Tag Archives: Education

What Teachers Make

The title for this post comes from a slam poem by Taylor Mali. I haven’t watched in years but saw it as The Message when I was introduced to it in my first (second?) undergrad education class. Parts of it have rung in my ears ever since.

But I know a lot more now. And I know that what Taylor Mali missed is that teachers make choices. People make choices.

Thinking simply, teachers make the choice to teach or to educate, to validate young people or to turn them away, to take a stand or sit back and watch, to be vulnerable and human or indifferent and robotic.

They make the choice to act or avoid responsibility.

Teachers, educators for some, are people. Some do the best they can with the time and resources they have. Some spend hours upon hours doing work that isn’t theirs because it’s the right thing to do by the young people they serve. As soon as teachers neglect that education is a social contract, they’ve neglected a lot.

If you’re willing to let it, educating can be a political act. (Note the pronoun shift here.) And it is hard. It is hard to do the right thing and to do it well. It is hard to ask yourself, “What do I want young people to understand if they never step foot in a classroom again? Who do I want them to be?” It is hard to take responsibility for cultivating, encouraging, building young people into adults who are committed to making the world a better, more peaceful place.

And it is hard to think critically about what that world looks like. It’s hard to make the world a better, more peaceful place.

You, the reader, might be asking with good reason, “Don’t we all make choices? Don’t we all want to do good things? Aren’t we all responsible for our actions?” Yes, we all make choices. No, we do not all want to do good things. Yes, we are all responsible for our actions – but only some accept responsibility, own it, do something with it. But I’m not talking about everyone. Please excuse me. I’m talking about educators and people who claim to be so.

“You’re ranting,” you might say. “It’s not becoming. It’s not fun to read. Write this elsewhere.”

But I can’t. I can’t because educators make choices every day that directly impact the lives of others. I can see it because I work with them and I can only speak honestly about what I know and have experienced.

Perhaps context is appropriate.

I spent the day working on a job that isn’t mine because it was the right thing to do and needed to be done. It’s not the first time. It won’t be the last time. I’m willing to do work that I think is important because I know what’s at stake – the well-being of adults I care about and young people I have a social contract with. If that’s not a reason to give my time to something meaningful, I don’t know what is.

But I’m getting a little tired of others’ excuses. I’m getting a little tired of, “I can’t help because I’m doing this other thing.” I’m sure you are. But so am I.

And I’m not angelic or perfect or a martyr, not by a long shot. As I said above, I make choices, too, and sometimes I take the easy way out. But I have also seen the damage that my easy way has caused others and I’m willing to acknowledge that and choose differently. This is what it means to take responsibility and it’s hard. It’s hard to make choices that set me at a crossroads between wearing my educator hat and wearing my friend/colleague hats.

I made that choice today and I don’t know if I did the right thing. But I know I did what I could and I have to close this day feeling at peace with a difficult choice that has very sharp edges on all sides.

All of this makes me only human, doesn’t it? And a vulnerable one at at that. If this is what it takes to make the world a better, more peaceful place then at least I know I’ve done whatever it is that I can do.


Tomorrow is a different day.

And I’ll keep trying. I don’t always do the right thing but I try and this is my public commitment to continue doing so.

Sometimes I take a moment away from my focus on young people and ask myself the same questions, “Who are you? Who do you want to be?” I don’t always know the answer to the former but the latter is quite clear: I want to be an educator and I want to be a good person. Owning this makes sense to me.

Why publish this post? Because I’m human, too, and an agent in constructing a world. I know that I make choices. And I’m trying damn hard to make the right ones.

Building Peace: Know Thyself

It has been quite a while since I last wrote about peacebuilding. Frankly, there have been other things on my mind, like the US presidential election, living in New York City, and trying to feel better on a daily basis. I recently returned from a much-needed trip to Southern California where, among other things, I remembered what I used to feel like and who I am capable of being. My mum recently told me that I’ve lost my sparkle. I hadn’t phrased it in such stark terms in my head, but I know that I felt sparkly in California.

I felt like me, which hasn’t happened in a long time.

In struggling to feel like myself and understand the changes I’ve been seeing in the world, I’ve been finding it difficult to continue the work I love. I love writing about education, peacebuilding, and working to make the world a better place. It has been difficult to focus on those things when so much of me is caught up in other trains of thought.

But I’ve been thinking a lot. Reading a lot. Time has passed. I went away for a week. According to the calendar, a tough year is over.

