Monthly Archives: August 2014

You’re Doing It Right (At Least Some Of It)

The worst part of the first year of teaching is failing. Not failing once, or twice. No, failing hundreds of times, again and again.

Or at least, that’s my opinion.

Nothing I was doing was right. From the first day, not know how to respond when Tiara told me I had a nice ass, to the day before Christmas vacation when, in a moment of bonding I “walked it out” to Unk and Royal told me “I didn’t ever be needing to be doing that again,” I grasped desperately for each inch of progress, and mostly felt the rocks give way on my climb toward improvement.

Dramatic? Maybe. But that first year was dramatic.

I’m coaching new teachers and it is the week before school starts. Tensions are high, and the consensus amongst everyone is that everything is overwhelming. Some are masking it more than others, some are grasping at the progress like I did my first year, others have let go of the cliffside altogether and are bracing for the crash at the bottom.

This summer I had two months of professional development about how to be a coach. There was a lot to learn. One of the components we were taught was to view coaching from a “strengths-based approach”. Amongst the other “learnings” of the summer, that one seemed a little unnecessary. Why was it worth mentioning that we believe in celebrating strengths? Duh. I am familiar with the compliment sandwich: start with a positive, then say what you really want to say, end with a positive.

Truthfully, I’ve always preferred the “Atkins-diet approach”. Give it to me straight. Tell me how I’m failing. Rip off the bandaid and stop the sugar coating. Leave off the bread.

I know, don’t you wish I was your coach?

But the importance of “strength-based coaching” was been reiterated to me this week in my professional and private life.

While I’ve been busy meeting teachers and helping set up classrooms, my son has been busy learning how to walk. He isn’t there yet, but he’s gotten very creative in finding props to use as walkers so he can move around the room. His favorite is the coffee table.

He’s been pulling himself up onto furniture for awhile now, but the newest development is to pull himself up, rock slightly forward and backward, and then let go of the table. For increasingly longer increments of time he has started to stand and then either puts his hands back on the table or falls on his butt.

The first time this happened he had such an incredible look of concentration, which was immediately broken by my exclamation of “YOU’RE STANDING! YOU’RE STANDING!!!” Grabbing back onto me, he grinned, sat down, and started clapping for himself.

And that, my friends, is the strengths-based model. Seeing something someone is doing well, and naming it for them so they know to keep doing it.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about. How my idea of only thinking about the bad stuff so I can be better assumes that I know when I’m doing things well. And a lot of times I don’t. A lot of times I feel like there’s nothing but bad stuff. A lot of times I’m afraid to believe in the good stuff, because it makes me vulnerable to disappointment when something happens that shatters the image or calls my confidence into question.

When I watch my son let go of his grip and stand there proudly on his own, my first thought isn’t, “Well, there you go again, not able to stand up.” My first thought is jubilation. My first thought is fondness and pride and love. The same fondness and pride and love that I deny myself, because I’m so busy tearing myself down.

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What if instead I was willing to eat the bread? Instead of ignoring my husband when he says I’m beautiful, what if I let his opinion sink in, let his vote actually count? Lately I’ve been running an election and it hasn’t been a democracy. What if instead of barely listening to the good stuff from my boss because I’m so busy bracing myself for all the mistakes, I allowed myself to consider how those good things happened and take some time to think through how to continue to make them happen. What if I took a deep breath and said, “YOU’RE STANDING!” I’m still a beginner at this coaching and parenting thing, and sometimes standing is it’s own miracle.

As cynical as I am about the compliment sandwich and the strengths-based approach, is it worse than my inner critic?

As I walk through the halls of the school next Tuesday, I have no idea what I will see. I imagine it possible that more than one of my teachers will, like I did my first day, look at the clock at 10:00am and realize they are in for one of the longest, worst rides of their lives. Regardless, I want to be the person who can see the good in what they are doing it, name it, and encourage them to continue on (possibly after having a good cry and a glass of wine).

