New Growth (New House)

Just weeks after moving into a house for the first time, we had to take down a massive Sweet Gum tree that stoically stood in our front yard. It’s large branches stretched across the front of the house, providing shade and privacy. While previously, my sense of appreciation for the forest was tied beauty and ecosystem support, it was now tied to utility: cooling the house in the summer heat, shading the office, creating a sense of seclusion from the streets.

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Despite being new residents, my roommate and I both bore a sense of loss for the tree. We were looking forward to gardening for the first time. Helping things grow. Digging in the dirt to reach some sort of primal feeling of stewarding the earth. Catharsis when we felt discouraged about the growth of our students; encouragement when growth occurred. To have something ancient and living removed from that experience so early on was disheartening: a foreboding metaphor for the closing of the school year. A literal turnout for our gardening ventures. A reinforcement for many of the negative feelings I was having at the time.

 

Oh, how narrow-minded I was.

 

A few days later I walked by the tree stump and noticed two saplings whose growth stretched towards the new-founded sunlight. This light, provided by the absence of the Sweet Gum, would allow these trees to grow. Not only that, but it provided an entirely new area for us to plant things that required sunlight: a rarity in the woods of north Georgia. New growth from old. Healthier. Stronger. Though, it will take a few years.

 

They say that forest fires are necessary. They clean up dead or weakened plants and undergrowth to make room for the new.

 

They prevent more vicious fires from occurring by ridding the forest of debris. Again with metaphors.

As summer approached, and the school year came to a close, I attempted to find my footing: what I lost of myself this year. I had known for a while that I was not me. The (often) overzealous confidence and pride that I normally carry gave to demure shyness, anxiety, and lack of certainty. The extroversion I base my joy around submitted to isolation (I am still apologizing to my friends for that). I think much of this was because my life became focused on surviving the school year. I went from being a Type A perfectionist in my work to navigating the foreign rituals and ways of high school teaching. And just navigating. Just that. Not steering well. Not growing. Not fulfilling a leadership role that I typically strive for. Not paying attention to the needs of my students. Stagnant on some floatation device. Not helping. And that pained me so much. I was more than that.

 

I am more than that. And I knew I needed to sit down and reflect on my year to prove to myself that despite all of these feelings, this forest fire, this loss of a tree, growth occurred for both myself and my kids.

However, my first few weeks of summer disputed my attempt to stabilize and reflect. Reflection, after all, requires you to step outside of yourself. But high cortisol levels tattooed to my brain kept telling me that I had to prepare for next year. Plan to avoid future stress. Be anxious about the future. You have so much to do. You will never get it done. You will never have time to do the things you once loved in your life anymore. This is adulthood. This is real life. There are no such luxuries.

 

And yet now I find myself sitting in my sunroom, a coffee cup steaming next to me and the summer rain pattering on the leaves of trees, writing. Not writing for school. Not making an assignment. Not writing a journalism piece. Writing for me. And my thoughts evolve as words enter and leave my head and I realize that this is how I reflect. Pen to paper. Cursor to blank screen. It took a while, but I am finally at that point. I gave myself permission to not focus on school for a while and do other things I love. I hiked. Paddle boarded. Rode horses. Had dinner with friends and reconnected with loved ones. Sat with a glass of wine and a book on our porch swing I so longed to use. Gardened. Wrote. Ran. Relished in nature and in the present. And those little pieces of me. The extrovert. The optimist. They came rushing back… or maybe they were never truly gone.

And, just like a piece of writing that you walk away from to gain a new perspective, I returned. The trails only lead to improvement. I was ignorant to think that I would be an expert within my first year. And so, as I sit here, I am not stressed or overwhelmed at the thought of this past year and my future… but humbled. There was a purpose in everything; there is a purpose for most. But, that purpose is what you make of it: a tree stretching for light. I know I wrote in my last post that I am hopeful for next year, and that hope has grown because I have found myself again. Perhaps my reflection was delayed because I needed that first part of summer to realize the importance of balance. That teaching should not be a sacrifice of identity outside of the classroom. That the best and most sustainable teaching comes from maintaining yourself so you can focus on your students and listen. To meet them where they are. To do what I love with what I love… to push for change and work in a collaborative creative setting. God, I cannot wait for next year.

