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“That’s the story we’re going to tell”

3 Jul

In the season six finale of Mad Men, Don Draper is making a pitch to Hershey executives that the chocolate bar is synonymous with affection. He threads a familiar yarn about his middle class father who rewarded his yard-mowing with a Hershey bar.

“That’s the story we’re going to tell,” he tells the executives with authority.

Don Draper is always in control of the story. He’s spent his whole life creating that narrative. His career in advertising was built on telling the story people want to hear.

Only it’s not real. It’s a fabrication that tastes like the rush of sugar candy. After the initial buzz, all you can taste are the artificial flavors. After too many Pixy Stix, you feel sick and full of regret.

Draper didn’t have the stomach to control the campaign anymore. He interrupts the satisfied executives with the truth that he was an orphan raised in a whorehouse. He ends his anecdote explaining that the Hershey bar was “the only sweet thing in my life.”


Today the art of professional branding has crossed over into our personal lives thanks to social media. We think we’re in control of the narrative because we craft it so carefully, but is what we’re saying true?

After spending two weeks with journalism advisers as an Association of News Editors (ASNE) fellow in Austin, Texas, I was reminded how much of journalism is listening. The talking heads and hyper-posters seem to miss this. The older I get, and the more experience I have, the less I feel I should talk. This works against my extroverted talky-talky nature. I had to work at this. What is natural for me is listening to people’s stories. But the writer in me needs to write it down.

[The] facts can obscure the truth, what it really felt like.


That’s what I write. What it really is like. I’m just telling a very simple story.

Maya Angelou

In April, I started interviewing people for a personal project on community. I’ve been transcribing these interviews into my Moleskin and trying to decipher them for patterns. This project is a long-game. I don’t know what will come of it, but it’s fascinating to hear people’s tales; I’ve learned more than can be articulated clearly yet. The most important thing this project has done so far is invigorate my love for interviewing and storytelling in general. I am interviewing to understand.

People are relieved to tell their story if they think you want to hear it. I find most people don’t think their story is important or that it’s relevant. Others worry that the truth sounds bad. They’re afraid to say it.

Don Draper’s confession comes at the crux of his own alcoholic breakdown. It took him completely losing control of his own contrived identity to create an honest moment. It was as hard for him to tell as it was for his audience to hear. But never has an audience felt more about a Hershey bar than in that moment. The story told itself precisely because Draper let go of the reigns.

The question then becomes how do you let go? From a journalistic perspective, you can’t have an agenda. You have to listen. If you think you know the story before the interview, you’ll miss the best stuff. My favorite interviews have been with people I didn’t know well, or in some cases had just met. This means the comfort level isn’t there to facilitate free conversation. It forced me to listen deeper. What are they not saying? What do they want to say but are afraid to? What do they need permission to say?

My personal interviews are purely for research and I won’t be citing people specifically in whatever I write in the future. Even in that anonymous context, people still hesitate. Sometimes they feel like they have to make excuses for how they feel. The hardest thing for a person to do is just speak the truth. That’s why stand-up comedians are so important to our culture. The good ones stand up in front of large crowds and say it straight. That’s their selling point. We laugh because we can’t do that. When they hit that nerve we’re relieved.

“She said it so I don’t have to.”

I’m a fairly open person now, but I grew up an incredibly private one. Most of my real thoughts were never spoken aloud. I imagine that’s true of many of the young people I teach. What is not said keeps me up at night.

This is why I’m excited to advise my school’s newspaper next year. I want my staff to tell the real stories of our school. Not the sanitized versions, not the two-minute interview snapshots. The stories that first make people uncomfortable, but eventually help them understand.

One of the first things one of my colleagues said on the first day of the ASNE institute in Austin was “Students aren’t looking for more information. They’re looking for more ways to connect.”

In that moment I knew I didn’t have to change into some kind of Twitter-happy news hound to advise the newspaper. I could be myself and help the kids tell honest stories. As a young yearbook adviser, I didn’t have the perspective I do now. I was more concerned with not offending people, and pleasing everyone in the school. I’m sure I missed many chances to connect because I saw the book as a publicity tool instead of communication tool.

Stunned by Draper’s childhood admission, one of the Hershey executives asks, “Do you want to advertise that?”

Draper responds, “If I had my way, you would never advertise. You shouldn’t have someone like me telling that boy what a Hershey bar is. He already knows.”

We all know. We just need to see it in print.


Of ants and orchids

18 Sep

South Florida defines transition. Its very nature is ever-shifting and wild. This makes it the perfect place to rip yourself from comfort.

