This Is Your Body on Teaching

The first thing that gets you is the lack of sleep.

Well, it’s not inherently a lack of sleep. It’s actually the fact that you have to wake up early now. Very early. Long before the sun comes up, your alarm is blaring whatever iPhone sound you’ve chosen (some days it’s something soft like ~Bamboo Forest~ but most days it’s that one that sounds like the submarine alarm because you know that fooling your body into thinking we’re on the brink of nuclear disaster is the only way you’ll get up).

You groggily reach for the phone, hit the button, and look at the time. You groan internally. You’ve never had to get up this early before. Years of college have softened you, and you’ve been living in the magic land where you create your own schedules and can ditch class when you really need to. Your body still thinks that if it crashes at 11:45 PM after just-one-more-episode of Stranger Things, you’ll be able to skate through your alarm clock to get the 7 or 8 hours of sleep you know you need.

That’s not an option anymore, though. Now, you know that at 7:45 AM, for better or worse, 32 sets of eyes will be looking at you. 32 heads will be craned towards you, wondering what they’re supposed to be doing next. Now, unless you want to stand there, mouth agape and unknowing, you have to get to school by 6:30 at least to handle the myriad tasks necessary to try and engage 32 adolescents in whatever shenanigans (and, yes, even the best, most effective plan becomes “shenanigan-esque” when 32 kids get involved) you have put together.

You roll out of bed onto achy joints. Maybe you stretch a little first– the whole “walking the room” thing does, in fact, work for classroom management, but it’s doing a number on your legs (“At least you get your steps in,” your friends muse at you). You crunch your toes into the rug before slinking across the room. You go through your shower-clothes-coffee morning routine and grab your bags– always more than one, always one with papers/supplies/books– and head out the door.

This time in your car is some of the only solace you’ll have for the rest of the day, so you try and enjoy it. Some days, it’s a hilarious podcast to take your mind off things, or NPR to help you understand why you do this work. Some days, it’s just silence– you let your mind wander at the million-hour pace it now functions, crunching numbers, figuring out activities and assigning the minutes they’ll need, wondering what to do with that one student. The stoplights and turns are on autopilot now, and before you know it, you’ve parked your car in the parking lot.

Stop. Close your eyes. Breathe. Again. Good. 

Here we go.

The day passes in a blur. Your body, in some ways, is a machine now, or at least it has learned how to be efficient. You have learned the time it takes you to run to the bathroom hurriedly in between classes. You can eat your lunch in 22 minutes while walking around monitoring a make-up quiz, listening in on the small anime club that meets in another corner of your room (sometimes, that “lunch” is leftover Halloween candy bars from the break room). Your vocal chords finally adjusted a few weeks ago– up until then, the consistent projection they had to produce caused them to crack by 6th period. You shake out your arms from hours of jazz hands, reaching to the top of the board, tapping on a kid’s desk, handing out papers or receiving the high-five from someone smaller yet so much stronger than you.

By the end of the day, you finally flop into your chair. The squishiness in the seat is sinking, but it feels good to relax in that moment, to feel your low-back and legs release some of the tension they held. You rub your eyes for a second and hear your phone buzz. Your friends will want to go out for a drink tonight. It is a Tuesday. You know you will have to decline. The most you might squeeze in is a quick run or a hurried dinner with a coworker. Then it will be back to the grind.

As you hear footsteps fade down the hall, you cannot help but notice the way your life is different now. This job is not at all what you thought. You see you friends and a partner– if you’re lucky enough to convince someone to stay through this with you– less. You are more drained at the end of your day.

It’s physical, yes, but it’s emotional and mental too. Your mind works harder than you ever thought it would– the knowledge is there, but you are forcing yourself to re-remember how it got through to you in the first place. You now learn how to deal with being “on” for the majority of your day, often unable to take a minute to yourself, except for a few hurried breaths in the bathroom. The stakes feel higher (even if your paycheck doesn’t show it).

So, you sit at your desk now and think about these things– the changes, the struggle, the process. Then, you hear your door open, and a kid peeks their head around the corner of the door, and waves at you.

You smile, genuinely. An inquisitive kid is always the sweetest image, and it fills your chest a little.

“Hey kiddo, how can I help you?”

