A Reflection on Teaching

I’ve been teaching 2nd and 3rd grade since 1998.  Back then…

Bright eyed and bushy tailed (that’s me in the beginning teaching years, back when I used film and had to develop the selfie), I thought, “I’ll give myself a couple years, and then I’ll have my system down.  My file cabinet will be stocked with all the ditto masters I need.  I’ll pull out a file and make copies once a month, and I’ll know exactly what I’m doing every day of the year.  Teaching will be a breeze.”  (Oh boy was I in for a rude awakening.  This was a naive fantasy and frankly, not very good teaching practice.)

For 18 years, the only constant has been change.  During these years, there have been so many new conflicts to navigate: parent complaints, students unable to read, students whose language isn’t English, poor family support, lack of support from administration, and many high stakes testing scenarios.

However, if I felt like public education in the United States wasn’t looking up, I wouldn’t be writing this post.  (I’m generalizing here to the whole of the US because I think Common Core is moving us in the right direction.  There I said it.  I know people don’t agree.  It’s okay, we can agree to disagree. This is my perspective as a teacher.) I can actually say that my district is truly working to bring our students into the 21st century to prepare them to compete and have skills for careers they’ll encounter in their futures.  We aren’t looking back. But it hasn’t always been this way.

During the No Child Left Behind years, we reduced children to a number, something that could be evaluated statistically and compared formulaically.  In efforts to group and categorize using the latest data, we sucked the joy and creativity out of the learning process over the past decade. I will rant in this post, because I feel it’s necessary to express what it’s been like being in the teaching trenches over the past 18 years.  This is my firsthand point of view; that of a dedicated public school teacher who feels it is her mission to stay put.  As I’ve said before, ‘staying put’ is sacred to me.

In 2010, I wanted to quit the teaching profession because it had become incongruent with my beliefs.  Children grow at different rates and should be molded and encouraged, but the environment of high stakes testing was making it so that all we ‘had time to teach’ was language arts and math because these were the only subjects tested.  ‘Drill and kill’ and prepare them for the CST became the overarching drive in our classrooms; primarily because at the beginning of the next school year we would be told how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ we were as teachers based on our students’ previous spring test scores.  Test prep had become the chokehold on our existence as teachers.

It was almost always bad news. Our school was ranked against other schools based on similar demographics.  We were ranked a 1, yes, we were the lowest.  In an effort to shine a light on how disheartening it is to hear this, I will say that I stayed in the trenches because I believe that we were more than a 1 out of 10.  (I always root for the underdog, every time. Since I’m not a loyal sports fan, I always root for the team that has come through the biggest hardship. I’m a sucker for a come-back kid.)  We rolled up our sleeves and decided, hey, we’re going to keep on going.  We love our students.  We’d been through a lot, and we had a lot of GRIT as a staff, but no one could see that, based on our test scores.

This is the main problem for me.  School atmosphere cannot simply be measured in terms of statistics but this was the only way we were measured.  The only way. Our love for our students and their struggles cannot simply be measured mathematically. There were and continue to be, so many variables we cannot control.  What we can control is fostering an environment that encourages students to learn in spite of the ‘school of hard knocks’ that many of our students’ families deal with on a daily basis.

We are a Title 1 school.  Because of our low performance on the high stakes tests, we were labeled a Program Improvement school as determined by No Child Left Behind (more about NCLB and why it didn’t work), all the teachers at our school were given more professional development to increase our expertise as teachers. Read Susan Neuman’s critique of NCLB here.  Almost the entire staff has their master’s degrees.  The assumption was that we were doing something wrong and were sent to rigorous professional development meetings, including Effective First Instruction lesson design, Thinking Maps, GLAD strategies, Write from the Beginning and Beyond, GATE, & HB somethin’ somethin’ somethin’ -a mandatory state math training and I’m sure I’m missing some…but I’ve selectively forgotten what they were.  Some of these trainings were wonderful and some were just, hoop jumping exercises to soothe the powers that be at the state and federal level.

After making it through the tunnel of high stakes testing, I can see the light at the end. My outlook is ‘hopefully optimistic’ (to throw in an overly used phrase).  Education from my perspective is moving in the right direction in my neck of the woods on Cypress in Covina.  We are beginning to NAME children again and value their natural strengths and abilities.  We are encouraging creativity in the teachers and as a result, creativity in our students.