And then, when I come home, I want to think back on the day and not just cringe at the bad stuff, but smile at the good stuff, too. And then maybe I’ll have some wine, or maybe a sandwich, including the bread.

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P.S. The sandwich in the picture is from Little Goat restaurant here in Chicago, and was (I’m ashamed to admit) the picture I took to brag about my meal on Facebook. Regardless your feelings of this post or compliment sandwiches, let me highly recommend this pulled pork sandwich of deliciousness.

I am so sick of the ice bucket challenge

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I’m in the middle of a full blown carb and sugar bender. It started when, for my son’s first birthday, my husband and I made the decision to buy not one, not two, but THREE cakes from Costco. (Red Velvet, Key Lime, and Cheesecake). Oh, and we bought M&M’s, too, which I ate by the fist full until they were gone (actually, until I told my husband to take them to work, which is what happens to most of our junk food).

But the news this week has not made it any better. People are being beheaded by for their faith in Iraq and Syria. Over a thousand people have died in West Africa from Ebola. The country is blowing up in Ferguson, a nine-year-old boy was shot and killed yesterday evening in Chicago, and Robin Williams just committed suicide.

My Facebook feed has been reading like something out of a young adult dystopian novel.

This evening, while half way through my Costco sized bag of tortilla chips (but hey, they are ORGANIC!) I started thinking about the ice bucket challenge. There’s been some criticism of the challenge, mostly of people who are sick of seeing their entire newsfeed full of hard-to-load videos of friends dumping water over their heads. This is fair, especially considering the people who have used the challenge as an excuse to take video of themselves in bikinis. 

But on a serious note, I get the feeling of not wanting to engage. I get wanting to sit on my couch and watch episodes of my favorite TV show streaming on Netflix and zone out. I get wanting to believe that I am only one person, that I am only responsible for myself. 

Hence the eating binge. Maybe if I eat enough I can push down all the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness and fear.

But I realized that the ice bucket challenge offers something unique. Unlike the situation in Ferguson, the murders in Chicago, the disappointing way we treat mental health in our country, the unbearably awful realities in countries whose names and geography are unfamiliar–unlike all of that, the ice bucket challenge is an opportunity to do something. Even if that “doing something” is as simple (or dumb) as dumping water on your head.

When I’m not stuffing my face with M&M’s, I want to do something, ANYTHING to help. And the ice bucket challenge did exactly that.

So I have spent the evening researching how to be helpful in the other problems, too. I don’t think that giving, compassion, prayer, involvement, and kindness are a zero sum game. I don’t think you have to avoid doing the ice bucket challenge because something more important or more devastating is happening somewhere else in the world. I want to believe there is enough room in the world and in our hearts to engage with many issues, to hold the idea that ALS is a horrifying disease and racism is, too, and many of us have the resources to help with both.

Even though it can feel overwhelming. Even though its easier to eat tortilla chips. (I’m sitting in the crumbs with you, friends.)

Warning: what I found isn’t necessarily as easy or sexy as the ice bucket challenge, and it certainly isn’t as viral. Some of the information took some digging to find. But a lot of the ways to get involved don’t involve any money, just some time, some concern, and a bigger belief that what is happening around the world, often to people who may look differently than me, believe differently than me, or speak differently than me, still can matter to me.   

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Some Ways To Help #Ferguson

1. Donate to the Bail and Legal Fund to help citizens who have been arrested.
2. Educate yourself about some of the issues: here
3. Donate to #feedthestudents to make sure school kids are getting enough to eat
4. If you’re white, consider reading some of the articles talking specifically about what white people can do about racism in the United States, like this one or this one

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Some Ways To Engage With What is Happening In Iraq and Syria (ISIS)

1. Change your twitter or Facebook picture to the Arabic letter N, which is the letter drawn on the doors of Christians, marking them to be killed. Join the #WeAreN movement to raise awareness.
2. Sign this petition to try to encourage UN involvement.
3. Write a letter to the editor to raise awareness of the issues in Syria.
4. Give money to one of the many charities providing aid and support for refugees and victims.

