Teaching Middle School, Week 18: The finale

IMG_0313

Lesson from an assistant principal on how to tie a tie

The much-anticipated Day 90 of my semester-long experiment of teaching a careers class in a local middle school came on Friday. That day was the last one of the semester.

I thought I’d feel many emotions: joy, exhilaration, pride – and most of all, relief.

But, honestly, I don’t feel much of anything.

Except tiredness.

Perhaps it will take me a while to process my time with 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. I suspect that will be the case.

But also I suspect that I’ll need to recover physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually before I can sort through my feelings with any real insights.

Heck, I’ll need to do some recovering before I can even actually feel them!

I’ve learned so much in these 90 days with middle school students. 

About both these students and myself.

If you’ve never taught before, you may not know this: It’s the teachers who always, ALWAYS learn the most!

So my middle school experiment was an experiment with myself much more than it was one with my students and school.

And I have an easy comparison – with myself from the 23-year high school teaching gig I completed 8 years ago.

The person I was at the end of that teaching time is quite a different person than the one who just completed this 90-day time period.

This person is much calmer and much less reactionary and resentful – even if she is much more tired after each day.

During the next month or so, I’ll be exploring the differences I’ve seen and felt in myself.

But for right now, for today, I’m going to rest. I’m not going to think, not going to try to figure anything out.

I have 4 more days at school, days we call in-service days. Days when we wrap up the semester and clean up our rooms. When we complete our academic year and tie it up with a bow.

Days with no students.

So these days feel almost like vacation, even though we’ll be working. Because it’s the wrangling with students that is the most exhausting, the dealing with all of the various energies of middle school kids that wears us out.

By the end of this week, I’ll finish my requirements for a completed semester.

Then I’ll rest and recover . . . in perhaps my favorite way of all. You’ll have to see my next blog post to know what that is  :)

So until then, this old teacher will be putting another teaching stint in the books.

And will be starting to wonder, just a tiny bit, where the path will lead next. . .

IMG_0314

Students help each other tie ties

 

Teaching Middle School, Week 17: “Because we’re bad”

IMG_0256

My students working diligently on their project.

Two comments to me at school this past week have stuck with me.

Both were from 6th grade students.

The first occurred while three of my students were working on their project for the end of the year. They were talking, and one said he had signed up for careers (the class I teach) next year, and another said he had, too.

I realized they thought I’d be teaching that class, so I told them, “I won’t be back next year.”

Their response was the expected, “Why?”

I told them that teaching took too much of my energy, that I didn’t have any energy left over to do the other things that I want to do.

And then the student who made the first comment said, “Because we’re bad.”

I told him no, that they’re not “bad.” It’s about me and my lack of energy, not them.

But I don’t think he really heard me.

And on another day, I asked one of my 6th graders if she had made the team she had tried out for. I was hoping she had. She’s the kid who is probably the most initially disrespectful of all my students, the one who is immediately “bored” and who loudly voices that feeling, the one who is reactionary and disruptive much too often.

But she is also the one who has tremendous leadership potential. The one who can influence an entire classroom to do something. The one who sometimes decides she “has my back” and tells the whole class to be quiet – and they do quiet down.

She’s also bright, has a good grade in my class, actually does enjoy learning – when she can get past her knee-jerk negative reaction.

She has softened during the semester and has let me see a little of the kid that really does want to please, to be liked, to be accepted, to be praised.

So I was hoping she’d make that team. Because being a part of something bigger than herself would be so good for her. And she might have the opportunity to grow into that leadership role.

When I asked if she had made the team, she said “no.”

She added, “Because I’m a bad kid.”

It hurts my heart that these kids see themselves as bad.

That they can’t separate bad behavior from bad character.

They’re not bad. They’re just kids.

Kids who have lots of challenges.

Some of my students may make boneheaded choices at times. Some may be disrespectful now and then. They may be loud and unruly and bouncing off the walls some days. They may not listen well. They may be mischievous. They may get angry sometimes.

But they’re just kids.

They’re not bad.

They can be sweet and funny and kind and innocent. Even the hardest of them.

I find them to be trustworthy. I have no qualms about leaving my purse in an unlocked drawer. Or my cell phone unattended on my desk.

Three weeks ago I put a dollar bill on the top of the whiteboard in my room to remind my students that the team that wins the project competition will get real money.

The dollar bill is still there. No one has taken it.

The “baddest” they have been is to be loud and unruly – and every now and then one will have a disrespectful tone of voice with me. But after I talk with her or him, each one looks me in the eye (at my request) and gives me a calm, reasonable answer (after some coaching) that is much more effective than the “attitude” answer.

These kids aren’t bad.