I’ve been reading the book, Running with the Horses, by Eugene Peterson, and he has similar ideas about the idea of Naming:

Every time that we go along with this movement from the personal to the impersonal, from the immediate to the remote, from the concrete to the abstract, we are diminished, we are less. Resistance is required if we will retain our humanity (27).

…if I am frequently and authoritatively treated impersonally, I begin to think of myself the same way.  I consider myself in terms of how I fit into the statistical norms; I evaluate myself in terms of my usefulness; I assess my worth in response to how much others want me or don’t want me. In the process of going along with such procedures I find myself defined by a label, squeezed into a role, functioning at the level of my social security number (28). 

Naming is a way of hoping (29).

I am putting hope in my students daily by naming them.  I refuse to simplify them down to whether or not they are far below basic or proficient on a circle graph.

The movement forward to name our students again has begun by valuing creativity and looking students in the eye and believing in them.  It’s not complicated when you think of teaching this way.  Teaching is a natural connection.  

This is why I continue to push back from the status quo and push my students to think outside the box.  This is why I try to keep things simple in many ways in my classroom, they’re 8 years old for God’s sakes! My primary focus is to create an environment where they want to be at school and naturally, learning will follow.

Don’t we all want our children to have sense of belonging and develop a love of learning? We want them to explore the world around them by tapping into their natural curiosity. This got lost over the past 10 years in many classrooms, but the joy of learning has been found again.  The Joy of Teaching is back.  This is good news.  I am a Teacher Artist, one who has focused on her individual craft.  Teaching is Art.

This blog post feels almost completely plagiarized but there were so many wonderful quotes from these books, I had to share them. 

Madeleine L’Engle, in her book Walking on Water, expresses so much of what I often think about art, faith, and creativity.  This is infused into my philosophy of teaching.  I read this book 20 years ago, and I still return to it.  As I was reading Running with the Horses, I remembered L’Engle’s reference to Naming.  There are so many timeless truthful nuggets in it.  Here are some of my favorites:

The artist is a servant who is willing to be a birthgiver (18).

Art is communication, and if there is no communication it is as though the work had been still-born (34).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Stories are able to help us become more whole, to become Named.  And Naming is one of the impulses behind all art; to give a name to the cosmos we see despite all the chaos (45).

Remembering the lovely things that we have forgotten is one of the reasons for all art (107).

To write a story is an act of Naming; in reading about a protagonist I can grow along with, I myself am more named.  And we live in a world which would reduce us to our social security numbers (110).  

But we, the creatures, are named, and our names are part of our wholeness (111).

It seems that more than ever the compulsion today is to identify, to reduce someone to what is on the label.  To identify is to control, to limit.  To love is to call by name, and so open the wide gates of creativity (112).  

If we are pigeon holed and labeled we are un-named (113).  

She speaks so much of the importance of stories shaping and forming us.  “Stories are able to help us become more whole, to become Named.” I love to read excitedly to my children and my students.  We learn through story.  We grow.  We connect.  We create community. In an interview, Jean Rhys said, “Listen to me.  All of writing is a huge lake.  There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.  And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys.  All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter.  The lake matters.  You must keep feeding the lake.”e2db4ca119.jpg

Isn’t that good?  When I started blogging, I didn’t think I had ANYTHING significant to say.  But, I am feeding the lake at a trickle’s pace each Friday, and hopefully, in turn, someone is connecting and becoming more whole.  I have no idea how it’s all going to come together from week to week, and I often fear that it won’t be worth reading.  But somehow cosmos comes out of the chaos.  I’m gradually beginning to figure out what it means to be Named and in this process, and I am becoming more whole.

Teaching in Room 29 is a wonderful place that I show love to my students.  If we truly love, truly, the world will change.  We can often focus on all the terrible things in the world that we can’t really control.  So, how about we all just focus on making our corners of the world better and be a servant to the work of living creatively and joyfully? This may seem like a pipe dream, but it’s working for me.  I am more fulfilled. 18 years in, and I’m still excited when I see that spark of learning in my students’ eyes.  The Art of Teaching is a wonderful gift to me.