They smile and bound up to your desk with a question, a comment, a thought.

A veteran teacher once told you that, when you are a teacher, every morning your alarm goes off, it’s a call to lead. You didn’t fully understand the sentiment at first, but now it becomes clearer.

It’s not a call to “lead” so much as it is the space to “guide”– every morning, you know your work is to create space and clear the way for your students to shine, to grow, to question and struggle, perhaps even to fail so that they can rise far higher than they thought. Every morning is a new one that fills the space in your soul with some of God’s purest joys– the laughter of children, the pursuit of discovery, the warmth of community.

So, when the kid comes into your room at the end of the day, you can’t help but smile a little deeper into your heart. And, when someone asks you how you’re doing, you can answer honestly: My body is a little tired, but it is well with my soul.




So, This Is Love

It doesn’t hit me until I am doing laundry.

My body is already bone tired— there’s a weird pain in my hips every time I turn and I’m pretty sure I’ve permanently strained my rotator cuff, since every time I have to pick up anything there’s a weird pinching in my back. My shoulders sag; even my ear is sore from hitting the mat. I’m tired.

Then, I realize that my laundry doesn’t fit in the machine. I’m going to have to do at least two loads since I just remembered that there’s another pile in my gym bag I forgot to grab. I sigh, since it’s all going to have to be washed on hot and extra long because… frankly… it stinks. It’s covered in sweat and salt and spit and no dinky, express wash is going to be able to handle this.

I rub my eyes, split the load, and get ready for a long night of laundry.

When did this happen? I ask myself. Have I also had this much stuff to wash?

I realize that, no, it hasn’t always been like this. It’s because I’m switching identities multiple times a day now. I jump from middle-school English teacher to runner to CrossFit athlete to jiu-jitsu practitioner in a single twelve-hour period. Each requires its own costume, its own gear, and each has me use and abuse a new article of clothing. That increases the hours I spend doing laundry each week and since I’m out late doing all these things, it makes for a very, very long day.

So, this is love.

It hits me when I was hunched over the washer, stretching my hamstrings as the machine begins to whir. If love is the measure of our devotion and investment in something, the way we attempt to name the amount of time and affection we give, then I have been having an intense love affair for the past few months.

Love is multiple loads of laundry every week so that you have what you need. Love is line-drying jiu-jitsu gi and getting your own CrossFit equipment. It’s separating out piles of running clothes and looking for matching socks at 10 PM because you have to be up at 4:30 AM to run if you’re going to be able to get to everything else that day. It’s having to pack and unpack your car in multiple trips because between all the clothes and all the gear for these twelve-hour-days there’s no way you can carry it all at once.  It is, at the end of that day, running to your classroom and grading twenty essays in your jiu-jitsu gi because it’s easier to go straight to back to school then it is to go home. It’s sore shoulders and aching calves and groaning as you try and roll out all these muscles, knowing that the next morning you’re going to get up and do it again.

Because that’s what it takes. Or, more importantly, that’s what I want— it’s not about medals or accolades. I’m not a competitive CrossFit athlete or jiu-jitsu practitioner; I don’t win marathons. I simply love doing these things, even when they hurt. Even when I have a bad run or my lifts suck or I lose every sparring session, I am in a deep and intense love affair with my body. That love makes me move from workout to workout, knowing that the sacrifice and commitment now will mean something much greater in the long run.

After years of trying to understand love– of my family, my friends, my students, a man– I’m finally understanding what loving myself means. It’s the time and devotion and affection for the physical space I inhabit each and every single day. It’s investing in myself and that space to do things I never thought were possible.

“Joy cometh in the morning,” Psalms tells us. It’s not just a reminder to know that a new day always dawns, but a spiritual exercise in hope and persistence. Love is the mental wherewithal to persevere when things are bad because I believe that they will eventually be better. It’s knowing that, on the days when my body may not perform the way I wanted, the joy is in the practice itself and not the outcome. It’s believing that every failed lift or tired run is a step towards eventual triumph.

So, yes. It’s long hours and lots of laundry and an aching body. Yet, I know that at the end of that day when I finally make it back to my apartment, I will sigh happily with relief. Everything hurts except my heart. My heart is always bursting with a love for myself that completely new and thoroughly joyful.


