Sunset - Don't give up

An Open Letter to Myself: Don’t Give Up

Twenty-four of my students are failing. Only two are passing. They are failing in the grade book. They are failing in mastering content. They are failing in overcoming the abyss of apathy that is a characteristic of the students I teach. And, because of this, I am failing.

I have tried dozens of techniques and watched them bomb. And then tried new ones and watched them bomb again. I am frustrated and at a loss and exhausted.

For the last month I have fought hard not to admit this to myself, but it’s time I live by a credo to speak hard truths:

I want to give up on them.

I have heard it over and over again from dozens of teachers: Some kids can’t be reached. Such kids have a perfect storm of disadvantaged genetics, dismantled home-lives, and self-destructive mentalities. One teacher cannot reach them. Nor can one school, nor one community. Save your energy and dedicate it to the “good ones.”

Another truth: Lately, I have felt myself nodding in agreement when I hear teachers say these things, even uttering variations of the “Doomed Pupil Decree.”

But it’s ironic. Because my students are failing, I feel incompetent. Because I feel incompetent, I want to quit. And yet, quitting is exactly the habit I most want my students to break. It is a grey, dotted line separating irony from hypocrisy.

But I can’t shake it from my head that it’s wrong – that I’m wrong – to say “There’s no hope.” I choose to believe that there is always hope. Even if there is no hope, there is always need for hope. I can accept the reality that not every kid will be reached. But, I do not accept abandoning my effort in trying.

I can’t kick it out of my mind that every child needs a champion, every quitter needs a coach, every failure needs a fresh start. Even as my frustration hits its wall, as my energy runs on fumes, as the easy option to give up calls me to play – even then I cannot quit. Quitting is not my job. My job is to try to influence every mind that enters my room. Every day. Every student. Every second. And, when I am not trying to my fullest extent I know it – and it is only I who must answer to my own lack of integrity.

Even when Carlos walks in late for the 9th time, still no pencil, still no notebook, still with ear buds marking walls of detachment, I cannot give up.

Even when Brian is gone for the twelfth day in three weeks without the slightest rationale, I cannot give up.

Read the rest via WeAreTeachers.com

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Staying Present in the Classroom: Practicing Mindful Teaching

How am I going to transition to the next lesson? What’s that smell? What am I going to have the kids who finish early do until the bell rings? Do you think any of them actually like this book? I hope our staff meeting doesn’t go long; I’ve got to get home to my puppy before she pees the crate. Man, she’s a cute puppy. I wonder if people would pay just to rent her for an hour. Seriously, what’s that smell? Did someone fart? Is it me? Oh [expletive], did I forget to put on deodorant!? No . . . I’m good. What’s the best question to ask when they’re done reading – y’know one of those “Mind: BLOWN” questions? Where should I stand as they read. Should I be moving around the room? But not too much . . . because then they’ll get distracted. Am I doing too many exit tickets? I need to get an air freshener.

Welcome to one-minute in my mind as I teach. It’s a frantic, chaotic cluster. It’s a human brain, I assure you. And, I bet your human brain isn’t much different.

Our minds are a flurry of thoughts in any given second. Whether it’s prepping our next spoken sentence or planning our week’s errands, we often live everywhere but the present moment. Not only do we have a knack for thinking ahead, but as teachers, planning ahead is our job.

But, what if our habit of frantic fretting makes us less effective, less happy, and less resilient to burn-out?

What we need, perhaps more than a shot of espresso to the veins, is a habit of mindfulness. We need to give ourselves permission to just be present in the moment, to be conscious of the life we are living, and to not worry about the thirty-thousand things that must be done this day.

If you’ve been following the world of psychology lately, you’ll recognize this idea as the booming concept of mindfulness. Mounds of research show that mindfulness practice and interventions help reduce stress, increase focus, improve self-regulation, and even improve relationship satisfaction (click here or here for some more articles about the subject).

So, how do we make mindfulness happen without adding another strategy on our plate? Two easy steps.

Step 1: Your Mindfulness Life Hack: Conscious breathing

Before I introduce mindfulness to students, I ask them to share what comes to mind when they hear the word. Typical responses include:

– Sitting cross-legged in front of burning incense;

– Bald dudes in robes worshipping a bald dude named Buddha;

– Airy music and waterfalls;

– Chanting “OM”;

– Getting high (Note: this answer comes up from my students regardless of the question).

