Archive | May, 2011

What it means to do your best

28 May

I’ve discussed my love affair with introspection on this blog before, and how it’s not always good. Sometimes you just need to get shit done. Your head will have to wait.

For example, two days ago, by the time I got home from work I realized I was just old-fashioned sad. It took a few days, but it happened: getting laid off isn’t as fun as it was last weekend.

I had planned to make a pasta dish for dinner, bought the ingredients the night before and everything. But that part of me that was stuck in my head couldn’t get me to do it. I got halfway across the street to get sushi and turned around and came back. Instead of giving in to the urge to escape, I walked right back into my kitchen and started chopping peppers and onions, and prepping the turkey sausage…time to deliver. It was tough to move past the stagnation I was feeling but I did it because I knew it would give me something to write about. And right now the writing is saving me.

Sometimes you’ve just got to start chopping the peppers. You’ve got to remove the seeds and slice up the parts that nourish you. It wasn’t a fancy dinner; no one wants me to post a picture of it on Facebook.

But it tasted delicious. Because it was the best I could do at the time.

“Do your best” is one of the agreements in don Miguel Ruiz’s Toltec wisdom book, The Four Agreements. It seems obvious but the important distinction he makes is that your best isn’t always the same. You can’t compare your best at one time in your life to another. You haven’t failed if your best wears a different mask at times. This helps the perfectionist in all of us: you aren’t letting anyone down as long you give it your best.

While at times this book takes itself too seriously for my taste, this bit of wisdom is comforting right now as I wind down the final two weeks of school with even less emotional energy than usual. I’m not letting the kids down as long as I show up every day and say good morning, smile at them, and let them know they matter to me. That’s my best right now.

“Light and dark can live together,” Ben Gifford of Death Cab for Cutie said on VH1 Storytellers. He’s exactly right, and that concept has always comforted me. We spend our days mingling the two harmoniously.

Leonardo da Vinci still has my favorite related insight: “A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.” Leo, you complete me.

“Helplessness Blues,” the title track of the new album from Fleet Foxes, is my new song to play on repeat. First, the musical arrangements boast such rich texture that it takes repeated listening to even process what you’re hearing. This particular song becomes almost an opera: in the middle it shifts to a different tempo and you almost feel like it’s a different song. But the transition is so natural that you embrace it. The song details a person’s search for what he’s meant to do, even though he doesn’t know what it is yet. The line that has most captured my imagination comes during the second movement:

“If I had an orchard, I’d work ’til I’m sore.”

That’s the key in our lives: once your find your orchard, whatever it is that bears your favorite fruit, you won’t even notice how much work it is. Okay, you will, but you’ll keep doing it because you love the taste.

Your best will be different then.

My best will look different in two weeks.

I will cook again, too. (But probably not tomorrow.)

How to get laid off gracefully

27 May

After legally acknowledging on Friday that my one year contract was no lie, I gave some thought to my future in teaching.

It’s not impossible to have a teaching  job next year. If someone from my school leaves over the summer, and no one else with three or more years of seniority in the sixth-largest-district-in-the-country needs an English position, my principal ensures me I’ll be the first person he calls.

Or I can play the waiting game all summer and cross my fingers there’s movement elsewhere in the county. And start over again at a new school, location and school philosophy to-be-determined.

I might change my mind on this later, but right now I’m kind of over these games. If the system can’t keep a dedicated, experienced, and pro-kid teacher like me, I’m not sure I want to join this dance.

And since all of the above mentioned scenarios are far too hypothetical for my comfort, I decided to celebrate my pink slip instead.

Here’s how I much I don’t follow rules.

Conventional Wisdom: Update your resume and mail out job applications.

Kara Wisdom: Laid off? Get laid.

Literally: If you’re happily married or partnered like me, it’s less morally compromising.

Figuratively: Give in to your pleasure-seeker for the weekend. Sure you’re about to lose an income, but not for another month. Tell frugality he’s boring, and roll like you’re employed.

I started with afternoon beers with a colleague. A few hours later, my husband and I ate four-course fondue. I had two glasses of wine.  The next night we went out to the movies:  Bridesmaids is exactly the kind of ridiculous I needed.