So why do they think that about themselves?

Where and how have they learned this?

And how do we teach them otherwise?

How do we teach them that “bad” behavior at times doesn’t make you yourself “bad”?

That we all (adults included) make mistakes.

And that mistakes don’t make you “bad.”

It’s weird. This past week was my next-to-last as a middle school teacher. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I have 5 days left in the classroom. Friday will be my last day with kids.

But today, rather than being relieved that it’s almost over, that I’ve endured and survived, I find myself thinking of kids who think they’re bad.

Yes, these kids have gotten to my heart.

Not that I’m second-guessing my decision not to teach next year, mind you!

But I do want to be involved – somehow – in these kids’ lives.

I just need guidance into how that might be. What it might look like.

So I’ll be trying to be open to opportunities.

And I’ll be discerning what feels like my next calling.

I hope it will be a way still to be involved with these students – just not as their daily classroom teacher.

Time will tell, right?

Time will give me some indication.

And the Flow will show me the way.

I’ll be watching.

CIMG6018

Rocky Mountain National Park a few years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Teaching Middle School, Week 16: What I find most wearing and wearying

IMG_1504The main feeling I’ve had through these 16 weeks of teaching middle school is exhaustion.

Being in the classroom every weekday makes me tired.

Tired, tired, tired. And more tired.

That’s what I felt at the end of my high school teaching career 8 years ago.

And it’s what I feel now.

If you’ve never taught in a public school, you may be wondering, “What’s so tiring about teaching?”

For me, it’s the negativity and resistance.

I have so many students who respond negatively to anything I introduce.

Do we HAVE to?

That’s SO boring!

I don’t want to!

I can’t!

And the worst of all . . .

I don’t care.

I’ve brought in quite a few speakers, people who are willing to share their life experiences about their careers and personal paths. People who care about my students. People who want to give back.

For every speaker, I have some students who’ll say (out loud!), “This is SO boring” –  before the speaker even has a chance to say more than a few sentences!

How do 11, 12, 13, 14 year olds become so jaded, so negative, so expecting of the worst??

Why do they resist everything at first?

Is this what life has taught them so far? That everything will have a bad outcome?

Or is this their way of protecting themselves? From more disappointment?

As you can tell from my many question marks, I haven’t arrived at answers yet.

But I can tell you this, negativity and resistance are what have worn me down the most during my two teaching stints. It took about 20 years in the first stint to arrive at exhaustion from the negativity and resistance.

In this short middle school stint, exhaustion met me in Week 1 and has persisted throughout.

Negativity is not just a trait of kids in middle and high school, either.

Adults are victims as well.

I know you have felt that negativity in people, do feel it.

Some people and some environments are permeated with negativity.

I sense it as heaviness. Some people, some places are heavy. Burdened with negativity.

And it’s catching.

Negativity is like a virus. Anyone can catch it. It can spread through an organization like wildfire.

But negativity does have its counterpart.

Some people and some places feel light. Happy. Positive.

They are direct contrasts to those who feel dark, heavy, negative.

These kids who live in poverty carry that dark, heavy, negative burden.

Make no mistake, poverty is a burden, one carried by everyone who experiences it – not only the adults.

And those of us who work with kids who carry that burden can feel it.

We’re not immune. It affects us deeply.

I wish I could say that I’ve transcended that weight, that darkness . . .  that I’m unaffected by it.

But I have not transcended it.

I am very affected by it.

It manifests most obviously through my exhaustion.

It’s both wearing and wearying.

So my way of countering it is to expose myself to those energies as little as I can.

Which right now means I can’t continue to teach in a high poverty school, can’t expose myself to that negative energy every day.

It’s too debilitating. Too exhausting.

I have 10 more days with students and then 4 days of post-planning.

And then I can choose to find a positive daily environment.

Or  . . . .  maybe I’ll learn to transform negativity. To take it in and change its charge from negative to positive.

The latter will take a lot of work.

I’m willing to try, though.

Some say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

Maybe I’m ready? Almost?

But first, I’ll need to recover.

If I can just get through 10 more days, I’ll get on the road to recovery.

Just a few more days.

I think I can, I think I can . . . .

IMG_1889

 

 

 

 

Teaching Middle School, Week 15: My decision

IMG_0211

One of our physical ed teachers in his domain – this time at a pep rally.

 

We’re down to 15 classroom days before school is out for the summer.

Then my time in middle school will be over.

I began this middle school teaching journey as an experiment.

An experiment with these questions: What are middle school kids like? What are the challenges of a high-poverty school in this decade? How do computers and cell phones and social media affect kids? How is middle school different from high school? When do kids decide to give up, decide that they’re going to drop out? How are the requirements of teaching different from when I last taught, eight years ago? Do I have a love for the middle school age? Can I connect with middle school kids?

