living, (in)action

the coming of spring has got me a little distracted, but i still wanted to attempt a post — so here’s what i’ve got for now.

some thoughts from the week(s):

  1. positive envy — creates a spark in ourselves to emulate those we admire:  getting fit, eating healthy, getting a degree, being kind, being courageous. esteem and admiration are positive forms of envy, ones that we hope to inspire in others so that they push themselves to greater heights.
  2. negative envy — creates a spark to be aggressive, to take people down a peg and keep them “in their place,” to keep them from being too powerful, too rich, too famous. when taken to the extreme we can attribute certain types of violence to negative envy. (from Hidden Brain podcast, Counting Other People’s Blessings)
  3. walk up vs. walk out campaign — yes, we should avoid excluding people and shun bullies, but sometimes the people being excluded or bullied deserve that behavior. i’ve seen unpopular kids become unpopular because they’re unkind, immature, rude, do gross things. there’s also the bystander issue:  if a kid is being unkind, immature, rude, gross and you’re observing this happen, as their peer say something firmly but kindly; explain that that their behavior is unacceptable and help bridge the misunderstanding. but then there’s the question — do we let kids “be themselves” no matter how much that may push them out of the social group, essentially becoming isolated and an outsider, or do we teach kids that in order to be accepted into a social group they can’t always be themselves, do whatever they want? sometimes concessions have to be made to be in a group — and if we’re not willing to make certain concessions about who we are and the ways we want to act and be, then we have to accept that it’s not a good fit, and leave that group to search for another one, no?
  4. walk up vs. walk out — one day of nice notes isn’t going to make an outsider feel like they’re “in.” and if the outsider is truly already pushed outside the social group, they will know that. moreover, redirecting kids to “be nice” instead of taking time to be socially disobedient — in a safe way, i might add — to make a point about their rights to a safe childhood and safe environments is a distraction from the actual issue of violence and access to guns. it’s also talking down to kids:  you want to protest the problem of gun violence in your society? how about you write 17 sticky notes and pass them out to your friends and teachers instead? why don’t you tell a “sad kid” a joke? a lot more work that that has to be done to create environments of care, concern, and tolerance.
  5. progressives and conservatives and neo-cons — it’s all a shit show, isn’t it? we’re all raging against a machine, one that our predecessors created and one that we’re living in, following the rules of the game, willingly or perhaps unwillingly. and groups of people when they come together create a mess. it’s hard to unify because there are so many exceptions to the rule, especially as humans. essentially we are built to be diverse in body and mind. that diversity is both our greatest strength and our greatest obstacle. hopefully we will develop the imagination and compassion to see one another in closer kinship.
  6. Hoodoisie (say:  hood-WAH-zee, from the French bourgeoisie) — a show in Pilsen (Chicago! south side!) my wife and i went to on Saturday night. lots of progressive politics discussed. lots of people present from non-mainstream identities including race, gender, sexual orientation. and as a teacher who went into teaching to invest in our collective human capital, to plant the seeds of self-empowerment, self-revelation, and internal revolution — drops of water that would hopefully one day become a wave of change on a planet that is thirsty for change — i feel uplifted and encouraged that good things are happening and will continue to happening. growth and change is on the way.
  7. children — spent time with some of my favorite four kids this weekend. checkers and rolling dice and dinner and hair cuts and car rides and talking and laughing and chocolate chip cookies. children can be terrible tyrants sometimes, but they are also beautiful healings. what love.
  8. balance — a teacher this weekend said to me, “if we all had perfect balance we wouldn’t be here.” and i take that “here” to mean the room we were in, but also the lives we’re living. balancing peace and struggle, effort and rest, compassion and justice, oneness and individuality, patience and action, control and letting go — that’s what it’s all about. there is mystery and depth and unknowableness in life, and that unites us.

are you living your best life? man, i’m tryin’!

what kind of person do i want to be? when i am on my death bed, or laying on the ground in pieces after being hit by a bus, and my life flashes before my eyes — what kind of person, and what kind of life, do i want to look back on?

i’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because i’ve been housing a lot of regrets. and why? my life is out of balance — too much time at work, too much time worrying about getting things done, too much space given up to to lists of chores and tasks. and it’s taking a toll on me, self-esteem-wise and my happiness overall — even my ability to see good things, to register pleasure and joy. the stuff that makes up my heart and soul has been hard-packed by the trivial things in life and it needs some loosening up.

