thrive

20170507_193704.jpgJust one year ago this week, I was daydreaming about a career change. On a whim, I checked some HR pages of different school districts “just to see” what was out there. I had been commuting over an hour a day, some days even two hours, to and from work. I was working a job that I was good at and loved the family that I had formed amongst my coworkers and bosses, but I resented it too. And my nine month old daughter was growing tired of the long drives. She had taken to screaming her head off for at least half of the drive and then falling asleep in exhaustion, making a 7pm bedtime nearly impossible to swing.

I was stretched so very thin. I was freaking exhausted (my darling baby girl also would not sleep for longer than two hours at a time). I was ready for a change.

I decided to apply to a few positions that were nearby my house. When I noticed the application closing date was the very next day, I frantically put my resume together and requested letters of recommendation from people who wouldn’t say anything if it didn’t work out. And then I hit send, like throwing a paper airplane off a cliff.

Within a few days of applying, I had three interview requests. Shit was getting real.

For one of the interviews, I had to write an essay about my teaching philosophy and how it meshed with one of the programs that the school had going on. As I opened a word document, with the blinking cursor staring at me, I felt stuck. The past few years I had gotten a bit jaded by politics. There was drama and pride and all kinds of silly things that I wore on my shoulders like two ton bricks. I had a hard time picturing the faces of my students because they were lost in data reports due to the state department and board presentations. I wondered what I could possibly say to make these new people want me to teach with them. I’m not normally at a loss for words, being a writer and all.

Then I saw my African Violet plant sitting on my desk, a teacher appreciation gift from our office staff. It was dry and shriveled and looked to be on its last leg. I remembered something someone had said at one of the countless education conferences that I had attended. African violets are apparently super resilient. They will survive in almost any environment. Yet there are also certain conditions in which they thrive. The speaker then compared this plant to children, suggesting that children are perhaps some of the most resilient creatures on the planet. But are we satisfied with survival? Or are we working to give them the very conditions they need to actually thrive?

So I wrote about it. I remember feeling a bit like a bull shitter. The metaphor seemed more about me than children. I was the shriveled little violet who needed water. The children didn’t need me. I needed them.

Nevertheless, I got the job.

It’s been nearly one school year at Hazeldale Elementary. And I am SO glad I made the change. I have a six minute commute, twelve minutes round trip (in case you needed help with the math). Mila and I are home by five, most days. I see my students at the neighborhood grocery store. And it has been refreshing to rediscover the “me” who works with children. Not the “me” who got bogged down in bureaucracy and my insecurities as a leader and my tendency towards neurosis and worry.

It hasn’t been all roses and sunshine. It’s been hard work and letting go. It’s been so much self-reflection I could drown in it. Here I go again, trying to control this or prove I’m smart or make so-and-so like me. And lately it’s been 31 out of the last 44 days with a God damned cold. But I really, truly am happy to be back in a school and working with those little carrier monkeys.

I took a huge leap of faith last year. I made a decision that was certainly risky (going from a contracted job to probationary status during an election year and in a state whose education budget is as rocky as an old canoe, yeah not that smart). But I had to do it. My conditions weren’t right. I was barely surviving, let alone thriving.

You guys, let’s be real. I’m not exactly the poster child for “thriving vs surviving” these days either. I’m still freaking tired. Maybe that’s just a constant from here on out. Our kid shit on the rug this month, my husband is overworked and sometimes has to sleep on his office floor, and I seem to be addicted to eating cookies by the sleeve-full. I can’t even eat them bite by bite. I instinctively shove the entire thing into my mouth and then chew very quietly for fear that our small child will hear or see it and then need to eat one too. And then it feels like I should eat more, since I technically only had one bite.

The conditions for me to thrive aren’t right yet. I’m still in that deep parabolic trench of life that researchers say is inevitable when you have kids that are under five. But they are closer because I listened to my heart and not my head last spring. And today, while (finally) watering the plants around my house, I noticed something. My African violet is blooming! I thought I had effectively killed off that capacity through my extreme neglect. See…told you they are resilient! And I had this hopeful feeling that I too will be thriving again soon.

new (school) year resolutions

So most people in education do not base their calendar on the new year that begins on January 1st.  Rather, our “new year” starts a week or two before Labor Day.   It’s not necessarily a new season, as summer will probably last into mid September.  But it marks the end of a season for us teachers.  The end of a space in our lives when we thought about ourselves for more than five minutes, when we had time to enjoy our lunch without making copies, and we didn’t feel as if what we did that day wasn’t enough.