One of the biggest misconceptions of mindfulness is that it has to be anchored into a ritualized religion, practiced in communes with patchouli wafting in the air. It doesn’t have to be that complicated.

The simplest way to practice mindfulness and become present is to simply notice your breathing. That’s it. Breathe in, paying attention to your body and your surroundings. Breathe out, still paying attention to your body and surroundings. Done.

Thich Nhat Hahn, a mindfulness maestro, concurs in No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering when he writes,

The way we start producing the medicine of mindfulness is by stopping and taking a conscious breath, giving our complete attention to our in-breath and our out-breath . . . The great news is that oneness of body and mind can be realized just by one in-breath.”

You can make it more symbolic, more spiritual, more specific if you’d like, but you don’t have to.

Read the rest via WeAreTeachers.

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To Teach or Not to Teach: Is it Worth the Money?

The voice comes from the center of your chest. “You should become a teacher.” As it settles in, warm and satisfying, a counter-voice calls from the surface of your brain: “Are you sure you want that as a career? I mean, is it worth it?”

For you, this question, with its conflicting answers, hovers, a haunting phantom of past, present and future. To teach or not to teach?

Perhaps most of all, what you are truly asking yourself is, “Will I earn enough money to make teaching worth it?”

No. You won’t.

There is not enough money to make it worth it.

There is not enough money to make it worth it to question a call to report a child’s crisis, not knowing if, when you click to hang up, the trip from CPS will just whip another fist to the kid for opening her mouth at school.

There is not enough money to make it worth taking that accusatory finger to the chest—the media, the parents, the politicians, the writers, the thinkers, the movers, the shakers—wanting better, faster, better, faster. To know the crushing feeling of society shoving you to your knees without a hand to lift you up. A raised bar without a raised budget. Because everyone has had a terrible teacher—a teacher bad enough to shroud the millions of micro-moments that dozens of great ones gave to us from the time we stepped into the classroom.

There is not enough money to make it worth seeing the wolf of a false prophet called “accountability” feasting on profits from texts and tests—weeks of real learning lost in preparation for more weeks of Scantron bubbling just to create bell curves to serve up on news feeds—every school, every child, ranked and filed in homage to King Data.

There is not enough money to make it worth the sideways scoffs about “teacher luxuries,” eternally assuming that those sweet summers are paid, that salaried work is measured in days, not hours, that all jobs are the same. “Because my unrelated job is treated thusly, yours should be too.”

There is not enough money to make it worth spending unmeasurable hours designing a flawless lesson only to see it fail because one student is in no mood, or technology crashed, or it’s Monday, or it’s Friday, or “my parents never had to do this,” or a fight just broke out, or you’ve been told to announce that a classmate has just died—or the other thousands of moments on which every lesson’s success hinges.

There’s not enough money to make it worth feeling like there’s always something that could have been better, that every day you will make countless mistakes, that every class has at least one student who wants you to fail because he hates you just because you are a teacher.

There is not enough money to make teaching worth it.

You may sit on college loan debt, fighting for a livable salary in a society that slashes educational funding. You will question your decision yearly to stay in the fray.

But I hope you teach. I hope you stay. I hope you choose to make the sacrifices daily because teaching is worth something more than money—greater than salaries and steps and raises and 401ks.

Read the rest via WeAreTeachers: To Teach or Not to Teach?

Where Life Lessons Reside

The Lesson of Every Conversation: Encouraging Teens to Have Meaningful Interactions

Nothing is worse than not having a driver’s license as a teen. Other than having to wait around for your mom to pick you up. Which is my life right now. Waiting. Watching every other jerk get picked up from driver’s training. They’ve all been scooped up by their timely parents. All except me. And, John, some other kid I barely know. Maybe I can talk to him to kill time.

* * * *

The desks are lined up in three columns facing forward – each column with two desks, side-by-side. The lights are dropped low. The music is mellow and somber.

Students are floating in. They look at me in that typical, quizzical “What-weirdness-do-we-have-today?” Their biggest concern is where they are supposed to sit – “Wherever we want!? Please!?”

