Tag Archives: Teaching

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


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.

Perception wins: What Natalie Munroe forgot about teaching

5 Mar

It frightens me how fragile perception is. It’s the difference between viewing someone as visionary or annoying. Honest or cruel.

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.

I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

I’m with Emily Dickinson on this one. As much as we want to, we don’t own our words. As soon as we let them escape from our lips, someone is already processing them. And not always the way we intended.

That’s not what I said!

That’s what you heard.

While I’ve used the excuse “so-and-so is too sensitive” to dismiss concerns over my words before, I’m learning to embrace the power of perception and take it more seriously. It is the force behind every action on earth. We react because we perceive. Sometimes we are calm enough to reevaluate our perceptions before we react but often we let passion get to us first. If this is true of level-headed adults, why are we surprised when hormone-infused teenagers don’t perceive (immediately) the nine levels of life before they respond? I’ve been spouting my perception mantra for a while now to my students. When they complain to me that another teacher scolded them for being disruptive, I often get some version of this:

“We were super polite/kind/courteous and he didn’t even give me a chance to–before he–that man is crazy!”

The gist of my usual reply: “If he perceived you as disruptive, respect that, and figure out why. Next time, enter the room differently.”

Since my former yearbook staffers had to enter classrooms to take students out for interviews, it was necessary they understood the intricacies of invading people’s space. As a teacher, I know how invasive the alternative approach can be. Kids sometimes walk in without introducing themselves then ask you for things. “Do you have a stapler/pencil sharpener/bottle of white out?” Or even worse, they demand things. “I need so-and-so.” My blood boils a little at that last one and I get very “I’m the boss here” and sometimes overreact. Here’s a classic example:

I’m in the journalism room. We’re on deadline. Student-I-don’t-know enters the room.

Perfectly nice girl: “I need to borrow a [photo] card reader, [student I know] said you guys have one.”

Me (don’t-have-time-for-mooching-right-now): “Um, yes, we do. Who are you and what do you need it for?”

Perfectly nice girl who now feels embarrassed: “Sorry, I’m [gives name], and I need this for a project. [Name of student who knows me and overestimates my generosity] said you wouldn’t mind.”

Me (realizing she’s been mislead by student who thinks I’m cooler than I am): “How long will you need it? Just a few minutes?”

Girl who shouldn’t listen to her friends: “Two nights. I promise I’ll bring it back when I’m done.”

Me (patience broken, tone decidedly unfriendly): “I don’t even know you, and even if I did, I couldn’t let you borrow something my students use every day, all day. We have a deadline!”

She apologizes and leaves sheepishly. I never saw her again.

After she left the room, my editor-in-chief notified me quietly, “you were mean to her.”  I probably launched into a defense citing the girl’s ridiculous request, but it doesn’t matter. All that girl will remember about me is how I made her feel when she left. She probably learned little else.

In case you missed it, a Pennsylvania high school English teacher vented about her “lazy whiners” on her personal blog, and has since been suspended. She’s been defending herself ever since. Though the most offensive comments have been taken down, the damage is already done. In a recent school board meeting, the district superintendent deemed it “impossible” for her to return in the fall after scheduled maternity leave, citing the “hostile educational environment” her blog comments created. She didn’t consider that her students might find her blog so she wrote like it was a group e-mail to friends and family. Continue reading

I think this blog is about transition

5 Feb

I’ve made significant progress fighting anxiety in this new month. I sleep better (though still not enough) and I celebrate more. Instead of begrudging potentially losing my income, Aaron and I started to budget for it. What I learned from my January of self-pity is that transition hurts. And I think that’s what this blog is about.  How to recognize it, how to handle it, and how to move forward. Step one was to give myself permission to be sad. It took me until January 28 to finish writing my last post because I developed an “I can’t  deal with this right now” kind of headache with each attempted revision. When I finally wrote the not-making-fun-of-myself part of the entry, I started to cry. It hurt and I needed to feel it.

What a relief the rest of the weekend was. As Gretchen Rubin clarified for me, I became happier because I admitted I wasn’t happy.  The whole time Aaron was trying to cheer me up, I just wanted permission to be sad.

A child psychologist I saw on TV recently explained how to apply that same technique in dealing with a toddler tantrum. Simply acknowledging what the child is upset about can inherently calm him or her down. You don’t have to give in, just acknowledge.

I realized I’ve just compared myself to a creature that kicks and screams when it doesn’t get what it wants. But when we’re feeling hopeless, we’re all id. It’s not that much of a stretch.

