Keeping It Real

The applause of four hundred and fifty fills the room.

Bodies rise from their seats as Melinda Gates takes the stage.

She smiles gallantly and speaks to my heart…

“Teachers know what needs to be done.”

Yes, they do.

My WhyWall of Why

But how do they accomplish what needs to be done when a thousand voices are drowning them out? How can they be the force their students need them to be when they are pulled into pieces by so many competing agendas?

The answer: Be real.

Be real in a way that shows students that teachers understand they need more than homework and discipline. They need love and support and often a snack. The latter seems trite, but think about how hungry our students are: hungry for sustenance, for attention, for confirmation that they matter.

As suggested in the above snapshot, I had the good fortune to attend a conference this week that sought to promote these ideals. ECET2, as the event-turned-movement has been named, refers to Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers. It’s funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and it is the physical embodiment of the teaching philosophy that has permeated every one of my education-related posts.

ReceptionAt its heart is the idea that if you treat teachers like professionals, give them ample opportunities to network, and support their passion, you can revolutionize the field of education, thereby enriching the lives of future generations. Sounds like a no-brainer to me…but, then again, I’m one of those hippie teachers who thinks building authentic relationships is a better measure of success than the Value Added Model.

ECET2 events bring together teachers from across the nation and then energize them with moving speakers, problem-solving colleague circles, and specialized sessions to promote innovation. In essence, the events are a one-stop shop for inspiring educators to be the best they can be and then giving them the resources to take that momentum back to their districts.

For this conference, we were allowed to select our preferred sessions. So, following Melinda Gates’s inspiring discussion, I attended a session run by the National Blogging Collaborative that promoted the importance of teachers’ voices. Not only were teachers encouraged to share their narratives in an effort to combat sensationalized media negativity toward educators, but almost more importantly, they were able to have an honest discussion about how integral it is for teachers to use those narratives to connect with their students—it’s as though they designed the session with me in mind!

“Be real,” they said, and my heart sang.

Yes. Be real. Be honest. Be true.

My students don’t need to know my entire history or everything that’s going on in my life, but they do need to know that my understanding extends beyond the threshold of my classroom. It stretches down the hall, past the parking lot, and into their struggles with poverty, isolation, and family. Although I can’t eliminate their obstacles, I can listen carefully and then try to help them overcome them. And afterward, I’ll share their sheepish smile, offer a fist bump, and wholeheartedly agree with their declaration that “the struggle is real.”

Yes it is, my friend. And the only way I can help you overcome it is by being real myself.

So, it is with a full heart and renewed optimism that I thank the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and all the ECET2 Seattle contributors for helping me do just that. Seattle at Night

Thank you for keeping it real!


“The Weight of Living”

Perhaps as a result of being a teacher, I have a tendency to assign themes to the seasons of my life.

Each new school year has a theme. Winter break has a theme. Spring break has a theme.

And, of course, summer has a theme. It’s usually whatever I’ve missed the most during the school year. So many summers have been beach-themed or book-themed or craft-themed. These ideas generally weave their way through the heat of the summer days, offering a soft reminder to slow down and savor.

After the events of this spring, it was clear that the theme of this summer could not be as light-hearted as summers before. Too much has happened. Too much has changed.

Sure, the world still moves at breakneck speed, but in mere months, the entire order of my world has been altered irrevocably.

Nothing will bring back my mother.Mom and me

Up until now, I’ve been able to bury that fact in a busy schedule and the domestic calamities that accompany new homeownership.

But the fact remains: she’s gone forever.

And somehow I’m supposed to accept that. Every time I pick up the phone to call her. To ask her advice. To hear her voice. To hear about her day. To revel in some small triumph. I have to stop. And remember.

And somehow…let go.

Ah, my theme for the summer…to let go.

I’m still working on it.

And I have a very long way to go.

But, I am fortunate enough to have help.

I was reminded of this on Friday evening. After a long day of fruitless coffee table shopping, we succumbed to a leisurely dinner and then sang loudly on the car ride home, just as my mother used to with my sister and me many years ago.

We arrived home relaxed…only to discover a pipe had broken in the front yard and had been gushing water for hours (according to the mess of soil all over the front steps) and was continuing to do so. I immediately flew into a panic, trying ineffectively to turn off the water to the property, while my husband more calmly achieved this task.

46129508_955e833d2eAfter we assessed the damage, I decided in my limited PVC-capping experience that we should attempt to fix it—even though it was 11:30 and we hadn’t any of the necessary tools or parts. For some reason, I was convinced that Walmart would have what we needed and was determined to go. My husband wisely admitted that it was very unlikely that they had the proper parts, but I was unrelenting.

So, out we went. Only to find that he was absolutely correct in his estimation.

Now, at this point, a less kind man would have drug me from the store empty-handed and forced me to admit defeat. Instead, he let me purchase a wide array of tools to feed my delusion that I could somehow use the existing pieces to rectify the issue.

For anyone who might be wondering, I do realize that I was being absolutely incorrigible at this point.