Those and many other questions, one of which was: Do I have the stamina to be a daily classroom teacher?

The answer to that last question has been a solid NO.

I barely have the energy that’s needed to teach right now. I can make it to school and through the day, but then I have to come home and rest and then get to bed by 8 PM so that I can make it through the next day.

On weekends I sleep for 11 or 12 hours Friday night and 10 or 11 on Saturday night. And I take naps, sometimes two-hour naps, each weekend day.

I have no energy to be involved in other activities. And sometimes I don’t even have the energy to go to my centering prayer group. Certainly not the energy for my tai ji group. Or anything else.

Plus being a teacher doesn’t give me time to be involved in community groups that meet during the day.

If I want to be a teacher, I can only be a teacher.

And that’s not the kind of life I want to live.

So a couple of weeks ago when a contract next year showed up in my mailbox at school, I had to find my principal and return it.

I told him, “I can’t.”

And he said, “I understand.” He knew that having enough stamina was my concern. He knew that I wasn’t back to full capacity after cancer treatments – even though I completed them four years ago.

He knew this semester was an experiment for me.

I felt sad and weepy the rest of that day.

But then the next day, I started feeling better. And better the next day. And better the next.

The heavy burden that was weighing me down has almost lifted.

And that’s a clear indicator that I’ve made the right decision.

I still want to be involved in our local schools. I still care deeply about my students and our schools.

And I want to continue my relationship with at least some of my students at school, perhaps in a club setting.

But not as their classroom teacher.

I’m hoping for guidance for my next path. I trust that I’ll receive it.

I hope I can be patient and let that path evolve.

For me, a classroom teacher’s job is suffocating. 

It didn’t used to be. I loved teaching for the first 20 or so years. Truly loved it. It was amazing to me that I got paid to do something that was so fulfilling.

So what has changed??

I have changed. Kids have changed a little. Requirements sent down from the state level have changed a lot.

But mostly, I think it’s me.

My call is not in the classroom anymore.

I feel my call is in a larger space, one that’s not confined to one room. (And yes, that’s not only literal. It’s metaphoric).

What that larger space is, I don’t know. Where that larger space is . . . well, I think it’s around here.

But honestly, I don’t know.

As I said last July in this blog (link here), I’m trying to follow the markers – and trying not to look too far ahead.

The markers six months ago said, “Try teaching middle school. This particular job is the perfect one for getting firsthand experience with every grade level in middle school with about 1/4 of the students there.”

It really was the best situation for what I was hoping to learn.

This chapter is almost over. Only 15 days left of it.

I’ll still be learning through these 15 days. I hope my students will be, too.

But we all can see in the foreshadowing that this chapter is nearing the end.

Is this the end of the book for me?

I don’t think so. I think it has quite a few chapters left.

Have I read the earlier foreshadowing correctly?

I don’t know yet. Time will tell.

I trust the path will lead me. If I follow the markers.

Sacred Heart, Cullman, AL June 2009 090

The path leads to the center. (Labyrinth at Sacred Heart, Cullman).

 

 

 

Teaching Middle School, Week 14: Testing completed & pondering “fairness”

images

Two days – one of science, one of social studies – finished us up.

Those days were a lot easier than the days of testing the week before. The testing periods (2 each day) were from 45 minutes to 1 hour – about half the time of the ELA (English/Language Arts) and math tests the week before. (You can read my post about those days here).

Makes me wonder why language arts and writing and math are so intensive.

Do science and socials studies matter less??

And it makes me wonder about the fairness of holding language arts teachers so “accountable” though testing. They have 2 days of testing attached to them. No other academic teacher has that much. And those of us who teach connections classes – well, we have NO state-level test scores that hang over our heads.

I taught English in the high school classroom for 23 years, so I feel for ELA teachers. SO much paper grading. Hours upon hours upon hours of it. Essays and research papers take the longest.

But anything written is demanding of a lot of grading time – no matter the subject. Some teachers in subjects other than ELA require lots of writing from their students, too.

All of that paper grading played a role in my burning out 8 years ago and leaving the high school classroom after 23 years of teaching.

It’s something I absolutely do not miss.

images

Add extra testing on top of that paper grading. And you get very weary ELA teachers.

I’d be interested in a study of which teachers leave the classroom in the first 5 and 10 years of teaching. What subjects do they teach?

I’d bet a pretty high number of them teach ELA. And I bet a pretty high number are in academic subjects (ELA, math, science, social studies – the state-tested subjects).

