Sunday, February 2, 2020

Teaching, Time, and Water in a Sieve

"Time flies."  The nurse shook her head and locked eyes with the infant I held in my arms.  She was finalizing paperwork to discharge me from the hospital.  I couldn't wait to start my new life with my husband and my perfectly perfect, brand new baby boy.  Time's not flying, I thought.  It's just getting started.

"I know, I know," I said, sick to death of hearing it.  "Everyone tells me, 'Don't blink!  It'll be over before you know it!' "

"Actually, you don't know. You can't know until you experience it."  She scrawled her signature on the last form. "My kids are forty and forty-two."  She seemed edgy.  Bitter?  Resentful?  I wondered, subconsciously, as I often do around testy people, if there was anything I could say or do to make her feel better.

"But you're so proud of them, right?" I tried.  "I mean, I'm sure you miss them being so little, but I bet there are wonderful things about being a Mom to grownups.  Right?"

She stared at me.  Not kindly, either.  "It's not about what I miss or what I like.  It's about the passage of time.  You can't stop it or catch it.  It's like water in a sieve."

She looked down again at the tiny human in my arms, and her expression softened a little.  "Well, let's get you home." She stood and helped me into a wheelchair.  Wordlessly, she pushed us out of the room, down the elavator, and into the soft spring air to my husband's waiting truck.

It took years figure out what she was saying to me.  It took getting dunked into the everyday work of being a parent to really understand the elusiveness of time.

The days have been long—sometimes painfully so—but oh, oh how quickly the years are going.  I've been marveling as my children turn into real humans.  My friends tell me this is just the beginning; they say it'll just be a minute until I'm an empty nester and I won't know what happened.

Why, then, do days sometimes seem like an endless slog of sameness, in spite of what will, someday, feel like rapid change?

A friend of mine has taught sixth grade for over twenty years.  A few months ago, over a cup of coffee, she mused, "I spend my days with people who are always the exact same age.  It's like time stands still in my classroom."  Ahhhh, yes, I thought, struck: There it is.  Time stands still for teachers, who work with young people in the beginnings of their lives, day after day after day, and those students stay the same age.  Then, if we're parents, we go home and contend with the unexpected marvel of our own little people turning into bigger and bigger people. This is the quandary of educators, especially if we haven't changed jobs or grade levels much.  It's why time is such a fickle thing for us.  That's why we can say, with a completely straight face, "This week flew!" and then, in the next breath, "God, this week seemed to take ten days." And we are precisely, exactly correct in saying both.

The nurse was right.  It isn't only about what we love, hate, dread, desire, aspire, or regret, or what we miss when it's gone.  It's also about capturing time when we can, and about understanding that it's immeasurable.  We can't control time and we certainly can't change how it feels as it flows by.  And we don't know until we experience the elusiveness of it.  Like water in a sieve.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Managing Hard Days

I was deeply unhappy in college.  Freshman year, I kept a pencil by my bed and made a little slashmark on the wall next to my bed, without fail, every evening, before I slept: One more day over. The mark indicated I’d accomplished something, even if only the simple act of getting through another day of college. Transferring wasn’t an option; I had scholarship money I’d lose, and the yoke of liberal arts education is no freshman year classes will likely transfer to another school. I was stuck. I pored over the college catalogue, finding a loophole in the system to get out in three years by taking summer classes at a local university and signing up for upwards of 26 credit hours each semester. When I’d pulled it off, and applied for graduation a year early, the dean apparently threw a tantrum. How had this happened? How hadn’t my advisor known I was planning an early exit? Did the registrar, bursar, or transcript office not catch this? Three years? It was unacceptable; liberal arts graduates couldn’t possibly be well-rounded and "career ready" if they busted through the college’s rigorous curriculum in just three years. Could they, now? 

Didn’t matter:  It was too late.  The only thing he could do, at that point, anyway, was listen to the screeching of my tires as I left town. I had two suitcases, a pile of cash from my last shift at Red Lobster, and a fierce, unrelenting belief I could survive anything.

I didn’t hear his tantrum; my advisor only told me of it, years later. She’d been “written up” for approving my courses each semester. They'd dinged her for "lack of communication." I was, by then, back on solid footing and making a nice life for myself. I told her how grateful I was; she’d known I was unspeakably unhappy, and the only thing she could do, in any practical sense, was sign my class sheets without questioning me.  It took just a silent, swift scrawl of her pen. 

