as strong as the weakest link, or run your own race?

lately, some of the adages I’ve heard since I was very young are really starting to resonate with me — I’m really starting to get them, and it’s most frequently been in the context of the classroom.

You’re Only as Strong as Your Weakest Link

this one used to annoy me a lot as a kid, in pretty much any group situation. in the settings where I was a stronger link, most often at school, I was easily impatient with and frustrated by “weaker links,” kids who didn’t get things as quickly as I did or who didn’t do their homework or try as hard, or whatever it was that in my child brain didn’t measure up.

as an adult, and especially as a teacher, I see now how each kid coming to school may be pushing as hard as they can, but the homes they’re coming from may either create obstacles or lay fertile ground for their school success. and that home life variable can be anything from poverty, not speaking English at home, having only one parent, having parents who are splitting up or who argue and fight often, to parents who are college graduates and earn high incomes and take their children on enriching vacations and hire tutors and nannies and send them to club sports and private lessons. it’s easy to grow when you’re a kid from an optimal home — or on the optimal side — versus kids who live in obstacle-filled homes.

I can see that now, and I can see it better, and I understand why I was impatient as a kid. and I know that I was guilty of thinking that I was smarter than other kids in my room. however, no adult — no teacher or parent or family member — ever broke it down for me, explaining that not every kid has the same home life. not every kid gets their own, quiet room to sleep in at night. not every kid gets a home-cooked meal and a place and time to do their homework. not every kid gets vacations to destinations around the country and around the world. and not every kid has parents who are genuinely interested in their success. so what can I do, now that I’m in a position to be that adult who can break it down for different groups of kids? — but not do it in a way that says, “Hey, you’ve got nothing, you’re our weakest link,” or “Hey, you’re so lucky, congratulations, you’re our strongest link?”

my best attempts have been trying to show it through biography and stories — to discuss how real kids from history, like Louis Braille and Helen Keller, had different childhoods, but through their circumstances were able to achieve a lot. I felt a little weird explaining it to my students at the time, but it was true and I think I had to say it. I said, “you know, if Helen Keller’s family wasn’t a wealthy, landowning family, we would probably have never known who she was. her family wouldn’t have been able to pay for a teacher to come and live with her, to give up her entire life to teacher Helen, and only Helen, for her entire life. it makes a big difference if you’re rich, and Helen was lucky.” I paused and thought, then went on. “and Louis Braille didn’t come from a wealthy family at all, so they had to be strict with him and give him chores and not help him too much even when he made mistakes. they had to see him fall, and then tell him not give up, or let him become spoiled or hopeless. they had to push him hard and he had to push himself hard, too. thankfully he never gave up, and we have braille today, and we have him to thank — and Helen Keller has him to thank, too. so we have to remember that our families help to push us hard and even our teachers are here to push us hard, too.”

So my role as teacher, and as adult in the world I guess, is to notice those people around me who are dealing with obstacles and setbacks, to acknowledge that and not to see them through a lens of strength or weakness, but through the lens of needing my understanding, encouragement, and support.

Run Your Own Race

my internal struggle then comes from the balance I try to find between caring for my students who need the understanding, encouragement, and support and also caring for my students who are already fortunate enough to come to school with a lot of the “optimal home life” boxes checked. between these two groups, what’s fair?

honestly, I don’t know. this is a struggle I’ve had for years. I have only so much time, so many resources, and so much energy, and I have to work with what I’ve got, sometimes moment to moment, and with a lot of variables at play each day. and for me it goes down all the way to the question of what a free and appropriate education is — what that truly means. does that mean that each child is challenged and engaged at their individual level for as much of the day as possible? does that mean that children are asked to learn the content of their grade level (first grade, second grade, third grade, etc.) and anything beyond that is extra? does it mean that kids need to be divided or tracked, so kids with more similar needs can be together? does it mean that kids cycle through different teachers throughout the day, so they can see specialists for each content area?

I know what’s plausible for me as a teacher, and I’ve heard what’s fashionable and preferred by parents, which — spoiler alert — are incompatible. so what do we do? most importantly, I think parents need to adjust their expectations, and think back to when they were kids. think back to what their teachers did for them, what their parents did for them, and then what they were expected to do for themselves. because in the end, we are running our own race, each one of us — and we have been all along — and kids’ teachers and parents and supportive adults are there to coach, model, and cheer them on, but ultimately our kids have to learn responsibility and they have to be driven by their own desire to self-actualize and get to their own finish lines.

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.

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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. 

Was I that kid?

The classroom is most definitely a microcosm of society. Just like in “the real world” — also known as the world outside the classroom — there are moments of imbalance and injustice. What I’ve been struggling with and turning over in my head the last few weeks is what I can do about it, both as the adult in the room when I’m teaching and as a person in the world when I’m not.

Columbus Day just passed and I was going to say something about that, something about how it’s a bullshit day, that it should really be a day to honor the African Diaspora and the First Nations People rather than the conquerors. Then I was going to say something about facing the reality of our American culture, that many of the most “American” things emanate from non-white people and non-white places, ranging from the music we listen to to everyday technologies we take for granted.