Those of you in the non-education world probably think, “Well, ELA teachers and academic subject teachers get higher compensation, so that makes it fair.”

But guess what? They don’t!

And also guess what? If you teach elementary school and teach ALL subject areas, you don’t get extra compensation, either!

The only way you get higher compensation as a teacher in Georgia is to get more advanced college degrees and accumulate years of teaching experience. Or go into administration – but then you’re not a teacher anymore.

In Georgia, if you’re a public school teacher you get a pay raise every other year.

But only for the first 20 years of your teaching career.

Yep, that’s right. The most experienced teachers, the ones who have stuck with it for 20 and more years, the ones who have tested a variety of teaching styles, the ones who have refined their craft for many years – they don’t get raises!!

How’s THAT for fairness??

Makes you want to stick with teaching for 30 years, doesn’t it?

And we wonder why public education has so many challenges . . . .

 

 

 

My MRI Experience Last Week: Claustrophobia & Meditation

images

Not my MRI machine, but one from the web. I didn’t have my phone for a photo.

This is what I shared on Facebook Friday after my MRI. I’d asked for prayers and good vibes.

I got them!

My experience:

I totally forgot that there is an IV involved. I hate needles, so how’d I forget that?? I’d have made sure to hydrate a lot (I have difficult veins) if I’d remembered. But I did remember to wear shorts that have no metal zipper, so I didn’t have to wear the imaging place’s outfit – other than the robe.

It turned out, though, that there was no problem with the IV, and next thing you know, I’m getting set up on the bench that will slide into the MR tube. The tech is hustling me and about to send me in when I ask for a minute to compose myself. I close my eyes and breathe deeply. I see deep pink – which I swear, y’all, was the good energy everyone sent me.

I get my arms close, close to me so that they won’t brush the side of the tube. Because that’s the part that triggered my claustrophobia last time – when my arm brushed the side of the tube, and I was aware of how tight it was.

In I go. The cloth of the robe on my right arm brushes the side of the tube. Uh oh. I start feeling that claustrophobic feeling, the one that makes me want to jump up and run – but I know I can’t.

The pink goes away as I go inside the tube. Can good energy not penetrate the MR tube??

The sounds start. I forget whether it was the drumming sound or another one, but I could also hear birds. How nice, there must be a bird’s nest right outside. But then I realize that it’s a very constant bird chirp, no variation.

No birds. Just MR (that’s what the docs call it) machine sounds.

Then a deep pain where my seroma is. The seroma started as a fluid sac at my surgery site but eight drainages wouldn’t clear it up, so we finally quit. Now it’s a hard-feeling sac. The frame of the MR machine (I’m lying face down) is pressing on it. It really hurts. I’m wondering how I’m going to get through 25 minutes of this when I feel the bench start sliding out, and I hear the tech’s voice say, “You’re too low.”

She hasn’t lined me up correctly. I’m not supposed to be feeling the pain at the seroma, because the seroma shouldn’t be pressing on the frame.

I adjust, and we try again. I get her to tuck in the robe on the right side so it won’t brush the tube, and in I go. Again.

And this time, the LEFT arm of the robe brushes the tube. And I can feel it touching the tube when the bench stops. I’m going to have that sensation the whole 25 minutes!

I work hard to calm myself. The first couple of minutes I spend breathing deeply and trying to calm down. Which I do.

I settle in for 25 minutes of this. 25 minutes is exactly how long we do a group prayer period (meditation period) in our centering prayer group. I know I can handle this. And I wonder how people who don’t meditate handle it. 25 minutes lying in a tube that’s less than inches from your body can seem like an eternity.

I decide to do a visualization and take a symbolic walk. The deeper I go, the longer the walk. Late into the MR, about the fifth or sixth change in sound and cadence of the machine, I decide to tap into the energy of the scan. Some of y’all know I’m pretty woo woo. And all I’ll say is that there were dragons. Cool dragons. Dragons that made me happy.

At some point, the tech triggers the mechanism for the contrast fluid through the IV. It feels cool as it goes into my arm.

And at another point toward the end I know when the machine is scanning my heart area because I can feel it in my heart and high heart chakras. Maybe that’s after the contrast? Because on the MR images, my heart was very colorful.

The sounds finally stop. I’m thinking, “Yay! This is over. Pull me out of here!” 

But nothing. No sounds, and I’m still inside the tube.

A minute or so passes, and nothing.

I start to feel panicky. I’m sweating. And I have to calm myself again. 

Just breathe. Be calm.

And finally, FINALLY she pulls me out!!