It is a collision of things you would never expect to find together in one place—condominiums and panthers and raw wood and hypermarkets and Monkey Jungles and strip malls and superhighways and groves of carnivorous plants and theme parks and royal palms and hibiscus trees and those hot swamps with acres and acres that no one has ever seen—all toasting together under the same sunny vault of Florida sky.


Sometimes I think I’ve figured out some order in the universe, but then I find myself in Florida, swamped by incongruity and paradox, and I have to start all over again.

-Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief

We have four species of ants living in our house, including giant carpenter ants and the invasive, persistent white-footed ants who form super colonies. As in multiple queens fed by foraging workers who serve more than one mother. The lines between colonies become invisible  since they all share a communal stomach. This means the same amount of bait toxicant that would normally eliminate a colony invading your house is just a drop in the ocean. Since the super colony can extend at least a football field’s length away from wherever you happen to observe it, you need more than a drop to stop the ants from marching like, well, ants.

In this kind of environment, you adjust to having ants around. It’s weird to brush your teeth in the morning and watch them crawling into a Terro bait inside your medicine cabinet, sure. But they aren’t actually stopping me from good dental hygiene. Do they occasionally crawl inside the water glass? Yes. I’ve learned to keep the glass on the bedside table and take it with me to the sink. Adaptations.

I’ve turned a new corner in my transition this year. Last year, I fixated on the ants. I felt them crawling on me even when they weren’t touching me. When I saw them on the kitchen counter, I worried about my food being contaminated. I obsessed over how to expel the current ants and stop future ones from coming in. Every new place I found an ant, I alerted my entomologist husband, as if to say: “Isn’t it your job to control this?” I could have this many ants on my own!

My professional life felt like it was spinning out of control: I had questioned my identity as a teacher all the way down to its ugly, seedy core. For the first time in my life, I was honestly investigating other careers. The merit pay system instituted in Florida that set out to dismiss poor teachers and reward the good ones had given ineffective administrators tools to micromanage and inflict doubt upon those who already practiced heavy introspection. The others learned to get all the surface things shiny.

There is an argument that strong teachers shouldn’t worry about this system, as it’s set out to codify just where they excel. Let me be clear: I have no worries about losing my job due to this evaluation. I’ll keep being “effective.” But what I’m already seeing is mediocre teachers performing to get these marks. They give the kids scripts and follow principals’ fixations on surface elements to ensure that data mark gets checked. I also see excellent teachers who cannot tolerate less than “innovative” ratings because they know they are highly effective and want the paperwork to back it up. While I understand the former’s insecurities leading them to performance AND the latter’s need to have evaluations that reflect their master teaching, I had to withdraw from this battle in order to stay in the profession.

Last year I read obsessively about what was happening to teachers all over the country; I became impassioned; I formed discussion groups; I wrote things. Then I spent too much of last year in misery because I kept trying to stop the ants from getting in. I needed to make sense of it. I needed rational voices leading my people. They weren’t to be found in any capacity that controlled my reality. It started to feel like more than just a bad year to get through, and more like a culture change that was here to stay. The more I educated myself on this culture, the more I decided I was ready to leave teaching.

Those thoughts were so foreign to me that I often felt like a stranger to myself. Thankfully, I had colleagues I respected who saw me through one of toughest years in my career, one so riddled with self-doubt that I nearly crumbled at one point. I had not until last year been treated as anything but a professional. I saw my administrators as my support system, not people working against me and my fellow teachers. Now I am in an environment where from the school-level to the district to the state, I am to be micromanaged. I cannot be trusted to educate myself on the best teaching methods or to constantly perfect my craft a little each year. I need to be mandated down to a script on how to get my students to be critical thinkers. This irony escapes no teachers, but most education policy makers.

The blessings of not having been micromanaged my entire career made me ill-prepared to be treated as a factory worker instead of a teacher. I worked a few temp jobs during the summers in factories in my formerly-industrial hometown. I expected to be micromanaged there; I was inspecting air-conditioner parts–I needed black and white directions on what to do in order to be successful on the job. As much as educational reformists want to make the art of teaching an industrialized matter, teachers all over this country know it’s gray matter. We help mold that matter of our students into useable skills; we help them become bigger thinkers and better writers. Unfortunately, the people who are data-marking us do not always have the ability to recognize it even when they see it because it doesn’t look like the blueprint a standardized testing company passed down to them.

