the looming Chicago teacher strike, part 1

what does it have to do with you?

think back to a time when you were at school and things weren’t going your way. were you struggling with pulling up a grade? were you feeling disengaged because you weren’t really learning anything new? were you feeling lonely or left out by friends — who were pretty obviously being mean to you? were you dreading school because of that one kid, or those several kids, who — sure — were funny and joked around a lot in class, but were actually pretty out of control and managed to keep the teacher flustered and everyone else from learning?

as a one-time kid, i’ve experienced all those situations to one extent or another, and i bet you, dear reader, have as well. you may have even felt them more extremely that i did, maybe even failing a class or an entire year and having to repeat a class in summer school — or even repeat a grade. you may have started faking stomach aches or straight up started cutting classes or skipping school altogether to avoid the mean kids or the boredom or the general chaos of school. and who could have helped you pull through all that, if they weren’t already trying? your family and friends, sure, but also the teachers in your life. not all teachers are perfect, and i’m not saying that a teacher would have or could have saved you the discomfort and pain that comes with growing up, but i feel pretty confident that your teachers went into teaching to help their students learn and to support their growth. many times, as with all humans, things just get in the way.

and i’m here to explain that the contract the Chicago Teachers Union is fighting for this fall is one that can help with those things that get in the way, that keep teachers from reaching their students and creating that safe and meaningful school environment.

the contract that teachers are fighting for is one that advocates — no, demands — that the school setting is one that everyone deserves and that as many learning roadblocks are pushed out of the way as possible.

teachers are fighting for what every kid and every teacher in Chicago deserves. let’s take a look.

Issue #1:  Pay & Benefits

at first glance, this may cause some questions. how does a teacher’s salary make a student’s life better? how does that make a student’s experience safer, more comfortable? well, if teachers are worried about how they’re going to pay their rent or mortgage, their student loans, how they’re going to cover the rising cost of living, then how can they come into the classroom ready to lead a group of students through the vibrant process of learning? i don’t know about you, but whenever i’ve been worried about money i’m not my most creative, positive, patient, risk-taking self. and aren’t those the characteristics you want most in a teacher?

also, the school system is running into a staffing shortage, particularly in specialized areas like bilingual education, special education, social workers, and school nurses. one of the best ways to attract high-quality candidates is to offer a competitive — and stable — pay and benefits package.

Issue #2:  Class Size

from the outside looking in it may appear that these first two demands, more pay and less students, is obvious evidence that teachers aren’t demanding this for the betterment of the school system, it’s that they’re trying to make their jobs easier. but to a seasoned teacher, or even a beginner, teachers know that teaching isn’t about pouring facts into a child’s head. teaching is about relationships. the masters among us can, and often do, cultivate relationships with 32, 35, 38 kids per class, but it takes a toll. to listen to all those stories, to think about what books each child might like to read, their language development, ways to build their confidence and push them to grow — that takes a lot out of a person. it’s not impossible, but think about the possibilities if a teacher had only 22, 24, 27 kids in a room. think how much more your favorite teacher could have gotten to know you (happy sigh!), and how many more chances your least favorite could have gotten to see the real you, had there been fewer kids and more time to see you, to listen to you, and to be with you.

that’s where the magic of teaching lies, in the relationships. and teachers need to have less kids in front of them so they have the chance to get to know each child more, build trusting relationships with each child, and at the heart of it, support that child as they learn and grow.

Issue #3:  Staffing

pretty simple. hey if there’s a school library, why not staff it with a full-time librarian? since kids have social-emotional needs — growing up is hard! — then why not staff a school with the recommended number of social workers? how about school counselors? how about school nurses? this demand for full school staffing goes back to creating a safe and comfortable environment where children are able to learn and where they can get the supportive services they need. it’s a no-brainer.

teachers are preparing to use their ultimate weapon — withholding their labor — in order to demand what schools across Chicago need in order to be safe and comfortable learning environments. if a strike is what it will take, then the members of the Chicago Teachers Union are ready.

The Achiever on Vacation

As an Achiever (see previous blog post for details) vacations can be hard on me. Sometimes space opens up and the clouds lift and I’m able to just be, to just relax. More often that doesn’t happen, or happen for very long, and I’m back to thinking, “What have I even done on this break?” Because, you  know, how can you lord over someone how relaxed you are — there’s no winning in that, you’re too relaxed!

