Redeem the Days

I’m convinced that every year a hole is ripped straight through the space-time continuum during the week before Spring Break. This week never ends. Students are wound up; teachers are exhausted.

To spare you the gory details of my latest Jonah day, let’s just say on Wednesday I morphed into jellyfish woman, able to zap any man, woman, or child in her path. This unfortunate series of events left me so frustrated that I suddenly found myself $20 poorer, sitting alone in a movie theatre, eating enough popcorn to make myself sick.

Yes, I had such a bad day that I spontaneously decided to treat myself to a second viewing of “Cinderella,” the new live-action version starring Lily James. There was something so beautiful and touching about this film the first time I saw it that I hoped my terrible day could be cured by escaping into the Disney-verse for a few short hours.

The mantra of this new Cinderella is “have courage and be kind.” If I’m being honest, the line resonated with me more than I care to admit. I cried through the entire film the first time I saw it. Rather than trying to justify my emotion, I started to think about its source. Why do I identify so much with a fairy tale I’ve heard a thousand times before? Cinderella was never my favorite Disney princess, so why now do I love this story?

I think it has to do with the refreshing, redeeming nature of childhood. The world of the film doesn’t deny misery and grief, but finds a way to turn them into beautiful things. Cinderella’s fairy godmother narrates the story and says that “grief can come to any kingdom.” The Prince’s aging father states that death is “the way of all flesh.” These are true things about our life and our world. Death, aging, misery, unkindness, cruelty—these are the gloomy inhabitants of my days. I see students treating each other with such cruelty and unkindness that it takes my breath away. I see students struggling to understand their emotions and the circumstances in which they have been placed. On bad days I want to run away from these bad things. The sad fact is they will be there tomorrow, too. These bad things are terrible by themselves, but they become more dangerous when I believe that these are the only creatures that will inhabit my world.

This, I realized, is why I flew to the movies again last night. I needed to remind myself that unkindness and sadness are present, but so, too, are joy, happiness, kindness, courage, and love. Ultimately I know that the source of these good things, the one whose mercies are new every morning, will triumph over all hatred and death and wrongdoing. My job is to remind my own heart to have courage and be kind.

Childhood teaches us that magical things do happen, that there is hope for even the vilest stepmother, and that simple virtues trump worldly wisdom every time. What better things to remind myself of on one of the worst days? I’m hoping “Cinderella” has a good long run in theatres, because I have a feeling I might be stopping by on my next Jonah day.

I paid for my spontaneity, by the way, with a debit card and a few hours of popcorn-induced misery.

Playing School

Today I feel like teacher Barbie. Please notice her neon 1995 outfit and classy red tie. Believe it or not, those are not the reasons I feel like her–even though I did own this doll back in ’95.

Some weeks I feel like I’m just playing school. These feelings spring from two different sources. On the one hand, I feel a very surface-level sense of inadequacy with my own age and my own career. I’m only 23, I’m only 10 years older than my students, and I’m only a second-year teacher. Most days I’m amazed that I’m even allowed to be an adult. Last night, for example, I had a hot dog and Easy Mac for dinner. Talk about sophisticated culinary tastes. 23 is an awkward for a lot of reasons, none of which I’m able to write about right now. Suffice it to say that 23 and single doesn’t feel very “teacherly.”

On the other hand, I’m growing more and more convinced that a lot of what I do every day is a shiny, plastic version of school. And it’s partly my fault. I’m constantly confronted with standards that are asking more and more of my students. At the same time I’m confronted with plans for interventions and accommodations that are asking more and more of me. We, the teachers, are the ones jumping through hoops for our students while at the same time being told that the students should be functioning at a more advanced level. It’s all very confusing! When I was in middle school and high school I already had critical thinking skills. I don’t remember having to learn those skills. Yet with my students, critical thinking–even just regular old thinking–requires a Herculean effort. Are we raising a generation of teacher-dependent students? I’m not sure. I certainly hope not. That’s not what I want for my students–I want them to read, write, and think like educated citizens.

I feel that somewhere there is an intersection between these two sources of teacherly discomfort. Does my inexperience with my career impact my view of my own ability and the ability of my students? Certainly. Is it discouraging to constantly be confronted with more and more to do and less and less time to teach? Without a doubt. I’m sure some of my concerns can be chalked up to inexperience, naiveté, or idealism. I’m also beyond sure that some of the problems I face on an almost hourly basis are slowly wearing away at that idealism. At what point do we expect teachers to give up their passion and idealism for pragmatic, data-driven task lists? Is that a sacrifice I am willing to live with for much longer? Is there a way to keep the passion and excitement alive when the odds don’t seem to be in my favor?

Lots of questions on this cold Friday night.

Sunday Nights

Sunday nights are hard.

I always hope to have my work accomplished on Saturday so that I can truly rest on Sundays, but it never works out that way. Instead, I get home from church, eat, doze, play the piano, and then come to with a start to see that it is 6:30 and tomorrow is another week.