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Some Ways To Help End the Stigma of Mental Health Issues
1. Become educated. Check out Bring Change 2 Mind for lots more information and ways to contribute.
2. Don’t talk about suicide, or attempted suicide, as selfish.
3. Check out the suicide prevention lifeline for ways to help those you love, help yourself, and encourage the people around you.

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Some Ways to Help the Ebola Crisis

1. Become educated about the situation and the disease.
2. Give to organizations like Doctor’s Without Borders who are working in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea to help treat patients with ebola and prevent the disease from spreading farther.

If you’re like me, you may have your doubts about the usefulness of any of these activities. Point taken. But also if you’re like me, doing any of the above is probably more productive than going on a sugar/carb bender or sitting on your couch doing nothing. 

Now that my tortilla chips are gone, I’m springing into action with you. 

And don’t forget to contribute to help find a cure for ALS. (You can check out our Teacher Reader Mom “Post-it note ice bucket challenge” here) 

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The Death of A Child

Five years ago, on the Saturday morning of my first day of winter vacation, I was woken up by a phone call from one of my best teacher friends, Erica. Sobbing into the phone, I could barely make out her words.

“He’s dead. Ashton is dead.”

Ashton, a sixth grade student in our school, had been shot and killed the night before while sitting in an idling car with his father. The spray from the shotgun hit him directly, killing him while critically injuring his father.

Returning to my third grade class two weeks later I knew that I had to provide my students opportunities to grieve their schoolmate and friend, though I had barely processed it myself. I spent most of my two weeks of vacation sitting in a numb hollowness, repeating Erica’s words over and over.

What happened? Ashton’s dead. How? He was shot. What happened? Ashton’s dead. How? He was shot. What happened? Ashton’s dead. How? He was shot.

On the day of the memorial for Ashton our class gathered together to share memories of Ashton. During one of our conversations the students talked about their fears, and how Ashton’s death had made them afraid for their own lives. Then Kelton said, “Why do they keep killing us kids?”

Without hesitating Miles replied, “Yeah, because I wanna know how tall I’m gonna be.”

I can’t tell this story without crying. I can’t type this story without crying.

The meaning and poignancy of Miles words hit home in a new way one year ago when I gave birth to my own son. With his birth I joined the ranks of women all over the world who watch their hearts walk around outside their body.

Becoming a mom took gasoline to the flame of love in my heart.

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When news of Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri hit my newsfeed, I knew what I was supposed to do. An unarmed black teenager shot by the police. I’m supposed to shake my head and think, “What a shame.” I’m supposed to like the status updates of my liberal friends who post articles that shed light on the racial tensions present in our country, acted out in the riots that have broken out since Michael’s death. I’m supposed to be outraged.

And then I’m supposed to let it go. Because people don’t want to see that shit in their newsfeeds.

But I can’t let it go.

Because of Ashton. Because of Miles. Because of Michael.

How tall would Michael have become? Where would the aging lines have formed on his face and around his eyes? What songs would he have sung to his children?

I can’t stop thinking about Michael’s mother and the gasoline flame of love she has for her son. The same love that burns in my heart.

What happened? Michael is dead. How? He was killed by the police. What happened? Michael is dead. How? He was killed by the police. What happened? Michael is dead. How? He was killed by the police.

And I think about all the people for whom this news never goes away. I think about all the mothers who aren’t given the option of deciding whether or not to “let it go”. I think about all the children who grow up scared.

“Why do they keep killing us kids?”

I still don’t know how to answer Kelton.

Shouldn’t every child get to see how tall they will be? Doesn’t every mother grieve for her lost child? Isn’t it time we stop killing kids?