Whew, I made it!! I wait for her to lower the bench. She says I’m about three feet in the air, but you can’t prove it by me because my eyes have been closed the whole time – well, except for a couple of seconds two or three times to look at the mirror that shows me it’s an open tube. I could see green and sky outside in the mirror.

I put on my glasses and go to the waiting room, all the time still wearing my robe. I want to get dressed, but she says the radiologist may want an ultrasound. I had one last week, but okay, I’ll stay in the robe.

In the waiting room, people come and go. I read in My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen. It’s one of my favorite books for doctor’s appointments.

One of the women in the waiting room says, “Ms. Seckinger?” She turns out to be one of my former track athletes . . . who now lives on my street! I know exactly which house she is talking about. She’s on one side of the hill, I’m on the other. Her teenaged son is with her, and it turns out he does yard work, and I was just thinking this week how I need a teenager to do yard work for me. So she gives me her number for me to line him up when I need someone to mow or do yard work.

And now they call me back to see my results and talk with the radiologist. He’s very thorough and shows my how my breasts are “busy.” Lots of cysts, which look white on the screen. He explains how the seroma formed (the last radiologist thought it was an implant. Every tech says it looks exactly like an implant). He describes how my surgeon had to cut into the muscle to get good margins. Things I never knew about my surgery (more than four years ago).

I mention the book I’m reading, and it turns out my radiologist has read the book and was at a conference where the Rachel Namoi Remen was a speaker, and he got to talk with her. I asked what she was like, and he said “like you’d expect.” He describes a warm person who took the time with each person and who treated him like a friend.

He and I discover that we both meditate. We talk about that. He asks how that affected my cancer treatments. I tell him I don’t know how I’d have survived my cancer journey without this practice, how even when I didn’t feel well enough to meditate that the practice was (and is) a foundation for me.

He says now we have a good baseline for comparing future scans if there appear to be any problems. He says my surgeon will decide how often I’ll have MR scans, probably every other year. We shake hands. And I leave.

I survived my MR. 

AND got a good result. 

Thank you to everyone who prayed for me, who sent good vibes. Those prayers and good vibes made it to me. I saw them. They were pink!

I left today thinking how grateful I am for support.

Support that shows up in so many ways.

What blessings!

DSCN2201

How I felt AFTER the MRI:)

Teaching Middle School, Week 13: The reality of high-stakes TESTING

IMG_9833Imagine that this, above, is your setting for 5 days – from 8:10 until about noon each day.

Except that the words on the window – taken down. Any interesting posters – taken down.

Bare concrete block walls, tile floors, fluorescent light, and silence surround you.

In the 3 to 4 hours you are testing, you get to stand up once – for 5-10 minutes.

You can’t go to the bathroom. You can’t talk – even during the break.

You have to concentrate really hard for an entire morning.

And you’re 11 or 12 or 13 or 14 years old!

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

This is the reality of state-mandated, high-stakes testing.

Our schedule had the students taking a reading test on Wednesday, a writing test on Thursday, and a math test on Friday. This week will be science on Tuesday and, finally, social studies on Wednesday.

I don’t know that many adults who would thrive in this setting, who would do well on these tests.

Because of the cheating that went on in metro Atlanta and other places a few years ago, testing now is super strict. We teachers can’t even be on our computers during testing – or  look at our phones. We have hall monitors posted outside our doors.

We can’t even look at the tests we’re administering.

As I circulate through the room on math day, I see kids writing. Not just filling in multiple choice bubbles, but writing sentences.

My thought then: Who is going to read this? How is this scored?

There are many, many – thousands of middle schoolers – in the state. Are there going to be table readers who each read each student’s test and confer with each other to be sure each student is graded fairly (as they do on Advanced Placement exams)?

Or is one person who is being paid a low hourly wage going to be the reader? Will one person determine whether this student has written a good explanation?

And what if this reader is tired? Is having a bad day? Or has trouble with the student’s handwriting? (And let me assure you, reading handwriting in this day and age is a challenge!).

Will that student get a fair assessment of her explanation? Will he be rewarded for a thoughtful answer, even if it’s difficult to read?

I am struck with the absurdity of high-stakes testing.

Just because we can use computers to sort data, to analyze all kinds of statistics, that doesn’t mean those statistics are valid and meaningful.

Teachers teach human beings, not statistics. Young human beings. Human beings in the early stages of development.

Young human beings who are full of energy, who have trouble sitting and concentrating for 20 minutes at a time – yet we expect them to sit still and concentrate for 2 to 3 to 4 hours at a time for days in a row.

And if they don’t do well, we deem them failures.

We deem their teachers failures.

And we deem their schools failures.

We don’t take into account the student’s situation at this time.

