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Things I Learned When I Was Supposed to Be Teaching

I just finished a 9-week stint as a high school math teacher, and I’m certain that I learned much more than the kids did.

The high school near our house lost one of its math teachers just a few weeks before the start of the school year, so I agreed to work as a long-term sub while the principal found a replacement. I dragged home the massive textbooks and got to work figuring out some lessons. I had no idea how much I’d learn.

  1. A small dose of nervous fear is a great motivator. I was always keenly aware that these kids were my responsibility, and their learning was our responsibility together. It was surprising to me to find that, of the two subjects I taught, I was usually better prepared for geometry, the subject I knew less about. I suppose my lack of familiarity with the subject kept me humble enough to know that I needed to study every night.
  2. The doldrums are inevitable. For everyone. After the novelty of the new school year wears off, many students lose their motivation. They neglect their school work and make a teacher’s job that much harder. Can’t say for sure if I was the chicken or the egg, but I lost my motivation, too. I found myself dragging into work, with a bit of a short fuse sometimes.
  3. Good news counteracts the doldrums. I stumbled onto the realization that a short, good-news email to a parent works wonders for everyone involved. The parent is thrilled to hear good news about his student, so he writes a note of thanks and acknowledgement back to the teacher. The student is thrilled that a piece of good news made it home, so she participates more in class because she realizes someone is watching. The teacher is thrilled to get a note of thanks from the parent, and she hurries into work each morning to see who has written back. It’s a win on all three fronts.
  4. Every student in the building gets it right sometimes. It may not be often, and it may have nothing to do with Algebra, but when a student does the right thing, the adults around him need to catch him doing it. Too often, it seems that adults focus too intently on the things that kids get wrong. But it should come as no surprise when they mess up, because childhood is a learning process. Instead, we should watch for the moments when they do the right thing and acknowledge those moments.
  5. Good students shouldn’t be taken for granted. Some students get it right more often than others. They always do their homework and participate in class. We shouldn’t forget to recognize their efforts. They benefit from good news, too.
  6. Learning is only half of the battle. Some kids come to school with the weight of the world on their young shoulders: discord at home, hungry bellies, deployed parents, and impending moves. Classwork and homework are important, but the mental health of the student is too. If we’re willing to make accommodations for students who have learning challenges, can’t we do the same for students who have personal challenges?
  7. Apologizing when you get it wrong goes a long way with teenagers. Acknowledging your mistakes is honest and human, and they’ll appreciate the candor. I assumed that one of my students was being careless when he dropped a calculator in class. Twice. Turns out it was an honest mistake, and I chastised him before I got the whole story. He got very angry and I lost any opportunity I had of teaching him geometry that day. I sent an email home to his parents apologizing for my mistake. I apologized face-to-face the next day, and he recovered beautifully. No long-term harm done.
  8. It doesn’t take much time to bond with a group of students. Leaving those students was harder than I ever dreamed it would be. Kudos to the teachers who forge these relationships every year, only to send the students on to the next round of educators.

I could tell endless stories of good news and bad news, and too many with heart-wrenching details. The take-away for me was that we could all benefit from the exchange of good news. Everybody feels good, and the good mood is infectious. It spills into other classes and out into the community.

Education isn’t a perfect endeavor, but it’s a noble one. It has the potential to change lives and better our communities. Shouldn’t we invest at least as much time in the education of our children as we do updating our social media accounts?

What if, for the next week, you made a 1-for-1 investment: one note of encouragement for every Facebook post, Tweet and Instagram photo? We might find that sometimes we have to look for the good in order to write a note of encouragement, but it’s worth the effort. It’s a win on all three fronts.

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Fish in a Barrel

I saw him bent down in the hallway sweeping sheet music into a pile. There was a young girl beside him hastily shoving the pieces of her flute back into the case. A teacher reminded them that the bell was about to ring, and the two of them dashed into a nearby classroom.

