Category Archives: Education

Don’t miss the party! (And other cleaning tips)

I’m messy.

This is my car:

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This is my bedroom:

bedroom

And they are a mess.

I’m not cherry picking photos, either, to find the worst one to make my point. These were all taken today.

At a party with some friends a few months ago, I told my college roommates that I am finally coming to terms with the fact that I am messy.

My roommates felt vindicated. They had often bemoaned the fact that despite indicating on the freshman roommate preference cards they would like to room with someone neat, they instead got to room with me. I had also indicated that I would like to room with someone neat. Because I would. It’s not like I revel in filth. I just enjoy a lot of other things more than I enjoy tidying.

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I have spent a lot of time trying to make up for being messy. I go on clean/messy binges, I act really nicely toward my roommates when they look at me with disapproval, I’ve read self-help books about the whole messiness thing. (KonMari anyone?)

Therefore it was typical, but ill-advised, when I clicked on the video that promised a strategy for how to clean your bedroom in 30 minutes. But who can even blame me? It promised a free printable check list.

Watching the video sent me into a tailspin of inadequacy and shame, one of my typical responses. Another typical response is to go to Target and buy as many cleaning supplies as I can, returning home too exhausted to clean. Because shopping is a lot of work.

Let me pause here to say that I don’t dislike neat people. Well, maybe I resent them a little. But only because of my own deficiencies, not because of their amazingness. I look at their seemingly effortless systems of boxes and organization and sigh and fantasize…

About hiring a cleaning person. Because seriously, I don’t want to do it.

Anyway, as I was cleaning for a party or maybe just cleaning my car (turns out I do actually clean, it just never comes together all at once in a way that gives the appearance of “togetherness”), I remembered a story from another party, one that happened shortly after I graduated from college, a time when my life was messy in about every conceivable way.

The party was for my college bff and her husband, who were headed to West Africa to join the Peace Corps. In all the laughing and talking and joy and sorrow of saying goodbye, at some point someone asked if they could get a ride back to their apartment at the end of the party.

For all you neat people reading this, I’m sure there is nothing about this request that seems concerning. I’m sure your car has all of its seat and trunk space open and available for such requests.

But as I’m sure you can imagine, such was not the case for messy-ole-me.

Almost immediately I took to the street and started pulling a year’s worth of teaching stuff out of the trunk of my car. There I stood on a pristine suburban street, surrounded by paper, bins, books, markers, crafts, pillows, blankets, and other debris from the life of a first year teacher, frantically trying to get them into some semblance of organization.

After forty minutes one of my friends came out to find me.

They lovingly helped me put all my things away into the car, and guided me back inside.

Because the truth was that there was room for someone to ride with me. But my shame over my messiness filled the entire car.

And embracing that shame meant I almost missed the party.

I went to visit those same friends a few weeks ago. They have long since returned from the Peace Corps. As we exchanged texts to arrange details of our get together, my friend warned me, “Just so you know, my apartment is a mess.”

It was a relief, and it was a gift, because I got to see the mess from the other side. And from the other side, when it is my friend’s mess, it isn’t a big deal at all.

Maybe it’s not worth missing out on parties, be they real or metaphorical, because I’m so busy trying to hide my flaws. Maybe sometimes what my friends really need is to hear me say, “I’m a mess.”

And maybe by living our messy lives together, we give each other one of the greatest gifts that friendship can offer: permission to be our honest and true selves, without apology.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_n Rachel

P.S. If you ARE a person who likes all things neat and tidy, check out my friend Brigit’s blog, Meaningfully Organized. She even offers free printables!!

 

Mother’s Day and Teacher Appreciation Week: The Most Unsexy Jobs of All

You can smell Jakari from eight feet away. The combination of unwashed clothes and hair, shoes that have seen an extra winter of wet and dry feet. As if that didn’t already put her in the shallow end of the popularity pool, she weighs in at least forty pounds above the average fifth grader.

There is something so incredibly unsexy about any profession that gets an appreciation week. Teacher appreciation week shows up at the same time each year as nurses week, and quite honestly, both professions boil down to dealing with other people’s feces, literally and physically. Is it any wonder that Mother’s Day is only five days away? The role of mother falls solidly in the “dealing with feces” category.