Note: So, during aforementioned marathon grading session, I took a break to run to BJJ so I didn’t burn out. I definitely forgot a change of clothes and had to run back to my classroom in my gi to finish grading. The ridiculousness of it struck me, and I wanted to capture the moment. Thanks to Calamic Photography for the photo edits. 

Intersecting Stories

There are two stories I want to tell you.

The first isn’t really a single story, but a collection of them. It’s from the first three days of my classroom, and of being in the fifth-year of my teaching.

There’s the story I want to tell you about what it felt like to hit my stride. There is a moment where body, spirit, and mind connect and there’s a momentary, explosive bloom, like watching stars explode in space— it’s not violent, but graceful.

I turned towards my students on a too-warm August morning this Monday, started talking with them and thought, Oh, this is it. This is what I’m meant to do. My chest opened and the tension of uncertainty that summer brought melted away. This is it.

There are the students, who are already making me laugh harder than I have in weeks, whose stories are already burning so brilliantly inside them that I see sparks of them a few days in. It is the pop-crack of first flame at the campfire; it is the first rumbles of thunder in the storm waiting to break for hours. It is wild and unfettered.

It is perfect.

There’s another story I could tell you.

It’s about the fact that Panic is a sneaky bitch.

I think I’ve outrun him— taken every self-care precaution, immersed myself in joyful work— or kept him at bay. I’m so sure that I can sense his arrival, I let my guard down. Oh, I know he’ll show up, but I figure I’ll hear his footsteps down the hall, see the flashes of his fingers at the corners of my mind.

So, when Panic hits on King St. late on a weekday night, on a day where, for all intents and purposes, things are fine, it’s a little jarring. Panic does all the normal things he does— squeezes my chest; makes me cry; reaches down my throat and plays my vocal chords like a harp so I make squeaky, whimpering animal noises while I try to keep him at bay. I grip the steering wheel hard and grit my teeth, trying to ride the wave of his terror out, playing the scared bystander-under-desk to his Godzilla-rage.

I finally make it home and sob in my car harder than I have in months. There is no reason to it. The detailed inventory of my life is, at least, joyful. You’re fine. You’re fine, I think to myself, desperate to use that as an anchor to some kind of rational-self.

There is no logic to it, though.  There is just loud, unabashed wailing, each cry letting some of Panic’s power out of my system. I let myself weep in hopes that the more I let this wild rumpus continue, the longer I will be free from it.

The two stories seem juxtaposing, but they are not parallel universes. They intersect within me. They are consistently warring, forcing me to walk a tight-rope, a knife’s-edge worth of stable ground amidst two worlds that, if I am not careful, could swallow me whole.

Hitting the Wall and Moving Forward

Many thanks to Doug Robertson and CUE for letting write a little about how running a marathon is a little like teaching.

We all know the moment: you are moving your way along a trail— real or proverbial— and all of a sudden, the thought pops into your head:

“I don’t want to do this anymore. I would like to stop now, please.”

And with that, your body hits what runners know as “The Wall”: your legs get heavy, your shoulders hunch down, your chest feels like it’s weighed down with a bag of lead. Your entire being is telling you to give up, to stop whatever you’re doing, and surrender to failure.

Teaching has Walls too. I hit one in my first year of teaching- in October of 2012. The Wall was called DEVOLSON, otherwise known as “The Disillusionment Stage.” To be fair, I didn’t set myself up for success: instead of starting the year off with a plan, I assumed I’d be able to coast by on charisma and good execution.

Boy, was I wrong.

Read more here.

When You Realize You Are Complicit

The post initially ran in EdWeek Teacher as “The System Wasn’t Built for Us”

First, it was the lack of an indictment for Sandra Bland’s death. Then, it was the lack of an indictment for Tamir Rice’s killing.

As days and verdicts pass, I am only able to ask this question: if the basic structures built for “safety” will not protect us, then what will? 

Moreover, as a teacher, what does this question mean for my students and for me?