I chose to stop listening to all the noise and listen only to my respected colleagues and my own voice. That voice told me to focus on what’s best for the students. I will take the advice of my superiors when it makes me a better teacher (I am not obstinate), but when it feels like a performance for an adult versus a better lesson for my students, I will go my own way. I will always be rated “effective,” though likely not “highly effective” for this refusal to play the game. I’m okay with that; it frees me up to actually be innovative.

If this system somehow rates me as “ineffective,” then I’ll know it’s my time to leave. Not because I haven’t done ineffective things in my classroom; I have and will again as I continue to try new things that challenge both my students and me. I will learn from those failures and turn them into future successes. Any system that determines that process isn’t “successful” is not a place for me.

Here’s what “reformers” miss: If you’re busy trying not to look bad, you miss the chance to get good. I’m old enough to not be content with looking good; I want to BE good. That’s the same I want for my students.

For now, I’ve found a way to ignore the noise that made me start to hate teaching last year. I know this won’t last forever, but at least for now I’m enjoying being in the classroom again. I have twice the students and half the planning time this year, but compared to my outlook last year, I’m still happier.

Florida has transformed me into a person who appreciates the ants as much as the orchids. It’s impossible to board out nature down here: you have to embrace it. Grass grows inside our screened porch during rainy season; the moat that forms around our house leaks into the guest room. We have to wait until it dries out completely before we can paint the sealant on the house, but it keeps on raining.

Before the swale drains out, the ants seek refuge inside our house again. They eat the bait and feed it to another inch’s worth of the colony’s trajectory; a few more drops in the ocean. We learn to accept the ants as temporary residents and go on about our day. I barely notice them now, as they are much reduced since the initial invasion. It’s the moment I stopped focusing on them that I stopped viewing them as obstacles to my happiness. I finally stepped back to take it all in.

It was in the nature of Florida, this kind of abundance, the overrichness of living things–so many of everything that all of it blurs together and you have to decide whether to be part of the blur or to be a distinct and separate being.

-Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief

You have to live it to get it

15 Feb

I live in South Florida, bad driving capital of the South. Conventional wisdom says it’s because of the influx of drivers from other places who’ve all learned to drive under different rules. Or sometimes no rules at all. Despite its dangers, I walk places as frequently as possible, including the grocery store across the street. The other day I was doing my daily cross-the-street maneuver with permission from the “walking man” street sign. As I walked in front of impatient drivers stuck at red, three different cars turning right into to my path (with “green” lights) attempted to run me over. They gave me “the NERVE of YOU!” looks as they slowed down to avoid vehicular manslaughter. I gestured at the pedestrian walking man to prove my rights. They were not concerned. It was all about them getting where they’re going as fast as possible. The only thing that would change that is if they were in that crosswalk with me as 1500 lb. boxes of metal lunged at them with no apologies.

But they likely never walk anywhere, so that perspective shift may never happen. And thus the cycle of impatience and blame will continue.

Nothing truly matters to us until if affects us personally. We might think we empathize with others, but we don’t actually get it until it lives with us every day. This is the strange position politicians are in–trying to solve problems they don’t fully understand.

I know how expensive healthcare is for small businesses because my dad owns a small business of himself and two employees. I also know how grateful he is to finally be on Medicare. For the period of time I had a “pre-existing condition” and paid insurance out-of-pocket while in graduate school, I realized how high the burden would be if I had a family to support as well. But since knowing and living with my type I diabetic husband, I finally GET IT. Even though he works for a major university with group health insurance, he still battles with the  insurance company every six months to maintain his insulin supply. Every time he bargains over how the insulin will be delivered, and how much they will or will not cover, I cringe. I also realize that I’ve been sheltered from the reality of our healthcare crisis. I’ve never had a permanent disease that will result in death if I don’t get medication. It’s one thing to read about it–it’s quite another to watch the love of your life stress over whether or not he’ll have to pay $250 more per month to NOT DIE.

In a similar vein, I recently learned that merit pay for teachers (at least the way the state of Florida is going to implement it) is purely a political move. The “reward good teachers” promise made at the stump is great lip service for politicians making deals with education specialists and testing companies. The way our pay scale was presented to us through a district training is that 6%-89% of teachers will be rated “Effective.” So only those in the 90-99th percentile are even eligible to earn the coveted rating of “Highly Effective,” the only rating that earns you a raise. How that raise is determined is based on 60% teacher instructional practices (as determined by a model sponsored by a paid education consultant) and 40% student achievement. It’s how the 40% is determined that will make your head spin. My district is going to implement this plan before they have standardized tests for every subject. This means that if you teach a subject or grade level that doesn’t have a state test yet, then your 40% will be determined by the school grade (in Florida we get graded A-F based on test scores, attendance, enrollment in upper level classes, etc.)