Recently I heard an interview about how teachers should not have summers off, as no other job in the world gets such a long break.  While the gentleman had many good points, especially those regarding students who just don’t benefit from three months away from the one place that they are safe, I wondered if I would actually survive the year if I hadn’t had this break.  I ended the school year very sick.  Tension headaches, anxiety, you name it.  When someone hasn’t seen you in a while and the first thing they say is, “you look terrible,” you know something is wrong.  I can’t imagine being ready to do it all over again without a moment to recharge my batteries.

I often hear people say, “must be nice to have your summers off.”  In the past I’d respond to these people with a miffed, “what summer?”  As I’ve always had to have a second job in the summers to make ends meet.  But this year is the first summer since I started teaching that I haven’t worked.  And it has been amazing.  Everyone should have time to breathe…not just teachers.  Though, I will say teachers tend to go full force once our “new year” begins until we are haggard in June and wonder what happened to 9 months (and where did those 10 new gray hairs came from when we look in the mirror?).

While chatting with a friend this summer, we tried to figure out what made summer different from other parts of the year.  Besides the obvious, we began to conclude that it’s not simply having time off.  Because if this were the case, then weekends would suffice.  But something about our summer time was different and could possibly be brought into our school year so that June doesn’t find us at our wits end and ready to collapse.

In efforts to bring the summer into my school year, here are a few of my new school year’s resolutions:

  1. Eat breakfast every day…and it doesn’t count if it’s 30 minutes before lunch!
  2. Take time away from work.  Turn it off.
  3. Write as much as I can.  About whatever I want.
  4. Do yoga.
  5. Eat food that is grown in that season.
  6. Go for a bike ride or a walk or a hike up a mountain.
  7. Get enough sleep.
  8. Do nothing.  And like it.
  9. Take time for family.  A phone call, a letter, an email.
  10. Remember that what I did today is enough.

© 2013 D. Willson

and while we’re on the subject

I have to say, I am completely dumbfounded by the number of people who have read and shared my blog post from the other day.  I haven’t exactly gone viral like Rebecca Black (you’re welcome for getting that song stuck in your head again), but I’ve gone as viral as I probably ever will.  When someone I don’t even know from Monterrey, Mexico responds to, essentially, my adult-sized temper tantrum on paper, it makes me stand back in awe of the power (both positive and negative) of the Internet.  Thank you all for your support, comments and time in reading my ramblings.

Having said that, I guess I’m not done.  Yesterday afternoon, I walked into a colleague’s classroom and as she took my hands in hers she said, “you could be our voice.”  While this seemed a bit like a scene from a cheesy after-school special, I did take what she said to heart.  After hearing the responses of educators and even those outside of that world alike, I am even more inspired to talk openly about these issues.  It seems that there are countless misunderstandings on both sides that cause separation between the two pieces of the puzzle that may possibly provide the only hope of creating change.  Educators and the community need to work together, not alienate each other.

One of the first things that I noticed about this issue is that everyone, including teachers, begin to play the blame game.  At the surface level, this conflict appears to be between the union (who represent teachers) and the board (who represent the district).  In this scenario, you are forced to take sides and what often happens is, if you aren’t a teacher or if you’ve had a negative experience in education, you side with the board and if you are a teacher or if you resonate with teachers, you take the side of the union.  Yet if you really stand back and look at these two groups, the large majority of each party are not embodied in the demonization that is placed on them.

One misunderstanding that exists in the problem of money in schools is that the districts or board actually have little control over the amount of money that is spent on education.  The trickle down effect of the economic recession has hit education where the sun doesn’t shine, creating a deficit of $25.4 million over the last four years in my district alone.  When the majority of the school’s budget (70% in Oregon City) goes towards teaching and student resources, these are the areas that take the biggest cut.  This makes complete sense, however, until I had heard this explanation this year, I always thought that those creating the budget had more control over how much money was available and where the cuts had to go.  The reason we have a budget crisis is not because there are evil school board members who like to watch teachers suffer.

