Don’t let go…

lookahead

 

Recently it has become increasingly difficult to hold onto what I believe in and dream of for public education.* Some days it feels possibility died or is very close to death.  Bright clear dreams, plans and ideas have become clouded and distorted to the point of unrecognizable. You may also have felt this way and had dark days such as these. Over time, my mental arms have grown weary from grasping tightly to what I hold dear. Over time, wisps of doubt have stealthily crept in. Why bother to hold onto something that seems invisible to many? Why protectively carry ideals that at times feel valueless? The uncertainty and deep despair of this thought has hurt my heart, mind and inner core.

It feels as I have been worn down and tapped out…it would be so much easier to just…let go…

To let the dreams and ideals I began teaching with drop, would be so freeing.  After all, back then I was naive to the ways of the world. I wouldn’t have to care anymore. Done. Out. Cut and dry. Just a job.

But…every time I get within a hair of letting it all go…I just can’t. For the past several months this contemplation has both haunted and trapped me.  It would seem that until I resolved this decision, I couldn’t move in any concrete direction, I was at a standstill. This grey no man’s land coloured a part of my life usually bright and full of joy. I was paralyzed by the possibility: will THIS be the time I give in and give up? Will this be the TIME I disengage completely, stop feeling and caring?

Mistakenly I thought it would be easy. Easy to let go. I even thought I wanted to. I don’t want to get all moral and heavy-handed with it either, this struggle comes from my deepest beliefs about what I hold as precious, true and right. But when it came right down to it, I just couldn’t do it.

***

So take these tenuous threads with which we collectively sew humanity and never doubt your connection to this purpose for one breath, one heartbeat. And if you were as I, holding your breath and holding your beliefs tenderly as a dying lover, I offer this…

Do not doubt yourself and your ideals in these dark moments. Look forward to the light of what is possible. Be sure of what you know as good and true. Imagine your big impossible dreams boldly and loudly.

Hold on. Hold on to what you know to be true and right.

Hold on dear friends, hold on.

———————————————–

* this post is in reference to the challenges of job action in British Columbia over the last several months.

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I Don’t Get to Choose

ORPHANED

Photo Shared on Flickr

 

I used to think it was like a game of pool; just focus on the ball and if I set the shot up right, the ball will fall successfully into the pocket.  As long as I focused on the desired point of impact…success!

Except I found out, it’s not like that at all. I found out in fact…that I don’t get to choose who I impact and how.
And I am not talking about Hattie’s influence “Teacher know your impact.” I am not suggesting you would avoid trying to impact your students in the learning sense. It’s just learning takes years and years to accumulate and manifest.

I am not talking about impact as in getting the person to vote for a certain political party or in buying you Christmas gifts or behaving in a desired manner. No the impact I am thinking of is a little trickier to pin down and identify.

This impact is more like peeling back a layer of an onion to get to the next level, or flipping a switch on a path that is defined by thousands of switches. Or it’s like the light of a tiny fire fly in a jar in a universe of dark. Or it is like a lingering perfume that stays with you for years. This type of impact is not a huge catalytic event of influence. It is gentle and kind and light and not pre-determined.
But the thing of it is, which is just so awe-inspiring and lovely…you just never know how what you say, do, or write, exactly impacts another person at the certain point in their life.

And as over the years as I have had the fortune to see students years later, it is never the influence I thought I had on the students I thought I had it. Often times it is the students I thought I was not connecting to, the students who really were not “interested” who in fact felt impacted in some small way. Often times it is the student who did not laugh at my jokes, or offer to help, or the ones I might have interacted with a little bit more. Sometimes it is the biology (the course I teach) they say they remember, but often times it was an unrelated story or a certain activity we did. Sometimes it is just a funny occurrence that happened in class. Sometimes just a memory of a place they enjoyed being.
But the students I thought I connected with were not the ones I impacted in a profound way. Often times the student did not stand out. Instead I stood out for them.