That said, one good way for an Achiever to find a little balance is by reframing their achievements and focusing on the achievements in a non-work task or activity. So for this winter break I wanted to accomplish the following:  1. Read everyday, 2. Exercise six times (yes that’s very specific — but trust me — complex calculations took place before deciding on six), and 3. Be in the moment at least once a day.

I’m happy to say that I’m well on my way to achieving the crap out of this vacation. And to celebrate, I’m going to list a few of my smaller accomplishments.

  • Watched the entire Twilight series over the course of two days — eventually my eyes started to hurt but it felt good to just sit and revel in a guilty pleasure
  • Sat in a cafe and read The Sun cover to cover — so good!
  • Played Let’s Go Fishin’ with family members on Christmas Eve — things got intense with the grown ups
  • Tried a new recipe for Christmas Day — delish!
  • Yoga with one of my favorite teachers and spent 99% of the class just enjoying it — normally my mind is in 110 places at once
  • Glow in the dark mini-golf with some hilarious kids, oh, and some PacMan and Skee-Ball and that silly drop the claw and try to get the prize game
  • Snuggling with the cat on the couch

None of that seems very impressive — a fancy vacation to the Bahamas it is not — but as someone who wants to win everything, everyday, all day long seeing these small acts as a achievements is hard for me — so I count these activities and my perspective on them both as wins.

And honestly, even if I weren’t an Achiever driven to accomplish Big Things everyday, who cares if this simple list was my dream vacation, best of all worlds? Why let myself get sucked into trying to compete with other people’s lives — ones that are very likely highly curated and filtered? Most of life is the everyday, and cherishing these everyday moments — and recognizing them as moments to cherish — is an achievement in itself.

The Achiever at Christmastime

At the beginning of the school year I took the Clifton Strengths assessment, a kind of long survey that asks you to rate what you prefer between two choices or what you think about two options. I wasn’t shocked when my top strength came up as “Achiever.”

Achievers like to write lists and check things off, get things done, and not only work long hours but work hard. Based on how I see other people spend their time during a work day and a work week I just thought I was a crazy person when it came to work, but it made sense after I read the description. It sounds like me. And in some ways I now understand why, in the past, I drove many of my co-workers crazy.

I’m learning to manage my achiever tendencies at work, and I’m trying to see other areas of my life as arenas where I can achieve — like Christmas!

Oh, and I’ve done it this weekend. From Friday night after work when nothing in our house seemed Christmas-like or Christmas-ready to Sunday night at 9pm when I write this, things are a near 180. Christmas presents for everyone on the list? Check! Tree up and decorations out? Check! The numerous holiday cards and matching postage are ready to go — just waiting for some friends and family to get back to me with their addresses. Oh, and have you heard? We talked it over and we’ll be hosting Christmas Day, maybe up to 25 people! I guess I just have to send out those invites…

You see what I did there? I crushed it! But wait — is that the way the holiday season is meant to be done? Are we supposed to crush Christmas? Yeah, probably not. But as an Achiever, the to do list is both anxiety-producing and addictive to get done, and except for a few loose ends and waiting for Christmas Day to come, most of it is done. And the loose ends that are hanging? It’s taking all my might not to stay up till midnight tonight and do them — the lesson planning and grading that’s due tomorrow be damned!

That said — I’m going to take a deep breath and try to let the list and all the doing it entails go. Because what’s the point of a holiday season if I’m going to try and crush it all into one weekend? There’s fun and enjoyment in letting a few things stay undone, saving them for next weekend, or even a spontaneous weeknight between now and December 25th.

It’s hard for me to not want to turn Christmas and the holiday season into another whirlwind, 12-hour day, accomplishment. But I’m going to try my best to let things linger and last. And maybe that will be my achievement this holiday season, pushing myself to allow a few things be undone — or spontaneously done — rather than listed, scheduled, and checked off at breakneck speed. After all, I’m not Santa:  I don’t have to get it all done in one night.

30-day Yoga Challenge: Four Challenges in One

Since I’m nearly done with it, I feel safe to share the fact that I’m participating in a 30-day yoga challenge:  30 consecutive days of yoga classes, come hell or high water, from April 2 to May 1. And in some ways this challenge isn’t challenging at all — in other ways it lives up to its name entirely.

