Tag Archives: teaching

The Fight for Time

A friend once told me that if you really want to do something, first write down all the good excuses you’ve got not to do it. When it comes to writing, I’ve got a few:

  • All the words have been said.
  • I don’t have the right notebook or pen.
  • People will think I’m a fake.
  • People who didn’t like me in high school will say bad things about me.
  • I can’t teach AND write.
  • My kids keep interrupting me.
  • It’s too late. I should be further along by now.
  • I’ll wait until my kids are older.
  • Nobody cares.
  • I’m not that good.
  • I’m tired.
  • I’m hungry.
  • I just got a text.
  • I should check my email.
  • I’ll look at Facebook instead.
  • I’m way behind on laundry.
  • I should grade papers or revise tomorrow’s lesson or brainstorm a new unit.
  • I have nothing new to say.
  • All the other authors said it better.
  • I’ll offend someone.
  • I’m not spiritual enough.
  • I don’t have time.

This week I said goodbye to another group of college writing students. And the last words I left them with were: “Find that thing — that thing you don’t think you have time for or that thing you loved but stopped doing when you were 11 or 12 because you didn’t think you were good enough, and make time for it.”

As usual, I was mostly saying words I need to hear.  Giving reminders and passing along wisdom that good teachers and friends have shared with me.

Maybe a couple of them were reminded that they do actually enjoy writing — but for others, writing is not the thing, but it’s something else: dancing, drawing, gardening, baking, yoga, reading — whatever. I tell them, just spend a little time on it, and maybe even release the temptation to think you need to be so good at it all the time. I read aloud this piece by Anne Lamott in which she urges us to find “half an hour of quiet time for yourself…unless you’re incredibly busy and stressed, in which case you need an hour.” And then the students walk out the door to study for exams, and I head home to a house full of people who call me Mom, and the hard work begins — we have to figure it out. We have to fight for it.

Excuses are, of course, easiest when I’m the busiest. It’s so much easier to blame my lack of writing on this family I have (who insist on eating several times a day), the boys’ baseball schedules (three boys in baseball is no joke, just saying), the papers I need to grade (collected 143 yesterday + 17 ten-page research projects on Thursday), and the laundry I never put away (thank goodness for the door on that laundry room.) Oh, and that awful habit I’ve gotten into of checking all things on my phone — email, Instagram, Facebook — one last time before I go to bed.

But the reality is that I make time for what matters — and too often I find myself using my busyness as a not-so-clever form of procrastination. “I would, but first I need to…”

Just because something is good for me doesn’t mean it’s easy for me.

And this is especially true for writing. Red Smith said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

The month of May is a perfect storm for calendars — little league, end-of-the-school-year this and that, deadlines, and, and…but if not now, when? There will always be calendars, always be excuses.

So, I’m committing — on this Saturday morning when I tiptoed out of bed to steal an hour before the rest of my house wakes up — to taking the advice I offered my students about fighting for time for the things that matter in the months ahead. I know summer is coming and the pace of our household will slow a bit, but other things will be there too, including excuses.

Thankful: the sacred mundane

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One of my favorite parts of teaching is writing with my students. In my Hope College class this fall,  we did a series of writing experiments — assignments more focused on exploration than perfection. One of my favorites was an imitation of a piece called “Thankful” by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. The piece is published in Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life — a ecletic memoir told through a series of Encyclopedia-style entries.

In honor of Thanksgiving, I’ll share portions of our experiments in gratitude here. First, a compilation from a few of my students:

Thankful

I’m thankful for sunsets, hot coffee, sugar cookie dough, and happy endings. For allergy medicine and athletic shorts.  I’m thankful for my mother’s home cooked meals, especially when they involved mashed potatoes. For hikeable mountains and swimmable lakes. I’m thankful for handwritten letters. For forgiveness. I’m thankful for mac ‘n’ cheese, washing machines, and spontaneity.  That my family loves baseball. That baseball exists in the first place. I’m thankful for starry nights. For fireworks. For sunflowers. I’m thankful for the kindness of strangers, XL t shirts, and Instagram. For laughter that makes your stomach hurt and books to get lost in. I’m thankful that at the end of each day is sleep. For people who miss me when I’m gone. I’m thankful that children mispronounce words and for warm towels just out of the dryer. For chocolate cake and dirty white Converse that never get old. I’m thankful for sarcasm. For failure. I’m thankful for grace.  