Yes, you read that correctly. You could be a highly effective theater or Spanish teacher who doesn’t get a raise because you teach in a high-needs school whose grade is a C or lower. Where’s your incentive to teach in a high-needs school? Where’s your incentive to look out for anyone but yourself?

I’ve been coping with a lot of guilt over not wanting to teach anymore. When I got laid off I was a little relieved because it forced me to find out my new path. Then the fear of not having a job took me over and when I was offered a position a few months later, I was temporarily excited. You know, “grateful to have a job.”

Only after several weeks, I wasn’t so grateful. Hello, guilty, my old friend…

It wasn’t until this year that I experienced real burn out with classroom teaching. This is my second year of all-classroom teaching and no advising. Deep down I knew the advising (although with its own stress) kept me from cascading into the reality that as much as I tried to convince myself that public school education is my lifetime calling, I’m not sure that it is. I think it was for a decade, and I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. And I’m not even saying I’ll never go back.

In addition to lacking a creative outlet at work, this year I ended up with a schedule of mostly low-level freshmen during a year when class sizes went through the roof. Everything going out, and very little coming in. Ending your day with 38 boisterous ninth graders who are only in your “journalism” class because they didn’t sign up for history feels more like corralling than teaching. That wasn’t even my worst class last semester.

Fight or Leave

If I knew I wanted be a classroom teacher for 19 more years, I’d be much more prepared for the fight that will likely continue for another five years (or however long it takes people to realize one-size fits all standardized testing is not the answer). Instead I’m battling a serious ultimatum, because teachers who stay will have to fight. And fighting for what you’re not sure you want to do anymore feels awkward. And it’s not fair to my colleagues who know this is their life’s work, the ones who deserve more money and better treatment. Instead this War on Teachers will give them uncertain, irregular pay that is determined by too many factors they can’t control. Don’t believe the hype that merit pay will allow us to fire bad teachers and keep good ones in the profession in order to boost student achievement. This is something I once would have agreed with because the kids motivated me. However, after all the research I’ve read and especially now that I’ve seen how the fourth largest state plans to implement merit pay, I see it for the political ruse that it is. I laugh now when I think how Michelle Rhee was on to something when she said that the problem with education isn’t the kids, it’s the adults.

The kids are always going to make it hard on teachers: that’s their job. When the adults decide it’s their job to make it even harder by micromanaging the minutia of their classrooms, it leaves many teachers with little left to give to the kids. It’s like drinking hot coffee with a perpetual burnt tongue and then being asked to smile as the district and state pour an entire pot into your face. “Teach on!”

When people try to dissect your craft into too many pieces, it stops feeling like it’s yours anymore. It feels more like a Skeksie draining a Gelfling of its essence. And this Gelfling is in a Dr. Seuss-esque slump.

“And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.

You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked. A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin! Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in? How much can you lose? How much can you win?

And if you go in, should you turn left or right…or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite? Or go around back and sneak in from behind? Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.”

–Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go

Big picture unclear? Focus on interactions.

1 Jan

When your career goals have become amorphous, clear pathways seem elusive. While my attempts to “pray the gray away” have been unsuccessful, I hope that ignoring it completely will make everything better. Instead of fixing what’s muddy, I will focus on my day-to-day interactions that mean something.

1. Your presence means more than you think.

I traveled to Pueblo, Colorado, this past weekend for my grandfather-in-law’s funeral. I thought I was going for my husband, but when my mother-in-law hugged me with the same force my own mother would hug me in those circumstances, I knew I was really there for the whole family. While there I also learned that my sister-in-law (while living in Hawaii) made six trips in one year to the mainland–all the way east to Virginia. And for a couple of years with a small child. That shows her family is important to her. She showed up all the time, even when it meant three flights across the continental US. Even when everyone would have understood why she didn’t.

Does this mean we should make that 14-hour drive to Virginia more than we already do? Crap, it probably does.

Be there for the people who are important to you: it may be inconvenient, but you’ll never regret it. 

2. Traditions hold us together, even when we don’t understand them. 

Several years ago my friends had their wedding reception at a Masonic Temple behind their house. During the event, we all made jokes about this “secret society” and its mysterious traditions, but while in Pueblo I got new insight into the individuals that form this “cult.” My husband’s grandfather was not only a World War II veteran, but ascended to the 32nd level of the Masons as a Shriner. Until he got too sick to do so, he had coffee every Friday morning at the local lodge. Those same coffee buddies were pall bearers at the internment, and performed funeral rites over his coffin.