Whether her grandmother, the person who has been the student’s real mother, has just died – and the student is wondering where she’ll live now. . . . along with feeling overwhelming grief.

Whether she had to get up and get her two brothers, one of whom is special needs, ready for their testing days – because her mom is working one of her three jobs.

Whether his father didn’t come home last night and the student is worried if his dad is okay – or is in jail or in the hospital.

Whether his mother is going through breast cancer treatments and may not be able to work and bring in the desperately-needed income to feed the family – along with his worry that she might die.

Whether his father beat the hell out of his mother last night.

Whether she had no dinner last night because there was no food in the house – and went to bed hungry.

Whether she got no sleep because her mother and her mother’s boyfriend fought all night, yelling, screaming, slamming doors.

Whether he lives in a house where they’re cooking meth – and he is worried that the house might explode while he’s sleeping.

None of this matters.

Because, you see, only scores and data matter.

 

And our society wonders what is wrong with public schools today.

 

 

 

 

 

Teaching Middle School, Week 12: Dreading Spring Break?

IMG_7941

Azaleas last year in Savannah

The week before spring break stretches on for much longer than five work days.

Or at least it feels longer!

I was just sure that Wednesday was Thursday. My body, mind, and spirit felt Thursday.

But the calendar said “Wednesday.”

And on Thursday I had several students who are usually calm and corporative be a bit surly, which is very out of character for them.

Then it hit me.

It’s the week before we are out of school for a week. If you live in a situation where there is chaos, where there’s no stability, where there might not be enough food, where you aren’t safe . . .  well, then you don’t look forward to a week out of school.

Back when I was teaching high school, a friend who taught special ed cued me in on that. He had noticed that more of his students acted out right before a break or the end of school.

For those of us whose only problems are having enough energy to get through the week (me!), a week off is a godsend. We look forward to it. And it when that week finally arrives, we hope it progresses slowly so that we can enjoy every bit of it.

But that’s not how many of my students feel – at all.

For them, school is a place where they’re safe and fed. Where there’s structure. Where they can predict what their days will be like. Even if they don’t enjoy their time at school, it’s predictable and safe.

They’re not like me.

I couldn’t wait for spring break to arrive.

I get to sleep in, to rest and relax, be well-fed (too well-fed, actually). I get to travel. I get to be with friends, to enjoy myself, to do what I like to do.

That’s not the reality for too many of my students.

Yes, I’ll still enjoy my spring break, my free time, my trip back home.

But I’ll also be aware of those for whom daily life is a big challenge.

I’m grateful for spring break.

And I’m also aware that everyone does not feel that same gratitude.

I’ll enjoy my time off  – and will also think of those who won’t.

 

IMG_0007

Some of my students doing the dab. Or dabbing. (Which is correct?)

 

 

Teaching Middle School, Weeks 10 & 11: Sadness & Grace

 

CIMG6118

One of my return drives from a western tour years ago.

I knew this time was coming.

I didn’t know how long it would take.

But it has arrived.

The time when I know my students well enough that I start seeing or sensing their stories. Their challenges. Their deep pain.

Communities in which poverty trickles down and settles carry the pains of our society. My school is in one of those communities. We used to be a thriving mill town many years ago. Back then people left the mountains to escape grinding poverty. They took a textile mill job that provided a steady income, a paycheck that gave their families better lives than the hardscrabble ones of eking out a scant survival from the land.

But now the pendulum has swung the other way. The mills are long gone – and with them steady incomes. Our mill town gradually became poorer and poorer, until now the schools in it have around 90 percent of their students on free or reduced lunch. These families live just at or below the poverty line.

That means not enough food in the household for everyone to get enough to eat. That means that the adults often have to work two and three jobs. That means housing is often inadequate. That means the stresses of poverty, stresses that are often self-medicated with drugs and alcohol.

That means too many unstable homes for our students.

That also means heartache for us teachers. Because we feel for these kids.

Just this week, I referred three students to our guidance counselors. I didn’t know exactly what these kids’ pains were, but I sensed that something was wrong. Something big, too big for a sixth or seventh or eighth grader to handle alone.

I myself had a particularly tough couple of days this week. A couple of straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back kind of days.

And one day when I wanted to quit, to give up, to pack it in.

I was at overwhelm.

That’s partially because I’m a highly sensitive person. And an empath. (Maybe they’re the same thing).

When I took this job, I knew it would be tough to be around middle schoolers with their rollercoaster emotions. That’s part of why I’m so tired all of the time. It’s a real challenge for me to be exposed to all of those types of energy. I spend the weekends resting. I start to feel like myself again on Sundays – and then I have to get up on Monday and go through another week of emotional barrage.

