Identity

Identity:
athe distinguishing character or personality of an individualindividuality
bthe relation established by psychological identification

— Merriam Webster

Ask people who they are, to tell you about themselves, and inevitably someone will answer with what they do for a living. For most Americans, at least, so much of who you are as a person is interwoven with what your job is.

So take away the job. What’s left?

Technically speaking, I was a teacher for 13 school days. I was hired August 24 and made the decision to leave September 23. Add my student teaching semester, and one could stretch out that title for a few more months.

But in that brief time, and the two years of education leading up to it, I had begun to see myself as a teacher. On my last day of student teaching, as I neared the door to leave my third-period classroom, I overheard one student say, “I feel like you’re our real teacher.” Moments like that — students like that — made me persevere months later when I was losing my confidence, health, and sanity in my own classroom.

So is a teacher who is no longer teaching still a teacher?

I think so. And no matter where I go from here, I will always have that experience.

I told my counselor I feel that when things get hard, I quit. She said, “That sounds like a rule you’ve made for yourself. But take away that rule, and what have you got? ‘I tried something. Now I’m trying something else.'”

I tried being a teacher. I’ll probably try again later. My degree isn’t going anywhere. There are so many avenues to pursue, here and abroad, in the private and public sector, tutoring and in classrooms, for teenagers and adults.

Right now I’m considering a different path. Today I was surrounded by old friends and acquaintances-suddenly-turned friends who rallied around me and encouraged me in my potential next chapter.

Teaching will always be a part of me. I think I’ll always miss certain kids. And I’ve been grieving the loss of not the job per se, but the relationships I’d started to form before they were abruptly cut short. With the kids, with the staff, even with the parents.

One of the last lesson plans I taught was a pre-reading activity for Oedipus on identity. Students watched this video on DNA testing and then answered the questions, “Who are you?” “How do you know?” “What components make you who you are?” “Describe a time when your identity completely shifted, and you had to question what made you you.”

As a good teacher should, I modeled my expectations by sharing examples of my answers.

Oh, but if they’d waited another week, they’d have seen a true identity shift in action.

So who am I? I am a child of God, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a writer, a singer, a coffee-maker, a family historian. I have a heart for people. And yes, I’m a teacher. But there’s more about me that’s yet to be determined.

Heart fingerprint.jpg

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The Healing Power of Coffee (and Coffee Drinkers)

Today was my first day back at the coffee stand since I left my teaching job. It had been 48 days and a lifetime ago that I last worked as a barista.

When I first walked in this afternoon, I felt overwhelmed with how foreign the place seemed. Nothing inside had changed, but in those first few seconds, my footsteps felt awkward and clunky; my gaze fell upon items both familiar and daunting. It felt like all my years working there was a hazy dream that I half-remembered. My entire body tensed. I started singing to calm myself as I inched into my routines.

Once I got into the swing of things (and I had no choice; I was the only one there), it felt so good.

With all the uncertainty in my life right now, I know for certain how to make a mocha. How to operate the cash register. Where to find the back-up baked goods. How much syrup to put in a Red Bull drink. How to greet customers and how to use my self-created shorthand to record their drink orders.

My barista persona came back like she’d never left. And it’s a lot less draining to wear one’s barista face for a few minutes at a time than to wear one’s teacher face all day.

There were a couple of little rushes, which did stress me out — as they always have. But all the customers were amazing. No one drove off. No one was rude. No one seemed to mind waiting.

What scared me the most about returning to the stand was answering questions about why I was back. I’d rehearsed a couple of pat answers constructed by friends in the many conversations I’ve had about the ordeal: “It wasn’t a good fit.” And, if pressed, “It just wasn’t a healthy environment.” And, as expected, some of my regulars asked. But they couldn’t have been nicer about it.

One customer gave me the biggest tip of my coffee-making career. I just about cried. Another — who didn’t know anything about my situation — gave me some food.

