The Long Game: Teaching as a Career, Not Just A Job

So, here’s an honest confession:  I’m feeling really burnt out this school year. I’m tired. I’m so tired that it’s 9 o’clock on a Tuesday, I’m having a drink, and I honestly cannot come up with some pretty introduction to this post. After staring at the white screen of my computer for a few minutes, the only thought running through my mind is that I’m really freakin’ tired right now.

There’s a whole host of reasons why this is true. I’ve completely changed my workout schedule, and the hours I put in at the gym have admittedly made it difficult for me to do, well, anything at the end of the day.

Still, I think I’m finally starting to understand what it means to teach as a career, not just as a job.

For the first time, I’m in my third consecutive year (fifth year overall) in the classroom and, frankly, at any job I’ve ever had. This is the first time I’ve stayed at a position this long. I’m a little like the bachelor who has jumped from relationship to relationship and finally decided to stick with someone past the honeymoon phase.

Honestly, that’s what the past two years have felt like– the honeymoon phase. I loved every minute of my job. I was always thinking of ways to try something different and new. Just like in the first few months of a relationship, I was eager to spend all my time focused on impressing my partner(s) and giving them the best.

Don’t get me wrong, I am still eager to give my students my best, and I still love my job. But after two years it’s much easier to become complacent with the routine of your classroom. You’re able to read the room better. You run into similar problems and pitfalls from the years before. Yes, the kids are different and wonderful and marvelous in their own way, but it’s easy to rest on your laurels and continue on your merry way down the path you forged for two years.

Just like any relationship, though, I am fighting stagnancy and complacency as much as I can. I don’t want to end up getting so burnt out and bored doing this work that I forget all the reasons I returned to the classroom in the first place.

Here are a couple of things I am trying to do in order to make sure I stay sharp.

  • I am reflecting on my work as often as I can. My school allows teachers to conduct academic research as part of our workload. This year, I am researching how narrative writing affects identity development, and taking a critical eye to my practice will help me improve it in the future. Caveat: you have to ensure that you actually make time for this. I failed to set aside time at the beginning of the quarter and am having to play catch up now.
  • I am extending my work as much as I am capable. This sounds crazy (and frankly, is a little bit) since teachers are busy enough as it is,  but it also allows me to connect with other educators and, again, consider my own practice.  Beyond writing for EdWeek, I’m still a Hope Street Group Fellow and now working as a community manager for Sevenzo, awesome education incubator. Does this mean less quiet, sitting-around time? Sure, but by putting myself in spaces with innovative and inspired teachers, it helps me make sure I feel that way myself.
  • I am spending less time online. Now, I had mixed feelings about sharing this one, because I think the time I spent in online spaces like EduColor is what helped me return to the classroom and helps me be a better teacher to begin with. That said, I have spent the large majority of my life operating in mostly digital spaces. This is the first year I’ve really felt involved at a more face-to-face level as an educator, and I’ve been trying to be a better friend/partner in the physical world. A lot of my life last year, if I’m honest, revolved around doing a thing for the photo op. Now I’m just… doing it. It is new and, frankly, exhilarating. I still want to return and engage more in the digital space (I miss my people!), but this has been a new avenue of my life to learn to balance in.
  • I am trying to make space for and be kind to myself. This is the hardest one. When you first enter into a relationship, you end up losing yourself in it. You want to spend all your time with it; you every waking moment feels devoted to it. That’s how I felt about teaching when I re-entered the classroom. That’s no way to have a healthy relationship with anyone (or anything), though. I am trying to make sure I still am a person outside my classroom with the fitness and making space for human relationships and the acting. The next one should say, “with the writing,” but I’ve been horribly slow on that front.

 

It admittedly hasn’t been an easy road. Yet as I sit here finishing up this post on a Wednesday morning while my 7th graders do their own freewriting, I am reminded just how blessed I am to be around these kids who consistently make me feel hopeful.

In a world that has been increasingly more frustrating, my students have been the anchor that makes me feel sane. They are a reminder that I am playing the long game– it’s not just about surviving this day but building a relationship with them that hopefully helps them make the world a little less frustrating in the future.

 

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.

Head Above Water: On Self-Care

Side note: I wrote a piece about meeting with my students re: recent events over at EdWeek that, for me, is a companion to this.


“They identified the shooter in Dallas last night,” I am on my phone, wrapped in bedsheets, reading the news to my boyfriend, Chase, as he gets ready for work. My thumb brushes page after page upwards, the blue glow wrapping around my face in the early morning light. I scroll quickly, almost compulsively, through information.

“Oh, yeah? Did they catch him?”

“No,” I reply quickly, eyes still glued to the screen. “They killed him in a standoff.”

We talk a little more about the shootings. All the news this week– the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and now the execution of Dallas cops who were doing their job with care— leaves me with a pit in my stomach. My heart races as I read accounts, hear gunshots in videos, see images that stay behind my eyes longer than I’d like. The weight of it all can envelop me, wrapping me in gray and following me for the day.

