Tuesday, March 29, 2016

China #2

This story was part of a chapter in my upcoming book about how educators must adhere to district, state, and federal mandates.  My editor and I decided together that it should be cut, in the name of being succinct and avoiding repetitious point-making (a flaw of mine, certainly); I didn't mind it being cut because there's part of me that isn't comfortable sharing such a private conversation with a wider audience.  But since you've come here on your own, I tell the story here:  

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to travel with other educators to China, a country that is often lauded for its students’ results on standardized assessments. Over a two-week period, we visited several different schools in addition to touring major cities and multiple historical sites. We had a wonderful guide on our trip, a young man who had a delightful mix of intellect, knowledge, and humor. He answered all our questions and thoughtfully in careful English, he told wonderful stories, and he quickly connected with all of us on a personal level by telling us about his experiences growing up and working in a famously difficult society.

Toward the end of the trip, I had developed some questions about the country’s educational system that had begun to nag at me after our school visits. It was simple: I hadn’t seen a single student with noticeable learning disabilities. I had not seen a single indication of diversity. Everything seemed very neat, very organized, and very standard. Very perfect. And knowing what the classrooms looked like in my school district, I knew something was missing. It just didn’t seem to add up. So one morning, as we sat in a large group at breakfast, I brought it up.

“I have some questions about the schools we visited. I didn’t see any students with . . .” I stopped to think—I had to choose words our guide would understand. “I didn’t see any students who have a hard time learning,” I continued. “Where do they go to school?”

He crinkled his brow, as I kept going. “I didn’t see any students who have physical problems—problems with their bodies. I didn’t see any students who look different from their classmates.”
He grew oddly quiet. Then he answered, “You and I can talk later.”

I felt deeply uncomfortable, as if I had asked something I should not have. The others at the table shifted awkwardly in their seats. After a moment, someone brightly shifted the subject with an anecdote or a question about our day’s plans, and the moment passed.

Later that day, though, our group stopped at a crowded market for lunch. We were told to choose something to eat, wander the market if we wanted, and meet back at the tour bus in an hour’s time. As I walked through the vendors, the guide fell into step with me. “Come with me,” he said. We ordered lunch, walked to a quiet corner of the market, and sat on the ground to eat.

In his careful English, our guide went on to tell me that the questions I’d asked this morning were not ones they talked about in his country. Their culture required academic excellence, he explained. To that end, students who struggled to learn were taken from school and sent to work very young. Students with significant disabilities were taken “away,” and their school experience was a vague, little-understood thing. Students who excelled at school were pushed beyond what I could believe was possible. They dedicated their young lives to academics. “My daughter at school from 7:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m., and she study until 11:00 p.m.,” he said. “There is nothing else.”

As we talked, I began to understand that the “public schools” in his country were only for the very best students. And it was their performance on assessments to which students in the United States were being compared. And as we all know, in the United States, every student gets an education—students who come to us from all over the world, students with difficult disabilities, students who are neglected or hungry or not supported at home. In the United States, we teach them all and we assess them all. But that doesn’t stop oversimplified comparisons between the United States and other countries.

More of what I learned from my trip to China later on this week!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

China #1

So.  I’m going to tell you about China and me.

A few summers ago, I was offered the chance to travel there for ten days with a group of ten other educators.  We would spend several days each in Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai; we’d visit various schools and travel to historical and cultural highlights throughout our stay.   The friend who offered me the opportunity—he had gone on a similar trip the previous summer—assured me, “You must go.  It’s life-changing.”

It turned out to be ten days of amazing food, sight-seeing, and perspective-gaining.  I ate Peking Duck!  I climbed the Great Wall!  I saw the Terra Cotta Warriors!  I saw the spots where Communism thinking had stifled and killed; I saw the Olympic village from the XXIX Games.  I saw poor and rural; I saw rich and glitzy.  

 It was a special and unique glimpse into a world I didn’t understand.  

Still don’t.

But it wasn’t life-changing the way my friend probably thought it would be.  It changed me in unexpected ways.  Mostly, it got me thinking about what I value.  It made me adjust the way I think about myself as a wife, mother, and emerging homebody. 

This is some of what I learned. 

Every opportunity comes with some loss. 
The opportunity to travel across China—for free— was something I felt I couldn’t pass up.  Although I had traveled internationally on multiple other occasions, the Far East was something entirely new.  I’d see places in the world and have access to entirely new people and ways of living.  When I talked about it with my gal pals, women I respect and admire, they all encouraged me to go:  It’s the chance of a lifetime, they told me.  What would you want your daughter to do?  Be grateful your husband can step in and be the full parent for ten days.  This chance will never come again. 

But the moment my plane took off, I felt a regret so deep it left me breathless.   I’m missing ten days of my children’s lives, I realized.  I’ll never get that back again.  It was something I wrestled with throughout the entire magnificent trip; each amazing experience had a gray hue to it because of what I’d given up to be there.