I moved to Florida based on little to no research. I looked at home values a bit but most of my inquiry was into potential teaching positions in the local schools. I trusted my husband’s judgment on everything else since he had lived here temporarily while working on his master’s. I was a move-out-of-state virgin while Aaron was a pro. He may have attended college in his hometown but he followed that up with moving out of the country (Peace Corps), then to Colorado and Louisiana, then back to Virginia to meet me.

While I moved to different cities (okay, some were towns) in my home state, I never got enough continental wanderlust to jump ship for more than a vacation. A huge motivation behind this was to avoid changing everything at the DMV. Which moving-box-we-stuffed-in-a-closet holds my car title, again? Ugh.

Here’s the research I should’ve done, but neglected because I was planning my wedding, packing, and moving. And taking time to reflect on my crafting deficiencies. And without further self-centered linkage, here’s a bunch of statistics.

The median price of South Florida homes in December was $203,700, a decline of $11,000 from 2009. The market in Broward County, if you believe recent projections, won’t hit complete bottom until 2012. Fort Lauderdale values are still on the decline (-13.6% in 2011), which is worse than Phoenix (-12.8%) but better than Detroit (-15.1%). Topping the deflating market is Naples, FL, just around the peninsula from us, at -18.9 percent. This means buying a house on a tight budget might just be possible for this potentially one income family.

In contrast, $219,546 was the average price of homes in my former city of Richmond, VA. That sounds better until you consider that of the available properties on the market, the number of foreclosures almost matches the number of available houses.

Fannie Mae claims the median income for Broward County (2010-11) is $60,200. This was $13,000 lower than Richmond.

Virginians are fatter than Floridians but just barely (25.5 percent vs. 25.1 percent). We live across the street from Italians who coal fire everything on the menu. We just joined a new gym.

Other than the weather, South Florida’s biggest attraction is its diversity: everyone from everywhere moves to South Florida. Ten percent of all American Jews live here. Some have immigrated from Latin American countries, Arab nations, Russia, and even Israel. Unlike the rest of the Baptist-heavy South, Catholics comprise the majority of churchgoing Floridians. 16.7 percent of our population is Latino. That same percentage of the state’s people are internationally born. I know there’s a lot a fuss about immigration (some merited) but I teach many of these students: don’t fear them; learn from them.

Every 8th period, Columbian-born English learner “Juan” strides down the hallway sporting a faux-hawk and a smile and we repeat this exchange.

Me: [greeting him with a grin] “Juan!”

Juan: “Hey Teach-er!”

(He can’t pronounce my last name “Mullins,” since the sounds don’t make sense in Spanish.)

Juan is bright. He wants to learn. The light in his eyes when he does understand a concept hits me right in my gut. This is a kid who volunteered to read Ayn Rand out loud in class: he stumbled through some of the words and  his slow pace might have made some impatient classmates shuffle uncomfortably in their seats, but he finished that paragraph. I get self-conscious speaking my broken Spanish to him and he tells me not to worry, his English “no good, teach-er.”

He doesn’t have the luxury of choice I do.

He writes his essays in Spanglish and his eyes come alive when the topic allows him to write about his home village: the familiar, the comfortable, the known.

He’s in transition too.

Only he’s walking around with both hands tied behind his back.

And what am I so afraid of?

Sometimes being brave is easier when you have to.

Think about your major transitions. Please share in the comments how you adjusted and/or the lessons you learned. My ego desire to learn thanks you.

How to dance your way out of anxiety

28 Jan

Dance Dance Revolution Mat

January 1: A day to start over.  A day to reinvent yourself. A day to pretend you are going to lose weight, drink less, and start an organic garden. Or a day to kick off a two week anxiety blitz with the force of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Two significant things happened to me on 1.1.11.

1. Someone made a serious offer on my house in Virginia. (Twenty days later, the sale closed, thanks to a buyer with cash and no interest in a home inspection.)

2. I played Dance Dance Revolution for the first time. Partied like it was 1999, if  you will.

I love to dance. I have some rhythm. I predicted I might excel at a game with dance in the title twice. Oh how the delusional fall.

The premise seems simple enough: Step on right, left, up, or down arrows as shown, in time with the music.

Aaron, experienced in DDR, demonstrates for me first. He smoothly taps the arrows in a controlled and relaxed manner.

That’s it? I can do that, I think to myself.

Only when I step on the mat I’m a flailing spaz. The anti-smooth. Picture a giraffe with the nerves of a squirrel.

I realize I will need more time in the DDR virtual school if I’m ever going to be as good as this kid. After a few lessons, I realize five-year-old Japanese kids will always kick my ass.