I tell this story because I believe being unhappy, struggling, fighting through misery, makes us stronger, better people. I worry we don’t let kids fight through unhappiness. We want to take it away. Find its origin and kill it. Lie, cheat, steal, or punish so our little people don’t suffer. Look for ways around it. Deny bad days, or, failing that, try to make it all better with pep talks, ice cream, or by raging at the person who caused it. Lordy, I get it: I hate seeing my kids in pain. One of them has a particularly heart-wrenching cry, and it makes me actually ache to see it.

But I know—I've lived—the power of fighting through misery.

It’s not just kids I’m worried about. Adults feel pressure to be happy, to be grateful, to find the good in their lives. I call bull on that. We all have crappy days, crappy weeks, crappy years. Why deny it?

“Sometimes the only thing to do is get up, brush your teeth, and make yourself do something.”  So said my father when I was a kid and didn’t feel good. Or when I was sad. Or depressed. Anxious. Frustrated. Overwhelmed. That’s the strategy I was raised on, and it’s in my bones, now:  Get up and do something. Even if it’s a teeny-tiny something. Something. One thing. Any thing.  

“When you feel your worst, that’s when you most need to pull out your very best dress, put on a little extra blush, and make yourself march in to work.”  So said my first boss, a baller principal who really, really loved her blush. She's right. Being miserable is hard when you know you look good.

My husband has a strategy, too.  He reminds me of it this time of year, when we’re both in the rut of gray January days:  “Every day, find at least one thing you’re looking forward to.” This one works really well for me. Sometimes they are super-simple things. My breakfast of avocado toast. My workout. My chai latte. A hot bath at days' end. The sweet, sweet moment stretch my legs between the crispy cool sheets and let my eyelids rest.  

Rather than work around hard times, we need to work through them, and we need to show others— kids, our students, our mentees—to do so, too. Looking forward really works. In the evenings, when I think about the next day, rather than despair about all the crap on my schedule, I find I actually have a lot to be excited about, especially if I allow teeny tiny things to be Things to Look Forward To. It's not about gratitude, necessarily; it's a simple decision to have —and enjoy— a decent day.

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Experience of Living

I don't watch much TV, but every now and then, especially in winter or on thick, thundery or snowy days, my kids and I get into a blankets-and-bodies pile for an episode or ten of Top Chef.  A few seasons back, Fatima Ali was our favorite contestant.  She had all the things: Talent, wit, sass, thoughtfulness and kindness.  An immense amount of natural, honest beauty.  She felt more real than the other contestants.  I admired her.  The fact that she... well, existed made me feel good.

But a few months ago, in an episode somewhere in the middle of the current season, there was a line, white-against-black, in the closing credits:  "In memory of Fatima Ali."


A quick Google search told me the story:  She was gone.  Cancer.  Twenty-nine years old.

Here's what she said in an essay as she sensed her time waning:

It's funny, isn't it?  When we think we have all the time in the world to live, we forget to indulge in the experiences of living.  When that choice is yanked away from us, that's when we scramble to feel."  She went on, "I was always deathly afraid of being average in any way, and now I desperately wish to have a simple, uneventful life." 

I found a lot to think about here, layered between sadness about her death, about the death of someone so sparkling and real.

It's so stupid-easy to forget to indulge in the experiences of living.  To get stuck on a fear of being average.  To forget the value in a simple, uneventful life.

This school year, I'm trying to focus on enjoying the littlest things, and not scramble for them, either, but actually seek them, find them, and feel them right when they're happening.  Last night I had a ghost itch on my foot and I took my sneaker off and scratched and literally marveled at how good it felt, but even more than that, I marveled that I'm now old enough and focused enough to notice my own ability to feel something fantastic in simplicity:  The scratch of my own itch.  And all the magical things that happen in a day, like that ten-minute period of sweet silence when every child is in a classroom and there aren't any problems to solve, for just that moment.  Or when the thunderstorm holds off until the precise millisecond every child gets off the bus and safely into the building.  Or when  kid comes up behind me and gives me one of those for-real hugs. The feeling of connecting with a staff member in a new way.  Or other things, too, in everyday, average life:  The first bite of a homemade brownie.  The way my dog looks at me.  When I don't muck up the polish on my toenails.  The satin-y feel of September, when the air is neither too hot nor too cold and really nothing at all except perfect.