So it’s time to start over.

“Write down three adjectives to describe yourself.”

“If asked in complete confidence, what would your students say about you? Your friends?”

“When you think about being happy, what comes to mind?”

I have asked and been asked many varieties of the questions listed above. But rarely when I was a student. My employers and the friends I’ve made as an adult have been much more interested in how I would describe myself than anyone ever was when I was in school. Back then, it was always about what I wanted to do after college. People talked about the future. Rarely was anyone interested in the present.

Continuously looking towards the future seems to reduce or eliminate a focus on today, specifically in making changes today to benefit the world of tomorrow. I think this is problematic for several reasons:

  1. We need to believe in our abilities to have an impact in the world.
  2. We need to evaluate our present options in order to set ourselves up for a sustainable future.
  3. We need to decide today (actually, really yesterday) what kind of better world we want for tomorrow.

I see peace as the keystone in the arch of what comprises a better world. If we cultivate peace within ourselves, it is easier to see what we can do to make the world better because we are in the process of doing it, in our own lives. This means understanding ourselves in order to know why we want what we want and why we’re making the choices we’re making. To what ends, as my advisor in grad school used to ask. Indeed.

If we haven’t decided who we are, we can’t create the world we want to live in.

In working with students, I’ve found that it’s difficult to get young people to articulate who they think they are. Some are confident in themselves, which is great. But many laugh their way around the question, reluctant to sound too self-assured. Some truly don’t have anything kind to say about themselves and are crying out for help to whoever is willing to listen.

I think that one of the reasons for this uncertainty is that we don’t often ask young people what kind of people they want to be. We tell them what they should be. We tell them to be good, kind, strong, courageous, hardworking, polite, respectful. But do we provide them with opportunities to develop those attributes in themselves? Do we ask how they think they’re doing and where they want to improve?

One of my favorite activities with students in any grade level is when everyone sits in a circle and each student writes his or her name at the top of a piece of paper. They pass the papers around the circle, spending about a minute on each student’s page, anonymously writing down something they appreciate about that particular classmate.

To their credit, every group of students has taken this seriously. My favorite part is the minute or two of silence once each student has received his or her own paper and begins reading the anonymous messages. I love seeing their eyes move rapidly through the message, flipping the page over, returning to their favorite notes. I love the small smiles that spread unnoticed across their faces, the eyes widening in surprise and pleasure. I love the warmth that suddenly fills the room and the uncertain giggling when the nervousness breaks and students try to figure out who wrote what. Even when they begin to tease each other again, they keep the most personal messages private. No one really wants to spoil the moment. In every class, there are at least a few who whisper, “I didn’t know everyone thought that about me,” or “Oh! They think I’m funny.” In every class there are a few whose eyes just shine.

We learn what others think of us. But how does that align with what we think of us?

To build peace in the world, we need to understand that about ourselves. We need to know who we want to be and how to become those people.

In my ongoing quest to figure things out, I picked up The Hero Handbook by Nate Green. I’ve had a copy of it sitting in my GoogleDrive for so long that I honestly don’t remember how it got there. But I’m currently going through a self-exploration period and opened the book in my search for answers. As Hermione Granger aptly stated, “When in doubt, go to the library.”

Green suggests coming up with a list of personal rules to live by, which is something I’ve never actually done. I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions and ruminating over the answers. I’ve learned a lot about myself. There are decisions to make. Determining my guiding principles will hopefully help clarify how to live going forward.

In coming up with these rules to live by, I’m creating a moral code, such as it were, that I hope will help me take responsibility for my decisions, trust my instincts where appropriate, and stand by what I believe to be the best courses of action for myself.

Rebecca’s Rules to Live By

  1. Take care of myself by eating well and exercising regularly.
  2. Practice compassion to myself and those around me.
  3. Connect with friends and family by reaching out, sharing experiences, and acting from a place of love.
  4. Seek out and do things that scare me.
  5. Learn at least one new thing every day.

The five rules listed above are what I need to do in order to feel the best about who I am. This is what I require of myself in order to do what is important to me, which is to make the world a better place.

If I were to ask my students for their rules to live by, I wonder what they’d say? I wonder what I would have said five years ago, or ten years ago, or even farther back. If I’d had to come up with rules years ago, where would I be now? What rules would have changed as I changed? What would have stayed the same?