This week is full of small gestures of thanks. Cups filled with chocolate, vases filled with flowers, boxes filled with jewelry. My cynical self can start to wonder if these appreciation weeks and days are lip service, a compulsory nod, the thank you we throw over our shoulder at the cashier as we take our receipt. As if that could possibly match the contributions our mothers and teachers have made to our lives.

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This past two weeks my sweet little toddler has learned that he can have an opinion, and that it is most exciting when that opinion goes in direct opposition to mine. I can’t blame him. That’s his job, to figure out the boundary lines of mommy and baby, to test the limits of my patience, to experiment with the rules until he learns them all, and then to experiment some more to make sure I wasn’t kidding.

But last Sunday morning was tough. It started with screaming and didn’t stop for almost three hours until he collapsed asleep in a pile, just in time for us to pack him in a car to head to church. He woke up, of course, right when we walked into church fifteen minutes late (also of course). The sermon had started and I knew his dazed cuddling was a ticking clock, no way it would last. Sure enough, the angry fish flopping started as soon as I told him he couldn’t run around in the pew.

I took the elevator up to our church’s nursery, my son upset, again, because he didn’t get to push the “up” button. I pushed into that deep inner resolve, the one I channel when I need to stay calm in trying situations. And maybe there was a little bit of self-pity. You know, the “I deserve a break” or the “somebody should be helping me right now” feelings. The “I deserve a holiday to celebrate my massive contributions to my son and society” feelings.

And at that moment, right as the elevator doors chimed and opened, my son turned to me, put his tiny, perfect, chubby hands on my cheeks, grinned with his lovely twelve teeth and his tiny dimple, and said, “Mama.”

He spoke the words with the awe and wonder that I so often feel for him. This incredible realization that we are part of one another, that our lives are forever entwined with cords stronger than DNA; that we are sewn together with love.

I had surgery recently, and I was desperate for help during the recovery that the doctor had misled me to believe would only last a few days and has instead continued for six weeks. Within a few days of the surgery my mom caught wind that I was struggling, rearranged her schedule and drove down to spend a week caring for me, cleaning my house, cooking my meals, and most notably: waking up with my son to spend the mornings with him. (Is there any greater gift than this?)

I often turn to my husband, when my mom is at our house and caring for our every need, or when his parents have extended some truly incredible gift of generosity, and ask how we could ever repay our parents for all they have done for us. We are disgustingly fortunate to have such loving and supportive parents. And he often will say, “We can never repay them. We can only pay it forward.”

And that’s what I keep thinking as I watch Jakari’s teacher sit down next to her and teach her to read, inviting her after school, allowing her to keep her siblings in the room during homework help, since Jakari is their primary caretaker. Jakari is still so often ornery in class, still bullies other students, still talks back. And yet her teacher comes back each day with a deeper resolve to help Jakari learn to read and write. Could Jakari ever pay her back for this?

That’s what I think when my mom works tirelessly to make sure that I am healthy, being willing to exhaust herself so that I can rest. That’s what I think when she insists I go to bed instead of helping her do the dishes or wash stains from our clothing. Is the card we send her, with someone else’s words printed inside a joke?

Maybe Teacher Appreciation Week and Mother’s Day (and Nurse’s Week) help us to remember that there is no way that we can ever repay the people who have loved us, who have parented us, who have shown grace to us. No chocolates or flowers, stuffed animals or crayon-scribbled cards could ever repay the mothers, biological or otherwise, who have nurtured us.

But maybe those sentiments are a statement, a reminder that there is enough grace to go around, that we are all better when someone loves us more than we deserve, more than we could ever repay.

And maybe these appreciation weeks and days are a chance for us to turn around with awe in our eyes and acknowledge those people who have loved us well. Not because we can pay them back, but because their love has allowed us to pay it forward.

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261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

Minding Your Own Business

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For my third year of teaching, along with switching schools for the third time, I also started teaching third grade. Previously I had identified as a middle school teacher, ending the day reeking of sixth and seventh grade hormone dust, much to the chagrin of my roommates. The transition to becoming a third grade teacher was, let’s just say, tearful. For everyone involved.

For starters, third graders are tattle-tales. The neighborhood rubbernecker has nothing on a third grade student. They are relentless in their scrutiny of their peers, and itch for the moment to tell on anyone who falls out of line. This can be tiresome. Multiply it by thirty students and it is downright exhausting.