so — the things that matter to me most, that bring me the most joy, should be the things that should float to the top and be my priorities.

i think about this in relationship to teaching, which is a big part of my identity. i love learning and ideas. ideas — and just plain thinking — excite me, and i want to share that excitement with kids.

teaching, like life itself, should be part-structured and part rollicking and free. (we need to know where our next meals are coming from, but we can also have an adventure before dinnertime, you know?) as a teacher, as the teacher i strive to be, i am present to the kids, ever observant and open to them, their personalities, their problems and concerns, their foibles and idiosyncrasies. i am compassionate, but i push. i let them fail in a safe space, i ask questions, i sit back and think along with them. i wonder and i let the possibilities unfold. and even if it doesn’t happen this way most of the time, i want it to — i want to bring more of myself, the life enthusiast, into my classroom.

i think about teaching in relationship to living — the way they interact together, almost like the inhale and exhale of breathing — and i think forward to the inevitable moment on my death bed. so with the end in mind, i remind myself that i can be a good teacher — and a good life-liver — if i remember who i am, do the things that make my heart sing, and stay open to the fascination and terror and puzzlement and thrill that is living this messy life.

Life in Cycles

It frustrates me that I can’t be perfect — or even a version of perfect — even for a few days at a time. I’m so good at trying, too:  I make lists, I fill out my calendar just so, I create budgets and goals. I do all of that. And then something happens to loosen up the tight plans, to dull the shiny dreams, that I’ve made.

Two weekends ago it was a snow day, which you might think would make the weekend easier and  more productive. But no — snow days, especially now as a homeowner — mean that you’re out there, spending time and energy moving snow around, off the sidewalks and out of parking spaces. And then sitting by the window dreading another round of white flakes floating down.

Last weekend it was a work trip, where I wrongly assumed that I’d get all kinds of work done after my eight-hour — that’s right! — eight-hour sessions ended. Of course, there was time interspersed for eating and bathroom breaks, but by the time I’m done with eight hours of work talk and work thinking, I’m not exactly in the mood to sit down with a stack of papers and grade them, or to curl up in an armchair to write detailed lesson plans. It was all I could do to get through dinner and watch some Olympics on TV and not act like the tired grouch that I was.


And what does this have to do with anything? Well, when one brick in the wall of perfection is removed or shifted, even a little, everything shifts. And the expectations I have for myself are raised even higher for the next day to “catch up” and to keep pushing to get to the land of perfection, often to the point of being totally unrealistic about the limitations of the space-time continuum. I mean, it’s just not possible to do laundry, clean the house, grocery shop, meal prep for the week, grade a stack of papers, lesson plan for the week and watch an episode of Fixer Upper in four hours. That’s hardly possible in four days!

So I’m trying to lessen the pressure on myself to do all and be all. Because trying so hard is not making me happy and it hasn’t been making me happy for as long as I’ve been trying.

The way that I’ve been programmed — through overt modeling or internal tendencies — is to see life and goal-setting and goal-reaching as a linear feat, something predictable and easily controlled. And that’s just not how life really works. We live on a planet that is organized around cycles:  the seasons, weather patterns, the tides, migration cycles, the cycle of life, for goodness’ sake! So I’m moving towards reframing my approach to “achieving things.” I’m starting to view it as part of a cycle, or as part of many varied and interacting cycles, lots of messy, unpredictable curlicues and loops and not in a straight line at all. And sometimes the “achieving” and the growth spurts will be quick and strong, or sometimes they may level off or stagnate, but I cannot assume that one, small portion of my life — a day, a week, even a month or a year — is the way that things will be forever.

After all, there is no such thing as a straight line on earth, so I am willing to trust in the ebb and flow of cycles.

Can I be a housewife already?

I just finished watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon and I loved it so much — engaging characters, funny dialogue, beautiful sets and costuming.

Anyway, something that I was vibing on while watching the show is the housewife lifestyle. I know it’s not very progressive or feminist or pro-women to say this, but so often I wish I could be a housewife. To be perfectly honest, the things I like to do best are the things that have to do with the home and “homemaking.” I like cooking and baking, I don’t mind running errands or budgeting and bill paying for the household, I love gardening and decorating, I get a good amount of satisfaction from cleaning, and I enjoy the process of planning and hosting people at our home for events and holidays. What can I say? I’m a house nerd.