So we returned home, and he helped me attempt to separate pipes that clearly had no intention of separating. Then, he stood by while I stubbornly tried to will the pieces apart.

And then, he calmly placed his hand on my shoulder and said, “It’s not going to happen. You need to let go, so we can call someone to come fix this.”

He was right. We needed to fix it properly, and I had to admit that we were ill-equipped to do it at this hour. I imagine he had known this was the case all along, but he let me control the situation for as long as I could.

The emotions flashed in succession: denial, anger, frustration, despair. But what I wasn’t ready for was the emotion that stuck…relief.

I was sincerely relieved to let this one go. We couldn’t fix it. We needed help.

Three hours later, the pipe was fixed, the water was back on, and a very sleepy plumber was pulling out of our driveway.

Again, relief washed over me.

And yet, if I hadn’t had someone there to tell me to let go, who knows how long I would have held on? I am by nature stubborn and determined, and often those traits come in very handy. But lately, I am finding that there are times in life when these qualities will break you.

There are times when you have to let go, have to concede. It is the only way forward.

Unfortunately, this knowledge doesn’t keep me from obsessing over potential leaks or malfunctioning appliances. It doesn’t keep me from frantically calling the dealership when something goes awry with my sister’s car. And it doesn’t quench the chest-restricting anxiety that there will be issues I don’t know how to fix and chaos I can’t control.

But it does help by reminding me that I don’t have to fix it all, just accept a difficult truth…there are times when all you can do is let go.


photo credit: DSC_0016 via photopin (license)

The Dream of Summer

8128300371_6c295c424eIn the distance, I hear laughter…hearty, carefree laughter.

The laughter melds into the breaking of the waves, the call of the gulls.

It intertwines with the rush of the breeze and the smell of salt in the air.

It is the tonic of summer, and I want to drink it in.

Then I see her, sitting casually in a beach chair, feet in the cooling afternoon sand.

Her hair dances with the wind as she gazes, unconcernedly, at the fiery orange of the setting sun.

She is the picture of relaxation.

She is my dream of summer.

The one I hold on to through all the paperwork, lesson planning, grading, advising, worrying, and mothering.

But now it’s several weeks into summer, and I have yet to greet her.

Which, I imagine, seems strange.

No kids.

No grading.

No planning.

So what’s the hold up? What’s standing in my way of carefree afternoons and picturesque sunsets?


As every additional year of teaching draws to a close, I wait with bated breath for the feeling of release, the easing of a burden.

And every year, I find the first few weeks of summer packed to the brim with appointments and responsibilities. Broken things needing to be fixed. Affairs to be handled. Illnesses that descend the minute schedules open up.

And the weight is tremendous.

It’s as though everything crashes down at once, and I find myself racing around, wondering where that carefree woman went, and why I’m fighting nausea in a rapidly-warming house.

And it’s exhausting.

The other day, my husband and I looked at one another, and weariness looked back at both of us.

Sure, life is difficult, but run-you-into-the-ground difficult? Shouldn’t there be some breathing room? Some escape?

The leaking A/C says no.

The infection screams no.

The car repair whispers no.

The finances chorus no.

An off-key chorus drowning out summer’s serenade.

And it can’t be ignored.

So, with a deep breath, we book the appointments, and start working through the chaos, one strand at a time.

Hoping for quiet.

Praying for peace.

Realizing that these are elusive and unstable, often hidden behind the louder elements of life.

So when we find them, as we have this afternoon, we must let them wash over us, drowning out the chaos, if only briefly.

The noise will return.


But in this moment, there’s only the rush of the breeze through the palm fronds, the smell of rain in the air, and a periwinkle sky.

Sure, it may not be my dream of summer. But it’s a beautiful view from my much cooler living room.

And right now, it’s just the escape I need.

photo credit: Semitropic I via photopin (license)

photo credit: New moon via photopin (license)

Passing Through Silence

It’s been nearly a year of silence.

In that time, I’ve offered no social witticisms or criticisms.
I’ve shared no neatly-packaged epiphanies.

Nor do I have any to offer today.

Instead, I have only words to offer. A string of words that has been continually swirling around in my head for the past week:

“When the way comes to an end, then change—having changed, you pass through.” –I Ching


Placed in the context of our class novel, these words were clear and bold. They reassured many of my students who had been anxious about high school. They gave me the opportunity to present change as positive, to urge them to embrace the young adults into which they will grow.

Perhaps, more importantly for me, they reminded me of a promise I made nearly a year ago, a promise that changed everything about the way I teach…

I promised to place my students’ well-being before a test score, to embrace their quirks and accept their flaws, and to let them know that they meant so much more to me than my VAM score.

This change allowed me to pass through the bureaucracy of the education system and to open my eyes to my students’ true needs. In the process, it renewed my faith in the power of being a teacher.

I honestly believe that my students left my classroom this year knowing that I loved and accepted them.

I’m really going to miss this group. Sure, some were difficult, but the majority of my students were incredible. Together, we navigated new standards, new tests, new expectations, and came out victorious.