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How To Make A Baby: The First Year

It’s been almost a year since I pushed a human being out of my body. This past week I have been literally aching to have another baby. I’m telling myself this sudden desire for baby number two is a result of this important birth anniversary. Biology is an incredible thing. (I think I hear my mom cheering.)

I’m not going to give you the play by play of how our baby, or any baby for that matter, was made. Sorry. Or maybe, you’re welcome. But what does it take to “make a baby” a success?

I have read a lot of parenting articles, blogs, and books and some have been helpful and some have been not helpful, and the conclusion I’ve drawn is that nobody really knows. Therefore I feel as qualified as anyone else to offer you my personal conclusions about parenting, one year in.

“Good Mom” Does Not Equal DIY

Every day my son gets a sheet from the daycare chronicling his day. Without really talking about it, my husband and I have been saving them. That is, until a few weeks ago, when the sheets had accumulated on every surface of our house and in the cracks of the seats in our cars, in purses, bags, drawers, and the diaper bag. I asked my husband if it was important to him if we kept them. He was surprised, saying he had only been saving them for me.

Then my husband said, “Huh, I guess I just imagined you were more of a scrapbook kind of person than you actually are.”

I threw them away. All of them.

In a perfect world I would scrapbook everything from my son’s first footprints to the sheets he brings home from daycare. In a perfect world, I would have remembered to take the photo each month with my son in his cute onesie stating his age (I did three of the first six months, and then realized around month six, when all the pictures looked exactly the same, the purpose of the stuffed animal sitting next to my friends’ monthly baby picture updates: size perspective. I’m a quick study. By the time I’d made this discovery my son had had a diaper explosion, ruining his six month onesie, and ending the project.) In a perfect world this isn’t what my son’s first photo album would look like:

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Let it be known it took me five minutes to dig this box out of the closet for this photo. That’s how low this is on my priority list.

In anticipation of my son’s first birthday my coworker and I sat during our lunch break and browsed Pinterest photos for ideas of first birthday themes. I got so excited looking over the ideas and planning out foods. I settled on a dog theme, complete with puppy chow snacks. An hour later a different coworker asked me what my son’s first birthday party theme would be. In a moment of clarity I said, “Rachel’s House”.

We’re ordering the party food from Costco. Funny thing? I have no regrets about how I’ve been spending my time. And my son still seems pretty happy whenever I enter the room. Though I suppose there’s still plenty of time for him to hold the lack of photo albums against me.

“Sleep Training Sucks Balls”

I apologize for the language. Allow me to explain. I recently got back in touch with an old friend from High School. Via text she told me she’s been reading my blog and then said, “Are you still sleep training? Sucks balls!!!” I laughed for a full five minutes.

It isn’t just that we have tried every sleep configuration possible, including: holding him through the night, co-sleeping, him sleeping next to our bed, us sleeping next to his bed, sleeping in the play pen next to the bed, moving the crib into our room, moving the crib into his room. We’ve tried sleeping in the swing, sleeping in the bouncer, sleeping on the floor, with and without blankets, pacifiers, comfort objects, mobiles, and sound machines.

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The bigger challenge is the fear. The fear that even though he’s slept the last three nights, we’re one bout of sickness away from starting over. From the dreaded beginning. Or the fear that he, and we, will never sleep again. Ever.

By the way, for all of you itching to tell me it gets better, I know, I know. Wanna know what’s even more helpful than telling me it gets better? Offering to take an overnight shift to watch him.

Finally, a parenting law: the moment a baby falls asleep one of the following will happen: a doorbell ring, a dog bark, a phone buzz, firecrackers, battery operated toys coming to life with creepy songs and flashing lights, car alarms, kitchen alarms, or fire alarm. If none of the above happen, you will trip and stub your toe on the way out of the sleeping baby’s room. If you break your toe without making a noise, you win. This is Truth with a capital T.

Do What Works Until It Doesn’t. Repeat.