Earlier I had asked my husband casually and ignorantly, “why are they wearing aprons?”  My husband responded, “I don’t think we’re allowed to know.” We chuckled a bit.

Twenty minutes later I was watching the “worshipful master” drape that same apron over the coffin with such reverence that it moved me. He then handed a single rose to my mother-in-law and her twin sister, expressing his grief over their fallen brother. He looked them both in the eyes and I could see this was more than a ritual. A man easily in his 90’s grasped those roses the entire service, shaking every so slightly. He kept looking for his time to hand over the roses. He didn’t want to miss a beat. His patient and humble service reminded me of my own grandfather.

The brotherhood of the Masons, however mysterious, was a second family to my husband’s Papa. Sure, “worshipful master” as a title still creeps me out, but “worshipful master” the man meant it when he said, “please let us know if there’s ever anything we can do for you.”

Don’t be surprised to find inspiration in unsuspecting places. 

Note: After reading about the Masons, I am more confused than ever (I think that’s intentional), but I did learn that the apron symbolizes “honorable labor.” Take from that what you will.

3. You own your attitude. 

My biggest fear in staying in public education is that I will let the avalanche of bureaucracy and bad decisions affect my teaching. This is new territory for me: I’m usually hope’s annoying cheerleader. It just goes to show you that enough “trickle down” can bruise anyone’s face. But that’s no excuse for me to play the victim: I have to keep fighting my way out of it.

My school has over 3, 000 students; my county is the sixth largest in the country; my state is the fourth largest in the United States. No wonder I’ve struggled to adjust: it’s much more difficult to have human-to-human conversations in a system that large. It’s all policy spoken at us by robots masquerading as humans. And the “humans” are usually talking to us through video clips or emails written in red Comic Sans.

I can’t let that insanity change me in the end. “The only thing they can’t change is my attitude.” My husband’s friend (also in education) reminded me of that over the holidays, and it has stayed with me.

It’s small moments that remind me I’m not a total failure this year. One of my students has started withdrawing from class more than usual, and meeting me with attitude when I ask her to do the smallest thing like open her book. It would be easy to group her in with the faction of my class who is on academic strike, but something made me hold her after class to find out what was going on. Even though she didn’t reveal much, she almost smiled at the idea that I’d noticed. She even asked me what she could do to undo her falling grades. The next period, her friend (who saw me keep her after class) told me this girl had been having family problems. So maybe it helped both of them to see that I noticed and cared to ask. It was a good reminder for me that each child is different, and while I can’t save them all, if I focus on personal interactions, at the very least my students might emerge feeling less jaded with the system than before. And maybe I will too.

Your attitude can save your life. 

Leadership is listening

15 Dec

Just as I was trying to slow down the introspection train in my life, it’s totally in style now! GOOD just deemed introspection the new scapegoating. Now I’m faced with bucking the trends or pretending I’m ahead of them. Projections for 2012 are that instead of blaming everyone on the outside for our problems, maybe we’ll look in. Or up if you’re Tim Tebow.

Despite living in Florida (college home to Tebow), I didn’t follow his final season as a University of Florida Gator. Over the past two years, I’ve also stopped following the NFL like a crazy person, so it wasn’t until a friend linked to The Washington Post‘s “In Sports, There’s No Faking Leadership,” that I gave the new Broncos’ starting quarterback much investigation. Sally Jenkins uses Tebow’s 7-1 quarterback run as a perfect example of leadership that works. Tebow holds the keys to the Denver kingdom because he believes his team can win, no matter the circumstances. Real leaders listen to what you need, so you believe in what you’re doing. Then they help you do what seems impossible. Like scoring 10 points in a two minute comeback against the Bears on Sunday.

‎“The academic study of leadership has failed, and the reason is that it focuses on the leader, when the appropriate focus is on the followers,” suggests research psychologist Robert Hogan, who profiles executives for Fortune 500 companies. When we flip the examination of leadership on its head and look at what followers will follow, we get a better idea of what quality we’re talking about.

“What is it the followers are looking for?” he asks. “The focus should be on the work force or the team, and what they perceive. Because if they don’t perceive the right thing in a leader, you’re through.”

Tebow credits his faith and upbringing for being able to “block out the craziness” and believe. Instead of telling his teammates all the reasons they’re losing the game, he tells them all the reasons they can win.

It’s the ‘bad is stronger than good effect’: Bob Sutton summarizes this well here for The Wall Street Journal and in more depth on his blog. Research from psychologist Roy Baumeister says people have more positive interactions with colleagues and superiors than negative ones; however, the negative ones have five times the impact on people’s mood than the positive ones. FIVE TIMES.