While you’re slapping your feet around on an arrow-laden piece of plastic, a  DJ shouts things like “you’re awesome,” “nobody can dance like you,” or “this song is the bomb.” Except when I’m dancing, it goes more like this:

Me (confused, uncoordinated): “Where’s the back arrow? I swear I’m hitting it!”

DJ (condescendingly robotic): “Try har-der!”

Me (irritated): “I AM trying harder!”

DJ (impatiently robotic): “TRY HAR-DER!”

Me (vengeful): “I’ll show YOU try harder$%#$^&!”

While I suffered a fair amount humiliation in the process (and irrational anger at an imaginary MC), I did complete enough lessons with my fan-carrying, knee-sock wearing, Japanese school girl avatar to unlock a plethora of pop songs by Naoki. Congratulations to me.

Now I’ve moved on to Dance Mode. After a achieving a false sense of confidence on the beginner level, I advance to basic. That’s right, not intermediate. Basic.

The arrows are all coming at once and I can’t tell which ones are up and which ones are down anymore. So I panic and move my feet in such an anxious frenzy that the mat gets twisted and sideways and at one point I actually flip it on top of itself, all to the tune of  Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You.”

So, turns out I’m terrible at this.

And I’m terrible at being terrible.

While Aaron glides back and forth on the dance mat with the smoothness of 70’s Yacht rocker Christopher Cross, I sulk in the corner and wonder why my life feels so frustrating right now.

Getting to the next level is always harder than it looks.

I’ve spent most of January not sleeping enough or not sleeping well. I take at least an hour to fall asleep. Or I wake up at 4:00 a.m. and can’t fall back  asleep, at least not until 20 minutes before my alarm goes off.  Not the one right next to me that pipes in NPR at 5:30 am, the one I bang silent every 8-9 minutes. I’m talking about the one in the kitchen that rings with increasing volume at 6:10 a.m., the one that means I actually have to crawl out of bed and face the day.

Welcome to anxiety.

It all started with my December realization that this whole starting over thing is affecting me more than I realized. As usual, when you think you’re handling things well, you usually aren’t.

Then on New Year’s Day Aaron and I had our first real conversation about having a baby. We had previously discussed wanting to have children but this was the first time we discussed logistics.  Timeframes. Moneyframes. Houseframes.

Yes, I sold my house, but for less than it was worth. And while I’m grateful to be free of that monthly mortgage payment (people in this market have suffered far worse), my -1 year of seniority in my current job does not bode well for building our love nest. That’s right, cutting teachers in Florida is even more hardcore than in Virginia. With 10 years of teaching experience (and 7 years of publication advising), I will be one of the first five to go at my school. Equal to a brand new teacher, age 22.

That hurts.

When I signed a one-year contract, I wanted to believe the words of my principal and my colleagues that they’ll do everything they can to keep me. If only it were up to people who know me.

Who know how much I care about my students and that they actually learn.

How to write.

How to love (at least not hate) Shakespeare.

How to read between the lines.

How to think (even if it’s different than what I think).

How to stop being afraid of themselves.

Oh and I actually like teenagers. I know, it’s weird. They’re so hormonal and dramatic and full of attitude. Until they decide you care about them. That you’re on their side. Then they’re some of the sweetest, most interesting, most hilarious people on earth. And you end up accepting (some) of their Facebook friend requests when they’re college students or (gasp) married and working a real job.

What’s worse is even with such an irritatingly positive attitude about teaching, I still suffered the pangs of transition this year. I left a school of (mostly) supportive and collaborative colleagues who on the whole loved their jobs and got excited about the latest teaching trends that increased student achievement.

My current school has many equally motivated and dedicated teachers but their voices get drowned out by a system that amplifies negativity and over-emphasizes hard times.  My principal who meant to be “real with us” about the upcoming year’s budget cuts at a faculty meeting instead left us feeling defeated and depressed. On the one hand I understand it, but ultimately I expect our leaders to see past it and still inspire us. This is why they get paid more than me.

So while I’m sure people think it’s overly optimistic or “just rhetoric,” I needed to hear that piece of the State of the Union that reminded me my job is important. Hearing our president call for good teachers to be rewarded (in pay and esteem) by asking the best and brightest to become teachers means at least it’s worth a few paragraphs on a teleprompter. At least we shared space with Sputnik. And salmon.

Whether or not the Chief is for real shall be seen but as my good friend Caroline said, “it’s better than silence.”

We’re still planning to have a baby one day (God willing) and whether or not I have a teaching job next year, I will never stop learning. Ultimately my life is in my hands. It’s up to me to make it better, level change pains and all. In tough times, it helps me to remember Goethe’s wise words:

“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”

That is teaching.

That is humanity.

That is life.