September glory

September was always my favorite month as a child. Now it flies by so fast that every attempt I make at capturing its beauty in writing fails. The gorgeous late days of September deserve poetry better than any I could write. The orange-yellow-pink sunrise over the Potomac River last weekend is etched in my mind and on my Facebook feed forever. The early morning air dehumidifies and greets us like an old friend. For the first time in months, outside feels better than inside. Too bad that September is one of the busiest months for teachers, and we have less time than ever to truly enjoy the changing seasons.

That’s what made my weekend trip to Maine so special.  Up north, it seems people cherish the good weather more than we do in the DC area. Maybe because Mainers live “the way life should be.” Maybe because the winters are so harsh, they enjoy the last heated rays of the sun that linger over lakes, coves, and bays. We took a motorboat into one of the many coastal waterways and saw a seal, some osprey, a kingfisher or two, and several bald eagles soaring overhead. It’s late September but my son and my husband went swimming in the Kennebec River with an old friend. I swam in a lake that I had just canoed across. Later, while I was bundled in several layers, hovering near a bonfire, true Mainers were wearing shorts and sandals, reluctant to acknowledge that summer was really over.

We spent part of the long weekend at a farm, where more than a dozen of my husband’s former Woodsmen’s Team classmates gathered. We had a tour of a self-sustaining farm, where they grow all the vegetables they eat throughout the year, and raise and butcher their own livestock. They have solar panels that make enough energy to sell back to Maine Power Company. They produce aged goat cheese and bake their own bread. They have engineered their own wheat threshers, made a fire pit out of an old tire rim, and grow peppers inside a greenhouse all winter. The farm couple clearly loved having the reunion at their place, but they never stopped working the entire time we were there. If that’s the way life should be, it is an exhausting way of life.

I think of the Great Outdoors especially fondly at this time of year as I commute 30 minutes to a climate-controlled school building where the only light I see all day is man-made. Teaching is like farm work in many ways – it’s just as unrelenting, it’s seasonal, with a schedule determined by some cycle that’s not quite in my control. The work is intrinsically rewarding, like farming, with its own harsh realities. It’s the life I chose, even though it keeps me away from the natural world that soothes me.

So now, I want to capture every beautiful outdoor moment. Because everything changes in late September, and not just the back-to-school busy-ness that takes over. The enjoyment of nature will soon become a luxury, and I’ll be happy to have an indoor job. Fortunately I have the ability to travel and see how other people live, and I have the weekends to reconnect with who I am during the good weather.

farmhouse in Maine

sheep are cool

Memorial Day

May 28, 2019

Memorial Day has come and gone. I’ve read the stories of soldiers who fought and died for freedom, watched the parades, and listened to the commentators praise our military service members. I’ve stood facing the flag with my hand over my heart five days a week and said the Pledge of Allegiance in front of a room full of immigrants and recited the words, “with Liberty and Justice for all.” But I’m not feeling it this year. I understand that my perspective may be in the minority and it might make me unpopular; I’ll say it anyway. I’m a little bit angry about all the praise for war.

Don’t get me wrong. My father, my mother, and my uncles fought in World War II. My cousin served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. His name is engraved on the Wall on the National Mall in Washington, DC. I’ve taken my students there and pointed out Peter M. Sullivan on Panel 15E, Line 10. They were impressed when the docent climbed a ladder to create a rubbing for me. It made the experience a little more real for them. My students from Vietnam were silent. Even though we’d read an excerpt from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, later they told me, “Miss, I thought we were going to see something about my culture!” They understood that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was not about them. They helped me see it in a new light.

