This Happened Here

Where I come from, we learned a lot about World War II in Europe. We learned very little about what happened anywhere else.

World War II happened everywhere. That’s why it’s a world war. Where I come from, we forget that sometimes.

I first learned about what happened here in Singapore when, several years ago, I visited the National Museum and was riveted by what I read and heard and saw.

I was struck by how much I didn’t know.

Today I visited Kranji War Memorial to see what I hadn’t seen and to give my time to those who had given their hopes, their dreams, their lives.

Sometimes we forget that war kills people.

And we forget that war affects all of us, no matter who we are. No matter how we are similar or different.

Who are we, as people? Who do we want to be?

This cannot continue to be the way things are.

A peaceful world means an end to war, but it also means so much more than that.

Talking won’t build it, but I believe that action will.

How I Work with Students

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with a group of education students at the university where I did my Bachelor’s degree. The professor was one of my advisors when I did my Master’s elsewhere and we bonded immediately over having the same advisors once upon a time, her as a PhD student and me as an undergrad. She’d invited me to Skype with her class about teaching overseas.

As I talked, I realized that I knew a few things. I realized that I’ve come to both understand and actualize, to the best of my ability, how I view my role as an educator.

To summarize: Working with students is a social contract in which I am responsible for helping young people succeed.

To clarify: Success does not have a single meaning. Social contract may not even have a single meaning; rather, it means that I walk out the gate every day knowing that I have done, to the best of my ability, what is right for young people. I owe that to them. Not to their parents. Not to the institution. I owe that to the kids.

Nearly three years ago, when writing about education became important to me, I articulated my opinions on good teachers. But there are some important elements that I missed, things that have become clearer to me as I’ve gained life experience.

I think that my work with students can be divided into three broad categories:

  1. Positive rapport
  2. Structure
  3. Tools

Positive Rapport

I care deeply about my students, both as classroom learners and as people. My students are people first (aren’t we all?) and we happen to spend time together in a classroom. This comes with constraints, rules, responsibilities, and expectations for all of us. But they know, and I know, that their experiences, their hopes and dreams, their insecurities and fears, are what drives the work that we do. That’s what drives the relationships we have.

I know who’s taking the SAT over the weekend and I know who went out to dinner because I ask and they tell me. When I mentioned that my arms were sore, they reminded me that I’d gone climbing several days earlier. They’d remembered.

When I talk excitedly about books, some students go out and buy them. When a student recommended a novel, I got a copy and read it. We laugh and we joke and after knowing each other for long enough, we tease a little bit. Because we really are all in this together.

Recently, a student asked me to look over a creative writing assignment. I’d never heard his writing like that before and was touched that he’d shared it with me. Another student sat with me last week to set up a study calendar. Three students in the last two weeks have come to talk about social dilemmas and others spend time in my classroom during break times because they know they can.

And I’m not always friendly, not at all. In fact, students usually characterize me, or so they tell me with smiles on their faces, as intimidating. But they know where my heart is and that makes a difference. Reputations are built. This matters.

The rapport I develop with young people, then, is possible because of attention to the next two categories: structure and tools.

Structure

I spent part of the weekend in a workshop about assessment and I was shocked at how new it seemed to so many people. It made me wonder what happens in their classes. It made me wonder about the learning experiences of their students.

Students report being comfortable in my class because they know exactly what is expected of them. I’m meticulously organized, which makes it easy for them to be so. I have a deep understanding of both content and what actually matters so I can guide my students through it. This matters.

At the end of the day, my job is to prepare students for the IB exam they will take at the end of grade 12, but my goal overall is for students to understand more about who they are and what exists in the world around them. My students know this because we talk about it all the time.

Class is organized and we operate in a very specific way. There’s predictability, consistency, and explicit attention to why we’re doing what we’re doing. It’s a lot easier to put pieces together when you know where you’re supposed to end up. And it’s easy to trust someone who has handed you a map and makes sure you know how to follow it.

This is not to say that students don’t find themselves stressed and anxious. On the contrary, they very much do even though it doesn’t come directly from me. But we talk about good stress, bad stress, and stress management. We explore the myths and pressures that come from “somewhere out there” and talk about what is realistic and what is important. And if today is a bad day, we talk about what to do differently tomorrow.

The point of today is to learn from the successes, errors, and experiences of yesterday and that’s what we do. That’s what we do every single day.

Tools

Over the years I’ve learned where students struggle and with what. I’ve been working to understand why they run into problems and I’ve reorganized objectives, assessments, and lessons to address these problems. I’ve talked openly with my students about what I notice and ask for their input. I’ve tried some of what they suggest and solicited feedback about what we’ve done together. I know what the most successful students do and I willingly share what I know.