Where you invest your love, you invest your life… 

Here’s one more memorable quote referred to in L’Engle’s book, “We must dare to love in a world that does not know how to love (112).” -French priest

An unexamined life is not worth living. -Socrates (As they say in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, So-CRATES. That’s what I hear when I say his name.)

Love and examine your lives friends and if you can add a trickle to the lake, do it.

Until next Friday…Love you loves.


Gastric bypass update:

I didn’t lose this week & I’m trying not to freak about it.  I did more exercise this week. (Oh, the irony).  So maybe I should just not exercise, and then I’ll lose weight?  Weird, right?

This week, I had THE WORST protein shake ever, don’t buy this brand, Designer Whey Double Chocolate, you’ll hate it….bleh..yuck, yuck, yuck.

So far my favorite has been the Low Carb Isopure Dutch Chocolate, so take that Designer Whey and move on your way (most likely into the trash bin).



End-of-the-Year Chaos

If cleanliness is next to godliness, then I’m really ungodly.  This is the time of year when the stacks of paper are piled high in my classroom and on what I call my ‘control counter’. I have one counter in my kitchen, that is MINE.  It doesn’t have my name on it, but it’s MINE.  Mail, voting manual (Oh gosh, I’ve got to look at that between now and when school ends? AHHHHH!), essential oils, medications, post-its with reminders and anything else important go there. Field trip forms have been signed, monies have been doled out for 8th grade graduation event and teachers’ gifts, graduation gifts purchased, retirement cards purchased, going-away gifts purchased for work friends moving along to new places, costumes purchased and pressed for girls’ choir performance, suits purchased and pressed for the man & boy in my life, Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm tickets purchased (sounds like a lot of money, huh? It is.)  In the meantime, my house has been completely neglected.  (You understand, little 1950s house, that I love you, I just don’t have time right now to sweep the corners and clean your floors.  Cob webs, schmob webs.  Your spring cleaning appointment is delayed until summer.)   The kids don’t need clean sheets, it’s not like they’re wetting the bed or anything. (Thank God. That might be the straw that breaks this camel’s back.)  And laundry…fu-getta-bout-it. (Fish something out of the dirty clothes, kids.  If you didn’t tell me it needed to be washed before bed, you’re outta luck at 7am when you NEED it.)  You want dinner kids? Dinner, again?   (Yes, Joy, they will want dinner between approximately 5 and 6:30 every night.  Why do they always want to keep eating?  This time of year, kids, it’s a can of meatball spaghettios, tacos from a taco truck, Digiorno pizza, or ramen.)  Keepin’ it real, folks.  Next month I’ll have time to cook gourmet meals again.

Thinking back, there were times that were much worse than this 2016 end-of-year.  Year 2011, was one of my worst years to date.  I’d just finished my master’s degree in March of 2011 and my lower back had gotten progressively worse.  I was in constant pain and thought after the stress of completing my degree, that the pain would somehow just subside.  This is what I’d hoped.  Every morning I’d wake up and it would take me about a half hour to stand up straight.  Bending was excruciating.

I hobbled through the rest of the school year and made it to summer.  Most days, it was the same half hour of pain and slow movement.  I kept telling myself, “This will get better, you just need to start exercising. You just need to eat better.”  But exercising was painful too.  So I just took naps and OTC pain meds to make it through the day.  In June of that year, I finally went to the doctor and explained that the pain was unmanageable.  What doctors usually do for back pain is prescribe Vicodin or other narcotics.  I was in such pain, I didn’t hesitate to take them.  The next option was to begin steroid injections in my back.

July 2011, I was determined to move forward on our family vacation to San Diego.  I slowly gathered all our belongings and supplies and meticulously planned out our family meals for the week to make sure we’d all have what we needed at the campsite.  When we arrived at our destination, I could hardly get out of the car.  I went in and registered.  Then I went to the bathroom. As I was sitting and taking care of my business, I tried to get up off the toilet and the pain was so life-sucking that I almost screamed as I stood up in this public restroom.  (I didn’t because I didn’t want the other bathroom mates to think I was giving birth.)  Then I realized my pants were still on the floor.  I couldn’t walk out of the bathroom without my pants on…I’d have to bend down and pull them up. Anyone who’s suffered with back pain knows how hard bending can be.  I bent down in slow motion and pulled up my pants feeling like I might literally break in half.  This beaten-down-mama made it back to the car and Steve had to lift my left leg into the car because I couldn’t even lift my leg by myself.