With thanks to my students: Sarah Altieri, Josie Rund, Jamie Westrate, and Taylor Dolan.

And my own gratitude list:

I’m thankful for new pens, for vulnerability, for fresh salsa. I’m thankful for the stray cat in our neighborhood who hunts the mice that would normally find their way into my house. For dark chocolate. Red wine. That my husband has decided he likes roasted brussel sprouts. I’m thankful my children will not fight in my backseat forever. I’m thankful for dreams that haven’t come true. For Lake Michigan. For flowers. For the pile of books next to my bed and podcasts.  For strangers who smile back and those little grocery belt dividers.  I’m thankful for seasons, for soap, for the window above my kitchen sink. That my son has my grandpa’s mannerisms.  I’m thankful for the kindergarten teachers who tie the shoes of kids whose fingers haven’t managed the task yet. For insects that survive bike rides in kids’ pockets, tattered photo albums, music, and mornings I can wake up with the sun rather than an alarm. I’m thankful for bedtimes stories and boys who snore softly before the end of the chapter. For those who truly know me and still choose love.

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That first hill

Photo credit: Priscilla Westra, unsplash.com
Photo credit: Priscilla Westra, unsplash.com

 

It took me awhile to enjoy rollercoasters.

I was a nervous, cautious kid, not one to take risks — and it wasn’t until high school that I remember being talked into venturing onto a rollercoaster and walking off the platform with a smile on face. My problem was that as soon as I reached the pinnacle  — that moment of the first drop, as soon as momentum picked up — my stomach went under, and I would panic and forget to breathe.  But eventually, by laughing and screaming with a good friend beside me, I came to realize that if I could will myself to let out my breath as we plunged down that first hill, I might actually enjoy the ride. I might get why people waited hours in lines to ride these things.

(Now, as I near forty, my brain and my bladder would rather me speak metaphorically about this experience than get in line to prove it’s still true.)

For teachers, August can feel like that slow click, click, click up the first hill of the rollercoaster.

I’m excited, I’m nervous, I’m anxious, I’m anticipating — I know the steep drop ahead of me. I know I will have 140-some names, faces, and stories to learn. I know I will trade my summer sunrise walks for earlier-than-usual alarm clocks and lessons that I am inspired to revise while in the shower that morning. I know that my email box will fill quickly, and I will decorate my desk with sticky notes of to-do lists. I know I will finish the first day and sit down relieved, only to grasp the reality that I get to do it again the next day. (More than a decade in, why is this continually a surprise to me in September?)

And so this weekend, I’m mentally rehearsing my breathing. I’m reminding myself that the joy is in the work, that the reward is in showing up — and that the fantasy of finishing it all or doing it perfectly is silly.

Because that’s not the point.

I most enjoy teaching and my students most enjoy learning when I remember the basics — when I keep it simple and share my passion for reading and writing. When I don’t overplan or push too hard. When I honor the slowness and the messiness that is learning.

My tendency to forget to breathe is a symptom of trying too hard to control things that are not mine to control. My tendency to tense up and feel overwhelmed is a symptom of forgetting that life is, in fact, not an emergency. That teaching is an art, not a science, and that I’m working with adolescents, not machines. That the beauty — the fun of the ride — is easily missed when I’m closing my eyes, holding my breath, and clenching my hands too tightly.

Tuesday morning I’ll walk into my classroom to teach, but I’ll also send off my three sons to their own classrooms. Like me — like their teachers — they will be a little nervous, a little tired, a little afraid, a little excited. Let’s all promise to breathe, to laugh, as we take this first hill together.

A past first day, minus the youngest, who will be a preschooler this year.
A past first day, minus the youngest, who will be a preschooler this year.

 

Middle

Definition: (Adjective) At an equal distance from the extremities of something

 Synonyms: Center or Midst, suggesting that a person or thing is closely surrounded or encompassed on all sides, especially by that which is thick or dense; such as the midst of a storm.

Photo credit: unsplash.com; Alex Jones

When I tell someone I teach in a middle school, the most common reaction is a wince followed by a comment such as, “I hated middle school.” People say things like “I’m sorry,” or “Those were the worst years of my life.” I’ve never heard anyone say, “You know, I really wish I could go back and re-live eighth grade.”