However, with a full-time job that I often work 10 hours a day — plus a half-day most weekends — I’m not able to take care of the household as I’d like. My wife shares the responsibilities, of course, but it never seems that there’s enough time for us to do our paid jobs well, take care of the house well, and take care of ourselves well, too. During a good week we’re maybe 2 for 3, but hardly ever 3 for 3, you know? And I can see why, in the age of nuclear families, it makes sense to have one adult work outside the home earning the money and the other adult staying home to work that front. Because doing both can be a lot, especially if you want them done well. (And by “well” I mean not eating a grilled cheese or a can of soup every night for dinner or leaving laundry to build up to an avalanche-inducing height before I get to it…)

And this is not to disparage anyone who is trying their best to bring home the bacon and fry it up, too. I’m currently a member of that group and if anything I’m acknowledging that it’s damn hard to do both — it’s exhausting, actually. But, if I’m wishing to take a timeout from the breakneck speed of trying to do both work and home life, I can’t be the only one.

The Hermit Crab As Teacher

Over a year ago, my wife bought a pair of hermit crabs as class pets for her second grade students. She’s had hermit crabs before, and she’s heard that if the environment is too stressful for them they cannot thrive, and in some instances if it’s too stressful, then they die. In the end, her students were a little too rowdy for the crabs to live happily in the classroom, so Ralph and Miss Honey came home one evening, and were home to stay.

Both Ralph and Miss Honey were extremely shy. They rarely came out of their shells, and when they did it was only briefly for food or water. Then they’d retreat to opposite corners of their tank and burrow down through the peat and soil, all the way to the glass bottom. At times I’d forget they were even in there, their vigilance and deep commitment to their namesakes a given.

During the first few months at home they also behaved oddly, at least according to my wife. They switched shells with one another more than once, despite there being at least two or three other options in their tank. They even refused hermit crab food and would only eat fresh vegetables or fruit, and exclusively watermelon for a while.

Over summer we were out for a day or two, maybe on a short day trip or vacation, I can’t remember, and when we came back we saw that they’d switched shells again, but that this time Ralph was missing his big claw. Those claws are their most important asset, their main self-defense weapon. Those claws even seal them off from the outside world when they retreat into their shells. Poor Ralph with no claw. But amazingly, he survived at least another few weeks without it. One day my wife came home and went to check on them and say hello, and she saw that Ralph was no longer with us. It was down to just Miss Honey. Solitary Miss Honey.

And she’s lived alone ever since, changing tanks once, but other than that living quietly and elusively for months, rarely coming out and retreating quickly whenever we’d walk by or bend our faces to the tank to say hello. At one point my wife researched how hermit crabs get to pet stores — you know, are they bred, trapped in the wild, all that. Turns out their journey to a pet store is traumatic:  they’re captured from the wild, then put into large sacks with hundreds of other crabs, many having their shells cracked open or dying along the way. By the time they arrive in display cases in pet stores, they are most likely battered physically and to whatever depth they feel and sense, they are likely psychologically or emotionally battered, too. Makes sense that she is the way she is. If she could speak, she’d probably say Humans? Fuck humans, I’m staying in my shell.

However, my wife has continued caring for Miss Honey, even after her violent incident with Ralph, overcoming her own dislike of seafood to serve Miss Honey shrimp, cutting up tiny pieces of fresh fruit and veggies for her everyday, changing her waters (hermit crabs need both fresh and salt water), spraying down her tank and checking the temperature to make sure she’s living in an optimal environment, and gently talking to her at least once or twice a day. I too have walked by and occasionally seen her out — rather, I’ve seen her shell on the surface instead of burrowed down as far as possible — and I’ve taken the time to say hello and observe her, tried to admire her strange little antennae and skinny walking legs, her jet black eyes on stalks. She was the ghost pet of the house, a figment or a specter, but I thought, well, you never know if she’s listening, might as well be kind.