At one point, I was half-convinced I needed to give up the idea of teaching and be a barista forever. It makes me happy. It offers that instant gratification that only comes from making something by hand. Yes, it’s a little different if you’ve, say, knit a sweater as a gift than if you’ve made a drink they’re paying for. But the sentiment is similar!

I didn’t have time to dwell on my situation, or be irritated by initiating small talk (a fact of life in the retail profession), or worry about my future. All I had the mind-space for was the task at hand. And unlike in teaching, my perfectionist tendencies are well suited in the hospitality industry.

As is prone to happen these days, my high was instantly followed by sulking about my concerns in my capability to teach and my fluctuating desire to do so. It’s almost as though I’m suspicious of happiness — I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, so I give it a push. Clearly, I still have a lot to work on. But if nothing else, I know I can make a damn good cup of coffee.

Coffee

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Asking for Help

“Somehow we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone. Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we’re very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves. It’s as if we’ve divided the world into ‘those who offer help’ and ‘those who need help.’ The truth is that we are both.” — Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

Asking for help is something with which I’ve always struggled. I want to be the strong, independent, empowered woman who can figure things out for herself.

Last weekend, however, I got a crash course in both asking for help and in the humility it takes to do so.

This fall marked the beginning of my first year as a full-blown, certificated, training-wheels-off teacher. To make a ridiculously long story short, it was not a healthy environment. Most of my colleagues were truly wonderful and helpful people. However, where I needed it most, I felt isolated and unsupported. I received a lot of surface-level offers of assistance and lip service, but after 4 p.m. each day, I was on my own. I begged for help I didn’t receive.

Still, I trudged through. Everyone warned me the first year of teaching was the hardest, and clearly teachers survive the year or there wouldn’t be second-year teachers. This must be normal. I’ll figure it out on my own. Everyone preached the importance of self-care, but even with the little bit I carved out for myself (namely, watching Gilmore Girls while eating dinner), I was falling further and further behind in grading past assignments and in planning future ones.

Some nights I didn’t leave school till 8:30. I was throwing up every morning from anxiety, and eating next to nothing because of it. I gave up coffee because it easily triggered my gag reflex. (If you know me, you understand how big of a deal giving up coffee was.) I would fall asleep fine but wake up after two hours, worried about lesson plans. Some nights I never got back to sleep.

I was miserable; all day, every day.

My teaching, as you’d imagine, was affected. I wasn’t confident in my lessons, or the lessons I borrowed, and it showed. As my confidence slipped, students took advantage. Classroom management became a struggle in just about every period of every day. I felt I was being chipped away at little by little, until there was simply nothing left to give.

While I didn’t have suicidal thoughts, I wanted to run away all the time. I wanted to escape. I fantasized about getting into a car accident just bad enough that I wouldn’t have to go back to school.

On Saturday morning, after failed attempts to find a therapist in the area, the prospect of walking out my door and into school for my 27th consecutive day simply became too much. I had an anxiety attack. By shakily singing hymns, I was able to focus just enough to drive myself to urgent care. Even in that state, it felt liberating to be able to drive somewhere that wasn’t my normal home-to-work, work-to-home route.

At urgent care I learned I had lost 20 pounds since the start of school.

Now I am surrounded by people who love and support me. My parents have been pillars of strength for me in a time when little else makes sense. I’m asking for the mental health help I need. I’m talking to friends. I’m journaling. I’m getting back into nature. I’m taking a dance class.

That’s not to say I’m healed. Depending on the hour, my confidence in myself as a teacher and as a human is carefully stitched together and too fragile to test out. I’m grieving my job and how I expected it to work out. I miss the co-workers who tried to help and whom I had started to see as friends. I feel guilt that I’ve failed them and (most painfully) the kids. Today I feel less broken than I did yesterday, but let’s be honest: this wound is just a few days old, fresh and raw and painful to the touch.