I teach the years most people try to forget.

“An equal distance from the extremities” — that’s what it feels like a lot of days — that those of us who teach the middle are wading through the messy, inmost pieces. We are teaching lessons to brains mid-developed, grading essays that are half-finished, trying to counsel and guide people who are only able to partially listen.

There’s no hiding the realities of these places — students try so very hard to appear to have it all together, but pull it off very poorly. Even those who appear the most composed are doing their best to stay that way. It’s a place where an untidy vulnerability hangs heavy in the air.  Everything seems a little shaky, a little fragile, when so many are trying to hard to look the right way, say the right thing, and be the right version of themselves. (This is also exactly why I feel anxious at bridal showers.)

Oh, and on my warm days, my classroom smells like puberty. (When prepping him for “the” video to be shown in his 4th grade classroom, my oldest son said,  “I don’t know what this puberty thing is, but it sounds disgusting.”) The aroma on May afternoon serves as very tangible reminder that this stage of life is often awkward and uncomfortable. 

Wander through a middle school cafeteria and you’ll see it — how hard it is to be truly confident, truly funny, truly smart, truly anything (but trying).  It’s a microcosm for the world — a place where self consciousness and hurt intermingle with curiosity and a joyful innocence.

But in the middle, magic can also happen. There is a reason so many books that have become classics are coming-of-age stories. (If you hated To Kill a Mockingbird when you were assigned to read it in high school, can I beg you to try it again? You weren’t ready for it then, but you are now.)

 There is a single account in the Bible of the adolescence of Jesus — when he was 12 years old and left behind in the temple while his parents traveled three days back home before realizing in panic that their boy was missing. (Doesn’t this make you feel better about your parenting skills, too? If it happened to Mary and Joseph…)  Upon their reunion, we see this God-as-a-boy stopping to ask his parents, “Do you know what matters to me? Didn’t you figure out where I would be?” The process of figuring out identity, a gentle moving toward things that matter, is not a clean and simple process.

I’m slowly figuring out that the only way through is through the middle, through the midst of it all.

Adolescence is one inevitable “middle” in life, but it’s not the only one. During most of our lives, we’re wading through middles — we’re offshore, swimming through (or treading the waters of) parenting, faith, friendships, family intricacies, marriage, illness, tragedy, pain.  

We can try to ignore the hard stuff, try to push it out of our minds, try to leap over it, but we have to wade into it first. The “middles” of our lives are not shiny, easy, or non-stop fun. Many moments don’t make our social media highlight reels. This looks much more like wading in mud than in shimmering waters. Most middle moments involve little more than showing up and trying our darndest to do the next right thing. Or sometimes, taking a nap.

Redemption can be found in running out onto the other side, but much of the time, redemption looks more like crawling out, a clumsy stumble onto dry land, with months and years before we can make any sense of it.

When life gets overwhelming, I find a strange comfort in knowing that I am just a pinprick on this planet, just one player in God’s greater story — a story much, much bigger than I can see.  We are all confused adolescents in the noisy cafeteria.

We are loved, we are chosen, but we are not alone, and everyone else is loved and chosen, too.

Do you know of the Russian Matryoshka dolls? The wooden dolls that nest one inside the other? My days nest one inside another, adding up into phases and seasons (some harder than others), adding up into a lifetime, but still nesting inside a bigger story.  And as much as I may try to work and prove my worth, I am already resting — being held safely — inside that larger space. I’m not going to earn my way in or out of that safety, God’s nest. I am in the middle, but I am secure. I am imperfect and flawed and irritable — but I am loved anyway.

Photo credit: pixabay.com; jacqueline macou

I wonder if my time spent in the middle — inside my 8th grade classroom; inside that car ride with the kids when the word “Mom” whined one more time makes me feel this close to snapping; inside the hospital waiting for word from the surgeon about Dad’s surgery — could remind me to stop trying so hard and just rest in the mess with assurance that I’m nestled inside a larger story.

The magic of the middle may be that though life’s messiness cannot be comfortably navigated, we are, in fact, “closely surrounded, encompassed on all sides.” We’re not crushed in the middle, but held safely in the “midst of its storms.”