As we approached the cabin we were going to be staying in for several nights, I totally started panicking because I COULD NOT MOVE at any angle. It was the worst pain of my life. Worst. Pain.  Steve called an ambulance.  I was so embarrassed. I hate feeling dependent, like I don’t have my shit together.  I was completely dependent on these rescue workers to lift me out of the van and put me on a gurney.  I remember screaming and moaning.  Shortly after, I was given morphine to dull the pain.  I could still feel pain through the morphine.  Pain, we’ve all felt it.  If not physically, then emotionally.  Our ways of coping often only dull the pain and sometimes, only slightly.

After 6 nights in the hospital, I was finally able to go the bathroom on my own.  I insisted that they let me stay until I could go to the bathroom by myself.  (I thought that was a reasonable request.)  During that hospital stay, I was assigned 2, yes two, 20-something cute male nurses who had the task of wiping my ass.  (Could this get any better?  Oh. My. Gosh.)  Thank God I was drugged through that whole experience.  My sense of humor was intact and I would make jokes and wise ‘cracks’ about how ‘no one can wipe my butt like I do’ or ‘You missed a spot.’

It was humiliating.  I handled it the best I could.  I became intoxicatingly (if this isn’t a word, I’m coining it) aware of my weaknesses and limitations.  I was discharged with a prescription for liquid morphine and our neighborhood pharmacist was able to fill the prescription. After that, my personal physician wouldn’t prescribe that to me, so I was switched to percocet.

July through September of that year I was on these narcotics to dull the pain. I had microdiscectomy surgery in September to remove part of the 10 mm bulge that was sitting on my nerve.  Months of physical therapy and pain medications continued through the rest of 2011.  My goal was to be completely off the narcotics before I went back to work.  It took me a couple months to withdraw completely from the percocet under the my doctor’s care.  She assured me that she would help me detox from it gradually.  She gave me another medication to help me wean slowly. I had previously tried to just stop taking it, but the mood swings were terrible and so unlike my normal personality that it scared me. (I remember crying and having a breakdown in the kitchen because the kids wouldn’t eat their bacon. Yeah, crying over bacon.)  I was a totally irrational hot mess. I spent the remainder of 2011 detoxing from narcotics.

2012 was a year of recovery and learning to manage stress, kind of.  In January, I went back to work, working with 3 teaching job shares (long story).  I kept that arrangement the 2013 school year also.  The following summer in 2013, incidents escalated with my sister resulting in court visits and heartache to achieve custody of her daughter, our Little.  One thing you can always count on is that things WILL CHANGE, it’s all about how your respond to the change.

I have been so grateful for my health after the 2011 experience, which included what we refer to as the Great Poop of 2011 in our house because, if you didn’t know this, narcotics make you extremely constipated.  Oh yeah, and that event occurred at the ‘bedside commode’- yes, a toilet in my room because I couldn’t squat low enough to sit on the regular toilet.  I also had to use a walker because I was so unsteady and slow upon returning home.  I felt way older than 39.  Again, I am totally grateful to have moved past that terrible year.

I’ve gradually learned to take better care of myself.  As we know, life isn’t just about ourselves.  (Can I get an AMEN?)  However, we can’t take care of others as effectively if we don’t put the air masks and life vests on ourselves first (as they say on every safety speech before you fly). 2016 was my year to do something about my weight and health by taking more drastic steps.

At this point in my life, it’s my Hallelujah year- 2016! (Even though this week, I’ve wanted to throw in the towel.) This is one of my favorite songs originally written by Leonard Cohen. Take a few minutes to pause and listen to both versions.

Over the Rhine‘s version of Hallelujah.  It’s totally worth it.

Jeff Buckley’s version of Hallelujah:

Now you’ve paused to Hallelujah with me.  (((Hugs.)))  In a few weeks we’ll be able to say Hallelujah that the school year is over.IMG_1566

Until next Friday…Love you loves.


Gastric Bypass post surgery update:

I’m down 48 pounds in 10 weeks.  I’ve still lost weight this week even though I’ve not had a lot of time to plan meals and exercise.  This is a miracle. Normally I’d gain 5 to 10 pounds this time of year from all the stress and chaos.