Challenge #1:  Deciding — And Sticking With It

For most things in life, the deciding part is hardest. Well, not the deciding part so much as everything else that follows once the deciding has been done. After I decided to do this challenge, a lot of things had to shift in my life to make space for it, the biggest being how I spent my time. My alarm clock has been going off faithfully every morning, no sleeping in on the weekends. Most days I’ve had to either stay late at work or leave most of my work to do list undone so I could fit in a yoga class. I’ve had to rearrange social engagements on the weekends so that I can get to yoga, and sometimes skip or reschedule appointments during the week. This may seem extreme, but it’s what commitment looks like when any one of us makes a decision and then sticks with it. Those things we’ve decided are the big deal things in our lives take precedent — or they should — so they’re setting the tone for the day, the week, the month. Everything else should be secondary.

And I have to say that the “sticking with it” part has been tough when I’ve been faced with a tempting alternative to my decision — most often sleeping in on the weekends or skipping an evening class to go home and laze on the couch. But it’s been a good test of my will, to see that I can be determined and strong enough to push myself out of my habits to I achieve something new.

Challenge #2:  Pacing Myself

Unfortunately — or maybe fortunately? — I tend to be a competitive person, even in a noncompetitive setting like a yoga class. Most days I have some form of Rubber Neck Syndrome, where I’m checking out what everyone else is doing, looking at their form, their flexibility, their strength, and then of course comparing it to mine. Maybe it’s from my many years of dance training or my perfectionist tendencies that I naturally start to compare myself to others, but in this challenge I had to really let go of that. In some ways it was good to know that I wasn’t in the same place as most of the other people in the room — there were only about 12 of us doing the challenge overall and maybe one or two in the room with me most days, so that meant that the pressure was off — or maybe not off — but my mindset definitely adjusted when I went into a class. Like I mentioned in last week’s entry, I was really running my own race — or yoga-ing my own yoga. Because of course I couldn’t force myself into the splits and then flip myself upside down into several reps of a forearm stand and then push through a dozen jump-backs from crow pose to chaturanga (first and foremost, because I can’t do crow pose jump-backs to chaturanga) but also because I had to come back to class tomorrow and the next day and the next.

I had to pace myself for the long haul, take it slower than I usually would, and really focus on my own process, listen to my body and my body alone to make sure that we’d get through the month in one healthy piece. Because if I “won class” for the day but felt miserable and sore — or even injured myself — then I’d be defeating the whole purpose of the challenge, and of yoga itself.

Challenge #3:  Imbalance Exposing Imbalance

I mentioned earlier that once I’d made the decision to participate in the challenge I had to reprioritize the way I spent my time, and now that I’m almost through I can look back and see how much this yoga challenge — in some ways its own imbalance on my time — exposed other imbalances in how I spend my time, particularly at work. Without the yoga challenge to pull me away from work and to put some pressure on how I spend my time in the evening, it was easy for me to excuse long hours at work, sometimes up to 12 hours a day. But this challenge has made me notice that work really demands a lot of me, and a lot of my free time. I’m not complaining that I have a job that requires after-hours time, but I’m concerned by the amount of after-hours time I was spending — and am still spending — usually up to 20 unpaid hours a week. This challenge has made me feel some stress, and even anxiety, around time but mostly because there never seems to be enough time for work and also for myself. It’s something that I’m going to be further exploring even after this challenge ends; balance is such a key value that I hold and I want to embody that more.

Challenge #4:  What Happens Next?

This leads to the final challenge within this challenge. I’m almost done with it, but I’m already thinking about what’s next. Do I want to continue daily yoga classes? Do I want to take a break from yoga? Do I want to continue daily exercise and meditation, but expand into to different forms, like gym workouts and more traditional cardio or pick up my meditation practice from months ago? I’m not quite sure yet, and I have a couple of days to decide, but I do know that this challenge has pushed me to make a decision and to make shifts in my life that push me to be more balanced. I’ve also seen that competition is not as important as compassion — especially self-compassion — and that even when I don’t think I’m making any gains I am. I’ve surprised myself this month by becoming physically stronger even when I didn’t think I was, by becoming more patient with myself, and more able to let go, even if momentarily, of the demands of the outside world on my inner life.

After this challenge ends on Tuesday, I look forward to Wednesday and the days that follow and the decisions I’ll get to make that will quiet the outside world and amplify my inner voice, one that is still keenly competitive, but also more compassionate and striving for balance.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.