In a job where we're all running around with sledgehammers, using will and strength to eliminate and tear down problems, it's nice to flip things around and consciously slow down to enjoy the simple and the uneventful.

Rest in peace, Fatima.  I am grateful for you and your acceptance that average isn't something to fear.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Mrs. J Goes Rogue

In sixth grade,  my classmates and I were caught in the middle of a bit of a hubaloo in my rural elementary school.  It was 1983, and the idea of gifted education was just beginning to sprout from, well, nonexistent roots.

All fifth and sixth grade teachers were asked to identify gifted students from their classes.  Once a week, those students would go to the cafeteria for "gifted class," taught by an "enrichment expert" they'd brought over from the junior high school.  Only those teacher-identified kids, though:  All the others would stay in their regular classrooms.  To be ungifted, presumably.

Most teachers did as asked, and letters were sent to parents.  Your child's teacher has indicated that your child exhibits learning and behaviors of a gifted child.  Every Monday afternoon, your child will receive special instruction... or something like that. Classroom teachers distributed the letters, concealed in long white envelopes: "To the parents of..."

At the time, I didn't know any of this was happening.  Because I was a student in Mrs. J's class.

Mrs. J. instinctively and immediately recoiled against the whole thing.  She quietly ignored her principal's mandate, refusing to bear the responsibility of such a subjective and arbitrary gifted identification process.

So on the first Monday, when the principal's voice boomed from the P.A., asking for all gifted students to come to the cafeteria, Mrs. J. stopped us, right in the middle of our study of the solar system.  Pack up your Trapper Keepers and follow me," she said.  Innocents, all, we did.  The principal's eyes widened as we walked in, all 27 of us, single file, led by the marchy-marchy Mrs. J.

He sputtered.  "What is this?"

"Gifted students," she said.

"But... you were to identify them.  A small number of them.  Five, or six, at the most."

"All my students are gifted," she said, firmly and fiercely and full of fight.

I don't know what happened next.  I can't remember a single thing beyond the set jaw of Mrs. J. and the stunned expression on the principal's face.  Never before, or perhaps since, have I seen, in person, someone so unafraid of her position, of the why and where and how she stood.  It was a marvel, being defended in that way.  I mean, she stuck up for us.  All of us.  "All my students are gifted," she'd said.  All my students are gifted. 

I don't know if she got in trouble, or if the gifted class continued, or if the principal took a step back and rallied the gifted identification process toward fairness and transparency.  Didn't matter, really, because Mrs. J.'s 27 students had learned more that afternoon than any gifted class could begin to teach.

Not long ago, in a Facebook exchange with Mrs. J., another of my classmates recalled this moment.  "You were such a badass, Mrs. J.," the student said.  Mrs. J.—mid-seventies, perhaps, or maybe older by now—simply left a winky, smily emoji in response.  Right in character.

Friday, August 2, 2019

The Pull to Apologize

I received an email from the editor of a teacher blog.  She asked if I would write a couple articles as a guest author.  I angsted about how to reply, finally landing on this.  “I’m not a teacher,” I responded.  “Is that okay?”

I recognized my question was an apology of sorts.  Not because I’m actually sorry.  I just suspect I shouldbe sorry, or, more accurately, I feel like the teacher readers would wantme to be sorry, because I am, admittedly and indisputably, no longer a teacher.  Indeed, it’s been 13 years since I taught in a traditional classroom.

“Oh, C’Mon.  You teach,” said one of my loyal friends.  She was referring to my work as a graduate instructor.  That doesn't count, I told her.  My graduate teaching doesn’t require a tenth of the paperwork and requirements of teachers in a traditional K-12 classroom.  Nor does it require dealing with—oh, you know. Small children.  Teenagers.  Or, most of all, parents.  “It’s not realteaching,” I lamented.  

I’m a principal now, a principal with an urge to apologize because I’ve left the teaching club.   

There are a lot of clubs, of course.  Many many many many clubs.  The parenting club. The athlete club.  The church club.  The aging-parents club.  The overweight club.  The wine club.  The scarred-childhood club.  The disability club.  The dog club. The cat club.  The minivan club.  The big house club.

And of course for every club, there is a counter-club.  The not-parent club.  The I-was-never-an-athlete club.  The cat club. The I’ll-never-ever-ever-drive-a-minivan-club.  And so on.

Being in a club feels good. Everyone wants a tribe, and we love finding and surrounding ourselves with others who share club membership with things we are, the things we do, the things we care about.  Defecting, though, is difficult and disconcerting.  It gives us that urge to apologize.  