And when I get emails or DM’s from people who I have never meet and probably never will meet, who say your such and such blog post really touched me or that post on assessment made me really think. I am always dumbfounded that my words here can go hurtling out into space and make contact with another person’s brain and the words might form into new thoughts and ideas inside their brain. Our connection forged with this fine tenuous thread of words. And if I write thinking I know my impact “oh I’ll write this blog post for so and so they’ll love it!” Chances are so and so won’t even read it! So and so will not connect in any way shape of form to my words.

I don’t get to choose.

As with a beloved helium balloon you finally decide to release and set free, you don’t know exactly who is going to see it and what exactly it will mean to the person who sees it.  No doubt the randomness and uncertainty of it is a bit alarming. But on the other hand it also is incredibly freeing.

Letting my ideas and thoughts and stories and pictures free into the world, I don’t know exactly who is going to connect to them and exactly what they will mean to anyone , students or otherwise.

I don’t get to choose.

Infidelity and intentional vagueness

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

                                                                                                                Antoine de Saint-Exupery

                                                                                                                                 

I have to confess I have never been faithful. Ever. Over 25 years and I never adopted one planning, teaching schema or framework with 100% fidelity. Moreover I have never taught a course or unit again, in the same order, in the same way. Lastly, I am vague with instructions. Intentionally.

It didn’t start this way. As I began teaching, I saw senior teachers with course binders which they would open and say: “here is today’s lesson.”  I thought: when I have binders like that I will be a great teacher! I also saw examples of elaborately detailed unit plans (many prepared by teachers I never met in person). I thought: when I get going, I am going to make units plans like those and then I will be the teacher I need to be! Lastly, I made sure I knew how to give clear and detailed instructions. I knew exactly when to say “Get your microscopes out!” to avoid confusion. I knew how to organize the bodies of 30 teenage bodies with military precision.

The closer I got to each of these goals, the more uncertain I became they would get me where I wanted to go with my teaching practice. For a long while, I felt guilty about all of this! I thought I was somehow deficient as a teacher in my unwillingness to give in to one planning model or teaching philosophy, in being “unable” to follow the same plan twice and in choosing to give ambiguous instructions.

Making Something My Own is the Making Sense Part

UBD? POGIL? Inquiry? PBL? UDL? So many frameworks and so little time. I wish I could say I had a form to end all others, I wish I could say I had THE recipe. Over time, I realized it wasn’t the form I did or did not use or the framework, I did or did not use.
What mattered was the schema I built, in my brain. And please don’t get me wrong, I thinking planning frameworks and teaching paradigms are both valuable and useful. Planning frameworks (such as UBD) and paradigms have informed me. The act of following someone else’s instructions to the letter on how to design a unit or course did inform and me; it was in the time and effort of churning through to make sense of it in my own brain in conjunction with observations and reflections. The work, the thoughts, the mental lifting which happened within the neurons helped to guide my teaching practice. Over time I have become comfortable with my “always hybrid” approach and the continuous development of my practice.

Planning is Important but Adapting the Plan is More Important

I used to think plans were a script to create in advance to ensure my lessons would be perfect. Now I know plans are not as important as what they become and what they allow for. The act of planning was not to create a script to follow, like actors do on a stage, but to create conditions in which students could write their own lines. The plan is important and valuable but how the plan is liberated and given a life of its own is more meaningful than the plan itself. Lastly, I came to understand that plans would look different each and every time they came to life. I came to understand that responding and adapting to students at a particular time was about teaching students instead of a teaching a course.