But that statement alone wasn’t going to be enough; this nationwide, even worldwide negligence of balance, truth, and justice is part of it for me. It’s part of my slowly roiling frustration when I’m in the classroom this year. Another part of it is that now that I’m working with white kids — my first time in 11 years of teaching — I’m now seeing my biases up close on a daily basis and I’m seeing how extremely fucking sneaky they are, and worse yet, how little innocent white kids rely on them, base their entire stance in the world on them — and how adults like me perpetuate the cycle.

And so I arrive at a buffet of doubts and questions. Was I like these white kids when I was a kid? Did I take up so much space with my whiteness and the privileges it brings that I left no space for anyone else? Did my entitlement over-magnify me to the detriment of my peers? Did my implicit expectation that of course I’d win or get what I asked for or be chosen or go first take that experience away from someone else who was just as deserving — or more deserving? Did I just go through most of my life thinking I was a sweet girl in grammar school, friends with everyone, darling to all, while my classmates were just waiting for me to leave the room so they could finally breathe and take up some goddamn space?

I’d love to believe that I wasn’t like that. But maybe I was. Maybe I did take up that much space in the classroom, in the teacher’s psyche, in my classmates’ mental and emotional space. And with every inch I took, every time I raised my hand, answered a question, made some subtly domineering move in the classroom, my non-white peers got just that much less space for themselves, for their self-expression, for their self-exploration, for their risk-taking, for their leadership, for their ideas, for their questions, for their existence.

And there’s nothing I can do about it now, unfortunately, no way for me to go back and fix it, fix myself, teach my younger me how to not be an entitled jackass kid. But what can I do now? What can I do?

Well, I have to see this as my chance. I get to be a defender and a bridge and a guide all at once. My job is to guard the classroom space, keep it clear and open for all of my kids to lead, question, grow, take risks — to defend all of my kids’ rights to experience education, the act of learning and engaging and growing past their current boundaries. My job is to bring these kids together, bridge their differences, draw them close together and set up the expectation that they will always mingle, always integrate, always know one another, and always wish to know one another. My job is to guide them through rich and diverse materials, highlighting the beauty and value in everyone, in all of us, honoring our shared humanity. How exciting. How terrifying.

I acknowledge that I’m going to fail, and do it wrong, and forget myself and give in to something deeply coded into my brain. But I’m trying to push through my own shit to open up space and keep it open, one inch at a time.

i see you, i thank you, i love you

I just came home from a long visit with The Kids. Let me explain. I’m not a mother, but I’m a teacher. So in a way, I’m a part-time mother to many. In this specific case, The Kids are a family of four kids who are currently being taken care of by their grandmother, who they consider their mom. The full storyline is a little muddled and gray, but in general the gist is something like the mom was mentally and emotionally unstable, had four (or maybe five) kids within about six years, and through a series of abandonments and neglect, left them with her own mother to take over full custody and care for them.

I’ve come to know them — and love the shit out of them — through my wife, who was preschool teacher to the youngest two, the boys. Through a long series of conversations and events we saw that one of the boys was gifted, like truly gifted, and he qualified to attend the regional gifted program that’s housed in my school. Besides seeing them at school, we’ve gotten closer to them over the years, taking them out on the weekends and during the summer, attending their teacher conferences and meet the teacher nights, helping with school projects, all that.

And we just came home from a long visit with them. Unfortunately they’re struggling to deal with school and their emotions and how to treat one another and how to listen to their mom — essentially how to process and deal with their unfairly fucked up lives. But none of this stuff is their fault, they didn’t create any of the circumstances or make any of the decisions that have landed them where they are today. And even though they’ve been struggling lately, overall they’ve been amazingly resilient and strong; they’ve gone through more emotional trauma than even most adults and they’re not even four feet tall yet.

Which leads me to thinking about several things. One, the mothers and fathers — parents through blood or love — who, regardless of what life has thrown at them, have pushed themselves to get to work, show up for their kids, do whatever is in their power to protect, nurture, and push their kids to their highest heights — I see you, I thank you, and I love and admire you for the sacrifice, the drive, and the never-ending persistence that you show. Because of parents like you, your child’s success is not a possibility, it’s already a fact. You are doing it, and it’s already happening.

Two, to the children of these circumstances — whether you are still small or already in a grown-up body living in the world — even if it doesn’t seem like you’ve had much in your life that was given to you, like nothing was ever easy, you are making your life — you are the creator of your fortune — and because you have come from such depths you have the capacity to know such heights. You have been burnished by hardship, and smoothed by rough waves, and your success means more to the world — it just does. Your accomplishments, your wins, your awards and prizes, they are a beacon and a victory, a jewel in the crown of creation, because your life demonstrates how a person can create something wonderful from almost nothing. You are a piece of magic on earth.

So to my friends and even unknown readers who are seeing this, I know it can seem like your life is hard and small and heavy. All the little shit builds up to a crushing weight. But take a minute and look back to those moments when you were low, so much lower than you are now. And ask yourself — how have I gotten this far? Most likely the answer is that it’s been through the care of a parent — from blood or love — and through you, your power and your decision to be better. Please keep going — don’t stop — you’re almost there. And I see you, I thank you, I love you.