I grew up on a farm surrounded by Amish and Mennonite families.  The neighbor girls, sisters, Rosanne and Christy, were my closest friends; we ran between our two farms, often atop horses or Schwinns.  But there was this shadow, this thing—a worry, heavy and weighty, almost visible—and they carried it all the time, whispered of it, like an inevitable, impending disaster:  Excommunication from the church.  It lived in them as a low-grade anxiety, watching for them to do any number of unforgivable things.  They couldn’t, for example, remove their bonnets or let their hair out of a bun. Wear pants, or shoes with color, or a dress with fabric that wasn’t on an approved texture palette.  Shout or sweat on a Sunday.  Or, for that matter, do anything on Sunday.  Once, Christy had a legit panic attack because she thought she saw her bishop drive by and spot her not wearing her bonnet.  

“I don’t understand how they can just kick you out,” I’d ask, confused, uncertain, then, of how you could just lose your membership to something that defined you.  

“They can,” they’d fret. 

“But it’s who you are.”

Shrug.  “It’s who we are now,” they said.   “But you never know….” 
Whenever we leave a club, by choice or force, we feel badly, like we have betrayed someone—other members of the club, certainly, but worse, ourselves.  No wonder there is an urge to apologize. No wonder we miss it when it's gone. Virtually all my principal friends look a little longingly in the rear-view mirror at their teaching days, sad and sorry they are no longer teaching. 

I think I’ll l always be a little sorry I’m no longer an English teacher.  It’s been many years, but I still think of it a little wistfully, especially this time of year, when I wish I were still in that club. 

But we shouldn’t apologize.  Leaving clubs is a form of change, of following a calling or an opportunity.  I'm starting my fourteenth year as an administrator.  This is my club now, and I'm just super-lucky my club crosses paths with my previous club. 

Monday, June 10, 2019

Accepting Anger

My friend Amy and I meet every few months at Starbucks and chat, chat, chat.  We yack like magpies, nursing our tea and comparing notes on all kinds of stuff.  A lot of times, our conversation circles around our kids—because, above all other things, we really don’t want to screw up on the parenting thing. 

“My daughter taught me something the other day,” she said.  “I think you’ll like it.” 

They’d had a huge teen-angst fight. The daughter raged.  There had been some sort of slight, some misstep, some wrong thingAmy had done.  It was an onslaught of it’s-not-fairand you-never-let-meand you’ll-never-understand.

Amy held it together as long as she could, but finally snapped back, succumbing by doing exactly what she always swears she won’t do—explain, rationalize, rant, and rage right back.  Her daughter finally screamed, “Just. Stop. Talking, Mom!”  

Amy stopped talking.  

Recounting the moment for me, she confessed, “I kept thinking of the opening scene in Lady Bird.  Awesome, awesome movie, by the way. The mother and daughter are driving somewhere, and they are fighting, and the daughter ends the argument by opening the door to the speeding car and throwing herself out.”  The mother screams in terror and shock.  It sets up the movie’s plot— an ongoing, relentless, terribly sad, unwinnable mother-daughter-love-hate battle.  

Amy said she stood there in the kitchen with her daughter, both of them in miserable silence, and she kept thinking, Boomerang-style, of that movie, and the car door opening, and the kid tumbling out, and the mother’s terrified scream.   

Then her daughter spoke. 

Mom. Pause.  Just because I’m angry with you doesn’t mean you did anything wrong.

 “It was so honest, and so true,” Amy said.  “It was the best apology she could offer to me right then. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.”  

In my job, it happens all the time.  A teacher is mad at me because I’ve made a decision they don’t agree with.  That doesn’t mean I’ve done something wrong.  A parent writes me a scathing email about a discipline decision.  They’re mad at me, but that doesn’t mean I’ve done anything wrong.  I offend someone with a word choice someone finds offensive, but it doesn’t mean I’ve done something wrong.  It's a regular occurrence at home, too:  My children are furious at me, but I’ve not done anything wrong.  In fact, sometimes they’re mad because, actually, I have done something right.  Something reallyright. 
For someone like me, who is uncomfortable being the recipient of another person’s anger, receiving misplaced anger is ongoing learning curve.  I don’t know that I’ll ever actually master it.  I’ll always prefer that no one be mad at me at all.  But it helps to think I can accept the existence another person’s anger without taking responsibility for it.  Which means, of course, I don’t have to try to fix it, or apologize for it, or try to make it go away.  I can just let the anger sit there and do what it needs to do. 