Vague Instructions Leave Something to the Imagination: Ambiguity is Good

I used to think good instructions were those when students did exactly what my words said. Now I know good instructions are those enabling students to figure out what they need to do to address their learning.  When I got good at giving detailed instructions, students became really good at following the details but this did not necessarily impact what was going on in their brains. Just because I could get students to do what I instructed them to do did not mean learning was going on.
When I was filling in all the details, students were unused to ambiguity and reading between the lines for themselves. My so called “good instructions” made students rely on me more and propagated the “let’s play school” mindset. Instructions are not about getting kids to do what I say (compliance), instructions are about inviting, invoking and awakening.  I would much rather a student sit an activity out and then later decide for themselves to take part. I realized I wanted structures and strategies to help students move to the deep end of their learning (and did not want strategies that relied on highly prescriptive instructions) rather than strategies and structures that kept them in the shallow end where it was easy for me to “watch them.”

***

How about you? What are you faithful to? How do your plans come to life? How do you see and use instructions?

work or WORK?

work can be organized neatly into binders or filing cabinets. work can be photocopied, attached to emails, and posted to websites with one click.
WORK is fluid and lives off the page. WORK shifts shape and morphs with the moment, in the moment.

work is compliance, completion and just enough. work is black and white, yes or no and containable to a page or a line.
WORK has no beginning or end, makes time disappear and lacks a fixed destination. WORK is messy, challenging and exhilarating all at the same time.

work feels heavy and flat. work is tedious and long, and sits just at the surface.
WORK wakes you up, lights you up and unbalances as it re-balances. WORK comes from deep within and extends out.

work sits in piles on the desk, forgotten once out of sight and recycled. work pushes you out. work says everything.
WORK lingers with you like the fragrance of a favorite perfume. WORK pulls you in, creating space for you to find your way. WORK waits for you to speak.

work is a checklist held externally from you and for you. work is tiny fragments, unidentifiable as to the material they belong. work keeps you infinitely busy.
WORK feels unencumbered, unknown, and unfettered. WORK feeds you forward. WORK paints the bigger picture. WORK says: take your time, I will wait.

work maintains stasis and feeds back to status quo.
WORK unsettles. WORK lifts up and creates a path beyond the farthest horizon.

work is a clone, each piece looking identical to the last. work is made up of puzzle pieces already assembled.
WORK is as unique as DNA and snowflakes. WORK is unpainted and yet unknown.

WORK can simultaneously break and mend your heart.
work will steal your heart and soul.

work can lead to WORK. WORK will never lead to work.
WORK will contain pieces of work. work cannot encompass WORK.

***

which do you do? which do you want to do?
and…
which do you want for our children?

work or WORK?

Will you define the work? Will the work define you?

balance

Shared on Flickr by Helen ST

“There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.” 
― Alain de Botton

In my first year teaching I was completely and utterly consumed by work. I loved the work and fell deeply in love with it that first year; I loved the intensity, the creativity and the connections with kids I found…but the work owned me. Over the years my love has not waned, but I have had to define the balance between being owned by the work and owning the work. Over the years I have watched, both from a far and up close, as others have struggled mightily with this subtle yet significant difference. Some have lost and some have won.

Where is the tipping point between being owned and owning?
Where is the point of no return for losing yourself to the work?
Where in the work are you sustained and renewed?

I am no expert at balance. For me it has been an ongoing process of reflection, readjustment and re-calibration and is part of the work itself.

Insights that have emerged for me, as I defined the work are offered below:

1. Define your own balance.
My balance is getting a bit out of balance. I love big messy and impossible projects. This is where my passion for the work lies and is sustained. I know these projects are what keep the “fire in my belly” alive. When I do not dream big and set far-off goals I disengage from the work. This is my balance. I have had to search out and create such projects.
Many have given advice on balance, schedules and some have raised eyebrows at my work routines. I like to get up early to write and do school work. I like to work with kids outside of school on big projects. For me, these projects are my source of joy and connection.
However, there are seasons to my work and at times I have had to step away (for family, my husband’s work demands, etc.). For me stepping away has made the work even sweeter upon returning. Like a speed limit, there were times in life I had to slow down. And then there were times I saw it safe to speed up.