The result: I coined my first third grade teacher catch phrase. After intentional instruction and “family meetings” with my students on the rug, the mantra we created and reiterated was, “If, for the rest of your life you only worry about yourself, that will be enough.”

This provided plenty of humor when students would come up to me and say, “I know I’m supposed to be worrying about myself, but Anaya just ate the eraser on her pencil.” But oddly enough, making this part of the daily rhetoric helped calm down the tattling, and helped steer the conversation toward self-reflection, a skill that has recently been difficult for me.

I’m generally a reflective person. Probably an overly reflective person. I’m the person who reflects on my reflecting. I have full conversations play out in my head and have, on more than one occasion, been known to make hand motions or facial expressions in fitting with my rehashing of an event. I promise I’m not crazy. Well, not too crazy.

But lately there’s been some stuff going on. Lots of big life changes. Family members are moving to other countries. I’m missing my parents, who live 400 miles away. The routines of my job are not automatic, so the mental requirement is taxing, and I’m examining every movement under a microscope. Reflecting on my reflecting, if you will.

While this has been going on, I’ve noticed a trend. The more stuff going on in my personal life, the more pissed off I get at the news. Mind you, there is always plenty in the news to get worked up about. It never disappoints. But a lot of the time I can still find that inner calm and resolve, keep chipping away at my piece of work to do, my part in creating the world I want to see. Or something like that.

Not lately. Lately I’ve been seeing Facebook status updates and having twenty minute rants to my husband, or my friends, or the check out person at the grocery store. No seriously. Lately I’ve been seeking out information from friends that will allow me to get opinionated and ornery. Lately I want to get out my measuring stick and start whacking knuckles to keep everyone in line.

There’s this rush I get when I am angry. It’s heady and powerful. There’s something so satisfying about identifying as righteous and holding myself a full two feet (two hundred feet) above everyone else.

So anyway, I go to church, at least a couple of Sundays a month, and one of the things that we talk about in church is when Jesus says to look at the log in your own eye before being concerned about the fleck of dust in your neighbor’s eye. And I think it’s pretty amazing how easy it is to see those small flecks in everyone else’s eyes, and how hard it is to notice the log in my own, weighing me down day after day.

Put another way, by my favorite Ani Difranco, “I’ve got something to prove, as long as I’ve got something that needs improvement.”

Maybe part of it is that it is so much easier to feel powerful than to feel powerless. It’s so much easier to look at Facebook and the world news and pronounce myself the arbitrator of right and wrong, and hypothesize whether or not our country should go to war than it is to do the pile of dishes that has migrated its way into our living room.

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It’s so much easier to look at my friend’s financial decisions and raise my eyebrows and shake my head than it is to reflect on whether or not we should be eating out for the fourth day this week.

It’s so much easier to look out than to look in.

This past week I have been coaching first year teachers. There have been so many surprises, so many ways in which the teachers have already surpassed my expectations of what it means to teach for a first year (my expectations being set, of course, at the most basic, fall on your face level of my first year). There has been one refrain I’ve heard over and over.

“They are (fill in number here) graders. They should know how to act by now!”

My response has stayed the same. Maybe they should know how to do this by now. But let’s say that they don’t. Let’s say that they don’t know how to do this. How are you going to teach them?

Because, after all, there’s a lot of things I should know by now.

I should probably know by now how to worry about myself. I should know how to spend time in quiet and reflection. I should know how to cry when I am sad and how to laugh when I’m happy and how to hold other people in love and kindness. And sometimes I do. And sometimes I don’t.

Thankfully, I’ve had a lot of good teachers in my life, ones who have assumed that regardless of what I should know, sometimes I need to be taught again.

I have teachers who remind me what it is to be the person I am, the person I want to be. Like my husband gently reminding me that the first week of the school year is always impossible. Or Karen reminding me that it never hurts to go out for a walk. And Lenora telling me that maybe it’s time to lay off of Facebook for a little while, at least until a little balance returns to my life. My teachers step in and tell me it’s time to put down the measuring stick, all the knuckles are broken.

In short, they remind me that If, for the rest of my life I only worry about myself, that will be enough.

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I’m going to a bonfire tonight.  And I certainly have some firewood to contribute, at least metaphorically speaking.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

 

Never Ready: #TeacherConfessions #FirstDayofSchool

“No one is ever ready!” My father barks (1)

Today is the first day of school for millions of kids, parents and teachers across the country.  And for weeks, everyone has been getting ready.