The movie (complete with overpriced popcorn and soda) came after we went shopping. I bought only one blouse that is appropriate for school. Everything else was more fit for the beach or a nightclub. Practical? Who?

Hold your judgment/jealousy, we shopped the clearance racks at TJ Maxx. We went there so Aaron could buy jungle pants for Ecuador (where he’ll be next week collecting Amazonian termites). Rebels.

Conventional Wisdom: Fight for your rights!

Kara Wisdom: Fight for your soul.

Some people are flashy. Some people get what they want because they yell about it if they don’t. They kick and scream in a public forum until someone greases their squeaky wheel. After watching our legislature and district slash and burn school budgets to create what our governor now calls a “jobs budget,” I thought I might be loud too. YOU CUT MY JOB! I thought I might protest this hypocrisy publicly, and that it would make me feel better. Now that it’s happened, I don’t have any fight in me.

Teaching is so much more than a job. If it were just a job, I’d be willing to yell. I’d be willing to shout about how “you can’t do this to me!” Truth is they can. And they did. And that’s because our decision makers see what I do as “just a job.”

Teaching is a calling. It’s something you feel led to do, not because it’s easy, but because you’re willing to take on its ever-unfolding challenges because you want to help kids. There are teachers who treat it like it’s just a job, but I doubt many started out that way: the system slowly worked on them like that drop of water on a rock that wears it down over centuries. All of a sudden they don’t even recognize that person who once felt called to teach. They stop seeing solutions and only use a megaphone to amplify the problems, and so the system rolls on like a ball of lint picking up more and more dysfunction along the way.

I told myself a long time ago that if I reached a point where I felt like I couldn’t best serve my students–to challenge them and sharpen their skills for the future–then I would leave the profession. It took working in a giant district that praised my teaching then laid me off to get there.

So instead of choosing to fight, I choose to write. I have ten years of insight into public education, and while I’m an optimist, I believe our kids deserve better than they’re getting. And so do their teachers.

I have to thank Penelope Trunk for this beautiful insight that couldn’t have been more timely:

“On the farm, you eat whatever is in season until it is gone. You get sick of it before it’s gone, but you try to remember that as soon as it’s gone, you’ll miss it.”

Even though right now I’m very “over it,” I know I’ll miss teaching. That knowledge kept me going all these years. Even if I leave the profession officially, I’ll always be a teacher. It’s my nature. It’s my calling.

“Thank you for your service to this District and good luck in your future endeavors.”

21 May

On June 10, I will wrap up my tenth year of teaching. After June 30, I’ll be eligible to apply for unemployment.

Hello, my name is Kara, and I’m a budget cut.

Hey remember two years ago when getting laid off was all the rage? I’m a little behind the trends, but here I am, job searching and resume updating. And possibly career-switching.

How did this happen?

After establishing a comfortable seven years of seniority in my previous county, and nine in Virginia, I have earned only one year in my Florida county. I was hired with a one-year contract after class size amendment magic funding arrived. I was one of 700 teachers hired to reduce the booming class sizes (up to 40 kids in core classes). Electives still operated at a burgeoning 60 kids and up.  Think about teaching studio art to 60 teenagers, or theater to 100.

My county elected not to renew all 700 of the 1-year contracts, and then lay off an additional 700 on top of that. Of the remaining teachers, they are asking them to contribute up to 3% to their retirement, and trying to convince assistant principals to agree to furlough days. Only teachers with at least three years in the county are promised a job next year, although that job could be at any school in the county. Some may not find out until shortly before school starts in August.

How do you feel about all this?

A few months ago this post would have been more of a tirade against the educational politics of the state of Florida. I might have railed against the lip service politicians give to what is “best for the kids,” while doing the exact opposite. Politicians who give speeches about how we need to keep our best teachers in the classroom by instituting merit pay, which just means giving the students more standardized tests.  Instead of paying to keep good teachers in the classroom, we pay testing companies to create tests for every single subject, even art. And that  becomes the measure of what a successful teacher is: whether or not they can train their students to fill in bubbles like drones. Or write to a formula to be evaluated by people with little to no educational experience, trained to evaluate writing like a paint-by-numbers project. No critical thinking required.