2. Know what you sacrifice.
Dinner with the family? Sleep? A dentist appointment? Hold up for yourself item by item the specific activities and chores you are not doing when you choose to extend the work beyond the work day. Are these vital and important or are you ready to let go of these? For me I know what I will let go of and know for example that I will not let go of family dinner and time after dinner to hangout.

3. Eat steak before sizzle.
In all aspects of life it is easy to get caught up in the excitement and hype of any project. How novel! How fun! This is the sizzle. But to survive, to grow, to build you will need to eat steak. To find the steak you will need to find where the essence of your work lies. For me the essence of my work has been the connections with my students. I use these as my compass. Projects, initiatives, activities that prevent or destroy these are ones I avoid. Sometimes this will feel counter intuitive. I have kept this definition up front and center as I make the many micro decisions every day.

4. Hold no expectation of others.
This is where I still struggle. I can hold expectations for myself and work towards those. I know I cannot impose my expectations on others, students or co-workers; they have to do this for themselves. If I do this unconsciously, then when I end up disappointed, this is my problem to own and deal with, not theirs.

5. Say yes to what you love.
This morning I choose to say yes to writing as I know this activity feeds me and produces a mental calm for the week ahead. Just as I know that making time to have significant conversations with people I work with, whether students or adults, have over the years, feed my soul. I know making time for student requests for extra help and putting these before meetings or committee work has served to keep me rooted in the work I love.

6. Find your way to let go.
There will be many things to let go off; bad days, disagreements and disappointments. How you let go and shake these off will flavour the days and years ahead. Look behind and see the rocks are you still dragging. Is it the work of today or the rocks of yesterday that are dragging you under? For me, letting go is a process I need to honour, it takes time and deep reflection to let go. I need to give myself the mental opportunity to work through these tricky spots so I can do the work unencumbered tomorrow.

7. Hold on to what you can’t replace.
Early on in my teaching career I decided very consciously I would hold on to what I couldn’t replace and nothing else. I watched teachers get bent out of shape over lost pencils, scissors, bobbins etc. I cannot replace if lost, my love of teaching; I decided to fight every day to hold onto that. I cannot replace student confidence, curiosity, and trust, if lost. I would fight for those.
Pencils, stapler, broken glassware no big deal!

8. Act from love.
There is a sweet spot somewhere in your heart where the work does not feel like work. Here, the work comes from you without effort, without thought. You must find this spot and work to go there as much and as often as possible. This is the work you are called to do; this is your work and no one else’s. This is where you own the work.

9. Embrace the zany.
Some days are going to be those that make you wonder why you choose this work anyway. You will feel as a donkey must, struggling up the last part of a steep escarpment with an over heavy load. You will think: “I cannot.”
It is on these days that you must search to embrace and celebrate, the silly, the zany, and the things that tickle your funny bone. These gifts of lightness will save you from forgetting the joy of your work.

10. Lift your head.
As the work gets heavy we tend to drop out heads and see all that is still not done, all the challenges we face. It is in these moments I remember to lift my head and look out…way out…to the farthest horizon to see the big picture again and anew. Ah right…this is the bigger purpose of my work.

____________________________________

Why I became a teacher

I meet my best friend in Grade 3.
Her name was Patty; she had a gerbil and lived in a BIG house.
I had my first sleep over at her house. We whispered stories all night. We wrote notes all day in class.
We finished elementary school and moved on to high school together.

High school was a Catholic all-girls school: uniforms, nuns, and the whole deal. We had chapel on Tuesday mornings and “study hall” on Wednesday. Mother Johnson gave us the ins and outs of setting a table, writing thank you notes and how to make conversation in any situation.
We led sheltered lives. OK. Let’s be serious, VERY sheltered lives. We went to church, confession, study hall, and spent our days with nuns.
In grade 9 some of us starting hanging out with boys from the public school: “bad boys.” How cliché. I know. It was our rebellion to the strict dress code (no make up, jewelry, or rolled sleeves) and knees together world (the phrase repeated daily).