I have cousins in the Army today, and I’m sure they are making a sacrifice to serve in the military. I am not against giving people respect for the jobs they do. But why aren’t we giving the same respect to people actively promoting peace? to students who lose their lives to gun violence in schools? According to Education Week , and the Washington Post more American students died from mass shootings than died during active-duty combat while serving their country in the U.S. military. There have been 13 school shootings so far this year in the USA. Wikipedia says that there have been 48 school-shooting deaths since January 2018. I have had to conduct active-shooter drills in my classroom. There’s no honor in preparing for some crazy person with a gun who wields more power than I do. His rights are firmly protected by the Constitution and the NRA. What about our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

I don’t want to put down the work of our military; they have an important role. But when the focus is so strongly on the heroism of death, why aren’t we honoring the teachers and students who face a lunatic gunman and come out alive? Instead we get Parkland students mocked and threatened for daring to speak out after surviving a school shooting where 17 children were gunned down. They were followed around by badass NRA-provoked warriors in tank-like vehicles. When students and ordinary people are the ones making “the ultimate sacrifice,” who is honoring their deaths? *

Why aren’t we honoring people who bring peace to our communities? The Martin Luther Kings of the future? The activists and leaders who speak out against killing and preventable gun violence? In 1961 President Kennedy founded the U.S. Peace Corps. My ESOL 5 students started a unit about it this week. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer and I served this country. I raised my right hand and swore an oath to the U.S. Constitution, against all enemies, foreign and domestic. More than 235,000 volunteers have served in 141 countries. We’ve never gotten an entire holiday dedicated to our service.  What about all the Foreign Service workers and diplomats? The ones who do the actual work of promoting the interests of the United States? I served again as an English Language Fellow helping promote American ideals overseas. Why is peaceful service not being honored?

All the flag waving feels hollow to me. I don’t want to glorify death via military service or any other way. When students and ordinary people are the ones making “the ultimate sacrifice,” who is honoring their deaths? Next Memorial Day, I will honor the peacemakers.

* Hot off the press! Parkland school journalists win Pulitzer Prize!

 

Boxed In – Help!

During the holidays, I ordered a lot of items to be delivered directly to my house. I’m not an Amazon person – except for books – but I have been a Catalogue Queen for two decades. Lands End, LL Bean, Eddie Bauer, J. Jill, Garnet Hill, and DHC are among my favorites. Each item comes in a box that is sometimes so beautiful that I don’t want to throw it away!

Lands End used to have a holiday themed coloring outline on the inside of its boxes. When the kids were little, we used to cut open each one carefully and spend hours on the floor with crayons and markers. It was a surprisingly fun holiday activity when we lived overseas. Now I have no such excuse to keep the boxes, but they are filling up my basement and cluttering up my life.

To make matters worse, my son seems to have inherited this disturbing habit. Just when I start to clean them out, he orders another Japanese robot collectible. Each comes mindfully packaged in high-quality cardboard. Like me, he thinks, “That box would be a perfect container for something.” I brought some to work when we were cleaning out the book room, and those things proved to be quite sturdy. He must have noticed the same properties because, when I got home, they were filled with my books. And his Japanese transformers now cover the bookshelves. Where is Marie Kondo when I need her? These changes do NOT spark joy!

While I was living in Laos last year, my sister sent a message. “What do you want from the house?” They were clearing out my mother’s home of almost 50 years, and I wasn’t ready to stake a claim. “I don’t want anything,” I replied. It was an honest reply. Until she sent photos of each room: the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, the TV room, the bedrooms. “Some things will go to the new house, some will go to family members, and the rest will be donated,” she wrote. I suddenly wanted some mementos. Antique family treasures now form the foundation of the Basement Box Room.

Help! I’m looking for inspiration to overhaul my house. And maybe my life. Please don’t tell me to kick out my son. That will come in due time. But what do I do with these things?!

 

Boxed sets – empty

It’s a Good School

A few years ago, the Superintendent of schools added a controversial Gallup poll to our district’s annual staff climate survey. Teachers had a good laugh about one question: Do you have a best friend at work? Based on their answers, an elementary school received public recognition, and named one teacher Most Hopeful teacher of the year. It came with a $2,000 cash award. By the time the staff survey rolled around a year later, we all decided to find a best friend at work and to be a bit more hopeful on the survey.

