Tag Archives: Work

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.

Today.

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.

On Being Busy

According to Merriam-Webster, my dictionary of choice since reading Kory Stamper‘s clever, hilarious Word by Word, the word “busy” has five definitions:

1a. engaged in action
1b. being in use
2. full of activity
3. foolishly or intrusively active
4. full of distracting detail

At my school, there’s an obsession with being busy. People are constantly talking about how busy they are and that they’re busy all the time. Yes, there’s a lot going on. Yes, we are pulled in multiple directions. Yes, sometimes lunch is skipped or rushed or postponed until later. Yes, many people come in early, stay late, and work weekends. Busy. Sure.

But there are also periods of the year or even times of the week that are less busy. There are times when we sit around and chat, times when lunch is leisurely, times when a few people take it upon themselves to decorate the department office. There are times when we check personal email, read the news, scroll through Facebook, or even write blog posts. Not as busy.

In many ways, I think claiming that we’re busy is an excuse. It gives us something to hide behind when we’re tired, when we don’t want to move onto the next thing, when we’re overwhelmed for some other reason. It gives us an instant connection with others while simultaneously absolving us (or so we think) for being unfriendly or impolite. After all, we’re in a rush. We’re busy.

I don’t quite buy that. As one of my colleagues says, “We wear busy as a badge – and we need to stop.”

Self-Worth
For many people I work with, being busy seems like a goal. To those people, if you’re clearly working harder than others, that says something about you. If you’re not busy, you’re clearly not contributing as much as the next person. Being busy gives a purpose to the work being done and therefore meaning to your job. And to be clear, I’m not talking about people who are legitimately working steadily for long periods of time. I’m talking about people who are “always busy” . . . but never seem to do anything important or always seem behind.

Avoidance
Claiming that we’re busy is also sometimes a way of avoiding the things that we actually have to do, or things we know we should do but aren’t quite ready to face. It’s easy to make excuses when we’re “already busy” doing something else, which only makes it more challenging to do the things we need to do. And because “I’m busy” is an excuse our society has decided is acceptable, we give ourselves excuses to procrastinate (which is something we decry for different reasons, funnily enough). We can avoid doing things we don’t want to do because we’re busy, which only makes them harder when we can’t avoid them anymore.

Excuses
I know several people, and I’m sure you can think of a few, who use being busy as an excuse to avoid difficult conversations. We can avoid asking others how they are. We can avoid addressing problems that have come up in our relationships. We tell ourselves, and perhaps also tell others, that everything will settle back down when we’re not so busy and besides, we’re too busy right now to deal with that. These excuses become patterns. They become the behavior itself. They act as barriers to things that really matter and they can be harmful.

Alternatives
We don’t have to be so busy.

We also don’t have to claim that we’re so busy. Because much of the time, we’re probably not. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We don’t actually like, being busy – remember?

We can choose differently, as Leo Babauta writes on his excellent blog zen habits. We can choose to slow down, to simplify, to cultivate a sense of contentment. While I encourage a read of the whole post, these are they key ideas of what he says:

Slowing down is about pausing in the middle of the rush. Taking a breath. Creating a little space. Reflecting on what we’re doing. Finding a little mindfulness, being present with our bodies, breath and surroundings. . . .

This is what it means to simplify. Picking one thing (even if it’s just answering one of those emails that have been sitting in your inbox for a week), and then letting go of everything else. Letting this one thing be enough, for right now. Letting it be everything. . . .

What does it mean for this “one thing” to be enough? It means acknowledging that it’s impossible to do everything on your list, impossible to get everything done. So you have to focus on one thing, and let that be enough.

These are alternatives to being busy that I think are valuable, energizing, and far healthier than just rushing from this thing to the next thing and back again.

Slowing down is what lets us experience our lives rather than just letting them pass by.

Simplifying is what allows us to prioritize and do one thing well instead of several things poorly.