You’re probably thinking, “So. . . why in the WORLD would you choose to teach in a MIDDLE SCHOOL???”

I know.

I’m crazy.

But it’s mainly because I want to see firsthand the challenges that our students face, the challenges that confront schools in poverty-stricken areas each day.

I want to be able to speak to those issues, speak to those challenges from personal experience.

I want to find a way to be involved with helping.

Back in July, I wrote that I knew I needed to follow the markers. I had no idea then that they’d lead me into a middle school classroom. But I had a sense that they’d lead me where I need to be.

I struggle now with wanting to see further ahead, to see how I may be led to help these kids. I wrote in my last blog post about how we need help from the community to serve our students, how these kids need caring adults in their lives, how teachers and schools can’t do it alone.

Markers are starting to come in the form of adults who do care about these kids, who do feel called to help in some way.

And on the day in which I was most discouraged, the most ready to give up . . . grace came.

I had a weepy day. I couldn’t keep the tears at bay. And I suppose I didn’t need to try.

I say I believe that it’s okay to be vulnerable. That we humans should share vulnerability – because we are all vulnerable in some way.

But it’s a lot easier for me to say that than to live it.

The heartache was too deep this week, though, for me to keep that vulnerability at bay. To keep the tears in.

And when I shared them, shared vulnerability, an amazing thing happened.

Grace stepped in.

And I received support. Lots of support.

From people at school. From my centering prayer group.

They let me know that they care. They hold me in prayer. They help me get through each day.

And on today, on this Easter Sunday, I find readings that help me see where I am now in my spiritual journey.

From Christine Valters Paintner and Abbey of the Arts I find this, one of my favorite saint stories:

We have arrived at the celebration of Easter and resurrection. What Holy Week teaches me is that surrender leads to the fullness of life, yielding our own agendas brings us to new possibilities we couldn’t have dreamed of for ourselves.

The story of St. Kevin and the Blackbird is perhaps one of my favorites of all the Celtic saints. He was a 6th century monk and Abbott, and was soul friend to many, including Ciaran of Clomacnoise. After he was ordained, he retreated to a place of solitude, most likely near the Upper Lake at Glendalough where there is a place called “St. Kevin’s bed.”

He lived there as a hermit for seven years, sleeping on stone and eating very simply, only nuts, herbs, and water. In the writings of his Life, it is said that “the branches and leaves of the trees sometimes sang sweet songs to him, and heavenly music alleviated the severity of his life.” Kevin is known for his intimacy with nature and animals. It is said that when he was an infant and young child, a white cow used to come to offer him milk. Later when he founded his community an otter would bring salmon form the lake to eat.

One of the most well-known stories about him goes that he would pray every day in a small hut with arms outstretched. The hut was so small though that one arm reached out the window. One day, a blackbird landed in his palm, and slowly built a nest there. Kevin realized what was happening and knew that he could not pull his hand back with this new life being hatched there. So he spent however many days it took for the eggs to be laid, and the tiny birds to hatch, and for them to ready themselves to fly away.

I love this story because it is such an image of yielding, of surrendering to something that was not in the “plans,” but instead, receiving it as gift. Instead of sitting there in agony trying to figure out how to move the bird, he enters into this moment with great love and hospitality.
How many times in our lives do we reach out our hands for a particular purpose, and something else arrives? Something that may cause discomfort, something we may want to pull away from, but in our wiser moments we know that this is a holy gift we are invited to receive.

St. Kevin and Glendalough hold a special place for me. I had a powerful spiritual experience at Glendalough at the Upper Lake across from St. Kevin’s cell. So this message resonates on a deep level with me.

I also resonate with Paintner’s article on Patheos, especially this part:

Holy Saturday: The Space Between

This Lent has been in part for me about dwelling in the border spaces of my life and recognizing those places and experiences that do not offer me easy answers, those fierce edges of life where things are not as clear-cut as I hope for them to be. There is beauty in the border spaces, those places of ambiguity and mystery. In Esther de Waal’s rich little book To Pause at the Threshold: Reflections on Living on the Border, she writes that the ability to live with uncertainty requires courage and the need to ask questions over finding answers. I am called to hold the space for mystery within me.

My time in the middle school classroom has been a kind of Lent for me, a time in a border space, a space in which I am uncomfortable, where I don’t quite fit. It has been hard.

But growth is usually hard.

I know the hard times aren’t over. My threshold time and place are still with me now.

I know that there is always some pain – even when grace is present.

But I remain open to grace.

And guidance.

I don’t have answers to my role now.

But I don’t have to.

I just need to listen and watch and be open – to Mystery and Grace.