“Lonely” isn’t only an adjective.  It can also be a living animal that needs managed.
Spending ten days in across the world re-defined loneliness for me.  I was traveling with a phenomenal group of people, some of whom were close friends and some of whom grew into close friends.  There was never a time I was alone without having someone to turn to.  But even surrounded by people—my friends, of course, and let’s not forget the zillions of people who live in China—there was an ache.  For my kids, my husband, my home, the green space I see when I look out my kitchen window.  For clean air and the things that ground me.  It took focused, gritty effort to handle the loneliness—to get up every day, get in the shower, put on nice clothes, and muster up some enthusiasm for the day’s itinerary.  To endure time passing, while simultaneously finding meaning and respect for the trip itself.  It took energy and thought and focus.  It took active management. 

Extended international travel feels different than domestic travel.  I’d been to multiple European countries during my twenties, but my recent travel had consisted of a few domestic trips each year—just a few work and leisure trips with my friends and family.  But getting on an airplane—alone— and crossing an ocean or two—?  Yeah.  That’s really different.  It meant I couldn’t get home very easily if I needed to.  It meant I didn’t just need a working credit card and a rental car to find my way back to my family.  It meant I needed passports and kind customs officials and long, long, long hours to wait on the airline industry.   It felt a lot different than a girl’s weekend in Tampa or attendance at a professional conference in Dallas.  It made me really, really uncomfortable.

A country like China has a distinct hierarchy of people.  I noticed it especially with the women.  There are women who work important and powerful jobs, and you can feel their presence as they march along the sidewalk with stompy, angry, heel-y feet.  And there are women who make dumplings, or do manicures, or who manage shops stuffed full of trinkets.  And there are women who wake before the sun, don their prison-like blue scrub outfits, and walk city streets with a stick-and-stalk broom, doing the work of sweeping the filth that comes with zillions of people living amongst them.  Their faces are cold and sad.  They take restroom breaks in tiny, filthy stalls that reek of human feces, crouched down low, the only break they’ll get in a long, unrecognizable day of cleaning other people’s crap. 

I’m really glad to be an American.  China scared me.  There are so many people, so many buildings, so many miles and miles and miles of gigantic skyscraping apartments; so many cars; electric wires; and gigantic spewing smokestacks.  It’s dirty, gray, and eye-burningly smoggy.  Everything seems orchestrated for foreign visitors, as if there are really bad things happening, but there’s no way anyone is going to talk about it.  A lot of the people seem to walk around as silent, brooding ghosts. 
I’m so glad that my America feels different.  It’s clean and clear, even when the clouds are heavy with cold rain.  There’s a light here.   There’s clean air and the freedom to breathe deeply.  I love this country more than I ever knew. 

That’s not all. 

More to come. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Coaching the Willing

I don’t know who first said it, but there’s an oft-quoted saying along the lines of, “Anyone can coach the willing.”  Meaning, it’s not hard to coach a group of athletes that want to train, want to compete, want to win.  Any coach can motivate and lead that type of team.  It’s when the going gets tough, and the athletes aren’t intrinsically motivated or naturally skilled, that the skills needed for true coaching comes through. 

My husband lives this truth.  In his work as an athletic director, he is charged with finding and hiring coaches.  It’s not hard to find someone who is willing to coach.  The difficult part is finding someone who gets as much pleasure coaching in tough times—challenging athletes, losing teams—as in good times, when the athletes are eager, the parents are supportive, and the wins come easy.

The same is true for teaching and for leading. 

As a young teacher, I was always great with the students who were eager to learn.  They hung onto my every word and threw themselves enthusiastically into the activities and assignments I gave them.  But when a kid would come along who really didn’t want to do anything, I would find myself caught off-guard.  I didn’t have an extensive toolkit from which to pull ideas and I didn’t know how to challenge my reluctant learners.  How could I get them to like reading and writing?  What if they didn’t learn all the things I needed to teach them—grammar, punctuation, parts of speech?  Would I be the reason they’d fail academically?

But I’ve come to know that the academics side wasn’t the point at all.  I should have been asking, How can I get them to like me and my classroom?  To like learning?  To be curious and interested about stuff that’s happening around them? 

In other words, it’s not about the academic endpoint.  It’s about the relationship endpoint.  If we can connect with kids—to have them know us, respect us, and—yes—like us, we’re well on our way to success. 

If all the students came to school every day, smiling and well-fed and eager to work to achieve learning goals, it wouldn’t be a difficult job.  Anyone can teach the willing.

But, as we all know, they aren’t all willing.  They come sleepy, and hungry, and angry, and anxious, and all messed up in the head from whatever is going on in their lives.  They have good days, but they have terrible days, too.  Even the most well-cared-for, well-adjusted child runs into roadblocks.  But we can soften the impact of this hard stuff by building connections with our kids and slowly, carefully, lovingly leading them…  to willingness.

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...