 

Our new house, while quite the upkeep, is filled with reminders of this sort of renewal. Our basil and porch plants are currently providing nests for finches and wrens. The orchids I clipped are displaying new stems. A yearling often accompanies its mother in the meadow out back. Lightning bugs flutter in the evening light. Nature is not always calm like this. Always quiet and peaceful. It can be violent and cruel; but, that cruelty creates life. Creates peace. Humanity is part of that fulfillment of contrasts and growth. That shift from shade to light. Happiness and sadness. Hopelessness to hope or purpose. Those contrasts, when juxtaposed, highlight each other. They fill us with gratitude and drive–part of the experience unique to humans. Every now and then I have to remind myself of that. That we need to be uncomfortable. New teacher advice: balance and grow. You will find yourself in a good place again. I definitely have.

First Years and Appreciation: We Are Not Falling Apart

‘The Learning process is something you can incite, literally, incite, like a riot.’ This is what happened that year. We read and talked and disagreed, and the world, so very much world, began to shake inside us as we found our humanity in all this inhumanity, found empathy and compassion, found moral compasses, as we learned to hold history accountable, to hold the newspaper headlines accountable, to hold each other accountable. And all this in English class, not at home, not at church or temple or mosque, but from reading novels with Ms. W. In one year, she turned us into thinkers. I began to understand reading and writing as a revolution, thinking as being a profoundly active verb. I began to understand that a person writing quietly in a room might be burning down the world. And then rebuilding it, word by word, into something magnificent.” -Audre Lorde

It’s a damp, muggy, beautiful July morning in Charleston. I am doing yoga beneath the ancient oak tree that sits by my apartment. From my twisted angle, the sun flickers a honeyed-yellow light between the pieces of Spanish moss. I inhale slowly and close my eyes, forgetting the last of the moving boxes I have to pack. Imagining myself at the front of a high school classroom–finally achieving my purpose: making a difference. I love my college kids, and I am still so passionate about teaching them, but the mentality of the ivory tower drained my idealism within my teaching philosophy.

Fast forward. It’s 6:45 a.m. and I am getting ready to head to school. Coffee and oatmeal in toe because I never have time to eat at home in the mornings anymore. A sharp pain in my lower back because I can’t remember the last time I did physical therapy or yoga.

My mind, ignoring the calmness of the sunrise and the dew it once so embraced with gratitude, is dwelling on the unrelenting task list ahead for the day. The lessons. The grades. The meetings. The emails. The parents. The students.

The students.

And it’s that last thought that pushes me onward.

It’s 1:00 a.m., that same morning. I am staring vacuously at a cursor on a blank word document, a metronome waiting for thought–a paper for my online special education course. I couldn’t finish earlier because I had to grade, and plan, and fill out paperwork for an observation. And maybe eat and indulge in self-care. I also thought about ordering a new driver’s license since my wallet was stolen over the weekend; but, I didn’t have much time to dwell on that. Personal matters pushed aside. My identity and idiosyncrasies lacking a space both in time and in my head.

You have a Master’s degree and are highly qualified in your field? Have a few years of teaching and curriculum design under your belt?  You still need to take these courses, pay these fees, go to this training, fill out these plans, and watch these videos. Answer these questions and spend your Saturdays inside of an almost windowless room. Spend your precious weeknights doing homework instead of planning for your classes brimming with 170 hungry minds.

Exploit the other aspects of your life that you once loved.

Abuse the attributes of a career that you love.

Never mind the fact that stepping in front of a classroom is the best way to learn. That nothing can prepare you for the blunt force of teaching in the public education system except for actually doing it. Nothing can teach you to balance teaching, attending meetings (504, PLC, Parent, Faculty), preparing curriculum, giving feedback, grading, emailing, data collecting, hand-holding (and then letting go), writing recommendations, giving detentions, disciplining, filling out paper work, inspiring, pushing, motivating (attempting to)–all within a system that offers an ineffable lack of appreciation or support.

This is the first time in my career that I feel as though I am not being treated as a professional within the system of which I work. “Teachers lack a voice,” friends would tell me. “Don’t do it.”  And, as always, my optimistic brain cried hyperbole.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with professional development. It is vital, especially in a field that is ceaselessly evolving progressing or changing. But when professional development obstructs growth rather than nurtures it, there is an issue.

I know, now, why teachers quit. And that breaks my heart because I also know the reason we stay.

Purpose. The future. The students. All of which we have the possibility to act as a catalyst towards: something greater and good. It’s something we fight for that is bigger than ourselves. And, despite all of the lack of respect or authority, there is a possibility we can still enact that change. A small pin drop and a ripple.

Luckily, I breathe in possibility. And so do many others.