_______________________________________________________

On a morning in May of Grade 11, Patty was fatally shot, once through her heart, at close range by her then estranged boyfriend in the basement of her BIG house.

We all knew things were not right with Danny. We all saw many significant signs. Patty herself knew things had got beyond what she could deal with. We all felt extremely uncomfortable with what we saw and Patty had shared with us.

In our tightly controlled, mandated and safe world there was no one to tell. No one. 
No one we trusted or who was open to talking to us at school, or home, as people.

I am sorry. So sorry I did not tell someone what I saw, what I knew. How scared Patty was. How unwell and threatening Danny had become. I will forever be full of heatfelt regret, Patty.

Looking back, I cannot identify one person I could have talked to.

___________________________________________________________

We all have events that define us and who we become. This defined me. Still defines me.
I left high school disillusioned.

The tools I needed to navigate the most important challenge of my life thus far had been missing (and arguably none of us are ready for such a tragedy). School failed not for lack of trying; it failed in providing any real, meaningful points of connection for me, for Patty, for all of us.

Eventually this pulled me. I wanted to connect to kids. Kids who needed to talk and to feel supported. Kids who felt lost, overwhelmed or unsure about what they were feeling, seeing, or hearing. I wanted to be a person they could talk to or in a small way feel connected to.

I wanted to be there if and when someone needed that someone to talk to. I hoped to connect to young people…that I once was…wondering who can I talk to? 

I wanted them to see themselves as a person before they saw themselves as a student. I wanted them to feel connected to me as a person before they saw me as “a teacher.”

I became a teacher to give my heart, slightly broken, but ready to hear and hold. 

I became a teacher to redeem myself; for wanting to follow my instinct and for not giving voice to what I knew was wrong.

_______________________________________________

I don’t talk about Patty. I have not shared her story in my adult life. I still meet her in my dreams. 

I dreamt of Patty last night. I woke up today knowing it was time to give voice to her story…

I love you Patty. 

It’s hard to believe in what you can’t see.

Last weekend I attended a wedding where I had the pleasure of seeing several former students after many years. One student in particular stood out. Rob, who I have not seen since he was in grade 9 science, was there with his wife and 2 children. To say Rob struggled in school would be an understatement. He spent most of his time in detention (very popular then) for his hi-jinx in Foods class and in the principal’s office for various infractions. To put it bluntly Rob was a juvenile delinquent; in trouble both in school and out.

Rob was also an energetic, outgoing and charismatic young man. He loved to make people laugh and always had a twinkle in his eye. Rob was a handful in class; he loved to talk, joke and demanded lot of attention.

At the end of the school year Rob presented me with a card and a wooden bowl that he had made in shop class. The card is long gone but the bowl still sits on my desk in a place of honour.

bowl

When I saw Rob last weekend I was happy to tell him and his wife that I still had the bowl and i had thought of him many times over the years as I reached for a paper clip. As we talked at the wedding he described some challenging years after high school. Then he met his wife and his priorities had shifted.

Standing there on the lawn, seeing Rob both as a grown man and as the teenager I had known, was enough for me; to see Rob with love in his eyes for his beautiful wife and children. He was happy, healthy with a steady job, he had love and purpose for his life.

In that moment, all the angst and hassle of having Rob in my class was validated and the why was revealed.

Sometimes as educators it is challenging to find and connect to the urgency of our why. At times we may be tempted dismiss a child “as too much work”” or to rationalize that the child “will never be successful” and to focus on those who will be. I would be dishonest if I did not admit that I have have had those very thoughts myself and I think they are normal to have (just not to act on).

According to the evidence of school Rob was not “successful” and many predicted he was doomed to a life deemed “unsuccessful”.

And here is the thing, it is hard…very very hard…to believe in what you can’t see…

We can never see the depths of our impact on the lifetime’s of the children we work with. We can never see the potential for change and growth that resides inside each and every one of us.

And we don’t always get to see the Rob’s and all they have become.

But we can most certainly believe…

Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.

                                                                                Brené Brown