It’s something I’m going to try.   Maybe, as with anything else, it will be another step in finding peace in what feels like an increasingly angry world. 

Sunday, May 5, 2019

No Code: Parenting and Principaling

I made up a word for this post.   I turned "principal" into a present participle, because it really should be used in forming an active continuous tense.  So:  We are principaling, people, just like, for many of us, we are parenting and adulting and teaching.

I've been thinking of a close friend of mine.  She's  raising two teenagers.  As many before her have learned, a woman can birth two children, and they can grow to be so drastically different that it feels they can’t possibly be related.  

Same ingredients, same oven, different cakes.  Really different cakes.  

One of my friend's children is spending all his time overachieving.  He is winning awards and focusing on being  The other is spending her time sabotaging herself and infuriating everyone in the vicinity.  To honor my friend's privacy, I’ll not go into details.  I'll just say this:  My friend spends pretty much all her time trying to crack the code, trying to understand, trying to do the right thing.

No Answers Yet
Parenting the first child didn't seem difficult.  Everything made sense.  But it's worrisome, for my friend, how perfection seems the only goal.

The second child is challenging everything my friend thought she knew about kids, about love, about loyalty and commitment, about anxiety and depression, about medications and school systems and lawyers.  

My friend has come to the conclusion she doesn't really know anything.  She shrugs a lot.  She send me this picture a few weeks ago.  I've read every one of these, her text read.  

Did it help?  I responded.


We didn't discuss the photo-bomb wine, because it's super-funny, except it's not.

This photograph reminds me of the bookshelf I have in my office.  It's stuffed with books, each one representing my attempt to crack the code of principalship.  

Principaling.  Parenting.  Neither have a code (though that doesn't stop us from looking for it): There are too many ingredients. Time, demographics, effort, community, culture, history, nature, nurture, perhaps the way the wind blows and the stars align.  Most people parent as they were parented, or they flip the narrative and parent in the precise opposite way they were parented.  It makes sense, because pretty much everything we do in this world is related to something we've seen from others and our conscious decision to follow the model or eschew it.

Principals are in the unique situation of watching many different parenting styles and being challenged not to judge a single one of them.  It gets more complicated when we, ourselves, are parenting and principaling.  It's a recipe for second-guessing oneself pretty much nonstop. We have hundreds of models of students surrounding us every single day, we have the model of our family of origin, and we have the idea in our heads of how, and who, we want our children to turn out to be.

Here's something to think about:  As parents and teachers and principals, we seek the impossible.  We simultaneously want to protect children from pain and difficulty; we also want them to be tough and resilient.  We can't have both, but we also can't end up with neither.  We want a manual, knowing full well there isn't a manual.  As educators, we see mistakes happening in action— parents who are going way too far one way or another, with kids take control of a household or forcing it to fold.  We deal with the aftermath.  Then we go home and try to parent the hell out of our kids, exhausted and overwrought with the stimuli of our day, and find that many days we're just hanging on, tight, until bedtime.

I say "we," but I really mean "me."  I often use inclusive pronouns to make myself feel like part of a team.

There's lots of books out there, and there are a lot of Facebook groups, Twitter chats, blogs, and feeds.  None can provide the answers for perfect parenting or perfect principaling.

But there is one thing:  Getting up, stepping up, working our fingers off, and being fierce in our determination to do the

Friday, April 19, 2019

Flash Taco Bar and the Teacher Lounge

Guess what happened last week? 

I told this story to my friend William Parker as we recorded our upcoming podcast.  *You can listen here for that podcast (and some other work we’ve done recently, and a whole slew of great stuff from Will).

What happened was so simple, and so surprisingly positive, and fun.  

It started with an email from a kindergarten teacher to the rest of the staff.  I have a roaster full of flour tortillas left over from a banquet at my daughter’s school, she wrote.  I also have tons of cheese and lettuce.  I’ll leave it in the lounge.  Bring your own taco filling and you’ll have lunch!

I clicked “Reply.”  I’ll bring a crock pot full meat for filling!

Not three minutes later, another email came in from a teacher named John.   I have a jar of salsa and a small tub of sour cream. 

And then, from a particulary witty teacher:  Hey, John.  I see your jar of salsa and small amount of sour cream.  I’m raising the stakes.  I’m bringing mild salsa, some hot sauce, and 2 cans of tri-blend beans. 

