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Multigenerational Mom Muses on Twin Toddlers & Twenty-Something Daughters

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teaching

What it Takes to be a Teacher: The Real Three Rs of Education

Being a teacher is not what most people think it is. Heck, it’s not even what most teaching candidates think it is. You enter the profession wide-eyed and full of faith. You believe in your abilities; you believe in yourself. You will illuminate the beauty of literature, the power of mathematics, the wisdom of history, the magic of science. You imagine your students to be eager little vessels waiting patiently to be filled with your brilliance. You are ready to teach. They are ready to learn.

But here’s what you yourself learn — really, really quickly…

Only a select few of your students are eager little vessels thirsty for knowledge. They are the few and the far between. And when you actually get some of those few and far between students in your classroom, it feels amazing. They are driven and focused and quick little studies, and you find yourself thinking you are an amazing teacher.

But here’s the facts of the matter: you’re not amazing; they are. They are amazing. And it has nothing to do with you. Not really. Teaching a subject to eager students is not teaching. Nope. That’s merely taking a hungry kid to a buffet and watching her eat. You didn’t even make the food. You just led her to it. Deflate your Promethean ego and focus on the facts.

If you got into education to teach your subject and strut your stuff, you need to get out. Like yesterday. Most students are not impressed with YOU. They don’t give a darn about your subject or how many degrees or dogs or daughters you have. Many are only impressed with their friends, their text messages, their social media, their music, their video games, their sports, and their phones. (Oh, Lord how they love their phones.)

And for some of them, they focus on these things because they are fundamental to who they think they are: young and popular and primed for greatness. Their worlds are on fire with passion and drama and hunger and thirst. And you? You are merely a blip on their radar, keeping them from the joys that await them when they leave school. They love their lives, not class.

But for others, they focus on these things because they are distractions from who they think they are: ugly and empty and profoundly worthless. Their worlds are burning down from passion and drama and hunger and thirst. And you are merely a blip on their radar, keeping them from the jabs that await them when they leave school. They loathe their lives and they loathe class.

This last group is by far the hardest to teach. They lash out. They cuss you out. They cut their eyes at you. They cut your class. They sleep or snark or throw middle fingers in the air. They throw insults and elbows. They are hard to manage, hard to guide, hard to instruct, hard to teach, hard to love.

But they need you the most. They need you to teach them. Not your subject. Them.

And to do it right, you’ve got to get invested. Be invested. And stay invested. Know who they are. Know who you’re working with. And what they’re working with. I promise you, you’ll be shocked.

I’ve had students who were being abused, physically or sexually or both. I’ve had students riding the wreckage of dirty divorces. I’ve had students whose parents were in prison or in rehab or in coffins. I’ve had students who lived in children’s shelters, on friends’ sofas, on Adderall and antidepressants. I’ve had students whose mothers fed them cocaine and methamphetamines in utero. I’ve had students whose fathers fed them knuckle sandwiches and nightmares in their homes last night.

How can you expect these kids to give a damn about Shakespeare and sonnets? And honestly — they can’t. Not yet. Not without trust. Not without security. Not without understanding. Not without love. Not even if you make it all relevant to them, to their lives, to their situations, to their struggles. Not even then. Not yet.

So you have to show them trust and security and understanding and love. You have to show them these things and be these things for your students. All of them. Even the hard ones. Especially the hard ones.

That’s the fundamentals of teaching that I don’t think a college classroom can teach you. But your own classroom absolutely will – if you’re willing to learn. If you’re willing to let your students teach you what they need. Until you’re willing to learn that, you are no Teacher. Books don’t teach you how to do that. Teaching teaches you that. And you can’t Teach until you can Do.

There’s an old Stevie Smith poem called “Not Waving but Drowning.” The first stanza ends like this:

I was much further out than you thought,

And not waving but drowning.

I use these two lines as my reminder to never get jaded, to never forget that just because my feelings get hurt and my ego gets bruised when a student shuns me or shouts at me or skulks around the corner and skips my class, that it’s not all about me. My bruises are nothing like his. My battles are nothing like hers.

My job is to hear and see my students. Not the cussing, not the insults, not the disrespect —  I hear and see that just fine – but my students and their struggles. For while it’s all too easy to misinterpret their actions, most of those really, hard students (not all, but most) are not waving, but drowning. They aren’t being bad kids, they’re being lost kids — little, lost, overwhelmed, under-loved kids. That’s what I need to see and hear.

Drowning people panic and they can quickly pull you under, too. They don’t even understand what they’re doing. They just want out of the deep water and they’ll hurt anyone who comes close. They lash out as a defense. They writhe and flail and try to climb on top of you. They try to pull you down.