There have been monuments within moments this year–those that will become permanent… still under scaffolding, but continuously constructing the foundation of my life. Of my identity as a teacher. As a woman. As an academic. Some have splintered with the temptation to renounce my dream–that the grass is greener where I was; it seeps into the crevices of my flaws. But the splinters have been filled by those around who inspire me on daily basis. Who continuously fight because education is relevant. Because our students are relevant. Because every single day is our present stretching towards a future of limitless possibilities. I see you all here, every single day. I see the immense strength you carry in confronting emotional exhaustion every single day. I see you change hopelessness to hope. I see you lead and develop despite hardship. And I cannot thank you enough for guiding me through the growth of this year and for guiding the minds of your kids. You, and my students, are the reason I am coming back.
In 10th Honors we have been focusing on Brave New World and the concept of happiness and suffering…  what a way to end the semester. That perhaps instead of happiness our goal is purpose. Fulfillment. Enacting change. Benefitting society. That perhaps happiness is an occasional by-product of those things instead of an end-goal, and we are better off pursuing our passions and purposes instead. Of embracing all of the trials and emotions that come with life (or working in education), instead of avoiding them–and letting those magnify their other.

Yesterday I sat at my desk, opened a book, and flirted with the upcoming year. Ideas. Creativity. Critical thinking. Analysis. Language. Writing. And suddenly, I realized that I am where I need to be. As my first year as a public high school teacher comes to a close, I am exhausted, but brimming with gratitude for those around me, and hope for how these experiences have fueled my soul and developed my mind.  Soon we will brush the chalk of our hands and begin again.

Dear Students: Ask Questions

The question mark is, perhaps, the most powerful syntactical mark that exists. The nature of the interrogative clause or phrase is that of thought–you inquire as a response to a problem. You draft, you adjust, you adapt, you grow, you think, you try, you test, you risk–all thanks to a question mark. All thanks to a question. What is inquiry but a hypothesis waiting to be tested? What is testing a hypothesis but progressing towards something extraordinary?

It always starts with a question:

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Lazy Mind and Body: the Need for Kinetic Activity (in One-to-One Schools)

 

I love movement. Running. Galloping. Dancing. Walking. Climbing. Movement is freedom. It is the release of anxiety. It elevates my thoughts. It makes me aware of my entire body. It is tangible progress towards something. It is also, sadly, something our westernized culture seems to have forgotten.

Sitting at a desk for eight hours a day, outside of traveling around the country, was one of the reasons I left my government job in Washington. Prior to finishing my Master’s, I knew that a cubicle/office job would not be a sustainable option, but the temptation of random recruitment and the combination of idealism with an opportunity to affect the politics of our country were enough to seduce me. And there I was, in a future I did not predict. Sitting in a cube. Wearing my suit. Drinking my coffee.

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Sitting all day, ironically, is exhausting–but not in the manner of exhaustion that envelopes you, cushions you, after a long day of physically exerting work. It is a droopy exhaustion. Lethargy from nothing. Perhaps from preventing a rhythmic flow of blood through your body, or from your spine being contorted over itself. Science-y stuff.

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On Time and Floating

It’s 6:30 a.m. and I am standing in an open pasture. The grass, coated in dew, makes my journey out to its center all the more difficult in my damp sandals.

But regardless of difficulty, it is beautiful, and as I slide from side to side in attempt to keep my ankles from rolling, I cannot help but admire the peace of the mornings here. The earth coated in natural glitter, which reflects and dances as the summer breeze swims through. Outside of the morning doves cooing, there is a still silence in the air. In the distance, a black and white mass gazes in my direction, flicks her tail, and puts her head back down to graze. I approach slowly, put my hand out, and wait. She walks over, and presses her nose into my hand, her large nostrils inhaling deeply and breathing steam into my palm. I rest my head on hers for a moment, before we make the trek back to the barn to start our day.

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The Bright Side

If aliens, thousands of years from now, looked over the data we place on the internet each day–I think they would all agree upon the theory that the world ended in 2016.

“Look at all of those Facebook posts,” they would scoff empathetically at our misery.

“The tweets,” they would say. “They literally destroyed themselves from within.”

And there, within the reflection of us, will lay pessimism alongside fear, anger, and hatred. Gone will be our great inventions. Our ability to forget the shackles of our feet and fly. To break barriers and tear assumptions asunder. Oh no, we did nothing. We have no grace. Humans are barbarians. Cannibals.

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The Balancing Act: Teaching Openly in the Humanities

One of the hardest things about teaching is the acting.

When you have a weekend, or even just a night, where certain situations push you to emotional exhaustion, or even go so far as changing you, putting an eternal dent in your identity. And then, you suddenly find yourself sitting in front of a class, wondering how to bring the pieces of your mind together. How to convince them that you’re okay when a rush of thoughts are occurring in your head, and your heart sinks into your chest. When you have to remain in the present for them, but the sensation of falling is pulling you backward.

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