My father always told me to make myself indispensable. To prove to my employers, in whatever positions I held, that they needed me and wanted me and couldn't do without me. It's been pretty good advice through the years. The idea of indispensability is always at the back of my mind when I take on a new task or have to approach a situation in a different way. For me, determination and diligence are bred from the goal of becoming irreplaceable.
And yet, my father also always told me to remember that I am not indispensable. That my employer could always replace me, that I wasn't the only one who could do my job, that others were similarly qualified and equally skilled. It was a dose of reality from a disciplined man whose every decision, every command, seemed grounded in what was real and logical and sensible.
When I was a kid, I didn't see these two contradictory pieces of advice as the yin and yang of achievement, but rather, as a weird juxtaposition that confused me quite a lot. On one hand, who wouldn't work really, really hard given the underlying implication that if you don't, you become disposable? And on the other, why would you work really, really hard at anything if, in the end, you are just that: disposable?
But striving toward indispensability and knowing the truth about my dispensability actually make sense if I am truly driven by my own internal motivations. The idea of being irreplaceable - or replaceable, frankly - is less about my employer and how he or she thinks of me, and more about how I view myself. Do I have the confidence to take risks? Do I have the conviction to stand by my decisions? And are those decisions based in what I know about both my craft and my capabilities? In education, as in most jobs I would presume, if we don't innovate with confidence and conviction and skill, we won't last long.
It's a truth that we should both embrace in our professional lives and instill in our students, as my father instilled in me: a seemingly harsh reality to be avoided, perhaps, only by ambition, dedication, talent, and expertise.
Sometimes learning creeps up on us, taps us on the shoulder, and slowly envelopes us. Some lessons are learned this way, like warm blankets of understanding. Then there are those that are the sledgehammers of learning: the ones that we usually recognize only just as or just after we are slammed upside the head. And some lessons we somehow have simply assimilated, not knowing the how or when, but knowing nonetheless.
This week I attended a Board of Education meeting in the small city where I live. I listened to one Board member comment on nearly every issue. That he commandeered every discussion and domineered other Board members was rough enough. What made his diatribes worse, though, were his too-frequent references to the time he's served on the Board, how things used to be done, what happened ten years ago...and all the concomitant emotions, misjudgments, and failures to recognize progress that are associated with one who uses history only to form opinions and make decisions.
The next day, driving home from school, I was still processing the experience. And from some deep recess, I realized that I knew something that that guy hadn't ever learned: despite what everyone says, starting with Edmund Burke and then George Santayana, history just may be irrelevant. Maybe it's more that history must be kept in context, as History (capitalization intended), the facts and the what-happened.
But does history have bearing on what is happening now, besides its power to inform? I don't think so. I think of raising my daughters as they entered their teen years and then headed to college. Those were the years during which I made my parents' lives pretty much hell. I was scared beyond belief that my kids would do what I did (and what I didn't). But I let them be, for the most part. Because what I knew about the possibilities and probabilities, based on my history, was balanced by, often eclipsed by, what I currently knew about them.
I approach the kids in my classroom the same way. I learn little about them, intentionally, before they get to me. I stress that every day is a new day. Misbehave on Tuesday; expect a fresh start on Wednesday (or maybe even later in the class period on Tuesday). Your brother was brilliant at grammar; I don't expect you to be, too, nor do I expect you not to be. And most definitely, what kinds of kids sat in my classroom or what happened in my classroom ten years ago is irrelevant, crazily out-of-date, not worth a mention.
It's a lesson I hope to pass on to my children, my students, my colleagues. Does that make it history?
It's been a year since I started this blog, and a month since I last posted. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by either fact. Years seems to speed by faster as I age, and this past month has been one of both slow contemplation and frenzied task completion. And in retrospect, that is exactly how the teacher's life goes, I think.
I know I wasn't the only teacher (parent, human) who struggled with wandering thoughts of what-ifs, if-onlys, and what-would-I-dos since December 14. Once the initial despair wore off (or did it?), I was left with waves of sadness and worry and anger that ambushed me when I least expected it: driving through town to work, reading the morning news, walking to lunch, teaching a grammar lesson, composing an email, checking Facebook, waiting for sleep in the dark hours. I thought of the Newtown kids, the Newtown teachers and staff, the Newtown families, those who lost, those who lived, then: my kids, my colleagues, my families. I am willing to bet I will remember best the faces of the students who sit in my golden chairs this year more than any other; they are with me in every waking - and dreaming - moment.
And to some extent, these thoughts sort of paralyzed me. I couldn't think of what to write here. I didn't want to bustle about my house, sprucing up or cleaning up. I didn't connect with friends far away to chat about life and love. I didn't work out. I simply focused on what was most important for me, at that time - being at work and working.
And so, the month became filled with vocabulary and grammar and writing and literature, with essays and quizzes and reader responses, with writing lab and extra help and email conversations and video conferences. My accordion folders of correcting filled up, emptied, and filled up again. I carried them to and from work in my pretty new school bag, which got heavier and lighter and heavier and lighter.
Now, it's time to reclaim the balance. This will be slow work, I know. But I've made some calls, I'm back on the NordicTrack, and I'm interested in writing again. Of course, the work is important, but so am I. I can only be as good for my students and my school as I am to myself, and I don't want to be simply good. I want to be better.
Disclaimer: This post is a selfish attempt at a balm for my spirit.