And there are some days your drowning students will get you down. You will feel underwater yourself. You will feel like you just can’t do it anymore. You just want to let go. To swim away. To let them fail. To let it be somebody else’s problem.

But don’t let go. Regroup and regrip and keep throwing out those life lines.

Show them they are worth saving from the flood of violence and hunger and abuse and pain and powerlessness that overwhelms them. Show them that they do not deserve to drown. They are not disposable.

They are valuable.

They matter more than the subject matter. More than Shakespeare and sonnets. More than state mandates and standardized tests. Teach them — not the subject, not the test — teach them.

When they learn that they matter, only then can they learn the subject matter. But be prepared to rinse and repeat — a lot. Like a whole, whole lot.

Don’t get frustrated when they don’t trust themselves enough yet. Don’t get frustrated when they don’t trust you enough yet. Remember who you’re working with. Remember what they’re working with. They will need lots of recognition, lots of reinforcement, lots of repetition. Until they absorb it. Until they understand that they are valuable and they matter.

Recognition. Reinforcement. Repetition. — The Real Three Rs of Education.

 

A Little Allegory of a Parent’s Soul

To introduce the concept of allegory to high school students, I use Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.” It is the first book I ever remember receiving as a gift. I still have that original copy. It’s inscribed with a birthday wish and a life blessing. Its edges are tattered and curl softly from use, and its insides are  tatted up from Crayola abuse.

I loved “The Giving Tree” from the beginning, although I didn’t understand its complexity back then. Instead, I loved it for its simplicity and purity — the modest black and white sketches, and the story of the tree who loved a boy – loved a boy from every depth and breadth and height her soul could reach.

A boy and his tree. I loved it. But I didn’t get it. I didn’t.

And then I became a mom.

And KA-POW! – deeper understanding hit me like a felled oak straight to the noggin. This wasn’t merely the story of a boy and his tree. I mean it was, but darn, it was so much more, too! It was a little allegory of a parent’s soul. And for the first time ever reading that story, I cried. And ever since, every single time I read that story… I cry. I can’t even read the last line, I get so choked up.

The truth and power of its message gets to me: the unhesitating willingness of a mama to hew off whole parts of herself to raise up her young with the necessities and tools to survive in this world.

Like I said, I introduce the concept of allegory to my high school juniors – and they can see it, the multiple meanings hidden in its seemingly simplistic lines. They see the sacrifices the tree makes to keep her boy happy. They see her wide-open love through the gifts of her leaves and her apples; they see the unflinching sacrifice of her limbs and her trunk; and they think they understand the final grand gesture in the giving of her shriveled, old stump. Yes, they can definitely see it. And they think they get it. They interpret the allegory in one of two ways…

Some of my students connect it to parental love – those blessed enough to have parents who have shown them true, unconditional love.

But sadly, some don’t get it at all because some of my students haven’t felt that sort of love from their moms and dads. The stories I hear — the stories I see – students whose parents have left them surfing couches in friends’ houses, students whose parents are locked away in jail or whose love is locked away in addiction, students who are parenting siblings — students mere saplings themselves — playing the role of the Giving Tree.

It’s an impossible task for them. They lack the depth and breadth and height of maturity: their leaves are too tender, their fruit is too green, their roots are too shallow to support and sustain another soul, much less themselves. Their stories are enough to crack open a planet-full of hearts and send them weeping.

And speaking of planets… some of my students see another allegorical interpretation: humanity’s blatant misuse of Mother Earth and her resources. In this version, the boy takes and takes and takes with no regard for the Giving Tree’s sacrifice – the more he needs, the more he takes until there’s nothing left but a shriveled-up stump – and even that gets used.

And yes, the depletion of our planet’s resources is a valid and compelling argument — easily seen and scientifically supported, regardless of those who might say otherwise. And in this political climate – when the Environmental Protection Agency is being run by a fossil fuel magnate and the current POTUS is playing a nuclear-annihilation game of chicken with his Asian doppelganger, it is an interpretation with grave importance.

But I prefer the little allegory of a parent’s soul. And I really do believe it was Silverstein’s intent. Because after each sacrifice, after each leaf and apple and branch and trunk that is taken, his prose simply reads: And the Tree was happy.

And the earth cannot be happy being plundered and pillaged. That just cannot prove true.

But as a parent, that happiness statement rings true every single time. When my girls need me. When my boys need me. When my small and humble breasts sustained them all as infants. When my wide and ample hips carried them all as toddlers. When my long and lanky arms surround them as both youngsters and adults. When my eager, willing heart beats for all four of them always and forever with joyful abandon… I am happy.

For them, I would give all. Willingly. And happily.