I’ve tried to make these rules as flexible and pragmatic as possible, but also constrained in the sense that these are five things I will not compromise. Come what may, if I can take care of myself, be compassionate, connect with others, push myself, and keep learning while doing New Thing X, New Thing X is worth it. If I can’t do those things, New Thing X is not worth it and shouldn’t happen.

So what?

That’s the question my students are required to answer at the end of any argument, written or oral. So what? Why do we care? Why does this matter?

This matters because I always want to be better. Better at being who I want to be and doing what I want to do, which is make the world a better place. I hope that creating these rules for myself reflects my current (and fluid!) understanding of what I need, what I am willing to do for the work I love, and the level of importance I ascribe to helping improve the world we all share.

I have done a lot of stumbling over the last months and that has distracted me from what really matters. Right now, I’m working to get all of that back on track.

Because the world needs it.

Because I need it.

Peacebuilding requires an understanding of what peace is and what we can each contribute to it. Knowing who I am and deliberately giving myself guideposts to continue growing as that person will help me do the work that I believe needs to be done.

Falling down is part of life. Getting back up is living. – José N. Harris

What Scares Me

My sixth graders have recently come up with a game. Before class begins, they hide just inside our classroom while I wait outside the door greeting each student as he or she walks in. While I’m doing this, the students inside the room jump out and yell, “Boo!” And then they laugh uproariously when I turn around slowly with my eyebrows raised, completely unfazed.

What my sixth graders don’t realize, among other things, is that part of teaching middle school means constantly being prepared for anything and taking it all in stride even when you aren’t.

The first time this happened, the kids asked in awe, “How are you not scared?”

I replied simply, “I’m not afraid of anything.”

They were stunned. One student spent two days listing off different events or activities that might scare me (i.e. a tarantula in my bedroom, climbing a mountain, skydiving) and consistently expressed surprise when I disagreed that each would be scary. While a tarantula in my bedroom might be uncomfortable and concerning and skydiving might be nerve-wracking and exhilarating, neither strike me as remotely scary.

“Things” don’t scare me. They never have.

Truth be told, however, I am more afraid now than I ever remember being.

Real Fears
With Donald Trump as the President-elect, there’s a lot to be afraid of.

And I am.

I am a woman, a naturalized US citizen (and I vividly remember the anxiety in our house when we applied for and received our Green Cards), and a religious minority. The vast majority Trump’s rhetoric and early policy proposals hit right where it hurts.

I have been inappropriately touched, spoken to, and spoken about on the subway. More than once. More than twice.

I have seen swastikas spraypainted on more than a few buildings.

My reproductive rights are at risk. As a result, so is my health. The affordability and accessibility of healthcare is uncertain.

My status as a person has plummeted and I no longer feel safe when I go running after dark.

I care deeply about the well-being of all people all over the world and of the health of the planet itself, so just about everything else Trump says is also cause for concern. My heart goes out to everyone who is a victim of the hatred caused by fear, which is a constantly increasing number. America promised to stand for the “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and I will. I purposely smile every time I see a women in a hijab and men holding hands on the street.

Stand strong. I stand with you.

I am afraid of the rhetoric that half this country has deemed acceptable.

In short, everything about the recent US presidential election scares me.

And I need to keep bringing it up because I refuse to sit by and wait for history to repeat itself. We know what happens when fear gets the better of us. We fought World War II already. An estimated 50 million to 80 million people died.

Personal Fears
These are irrelevant compared to the much more significant discussion above, but I’m going to include them anyway. If my fears about the political state of this country and the world are enough for you, stop reading here. (No hard feelings! Come back soon!)

Otherwise, here we go:

I’m afraid of being alone forever. I’m afraid of never being able to express my love for others with the depth, intensity, and care that I desperately want to. I’m afraid no one will love me enough to keep me.

I’m afraid of not making a difference in this world. I’m afraid of not making it better.

Looking Ahead
My sixth graders ask, “How are you not scared?”

I am.

Bu my sixth graders don’t need to know. They are already far more attuned to racism, sexism, violence, xenophobia, anti-immigration sentiment, anti-LGBT sentiment, discrimination, prejudice, and other issues than I was at their age. They live in a world dominated by fear, and this is where that fear has brought us.

Afraid? Very much so.

Giving up? Not on your life.

Now more than ever, I am committed to understanding the concerns of those around me. As I do so, I will continue working to build a world that is truly sustainable, better, and more peaceful for all who call it home.

Please join me.

Fear is the main source of superstition and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom. – Bertrand Russell