And so I implore you: Ask for help. Don’t try to go it alone, even if you think you should be able to, or that “everyone else” would be able to. Do what you need to. A little bit of time now will save you much greater heartbreak down the road.

***

I started my search for help by searching my insurance company’s website and filtering the list of services by my location and counselors accepting new patients. You could do the same, or else find King County, Washington State, and national crisis hotlines here.

 

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What Not to Say to a Barista

“You making Thanksgiving dinner in there?”

I know you’ve been waiting. But I did acknowledge you when you pulled up. I let you know I’d be right with you.

And granted, you may only want one simple drink, but there is one of me, and four drinks, between you and your order.

(Two of those drinks are blended and require peanut butter.)

It is sweltering, I haven’t eaten today, and I am working in a disaster zone because it’s been so busy I haven’t had time to clean.

It seems like an off-hand, flippant comment. But the more one dwells on it, the more it becomes a critique.

You saying this will not make me go any faster — any barista worth her salt will already be working as fast as she can while still maintaining accuracy. You saying this will only stress me out even more than I already am, because I can see that there are two vehicles in line after the order I’m currently filling. What possible benefit can come from you saying this?

Consider your words. Show some compassion.

A barista’s lament.

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I Can Do Politics All By Myself

I’ve been looking for a church community.

I grew up in a Lutheran church, and it was a great upbringing. I still love the Scandinavian A-frame wooden sanctuary, the liturgy, the mix of modern music and centuries-old hymns, and the plethora of surrogate grandparents.

When I moved back home after a year abroad, however, I felt called to a church with more people my age, with lots of ministries to plug into. And so for the last couple of years — albeit not religiously (ha) — I’ve been searching for a new church home.

Today I went to a particular church for the first time. Admittedly, the worship and the sermon were more charismatic than I was accustomed to as a born-and-bred Lutheran, but I’ve gotten accustomed to that in the various churches I’ve attended.

The sermon was all about offense — namely, how we live in a society that takes offense to everything. The pastor touched upon forgiveness, but the lion’s share of the message was about how people today are easily offended, while passing it off as simply being touchy, moody, sensitive, bad-tempered, and so forth. Even if you accidentally offend someone, he said, they’ll be offended by the way in which you apologize. I thought about this tweet:

Still, I was willing to listen. Unlike this tweet, he hadn’t actually said anything about young people in particular taking offense to everything, and perhaps I was reading too much into the message.

Then things took a turn for the political.

The pastor narrowed in on the “fact” that Americans are offended by everything — namely by things the president has said and done. He proclaimed America to be the greatest country in the world — and, granted, no one wants to think of their country as inferior to another, but what an ethnocentric statement: “Our way is the best way; everyone else is ‘lesser than.'”

“Sanctuary states,” the pastor continued. “I don’t even know what that means. I know what a country is. I know that we’re the United States of America, not the divided states.”

Sanctuary, Pastor, means refuge. Offering the tired, the weary, the poor, the displaced, the huddled masses yearning to be free, the country-less a place to rest their bones and to be welcomed. As Jesus would have done.

The divided states of America, he explained, were divided by offense. So we’re not allowed to engage in thoughtful disagreement? We should just all accept what our government says blindly? Oh, right, we are. After all, Trump said, “Nothing is easier or more pathetic than being a critic.” So let’s not think for ourselves.

And then came the straw that broke this particular camel’s back:

“‘Not my country,’ ‘Not my POTUS.’ Really, joker? Then get out.”

And people applauded.

I took a sip of my coffee to fight the urge to get up and leave, because if I did the latter, I would be proving the pastor’s point: I would be seen as the entitled millennial who takes offense to everything.

Instead, I grit my teeth and bore it, because I’m not the kind of person who refuses to listen to a differing viewpoint.

I believe church should be a place where you can sit next to people who run the gamut of political beliefs and still share a beautiful, spiritual experience despite your differences. Spiritual well-being often requires fellowship. I can do politics all by myself.

