Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Remains of the School Day

The end of the school year: a time for cleaning, for reflection, for tears, for reconciliation, and for letting go. It’s also a time for some of the nuttiest nuttiness that education has to offer.

Here’s my Top 5 End-of-Year Crazy List

1.      Graduation Gowns: They are typically black and usually 100% polyester, yet we distribute them freely to students, teachers, and administrators to wear in the June heat. Somewhere, the accountants at Josten’s (in their centrally air conditioned cubicles) are tallying up all the money that parents and schools spend on this nonsense, and those bean-counters are laughing their arid, cotton-clad butts off. That’s crazy.

2.    101 Awards Assemblies: I believe in recognition for a job well done, and if I had to pick which awards should go the way of the mastodon, I couldn’t, but there’s something wrong when one of my primary thoughts as my younger son graduates from high school and leaves me with an empty nest to pursue his dreams is, “Thank God I never have to sit through another two-hour-plus sports awards ceremony.” That’s crazy.

3.    The Valedictorian/Salutatorian Thing: In a society that has seemingly decided that success can be determined in many ways, we still single out the mathematically highest achieving kids at a ceremony that should be collective and inclusive in its mindset. Most of these recipients are delightful kids whom I adore, but I’ve also seen parents and students do some fairly despicable things to get kids one of these titles, so honorability is not necessarily required. We’ll never be able to get rid of these designations, though, because the public will say we’re anti-American Socialists committing acts of domestic terrorism in not wanting these two students singled out (even though those same two kids have already been singled out in 101 ways at the 101 awards assemblies in #2). That’s crazy.

4.    Pot-Luck Luncheons: Just as we’re trying to shake off school responsibilities and be free and loose for the summer, we all sign up to bring something to the end-of-year luncheon. Because we are all in a crazed cleanup mode on those last days in scrambling to get everything done, whipping up our signature dish for the madding crowd makes no psychological sense to me, but I’ll do whatever you want for a chance at some fried chicken and banana pudding. I’ll cook something nice and put it in something cute and bring it to school on a day when I’ll be covered head to toe in classroom grime…because I want to eat the math lady’s pretzel salad without feeling the Guilt of the Non-Participant. That’s crazy.

5.     Complaining about Snow Days: The same folks who rejoiced at each and every snow day back in January (and who chastised the superintendent of schools for not canceling school more often) are the exact same folks who now bemoan those days because of the time they add to the end of the school year. I tend to internally roll my eyes when people start the “These kids these days don’t realize there are consequences for their actions!” diatribes because they are typically the same people who do not accept that they need to pay the piper themselves. That’s crazy.

After reading this post, you may think that I loathe graduations, that I hate end-of-year luncheons, that I can’t stand awards, and so on. On the contrary—these are a few of my favorite things. But face facts: school is important and fun and stressful and nuts, and it leads to nutty behavior. Thank goodness that, when all is said and done, there’s love and children and friendship and children and good work and children (and pretzel salad) to see us through.

Ultimately, all of these things are fleeting: our kid’s school years, potluck lunches, graduations, awards of any kind, even people complaining about snow make-up days at the copy machine. Love them. Love them all. Sanity keeps us focused and keeps the school running on time, but the crazy—the frustrating, the hilarious, the controversial, the nonsensical, the pretzel salads—the crazy makes it a ride worth taking. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Silver Linings Textbook

I am nervous about this one. I have written several versions of this post, and--finally--my Copyeditor-in-Chief (aka my husband) says that this is the version I should launch. This one feels very personal, and I feel like I might throw up a little in posting it, but I needed to write it. I hope you get it. 

An article in Slate I read some months back claims to support American workers but actually (to my mind) degrades them. That author says that encouraging people to “do what they love and to love what they do” (that feeling that comes in tandem with having what I would term a mission or a calling) devalues work and the American worker. I dispute this assertion mainly because I think that the author does not understand what having a mission or calling adds to one’s life, and I think she snobbishly assumes that the only jobs anyone could ever want to do are the ones that the author herself finds to be enjoyable—if she could never view them as mission-worthy, then neither could anyone else. No, no, no—that’s not how a calling or a mission works, and there are damn good reasons to seek one’s calling in life. So step off, young lady, and let the old lady chime in.

People ask me some version of this question all the time: “How come you like your job so much?” It is perhaps a sad state of affairs that I sometimes feel as fanciful as a unicorn in loving what I do for a living, but I have found (especially as I get older) that truly enjoying one’s job is a rare and precious thing. I know the reason why I love my job and why I have been able to maintain that affection for so many years. I have written about it in other forums (like this one), and I have even been interviewed about it by researchers (happiness research exists—how cool is that?). Interestingly, others bring up the topic to me all the time.

In a nutshell, I am happy because I choose to be happy, but there’s an element of that attitude that I have always been much more reluctant to talk about because people typically bring so much of their own baggage to the table when the topic comes up (religious baggage, political baggage, etc.). Regardless, I have decided to let it all hang out for you, kind reader. The foundation of my perkiness is this: I am able to stay focused and love this job more than most people love anything because I have what is (for lack of a better word) a calling. Technically speaking, a calling is “a strong urge toward a particular way of life or career,” and my beliefs about the universe are at the root of that calling. (Sidebar: The word “calling” sounds so holier-than-thou until one has one, and then that mess—like deciding to be happy—is hard and ugly.)

Here’s the deal: I believe that each person on this planet has a purpose. I think that most people go through life either not actively searching for that purpose or turning their backs on the signs that are guiding them to that purpose (the quest for more cash being Distraction #1 for most folks). I think this lack of awareness about one’s purpose is at the core of why most people dislike their jobs.