School climate is a reliable indicator of student success, but it’s rarely something that gets media attention. People tend to measure a school by word-of-mouth or personal connections. It’s no coincidence that most parents like their child’s school, no matter how negative the “ratings” are. But the happiness of teachers is one of the most important factors for student success. It takes a school leadership team that is both supportive and strong to keep teachers happy. I am proud to work in a district where this is the norm.

When people ask where I’m working this year, the predictable response is, “Oh, that’s a good school.” The first few times it happened, I felt validated, pumped, that I had landed in a school worthy of the praise of my friends and acquaintances. But then I started to get bothered by it. Why do they think it’s a good school? It’s not really different from my old school, except that it’s bigger and – oh yeah – it has an application-only, competitive-admissions magnet program attached to it. I do not teach in that program.

I thought my previous school was a good school. I had supportive colleagues and a principal who let me teach in two different departments – exactly what I wanted. My commute was 12 minutes each way. Recently in the news, however, there was a story about a former student who stabbed his pregnant girlfriend and was sentenced to 70 years in prison. I remember seeing him in the hallways. Does his conviction make my old school a bad school? People’s impressions of a school are often based on stories like this, but teaching and learning continue despite the sensational headlines.

Nowadays high schools are huge, diverse, sprawling institutions with 1,000+ students. Being a “good school” is just an illusion. Every high school in my district is simultaneously a “good school” and “bad school,” depending on where you look.

At my old school, students revered the principal, especially the top athletes. The coaches loved him too. He attended all the football and basketball games, and created a special mentorship program for struggling athletes. He was always visible in the hallways between classes, during lunch, and after school. He helped improve school spirit dramatically. At graduation each year, some students would talk about him as if he were a beloved coach. Except that my ESOL students never saw that side of him. And some teachers I spoke with confidentially in the hallways thought he focused too much on certain programs at the expense of others.

From my perspective as a transfer teacher, I can see how the leadership team sets the tone of a school, and determines its priorities. Sure, we have good AP test scores, a percentage of National Merit Scholars every year, even a few Siemens-Westinghouse STEM awards to post in the main hall. But the expectations for teachers of all students are high, and systems are in place to keep academic achievement front and center.

It’s exhausting.

The end of the first marking period approaches, and I’ve barely managed to keep my head above water. The work load is intense – and I don’t just mean coming up with what to teach five times a day, then delivering perfectly-tailored lessons with clear objectives and differentiation, then scoring all students’ work in a timely manner. I think I have a handle on what happens inside the classroom. In fact, the principal, my department chair, and a Central Office guy all came to observe me teaching during my first month on the job and gave me high marks. They told me they lucked out getting me as a transfer teacher. I replied, “No, I’m the lucky one!” Really, I am.

This school takes the accountability systems seriously, and I’m constantly out of breath trying to keep up. At my old school, I begged the principal to visit my classroom. Nobody questioned my lesson plans. It’s a little stressful this year trying to keep up with colleagues who don’t have the same learning curve. They smile indulgently at me, while I struggle to learn the school culture. The leadership team here actually checks the Gradebooks, Student Learning Objectives, our Professional Learning Community logs, and the School Improvement Plan focus groups. I feel an intense pressure to do my part well.

I’ve been meaning to enlist the support of my colleagues, who have been amazingly helpful, but I’ve barely had time to step out of the classroom. It figures that the leadership team has already anticipated the need of new teachers to learn from their peers. They’ve developed a protocol and a timeline for informal observations so that we can improve by watching each other teach. I feel very hopeful and supported, and have added this to my To-Do list. It’s great being at a good school.

