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

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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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.

Families, Children & Marriage, Restoration & Reconciliation

Recovering from graduate school atrophy


Piled high and Deep.

Pure hell and Destruction.

Penniless, helpless and Determined.

Permanent head Damage.

Prepared for a happy Death.

Whatever those darn little letters mean, they sure take a whole lot out of a body.  Don’t get me wrong, when less than one percent of the world gets a college education,  I am keenly aware of – and amazingly grateful for – the incredible opportunity it is to even enter this realm of education.  My hubby spent four years in a full-time PhD program on top of working full time and helping raise our spirited toddlers.  He’s a pretty remarkable guy with an intense work ethic, and I’m still impressed he managed to finish alive and in tact.

But it took a heckuva lot out of us.

By the time he finished, his mind had grown large, but the rest of his body could barely keep itself upright.  We drug ourselves to the finish line and when it was over, just sat there staring at each other for awhile.  We didn’t even have the energy to cheer we were so tired.  It was, in all senses, a paradox of atrophy and growth. While we grew strong in some areas, we weakened in others.  Most days were push-through-and-make-it-out-alive instead of breathe-deep-and-relish-the-moment.  

We’re now a good year and a half post-PhD, and finally feel like we’re coming out of the fog.  I thought it would feel better as soon as he finished, and in a way, it did, but we still spent nearly a year just taking deep breaths.  We visited the beach, climbed the mountains, even went to Disneyland.  We went on walks, took the kids to parks, watched movies.  The oxygen felt good; a body needs oxygen.

But the second year out, we’re learning we not only need oxygen, but muscles.  With the level of intensity the program required of us both (him on the work front and me on the home front), we’ve discovered that the muscles we need for real life have atrophied a little. This year, we’re building muscles.  We’re sitting together more, drinking coffee slowly, chatting about what makes us tick, watching a TV show together, attempting to resolve the pesky disagreements and unite on the big deals.  We’re learning to look each other in the eye again, not just pass by on our way to do something, and to slow down and rest, laugh, and see each other.

In a way, it’s a gift to the middle-years-rat-race of raising a family and making a life together.  What marriage doesn’t face atrophy at some point?  In a lifetime together, muscles are bound to get tired, even if a PhD program isn’t involved.  I have friends raising sick children, battling addictions, navigating crazy families, holding intense jobs, nursing childhood wounds.  With the occasional taste of these realities I’ve known myself, I can attest that they’re not for the weak, and a body needs some pretty strong muscles to hold up.  But sometimes, the muscles, strong that they are, still get tired and give way.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, I read, and I wonder what it means in today’s realities of noise and technology and traffic jams.  And then I remember what it meant to me as we plodded through those hard years…

Come to me, you who just lost your temper with your wild little ones, turn on Sesame Street for the crazies and sit yourself on the couch for take a deep, long breath.  You need oxygen.  

Come to me, you who haven’t seen your husband for a week, who just bit his head off when you did because you’re tired and lonely and worn thin.  Let the tears fall on the pages of my Words.  I hear them.  

Come to me, you who white knuckle your way through to stay strong.  It’s ok – you don’t need to be.  Take a nap along with the wild ones; I will give you rest.

Come to me, you who don’t know how to survive the masses who just don’t get what it means for your multi-colored family to be different in a sea of sameness.  You may feel alone, but you are not.  I am with you.

Come to me, you who were scheming to move east.  In spite of your great protests, I will send you west, and there, I will breathe life back into your souls, rebuild your muscles, make you strong again.  It may feel far and foreign  but you will find me there amidst the palms and the foothills. Lean into the home I’m creating for you.

Come to me, you who feel torn apart and tired and distant from each other.  I will rejoin you, restore you, rebuild you.  Though your mountains be shaken and your hills be removed, my love for you is not shaken, nor my covenant to walk with you removed.

One of the most beautiful paths we have walked, recovery sings its calming melody, reminding me that we aren’t the ones who held ourselves together through hard years. It regrows in us one-moment-at-a-time a quiet strength that always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

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Families, Children & Marriage

Surviving your spouse’s graduate program

Staying occupied with my camera

A pit sank in my stomach as we leaned our heads together to pray there in the laundry room before he left to catch his flight.  It was my husband’s first trip to the partially residential PhD program he was starting, and we were half-terrified / half-thrilled over his new pursuits.  We’d decided that he’d travel to complete his PhD while continuing to work full time.  Our reasons were sound: we didn’t want to be buried under debt, I could continue pursuing a career that I loved, and we had family in state to help with our young children.

But all the rational thinking in the world didn’t remove the tears that poured that morning.  The change on which we were embarking was an overwhelming prospect to consider, and in that moment, we let the fear slide down our cheeks.  Then we took a deep breath and dove in.

It was an intense four years with raising toddlers and juggling careers and hubby both working and doing his PhD full time, a scenario that more and more couples are facing due to the rising costs of education.  Quitting work to pursue education is mostly a choice for the elite or the single, and many graduate schools are adapting program models to survive in light of this reality.

When pursuing further education becomes a reality for a married couple, a variety of emotions are bound to set in:

  • Excitement over pursuing dreams.
  • Apprehension about how it will all play out.
  • Gratefulness for the opportunity.
  • Fear of failure.

Regardless of the emotions, the only way out is through, and because pouting isn’t productive on *most* days, I quickly looked for ways to develop some coping mechanisms.  Here are a few that helped me get through:

Develop a hobby.  I quickly realized that if I was happy and enjoying myself while hubby was off studying, we’d all be happier campers.  I took advantage of the ‘extra time’ I had access to and taught myself photography.  I took up writing again and read the whole Harry Potter series for the first time.

Take on a challenge.  Doing a PhD is hard, and doing one on top of full time work even harder, so I decided it might help me to also take on my own challenge to better empathize with hubby.  I’m either crazy or stupid, because I signed up for a half-marathon having never run a mile let alone a race.  It was hard, but the focus, discipline and intensity of it helped me burn off energy that I may have otherwise used to resent my husband’s absence.  (I might note, however, that I did NOT view cleaning my house in the same light.  I hate cleaning, so we hired a student to clean so as to keep that resentment in check.)

Find healthy ways to cope.  While it’s easier to mope about life’s less-than-ideal circumstances, on my better days I was able to use my alone time to embrace life-giving choices like reaching out to invite a friend over for coffee, spending time with a good book, or working on a hobby.  When I felt whole and content, I was much more likely to support hubby’s hard work rather than resent it.

Look for silver linings.  While we’d all have preferred to have hubby around, one of the silver linings in his absence was having one less will to navigate.  We all have opinions in my house, and sometimes this fact makes planning a challenge.  With one less opinion to consider, the kiddos and I could stop the park on a whim or explore a new place to our heart’s content.

Embrace the moment.  Hubby was way more fond of the toddler years than me, and also had a few more pounds of parental patience than me, so he often cushioned a lot of parental trauma for me.  With him not around as much, I was forced to face my lack.  Toddlers can’t be left alone, and learning to respond to them patiently really matured me as a mother.

The good news is that we made it through, and are happily recovering!

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