Cultivating a sense of contentment is being satisfied with accomplishing the one thing.

Wouldn’t that be better?

IMG_0128
Starrucca, Pennsylvania – September 2016

LeftRightLeftRight

When I was in college, I went to a Coldplay concert with a group of friends. I can still feel the electricity of that night, and I still get chills when I hear certain songs. At the end of the night, after releasing a cloud of butterflies, Coldplay passed out CDs with the title LeftRightLeftRight. I didn’t understand the title at the time; after all, the album was a recording of one evening on the Viva La Vida Tour, which is what I had just paid to see. Over the past week, however, I started to wonder if the title could be a nod to creativity, and to the importance of stepping out of the boxes in which we put ourselves, in order to look for something more.

I have to give my friend Mary credit for providing the impetus for me to explore creativity this week. I don’t consider myself a creative personal at all. I’ve always wanted to be, but I am (regrettably) a perfectionist in much of what I do. In terms of the IB Learner Profile, I am not much of a risk taker. Call it a personality flaw.

ib-learner-profile-diagram
Source: http://blogs.osc-ib.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/IB-Learner-profile-diagram.jpg

School on the brain at all times, right?

Anyway, I reached out to Mary and another friend, Ally, earlier this week to share with them how alone and afraid I’ve been feeling. I’ve written about it before – the difficulty of finding a new job, the challenges of moving, and just trying to do as much as I can before I leave here. I’ve been feeling quite lost in the choices that I’ve made and continue to make, both in terms of employment and my personal life. Like many women in doubt, especially across oceans, I reached out to my girlfriends. I’ve known Ally since the first day of high school, which is still one of the most frightening experiences I’ve had. I went from a K-8 school of 120 kids in one town to a high school with 1,000 kids in another town. A couple weeks late, I met Mary and she introduced me to rest of the people who became my core group for the duration of my high school career. The rest, as they say, is history.

In their remarkably quick replies to a very long, rambling, I-am-crying-out-for-help-please-help-me email, both women were thoughtful, caring, supportive, and compassionate in everything they wrote and in the subsequent actions that they took. It is no surprise that I was sleeping better towards the end of this week than I have in the past month.

In the course of her response, Mary shared an interesting activity that she came across, presumably online. To paraphrase, Mary told me to ask myself an open-ended question and write the answer with my dominant hand and then my other hand. She had used ,”What animal best describes me?” in her example (quite possibly from this blog) and the two animals that she came up with beautifully capture two very different aspects of her personality. Seeing this, I gave it a try with the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My dominant hand told me teacher, which I expected. As I picked up the pen in my other hand, I felt a huge smile on my face because I knew exactly what I was going to write. In the awkward letters of one who is not ambidextrous but trying to be, the word writer appeared.

And I knew it would.

The second my pen left my dominant hand, which is really the only place it ever spends any time (and quite a lot of time as I work on grading the 51 grade nine essays I got on Wednesday), I literally felt a different part of my brain activate. As a teacher of psychology, I was not entirely that this happened but I was fascinated. I found this interview with a researcher also mentioned in this article to simply explain how to activate cognitive processing in a different hemisphere than normal. Have a quick read if you’re interested, or ask the different hemispheres of your brain a question.

So I wonder if that’s what Coldplay meant with that album title. I wonder if they were reflecting on their own creativity or encouraging others to literally try another hand.

I generally have a lot of questions and, “Now what?” is a question that I ask myself every time I send out another cover letter or resume or file another “thank you for your submission” email. It’s a question I ask myself whenever I read position descriptions for jobs I should be qualified for when, in the back of my mind, I know I’m not who schools want (to be explored in another blog post at a later date). It’s something I wonder when people ask me if I’m excited to move to NYC or if I’m sorry to leave Singapore.

The difficulty is that I am not patient, I am not comfortable with uncertainty, and I am trying very hard to be both. My dominant hand says “keep trying” and I am afraid to ask my other hand.