And after all this time, nearly a year, she’s finally finally come out. I think on Thanksgiving, when we hosted almost 20 people and we were at our noisiest, one of the cousins saw her walking around her tank. Miss Honey, just out for a stroll. I was so surprised, but also delighted. I took it that she too was making an effort to be hospitable for the holiday.

~~~   ~~~   ~~~

I’ve sat here across from Miss Honey on the couch many times:  her tank light glowing, water drops humidly clinging to the sides, no movement or life apparent, but I know she’s in there, up to something. And as a living creature she is so much like so many of us:  she’s been battered along her journey, and thus scared to no end, convinced it’s best to stay hidden away or strike first before being hurt again herself. But I’d also like to think that she is an example of the victories, large and small, that we can all have with finding safety and beginning to trust, of allowing care and kindness to touch us even when it’s at the risk of re-injury.

My wife has played a significant role in Miss Honey’s story. Sometimes holding out our hands, offering love and care consistently and patiently and without expectation is the cure that a battered heart needs. And like my wife caring faithfully for Miss Honey, the response and the validation may not come right away, but it is the right remedy.

We are mysteries inside our own shells with our own complicated histories and hurts, trials and successes. Sometimes we stay buried and sometimes bravely push ourselves to go out for a stroll. And sometimes we are the gentle and patient caregiver, giving just to give, participating in the rebuilding and the healing one day at a time, knowing that one day our hermit crab will emerge from her shell.


Which Is Better: Your Best or Good Enough?

Doing my best, trying my hardest, giving it everything I’ve got is a big part of my identity — especially when it comes to work. As a kid, school (the junior version of work) came pretty easily to me, but I would still try my hardest, study diligently for tests, strive for my personal best, look for ways to challenge myself, all that. Even in high school, most Friday nights I’d sit at my convertible dresser / desk, consult my meticulously written out homework agenda, and get to work. And it wasn’t because I wanted to get it out of the way to open up the rest of my weekend, it was because I wanted to feel that feeling of achieving and doing things well. Same thing in college, grad school, and on into my adult work life. Problem is, this work ethic and my perfectionistic tendencies have caused a lot of stress and heartache.

I’m currently in my eleventh year of teaching and sometimes I still feel like I put in as much time and effort as a rookie. Lately I’ve been reflecting on reasons why — and I don’t want to make excuses for myself — but from what I can see there are a few major factors, some that I can control and others that I can’t and never could have.

First and foremost, teaching is one of those professions that can become a 24/7 occupation. If I spent my full energy thinking about each of my students, their unique talents and needs, and then designed meaningful and personalized learning for each of them that in itself could be an endless task — not to mention developing a beautiful, enriching, and engaging classroom; creating attractive and interactive bulletin boards in the hallway; reaching out to all the kids’ parents regularly via their preferred communication method; continuing to develop my professional capacity with after school, weekend, and summertime opportunities; applying for grants and writing Donors Choose proposals; the list goes on and on and each task — when done to the best of my ability — could be a nearly full-time job on its own besides the task of teaching the kids who come to learn something with me everyday. So there’s that. Teaching is hard.

Second, my early career — and even my pre-service experience — was rocky at best. As a student teacher my cooperating teacher didn’t even know I was going to be with her (for the entire school year!) until I sat down next to her in August and introduced myself. Just imagine — she had had no idea that for the entire school year a 25-year-old was going to be shadowing her, observing her, and hoping to eventually take over her classroom instruction. She was also not the best model of how to teach creatively or use time efficiently. Just to give you some context:  she had 15 students and taught out of basals — essentially pre-written curricula in all content areas — and was still at work every day until after six o’clock at night reviewing lessons and wondering to herself what to teach. Once I got into my own classroom, the first four years were a different grade level, a different classroom, or a different school. First it was first grade, then it was a triple split with first, second, and third graders all in the same room, then it was just third grade but I had to move classrooms, then I was in a brand new school with no curricula at all and I was responsible for writing essentially all of it with a team of strangers. Phew! After that, I was in the same classroom teaching the same grade, but turnover at my newer school was so high that for four years the entire team was new each year — except for me — so I was responsible for guiding my new team members through curricula I’d written and then managing, revising and rewriting that curricula with each new team. So there’s that. Teaching is really hard.