My students’ writing scores were, on paper, excellent. In real life, they have far to go. My most adept critical thinkers and creative writers scored lower than I expected. My students who least demonstrate critical thought scored higher than I expected. There lies the truth of standardized testing: it measures how well you follow rules, not how well you think. My thinkers all passed of course, but I know best who’s ready to set the world on fire, not the 1-6 score on that test.

New insight is welcome in my classroom: even if you challenge me, I hear you. Every year a student comes up with an insight I’d never considered before. That’s why I love teaching: it’s an avenue to new ways of thinking. Sometimes the kids who don’t follow the rules are the ones who think the most.

I’m not the best rule follower which makes me think I might just be okay in the second decade of my professional life.

More on how to celebrate getting laid off in my next post.

Three lessons from Mom

8 May

My mom as a newlywed

One of the biggest parts of my transition from Virginia to Florida is being so far from my close friends and family. While the isolation has brought much clarity, I miss regularly seeing people who’ve known me half or all of my life.

Today we celebrate our mothers. I won’t see mine on this day (a 15 hour drive on a Sunday is not happening). Instead I’m sharing a few lessons courtesy of my mom.

1. You can teach an old dog new tricks

For as long as I can remember, my mom has been anti-technology. In the early days of the VCR, she would always yell from downstairs for help to get a movie started. We would clamor down the stairs to find her helplessly punching a remote, ready to throw it into the trash can. Since her young children and gadget-loving husband were always happy to assist her, she never got comfortable operating technology by herself.

That is until her world of work started embracing more and more technology. Anxiety over PowerPoint training? I still remember the heavy sighs. She saw young people enter her field with black belts in technology. She knew how long it would take her to learn it. She was starting from level 1; they were entering the field at level 10. Many people in her position would have folded and considered early retirement, but not my mom. After leaving a long career as a sales manager, she became the first paid president of the Chamber of Commerce in my small hometown. She once held this position as a volunteer, and was the first woman in the history of the town to do so. When you don’t have a staff to operate the technology for you, you have to learn it yourself.

Mom attended seminar after seminar and even became the webmistress (as my dad calls her) for the Chamber’s site. Because of her research, she knew she needed a Facebook page. She now successfully maintains three Facebook pages (one personal, two professional), and she already has more virtual friends than I do. She now understands more about technology than my dad does.

Lesson: It’s never too late and you’re never too old.

2. When things get too tense, do something ridiculous.

Once on a church trip to Merida, Mexico, after a long trip to the local market which was lined with flies-on-raw-meat in 95 degree, 100 percent humidity weather, everyone was sweating profusely, irritable, mildly sick, and miserable.

My mom jumped into a pool with her clothes on.

After getting over the shock of what she’d done, everyone else (many years her junior) followed her into the pool. Smiles and camaraderie followed. My mom has never been afraid to risk embarrassment to break tension.

In all households, sometimes there are arguments. When my sister and I found ourselves locked in verbal combat with my mom, she would grow tired of it. Instead of escalating the tension further, she would end it quickly with near farce. She once flipped the bird and “beat” us with a flip flop. We immediately dissolved into laughter: fight over.

Lesson: Never take yourself too seriously. It makes for a sad life. Just look at Donald Trump.

3. Accept it, you’re going to turn into your mother

My mom and I bumped heads quite a bit when I was growing up. No surprise, we’re both stubborn and don’t love to admit when we’re wrong.

When I came home complaining about something or someone who’d clearly wronged me, my mom always took the other person’s side. I swore I’d never do that. Major FAIL on that mission: I have turned into the master other-side-taker, irritating everyone around me, just as my mom irritated me.

None of us is perfect, and if we judged ourselves by our worst qualities, we wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. My mom always judged me by my best qualities, else she’d have disowned me long ago.

Lesson: Nurture the best in people and they’ll rise above their worst.

What lessons can we learn from your mom?

What are you so afraid of?

1 May

March was National Craft Month, in case you missed it. Just the thought of it still makes thousands salivate over crochet needles and beaded lamp shades. In honor of this month dedicated to my weaknesses, I crafted. After all, I live with a man who handmade sets of wooden spoons and spatulas as Christmas presents for our family and his colleagues.