Now if I can just find a best friend at work…

 

Bringing cultural proficiency back to school

fullsizeoutput_6bdcIt takes most teachers a couple of weeks to adjust to the routines of a new school year. The first week is a head rush of frenetic activity when all the plans we’ve carefully made face the reality of the mass movement of teens walking in and out of classrooms every 50 minutes. Once the bell rings, there’s no rethinking the bulletin board, the handouts, or the icebreaker activity. We make it through the first week as if struck by hurricane-force winds. It’s not just me, returning from a one-year leave of absence; it’s everyone. Teachers gather in the department office for lunch like divers coming up for air. We laugh, eat quickly, and get back to work. It’s both exhilarating and exhausting. By the second week, we’ve learned more names, what time the photocopier is least likely to jam, and where the nearest staff bathroom is.

I’ve been a public school ESOL teacher for 18 years, so I don’t know why this September seems so much harder than previous ones. Is it because I lived and worked in Southeast Asia last year and got used to a slower, more-balanced pace of life? That’s certainly part of it. I’m returning to a different school, but I’m not a new teacher. The general curriculum, overall expectations, and district jargon are familiar. (Honestly, I don’t know how the brand-new teachers cope with all the acronyms). I’m adapting to new classroom technology and getting comfortable with updated reporting systems. But the biggest change, by far, is that I’m in a new school with new colleagues, different leadership, and a unique micro-culture that I’m still learning.

I spent half of my summer taking required courses on “religious diversity,” “supporting LGBTQ students,”  and “equal opportunity in the workplace.” I’ve been living and breathing these lessons for most of my professional life. As an ESOL teacher exposed to students from around the world, I thought I was well prepared for my school district’s focus on cultural proficiency. We’d always provided a space for Muslim students fasting during the month of Ramadan. We’ve had bilingual counselors who can speak to students and their parents in their native language – Spanish, Chinese, Haitian Creole, French, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, etc. Sometimes we have to speak up to make sure our English language learners are accommodated fairly. It can feel lonely and scary to stand up for my students alone. At my new school, however, there’s an entire team of ESOL teachers promoting the needs of ELLs and celebrating this type of diversity as a positive contribution to our school community.

After a year abroad, I am struck all at once by little changes that my colleagues have experienced incrementally. For example, our district policy now addresses the rights of gender nonconforming students. Teachers and staff should use a student’s preferred name and students should be addressed by the chosen pronoun. My colleagues shrug when I tell them about my first transgender student two years ago, about how I felt awkward and embarrassed bungling the he and she. At a celebration this summer my friend’s 6’1″ son showed up with purple hair and a beard. I’ve watched him grow up, from a cute toddler to an awkward adolescent. But now he’s a they and called by the name of a flower. I’m struggling with how rapidly everyone has adapted to this new reality.

Between 5th and 6th period, I sometimes have to take the elevator. I see the same girl in a wheelchair every day. She’s got an aide who travels with her. We smile and say hello. Schools have had to accommodate students with disabilities since the ADA was passed in 1990. But this week I saw something I’ve never seen. A girl was walking up the stairs with a dog in a harness. It looked like a standard poodle because of it’s prancing gait. I smiled as they passed. The girl didn’t appear to be vision-impaired. It was clearly a service dog, probably for a mental or emotional disability (do we even say that any more?).

I realize now that cultural proficiency is a broad term that includes equity and acceptance for all kinds of diversity, not just language diversity. My course in Culturally Responsive Teaching has taught me to be more aware of my own beliefs and to take responsibility to help reduce students’ social-emotional stress from stereotypes and micro-aggressions. I will have to do a lot more than just accommodate students from different countries.

A public school is probably the most diverse institution in the USA. We accept students from all backgrounds, interests, gender identities, learning styles, families, and developmental levels. We build lessons at the beginning of the year to create a safe space for learning. We teach them how to respect each other as they work together in cooperative groups. ESOL students have a unique challenge in that they are learning the language and culture at the same time. If little changes are difficult for me — an American returning to the US — I can only imagine how difficult adjustment is for my students.

ESOL classes have age diversity because students are placed by language proficiency not grade level. I’ve got brand new 9th graders and second-year seniors who are almost 21. Many students work after school and support themselves. Some are here alone, living independently or with distant relatives. I have to spend extra time establishing routines and structures to help the class get comfortable with each other. They have trust their peers before they can share their own stories and feel a sense of agency in their newly-adopted culture.