Sometimes it works to leave dishes piled on the kitchen counters and onto the floor. Sometimes it doesn’t. Then we wash them. Sometimes it works to feed our son organic food. Sometimes it doesn’t. And we give him regular generic brand apple sauce. Sometimes it works to drown your postpartum sorrows in endless slices of cinnamon swirl bread with butter. Sometimes it doesn’t. And you buy bigger clothes and eat less carbs.

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All random examples of course.

I felt some guilt over the fact that for awhile the only thing that calmed my son down while riding in the car was listening to Eminem and Rihanna sing the song “Monster”. Did I listen to too much top 40 radio while pregnant? Likely. Is it worth listening to “Monster” forty times in a row to avoid a long car ride with a screaming baby?

You’ll have to decide that for yourself.

Tell the Truth 

I cried for four hours every day the week after my son was born. The crying slowed down a little each week until I only cried every other day, once a week, and finally only when watching heartwarming videos. (OK, Always sanitary napkin commercials. Their marketing campaigns have been impressive lately.)

I recently realized I drove home with my son’s carseat not snapped into the carseat base, as the carseat base had a sock, a highlighter, and a metal fork in it.

When my son was three months old I put too much weigh on the handle of his stroller and he fell out of the stroller and scratched his eyelid. Arguably one of the worst moments of my life.

We switched to using brown sheets because that was easier than changing them as often as our son threw up on them.

I know, gross.

But also, a relief. This past year some of my favorite moments have been when I have told one of these stories to someone and they’ve respond with, “Oh, let me tell you…” and then matched or topped my story with one of their own.

There aren’t a lot of answers, but there sure are a lot of stories.

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One year. I can’t believe it’s already been one year. But my almost standing, almost walking, almost talking son is proof that indeed, life continues, ready or not. It may be awhile before baby number two (sorry Mom) but in the meantime, I am the proudest mama of my little one year old.

Thank you for the lessons, my sweet boy. Happy Birthday.

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5 Tips I’ve Learned About Work From My Mentor

I walked the quarter mile from the Metra train to my first school for my first teaching job lugging my wheeled suitcase behind me the whole way. The suitcase was full of my personal collection of children’s books, gleaned from my childhood library and garage sales.

I was one of several thousand twenty-two year old white woman applying for the same few teaching positions in Chicago Public Schools and my job and life experience had little to recommend me. I finally got a job after interviewing with the principal at a job fair, answering her questions while she ate Cheetos out of the snack-sized bag. She promised to call me. She didn’t. So I called her every day for weeks until I finally managed to get an interview at the school. The interview consisted of a tour of the building, bullet holes in the classroom windows and all, after which the principal looked at me and said, “Are you sure you want to work here?” I answered in the affirmative, and a few weeks later I showed up for teacher inservice.

I knew very little about how to be a teacher or how to be a worker. I was still learning how to pretend to be an adult.

In her book Lean In Sheryl Sandberg talks about the need for women to find a mentor in their profession. This insider can help them develop as an employee and help them hurdle the potential pitfalls in their job. I was fortunate enough to run into exactly this person on my first day of work. Enter: Karen.

Karen had previously made partner in her law firm when she decided to change careers to become a Chicago Public School teacher in one of the more challenging schools in the district. Karen walked into the office of the school on my first day, took one look at me, and immediately took me in as her project. Since that day she has grown from being my mentor to being one of my best friends. In honor of her birthday I offer you five lessons I’ve learned from her about how to be a better employee (and maybe how to be a better person.)

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1. Sit in the Front

When I’m in new situations I try to squeeze in unnoticed, sitting near the back, slouching in my seat, keeping a book or notebook nearby to detract attention. But this was not Karen’s style. I spent a lot of time watching her, trying to figure out what it was about her that got her so much recognition and praise. And then I realized it. She always sat in the front. For everything. Often directly in front of the speaker. Often she would even go a step further and talk to the speaker afterward, always finding some relevant question or point from what they said.

