Education

Why you should hire a teacher for your next non-teaching position

teacherIf anyone out there is a public school teacher looking at a career change or someone considering hiring a teacher into a ‘non-teachery’ job, don’t underestimate the soft skills that these teachers bring to the table:

  • tenacity to both smile at and set firm boundaries with a wide cast of characters – especially the ornery and the entitled
  • the ability to direct multiple personalities – all creative, brilliant, and sneaky in their own ways – in a single direction
  • compassion to understand that everyone has their own story that you may or may not know
  • experience making quick decisions and multi-tasking while keeping chaos (mostly) subdued
  • creativity to develop useful resources and meaningful experiences in under-resourced and multifaceted environments
  • resilience in less than ideal situations like eating lunch in 10 minutes, teaching from a cart in multiple classrooms, purchasing supplies with personal funds, fixing rickety copy machines, and lacking frequent access to the restroom
  • wisdom to moderate childish quarrels, soothe adolescent angst, critique political folly, apply administrative directives, and navigate parental helicoptering
  • the ability to explain any concept to any person at any level, and to repeat themselves patiently when that person isn’t listening or doesn’t understand
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Education, Families, Children & Marriage, Restoration & Reconciliation

A new season

Every so often in life, I run across these lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem The Four Quartets:

And the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
– T.S. Eliot

Since I’ve lived through a lot of ‘new’, the sentiment always catches me off guard when it proves itself true and I find myself in a familiar place that I’m rediscovering all over again. Such is this next season of life for me.

I started my career teaching in an urban middle school, then a suburban high school and finally a rural elementary school before settling in higher education as a teacher trainer. After a decade of working in higher education, however, I’ve recently rejoined the K-12 system. Working in the academic world was delightful for its intellectual stimulation and scheduling flexibility, but when I was ready to pursue full time work again, its limitations exasperated me and I realized it might be time for a change.

So this week, I found myself once again standing before well over 150 adolescents, donning both my intimidating-but-warm-teacher-face and the-comfiest-shoes-I-own, watching them bumble over themselves as they explore who they are for the first time. While it was nowhere near the quiet-office and peaceful-space the contemplative in me hoped for, it was not at all unknown to me. In fact, it was a little like coming home.

It will most-certainly be a shift for me. I will be teaching Spanish at an arts-based charter school in a town known more for its rough edges than its shiny ones. Yet after only a few days with these students, I am reminded afresh than even in broken places, there is often softness hiding between the cracks. I see it in the passion of teachers serving as role models for growing minds. I see it in the quiet boy in the corner, both unsure and eager at the same time. I see it in the eager chatterbox-of-a-girl, testing limits, exploring options, expressing curiosities. I hope for it when I glimpse hardness in the eyes of a young man whose softness seems to have been buried long ago. I see it in the presence of parents as they wait alongside their nervous new students.

As I watched the events of Ferguson unfold this past week, I realized with great sorrow that once again, these stories will reflect ‘my kids’ – faces so often portrayed and perceived inaccurately in the public sphere. Tears brimmed over the realities that young black men face as I remembered the faces of so many former students who broke the stereotypes society created, and it made me grateful for the opportunity to relearn these lessons all over again.

While I know parts of me will long for the quieter corner of the academic world (and an occasional place to sit down!), I am exceedingly grateful that this job allows me to live out my life-purposes of caring for the tenderhearted, welcoming the stranger, and listening to the unheard through this next season. I also see a theme arising in my life of smoothing rough places that I’m looking forward to exploring more.

As a result, I’ve also determined my season of speaking is shifting to one of listening which will likely mean that this blog will fall largely silent. While I love the time I’ve had to write here this year, my time and energy will more likely be spent focused more intensely on leaning into new realities. It has indeed been a pleasure to interact with so many of you in this virtual sphere, but for now I’ll be spending most of my time in the place where my career first began that taught me so much about living between worlds in the first place.

swirl

If you’re new here and would like to read more, feel free to explore some of my more popular posts on race relations, culture, faith, and family.