Kids and their parents have been getting ready for weeks, tracking down items on the school supply list, watching carefully for those awesome sales at Staples, Target and Office Max. Last night, backpacks and lunch boxes were painstakingly loaded and uniforms were carefully laid out, ready for that early morning alarm and new school day schedule.

Teachers have been getting ready since the final day of school last June (yes, really). They have spent the summer recharging and planning for the year ahead – new units, fresh classroom management plans, and innovative strategies they learned at professional development over the summer (No, teachers do not get the summer off); they’ve carefully set up their classrooms and have worked to incorporate the expectations of the school administration that has never left the building over the summer. School custodians have cleaned the building from top to bottom (those floors are waxed!) and are ready to see their handiwork scuffed and fingerprinted by noon the first day.

Excitement fills the air. The first day is filled with great expectations. Everyone seems ready for the first day of school.

Except me. I was never ready. Not as a kid. Not as a parent. Not as a teacher. Try as I might, I was the teacher who was never ready for the first day of school. Not even at midnight the night before.

 I spent much of the summer honing my craft: reading, learning, going to professional development, creating units, gathering materials, and re-designing my classroom.  Oh, and constantly thinking and talking about my classroom (to my friends and family, I apologize).  The amount of planning and preparation I undertook, the amount of time I spent setting up my classroom, putting together my classroom library, writing letters to my students – it made no difference.

I was never ready.

I am talking about not just the first day of my first year in the classroom but each and every first day up to and including my last year in the classroom.

The more you teach, the more you know that Murphy’s Law applies with an unrelenting vengeance to classroom instruction: “What can go wrong, will go wrong.” And, as the poet above points out, the “shoelaces” will ultimately wear out and break and you may have to make do with a “belt” that is not your best.

I tried so hard to be ready for that first day of school. But, alas, within 10 minutes, I discover that what I thought was the perfect morning meeting classroom rug shed like crazy, covering my students’ freshly ironed uniform pants with a layer of fuzz (yes, the one I paid $89 for at Crate & Barrel – we vacuumed that sucker every day, but still, it kept on shedding). By noon, there weren’t enough desks in my room, as I hadn’t planned for the steady flow of students sent from the school office who weren’t listed on my roster because they hadn’t registered until the first day of school (always forgetting that the classroom size limit in the union contract has no real meaning the first 20 days of school).

But somehow, despite the fuzz and lack of desks, despite not being ready for everything (including my sweet new student from West Africa who spoke no English except for “Hello” and “Thank You”), we are off to our “life-or-death destination”: another year of teaching and learning.

And somewhere in the middle of that first day chaos, I remember that I will never be ready for everything that happens – on the first day of school or each day that follows.

I won’t be ready for the moment when Quavonte, Joe and Conwanis bring me the Reader’s Theatre translation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and request to use the original or “real” language in their fight scene between the Montagues and the Capulets, because, “like you said, Mrs. Dempsey, there’s nothing like iambic pentameter. Shakespeare just sounds better. He’s got the beats.” I won’t be ready for the January that every student turns in their “winter break” reading and writing packet because it was “kind of fun to write poetry and stuff.” Be still my heart.

I also won’t be ready for the moment when a student, in a flash of temper, grabs a pair of scissors and stabs another (minor flesh wounds, thank God). Or the morning my gifted writer and rapper shows up to school drunk out of his mind, having poured his mother’s cognac into a bottle of sunny delight (and still carrying the evidence with him into the classroom).

Despite Breathless Preparation, I

The first day of school preparations that leave us all breathless remind me that despite the fuzz, the wounds or the spiked sunny delight, my students and I will continue to learn as I teach. Preparation is critical. But so is bobbing and weaving, and incorporating and appreciating the unexpected.

And so, at the end of the first day, I have arrived. I finagle extra desks from the kind custodian, add and cross-off names in my no longer pristine gradebook, and I stop at the Dollar Store on my way home to buy multiple lint removers, so that we can be ready for the fuzz tomorrow after morning meeting.  And then I remind myself that no one, including me, is ever ready.

 –261755_10150290602379874_2436766_n - Version 2Karen

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.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

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) 

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

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?

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

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.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

It Takes A Butthead to Know One

A little over a month ago I was at the point of collapse. I knew I was leaving my job, but I didn’t know what was coming next. I was living in the perpetual sleep deficit fog that has become my life as a mother. I was starting to fantasize about winning a trip to pretty much anywhere in the world for a break from my life.

