24 April 2013

Read the Instructions Exactly

Dear World -

Today my students are sitting in a nearly silent room taking a state test.  It's very exciting.

Yesterday we had ethics training on the proper way to administer a state test.  For example, I'm not allowed to distribute colored candies to my students suggesting correct answers to them.  I told them this, and they laughed.  I'm glad they laughed - it meant they know me well enough to know that I wouldn't ever do that.  I hope they see me as an honorable person.  So no candy.  I am, however, encouraged to bribe my students with bonus points or prizes for doing well on this test.  "They won't do well any other way," the government says.  "Teenagers need to be tricked into learning" is what I hear.

I was livid.

I also had a conversation recently that bewildered me a bit.  "You don't have your class rules posted," the individual said.  "No, I don't." I replied.  "I don't need to."

"They should see the rules.  It's helpful for them because then they know what is expected."

I don't need to post rules in my classroom.  I don't have class management problems.  Instead of posting rules, we post values.  Each year we select a quote from a poem or essay that matters.  We post them in the classroom and every year we add a new one.  This year the quote is 'Carpe the heck out of your diem.'  Last year it was 'I am a part of all that I have met'.  One year it was 'Live like a champion today'.    I don't want to set a ceiling on expected behavior, because I want them to do the unexpected.  They don't rip up my room because that's not the kind of student I expect them to be.  But sometimes the administrative world of teaching doesn't quite get that.  "If rules aren't posted, how do they know?" I can see them thinking.  "Teenagers are always looking for a way to goof off.  Posting the rules fixes that."

Clearly these professionals don't see what I see.

I told my students about those thoughts today.  Reminded them (as if they needed reminding) that there are people in this world that think very little of them.  That think they have so little integrity and honesty that they won't do anything without a cheap, tangible, sugary or point laden reward.  I told them that I think better of them than that.  That I trust them.  That I love them - each of them - for the wonderful individuals they are.  I told them to kick the test in the face because they are the kind of people who should do everything to the best of their ability because it's right, not just when they feel like it or when they care, but all the time.  Even during state tests.

I've been aching for them lately.  For me too.  Because although I carry myself with confidence, I feel like I'm still flying by the seat of my pants most of the time with this teaching thing.  There are still many topics that I don't present as well as I could.  Subjects I'm a little more vague on than I would like to be.  Ideas that I struggle to communicate well.  I'm still learning, still so new at this teaching thing.

It's hard, teaching.  It's such a strange balance of instinct and study.  Every now and then I get emails from parents wondering why I don't teach a certain topic a different way.  "Clearly," they tell me, "This would be so much better".  Maybe they're right.  "You should start an after school writing club," another parent suggested.  "Not everyone is as good at writing as you."  Yes, I think.  I know that.  I read more of their writing than you do.  Maybe I should start a writing club.  Maybe that would fix it.  Or maybe your kid should pay attention in class.  Or maybe I picked vocabulary the day I taught certain lessons that just didn't connect.  Or maybe the kid came in from lunch tired from a full stomach or frustrated because of an argument with a friend, or tired from a late night baseball game.  Or maybe my instructions were confusing and I could have been a little more clear.  Maybe somewhere between the kid and me it's just going to take a few more tries.  Maybe it was a perfect storm of all of the above.  Who knows?

Oh, how I wish that teaching were as easy as giving a state test.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if all I had to do was read the instructions exactly on how to teach a topic?  How to understand each student?  How to communicate with each parent?  How to talk about each book?  It would be so much easier.  So much less stressful.  It would make so many more parents happy.  It would produce wonderfully predictable results.  "If you take my class," I could say, "I will turn you into THIS."  But it isn't that easy.  I'm an imperfect person still trying new things.  Sometimes I connect better with one student than with another.  Sometimes my class changes lives.  Sometimes - hopefully not as often - it stresses and frustrates them instead.  Is that a sin?  I don't think so.  It's unfortunate and inconvenient and downright frustrating - but that's life.  I can't be everything for everyone.  I'm not that good.

In the mean time, I keep trying to move forward.  I pray that my students will be patient with me as I try to figure things out.  That parents will forgive me my imperfections and that God will help students to learn when I fall short.  I do my best.  I try to learn from mistakes and get better each time, because I owe it to them.  They deserve the world.

Please - for me - the next time you see a teenager you know, please tell them how wonderful they are.  And remember that with few exceptions, their teachers are honestly trying to do what they think is best.  Maybe what the teacher is doing isn't best.  Maybe for some it is and some it isn't.  It happens.  But they mean well.  No one in their right mind would enter this profession otherwise.

23 April 2013

The Young and the Beautiful

My birthday is coming up.  It isn't an overly significant birthday other than the fact that it marks a decade of dating failure to celebrate.

When I was sixteen I had my future figured out.  I'd go to college and get good grades, of course.  But I would also date regularly because I'm hott like that and I would have my pick of the boys because I'm smart like that and I would be married when I wanted because I plan like that.  And I would be young and beautiful and fresh faced in all of my pictures and everyone that came to my wedding would congratulate me on my wonderful success of graduating head of the marriageable class.  A++ to me.  And years down the road my beautiful, smart, well planned children would look at pictures of that day and talk about how awesome and young and Audrey Hepburn-esque I am.  Extra credit, small child.  Extra credit.