Education, Social & Political Issues

Life’s unexpected gifts

To the casual observer, it would be easy to assume that they are the ones who need me.  They’re new here – foreigners from every corner of the globe learning the ways and words of a new land.

Me? I’m the ‘native’, able to translate the words and explain the customs.  I’ve spent years studying how to teach English as a second language and even get paid to pass along my knowledge. I know the nooks and crannies of this crazy language and play the role of a seasoned tour guide helping my students navigate the complex streets of grammar and spelling and pronunciation.

But don’t let that fool you.

Their resilience, fortitude, humor, and kindness are teaching me just as much as I’m teaching them – probably more.

swirl

Click here to read the rest of my guestpost today about the gifts of working with adult immigrants on Rachel Pieh Jones’ site, Djbouti Jones.

Liked this post? Don’t miss this post on immigration:

Dear ‘Merica: A Lament

Education

Melting Ice

She wasn’t really a bad kid, she just faked having a gun in her backpack and pitched a fit when the school policeman wanted to look inside. So the school staff were in a bit of a twitter. The other teachers rolled their eyes in disgust, “Can you believe her? Well, I’m not surprised a bit…”

“She’s never known how to act right, always goofing off in class.”

“They should expel her. She’s hopeless. Lost, she is.”

Me, I bolted down the hall to find her. I knew she wasn’t what they said she was, that there was really a flower fighting its way to bloom somewhere deep down. But I also knew that the violent storms around her were beating it down. I had seen that flower once, when I had mentored her the year before. She’d been my guide, a kind of 13-year-old window to life as an inner city teen for a first year teacher in the ghetto. Regularly, she would laugh at me as I stumbled my way through a completely new culture. She taught me the slang, the music groups, the values of the street. Now, I figured, it was time to return the favor and offer her some tips on the rules of the educational system.

“Shannon,” I sighed as I shut the door in the empty teacher’s lounge. “What were you thinking?!? You know it’s stupid to play with the cops like that. And you didn’t even have a gun. What’s the point of playing with them when you know it’s gonna get you in trouble?”

“Awww, Teach. You know I was just playin’ around. Don’t got to be no reason for havin’ fun.”

“Today, there does, honey. In this case, when you’re talking about faking a gun in your possession at a school, you’d better have a darn good reason for that kind of fun! Do you know you could get kicked out of school for this?”

“Worse things have happened,” she paused, then grinned. “You could send me back to Miss Reed’s class. Thanks for pullin’ me out by the way. I was bored.”

“Can you take nothing seriously?” I was losing the conversation.

Shannon scowled, looked at the ground, and responded, “Man, Teach. You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me,” I leaned back, folded my arms, and waited.

“You know, when I’m serious, when I behave and pay attention and all that – when I’m quiet -” her eyes met mine for an instant before they renewed their fascination with the coffee stain on the carpet, “there’s just too much space to think.”

“And what’s the problem with thinking, hon?” I challenged her, “You seem to need a little help in that area with the trick you pulled today.”

“Nah. That’s not what I mean. I mean that I don’t wanna start thinkin’ ‘bout what’s goin’ on in my life. My bro’s been sellin’ drugs for years and is always runnin’ from the cops. He show up every so often, but I never know where he is. He already been in jail 3 times – sometimes I don’t even know if he’s alive. My daddy and mama – they fight all the time. They don’t really care about me. They just want me to shut up.

“Out there in the streets – it’s rough, man. Nobody care about me. The boys – they just want me for what I give them. If I’m gonna survive, I gotta look tough. That’s why they call me Ice – ‘cause I’m stone cold. Nothing scares me. It can’t.”

Her blank eyes met my wet ones, “See? That’s why I goof off so much. Bein’ loud and funny is noisy enough to drown out all the hell in my life. If I’m quiet, then I have to think about it all. And, tell me, Teach, how the hell is a 13-year-old supposed to know how to handle this kind of shit?”

Frankly, I didn’t think an 85-year-old would know how to handle that kind of shit, but instead I said something about life being hard for everyone, and what mattered in the end was what they did in the face of that hardness. Then I went back to my classroom and sobbed for the frozen realities of her life.