All the while, through every major change, I felt very responsible for my students and an obligation to do my very best. Because the kids needed me and because doing a job well is an expression of me, of who I am as a person. It’s been a huge part of my identity to do things well, actually — if I want to be fully honest — it’s been a huge part of my identity to do things the best, to be the best, to be outstanding. And for many years I’ve strived to do just that and many times I’ve stayed at work 11, 12, 13 hours a day, working half-days on Saturdays and Sundays, and over breaks, too. I’m doing things “the best,” but when I’ve had those moments to step back and look at my life as a whole rather than just work, work is the only thing getting done — no time or energy for eating right, exercising, socializing. And now that I’m in my eleventh year of teaching, I’m tired. Because teaching is hard, and because it’s hard to give it my all, all the time, and in many cases for it to make not that much of a difference to anyone but me.

So this is where I am — stuck — and maybe in transition. Some days I leave my classroom feeling like a failure:  I have dozens of things left on my to do list and it’s unlikely they’re going to get done anytime soon. Certain lessons or moments didn’t go the way I planned or wanted, and I just don’t feel like I gave it my all. Other days I look around the room — mess that it is — shrug, tell myself I did the best I could with what I had, remind myself I have a life to live outside of work, turn off the lights, and leave.

And on those days, even though I’m gone, in my car on the way to the gym or home to cook dinner, looking forward to a new episode of Fixer Upper or another couple of chapters from a library book, there’s this nagging, needling feeling that keeps me wondering — is it okay that today was good enough, or should I have really tried my best?

Addicted to the Big Reveal

So this winter break I’ve become really interested — okay addicted — to an HGTV show called Fixer Upper. Despite this show, and this network really, being responsible for my wife and me thinking we could buy a building (and then we did) I still love this show. And what’s not to love?

There’s the typical goofy husband / beautiful wife combo who work with clients to make their dream homes become reality. There’s some silliness during construction, a peek at the Gaines’ growing family and their animals at Magnolia Farms. It’s great.

What I especially love is that Big Reveal at the end. Ooh, I just friggin’ love it!!! The couple is nervously laughing and their shoulders are all tense, or they’re grabbing one another’s hands in anticipation, and Joanna or Chip ask, “Are you ready to see your fixer upper?” and the couple says “Yes!” and then the screens are pulled away and then someone shrieks with joy, or the couple hugs, or they exchange handshakes or hugs with Chip and Joanna. It’s the best, that moment of unveiling and sharing after such a long time of waiting and hoping and wishing and dreaming for the day.

I love the moment of the big reveal because energetically, spiritually even, it feels like a big moment of exchange, of following through with all your promises and giving it everything you had, of showcasing earnestness and honesty, of having every good intention fulfilled and put on display, of giving and healing — healing both the home owners and the home itself. It’s the final moment of taking someone’s trust (and money, of course) and turning it into a newness that was previously only imagined in the mind’s eye. The home, the place where our bodies and minds come to rest and where our energy is replenished, is made new. It’s just so… — I just love it.

And in some ways, New Year’s Eve feels like that, too. Tonight is the big reveal on the new year, on the start of 2018, something new and fresh. It’s like a backyard full of freshly fallen snow, and no one — not even a sparrow or a stray alley cat — has stepped foot on it yet. It’s blank, and the potential seems endless.

The tricky thing is what to do — and how to live — once we get that clean slate, that do-over, that moment of starting anew. I know I’ve had many Mondays where “this is the week that everything will go just the way I want it,” and of course it doesn’t — because life is a messy organism. And after one fail I wait for the next Monday, and it turns out that over the years I’ve spent a lot of time waiting to start over.

So I go into this new year focusing on the big themes I want to heal and make new — no, not make new — just see and live in a new way. Because we all have lives that are just like these fixer uppers — the bones are good and the potential is there, we just have to see it in ourselves and then lovingly, day after day, choose the path that creates change and fulfillment — one little Big Reveal at a time.

Christmas Shopping & Gender

This past Friday I was about 1% prepared for Christmas in all of the possible ways:  no gifts purchased, no decorations hung, no cards written, no cookies baked. But it was on the list of things to do for Saturday and my wife and I really got it done. At some point I just decided that this year all the adults were getting socks and all the kids were getting books, so I think that helped. Sorry, family members, if you’re reading this. Maybe I should’ve put a spoiler alert at the top for you. Either way, let’s move on.