The boy was one that I knew to be a little “busy.” He was animated in class, and it was sometimes tough to keep him focused. I presumed that maybe he had bumped into the girl, caused her to drop her band materials and then stopped to help her recover them. I headed into my own classroom-for-a-day, making a mental note to find him later.

When I did find him, I asked what motivated him to help the girl pick up her music. “She’s my friend. Her stuff fell. She was going to be late.” His answer was nonchalant, as though what he did was a no-brainer of sorts. And that made me happy.

Because it seems as though character doesn’t play much of a role in our curriculum anymore. We don’t formally teach integrity, service or ethics to our students the way we once did. I’m not suggesting that teachers don’t incorporate these lessons into their daily interactions with kids, because I know that many of them do. Simply that it is incumbent upon the teacher to make the connection, because it often isn’t a formal part of the curriculum.

We seem to have relegated the formal teaching of morals and ethics to our churches. Any internet search of “moral lessons” or “ethical anecdotes” ends in a litany of church ministry sites designed to assist Sunday School teachers or youth group leaders.

It seems we have bought into the idea that all of life is a grey area, and that there is no clearly defined right or wrong. That teaching kids moral absolutes is judgmental and wrong somehow. And while that may be true in some cases, it robs us of the opportunity to teach our children important lessons in life. In this case, that it’s never wrong to help someone who needs it. 

It is true that life is messy, and that it can be difficult to make blanket statements about what is always right or always wrong. But we shouldn’t trouble ourselves with all the grey area. Instead,  we should demonstrate what right looks like by lending our own effort to someone else. If the kids in our lives miss an opportunity to pitch in, we can coach them so they’ll recognize it the next time.

Mostly, though, we should commend those kids when they get it right. Because recognition for making good choices is the best impetus for them to continue doing it.

I told the kid from the hallway that he had done a great thing. I thanked him for helping her, and told him to keep up the good work.

When I saw him again a few days later, I was trying to coax his classmates out of the gym toward their next class. He was the last to leave the gym and I reminded him that the bell was about to ring. “I know,” he said. “See? I’m helping again.”

I thanked him and encouraged him to keep up the good work, and I realized in that moment that positive reinforcement is a powerful tool in the hands of adults. If we take the time to catch kids doing the right thing, and recognize their efforts, they’ll continue doing the right thing. Then other kids will see it, and they’ll strive to do the same.

As he was leaving the gym, one of his friends witnessed our exchange and asked what his friend had done that was so great. I told him the story and watched him walk into the gym. On his way to the locker room, he picked up a stray duffel bag that was in the middle of the court and put it on the shelf where it belonged. “Here’s my contribution,” he called to me.

Like shooting fish in a barrel.

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No Geldings Allowed

“It’s not my intention to offend anyone. I have discovered, however, in recent years, that it’s very difficult to speak to a large group of people and not offend someone.”

~ Dr. Benjamin Carson, Johns Hopkins Hospital, at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 7, 2013.

I had such high hopes for this blog. It was going to be different from my last attempt. I was going to write about a variety of topics. I wasn’t going to have long dry-spells between blog posts.

(Go ahead. Look to see how long it has been since my last post. I’ll wait.)

I could tell you that life has been a little busy. That home-schooling is more time-intensive than I thought. Or that cleaning, shopping and cooking for a family of five takes time. And while those things are all true, they aren’t the cause of my writer’s block.

It turns out the problem is me.

Seems that every time I think of a topic I’d like to write about, I’m instantaneously plagued with worry about who might be offended by it. I spend way too much time thinking of ways to tip-toe around the topic, and I eventually give up, because it isn’t fun anymore.

But the quote above served as a sort of wakeup call for me, because it is true that the larger your audience, the more likely it is that someone out there will disagree with your viewpoint.

Nothing earth-shattering in that statement. Except that choosing this particular quote by this particular speaker could be considered inflammatory, because he made the remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. Just before he launched into a speech questioning many of our nation’s current policies. Much to the chagrin of many in the current administration. So if you’re a supporter of Dr. Carson’s viewpoints, you might love my choice. If you’re not, you might never come back to my blog.