Sometimes the flowers never bloom. No matter how hard they try, the cold turns them into ice, and their petals fall off before they even get a chance to open.

Education

All I really need to know about teaching I learned from teaching without a light switch

My first experience teaching English was in Burkina Faso – at that time one of the ten poorest countries in the world.  My only resources were a box of chalk, a chalkboard, and a florescent light bulb.  The light bulb turned on (most days) by maneuvering two wires sticking out of the wall precariously to make them spark. (After I nearly burnt my fingers off one day, my students determined they would be the ones turn on the lights.) My ride to school on the unpaved roads of Ouagadougou involved dodging livestock, steering around deep ruts in the road, and waving at the bright smiles of barefoot children seeing a nasara for the first time in their lives.

Many of the fundamental tools I still use in teaching, I learned in that sparse classroom.

  1. Students who want to learn can accomplish unlimited things. I had one student ride his bike two hours one way to come to my English class because he wanted to practice speaking with a native speaker to improve his English before he went to seminary in English.
  2. There are always resources we can’t afford.  Using what is available goes a long way. While we didn’t even have textbooks, we used songs, quotes, and the chalkboard.  We did groupwork, individual work, and pairwork.  We wrote on the chalkboard, used photocopies, and memorized poems.
  3. Students are first individuals, students second. Until teachers know what affects students’ realities outside of the classroom, they are limited in their knowledge of how to help them learn inside the classroom.
  4. What happens inside my classroom is not the only factor that affects students’ attitudes. The developing world makes it very easy to remember that humans do not completely control what happens around them, and that this sometimes spills over into the classroom.  The donkeys braying outside my classroom every afternoon made this quite clear. On rainy days, my students didn’t come to class because the unpaved roads turned to mud and made travel challenging.
  5. Sometimes the bigger systems keep the little systems from working right. Hungry children do not focus as well as fed children.  Access to money means access to education means access to freedom of choice.  Corrupt governments oppress the poor and enable the wealthy.
  6. Being a teacher holds inherent power, whether we recognize it or not. In Burkina Faso, I represented America – as much as I hated to admit – and the power that came with it.  Regardless of where my classroom has been, the position of teacher has given me a platform which affects others.  How it affects them is left to whether I handle my power with humble servanthood or proud dictatorship.
  7. A smile goes a long way. Even without the ability to communicate with language, smiles speak a message of their own.

This isn’t to say that resources are bad – they are, in fact, very helpful.  It’s just that sometimes the most potent realities of teaching don’t have anything to do with resources for teaching is an act that occurs between two human beings, not two computers or two pieces of paper or two textbooks.

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Education, Travel

Bright smiles and marker caps

marker caps

I wrote this years ago reflecting on time I spent teaching English in Burkina Faso, West Africa, one of the poorest countries in the world.  Thanks to these children, hardly a week passes that I do not think of the realities of children living in poverty.

“Nasara! Nasara!” the children shouted as my moped puttered down their street. I may have been the first white person they had ever seen. “Goo morneen!” they waved. Some wore tattered clothes. Some wore none at all. None wore shoes. Bright smiles dominated their tiny faces.

I arrived at school where I was met by my students, “Goo morneen, Meess. How are you today?” they inquired, taking my books and bag.

“Fine, thanks,” I was overjoyed, actually. Having taught in American public schools, the Burkinabé students continually amazed me with their respect and kindness. Together, we crossed the dusty school yard toward the classroom, dodging an occasional pothole, curious child or stray pig.

One florescent light bulb provided light to the classroom. To turn it on, you had to precariously maneuver the wires until sparks flew and the bulb flickered on. Thankfully, my students were more adept at hot-wiring light bulbs than I. They had already swept the dust from the room and arranged the desks. Covered in a mix of sweat and red dust, I opened the metal slatted windows to let in a breeze. Four grinning faces stared back at me, eager to catch a glimpse of the nasara.

staring at the nasara

When it rained, my students didn’t go outside for fear of catching malaria from getting chilled, and because the flooded, broken roads were too difficult to navigate on moped. I found this out one rainy night when no one showed up at my class except for the Bright Smiles. I invited them in, offering some paper and markers from my bag. Their eyes glistened with excitement to see such bright, clean colors in a land where most brilliance had faded and/or been covered by thick red dust long ago.