As a teacher, Sundays are especially hard because I have much to do, all the while dreading that first alarm at 4:55 am. It usually ends up being a story of procrastination–I eat dinner, watch 60 minutes, watch my Sunday night TV, take a shower, plan meals, plan outfits, make to-do lists–everything, it seems, except what needs to be done.

More and more I’m trying to separate my work from my time at home–that seems the only way to stay sane in this profession. I’m also seeing myself become less and less productive at home. It’s difficult for me to grade papers or plan lessons or prepare while I’m in my apartment. So many other professions allow people to leave their work in the office when they go home. In my job, it seems that only half of my work is done in the actual classroom. I’m not sure I like that! I don’t really want to be answering parent emails or grading hundreds of papers during my few precious hours of free time.

That sounds like complaining, but it goes deeper than that: how do I define the sanctity of my time? Do I have a right to want to leave work at work, or did I lose that right when I graduated with a degree in education? Do I make a hard distinction between what work I bring home with me, or do I say that this extra work is all in pursuit of some higher goal? I know good teachers who do both. The problem is determining where I fit on that continuum.

After a week of central office observations, behavior issues, intruder drills, and group projects should I feel guilty for not grading a single paper this weekend? Should I have to justify to my students why their quizzes from Friday aren’t graded? Instead of feeling refreshed and ready for the week ahead, I feel weighed down and guilty, an all too common feeling.

If I am to be refreshed and rested, I must allow myself the time to be refreshed and rested. I must put aside those other cares and tell myself that this time is not selfish or wasteful, but necessary and good.

But here it is Sunday night, and I still feel totally unprepared for Monday.

 

Book Review: “Boundaries With Teens”

 

So my first attempt at writing this post was sadly deleted, but hopefully I can remember all the glowing comments I made!

This book was #32 of my 50 book goal for the year, and I am so glad that I picked it up right before school starts. It is written for parents of teenagers, but I picked up on a lot of things that will be really helpful for me as a teacher.

One of my biggest struggles during my first year of teaching was maintaining a firm classroom discipline routine. After reading this book I am genuinely excited to set boundaries in my classroom and see how the kids respond. There is no telling how much better my school year can be with kids who follow rules and act responsibly.

Here are some of my favorite parts:

  • “They need to learn that freedom is earned and that they can gain freedom by demonstrating responsibility” (11). Need I say more? This is a concept that I have always heard and know, but no book I have ever read gives such practical applications.
  • “Teens also need the safety, structure, and warmth of a loving home that offers them protection when needed” (17). Many of my students don’t have a home environment like that. This year I will focus on making sure my classroom is a safe space where students feel protected but also have the freedom to speak their minds.
  • “Adolescence is not a bad patch to be lived through. Rather, adolescence is a good and necessary thing. Adolescence is helpful for your child, and it is normal” (71). How often have I talked to my class or my friends and family about how crazy middle school is? That’s true, but it’s not something that needs to be merely “survived.” I hope to model to my students this year that middle school is good and necessary. It’s not this awful time of drama and hormones, but a preparation for all the responsibilities of adulthood.
  • The Anchors of Boundary Setting: 
    • Love: I am on your side.
    • Truth: I have some rules and requirements for your behavior.
    • Freedom: You can choose to respect or reject these rules. 
    • Reality: Here is what will happen if you reject these rules.  
    • (Pages 114-118)

The second half of the book is dedicated to diagnosing and solving many common teenage problems, which I found incredibly useful! I also love how Dr. Townsend gives you sample conversations between you and your teen. Often when I pull a student out in the hallway to discuss his or her behavior I end up ranting and they end up rolling their eyes.

You can pick up this book on Amazon, and I highly recommend you do!

 

Boundaries With Teens

By: Dr. John Townsend

My First Year

Four Years: The amount of time it took for me to graduate with a degree in education.

Six Weeks: The amount of time I waited for my first job offer.

Six Weeks: The amount of time I had to move to a new city, prepare my apartment, and psych myself up for my first year of teaching.

30 Seconds: The amount of time it took for me to realize how unprepared I was.

 

I’ve already written a little bit about my first year of teaching, which you can read about here, but now that I’m a few weeks removed from the varying traumas and successes of my first year, I want to debrief. I’m sure that I will write many more posts about the hilarities of being a new teacher, and I’m sure that over time my insights into this first year will deepen and mature, but I feel that some kind of closure is needed. Especially since I’m now only 28 days away from embarking on my (canyoubelieveit?) second year of teaching.

First of all, I am amazed at how faithful God has been to me as a first year teacher. Anyone who knew me during high school and college can attest to the fact that I never EVER wanted to teach middle school. I was  am convinced that it takes a special kind of person to teach middle school. And after teaching seventh grade for a year, I can tell you now that I am probably not cut out for teaching middle school for my entire life. But it’s kind of funny how when you tell God you will never EVER do something, He seems to put you in a position to do that very thing. Which is, obviously, how I ended up in seventh grade again.