I hustled to the grocery for onions, peppers, seasoning, and about 20 pounds of ground beef. The emails kept coming.  By lunchtime the next day, we had a full spread. All the standard things, of course, but also sliced avocados, quartered limes, chopped tomatoes, olives, chopped cilantro, diced onions, and bags and bags of tortilla chips.  People had raided their refrigerators, or made a quick stop at the grocery store, or scanned their cabinets for whatever even-slightly-taco-ish items they could find and plopped it down.  Playful Amber even put two empty plastic pitchers with a sign:  “Imaginary margaritas!!!!!!!!” 

It was a full-on flash Mexican buffet.

Yeah, yeah, yeah—we all know feeding people is a great way to lift morale and make them happy.  Especially for teachers (like me) who abhor packing a lunch.  But this was better than a standard catered meal, because it was a communal effort  Anyone could come to eat.  Or not.  They could bring food.  Or not.  There was no expectation, mandate, guilt, or goal.  Everyone did what they wanted, what they could, what they felt like doing.  Or not. 

It was a great day.  The positive mood filtered into the air, somehow, as though this was exactly what we'd needed, at this time, for—and with— one another.

Teacher lounges are funny places.  I love and hate them, in the same way I love and hate—oh, I don't know.  Zoos.  Laundromats.  Tire stores.  Stories are found there, that's fo sho.  Lots of stories.  I’ve always thought it would be a great project to collect stories from teachers’ lounges across the country, in the same spirit as Humans of New York.  The laughter, the anxiety, the therapy, the human connections.  The friendship and awkward silences.  The way substitutes are treated.  The coffee pot, the toaster, the random Sweet-and-Low envelopes mixed in with salt packets.  There is a disgusting microwave, mismatched plates, random collections of cutlery, cabinets full of random-origin chipped coffee mugs.  Hundreds of different chunks of napkins left from hundreds of parent-teacher-conference night dinners.

And the food—oh, the food.  All day long, all year long, there are meals, breakfast and lunch and dinner and everything in between.  There is a steady stream of leftovers, forgotten tidbits left in the refrigerator to die—expired salad dressings, wilted lettuce, blackblackblack bananas, yogurt with an expiration date of 1992.  It isn't atypical for people to bring leftovers from home to share, or bring things they don't want in their cabinets any longer. They drop all kinds of things in the lounge, sometimes pre-announced with an email and sometimes just left on a table for communal consumption.  A half sheet cake from a child’s birthday party. A tray of sandwiches from a graduation. A box of Valentine’s chocolates.  Last month, someone left an entire case of Shakeology from the BeachBody Diet.   I chuckled at that one.  Abandoned goals, I guess.

Teachers' lounges have the reputation as being toxic places, but they don't have to be.  They can be awesome places, too.  Ours is tiny. Not everyone can fit—not by a long shot.  It's old and shaped awkwardly.  But it's a classic shared space.  Everyone has to walk through to get to the mailboxes and the refrigerators.  It is full of stories and laughter and human connection.  It is the place an entire Mexican-food buffet can pop up.  It is a place of give a little, take a little, leave a little, have a little. 

Just like us. 

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Speak the Truth, and Speak it Well

When my grandfather was very ill, the doctor came in the hospital room to explain to my grandmother, my mother, and my aunt how he was responding to their medical interventions. I was there, too, hesitant and wordless in the corner, hoping to help in some way—if only as another heart in a room full of broken ones.

We had no idea what the doctor was saying.  He talked and talked and talked, but his words were like a jumbled box of Legos—we knew they could be put together, if we really tried, and they’d amount to something legitimate.  But we didn’t try:  It was easier to let them land, scattered, and then be still. 

In the end, of course, the doctor was trying to tell us that my grandfather was old and sick and dying. On some level we understood this, even without the Lego words.  But he didn’t say it.  He seemed unwilling—or, more likely, unable—to use words we could understand.  Perhaps he wanted to soften the truth for us, so he walled us behind intricate medical terminology.

We needed him to say it. It would have helped, because it could have taken our hope to a different place, where it could bring peace, and relief, and a long-awaited celebration of a man and his well-lived life. 

Sometimes I fear we do the same in education.  The stakes aren’t as high as those of a physician standing over the grief of a dying patient’s family—not by any stretch—but we educators, too, often falter when we try speaking the truth.