For an hour, we spoke broken French and colored together under the dim glow of the lone light bulb. When they left, several of my marker caps mysteriously disappeared, even though I thought had clearly asked for them all back. I never did figure out why they took just the caps and not the markers. Maybe that inch of brilliance was still more color than they’d seen in their short lifetime.

The World Health Organization reports that 23% of these bright smiles will die before they reach age 5. If my marker caps add a bit of brightness to their lives, they can have every last one as far as I’m concerned.

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Education

Will the real teacher please stand up?

Picture made for me as a gift from one of my ESL students.
Picture made for me as a gift from one of my ESL students.

To the casual observer, it would be easy to assume that they are the ones who need me.  They’re new here – foreigners from every corner of the globe learning the ways and words of a new land.

Me? I’m the ‘native’, able to translate the words and explain the customs.  I’ve spent years studying how to do this particular trade and even get paid to pass along this knowledge. I know the nooks and crannies of this crazy English language and play the role of a seasoned tour guide helping my students navigate the complex streets of grammar and spelling and pronunciation.

But don’t let that fool you.

Their resiliency, fortitude, humor, and kindness are teaching me just as much as I’m teaching them – probably more.  Having just given up the place I call home, a budding career in academia, and cultural familiarity to relocate our family to the other side of the country, I’m starting completely over too.  Each day as I walk them through the maze of the English language, they teach me how to walk through the maze of life.

It’s ok to be sad

“I pray to my God to bring peace to my country,” a Syrian man told me with slight tears in his eyes.  “But I don’t know when it will come.”

To some measure, it’s always hard to leave home. Even if home wasn’t a safe or wealthy or pleasant place, it was still home.  Many fear for their loved ones left in their home countries, and they tell me this with quivering voices.  Others mourn what their country has become – how evil prevails and goodness hides. Their sadness is real, and they make no attempt to pretend otherwise.

It’s ok to be happy

We had an end-of-term party which I interpreted as wear jeans-and-a-t-shirt-casual-day.  My students arrived decked out in sequins, heels and perfume, ready to dance the morning away.  Many lack money, papers, family, jobs.  They’ve lost family members, careers, homes.  But these things slip away momentarily as they swing their hips, raise their arms, and kick up their heels to merengue or circle dance.  Their joy is also real, and they make no attempt to pretend otherwise.

It’s ok to be kind

It started with a package of paper cups, then a platter of sandwiches.  When another student walked in with a cake that read “Happy Birthday, Jodi”, I grew instantly grateful for the ‘secrets’ that Facebook tells. Still being fairly new to this place, I don’t have many friends to celebrate with, so we were planning a small family affair.  I was ok with that, but what a grand surprise to have a party thrown for me when I thought I didn’t have enough ‘friends’ for that.

Just because I’m their teacher, I’ve received Chinese candies, Venezuelan chocolates, Egyptian plates, Ecuadorian necklaces, Salvadorian coin purses. Their kindness reminds me of our individuality, of our need to see others and to be seen, even in a city of 10 million people.

I see you, I say in my mind each day as I stand before them.  You are not invisible here. You matter.  They’re the ones who taught me this first, I’m just sending it right back.

It’s ok to laugh at ourselves

After learning the word “migraine”, one of my students recounted a pronunciation mistake she made once, “I go to the doctor and tell him I have a ‘ma-ga-ri-na’ and he tell me, ‘Lady, you in the wrong place for a margarita.’”

As we all howled at her phonetic misfortune, she stopped us, “It gets worse!  I try to ask for a ‘fork’ at a restaurant but they no understand because I no say the ‘r’ sound good. Yes, teacher, I tell them ‘I have no ‘f&*#’ on the table.”

We lost track of all sense for at least 3 minutes. It’s been a good long while since I’ve laughed that hard.

With all of its questions and pontifications, academia left me with an overdose of seriousness, and all this fun is proving to be very healing for my soul.