That’s how I know “The Giving Tree” is a little allegory of a parent’s soul.

This past week, I introduced my boys to Silverstein’s masterpiece – my original, 45-year-old birthday book, its edges all tattered and curled from use, its insides all tatted with Crayola abuse. My boys were mesmerized. They loved it: the simplicity and purity of its prose, the modest black and white of its sketches.

This story of a tree who loved a boy is timeless. This story of a tree that readily hands out huge chunks of herself never gets old. The tree herself may get old. She may lose apples and branches, and her tattoos — if she had any — may wrinkle like that ME + T heart scratched into the core of her being, but no matter what, if her kid finds happiness, that tree finds happiness.  No matter the hardship, the struggle, the pain…

Yes, my boys loved the book.

And this tree was happy.

giving tree

 

My Experience with Undocumented Students: Why I Love our Dreamers

I’ll never forget my student who explained to me how he came to America for an education.  He raised his hand politely when we were discussing the negativity in our hallways following Trump’s election. He had overheard students chanting “Build that Wall.” He overheard students telling other students to go back where they came from. He overheard one student boldly hold up her head and explain that she wasn’t Mexican and she wasn’t illegal. My student walked quickly past. He was both.

Back in my classroom, he felt safer. He felt braver. He explained to me and to his classmates that he had come from Mexico ten years prior with his father and his uncle while the rest of his family had stayed behind. He missed them all terribly, but the entire reason for coming to this country was so he could get a quality education. Back home, he explained, that was not possible. There were classrooms without electricity. There were schools without running water. If you wanted math skills beyond a fourth-grade level, he explained, you had to pay for private school. His family didn’t have that kind of money.

So he and his father and uncle came to America. He studied and he learned. He struggled – sometimes with the material, but most times with the hate. He just wanted people to understand.

He is one of the kindest-hearted, hardest-working students I’ve ever taught. He is exceptional, but he is not an exception. I’ve taught many students like him. Students who know and understand the value of education. Students who come to America to come to school, to sit quietly, to do their work, and to soak up any and all knowledge they possibly can. I wish I had more students like them. I would gladly fill my classroom with dozens of these young men and women. They know and understand what the world looks like without access to education.

It looks like poverty. It looks like violence. It looks like drug cartels and narcotic trafficking. It looks like where they came from. And they want change. For themselves, for their families, for their country.

So they work. Hard. They learn. Well. They are respectful and teachable, and tough. They don’t whine when they don’t get an A. They work harder. They come for tutoring. They ask for remediation. They never ask for a grade. They work for one.

The same can’t be said for perhaps seventy percent of my natural-born students. There has been a drastic shift in the mentality of parents and students in the United States in the seventeen years I’ve been a teacher. Parents call and email regularly these days with complaints. They aren’t happy with little Johnny or Jill’s grade They gripe and complain and bellyache that we aren’t fair, we’re too tough, we’re on power trips, we aren’t accommodating enough. Their children gripe and complain and bellyache, as well. Parental attitudes passed down like genetics, multiplying like a cancer.

Somewhere along the way, the idea of the American Dream has gotten soft and fuzzy. We used to have a Puritan work ethic, a nose-to-the-grindstone mentality that built our nation into the powerhouse it used to be. These days, our work ethic is pitiful, not Puritan.  Folks seem to believe they can sleep walk through their lives and simply reap the benefits of being American: good education, good jobs, good pay, good living conditions.

I see it in my classroom every day. Kids who want everything handed to them: the notes, the answers, the grades.

And this lazy philosophy, this twisted version of the American Dream, is currently on display in our oval office: a spoiled rotten and ranting adult-sized child who’s never worked an honest day in his life and who finds fault in anyone and everyone but himself.

Our American Dream has mutated into an American Nightmare.

Yesterday, Trump destroyed the authentic dreams of thousands of young adults like my student, individuals who understand and embody the true nature and characteristics of the American Dream — hard work and sacrifice — better than most of their American counterparts. Their only fault is they aren’t American.

Then again, didn’t our forefathers house the exact same fault? Didn’t they arrive on America’s shores searching for a better life as strangers in a strange land?

The decision to end DACA has tremendous repercussions on honest, hard-working, deeply committed individuals who have the potential to improve the world in immeasurable quantities if only they are allowed access to the ways and means to do so: education.  Individuals like my precious student.

Which brings me back to those parental complaints a few paragraphs back, I tend to agree with them. We aren’t fair; we are on power trips; we are not nearly accommodating enough — to those who are willing to work for the American Dream and understand its potential the most: our young, undocumented immigrant students.

Contact your representatives. Let them know you stand with DACA and our undocumented immigrant students. Please.

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