It doesn’t matter where they start. In a couple minutes I will mix them up – pair them with someone they do not know well. Today’s lesson is all about conversation – principles of creating good, even life-changing, conversations with anyone.

* * * *

John is the character left out in books and movies and history. He is not an athlete – nor a musician – nor any image of the “high profile” teen. If anything, he contributes to the homeostasis of high school : a target of more than a few aggressors. He doesn’t fit a mold. He doesn’t “look like us.” And, here I am with John with nothing but barren hallways and time.

* * * *

Projected, sober and thick, on the wall is a quotation.

Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Students look for a personal meaning in the quotation. Whereas MLK Jr. was speaking of literal separations through segregations, we create our own walls called “assumed difference,” seeds of silence that grow into forests of fear and hate.

Now, it’s time for the task.

For the next hour, you have one goal: Understand the person next to you using conversation.” Students are waiting for the “academic” objective. They will find none.

(Read the rest via WeAreTeachers.com)

A group of my students taking to the cold streets to serve smiles to others.

Three Questions Worth Asking

The following is adapted from a 2014 National Honor Society induction speech I was asked to give to the students of Plainwell High School. Read on ’til the end for a personal challenge.  

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There’s a saying in education: “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.”  Have you heard this before?  I think the intention is to encourage students to ask questions or something, but that saying is a lie.  There IS such a thing as a stupid question.  My spanish teacher can speak to this well.

Enter: Señora S.  Señora had to put up with me for a full year of Spanish . . . well actually a full-ish year since I spent most of it in the office.  Something you should know about Señora S. is that she wore a fanny-pack. Every day.  And, it became my life’s mission as a punk kid to find out what was in that fanny-pack, no matter what she I was supposed to be learning.  Every day, I would ask her, “Señora, is today the day we find out what’s in the pack?”  It turns Señora and I didn’t see ojo al ojo on the quality of that question.  And, it also turns out that the answer was most often, “Get out of my room. NOW!”

Want further proof that some questions are stupid? Ask my 8th grade girlfriend Chandra. I asked Chandra a stupid question once.  Here’s the scene:  It’s a romantic middle school date — which means  we’re at a movie in a group of like 12 pubescing, pimply, smelly middle schoolers. Our parents are probably up in the rows above watching us.  We boys are loudly shoving and jockeying to sit by our respective lady-friends. Tonight was the night I would become Rico Suave and make my move. As the lights dim and the cheesy 90’s romantic comedy hits its pace, I turn to Chandra and look her deeply in the eyes.  My heart is pounding.  My mind is racing.  And in that moment, I ask her the question I think will be a relationship game changer. “So . . . do you want to make out or something?”

If you were wondering, the answer was, “No…”  If you’re further wondering, that relationship didn’t last much longer.

My past has proven that some questions are stupid.  But, thankfully, some questions are brilliant.  And, the measure of your life — the true benchmark — is the quality of question you ask and how you answer each.  Better yet, there are really just three critical questions worth asking.

Tonight is all about these three questions.

One of the most important questions to ask is, “Who do you live for?”

Before answering that, answer this:  Why did you join National Honor Society?  Really though . . . why?  The resume line?  The “boost” to get into college?  Or, did you join to be with people of calibre, to ask more of yourself, to make a difference alongside the greatest scholars and leaders in our school?

The answer ultimately reduces down to two options: You are either living for yourself or living for others.  Many people live for themselves — for their own wealth, their own achievement, their own needs.  We ask people what they got on their test just so we can confidently boast what we got.  We pick our majors based on what is easiest for us the rather than what will put our talents to work in bettering society.  We can’t even take a picture of a beautiful sunset or skyline without inserting ourselves as the focal point.  In short, too many in our society are developing a “selfie-syndrome,” an obsession with ourselves as the center of the universe.

So who do you live for?  Answer that question by living for others.  Live for others by always being available with a patient ear when they feel they have no one else.  Live for them by donating your time, your income, your meal, your hope.  Even just a sliver of these things to you is a wealth to many others.

Take it a step further and ask, “What do you live for?”

Do you live to get rewarded?  Do you live for your grades, obsessing over every little percent  just so you can get some letter to verify your self-worth?  Do you live for the promise of money, basing college and life decisions on what will give you the most income?