In addition to the problem of simply having a whole lot less money, there are also complications that arise from the way budgets must be spent.  From the outside looking in, the public often assumes that educators are over-spending and over-paid and over-benefited.  At the beginning of this year, my brother (who lives in Michigan) told me about his frustrations with the excuses from teachers regarding budget cuts.  As he sat in his daughter’s classroom at conferences, he found it contradictory to hear “money is tight” while the teacher was installing a new sound system in her classroom.  This same situation occurred with a parent last year that had lived and taught overseas where supplies and technology were very limited.  She wondered why teachers always complained about the budget crisis when she clearly saw Smartboards in every classroom and paper rooms stacked to the ceiling with paper.

I had to explain to both of these concerned parents that there isn’t just one big pool of money that everything gets paid out of like in a household.  There are governmentally appointed pots of money that are bound by law to be used in specific ways.  This is much different than a household budget where, if money is tight, you don’t go out to eat or go to the movies anymore.  You can cut back in any area of excess and those cutbacks can then help with the necessities of your financial life.  In education, however, you can’t just say “let’s not put any money into technology this year and use that money to restore student contact days” because it’s illegal.  And if you don’t use that money by the end of the year, that money goes bye-bye.

I’m learning more and more everyday that this crisis is caused by the deep cracks in our funding system. As I chatted yesterday with my colleague, we began to wonder what the point of arguing is if the money isn’t there and there isn’t much we can change at this point.  Causing us to realize how ineffective small strikes among a scant number of districts may be in a problem way bigger than anything a school board or district can fix.  Yet, as we tossed around different possibilities of solutions we entertained a big and scary thought.  In order to be “heard” by the people who need to hear it, small districts can’t do it alone.  All educators would have to stand up with the districts that have bravely entered that realm.  Because we aren’t fighting “the board” and “the administrators” we are fighting a deeply rooted systemic problem of the state and government.

Complaining about the problem in the confines of the teacher’s lounge is not enough.  We need to speak up (no more indoor voices…) and be transparent about what is really happening.  And we need to do this without fear of backlash.  It’s also clear to me that this can’t be fought alone.  Teachers, parents, students, administrators, individuals in the private sector and those in the public (and everyone else that I’m sure I’ve forgotten to mention) need to stop placing blame and start listening to each other.  This conversation needs to come from a place of respect and an understanding that every person has a vested interest in this thing called education whether they are in it or not.  Once we stop fighting with each other, we just might discover our common ground.  Only then will our voices be loud enough to be heard by someone who can actually do something about it.

© 2012 D. Willson

teachers are human too

Earlier today, I read about the Parkrose School District teachers who are moving to strike regarding budget negotiations.  As I read, I felt a small sense of relief that these issues were being made public and that some teachers are actually willing to stand against the deeply rooted problem of funding in our schools.  That comfort only lasted a moment, however, when I began to read the “commentary” to follow that were posted within minutes of the article’s publication.  The first line was “they make over $100k a year fully loaded with benefits for about a 3/4 a year job” and was trailed by comments about teachers “taking children hostage” and suggestions to “fire them all, the children would be better off.”  Ummm…who exactly are they describing here?  Surely not any teachers that I know.  While the comments were peppered with valid points, the overall message was a sense of ingratitude and disrespect.  I was so livid I was literally shaking.

Shortly after, I filled out a survey sent out by our education union asking me to prioritize areas for budget cuts.  Among these were student contact days, salary step increases, workdays, grading days, professional development, health benefits and a few others.  At the end of the survey, there was a comment box that asked something to the effect of, “How are the budget cuts affecting you?”  While I normally skip comment boxes, I was charged up from the news about Parkrose and felt the need to rant.  Before I knew it, I had run out of room.  I was surprised at the flow of words but quickly realized why I felt so “free” to share my opinions.  The survey was anonymous so no one, to my knowledge, would be waiting on the other side of the submit button to point their finger at me and call me selfish for placing student contact days on a lower priority than health benefits.  After some thought on the issue, however, I began to see how my fear of speaking up only perpetuates the lack of understanding among the “us” and the “them” mentality of the community and educators.  So I decided I needed to say something.  Maybe for the pure purpose of venting and trying to relieve stress.  Not even sure who will hear it…but here goes.  Do you really want to know how the budget crisis has affected me?