Enter the advice of a good friend: It’s time to go get a massage.

Massages are religious experiences. In an hour a massage therapist can work out tension and stress that weeks, nay months of yoga classes (which I do not attend, btw) cannot. A salon near my house could squeeze me in for a same-day massage, so I ran out of the school building in time to make my appointment.

In a hurry I parked my car, jogged to the store, slowed down enough to pretend I wasn’t winded from the block-long trek, and walked casually into the salon.

The massage was perfect.

The message I received after the massage was not. When I returned to my car there was a note stuck to the window. In silver sharpie (such a waste for such an amazing product) someone had scrawled:

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(Park it strait Butthead)

Truthfully, I could have parked my car much better. It was at a slant that barely, barely, put the butt of my car into the space next to it. I could have taken the time to back up, pull forward, back up, pull forward (repeat 11 more times) so that I fit into the allotted rectangle evenly. But I didn’t. I was in a hurry.

And, I want to remind you, I was at the point of meltdown.

I sat there stunned. There was the spelling issue, obviously, but I couldn’t believe that someone had been so upset with me that they ripped up an envelope in their car, found a marker, then gotten back out of their car to leave me a note under my wipers. Who has time for that?

When we’re driving together, my husband has to regularly remind me that the other drivers on the road are not driving with the intention of making me angry. For example, to my, “what the &@#% is that person doing” my husband might say, “They’re probably just in a hurry.” To my, “THAT IDIOT JUST CUT ME OFF!” he might say, “I’m sure they’re just as frustrated with traffic as you are.”

Rereading that it sounds a little patronizing, but his tone and intent are anything but patronizing. My husband lives by the phrase, “Everyone is just doing the best that they can.” And he offers me the grace implied by those words.

Sometimes I think about the lessons I want to teach our son. I have lofty goals of writing them down and making a family creed. And I have to say that this note on my car got me thinking about rule number one: Don’t be mean. (Well, technically, don’t be an a**hole, but I should probably introduce the rule as “Don’t Be Mean”, since another rule is “Watch What You Say”.)

In my new job as a coach, the coaching team takes the task of “coach” quite seriously, including coaching one another. One of the areas in which I’ve gotten feedback is that not everything I think needs to be said. For those who are my personal friends, this might make you laugh. I have a way of speaking “no filter” that can get me into trouble.

Put another way, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

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So I kinda of feel for the man who left me that note. I can guess at the anger he felt upon seeing the last available spot in the lot, only to realize he would have to wedge his car back and forth to fit into it. Maybe there was a line of cars behind him, honking to get past. Maybe he was coming from work, or leaving to go to work, and this made him late. Maybe he, like me, has a child, and the way I parked made it impossible for him to squeeze the carseat out of the door, so he had to walk around the car. Or maybe he’s just a meany. Maybe he wrote that note to feel the rush of indignation while sliding it onto my windshield.

I will never know.

Just like that man, I have a tendency to get lost in the moment and cuss at the car in front of me. Or to speak my mind without thinking through the ways it might hurt the people around me. (I can always apologize later.) Or to leave a scathing comment on a blogpost. (I don’t know the person, who cares?)

Thanks to my new job I’ve been practicing the art of holding my tongue. Keeping my job is good motivation. In true elementary school fashion, the walls of the school we meet in has the acronym “THINK” posted throughout the building: THINK before you speak: Is it True, Helpful, Important, Necessary, Kind? It’s cliche and I rolled my eyes the first forty times I walked past it.

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But like so many of those overused phrases, it’s got a point. Maybe before I pick up the sharpie to write my comment, it is worth taking a pregnant pause to consider that everyone is just trying to do the best they can. Even when driving. (Or parking.)

It’s kind of shocking how much less I’ve been saying lately.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

There’s No Such Thing As a Runner’s High

Everyone sit down and take a deep breath, because I have some startling news to share.

I’ve started running again.

For everyone who looks to me as the person with whom they can commiserate about sitting on the couch, I apologize. And I still support couch sitting. You do you, girl (or boy). And for those who need me as a companion in the battle to get back the pre-baby body, don’t worry. I’m a long way from pre-baby body. If you’re the competitive type, you have awhile before you need to start to worry. Also, for those who are avid runners and anticipate your daily run with the enthusiasm of a dog greeting his long-lost owner, bless you. I doubt we have much in common. You can read this entry with pity, or leave me some unsolicited advice below about how I can change what I’m doing to become more like you.