We’re three weeks into the school year, and I can finally begin to process my own re-entry shock. It’s natural for teachers to put the needs of their students first. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by colleagues who understand the importance of team building better than I do. This week we went out for our first department Happy Hour – I mean professional learning community – and I think it’s going to be a fabulous year.

I have to remind myself that teaching is one of the most difficult jobs in the world; it is also one of the most rewarding.

IMG_0241 My colleague has created a rain forest in her classroom.

Using my gifts

My superpower is to see someone else’s point of view as easily as I see my own. This is a gift when it comes to working with people from different cultures, as I have been doing most of my professional life. It has helped me be an effective English language teacher, and it has helped me adapt to life here in Laos, Southeast Asia, where I have been living since September.

However, this same ability is a curse when it comes to other things. For example, when I was a student, I hated multiple-choice tests, because I could always justify more than one correct answer. It’s also a curse when dealing with linear Americans whose expectations bump up against my polyvalent nature. I feel much more comfortable in the high-context social setting of Laos than with Americans who bludgeon you with their directness.

The other day I invited an American colleague out to meet some of my new friends, teaching associates at the university. They had asked for help with teaching materials for English classes. After brief introductions she asked to look at the textbooks they were currently using for English classes. Without any preamble, she told them it was the wrong textbook for that course, effectively causing them to lose face. This criticism would be normal in the USA for visiting consultants, but here where relationships are more important than the actual work, it seemed a huge cultural breach. It was uncomfortable to be caught in the middle. I am certainly no diplomat, but my ability to see both sides so clearly allows me to explain one side to the other, to patch things up, to move forward in friendship.

When my job description changed for the third time in four months, I just smiled and rolled with it. I can sacrifice my individual need for a routine schedule in order to focus on the softer skills. I may not be teaching regular classes, but I am building connections with people. Family, food, clothing – these are all areas where it’s easy to find something in common. I’m learning to sit quietly and listen to what’s not being said, and to accept what is offered. It’s slower than I’d like, but I’m earning the trust of Lao people I work with by accepting their culture wholeheartedly.

I met another American woman who’s lived in Southeast Asia for a number of years. We met over coffee, and I felt like I was being interviewed for a job. She extracted more information from me in 30 minutes than I usually share with colleagues over several months. I quickly adapted to her communication style, answering her explicit questions honestly, and stating what I needed. I must have won her respect because we exchanged valuable information, and now we’re friends. At least on Facebook.

In Laos, Facebook is another cultural phenomenon that I’ve had to adapt to. People use it for everything: apartment rentals, restaurants, small business advertising, even Ministry updates. Businesses of all kinds will have a Facebook page but no website. Of course it’s also used for social networking. I expected to keep my separate spheres, as I did in the USA. But when work and social life are so strongly interconnected, sharing personal photos and videos is a must. Lao people love to take pictures, and we’re all friends on Facebook, so it looks like I’ve got the most exciting job surrounded by groups of happy people, dancing, singing, and drinking Beer Lao. In reality, these relationships are my job, not the 9-to-5 teaching.

It’s taken months to build these relationship and I cherish them because I’ve worked so hard to build connections.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learning to be alone again

It’s not just the rains that force me to stay inside my Vientiane apartment. Every time I step out the door I’m reminded that I am The Other. I look different, I have strange habits, and I don’t speak Lao. The people around me are used to foreigners, though, and speak enough English to make me believe they’ve understood, but in reality it’s complicated. “Where you going?” the security guard asks me kindly. “Working?” “Yes, working,” I reply. I can’t explain that I don’t have a regular schedule yet and my unpredictability is throwing him off. In reality, I’m heading to the local coffee shop. I’ve learned enough about this collectivist culture to know that people are wondering why I’m always alone. These days I’ve been asking myself the same question.