For students:  Students need the space to learn about and discuss these stories, as well as process what is going on. Thumbnail image for 17130711447_ca7635c0cb_o.jpg

I’ve seen some teachers say, “I don’t know how to talk about this, so I’m going to move past it.” That fear is understandable, but we must also understand that silence is compliance, and silence is violenceWhen the system is failing, we are compelled as educators not to act as “a cog in a wheel,” as John Dewey once said. We must support our students as they deal with and question the mechanisms in our society that allowed this to happen. We may feel rage (which can look like a lot of things), and that’s okay. Even acknowledging current events, as well as our own frustration and lack of answers can be powerful (Teaching Tolerance and Youth Radio had some great resources if you’d like to do a more in-depth lesson).

Even if your students, like mine, may not directly feel a personal connection to these stories, part of our job is to expose them to questions regarding the larger world and teach them to empathize with communities frustrated and hurt by these situations. For students with whom these events hit closer to home, it’s important to remember this, from Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Between The World and Me:

…all our phrasing – race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy – serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.

If racism is a “visceral” experience, the space to heal from it is all more important.

dewey.jpgFor educators: We must begin to reframe our understanding of the system that we work in and, thus, are compliant in. Current events have only strengthened my belief that, frankly, the system wasn’t built for me and other people of color or people from marginalized backgrounds. The system will consistently perpetuate existing hierarchies of power.

Unfortunately, our current education system is one of those hierarchal structures. We can either remain silently and willingly compliant, or we can question and change the powers that be at work in our schools. The questions might appear small at first: whose values am I measure by in a teacher evaluation? Do my students feel like they have a voice at my school? Are the parents I work with feeling valued?

As we move forward, though, those questions will get bigger, and the commitment to the work gets stronger. Hopefully, all educators (and administrators and entire communities) will understand this: our job is not to feed content to students. Our job is to prepare young people to dismantle systems that are currently failing them, and help them uplift the voices, and ideas that showcase the best of their generation. 

Recently, Trent Gillis of On Being posted a reflection about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final Christmas sermon. King’s feeling that we were a “bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without…” resonate now.  

The sermon goes on, though, to reminder us of the need for hope:

Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying I still have a dream, because, you know, you can’t give up in life. If you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of all. And so today I still have a dream.

I leave these words here, as a reminder of what we must hold dear in 2016. Our students still have dreams. We do too. We must continue to push so that those dreams can reach the full majesty of their potential.


Protest image via Flickr: Fibonacci Blue
Quote image via Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price.


Students as Change-Makers: Pushing the Edge Podcast

Earlier this year, I had the chance to speak to the amazing Greg B. Curran for his podcast Pushing the Edge. We talked about what I’m learning and want to learn more about regarding student voice and agency, as well as the term “minority.”

You can listen to the episode here or find it on iTunes here. I had such a good time recording it, I hope you take a listen! Plus, I sound like a SoCal-hippie teacher about 25% of the time (28:15 is my favorite, and I would like, “Man, are we teaching kids to think about the SYSTEM?!” to be on a t-shirt), which PJ and I had a good laugh over.

Exactly Where I Need To Be: On 28

Well hello, there, 28. You’re three or so hours away on Hawai‘i time, but I’ve had some red wine and a delicious calzone, so let’s do this right now.


Last year’s celebration

Normally, I come into my birthday very reflective. Last year, I wrote about wanting to accept things as they are.  I like to think I did that.

This year, as I move into the last few years of my twenties, I realize that… I’m empty. Not in a bad way– October is the first full, meaty month of fall. The time of harvest, reaping the benefits of what was sown in hot summer months. My birth month is one of patience, balance, and hard work. The pregnant pause of the year. It’s not the beginning of fall, nor is it the holiday season. That’s okay. I like living in the pauses.

I normally lament how rushed and tired I feel around my birthday, but this year, I am choosing to celebrate it. I see now that my exhaustion, my emptiness, isn’t a sign of lacking. This year, and hopefully from now on, it is a sign of preparation for the new. We cannot fill a cup that is already full.

I come to a new year of life completely spent: I have tried to give my words, my voice, my work to my classroom and loved ones. I have tried to ensure that I don’t refuse new lessons because I am so full of old ones that may no longer serve me. Instead of  feeling full and satisfied, I quite like the idea of coming into a new year on earth empty and open: there is a hunger in my belly that is still not satisfied. I am excited to spend another year filling it again.

So, 28. Here I am. I am blessed with amazing family, friends, partnership. I understand now, more than ever, what the work feels like (I am always adapting to what it looks like). I am eager to see what comes next.