 

unnamed

Kevin of Glendalough icon by Marcy Hall, purchase at:

https://www.etsy.com/shop/RabbitRoomArts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Teaching Middle School, Week 9: The REAL Challenges

 

IMG_8164

The horse farm across from our school (later in the spring last year)

Because I’m a little bit superstitious, I’m afraid to say that I think . . .  perhaps . . .  that I might have turned the corner on my exhaustion.

So I’ll just allude to the fact that I made it through my first full five-day week in about a month, that I was merely very tired on Friday and not absolutely exhausted, that I didn’t have to drag myself through every minute of each day.

Maybe, just maybe, I’m turning the corner.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m still having to go to bed super early – if I’m not in bed by eight o’clock, I start the next day tired. I’m still having to conserve energy and can put hardly any activity other than teaching on my plate.

And now I’m concerned about this spring allergy season. Every allergy season makes me more tired, and this spring has been much too warm much too soon, so it looks as if everything is budding out and starting to bloom at the same time . . .  when usually it’s staggered so that I don’t react to everything at once.

But even with the above considered, I find myself feeling hopeful about the coming week.

My students have started to react more positively to me. They are not as hard to settle down because I’ve figured out some consequences that matter to them (knock on wood –  perhaps I should just allude to their better behavior, too!).

But because they are reacting to me more positively, that means more heartache for me.

You see, they’re starting to share more about themselves.

I teach in a school in which almost 90 percent of our students are on free or reduced lunch. Actually, I feel sure it’s more than 90 percent, but not everyone completes and returns the paperwork.

Students in high-poverty schools have lots of challenges.

So far, the stories I’ve heard mention drugs and parents in jail and in prison. They mention foster homes and group homes. They mention missing parents and missing siblings. They mention caretakers who may not even be related to the kid.

Society’s ills have fallen squarely on the shoulders of these children, these 11 and 12 and 13 and 14 year olds.

It’s easy for me to despair when I think about their lives.

But also, I find hope.

Because in these kids I see potential. Often almost untapped potential.

Potential to live lives very different from that of their childhoods. Potential to make different, better choices that will allow for more opportunity. Potential to avoid the pitfalls that have sucked away too many of their loved ones.

That’s the main reason I’m teaching at a high-poverty middle school now.

I think this is the age when kids decide whether they’re going to make it – or not.

And I want to see firsthand what the challenges are – and what the opportunities are.

When I taught high school, I thought that by ninth grade kids had pretty much chosen a path. Either to persevere and overcome or give up and drop out as soon as they hit age 16.

But in middle school, there is still some hope  – at least in most of my students.

However, for more of these students to have a chance to make it, we in the schools need help. 

We need help from our communities.

As I wrote in my blog post this fall, the one in which I wrote from the eyes of a substitute teacher, teachers and school staffs need help. We have too many needy students who have too many problems – some of them really big problems.

We need caring adults from our communities to become involved, to come to our schools and volunteer, to talk with our kids and care about them as individuals.

Just one caring adult can make all the difference in a child’s life.

Just one.

It could be a teacher. It often is a teacher.

But there are so few of us teachers and so many students – and so many needs among them.

There’s no way we can meet them all.

But there is a way to meet all of those needs if more people in a community help out.

And I don’t mean just money. Money can help, but what we need more is love.

We need people who will love these kids.

We need people who will come to our schools and get to know kids as young people – to see them as people with hopes and dreams and fears. People just like you and me.

Someone has taught each successful adult how adults should act. Someone in his or her life showed him or her how successful adults act, what decisions they make, how they negotiate life.

These kids need that. They often don’t get it from their caretakers – or, as you might remember from when you were a kid, you don’t really want to listen to your caretakers.

But another adult, one outside your household . . . . well, that person might be worth listening to.

That person might be the one who shows you a whole new way of living life, a way that helps you to work toward your goals, to live a fruitful life, to live a life that ultimately contributes to our whole society.

We teachers and school staffs can’t make that difference by ourselves.

We need help!

If you’re a community member who wants to help but who doesn’t know how, leave me a comment (here – or on Facebook if you’re a Facebook friend). I’ll likely have suggestions. And if I don’t, I’ll try to figure something out.

Because I see how much we as a community – as a society – lose when we lose some of these kids. We all miss out on a productive member – a kind, caring member – of society.

With each kid we lose, we all are hurt.

There’s no time like now to start turning that tide.

That undercurrent of heartache in my students is no doubt part of what exhausts me.

I can feel their pain.

Won’t you help me, help us teachers and staff, to turn the tide?

We need you.

We exhausted teachers need you.

And the kids, well, they need you most of all.

IMG_9989

Here one of my fabulous speakers engages my students as he talks about his career