However, it might also help to insert here that when I say, “I’ve started running again” what I mean is “I ran this past week”.

Once.

I defend myself by noting that I would have run more, but my body has been invaded by the summer head-cold of misery. I went to start a workout video yesterday (yes, I’m doing those, too) and after the snazzy opening and making sure I had my full water-bottle, the video instructor said to start “jump roping” (in quotes because neither they nor I had an actual rope). I attempted to shuffle my body in a convincing up and down manner for a total of 3.2 seconds before deciding there was no way that that was going to continue. My whole body already ached with cold and fever. No need to add fake jump roping to the mix.

My intentions are in the right place, though. I decided it was time to make a change: the polar vortex has taken away my excuse of the weather being too hot, a new beginning in my job warrants a new beginning in other habits, and I actually sometimes enjoy the feeling of not being able to move my muscles for a week after a tough workout. However, after a week of faithfully hitting my video workouts and also running, we decided to start sleep training our son.

The thing about sleep training is that it has all the guise of being about sleep and is actually about being awake. All through the night. If you’re someone who has a child who sleeps through the night, falling asleep independently with minimal or no fussing, drifting gently into the hands of the Sand Man and his good dreams, bless you. You can read this entry with pity, or leave me some unsolicited advice below about how I can change what I’m doing to become more like you.

Anyway, the lack of sleep combined with whatever it is that makes people sick in the beautiful days of summer has put a major wrench in my plans of becoming an olympic athlete and well-rested mom. (My son is also sick, so that adds to the futility of sleep training, since he wakes with every cough. Every. cough.)

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Let it be known that I have, in the past, considered myself a person who enjoys running. I have completed a good number of races, and I have fond memories of those moments. There was once a time when a five mile jog was normal. Yeah. It’s okay to barf here.

That time is not this time.

I know there are a million reasons why people run, but one that was always motivated me was “THE RUNNER’S HIGH”. When I asked someone what that was, it was always defined as a euphoria similar to doing recreational drugs, achieved by running distances usually suitable only for reliable vehicles.

I don’t know that I have ever really reached that state of nirvana in my running career [snort], but I’ve certainly had moments in the past when running was enjoyable. Or at least, when I enjoyed completing a run. I’ve had moments of hitting a stride when the run didn’t feel like every step was bringing me one step closer to needing knee surgery. And once or twice I’ve even thought to myself during a run, “Hey, this doesn’t suck too bad.”

Why does any of this even matter? Well, I’m facing a lot of new beginnings. I’m still a new mom, I’m new at my job, I’m new at this running routine. And new is so exciting. But it can also be incredibly exhausting trying to make sure that I am putting the best foot forward, making time for my intended exercise, remembering all the right times for helping my son sleep through the night. Sometimes I long for the days when I could easily run a few miles, or walk into my school and know everyone and everything and how it all worked and where I stand with each staff member. Sometimes I long for those nights when my son would sleep eight hour stretches, albeit in his swing.

But that’s not where I am right now. I’m in transition, I’m in new. New, new, new. And in typical Rachel fashion, I have decided to change everything all at once. Because what’s the point of pacing myself?

I think it would be fantastic if at the end of my running training I could reach a place of runner’s high. I don’t know how likely it is to happen any time soon, since right now my running is taking place in minute-long increments with ninety second walking breaks. Also, that’s assuming there is even such a thing as a runner’s high, something I’m not so sure about when my neighbor looks me up and down in my spandex pants. At that point I believe in the Runner’s “Hi I’m gonna punch you in the face.”

For the record I would also be very open to having a “mom high”, something I’m willing to now define as my son sleeping through the night independently. Or a “work high”, which I will define as finally feeling like I have started to get the hang of things. (I must…ask…less…questions…)

In the meantime, I’m working really, really, really hard to be patient, trust the process, live in the moment, [insert your cliche here]. And maybe if I’m really lucky, I’ll find some people around me who love me enough to give me solicited encouragement as I make the transition. Bless you. You can comment below. 🙂

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(P.S. Let it be known here that even in my “running days” of the past, I was beaten in a half-marathon by ketchup and mustard. ‘Nuff said.)

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