That means every time you’re micromanaged or treated rudely, it assaults you with five times the force of someone giving you a compliment. You’re working at a deficit all day. Recovery mode is never the most productive, and forget about creative.

This explains why micromanagers are the most ineffective leaders. They don’t listen to their followers, and often alienate them instead. They don’t intend to do this, and often believe they are doing what’s best for the company/team.  But in the battle of intention versus perception, perception always wins.

If your team perceives you as unsupportive, it doesn’t matter your intentions. If my students perceive me as impatient, it doesn’t matter that I was trying to be patient. If my husband feels criticized, it’s irrelevant that I was kind of kidding.

In his book Drive, Daniel Pink writes about the dangers of managing for the 15 percent of people who are either incompetent, lazy, or generally negative. Instead of rehabilitating the 15 percent into team players, you only cripple the 85 percent who are hard-working, motivated, and creative. You slowly kill their passion and make them want to quit. All the while, that 15 percent will figure out a way around any new system you put in place. It’s like making the 85 percent run around a hamster wheel, when the 15 percent is not even in the cage.

I have to listen to my students (even when I hate what they are saying) so that I can understand what they are perceiving from me. Then I can meet their needs better. Unfortunately, I cannot fire my bad apples, so I try to manage for the 85 percent,  while doing my best to let the 15 percent know I still care about them, and that they’re welcome to switch sides anytime.

And what does it take to navigate all this? A crap load of introspection. So much that I don’t even want to do it. But I will keep showing up and looking in.

I just ask my leaders to do the same.

Go ahead, contradict yourself

28 Nov

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)                                       –Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

To remove judgments is one of my biggest challenges in my quest for enlightenment. Since I have such a deep memory, I’ve pointed out my loved ones’ contradictions far too often. “Just six months ago, you said XYZ, and now you’re saying ZXY. What do you even believe?” Perhaps I should have considered a career as a political journalist. That annoying habit would finally come in handy.

Since I value genuine people with principles, I used to view contradiction as not holding on to one’s principles. Even though I was flip-flopping all the while. You can’t see yourself in the mirror clearly: it’s always at an angle and reversed. So when I was staring at everyone else, I saw every wrinkle, every blemish. When I listened to them speak, I heard every misplaced sigh, voice crackle, and could compare old tapes with new tapes. I couldn’t hear myself because I was so busy talking. AND BEING RIGHT.

Over the years, I’ve learned to value contradiction. The more we learn, the more we change our minds about things we so vehemently believed prior. We didn’t have all the information before, or we lacked an important perspective when we formed that passionate opinion. Sure there are clear-cut lines in our world and a place for black and white thinking. For example, we all agree ethnic cleansing and child molestation are wrong, but there are few issues that can be reduced to pure good vs. evil. Life is easier when it’s a superhero world of good guys vs. bad guys, and it’s popular during election season–black and white campaign promises get the loudest cheers. People want something to fix their problems, to un-muddle their confusion. Black and white solutions are appealing for exactly those reasons. Wallowing in gray area just makes us feel more overwhelmed. At least at first. But if you study the gray long enough, clarity emerges. In teeny, tiny pieces at a time.

I recently started to grapple with my own contradictions because of my current feelings over my career. If you ask any of my former colleagues they would likely tell you I was one of those annoyingly-positive teachers who did not sweat the daily irritations of my field. Someone who approached teaching with an open mind. Someone who believed most obstacles could be overcome. Someone who cared deeply about the success of my students. Now I see someone  who is only partially those things. So all those old feelings of “how long will I stay a classroom teacher” have resurfaced and gained strength. At first I was disappointed in myself because I viewed not wanting to be a regular classroom teacher for the rest of my life as giving up. On the system, on myself, and ultimately on the kids. That last little devil gets me. All you teachers out there who want to give me the “stay a teacher” speech, don’t worry, I know it by heart. I’ve given it several times myself. And that’s why it’s such an emotional subject for me. Because even at my lowest point, I have not stopped caring about my students. I’m not the jaded teacher who believes the next generation is doomed. Here’s a very long post on my optimism if you have some time to kill.

Since I’ve taken up residence in this career crossroads, I’ve developed even more empathy for my fellow teachers. Their dedication to education inspires me every day. They’ve made it harder for me to consider leaving for other pursuits because I’m so honored to be part of them. Contradiction at work again: I want to want to stay teaching because I believe my job is important, but my heart is somewhere else right now. It may come back to the classroom, or it may follow my other interests. Either way, I am grateful to live in the gray until the lines seem less blurry.