Except for two years in the Peace Corps, I have never lived alone. I left home at age 18 and went from roommate to roommate until I got married and had children. It’s hard to believe. I began a teaching career and spent years thinking that snatches of adult conversation between classes was the norm. As my own children grew up, we stopped having family dinner together. I took on extra work, coached a high school rowing team, joined a writing group, and stayed out later and later. By the time my husband got home I was usually too tired to exchange much more than perfunctory greetings before we’d retreat into our separate corners of the house, exhausted. “Don’t ask me to make a single decision!” I remember saying on more than one occasion. I was too busy to work at improving relationships. I spent decades surrounded by people, living the illusion of togetherness when in reality I’ve been alone all this time and never embraced it.

The physical hardships of being in a faraway place are the easy ones to get used to. The heat and humidity hit like a thick velvet curtain every morning, causing my hair to frizz and my clothes to go limp on my body. I sweat through two outfits a day and show up anywhere looking like a marathon runner in sore need of a towel. I’ve gotten used to biking home in the dark, past the dusty market, where breathing in exhaust fumes from motorcycle tailpipes is a hazard. Maybe I’ll get one of those ubiquitous face masks that Asians seem to wear everywhere. I’ve accepted that hauling groceries in a backpack from the minimart is better than taking an expensive taxi. It makes me look ridiculous, but it’s a humility I can live with. Since I can’t drink the tap water, I’ve figured out how to get the five-gallon jugs delivered to my apartment. I’m doing pretty well.

Then there’s the rain. It was supposed to have stopped already. But it keeps on raining. Twice in the last week, torrential downpours have forced me to stay inside my apartment for most of the day. I looked into renting a car, contacted several places and got price quotes. But since I don’t have to be anywhere in particular most days, why bother? I started reading a good book, looked through some teaching material sent by the B. Council woman I might be working with, I reorganized the shelves in my bedroom, I made myself a sandwich, and I posted way too many comments on Facebook. I started thinking about my husband, my sons, my mother, my sisters and brothers, my friends, and my colleagues back in the States. There’s an 11-hour time difference, so I couldn’t really speak to anyone in real time. I started writing. When forced into solitude, I admit that I am lonely. It feels a lot different over here.

By far, the most difficult adjustment for me – an American used to individualism and agency – has been the wait. I’m waiting for the higher-ups to sign the necessary paperwork for me to begin my official job, the one I was brought over here to do. Bureaucracy is not for the faint hearted. I’m used to a well-defined role: Teacher, Coach, Teammate, Writer, Wife, Mother. It’s been a real stretch to find purpose and fulfillment in a work-around environment. But it has an up side: when someone reaches out in friendship, I jump at the opportunity to make a connection. Because I really need it. I have to remind myself that building relationships takes time. In the U.S. I took all those things for granted. Here in Laos, I am having to work harder at the softer skills than I ever expected.

A little solitude is good for everyone. Being alone again has allowed me to examine what it means to have meaningful work, what it means to have friendship, and how important it is to reach out to people and share thoughts and feelings, even the uncomfortable truth. I have never been very good at that. But I am good at reaching out to people and am rewarded when they respond. Aloneness doesn’t necessarily equal loneliness.

Pretty soon, I’ll look back on this experience and wonder where the time has gone. It’s going to get busy very soon. The rains are about to stop, and the cool season will begin. I can feel changes in the air already. What has happened during my forced solitude is that I’ve had to face the pain of disappointment, my own self-doubt, and the belief that I was totally in control. I am reminded that I chose to be here. Personal growth can only come when one examines and accepts the harsh realities. I accepted this Fellowship to challenge myself and get away from the predictable routines of my life.

Being alone has allowed me to explore new thoughts and feelings, and to connect with a deeper desire to gain a different cultural perspective. Maybe next time the guard asks where I am going, I will stop pretending I’m hurrying off to work, and take the opportunity to practice my emerging language skills with him. Maybe solitude is the true reason I accepted this Fellowship. I needed to learn to live alone again so that I could reach out to people authentically.

“One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.”

  • Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company