More importantly, together we traversed the rocky, uneven terrain of daily life. I tried to be the one who listened carefully and dried falling tears. They were the ones who helped me find a sense of normalcy after my mom passed away. In a way, they kept me grounded, when everything else seemed surreal.

Now that they’re gone, and only an empty classroom remains, the words begin swirling again.

“When the way comes to an end, then change…”

It’s easier said than done. But I imagine you already knew that.

Empty desks remind me that I will have to start over next year, and the incoming class has a less-than-pleasant reputation. I’m sure there will be many changes with which to contend next year.

But change is often the only way forward. And so, we continue to walk that narrow balance beam, desperately trying to adapt and meld old with new.

The philosophy that made this year so rewarding stretches out like a path before me. With luck, it will guide me through another year.

The words continue to whirl around me. With luck, they will help me find ways to break the other stretches of silence in my life, the ones for which I have not yet found words.

For now, they are enough.

Escaping Facebook

Yesterday, for the first time in a week, I opened the Facebook app on my phone and began scrolling.

I checked my notifications.

Caught up on my friends’ lives.

Aimlessly scrolled.

And then deleted the app for a second time.

I was as surprised as anyone. I told myself I’d take a week away from the draw of Facebook in an effort to limit my obsessive timeline scrolling. But after feeling the freedom that comes from not worrying about status updates or notifications, returning to Facebook was a great deal less enjoyable than I expected. I imagined feeling comfort at being “reconnected.” But all I felt was the pressure to catch up and “participate” by liking and commenting on posts.


Please don’t think that I’m disinterested in my friends’ lives. I genuinely care for their well-being, and I’m curious about their experiences. But the cost has become too great as of late. I’ve let the pressure to be connected and up-to-date build to the point that I feel forced to keep up with Facebook “news.”

Until this week, I didn’t realize how much I’ve let Facebook distract me. I used to spend every spare moment on it, always afraid I’d miss something.


But this week I accepted that I don’t need to know what everyone is doing all the time. In fact, I feel saner if I don’t. Consequently, I had more time to focus on things I do need to keep up on, like grading papers, planning lessons, connecting with family, and cleaning my home. Instead of clicking on Facebook while my computer loaded or the oven heated, I looked up new recipes, caught up on world news, or drank in a few moments of unscheduled peace.

It was lovely.

For the first time in ages, I enjoyed the freedom of leaving my phone in one room as I made my way to another.

Honestly, I feel more centered, more capable of focusing. As an active proponent of living consciously, I believe this is a step in the right direction for me.

I still see the value in Facebook as a tool to connect friends and family, and I have not deleted my account completely. But I have accepted that I am happier without Facebook as a part of my daily routine.

With this realization, came the desire to keep Facebook off my phone. So, unlike the first time, I felt no apprehension when I confirmed my desire to delete the app that has eaten up so much of my time.

Oh, I’m sure I’ll check in at some point.

But it feels wonderful to say I’m not sure when that will be.



photo credit: Scott Beale via photopin cc
photo credit: Viktor Hertz via photopin cc
photo credit: Mark J P via photopin cc

You Are Welcome Here

I’d like to begin by apologizing for the lack of a blog last week. The past two weeks have been a complete whirlwind of gluing, stapling, and syllabus-making. All leading up to today…the first day of the new school year.

It’s funny how much preparation goes into a classroom. What seems like it should take two days to decorate and equip, really takes six because every detail matters. This year the details seemed even more important because it was my first school year with a new philosophy.

In years prior, I focused on efficiency. How could I streamline everything so that I could get the most done in the shortest amount of time? In my defense, I feel every year’s added responsibilities and expectations of teachers are partly to blame for making this a common educational philosophy. In response to this pressure, I spent the minimum amount of time necessary throwing up mis-matching, educational posters and random classroom adornments. The result was less than visually pleasing, but it passed as a decorated classroom, and I quickly moved on to more demanding tasks like analyzing my students’ past test scores and trying to develop lessons to meet the county’s ever-changing standards.

This year, however, I was on a mission to change my approach. After my transformative experience last school year, I vowed to make my classroom a space where students felt safe and comfortable. I wanted it to be a clean, bright, inviting space.

So I began with my physical environment.

I left my tattered posters in the closet.

I framed things.

I installed more group workspaces.

I brought in nature with plants and wide open windows.

I focused on creating an environment that would send a positive message:
You are welcome here.



It took over a week to decorate. But the effect was exactly what I wanted. I can feel it every time I walk into my classroom. The words greet me at the door:
You are welcome here.

It’s my hope that these words will reinforce the barrier that I’ve tried to create between the political bureaucracy that’s taken over education and how we approach learning in my classroom.

It was in this spirit that I found myself repeating my convictions to every class today:
What we do in here matters.

I want them to believe that. I want them to embrace it.

Not because an end of course exam says so. But because right now they are determining how they will communicate with the rest of the world. And more than anything, I want to give them the tools to speak confidently, convincingly, and in a grammatically correct manner (still an English teacher). I want them to know that I take them seriously, and they should, too.

I want them to know they are welcome to be themselves.

My walls are the first step.

Hopefully, I can do the rest.