Stated another way, although countless other speakers have likely made similar observations about addressing a large audience, my choice to quote this particular speaker will carry added meaning for some readers.

But my point isn’t to debate politics here. It’s simply to point out that it’s impossible to ensure that no one will be offended. The words we say and the choices we make are a reflection of where we’ve been, what we’ve done and what we believe. And those same experiences will shape the way we interpret the things around us.

The only absolute certainty is that we won’t always agree with one another.

I’ve recently been challenged to believe that we weren’t put here to just “get along.” Our purpose here is to really live and to accomplish something. And if we always take the safe route, we’re missing what we came for.

“Gary had checked out. He was still going to work, paying the bills, and cutting the grass, but that was it. There was no emotion, no investment, no reaction to anything. The more vital parts of him were shut down…. All his life, Gary had been a good boy. A gelding. And geldings, though they are nicer and much more well behaved than stallions, do not bring life. They are sterile.”

~ John Eldredge in “The Journey of Desire”

This is not to say that this blog should be your future destination for all things incendiary. If you’re looking for gossip or in-your-face writing, this won’t be the place. But if you do visit often, and I sincerely hope you will, I trust you’ll find compelling, thought-provoking topics that we can kick around together.

No geldings allowed.

 

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Clothes-lined

I am terrible at limbo.

It’s all I can do to stay upright on two roller skates without the added pressure of being clothes-lined by a broomstick.

But as hard as the broomstick-limbo-on-roller-skates is, the other kind is far worse: the limbo that finds you waiting for some life-changing bit of news.

And I was prepared at this point to lament the difficulty of waiting for a new job assignment. Or waiting for a house to sell. Or wondering when the next deployment would come.

Until I spoke to a friend who is waiting for health results from an oncologist. And then my limbo didn’t seem so tough. In fact, it seemed a little indulgent to even mention my dilemma.

But the pitfalls of any limbo are the same.

Because my tendency while I’m waiting is to put life on hold: to spend every waking moment thinking about the news I’m waiting for, so that I end up missing the life that happened in the meantime. To be so focused on what’s coming that I miss what’s already here.

I’m also inclined to worry endlessly about the problem at hand, as though worrying will make the house sell faster or cause the answer to come sooner. Put another way, I worry so much about where we’ll go next that I forget to enjoy where we are now.

I’m not any better at change now than I was multiple deployments and several years ago. In fact, I might even be worse at it because I know what’s coming. I know that I’ll have to balance my desire to plan for the future with my inability to know what exactly I’m planning for. I also know that control of the situation isn’t mine.

To be fair, limbo doesn’t belong exclusively to military families. It’s a by-product of everyday life for families everywhere. And though some situations are much tougher than others, limbo is tough for everyone.

Especially on roller skates.

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Popcorn and Hand Grenades

We survived.

Our first week of home-schooling is behind us, and my son and I are still on speaking terms. I might even go so far as to say we’re both pretty thrilled.

We’ve been considering it for months, but finally committed to it in December. I didn’t tell a whole lot of people, because I was pretty overwhelmed at the mere thought of doing it. Defending the decision felt like a battle I wasn’t ready for.

I was worried that, because I’m not as organized as I’d like to be, my son and his schoolwork would suffer.  Continue reading

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I Need a Fork

I’m trying to get better at doing nothing.

Like two days ago, when my kids were arguing over who got to use the computer first. And one of them suggested a compromise that didn’t seem at all fair. And my knee-jerk response was to get involved and make things right. But everyone agreed. And everyone was happy. So I didn’t do anything.  Continue reading

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Spirit of the Law

Is it possible to teach our children too well? To instill something in them so deeply that it comes back to haunt us later?

I’d say absolutely, yes.

On a recent Saturday, we were headed to a friend’s house to watch football, and we were running about 15 minutes late. It doesn’t happen to us often, because we don’t like to be late to things. But on this day, my recipe took a little longer than I thought, and we were behind schedule.   Continue reading

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