Reality, as you know well oh regular reader, has turned out somewhat differently.  I'm at the point in my life where the Mormon community will breathe a sigh of relief if I ever get married at all.  "That was a close one!" they will say.  "Dodged a bullet!!" they'll add.  "Thank goodness they found each other.  How wonderful."  If I do get married, it won't be purely an occasion of celebration.  It will also be an event tinged heavily with relief.  "Glad that's over." they'll think.  "You finally made it!" they'll write on the cards.  And my pictures will feature an "older" dress because the younger styles will look weird and pretentious on me.  (Business suit, anyone?)  My friends with their 3-4 children will come and I will smile awkwardly back.  From where I sit now, I totally wish that elopement was a culturally acceptable option for an overaged Mormon woman still navigating blind date waters.  Then I could disappear for a year and everyone could just forget the whole thing ever happened and treat me like normal.

So.  In the name of trying to forget not really significant birthdays that are still a little bit significant in the not so great way: I am laughing at this, very appreciative of the advice offered here (especially the part about giving me dating advice if you got married at 18.  Completely different ball game now, y'all), and thanking my lucky stars that I am, on the whole, happy as a social menace (thanks a ton, Brigham).  I'm quite content with my independent ability to grow old while traveling instead of changing diapers and cleaning up vomit volcanoes.  Look on the bright, bodily fluid (and fart) free side of life, right?  Of course right.

18 April 2013


When I was a freshman in high school, I remember walking into choir one day and hearing rumors about one of the cheerleaders.

"I hear she's suspended," one person said, pointing to her empty seat.

"No she's not," another student nearby piped in, shaking her head with an all-knowing scowl.  "She's pregnant.  She's going to that special school."

Pregnant?  "Well!", I thought, "I wouldn't put it past the girl."  She'd always been a bit of a pain to work with from my estimation.  Didn't seem that bright.  Didn't seem that put together.  Of course she'd managed to wind up somewhere stupid.

Fast forward a few months.  I'm on an overnight trip with my show choir and there's a girl vomiting.  As a certified, life long member of the emetophobia society, I'm freaking out.  I'm steering clear.  "I don't want to get sick!" I say to another choir member.  "I'm washing my hands like crazy."

"She's not sick," my friend tells me.  "She's hung over.  Don't feel sorry for her."

I didn't.  I was furious.  How could she be so stupid?  She totally deserved what she got.  Hung over and whining about it?  What a moron.

When I was a teenager I had a decently simplistic view of bad things happening to people.  I wasn't quite so extreme as Miss Prism from The Importance of Being Earnest who claimed that the good end happily and the bad unhappily ("that is what fiction means!").  I knew from my own life that bad things happened to good people.  No one is immune.  Some people were stupid and brought troubles upon themselves more often and more readily than others, but that was their fault.  Some people just had rotten obstacles to overcome and that was just a testament to God working in mysterious ways. . . whatever that meant.

To be honest with you, the justice in the universe hasn't ever really eaten at me as much in my life as it has this year.  I can study Holocaust literature and, perhaps horribly enough, find the poetry in the story that God is weaving in his universe.  Sure, the Holocaust was horrible; but how wonderful that the world now has so many examples of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of incredible odds, right?  Isn't that a blessing?  It's so easy for me to write off the crap of the world as just another step on the hero's journey.

But it's getting harder.

This year has been, more than any other, full of inexplicable injustices on people around me that I know and love.  It's been an especially hard year for some of my students.  I've seen so many of them struggle with illnesses and family drama and friendships that aren't easy any more.  I've seen them given challenges that adults would crumble under.  That I would crumble under.  It's breaking my heart to watch.  The world is in front of them and so full of possibilities.  Or it should be.  "Why is this happening to me?" one student said, looking completely exasperated.  "I'm going places with my life.  I have plans.  I am smart.  Shouldn't this be happening to someone who is destined to a life of flipping burgers?!"

Yes.  Yes it should.

To have students come into my office seeking refuge, understanding, help, a listening ear - I feel completely unprepared and unqualified to offer anything.  Every time I open my mouth to try and offer whatever advice I can I feel young and inexperienced and completely moronic.  What do I, with my healthy, safe, convenient life know about helping them with their struggles?  With my family that is whole, with my finances that are secure, with my job that I didn't even apply for?  How can I help?  Everything comes out so trite and pithy and easy.

But I can't turn them away.  I can't pass them off to some counselor.  Because, somehow - and I'm not entirely sure how this happened - they learned to trust me, and I can't give that up.  I can't break that. I owe it to them.

They don't prepare you for this in school.  They don't talk about this on the stupid state test I had to take to upgrade my license.  They'll warn you a little about how you'll love your students and want to do anything for them.  They don't warn you at all about how they'll worm their way into your own dreams and heartaches.  How their successes and failures will hit you too.  How an uncertain future for those who deserve so, so much more will make you wish that you had done more with your own life and question the judgment of God.  I heard all these stories about your biological children.  But what about the other ones?

In Memorium 55 - Tennyson

The wish, that of the living whole
No life may fail beyond the grave,
Derives it not from what we have
The likest God within the soul?

Are God and Nature then at strife, 
That Nature lends such evil drams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life,

That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds, 
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world's altar-stairs
That slope through darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust to larger hope.