Last year, at a leadership conference in Boston, one of my session’s attendees stayed afterwards to talk. He wanted my insight after an off-the-cuff remark I’d made about the unintentional consequences of complicated conversations.  He was only in his eighth month of being a principal, and he admitted he was floundering.  "I really struggle with sharing bad news," he said, especially  when he spoke to students’ parents during discipline investigations. “I find myself apologizing, talking quickly, contradicting myself,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll be midway through my speech and realize the parent is confused—they have no idea what I’m trying to say.”  His instinct was to forge on, but:  “When I get to the part about consequences, and I refer to the Student Code of Conduct, it gets really serious, really fast—they are angry and shocked, and I realize everything I’d said leading up to that moment was wasted.   

We talked a long time.  I understood his frustration.  We all do, I think.  Later, on the plane home, I thought of three main reasons us educators avoid saying really hard things to parents about their kids. 

We don’t know how to say it.  Since we never know whether a parent will support us or fight us, we often don’t know how to approach our message.  Because we are well trained, we know what we should say.  We use words like “support” and “struggling” and “poor choice.”  But oftentimes those words don’t capture the difficulty or gravity of the scenario we are trying to address. 

Fear that we’re wrong.  Just like the doctor who didn’t say, “Your grandfather is dying,” we often avoid telling parents tough things about their kids.  We don’t want to say, “Your child can’t read” or “I am out of ideas to help her,” or “His behaviors are frightening others.”  Even typing those words here makes my fingers quiver, because I’ve been so trained not to say things that may cause hurt or wrath. We all have.  And… what if we are wrong?  What if there was a false accusation and our investigation was faulty?  What if the problem actually lies with us, or the teacher, or our school structure, or how we have connected to the child?  What if our professional judgment is off kilter?  

Fear of the response.  A few months ago, a principal pal of mine called a parent, one he knew to be volatile and accusatory, quick to defect blame to anyone and anything else.  He had to tell her about a scuffle involving her son.  Dialing, he felt sick.  His hands shook.  The moment he said the word “scuffle,” she interrupted him with an unstoppable rant. In the end, he was called names (“racist,” “incompetent,” and “bully” being the most hurtful of the lot), he was threatened, and he was left holding a dead phone line.  With that kind of treatment, no wonder he was scared to tell her the truth.  No wonder we all have felt—feel?—that way.

So what do we do? There isn’t a simple answer here, unfortunately.  The best we can do is acknowledge and understand the quandary we’re in.  We need to be honest but kind; we have a desire to help without hurting; we speak to an audience that might, or might not, be open to hearing the whole story in the first place.  We do our best.  We choose our words carefully and confidently.  We leave ourselves open to feedback and the inevitable emotional responses.  We admit when we are wrong.  We forge on, learning more each time we say something difficult.  That's what my grandfather's doctor did.  His best. And in the end, it was okay, and we understood, and we knewhe’d done his best.  

That’s all we can do, no? And as we stumble through missteps and mistakes as principals—communication being part of the package—we get better, each time, at being simultaneously kind, honest, helpful, and concise.  We get closer and closer to our goal:  To speak the truth, and speak it well. 

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Particles: Actually a Thing. Really. For Sure.

What makes meaning in our words, our conversations, our writing and communication?  What serves as a "body language" or words, helping us really connect to others beyond the dry sequence of formal words?

Particles do.

Mary Norris wrote of particles when explaining her dive into the Greek language in her New Yorker piece, "To The Letter."

Who knew there was a word for the tools that help us enhance meaning, "...the small, indefinable, not strictly necessary words that linguists dryly call 'function words' and which are known in Greek grammar as particles... Particles help make a language a language.  They give it currency and connect you to the person you're speaking with.  English is loaded with particles, words and expressions that float up constantly in speech." Norris gives examples:

Like, totally, so, you know, O.K., really, actually, honestly, literally, in fact, at least, I mean, quite, of course, after all, hey, sure enough... know what I mean?  Just sayin'.

"Some people deplore the extra words as loose and repetitive, and complain that kids today are lazy and inarticulate and are destroying the beauty of the language," Norris says.  She's right.  I've heard that done.  But Norris explained their value, and summarized precisely why I actually really enjoy particles:  They "act like nudges, pokes, facial expressions."

I like a good conversational nudge.  A secret little word poke.  When words become a facial expression.  It's fun.