As the year went on and I learned more and more, I saw that God had put me back in the seventh grade for “such a time as this,” to humble me and make me depend on Him and on others around me. I had to learn how to teach skills, not just concepts. The students I taught during my internship were seniors in high school; they knew how to form a sentence. My students this year had to be taught what a noun is THREE TIMES. And let’s be real: a few of them still don’t know. No matter how many college English classes you take or how many education courses you ace, it’s really difficult to explain adverbs to someone who really isn’t listening to 80% of what you say. I had to learn patience. I had to learn how to be loud and obnoxious and actually yell to get my students’ attention. I had to learn not to be self-conscious. I had to get over my own middle school short-comings. I had to deal with mean girls and rude kids all over again. Some days it sucked. Other days it was incredibly awesome.

Secondly, I have been inspired by the teachers who work around me–especially the ones who are obviously and wonderfully called to be a middle school teacher. They can teach skills to students at any level, they can be patient and funny and strict disciplinarians. So many of the teachers I work with gave me such helpful advice that when I started to write thank you notes I realized that there would be too many to write!

Everyone will tell you that your first year of teaching is awful. First year teachers are expected to be experts on their first day at work. They are expected to walk into the classroom with an excellent understanding of school policies and procedures, curriculum requirements, state and national standards, classroom management skills, and  content knowledge. We are expected to be able to give directions around campus even if we just started exploring it ourselves. We are expected to be able to navigate through training and professional development for programs about which we know nothing. We must implement differentiated instruction and IEP accommodations even though most of us have only had one college course on Special Education Law.  First year teachers are held to higher standards because they are supposed to bring “fresh ideas” and “new experiences” to a school, when really we’re just trying not to cry at the drop of a hat. New teachers need to be able to deal with parent conferences, and phone calls, and emails at all hours of the day and even on weekends. We are grading papers and turning in lesson plans and creating worksheets and trying to juggle a personal life on top of all that.

I realize that the above paragraph might sound vaguely like an “angry teacher rant,” but it wasn’t meant to. Suffice it to say, first year teachers are faced with a Herculean task. I’ve never been more relieved than I was when I drove home from work on our last day of post-planning. The first year is survivable. You might earn a few gray hairs or lose just a few of your marbles, but it is survivable!

I’m very excited to start my second year with more preparation, with a definite list of things that do and don’t work in the 7th grade.

I’m sure as I mull over the last year there will be much, much more to discuss, but for now I’ll leave you with this little verse that has meant a lot to me this year:

“Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”

-Genesis 28:16

Surely the Lord was in my job search, in my first difficult year, and in all the personal struggles and victories I faced. Surely He is in this place, and I did not know it.

 

 

Loyalty

Percy Jackson and I have the same fatal flaw. 

You mean you haven’t read the Percy Jackson books? Get with the program, people. Percy Jackson happens to be the demigod protagonist of his very own YAL series. And we’re both loyal to a fault.

Besides being worried about myself that I just drew that comparison, I have recently been worried about the path my career should take. I am growing more certain that I want to move back home to be closer to my family. Whether that move will happen sooner or later remains to be seen. The thing that worries me the most about even considering a career change is leaving behind people who have given me an opportunity or taught me a lesson. I don’t want to abandon them or make them think I am ungrateful. I want them to know that I love and appreciate them. I want them to know that I care and I’m not just gallivanting around doing my own thing 24/7.

Basically, I value loyalty. It’s the reason I don’t change hairdressers.

It’s also somewhat of a dying art. You don’t hear about loyalty that much anymore. But this morning as I was discussing some things with a wise friend of mine, she said, “You shouldn’t have any loyalties to anything other than what God wants you to do.” And I have been thinking about that all day long.

As Christians, I believe that all of our earthly loyalties should spring from our one heavenly loyalty. But where do my loyalties really lie? Because the Bible makes it pretty clear–you can either be on the side of the King of Heaven, or you can be allies with the prince of the power of the air. There’s not really an in-between. I have been so focused on my earthly ties that I let my conviction to follow God’s will alone slide. My wise friend was right; I need to align myself with what God has in store for me–whether that is waiting where I am or starting fresh in a new place. He is the one who should show me where to put down roots and where to pack my bags.

Or, as Steven Curtis Chapman so wonderfully puts it:

Like a child holding on to a promise,
I will cling to His word and believe
As I press on to take hold of that
For which Christ Jesus took hold of me

So I will hold on to the hand of my Savior
And I will hold on with all my might.
I will hold loosely to things that are fleeting
And hold on to Jesus, I will hold on to Jesus for life” 

As I was listening to this song on the way home from work today, the last line of the chorus struck me. I’m not only holding on to Jesus for a lifetime, but I am also holding on to him “for dear life,” as it were. He is my lifeline, and he is the only one to whom I should be loyal. From that relationship I will be able to determine which earthly relationships merit my loyalty and my unswerving support. All of my fleeting loyalties–my job, my finances, my fears, those things should be laid at His feet, not kept in my thoughts.