Money is tight, morale is low, shoulders are tense, tears happen often.  It greets me in the morning with every email I open, inundates my professional interactions throughout the day and then creeps into my dinner conversations with my family long after I have left my classroom.  My school may close this year along with another one right around the corner, which will displace hundreds of kids to new and unfamiliar environments.  For many of these students, school has been the one constant in their life while everything else rips around them like a violent storm.  This “crisis” has its talons gripped around every part of my job.  A job I used to love.  Now I come to work having to remind myself to enjoy the time I get to spend with students and the comic relief from colleagues at school that I consider good friends.  So that I don’t drown in the depressing muck that surrounds us right now.

Then there are the other parts that don’t really depress me so much as just piss me off.  Yet I feel afraid to share these concerns due to public backlash…because we as educators are expected to not care about the money and to just give without complaint.  Because it’s “all about the kids.”  And I’m not saying it isn’t.  But this is a conflicting principle that causes incredibly caring and giving individuals to feel guilty when they have very human responses to a situation that they have little control over.  When we complain about “the system” and “the budget” it is not because we want to be millionaires some day. It’s because we are not only human, we’re also not dumb (and while we’re discussing teacher stereotypes, we don’t all wear apples on our vests either….I don’t even own a vest.) We know that if someone asks you for something every year, there’s a good chance they will do it again the next year.  The reality is, teachers are just regular people who are tired of being taken advantage of.  Yet, this revelation of teachers’ humanity is what causes some people (many of whom have not stepped foot in a classroom since they graduated twenty years prior) to judge our character and worth.  Lumping us together with the handful of (or maybe more) terrible teachers they had in their past.

I hear the legitimate argument that everyone is suffering in hard times and cutting back, so why should teachers be any different?  But teachers aren’t asking for cushy lifestyles.  We are asking for respect from the community and from our country.  I have professional friends in other fields with far less educational experience who start at salaries higher than I will ever cap out at.  This is a reality I’ve learned to accept.  Yet this year, I never saw the benefit of getting my Master’s degree due to pay scale step freezes.   Does this make me a selfish person to feel frustration over?  I also understand that the solution is not to keep spending…because that will get us nowhere.  But it is extremely difficult to be a “team player” when every year you have been asked to cut back without any hope that things will get better.  It leaves many of us considering the idea…what if we just said no?

Lots of people say, “Oh I could never be a teacher…” or “Teachers are heroes.”  But to be honest, that lip service is seeming to fade into the distance much like our compensation, time and support.  It seems that our positive image is only present when we shut up and do our jobs (for less pay and less time to do it).  When we suggest that maybe we should get decent health benefits, our hero badge goes out the window and suddenly we are holding kids hostage and ruining their lives.  Frankly, I’m sick of it.  Teachers don’t produce a product like a paper factory or an Apple engineer.  We hold the responsibility for our economic, societal and global future in our hands every day.  All the while, our actual control over the outcome is limited at best.   Yes, we choose to do what we do.  And honestly, even in the midst of all this crap, I still wouldn’t choose another profession.  All I’m asking for is a little respect along the way and a glimmer of hope that things are changing for the better.  Is that too much to ask?

© 2012 D. Willson

i wish i could fly

In 1787, the United States government passed a law that established a measure for how much a person “counted” according to their race.  Slaves, in effect, only counted for three-fifths representation when it came to government taxation.  While this served a very strategic political agenda at the time, the message that it conveyed is that this group of Americans did not “count” when it came to representation in our country.  This idea of acknowledging a group of people only when it benefits you sticks in my mind when I think of my students who are either first or second-generation immigrants.

A year ago, the state of Arizona passed one of the most stringent and wide reaching immigration laws in the history of the United States.  The law required immigrants to carry with them documentation for their legal residency and it also allowed for open interrogation of anyone who is suspected of having illegal status.  Though it’s been nearly three years since I taught in Arizona, this news tore me apart as I thought about my former students and the millions of people the new law would affect.