This morning, I don't want to turn on the television. But I know I will. I don't want to read or hear the debates around gun control. But I know I will. I don't want to read or hear the laments about the lack of adequate mental health care in this country. But I know I will. I don't want to see the word "loner" or the label "Asperger's Syndrome" attached to this horrific event. But I know I will. And I most definitely don't even want to think about the children and our colleagues and their friends and families in Newtown, Connecticut, which is only minutes away from both where I grew up and where I live now. But I most definitely know I will, over and over and over.
But I will also focus on the sanctity and the safety, both literal and figurative, of the schools to which we send our kids, in which we work. We strive, daily, to make our classrooms and playgrounds and cafeterias and gymnasiums sacred places for our students. We do this in both obvious and subtle ways, and we do it out of pure love and devotion. And when what we create is shattered, we are shattered, too.
Parents wonder how they can put their kids on buses on Monday and worry about their own schools' safety. In one moment, educators wonder if we'll return home from work on any given day. In another moment, we begin planning how to best support our kids (and their parents) who will have both worried and worrisome questions. In the next, we wonder what more we can do to prevent things like this from happening. We worry about ourselves and our students, and we feel deeply. The loss of twenty children and seven adults (and a very troubled young man who once sat in our classrooms) is a heavy enough grief for this country to bear, and we teachers add to its weight with our feelings of concern, responsibility, and yes, inadequacy. The "how can this happen" question is close to the bone for those of us in education.
And yet, we will return to our schools and to our work. We will gather each other and our students in our arms and in our hearts and we will march forward together. We must, for to do otherwise would be a surrender to our fears and an abandonment of our ideals.
Besides the usual swears, the words "pig" (as in "you're a pig") and "hate" (as in "I hate you") were considered profanity by my parents (who, by the way, swore - one frequently, the other only occasionally, thereby producing in me a swearer, too). Of course, I'm talking about nearly fifty years ago, when somehow we were collectively more proper and less culturally sensitive all at the same time. Between now and then, our society has become more word-aware, and while some deride the term "political correctness," I believe in it as movement toward thoughtfulness, compassion, and ultimately, equality. I raised my own children to abhor and refrain from using "retarded" and "gay" to signify anything but their literal meanings, and I do not tolerate anyone else (read: students, colleagues, friends) misusing them, either.
As teachers, our awareness exceeds words like the aforementioned, though. We pick and choose our words in every moment of our professional lives, especially with two specific groups: students and parents. With students, we know our words can help, hurt, mislead, misinform, sway, or encourage. Whether we're complimenting a student on her work or criticizing another's, we must always be thoughtful. With parents, this thoughtfulness is just as, if not more, important.
We get a student for a year, maybe, if looping is still done, two. Parents have had that child for six, ten, fifteen years. Seems obvious, but sometimes we talk as if we know a child better than his parents do. I recently advised a colleague who was struggling with some parents that, like customers, parents are always right. They are, and it behooves us to think in this mindset as we work with them. Do we see things the parent might not? Yes. Are we aware of issues that a parent might be ignoring or denying? Of course. Are we experts in our field who can offer strategies and solutions that parents don't know about? Certainly. But conveying all that we know and believe is a game, just as any kind of communication is a game. And our tactics for winning the game must be thoughtfulness and proper word choice. Our words must always reflect our genuine concern; they must be authentic, supportive, and clear.
Every so often, a list of "Report Card Comments We Wish We Could Use" or some kind of Teacher Jokes list makes the rounds. In the laughs and pointed comments of some teachers we can see real resentment. Some of us simply chuckle. I wish we all found the material offensive, though, because it is. My colleagues might argue that these jokes are a way to ease frustration and to commiserate. Perhaps. But they're still at the expense of our students and parents. And since they're not anything we'd share with either of those groups, I'd suggest that they're not jokes at all.
Some will call me overly sensitive or politically correct. I'll take either as a compliment, literally.
Watching the Oregon - USC game tonight, I couldn't help but draw some analogies between Coach Chip Kelly's novel approach to the game and what we do as teachers every day.
How many plays do this guy, his staff, and his team employ? Lots. Lots and lots. Kelly tries everything to move the ball, to make the next down, to win a ballgame. We do the same as we alter lesson plans, improve our methodology, increase our use of technology, engage our parents in more and different ways, and employ interventions that assist our students, all in the name of achievement of goals, of student success.
Want to see exciting football? Watch the up-tempo pace of the Ducks; marvel at their no-huddle offense and see the speed with which they move the ball upfield. And upfield and upfield and into the endzone. Likewise, we must find new and exciting ways to draw our students in. Old-school doesn't cut it anymore. To keep them engaged, we must be engaged, too, in the ways in which they are learning. Soon enough, we will all be paperless and textbookless. All of our classrooms will be flipped. We need to release our fears of the new and different and embrace the opportunities for these new ways to learn. To refuse to do so is to welcome a swift defeat.
And in Chip Kelly we find a coach who's got it right when it comes to mistakes, too. His "Next Play" philosophy allows his players to not necessarily ignore their missteps, but rather to move beyond them to the next play, the better play, the winning play. And that's exactly what we do with our kids, every period, every day, every week. We offer them ways to recover from their mistakes and to find real success, for it is in the knowing and growing that real success occurs. When we do this part right - no grudges, no expectations of failure, no pre-conceived notions - kids know they have the opportunity to get it right, too.
Chip Kelly and his Ducks are changing the game. Education is changing, too. Let's make it just as much fun to watch as Oregon football.