When I was a teenager, my father pointed out, gently, as he was wont to do, how often I was saying "like" in my conversations.  "Listen to yourself," he said. I did.  He was right; I was using "like," like, all the time.

Saying "like" wasn't wrong, in and of itself.  Using it as the only particle in my arsenal was my mistake.

Sorry, linguists:  I don't believe particles destroy the beauty of our language.  I don't think it is lazy to use, them, and I don't think it makes me inarticulate when I do.  Like most words or phrases, they can be fancied up and used perfectly—at the perfect place, time, pause, or thrust of conversation— to enhance meaning and drive a point home.  A good particle makes the listener or reader grin in recognition.

Which is why I'm never annoyed when I hear students using particles and experimenting with their meaning and effectiveness.  After all, all they're doing is connecting with others through words.  Who can dispute the benefits of a kid learning to communicate?

It's super-cool.  Truly.

*By the way, if you're into such things, track down this piece in The New Yorker.  The the effort—the will!— Norris puts into understanding ancient Greek language is unidentifiable to me, but is, among other things, indisputably impressive.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Finding Beauty in FebruMarch

A mentor once told me, "Every five or ten years, you'll have one that feels you might not survive."  That's this year for me.

So I'm writing a pep-talk blog post.  The pep talk may be for you, or it may be for me, or maybe both.  In the end, it doesn't matter—just so it serves a purpose for one of us.

This year's relentless array of challenges have grown almost comical.  Every single time I think there will be a quiet day, I'm blasted with an out-of-left-field problem I didn't see coming.  It's been a hard year.  Students struggling, staff struggling, an endless stream of parents finding fault, causing fault, raising all kinds of hell.

I've also felt cold for five straight months, and there aren't enough sweatshirts to take it away. My skin feels like a crinkled, worn parchment.  My house is crumb-y and my clothes all look the same.  Rut, rut, rut.

There should be some sort of law that if you live in Ohio, you go somewhere warm as winter wanes.  For a day or two, even.  That's all.

My sister lives in Mexico City.  Almost on a whim, my husband and I packed up our kids, tank tops, and sun hats, and flew there to see her and her family.  We spent three full days drinking in the stories of this rich, layered city.  I stepped back from myself and pictured an energy tank that was filling, filling, filling up. We were buoyed, giddy:  The colors!  The sun!  The tortillas!  The welcoming smiles of the people!  The blue of the sky!  For breakfast the first day, my niece squished up a fresh avocado and spread it on thick wheat toast with a drizzle of spicy sauce on top.  I ate it every day we were there, and have eaten it every day since.

Seasonal depression is a real thing, methinks.  I'm a relentlessly positive person, but there were many days this winter I wondered, "What is wrong with me?"  Blech and ick and meh and blah.

A few weeks ago, I presented to a group of principals about ways to avoid burnout.  The topic itself was an irony not lost on me, since there I was, presenting as some sort of expert, and I felt—had been feeling— like a wet, bedraggled rat trying to scurry and scrape my way out of dirty depths of seasonal doldrums.  I felt like a fraud:  Who had thought I could talk on avoiding burnout?

I started by being really honest about the internal fights of frustration in my own mind, reminding them multiple times, "I don't have answers.  I can only offer validation."  I felt the audience really sitting up.  Putting down their phones and closing their laptops.  Agreeing and relating.  When I finished, one raised his hand. "Why don't principals feel like they can talk about their dark times?"

We kept talking and talking, long after the session was scheduled to end, as we tried to answer his question.

"We have to be the strong ones."

"We're not paid to have bad days."

"There is no time to wallow."

"Everything just moves too quickly."

"We need to be unbreakable."

All these things are valid.  And it wouldn't be right or fair or productive to try to find a way out or around them.  We are paid to be the strong, positive, confident ones.  That's why we are leaders.

It's just what we need to do.

And, as they say, if we look around and see no one following, we're not leading.  If we're grumpy, we're making everyone else grumpy.  And that's not okay.

So let's pull our bootstraps—yank them, if needed—and bust through this month.  Stay strong, my Midwest friends.  The sun is coming out soon.  It's a promise, promise, promise!

**This, by the way, is a photograph of a tree we saw when walking to the Teotihuacan Pyramids.  I look at the colors and gasp a little.  This tree alone may be enough to get through

Teaching, Time, and Water in a Sieve

"Time flies."  The nurse shook her head and locked eyes with the infant I held in my arms.  She was finalizing paperwork to discha...