I also know, because I’ve asked, what each student’s goals are. We have a “how far should we push?” conversation every now and then, and sometimes the answer changes. My students are honest with me because I demand it of them, because I am honest about my concerns and what I understand about who they are and what they want.

My students have a toolbox and I have one, too. The trick is figuring out what they do that works and what I can supplement. And yes, there are standard tips and tricks. There are ways that I, the teacher, know will work better. Sometimes it’s fine to let students play around and figure it out. Other times, however, it’s my responsibility to tell them to do it this way for this reason. It depends on the stakes, the goal, and the reason behind the learning.

And when something goes wrong the conversation begins with, “What did you do to prepare this time?” and leads to, “What can you do differently next time?” while addressing concerns, areas help is needed, and what else is going on in students’ lives. This matters.


So this is what I know. This is what I do. These are the elements of good teaching that have become clearer to me over time. There is much to be said for what happens accidentally, organically, or unpredictably with young people, but it’s vital to consider what happens when we plan and act with intent. I owe that to my students and this is what I aim to give, every single day.

A Meditation While Running

I have a love/hate relationship with running.

I love that it makes me feel strong and powerful. I love to feel my body moving, heart beating, lungs working. I love being out in the world and taking in whatever is around me. I love the well-deserved soreness in my legs, the sense of accomplishment, the satisfaction of doing something good for myself. I love feeling that yes, I can do this, and many other things, too.

But I hate running on the days my legs won’t move and lungs scratch and scream. I hate the fatigue that sometimes comes on all too early, leaving me frustrated and disappointed. I hate pushing myself through thick, humid air that leaves me dripping before I’ve really started, or the bitter cold that gets into my throat and leaves me coughing, or the dampness that gets into my chest and leaves me aching.

All of this is running. And all of this is more than running.

This is what is means to experience the moments of our lives, the sensations that wash over us ceaselessly.


I’ve always loved to feel my body moving, working.

I was a very small child in a pink tutu since before I can remember, but I do remember the first time I felt the swooping rhythm that is carving on skis. I don’t remember the first time a yoga teacher guided me into a pose, but the strongest I’ve ever felt was after a year of Bikram once or twice a week, early in the morning. I don’t remember the first time I put on a harness and scrambled up a climbing wall, but the exhilaration of my first outdoor climb just a few weeks ago left me itching to do it again. I don’t remember when I decided that I might like to try running, but I woke this morning excited to lace up my running shoes.


I used to treat running as bigger and better and more important than the other activities I took part in, even if I often enjoyed those more. I used to make running an imperative, something I would do at the expense of a range of other activities. I was around a lot of people who lived and breathed and loved running and I wanted to understand their world.

I didn’t like it much and I didn’t understand.

I still don’t understand.

And that’s why running has changed for me. Running is something I do not because of running itself, but because I like to feel my body move. I like to be out in the world. I like to sit on warm rocks on the beach and it’s quicker to get there if I run. I like the ease and accessibility of running. I like that I can just get up and go.

I’ve learned to do what feels right in the body. Sometimes it’s okay to walk for a few steps to take more time to look around. Sometimes it’s okay to extend or shorten a route. What does the body need right now? Sometimes I stretch my arms out and fly, laugh, and play. Sometimes I play the same songs in my head on repeat and I wonder, why those songs? Why now?


I run because I like to feel, not because I particularly care about running. And it’s easy to mistake those two things, to miss the distinction. There are days when running feels like a chore and it’s become clearer to me that the right thing to do on those days is something else.

There are many ways to feel the body move.


Today I actively practiced a meditation while I ran. In my head, I was going to take the long route to the beach and relax in the shade of a palm tree until the sun got just high enough. When that happens here, the heat isn’t far away and it’s time to go.

But my body had other ideas and I took a shorter route instead, cutting away from the beach. But again my body had other ideas and I extended the run along a path of gardens that I like to look at; I’ve been there before but didn’t think that was in the cards today.

And I took this unplanned path and let the world rush in.

Meditation has taught me that there’s a subtle distinction between letting the world rush in and moving towards the world. Experiencing sensations as they are, as they arise, means stepping outside of the self. It means allowing ourselves to feel things we might not like or understand and certainly do not control. It’s a willingness to be vulnerable and open and afraid and hurt. But it’s also a willingness to feel connection and love and trust and courage.

So I let the world rush in.

And my body moved.

And I felt that, too.

Shi Bao Mountain, Yunnan, China – November 2018

Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by a twenty-something teacher trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place