Besides the socks and books, my wife and I did some other in-person shopping and as we zigzagged between the boys’ and girls’ clothing sections the contrasts were pretty stark. Thankfully a boy I was shopping for only needed clothes in navy and hunter green — but if he had wanted anything in an even slightly peppier hue, it would have been a challenge. At one point I stood in the tiled aisle facing in towards the clothing racks, boys’ side on my right and girls’ side on my left. The girls’ side looked like a a balloon had just popped and as many sparkles and frills as you could imagine rained down in colors like pink, soft purple, white and yellow. Since it’s Christmastime, there was also a good mix of red, green, and black, but when my eyes moved over to the boys’ side, it was like all the color had been leached out. Gray, navy, hunter green, black, more gray, a few spots of white and royal blue. That’s it.

And what does this tell our boys and men? Because it’s the same thing when I walked the women’s and men’s sections, if not even more pronounced. Women’s racks were strewn with dresses that looked like silver and gold disco balls and the men’s racks had black, gray, blue, dark green, more gray. Just looking at color, and not even more detailed things like fit or design, to me it looks like boys and men aren’t supposed to have any fun. They’re not supposed to see their bodies and their clothes as a way to express themselves, to be viewed in a decorative or showy way, to play with color, pattern, or texture.

To me this small detail, a wardrobe drained of color, portends that men cannot have — are not culturally allowed to have or are not “supposed” to have — a relationship with their own sensuality. Think about it — when you picture a “bachelor pad” in your mind, what do you see? Over the years in person and in media I’ve mostly seen hyper-minimal looks, lots of black, white, gray, and stainless steel, maybe some raw or dark wood, maybe some sports memorabilia. Colors are often bland and dark. It’s often feels hard and in many ways lifeless. Sometimes even a bit cold and empty.

And what does male clothing or home styling have to do with anything? Well, we’re having this national “moment” about men and their bad behavior towards women — not all men, but enough men towards enough women that it’s made its way into many of our daily conversations. It makes me wonder:  if these men, who were once boys, had been allowed to get in touch with the full range of their sensuality by playing with color in something as mundane as their clothing, what would have happened — what could have happened?

If men had had the chance, the permission, to wear yellow, orange, purple — gasp! pink! — what would that have felt like? Would it have sparked a change, a tiny shift, into asking the simple question:  What else? What else can I feel? What else can I experience? And what if the what else didn’t end with color and clothing, but with putting aside other hyper-masculine attributes to explore something else, another side of who they are and another way of being in the world? What if they asked what else when it came to expressing affection? What if they asked what else when they wanted to express sexual desire? What if they asked what else — how else can I deal with this — when they felt sad, lonely, rejected, isolated, unattractive, unwanted?

Because beyond being male, each individual person, regardless of sex or gender, is so much more — and there is always something else, something more to explore, something more to see, another shade or angle to experience.

And if you’re a man or identify as male, it’s very likely that if you’re like most of the men I know:  you haven’t had a chance to explore your sensuality, your creativity, your way of being in the world that isn’t highly dictated by very strict masculine norms. And what a thing — to miss out on all the shades of life. How dull. How boring. How gray.

How do we solve a problem like Ms. Coughlan?

The public schools in Chicago are going into their fifteenth or sixteenth week of school, and I’ve been feeling a little behind. Some of it absolutely has to do with buying a building, moving, and becoming a landlord (landlady? landperson?). The bigness of a move and the shift from being a renter to an owner is a much bigger deal than I initially realized. But something’s been off beyond that. And it has to do with how much time I’ve been spending on my students’ parents.

Yes, you read that right. Not the students, but their parents. And honestly, it’s not all the kids’ parents. Really it’s one set of parents who are very, very intense. And I’d say calling them intense is nice. Because I think — were I in another profession — it would be called harassment. I mean, would you be emailing your doctor or attorney — or hell — your handy man or car mechanic on a daily basis, questioning their every move despite their regular updates? And then regardless of their responses, would you then go to their bosses — behind their backs — to complain about how they’re not doing their job?

But let’s rewind. How has it gotten to this level? Well, without going into too much identity-revealing detail about the child, it essentially has to do with the parents — on a fundamental level — disrespecting me and living in a deep level of denial. You see, early on in the year, probably around week four or five of school, I reached out to the parents, expressed some observations and concerns, and presented a plan to support their child. The parents agreed, said it was a great plan and appreciated it so much, please move forward. Then when I clarified my plan with my administrators I realized that I had skipped an important step in the support process, and so I had to reach out to the parents again, let them know our support plan would be delayed about 10 school days, and then we could resume. Upon hearing that these supports were now more official — aka not off the books and not done “just between us” — they freaked out and refused the supports. Because — obviously — Harvard and Yale and Northwestern are all monitoring third graders’ support plans.