Chase leans over me on the bed, takes his hand to the side of my face, and strokes my hair. The act makes me tear my eyes away from the screen and look up at him, handsome in his Navy uniform though he hates when I say it. I catch my breath. I have not yet told him, but feeling his hand there– fingers intertwined in my hair, palm heavy on my temple– is one of my favorite things.

He searches my eyes for a moment, before kissing me lightly. “Don’t read the news today,” he entreats softly. He kisses me again, nips my bottom lip. He is clean and Listerine-mint to my sour morning breath and tousled hair. “It makes you sad.”

My gut instinct, the twenty-one-year-old wanna-be activista, balks. Ignorance and silence are compliance, a voice in the base of my brain quickly beats back.

I know he is advocating for neither, though. He simply doesn’t want to come home and find me there still, wrapped in bedsheets and paralyzed by my own personal melancholy. I look up and give a slight nod. “Okay.”


I thought about that this morning when my department chair, Marybeth, sent me an email asking for resources not just for our students, but for herself. She noted that engaging with the news is frankly overwhelming when she is also taking care of two young children at home and, you know, being an excellent teacher and mentor.

Once you “go down the rabbit hole,” she explained, it can feel impossible to get out. “I can’t let that happen since I need to be able to care for my kids. But I decided… I need to allow my students to think and converse about this since, otherwise, I am still part of the problem.”

The email hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew exactly what it was to go down the rabbit hole. I knew what it was like to get lost in its darkness, like there was no bottom,  like there is just falling into greater depths of our own helplessness. I knew the hours I had spent reading, listening, wondering, feeling helpless.

Of course, we’d be mistaken to not see our own privilege: I am not Black. I don’t live in a highly segregated city (arguably I experience as close to the opposite as exists in the U.S.). While I have certainly experienced racism, my experience can’t compare to what other people have seen last night and for generations.

I write a lot about being up front with students. After Orlando, after Mizzou, when the system failed to indict. Even just this morning, I wrote that we must talk about it.

I still stand by this, but I want to make it clear that none of us, myself included, are built to handle seeing trauma 24/7/365. Processing trauma is not an Olympic sport. There is no correct form for it. Simply because I know that many people have it worse doesn’t mean I beat up anyone who decides to take a break to care for themselves. I am getting better at trying to include myself in that.


It’s a weird thing, sometimes, sharing piecemeal on this site, in my other writing, on various social media platforms. Like anyone else, I suppose, I only share the parts of myself that I’m willing to– because they make me happy, or they feel important (and safe) to share. As a writer (who even sometimes gets paid to write), I also admittedly think about my audience, what will be interesting, or what people will actually care about.

Yes, I am the girl at the top of the story with the handsome boyfriend who reminded me to take care of myself. It’s a sweet story with a nice ending.  I also watched him close the door, and had a lightening-flash of worry. What if something happens to him at work?

Then, I buried my face in my hands for five minutes and cried, still wrapped in bedsheets. I cried because I was sad that I had thought that. I cried because I was still terrified that it could happen. I cried because there are people who fear much worse every day.

I’m a huge advocate for being vulnerable and upfront as often as possible. Still, please  don’t think for a second that I don’t have parts of myself that are hidden and scared. I hope I never paint a picture that I am not terrified at times, that I have no idea how I will discuss this with students or, one day, my own children. There are days where I worry that I simply will be unable to.

There are days when I can’t stop crying, and there are days where I close my computer and decide, “that’s enough.” It is a privilege to be able to shut it down, I know.

I also know, though, that if I don’t, my ability to also be the girl who sits in the diner and hears her students talk about these topics, or encourages them to write about it, or tries to elevate their voices when they raise them, can get washed away in tears.

Those are the days that I don’t always write about, but those moments of quiet self-care, of seeking out light in the darkness, that are just as essential.

When Higher Ed Means Going Through Hell

This post originally ran in Education Week.


 

 This month, I’ll be featuring the voices of female educators in honor of Women’s History Month. More written about this is here.

Guest post by Sydney Brady.


“Take martial arts,” my mom says, “or you’re probably going to die in college.” While this is obviously hyperbole on a very inappropriate level, it is true on so many others.

What are the statistics we, as high school seniors, look at when we apply to colleges? Acceptance rate, rejection rate, graduation rate… and date rape? While there’s a 14% chance I’ll get accepted into the school of my dreams, there’s a 25% chance I’ll be raped or sexually assaulted while I am there.

And isn’t that horrifying?

On Pinterest, the college survival kits for girls recommend not only cute pens and notebooks but also Mace to, at most, frighten off my inevitable attacker.

When you enter “how to prevent college rape” into the Google search bar, the third article that pops up is from The New York Times. It says that the risk of rape was lowered in colleges when females took a class on how to protect themselves from potential attackers. But measures like these only allow women to be reactive once a sketchy situation occurs. These techniques fail at one key aspect: they don’t teach men to be proactive and not rape in the first place.