Work is, I believe, valuable in and of itself without any calling. People need work to feel empowered and useful, and I find that sense of usefulness to be key in whether people I know consider themselves to be, to some degree, happy. Work in and of itself is good (very, very good), but to get to the place where joy is a part of one’s daily experience, where the slings and arrows of a given job do not bother one the way they bother others, one needs to be pursuing one’s calling. If I have done anything right in my life, it is that I have spotted and followed the signs that guided me to the most important (and joy-spawning) things in my life: my husband, my children, my friends, and my job. That’s it, really. I look for signs. I am always looking for signs.

At the heart of this idea about each of us having a purpose in life is the idea that there is a guide behind all of this (a God, if you will). I do not claim to have any answers on what God is, what God thinks, or which political party God supports (although I really hope it’s mine). What I do understand is that each of us is connected to something larger than ourselves, and following the signs of that larger entity (whatever it is) helps us to make sense of the universe. Being able to make sense of the universe when the chips are down helps us to maintain sanity and focus (happiness, if you will).

My career in public education has two rules as its core.

1.      I must follow my calling (cannot quit, cannot turn my back on it—because I know that I have a calling, I know what it is, and I know why it matters), and
2.    I must love everyone (love all kids, every kid, every single kid, even the ones I don’t like).

When times get tough, and I want to quit (and that happens), I can’t quit because I must follow my calling. The universe thinks I am supposed to do this work, so I need to [wo]man up and do it. When I wish I had easier students to teach, fewer parent issues to manage, or just an easier life in general, I can’t dig too deeply into those psychological holes because I must love everyone. That’s the deal. These mandates are crystal clear to me, but their ramifications are as complex as can be.

All of my philosophical beliefs stem from these ideas:

·        I believe in public education (love everyone),
·        I will not give up on public education no matter how difficult it is to stay in it (follow my calling),
·        I believe that every human being has value no matter where he or she comes from or what he or she has done or how awfully he or she may behave (love everyone), and
·        I believe in education that is inclusive and differentiates instruction for individual needs because of what all children have experienced in the bullet point preceding this one (love everyone).

See how often “love everyone” comes up? See how much harder everything is because I believe what I believe? These beliefs are no joke, and they guide everything.

It would be much easier (much, much easier) to be exclusive in my beliefs—to say some kids matter and some don’t, to say some schools matter and some don’t, to say some parents matter and some don’t. I can’t. I just can’t. I must love everyone. Thus, if a student is hungry, I must feed that child. If a student is in pain, I must alleviate that pain. If our school or school system is going down a path that I think is dangerous, I must say something, even if I piss people off—even if I turn out to be wrong.

I know who I am, and I know why I’m here, and I know the rules. Knowing these things gives me clarity, clarity helps me to stay focused and effective, and staying focused and effective makes me happy. Get it? THAT is why following the signs—doing what one loves and loving what one does—is a very big deal. A calling gives a human being a purpose, and having a purpose is everything. To say that advocating for people to search for this kind of focus, this kind of clarity, is in some way harmful to the American worker is simply malarkey. Advocating that workers engage in that search is the most pro-worker position that anyone can take.

Understanding the big picture of why one is in this world on a daily basis is the most empowering thing in the world, especially if one is in a low-paying, low-respect job (I’m a public school teacher—I daresay I have some street cred on this). The self-awareness that comes with having that larger sense of purpose (the thing that is driving the love of what one does) makes one less bitter, less gossipy, less inclined to see everything as a conspiracy—all the things that make one feel persecuted in any job. The author of the aforementioned Slate article believes that this attitude dismisses the realities of doing difficult, unglamorous jobs. On the contrary, this attitude makes doing those jobs over the long haul possible.

A calling also strengthens one’s resolve when vanity and money try to lure one away from doing an incredibly valuable but societally undervalued job. Since my first year of teaching, because I was a good teacher, I have been encouraged to go into a school administrator role. I respect school administrators very much, and I am a friend to many of them. I have pursued teacher-leadership opportunities, and I have furthered my own education as the years have gone by, but I have not pursued administrator certification or other precursors to an admin job because, ultimately, I have listened to my calling.

What does my calling sound like?  It sounds like the joy I feel when I am in a classroom teaching kids about the English language and its literature. I am my most joyful during my workday when I am teaching kids, not when working with teachers (although that is a close second), not when the summer starts (although that is a good time), not when the final bell rings each day (although, granted, that’s a relief sometimes). I am happiest when I am teaching. Do you know how many people I know who give off a sense of joy about their work? I can name fewer than a dozen. My joy is my sign. “Doing what I love and loving what I do” tell me that I am where I am supposed to be. I can turn down a larger paycheck and a more respected title because that joy tells me, “No, honey. This is it.”

So you want a piece of my perky? Everything I have to say about my relentless cheerfulness sounds like a bad cliché, and you will want to Oprah me off of your laptop screen. But it’s true: do what you are meant to do. Hear the call. Follow the mission. We all need to work at other jobs on our way to finding the mission, but the quest for the mission is valuable, necessary, and good. That mission may be

to cure disease or
to care for your baby or
to create art or
to bring home a paycheck to support your kids or
to break the sound barrier in a go-cart or
to care for people at the end of their lives with kindness and dignity.

What the job entails is not the ever lovin’ point. Having a sense of your place in the universe is the point.

A calling strengthens people in tough times and gives them armor against people who want to stay mired in their own gloom. Do whatever you have to do to figure out what your calling is. Look for signs. Always look for signs. And then never let go.  

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