arms are freed up for more. This takes time. The only way is bit by bit. You can’t just pile more books on top and run ahead, grabbing more books. It just won’t work.

guy-with-books-2

This guy is trying to get where he isn’t.

 

guy-with-books-3

This guy is going to have to put some of those books down.

To learn stuff best, whether it’s guitar or how to teach or what were the causes of the Civil War, you have to be where you are with it, possessed of curiosity, tolerance, patience, courage, and faith. Trying to motivate yourself (or others) with chiding and yelling merely communicates that where you are is no good. How can it be no good? It’s where you are! You have to start there.

guitar-lesson-capestang

It helps a lot if love and respect flow freely between teacher and student.

It turns out that the fastest way to go anywhere is to be fully where you are. You have to pay attention, on purpose and without judgment, to what is happening now.

So mindfulness and learning, it turns out, go hand in hand.

 

 

This from Dave Barry:  “The Young and the Restroom”

IF YOU DON’T HAVE ENOUGH DRAMA in your life, you need to chaperone a party for a group of seventh-graders. (“Chaperone” comes from the French words “chape,” meaning “person,” and “rone,” meaning “who is aging very rapidly.”)

We recently had a party for our son’s 13th birthday. We rented a Holiday Inn function room, on the theory that it was roomier and less flammable than our house. We hired two nice young deejays to play ugly music really loud so that the youngsters would enjoy it. We ordered a large quantity of cold cuts for the youngsters to ignore, as well as a nice fresh vegetable platter for them to actively avoid.

You can find the whole piece here:

The Young and the Restroom by Dave Barry

Chaperoning is part of the job– not the best part.  But you do see a side of the kids you might otherwise not.  Maybe not their best side.  And maybe you’d rather be home with a glass of wine.  But there it is.  You might come home with a story?

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Sam ends up in tears in the hallway.  Who would go back?  Not me.  Ever.  For any consideration.

We all go through phases.  Middle school dances are part of life, like appendicitis and tooth decay.  A trial of sorts, I suppose.  I’m just glad, when I chaperone that

a. I teach high school and

b. I can just stand there and not have to take part in any of it.

(although there was that memorable moment, some years ago, when I unwisely chaperoned prom– the longest night of the year– and wandered onto the dance floor late in the night and they were playing the Black Eyed Peas song “Boom Boom Pow” and the kids were into it and the music throbbed and the boys’ shirts were off and the funk of teenaged sweat and hormones hung heavy on the air.  Whew!  Not even sure what to say about that.  Still having the vapors.)

 

Okay, so you’ve got yourself all set up to start a mindfulness mediation practice. You have your bench or cushion in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed, you’ve got a time of day where you’ve built it in, and you’ve got a timer so you don’t have to watch a clock.

So exactly what is mindfulness? Paying attention, on purpose and without judgment, to what is happening now.

 There is an awful lot in that sentence and it will become richer and richer the more you experience it, but you can start by committing that to memory.

Okay, so, let’s get started. Take your place in your spot, set your timer, and then breathe. Watching the breath as it enters the body, watching the breath as it leaves the body. You need not try to control your thoughts and feelings. They will arise on their own. You’re just allowing them to arise and float on past, like clouds in a blue sky. Relaxing, not tensing, and resting attention on the breath. Over and over and over. Before too long you’ll notice that you aren’t seeing the breath anymore: you’re thinking, planning, ruminating, going to the past or the future. Not to worry. Just gently and without judging, escort the attention back to the breath. Think of your attention like a curious puppy. It keeps wandering, but you are teaching it to stay. “Puppy, stay,” you say gently, every time it scoots off. You don’t keep score, you don’t get angry, and you don’t give up. Coming back to the breath.

 

clouds

Just let them come and blow on through.  Don’t try to get on them and ride them around.

That’s it. When the timer dings and you’re done, you can say a little prayer, if that’s your thing, or you can do a little metta—metta is a practice of wishing well to ourselves and others. It goes like this:

May I be safe and protected.

May I be healthy and strong.

May I be peaceful and happy.

May I know ease of well-being and accept all the conditions of this world.

You say it first about yourself. Then you say it about your loved ones. Then you say it about people you feel neutral about. Then you say it about your enemies and those who make you crazy or fearful. Then you say it about all sentient beings.

Those are the basics and there is an awful lot more to say. My favorite book on this subject is:

 

mindfulness-plain-english

Brilliant.  Invaluable.

I found several PDF’s of it online!  Here is the table of contents:

Contents
1 Meditation: Why Bother?
2 What Meditation Isn’t
3 What Meditation Is
4 Attitude
5 The Practice
6 What to Do with Your Body
7 What to Do with Your Mind
8 Structuring Your Meditation
9 Set-up Exercises
10 Dealing with Problems
11 Dealing with Distractions I
12 Dealing with Distractions II
13 Mindfulness (Sati)
14 Mindfulness versus Concentration
15 Meditation in Everyday Life
16 What’s in It for You
Afterword: The Power of Loving Friendliness
Appendix: The Context of the Tradition
I love this book and go back to it over and over again.
bhante-g

Super advice for teachers.

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.

oceanfloat.jpeg

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.

 

oceanstorm

Challenges.

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.

tnh

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.

med-bench

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.

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

Free teacher ramblings.

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