So, I complied with their wishes and never implemented the plan. However, their child continued to exhibit the same concerns, and the child has continued to free fall. And here we are:  the child has an F in a core class and Cs in the other two. And it’s all my fault.

And as this whole exhausting, distracting, unnecessary fiasco has proceeded I began to lose myself in the drama and the conflict. I also started to hypercritically monitor myself and question my every move. It got to the point where I had to ask my colleagues if what I was doing in my classroom was even teaching. The voices of criticism and self-doubt, and the shrill demands of these overly protective, overly demanding parents got that strong.

I’ve been working in the field for 11 years and I’ve been teaching third grade specifically for 7 years now, but I don’t think that I’m on autopilot by any means. I don’t shy away from questioning myself, consulting with other teachers, listening to parents’ concerns, or making changes to my routines and methods. But the place I got to — doubting myself on a fundamental level — was unwarranted because I wasn’t doing anything wrong. If anything, I had done everything right and I’d been doing a damn good job the whole time, and was wasting my precious time on a set of parents who weren’t showing me respect as a professional or even as a person. Granted, their passive-aggressive tactics show they’re acting from a place of fear and denial and I feel for them in that sense, but I have to draw a line somewhere. I’m not going to let someone’s fear of their child “needing support” take over my professional life and throw my teaching into a tailspin — at least, not anymore.

So we’re scheduled to meet next week to discuss, well, whatever it is they need to discuss. Again. Thankfully there will be someone there mediating. But I’d like to leave you with a few tips to live by, especially if you’re a parent of school-age kids. I  mean to share this with the utmost care and respect, so please read on with an open mind.

Tips for dealing with “difficult” teachers:

  1. Remember that this teacher is responsible for your child as well as up to 30 other children. The teacher has to make sure all children are learning, and it can be a difficult task to keep track of 30 lives simultaneously and for multiple consecutive hours. Please recognize this is hard, and they’re doing their best.
  2. Remember that this teacher is not any other teacher your child has had before. Their previous grade level is over, and with a new grade level come new challenges and higher expectations. Your child may need some time adjusting to these changes. Good thing you’re there to help them!
  3. Remember that even though the teacher is responsible for your child’s learning, it’s never too early to teach your child strategies for self-advocating. Ask your child about the class procedures for getting teacher help. It may be as simple as raising their hand or asking a neighbor. Also, simple phrases like, “Can you please help me with this?” and “I’m not sure what to do, can you help me?” are music to most teachers’ ears. Encourage your child to be a risk-taker and ask for help.
  4. If you notice that your child is uncertain about what to do on homework assignments or looks confident and then fills out everything wrong, remember that you can ask the teacher for support and clarification. Asking sooner rather than later is everything. 
  5. Remember if your child’s teacher is telling you about ways your child is struggling, they have no ulterior motives — other than to share information with you and find some ways to work together. Even if your child never acts the way the teacher describes at home, school life and home life can be very different in the child’s eyes, and what the teacher is saying is mostly likely true. Please take the teacher’s feedback in good faith.
  6. Remember that teachers want solutions, not problems. No teacher wakes up in the morning planning ways for their students to fail or struggle. It’s quite the opposite. Teachers are driven and impassioned by their students’ success and growth. Nothing makes a teacher happier than seeing their students happy, growing, and learning. Those are the moments teachers live for. 

Taking Things Apart

About two weeks ago, I came home from work to see my mom and wife preparing to take apart the pipes under the kitchen sink. The sink had been draining slowly for a few days and she had decided to call my mom, who knows a few things about home maintenance and repair, so that she could learn to do it herself. Three hours later, after a trip to the hardware store and a few breaks to just stare at the mess we’d made, the sink was put back together and draining just like it should. The process, though, was very uncomfortable for me. Partially because I didn’t know that The Kitchen Sink Project was going to happen, and partially because I feel very uncomfortable with taking things apart and making a mess.

In part some of my discomfort — that borders on dread — stems from my upbringing. And what better way to get to know myself and my childhood hardwiring than to throw myself into new or uncomfortable situations? My mom liked a very orderly, neat and clean house. And I don’t blame her:  she was a single mom with two kids and she had to go to whatever lengths she could to make sure we were clean, clothed, fed, and educated. As a result, keeping a tight schedule and an orderly home was the cornerstone of my childhood. Neat and orderly is generally a good thing, but sometimes there can be too much of it.