In his book Powerful Writing, Responsible Teaching, Timothy Lensmire (2000) stated that “in these ugly times, ugly things roam and reproduce under the cover of democracy” (p. 4).   These “ugly things” come in the guise of laws that claim protection of citizens and the common good.  Much like when Arizonan governor Jan Brewer claimed that “it protects all of us, every Arizona citizen and everyone here in our state lawfully”  (Alberts 2010, par. 14).  Unfortunately, the “us” to which she referred were only a specific set of people in Arizona.   The students in my former classroom, their parents, their families and the Hispanic community at large are those who would not be protected under the law.

To give you an idea of what this means for the school system, I’d like to describe a little of what my classroom looked like just two years ago.  My classroom environment and climate has always been of upmost importance to me, higher in priority than most other aspects of teaching.  The goal of fostering a democratic community in my classroom was challenging and not always accepted with my colleagues.  Yet it was imperative for me to develop relationships with my students and to allow my students’ voices to be heard.  Every week we had a community meeting.  Students would share their concerns, celebrations, fears and opinions.  Honesty was key.  In fact, students would be comfortable enough to confess stealing in these meetings and also to forgive each other when wronged.

Within this safe place, my students opened up to me about their understandings of the world and their place in it.   Students would tell stories of how their uncle went to jail and was being sent back to Mexico because he got in a car accident.  They’d explain how they had to hide in a bush as their father fled the scene because he didn’t have “his papers.”  They’d ask me Why don’t they like Mexicans Ms. Willson? and Why can’t they just let them come over?  We aren’t hurting anyone.  I felt honored that my students never assumed I was part of the “they” to which they referred.  I was a neutral party and a listening ear.  Each heartbreaking story was in addition to the normal frustrations of the school day.   They also faced teasing, bullying, confusion and stresses of poverty issues as well.

In addition to discussions, my students shared their experiences and stories through Writers Workshop.  In their writing, students expressed grief over the loss of a baby brother.  Others would write about their memories of Mexico.  One student in particular wrote a story about wishing he could fly.  He wrote:  I wish I could fly so that I could fly over the desert.  And my uncle could fly to.  I asked him whether he had been to the desert and he explained that he and his uncle walked through the desert for days.  It was cold and I just wish that we can fly over it.

Repercussions of immigration laws affected people who were also there legally and even those who were born as US citizens.  Four years ago, before the new legislation, my friend’s mother was pulled over in her car for no reason.  She had been a citizen of the United States since birth and taught for twenty-five years in Arizona.  The police officer demanded that she show “her papers.”  This was before a law allowed police officers to search anyone they suspect of illegal status.  My students would express fears about walking to school, la policia and the helicopters that dust down in their neighborhoods at night. What would that neighborhood look like after the law supported those actions?

I understand that there are many sides to each story.  I know that someone might see my student’s uncle as a criminal for crossing the border illegally.  Eric Gustein, in his book Reading and Writing the World With Mathematics: Toward a Pedagogy for Social Justice, suggests that my students’ understandings of the world were “mediated through prior experiences and world views” (p. 48).  In the same way, like the seminars in Walter Parker’s Learning to Lead Discussions, my students encouraged me to widen my worldview and “reconsider (my) own interpretations of things” (p. 128).  Those children who faced me every day in my classroom weren’t “the minority.” They were the majority and a part of the community in which I served.  They were the “us” that Governor Brewer described as needing protection nearly a year ago.

When the government does not include these students in their definition of “us” then who is going to protect them?  It is here that I begin to see a limitation of education and our ability to protect our students from the world in which they live.  I have difficulty seeing the next steps for the students once they understand the “ugly things” of the world.  I can’t magically give my students the ability to “fly” over a desert.  I can’t personally change state laws and I certainly can’t stop racial profiling from my teacher’s desk. How can I make my mini-democratic society extend to the bigger world in which my students live?

A democratic and equitable classroom is simply not enough.  We also need a curriculum that teaches world-changing.  Developing leaders, giving confidence to an often quiet and hindered voice and providing the literacy to convey these messages to the greater public.  We can cultivate the soil and plant the seeds.  It doesn’t mean I can’t be doing my part to change public policy too, but I also want to teach this to my students.  Like the proverb says:  Give a man a fish, feed him for a day.  Teach him to fish, feed him for a lifetime.  I want my democratic classroom to feed my students for a life-time, not just keep them safe for a year.

© 2011 D. Willson