We all know it’s not cool to sit in the front. Or to be “that person”. But Karen changed my mind of this. She was known by everyone: the boss, the boss’s boss, the other teachers, the parents, and the students. She made herself seen, and once she was seen her ideas were acknowledged and affirmed. Of course this could backfire if you don’t want to be seen. However, Karen wasn’t afraid of being seen making mistakes. Instead, she invited people to come into her classroom, preparing opportunities to be seen at her best (and she was often the best). Her fifth year of teaching she won a DRIVE award for teaching with a $2500 stipend for excellence. It worked.

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2. Read the Mass E-mails

Every week our principal would send out an email telling the staff the announcements for the week. I would generally read the weekly memo, but I was in the minority in that regard. I remember Karen telling me to print out the memos and put them in a binder. She has this thing about binders. I looked at her as if she had turned into a seal. Not only did that seem useless, it was a clear waste of paper.

But I did it. And over time I started to see trends in what appeared in the memos. I started to notice what my principal cared about and ways I could stand out from the crowd. Paging through old memos gave me insight into the goals and vision of my administrative team I otherwise might not have had, and gave me immediate conversation points when called upon by my principal.

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3. Contribute to the Team

Among other challenges my first year of teaching, I found myself strapped for cash. Especially once my student loans came due and I inherited a car from my sister (which cut down my morning commute by an hour and a half each day, but increased expenses). Therefore, when my colleague walked into my classroom in the middle of chaos, ahem, “a lesson” and told me that she was part of the social committee and was collecting twenty dollars from everyone, I dismissed her.

I asked Karen about it later and she said, “You gotta give to the social committee.” I argued with her, but she stood firm. She said, “There are things you do because it builds investment and buy in, and shows you’re part of the team.” I gave the money, and I gained the friendships of my colleagues, people I desperately needed to help me that year, and people I still keep in contact with today.

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4. Take Advantage of the Additional Opportunities

While flailing as a teacher my first year, I was also taking graduate courses to earn my teaching certificate. These classes met three nights a week. Then there was planning lessons and gathering the necessary materials for my classroom. Add to that making copies at Staples everyday since requests for copies to be made at the school had to be submitted a week in advance, which was a week more advanced preparation that I ever had my first year. Free time was at a premium and was mostly spent drinking, crying, or in panic attacks.

There are thousands of opportunities for free trainings and workshops and professional development for teachers. And Karen dragged me to them all, mostly by bribing me with hot chocolate. But these extras were almost always incredible. There were tons of free giveaways, I met important people in the field, I collaborated with other teachers, and I learned a ton about what it meant to be a good teacher, and how I could become one, someday.

Would it have been easier to sleep in on my Saturdays? Yes. Am I a better teacher because I went to the trainings? Absolutely.

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5. Give it Something Extra

It’s an ongoing joke that Karen buys the heaviest, glossiest paper that money can buy. I once asked her to print out sub plans for me, and she printed 150 pages of worksheets on 75 pound, high gloss paper. I came back the next day to find the prettiest, color-ink worksheets sitting completed on my desk. Laughing, I told her that I didn’t think the kids needed to be doing multiplication tables on vellum. She just said, “But it’s so nice to write on that paper.”

We may have to agree to disagree on the quality of our paper, but paying attention to the small details and going above and beyond is a point of agreement. When covering bulletin boards, Karen used fabric instead of paper. And not just any fabric, coordinated and brightly colored fabric. And she kept a couch in her room for the students to sit on in the library.

By doing the extra, she became a magnet for people. As you can imagine, her students love her.

I haven’t “arrived” in my field, so the advice here is shared humbly, with the caveat that it is all anecdotal with no formal research backing. That being said, taking these tips from watching and listening to Karen has allowed me to be pretty successful in all my workplaces thus far. Except maybe when I work with her. Then she steals the show. But it’s worth it to get to be on her team.

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