He cut, designed, and sanded bridal veil wood.

(I made photo albums on Blurb.)

So that the “from both of us” on the card wasn’t a lie, I applied mineral oil to the spoons and vacuumed up the wood shavings from the carpet.

Aaron will point out that he couldn’t have tolerated the tedious nature of organizing, loading, cropping, and designing photo books, but we all know the spoons are more impressive (photo courtesy of my mother-in-law):

Moving on from kitchen utensils, Aaron’s current project is forging steel to make primitive tools for termite excavation. He’ll be splitting logs in the Ecuadorian rainforest at the end of the month to excavate rare and (hopefully) new species of termites.

Wait, now it’s making beehives with dovetailed edges.

I can’t keep up.

But I understand why it’s so easy for my husband to complete these kind of projects and for me to never start them. He loves the process, not the end result. When it comes to challenges, I tolerate the process to get to the end result. At least when it involves things I’m not naturally drawn to, LIKE CRAFTS. But I took on this challenge because I need to fall in love with a process, not just the thing itself.

The Craft: Decoupage Boxes I refused to be intimidated by a good thing. I went full on Martha Stewart.

Mediocre Crafting 101: Eliminate all goals that involve the creation of something people actually want. This is bigger than Etsy. This is humility meets journey. This is acrylic paint meets spray lacquer.

How to decoupage (the noncrafter way):

1. Pick your boxes

I used this box plus two medium cardboard ones. Michael’s was low on wooden inventory and I hadn’t the strength for return trips to the poor man’s craft mecca. It was enough to cope with the fact that I was in a Michael’s on a Friday night.

2. Pick your palette

I used cobalt blue acrylic mixed with white plus the pearlizing agent (it’s supposed to make it shiny, but subtle be thy name). The ratio was about 1:4, white to blue;  and 1:1 paint to pearlizing agent.

3. Paint!

I painted two coats of the not-as-shiny-as-promised paint. While I obsessed over getting the final coat as smooth as possible (and still managed to have bumps), I found the overall act of painting rewarding and soothing.

4. Print & cut out designs

I printed out manatees (and a lone frog) onto silver wrapping paper. It’s easy to smudge, so be careful when removing it from the printer. I cut out each creature and prepped them for gluing.

5. Glue designs down

Gluing my little manatee mascots was satisfying. The frog was easy (and thus looks the best). Living in Florida, manatees are a current theme in our life. It started with a local mailbox, then a birthday present from my sister-in-law, and finally live manatee sightings. The ever faithful frog is a nighttime staple of our evening walks.

6. Spray with lacquer

This step is not in Martha’s instructions, but it does add a bit of shine to the supposedly-pearlized paint. After lacquering, I realized I’d forgotten to fix a glue smudge. This is when it’s helpful to remember nobody wants these boxes.


Professional noncrafter that I am, beginning this project brought on anxiety and resistance (read: procrastination). I wasn’t looking forward to confirming just how bad I was in this field. At the heart of this lived fear. No one’s expecting anything craftastic from me. But what if I do more than accept/make fun of my limitations? What if I kind of try and it’s still embarrassing?

Now I have these boxes you might find in a thrift store, not necessarily because they’re ugly or useless, but because in a couple of years they’re going to become clutter. The kind of clutter Martha would pity me for.

While I have no plans to join the crafting forces of the universe, I realized through this process that I could make something not hideous. I even got excited when I starting gluing the manatees to the boxes; the process gave me satisfaction even though I don’t plan to give the product to anyone. That wasn’t the point.

Comfort is usually a bad indicator of success. If you’re too comfortable, you’re not challenging yourself. If you’re not challenging yourself, you’re ultimately going to become unhappy. I never want to believe this in the middle of challenges but in the end, I come out clearer-headed and wiser every time. Challenge keeps us alive and hungry for more. Complacency deadens our senses and makes us lazy.  This goes for your own field, too.

My real fear is admitting that I want to write something more than this blog. That’s something I hope doesn’t end up at Goodwill one day.

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”
— Anaïs Nin