“Clear eyes. Full heart. Can’t lose.”

–Coach Taylor, Friday Night Lights

Come on, ride the train

6 Nov

August brought me a Triple Crown of anniversaries. One third of them made me smile and walk around in shell-covered beach bliss. The other two thirds left me with brief excitement followed by frustration and more career confusion.

August 21: First wedding anniversary

August 22: Tenth anniversary as a teacher on the first day of school

August 28: First anniversary as a Floridian

The combination of the latter two have me feeling especially conflicted. The 10-year anniversary of  9/11 is the only reason I realized it was my 10-year teaching anniversary. I remember clearly being a brand-new teacher on September 11. I remember being asked by a student why everyone was freaking out over something that  happened in New York and DC. I also remember not handling his ignorance very well. Ten years later, handling ignorance without losing my shit  is a daily part of my job. But there are moments of brilliance along the way to inspire you. Or just keep you hanging on for another year.

When I started teaching, I thought I’d do it for five years and see what was next. Then during year three, I started advising a publication which kept me invested for longer than I predicted. After year four or five, I started to love teaching (and especially advising), and thought maybe five years would turn into ten one day.

Well,  at the start of year 11, it’s  very one day at time down here.  As I’ve started boring myself with my own career confusion, I decided to postpone any future decisions until the end of this year.

Transition is one of those long train rides that never  ends. The train keeps stopping at every seedy station, but you have to stay on the train. It’s not your stop. So instead of looking out the window and counting the miles as they crawl by, I’m trying to close my eyes, listen to my iPod, and go to sleep. When I wake up, I hope to arrive at my destination. Or stay on the train because I like the ride. Either way, I’m searching for peace.

Before a new order can emerge, there is chaos. Similarly, whenever you are about to have a breakthrough you will experience confusion and chaos. Confusion really is a prerequisite state in order for us to have breakthrough experiences. This means that whenever you feel confused, there is something happening within you. —Henri Junttila

I spent the earlier part of this semester feeling like I was regressing, reverting back to last January when nothing made sense, and each day was longer than the one before it. This was frustrating–wasn’t I past this? The above quote I read on Dumb Little Man made me think about my confusion in a different way. Maybe I’m not going backwards, but instead to a new place  I’ve never been. And like all clarity, it has to come from struggle. The kind of struggle that has me in a mental boxing match every week, sometimes every day.

Part of me thinks I’m burned out from teaching, especially in the anti-teacher climate gaining movement in my state and around the country. In earlier times I would have completely ignored it, and followed the “shut my door and teach my kids,” mantra of teachers everywhere. But this year I’m finding that difficult–my heart is with the kids but not in my job. While I still love my kids (even when they are auditioning for the role of difficult student in an after-school special), I don’t find the same rewards from teaching I usually do.

It’s not them; it’s me.

I used to feel so lucky to be a teacher–while it was often stressful and overwhelming and full of work I was never actually finished with, I loved it. It kept me energized and creatively challenged. And my students and colleagues kept me inspired (and laughing). It never felt like a job. It was a community. A life.

This year it feels like a job. Suddenly I have so much empathy for people who feel like this all their lives. They go to a job, and their life is what they long for at the end of each day. If I’m just going to a job every day, I don’t want to do something as important as teaching. Ultimately I worry it will affect my students. And I promised myself a long time ago that I wouldn’t stay a teacher if I couldn’t best serve those kids.

My new colleagues have coping mechanisms I haven’t yet developed to survive the bureaucracy of my county and state. I watch them in awe as they trudge through the minefields of education policy, gritting out smiles even though they witness the effects of over-testing every day in their classrooms. They see the defeat of the kids who have been christened failures by standardized tests since before they can remember. My students define themselves by the 1-5  score on state  testing. The kids know they are 1’s and 2’s and they behave accordingly. It’s much more difficult to motivate my Florida students to work hard enough to improve: they have too much evidence to convince them that’s impossible. And yet, this same system will institute merit pay that will base teachers’ pay on student achievement. When you’ve set up the kids to fail, you’ve set up the teachers to fail eventually as well.

And by fail I mean stay motivated to push through the day-to-day demands of being a classroom teacher. When you care,  you need motivation. And I’ve learned this year that I’m terrible at not caring.

I’m on the train, headphones on. But sometimes I sneak a look out the window.

What Sade (and LL Cool J) taught me about comebacks

29 Aug

My husband and I saw Sade back in July. It was pricey but worth it. After all, we loved Sade enough to dance the first dance at our wedding to one of her songs. We got the chance for a live encore in our new city. Like we were supposed to NOT GO?