I don’t care if you and I differ on every single political hot topic — if we are engaging in Christian fellowship together, I’m not going to make you feel uncomfortable because you disagree with me. Applause is for pep rallies, not to make sure we’re all conforming to the same political bandwagon — not in church, anyway. Save that for your protests outside the capitol building.

By now you’ve no doubt discerned, dear reader, than I am no fan of the current U.S. president. And when it seemed as though everyone around me applauded in his support, I can’t tell you how uncomfortable that made me feel. And here’s the thing about feelings, Pastor — be it discomfort or offense — they are my own. I didn’t choose discomfort, the way you say people choose to take offense. It was my natural, instantaneous response to feeling completely like an outsider in your congregation.

And another thing about offense: If nothing offends you, then what are your convictions? Should we simply kowtow to everyone with whom we disagree, simply to avoid the egregious sin of taking offense?

Jesus didn’t walk around in offense, you said. Rather, he walked around in love and forgiveness. The Jesus in Matthew 21 didn’t sit by idly when people turned the temple into a marketplace. He overturned the tables. He disagreed, he was angry, and he took a stance that aligned with his beliefs.

I’ll give you my own example. A customer once told me my breasts put Smith Brothers to shame. But I guess I shouldn’t be offended. It’s a free country. It’s his right to say that. I’m just being a sensitive femi-Nazi if it bothers me.

Can people hang on to grudges for too long? Absolutely. Can forgiveness be difficult? 100%. But sometimes being offended means your principles have been violated. And I’d rather have principles than follow the crowd blindly.

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How Do You Teach When

Today was my sixth day of sitting in on classes. Already I’m starting to lose track of the number of students’ personal stories I’ve heard that make me realize many students must be only showing their surface-level selves. And I don’t say that to imply they’re superficial. I think for many, it’s a coping mechanism.

I never expected that students would come into the classroom completely detached from their home lives. We are all, after all, a sum of our experiences. So naturally pieces from one part of a student’s life will affect her academic life. I just didn’t expect these stories to come out with little to no prompting.

I’ve heard stories of a parent in prison, of a loved one killed by ISIS, of drugs used by a student for whom drugs are a staple in the home. I’ve seen self-harming marks on a student’s arm, bright and angry. And these stories don’t stem from any getting-to-know-you class activity or assignment; students share them willingly. I think they just need to tell someone.

My first thought after hearing one story was, “How do you teach a student about Macbeth when they’re going through that at home?”

But I think for most of these students (I say “I think” because I don’t pretend to understand I know what it’s like), they need to learn Shakespeare and algebra and Spanish as a way to forget the rest. If you have something small and manageable to focus on, something you can control, you’re less likely to get swallowed up in the grief or pain or whatever other huge thing might otherwise consume you. I think the best way you can support students struggling with personal issues is, first, to steer them toward counseling and whatever other resources that could benefit them. And then maintain the classroom routine that students likely crave and possibly don’t get at home.

I feel a bit like an imposter saying all this, because I am not an educator yet and my own high-school years were pretty sheltered and unobstructed. These are just my own thoughts on this issue based on what I’ve seen. And I’d love to hear other people’s (especially educators’) thoughts on this.

I think many adults look at teenagers and assume they’re naïve — “They think life is hard now? Wait till they have a mortgage and need to pay off student loans.” And I’m guilty of having similar thoughts. We figure their biggest worries are trivial: who’s going to be in their prom group, who’s dating a friend’s ex, that big upcoming exam. I imagine for some students, those really are their primary concerns — which separates those dealing with bigger problems from both their peers and the adults in their lives who lump them into the former category. How isolating that must feel.

My main point of contention with my K-12 experience was feeling like I had no voice. And despite all the differences in the classroom today from when I was a student, I don’t think this aspect has changed. My dad has often said, usually regarding his classroom, that kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Students don’t care if you’re just some random lady sitting in the corner of their classroom. They’re not looking for you to fix their problems or for your sympathy. They just want someone to listen.