I’m moving away from making highfalutin plans for 28. Instead, I am excited to spend this year working, listening, and reveling in the joy and stability my life, love, and work has brought me thus far. If I learned anything this year, it’s that I am best served by reading my life like the waves: there are times to savor the momentary calm, wait within pause as a set comes in, and there are times to ride the waves into something marvelous.

Here’s to reading the ocean. Here’s to trusting my gut. Here’s to 28.

PS: I am still blogging over at EdWeek. I hope you come and check it out. 🙂

The Paradox of High Expectations

Recently, I received an invitation to a group on Facebook that filled me with a strange joy and abject terror.

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 7.42.17 AM

Yes. It is, in fact, time for my 10-year reunion. Time seriously flies.

I do want to make something clear: I loved high school. I had a great group of friends, and thankfully still have many of them in my life. I had great teachers who pushed me, challenged me, and also humor me with a visit when I come back. All-in-all, I was very, very lucky, and look back on high school with great fondness– a privilege I know that not a lot of people have, even at my own school.

Still, I dealt with taunting– some of it the normal high school stuff, but some, as  I’ve written about, around race. In middle and early high school, I remember quite a bit of racially charged taunting, and I know my older brother faced similar things. Anecdotally, I always felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb– one of a small handful of dark-skinned kids in my classes.

Continue reading

Activism, Poetry, and Students

Sorry for the delayed post this week! I was waiting for this assignment to be turned in from my students so I could write more about it! 

This week, I’m going to be writing a little more in depth about a lesson I did with my students around using poetry to discuss important topics and issues. I’ve broken it into four parts and linked it below.

Continue reading

Want to Know vs Want to Win: Learning to Listen

I had a whole, long thing in my head about a topic, and then brilliant thinker who I follow from afar summed it up in 140 characters:

This made me think a lot about conversation, power, and intention though, especially in the context of my own classroom. A lot of times, we taught to enter into (perhaps difficult) conversations by asking questions: why do you think that? What makes you say that? How did you come to that conclusion? etc.

I’ve come to realize, though, that sometimes people are entering into the conversation differently than I am, and sometimes, as teachers, it’s easy to default into a line of questioning that is not helpful. This leads me to ask (often myself):

Are you asking because you want to know? Or are you just asking because you want to win?

I acknowledge that fighting for the sake of fighting (or perhaps “debating for the sake of debating”) is fine. Some people love that, and I think that it can be really great. My boyfriend loves a good debate, and is the type of guy who watches Fox News just to feel riled up and be incensed at people. If that’s your thing, that’s cool.

But just because you love that doesn’t mean the other person does, and it’s important to think about that other person. Empathy matters! It’s important to respect the other person if they decide they’re not about where this conversation goes. It’s not because they’re “weak” or “scared,” they might just not be the type of person who wants to go 10 rounds for the hell of it.

My issue with it in a lot of cases though is that it I feel like rarely leads to sharing or increase of knowledge. If you are debating or asking questions just for the sake of pushing buttons, you’re not really listening to the other person. So, instead of actually taking the time to process what they’re saying or trying to hear the opinion, you’re only listening to them so you can come up with you’re next argument, so you can find the best way to poke holes in them so you can win your points.

That’s fine, I suppose. If your purpose is to win all points and ruffle some feathers (yours and your opponents), then do you. But I don’t know if it’s the best way to lead to actual conversation and intellectual growth.

Here is where it comes back to the classroom, though. As teachers, we are always in positions of power and privilege over our students. No matter how smart my students are, I am the adult in the room. I am the one (theoretically) guiding this class, and in charge.

So when I want to have a discussion with my students, I HAVE to be asking myself: am I asking them because I really want to know? Or am I asking them because I’m right and their wrong?

Clearly, the latter has some of its merits. Guiding questions can be a good way to question students and let them find their own way to the answer while providing some clues for them to follow. But I think as a teacher it’s very easy to fall into that type of questioning even when there is no real right answer, or students can be pushed to think outside the box.

If I want my students to truly reflect on something, I shouldn’t be trying to score points of them, or only half-listening because I want to prove MY point, I should be actually listening to themDoing so might lead not only to them teaching something to teach other, but teaching something to me too.