In case you are too young or too hip to know who Sade is, listen to 80’s saxy Sade, 90’s mermaid Sade, and 10’s drumline Sade.  If you don’t know who LL Cool J is, I’m just sorry. But ladies do love cool James. (And angry jams.)

We live our lives coming back from one thing or another: a career change, the end of a long relationship, the death of a loved one, a severe illness, or a natural disaster. Something knocks us out for a while and we spend our days climbing off the mat, figuring out if we even want to get back in the ring.

You start seeing the darkness as the light–it feels warm and it looks strangely comforting. So instead of getting the hell out of there, you embrace the negativity–you sprint toward it like it’s the holy grail. Only it’s the one that will eviscerate you if you drink from it. It’s only then you learn that you “chose poorly.” Only you can’t learn that because you’re a pile of Nazi rubble.

We all find comfort in negativity at times. The trick is not to let yourself stay there if you want to come back.

“One thing I know is that positive things don’t happen if you’re in a negative frame of mind.” (Sade Adu to Jet Magazine)

I recently had to come back from getting laid off, which put me into a career backslide I didn’t expect. This surprised me because I knew I was likely to lose my job. I thought that would make it suck less to actually lose it. I was a fool. Just like all of us who think we’ll handle everything awesomely until we don’t. After a summer of waiting and confusion, I’m back in the classroom trying find my inner teacher again.

My other attempted comeback involves fitness. Or redirecting my year of ignoring it. There’s always a strong dose of humility involved in restarting one’s physical fitness (and a dozen negative-thinking landmines to try and sabotage you along the way). Again I turn to Sade’s history.

A talented British band found Nigerian-born singer Sade Adu.  After all, gorgeous front woman = success (usually). Turns out Sade was shy on stage but passionate about songwriting. Despite pressure from record companies to lose her band (led by the talented Stuart Matthewman), Adu refused to sign without them. She won and 1984’s Diamond Life began a long, though sometimes intermittent career for the band Sade.

The reason Sade is able to come back over and over again is because she stopped listening to negativity. After working through a failed marriage, she disappeared from the music scene for a while and rumors swirled about her mental health, and potential heroin addiction. At that point she stopped reading the press releases and worked on herself. When you take 8 and 10-year breaks between albums, people start to talk. But the more I read about Sade, the more I understand it. The creative process is so draining, and if you don’t take time away from your work to fuel your work, the break-neck, life-stealing pace of modern life will eat your soul.

“You can only grow as an artist as long as you allow yourself the time to grow as a person,” Sade says. “[My bandmates and I are] all parents, our lives have all moved on. I couldn’t have made Soldier of Love [2010] any time before now, and though it’s been a long wait for the fans – and I am sorry about that – I’m incredibly proud of it.” (Sade Adu)

This is where our philosophies align. I work better in cycles: a time for work, a time for less work, more reflection. Which is why I loved teaching for so long: the beginning and ending of school years give you that time to recharge and be awesome again for your students.

Then I started thinking I didn’t love it and then people told me I couldn’t do it anymore. Maybe. Probably. Maybe not. I have recently been rehired as a teacher at my old school for one year because another teacher left. But she might come back next year. Or she might not. In the meantime I am trying my best to motivate my new freshmen to succeed, but I have my work cut out for me this time. Instead of helping most students enhance their writing or perfect their diction and style, I will be helping some of them just write a sentence. It requires a different mindset, but it’s no less important.

On the fitness front, some days it’s a struggle to make the time to go to our new gym. And do as much as it takes to actually get my muscles back while I’m there. One big helper has been the Kindle: by combining gym time with reading time, I’m much more fulfilled. Granted, I had difficulty reading Tolstoy while my heartbeat climbed to 180 beats per minute, but once I switched to young adult science fiction like The Hunger Games series and the now-a-movie The Help, I’m a master of efficiency. Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants is up next.

But I must not be doing as well as I thought because a woman approached me at the gym today to offer me a free makeover. Thank you? I said no mostly because she looked like she had a frequent knifer card from a plastic surgery mill. But anyone who approaches me while I’m stretching is scary. Sadly, this is not my first time. People, please learn gym code!

Lately I’ve been more optimistic about my comebacks. I have precedents to reflect on.

I’ve neglected my fitness before and come back in better shape (and turned myself into enough of a runner for a 10K). I’ve also become disillusioned with  my job before and found my inspiration again.

So don’t call it a comeback. I’ve been here for years.

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.