Now, I know grades are important — clearly you can’t even apply to National Honor Society without a high-level of academic achievement. But, do you live for your grades, or do you live beyond your grades.  What is ultimately more honorable: Having a 4.0? Or, being kind and helpful to others.  Is honor cramming for tests last minute and seeking shortcuts to get A’s?  Or, is it thirsting to understand the depth of everything because genuine knowledge can change humanity — learning not just to look good but because you never know when true knowledge can help someone in need.?

Here’s a good question: Ask any adult if they remember the g.p.a.s of their classmates from high school.  Then, ask them if they remember who was a good person.  Ask them who was passionate about their pursuits.  Ask them who they could rely on when life kicked them to the ground.  Listen to their answers.

To live for others, you must live for a passion that you can use to help others.  Live to use every ounce of your talent not just for a career but for a calling, a personal mission to do great things for a greater future for others.

Now, we know you are born into a system that emphasizes grades and rewards.  But, it is no excuse to blame the systems that encourage us to live for rewards and trophies and cookies.  You are better than blame and justification.  You are the solution.  You are the future leaders and scholars who can put meaning first and let the grades and accolades track in your tailwinds.  The system will be broken when men and women of high calibre stand against it and say they live for something beyond rewards and money and self-interest.

Lastly, ask “When do you live?”

Do you live with a constant obsession of what’s next?  Do you live in a land of later?  I’ll learn this later.  I’ll help them later.  I’ll overcome this later.  But, what if there is no later? Or, a better question: What if today were your last day?  Would you be happy with what you have given to others?

So often, we live under this optimistic impression that we have endless lives — as though we are a giant game of Candy Crush that just needs a little time or money to replenish when we expire.  Life has no guarantee.

It is a sobering and honest reality to realize that any moment could be our last.  And, in recognizing that fact, we can either turn mopey and dispirited, bemoaning how unfair and cruel life is.  Or, we can catalyze our energy, treating each moment as though it has value and significance — pushing ourselves more deeply, more strongly, more passionately into the things that will not fix or accomplish themselves.

Live to help others, to pursue your passions now.

Three questions will decide the value of your life:

When do you live?

For what do you live?

For whom do you live?

All of these questions hinge upon what is, in my view, the most important pillar of National Honor Society: Service.  There is no greater purpose to life than to be of service to a better humanity — whether that be one person in one moment, or the billions of people housed on our planet.  I do not see service as a pillar — I see it as the roof — and every other pillar supports it.  For, what good is scholarship if it is just to boost our own ego?  What good is leadership if not to empower others for a greater good?  What good is character if not to strengthen our resolve and optimism to make possible the impossible in fixing the worlds ills?

Service is the measure of your character and when you use it.  It is the measure of your scholarship and how you use it.  It is the measure of your leadership and for whom you use it.

There is a great woman named Mama T (or Mother Teresa as you may know her) who said this in even greater simplicity and elegance.

“At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done.

We will be judged by ‘I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.’”

Service need not be an elaborate plan involving months of dedication and fundraising.  Service is standing up against the aggressor who is verbally abusing others in the hallways.  It is seeking a friendship with the person labelled “weird.”  It is complimenting a stranger without needing a response.  Service is a daily habit of doing good for others every chance we can — and not doing it to make ourselves look good or with the expectation of reward.

There is no group in a greater position to be of service to humanity then you all right now.  You are here because you have proven that you are capable of greatness.  But potential without action is failure by inertia.    So what will you do with your potential?

The quality of your life hinges on the quality of questions you ask and the answers you embody.  Ask the right questions.  Seek the right answers.  And, no matter what you do, do NOT ask someone to make out with you because that is a stupid question with an embarrassing answer.

Live for someone or something beyond yourself.

Live for a passion that is a service to others.

And live your service now because tomorrow may never come.

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A personal challenge for the reader: Re-read this with a focus on your circumstances. 

How would you answer these if “live” were changed to “learn”?  

– For whom do you learn?

– For what do you learn?

– When do you learn?

How would you answer these questions if “live” were changed to “teach”?

– For whom do you teach?

For what do you teach?

When do you teach?