I remember as a kid, probably around 10 or 12, I felt inspired to draw, so went to take out some art materials. I opened up the cabinet and reached for the little plastic watercoloring set that we had had for years, but at the thought of having to control and then clean up the mess, I stopped myself. Rather than deal with the burdens of mess and clean up, I chose to avoid it. I chose to do something else instead. And that wasn’t the only time. As I grew up if I could do something cleaner, tighter, more contained, I chose that option. I systematically began to avoid messes, experimenting with materials, taking things apart, getting dirty.


Odds and ends from the tool closet.

The philosophy of staying need, tidy, and contained continued at school, too. When it came to those typically messier, more hands-on subjects like art or science, my teachers trotted out the easiest possible options. Paper and pencil drawings in art, maybe occasionally something like paper mosaics with construction paper and glue. And for a real treat, drawing with oil pastels or chalk on paper. In science, work mostly revolved around textbooks — books we couldn’t even take home to read, because in middle school there was a set of 30 for about 90 of us. In fifth grade I got to dissect an owl pellet, but I think my teacher only got five or six, so we had to share in groups of five or six. For me as a student, explorations meant looking on from a safe distance — from behind glass at a museum, by looking over my grandpa’s shoulder at his workbench, by wondering in my head and just leaving it at that. Maybe sometimes I’d look it up in a book.

And what does this mean? In part I see that it makes me really aware as a homeowner that I am uncomfortable with fixing things, with taking things apart, and making them work again. I’m afraid to make a mess. Partially because there’s the nuisance of cleaning up afterwards, but also because I’ve never really dealt with this kind of mess before. I haven’t had the chance to explore under someone else’s guidance. And as far as the house is concerned, I’m both child and adult as I begin this process of learning. I’m leaning how things work, I’m pushing myself to explore pieces and parts of the house and how things go together, I’m trying to build the belief in myself that if I take something apart I will have the know-how to put it back together again.

That experience with the sink was small, but empowering. With some perseverance, a little willingness to experiment, some coaching from my mom and encouragement from my wife, I did it — actually my wife and I did it. And afterwards I felt that click in my head, that particular part of my body and brain turn on and get excited. I felt the rush of doing something real for myself and my house. And as a teacher it made me want to bring that rush of excitement, that kind of learning experience, to my students.


My grandpa’s tool, now mine.

Because truly, how often do they get to explore and play — and with something that can eventually become real and meaningful? Culturally I see that there’s a push for kids to be “college and career ready.” And as a teacher I believe in education. Of course. But the obsession with college and “good jobs” is, frankly, bullshit. We see that the most recent generation of young adults is deep in college loan debt, to the point of being paralyzed by it. And in many cases, I see that people don’t know how to do. Generally speaking, we don’t cook for ourselves very much, we don’t fix things for ourselves, we don’t make or manufacture things for ourselves. Because — didn’t you know? — that’s someone else’s job. Somewhere along the line of pushing our children to be college and career ready we began devaluing and distancing ourselves from the valuable work of taking things apart, fixing things, and making them work again. Which to me is one of the most real things a person can do. It’s a tangible example of our realness and our power in the world outside ourselves.

And as I get of taste of my own realness, my own power to fix and make things, I see that I’m starting to question things. I’m asking, how does this work? How is this put together? Why does it work like this? Is there some way to make this better? Where does this come from? Can I fix this? What can I do to change this? And if I’m asking these questions after fixing one little ole sink, what kind of questions would our kids start to ask themselves when they have a taste of a something similar?

And if I see that I have the power to question, to take things apart, to get messy, to put things back together in a way that makes them better — and to clean up the mess, too — then I see that I can be powerful in other ways, too. And when “powerful people” want to tell me that they’re right and I should fall in line, I can stand in the knowledge of my own power and push back. I know that I don’t have to avoid taking things apart or to making a mess. I know now that I have the power to fix it. And I want the same confident stance for my students and for the future adults of our planet.


An assortment of inherited and newly purchased tools: vise grip, wrench, pliers.

There is beauty and power in being real, in being here  and doing things that are visible and tangible, things that concretely alter and improve the landscape of our lives. So let’s take things apart — from the humblest kitchen sink to the way we view ourselves and our places in the world. Let’s get messy and work on it together.