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Technology in the Classroom

1998 Apple iMac

Oregon Trail, anyone?

Throughout my elementary-school experience, technology in the classroom meant overhead projectors, first-generation iMacs of various colors in my fourth-grade classroom, the odd typing class, and the utter ecstasy elicited upon walking into a classroom and seeing a TV on top of a mobile four-foot cart. Movie time!

 

By high school, PowerPoint slideshows were added to the mix, by both teachers and students. And while I’m sure there are plenty of examples I’m forgetting, these are the ones that stick out.

I’m quickly learning that in the nine years since I graduated from high school, a lot has changed in this department.

In three days, I’ve observed primarily English classes, but also choir, math, and Spanish classes. Apart from choir, every class used a form of technology that I was either completely unaware of, didn’t exist when I was a student, or I had never seen in action. Teachers use smart boards to write on and save information (as opposed to erasing the whiteboard when more room is required). Video cameras project images onto those boards in much the same way as overhead projectors, only they can capture actual objects versus only transparent sheets. Students use laptops to take math tests online (the whole idea of laptops in math class tripped me up for a bit). Teachers talk into microphones so they can be heard clearly by all students and are free to walk throughout the room.

I think what excites me most about the use of new technology in education are the options it offers students, particularly in helping those who require accommodation a less conspicuous way of achieving success. For example:

  • When taking notes, students can choose to write them by hand or type them, whichever is more efficient for them personally. Some (including yours truly) learn better when writing things by hand. Some are fast typists. Others might have a physical condition that affects their dexterity, including their ability to grip a pencil. (Certainly, assistive technology is available to help such students, but again, if other students are also using laptops, it would make this student feel less conspicuous.)
  • Students can choose to read an assigned book, listen to it as an audiobook, or both. While this would be especially helpful for students with a reading disability, anyone could opt for the audiobook. This is a great example of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which has been likened to wheelchair-accessible buildings — they’re necessary for some, but anyone can take advantage of them.
  • I got especially excited today when observing students using Google Classroom to virtually discuss a question posted by the teacher about Macbeth (“Who or what do you think is at fault in the play so far? Back up your argument with textual support.”). Students spent several minutes writing a substantial paragraph. After posting it, they replied to three other students’ posts — agreeing with, disagreeing with, or questioning the author. All students were respectful, even when disagreeing. Meaningful conversation was taking place. A significant amount of information was exchanged in real time. Everyone had an equal chance to participate, and everyone was heard. Students could take time to articulate exactly what they wanted to say without being put on the spot in front the of the whole class. And the “discussion” was in print for the teacher and students to review later. Perhaps best of all, this digital conversation translated into verbal discourse, with students leaving the classroom saying things like, “I would argue that …” even after the bell rang.

Now, if you’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop on this topic, consider it dropped.

In a very succinct nutshell, my main concern about so much technology is that, given its prevalence, students are going to spend the majority of their day on screens. It’s no secret that students go home and spend hours facing phone, computer, and TV screens for entertainment and cyber-socializing. But I worry about them doing so after already being on a laptop for English, math, history, government, video production, homework, etc. In an increasingly sedentary society, it’s just one more aspect of modern-day students’ lifestyles to worry about. This is clearly a big issue that won’t be solved in one blog post, no matter how insightful its author. I’m just throwing it out there.

Another (lesser) concern is students taking advantage of so many technology-infused lessons by browsing unrelated websites (social media sites, I’m looking at you). After 10 minutes in the math class I observed, I saw one student scrolling through Pinterest. This ties back to student accountability, and a point I mentioned in my Day-1-of-Observations post: How do you make students care?

I could go on for a while about this subject, but I think I’ve thoroughly scratched the surface for now! Thanks for reading.

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