And isn’t that horrifying?

I read a draft of this speech to my mom and asked her if it sounded good. She replied with a grimace, saying, “It’s horrifying… but true.”

And isn’t that horrifying?

The woman who has raised me for 16 years has come to accept the fact that for me to advance my education, I will have to go through hell. My mother has accepted that the pearls on the gates to my dream school only bedazzle an iron frame that locks me into a one-in-four statistic.

Shouldn’t I have the right to walk through campus, free from gripping my bag a little tighter when I leave the library at night, free from being scared of footsteps behind me, free from having worry about screaming, and Mace-ing, and rape-whistling? But the reality is that I won’t be free.

And isn’t that horrifying?

So while I will protest martial arts, as I hate them and am uncoordinated, I will reluctantly go. After all, statistics show that I may be gearing up to enter the most traumatic experience of my life.

And isn’t that horrifying?

college.jpg


Sydney B. is a junior at Kauai High School. She is a diehard fan of J.K. Rowling, and a self-proclaimed master of Harry Potter trivia. When she’s not in school, she can be found running at the track or feeding her fish slices of cucumber.

 

 

Joy on a Page

To the girl hunched over the keyboard:
I sit here weary
barely able to keep eyes open
a mind troubled with adult worries.

You,
14 and all unwoven tales all unspent dreams.
You of crazy dance moves and unaware and unassuming
bliss in the exquisite creature that is yourself.
You type, crazy fast fast fast over the keyboard
smiling, laughing at the inside joke you are telling
yourself. Your fingers fly faster than the keys and
you are unable to keep up with your own
beating rabbit-heart. You make yourself
giggle, almost embarrassed at the joy and
the vulnerability you are throwing on the paper.
I hope you are marveling the way that I am.
Look with wonder at the way you are
finding yourself as you put words on paper.
Bask in the glory and cherish the light
that you unleash, splashing joy onto a white screen.
Let your heart and your own too-big
feelings melt out of your
fingers and onto the page.

5 Cool Things: 2015 Reflections and 2016 Resolutions

When I started this blog last year, I began it with the intention of forcing myself to write once a week. I had no idea whether it would stick– I had been on tumblr since 2009– and barely considered myself a writer.

A year and a day later, and the world has certainly changed since that post. In my early and mid-twenties, I was big on sweeping, long-form resolutions posts. Unfortunately, I have to get up in four-and-a-half hours to get on a plane, so here’s a quick summary before I forget.


 

Five Cool Things I Did in 2015:

1. I started seeing myself as an actual writer, and so did other people. I obviously didn’t need other people’s validation, but it certainly helped. Getting paid actual money to write for EdWeekTeaching Tolerance and other sites was the first time I felt like writing was more than a hobby and something like an actual part of my career.

2. I created space for myself, including buying this domain name! I was worried at first, but pushing myself to create that space lead to lots of opportunities for me.

3. I continued to love my job. It is so great. It feels like home. It also inspired me to find side-jobs that are not promo-girling and actually benefit who I am and my growth. I pushed my own line of thinking and began to understand my role as an educator.

4. I am still learning to love my body and that’s okay.

5. I HIT THAT SUB-4 MARATHON AND BACK-TO-BACK MARATHONED OHHHH YEAHHHH.

Dance-Dacing-Moves-Oh-yeah-GIF

Yay! Obviously, there are a billion other things: family time, friend time, falling even deeper love with my guy. These are just some of the things.


Six 2016 Resolutions

1. Make more connections, especially with local educators, but also continuing to deepen the ones I’ve found online.

2. Become a better and more diverse writer. I’ve written mostly about education, which I love, but I’m already starting to expand my writing horizons.

3. Make space and time for people I love. I tend to get caught up in the digital world and less so in the real world. Time to try and change that. I obviously love the people I’ve met online, but I don’t want to neglect the human people in my life!

4. Be a better teacher. Always. I’m already thinking about next year, but I still want to finish this school year strong! Time to make sure the things I talk about are more than words and truly part of my practice (I think they are but I think I could get better).

5. Deepen my relationship with Christ. I’m going to write more about this next week, but I’m committing to taking time in 2016 to truly refocus and strengthen my relationship with God. I’m already planning on trying to do an eight-day silent retreat at an Ignatian house this summer. We’ll see how it goes.

6. Run a faster half-marathon, but keep a healthy detachment from running! The past two years I had specific running goals: first to run a marathon again after my break, and then to sub-4. Now that I’ve hit that, it’s time to think a little differently.


I am very excited to move into the new year surrounded with so much love and joy. After a wonderful two weeks with my family, I’m excited to spend tomorrow with friends and my partner. Here’s to a restful, successful and blessed new year.

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.

bday

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. 🙂