Mi Noveno Año: Small Victories, Big Dreams

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Estoy de acuerdo.

After nine years of teaching, I am appreciating again the process of reviewing and reflecting at the end of the year, and reading back through almost a decade of reflections on teaching. I like to do this at the beginning of the summer, but over the years the reflection process has crept across my summer… and here I am, writing just before school starts again, during the first week back at school, finishing it up during the first (long!) weekend of the school year.

Wrapping up my 9th year, I reached some milestones: Read more of this post

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Permeations

Summer! For the last few months I was completely erased by work, and as soon as I emerged and found the bits of my life again it was to take it all apart and put it into boxes.

Now there’s a new apartment in the same new city, open windows and walls that feel permeable, air that feels heavy and skin rubbed thin, borders crossed alone and familiar flight paths overhead.

Last summer was quiet and I had too much time to think. This summer is filled with voices and plans and radio waves and the moments of stillness have been rare. I’ve been teaching a bit (but not Spanish) and meeting new people (in Spanish) and meeting old friends in new places (in Hungarian & Croatian, but without remembering any.)

I’m shelving books by color instead of by contents and writing/remembering/thinking in pictures rather than words (again.)

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Seven Years Treading Water

I just* finished my seventh year of teaching.

I’ve gotten in the habit of taking time each summer to to reflect on the school year. It’s been valuable to look back and see growth in myself. I would encourage any new teacher to journal through their first year (at the very least) just so that later on, when things feel particularly crazy, you can look back on the craziest times to see just how far you’ve come. (That’s also why Educating Esme was an important read during my first years of teaching.)

*Normally I do this before the end of August, but not this year. Still… it’s important to look back, even as I am already looking forward and planning for the coming year.

I’ve been at four different schools now, including my one year in Spain, and the longest I was at one school was three years, so my experience of teaching has been a string of fresh starts. Even within those short stints at each school, being a Specials teacher has also has been an endless cycle of fresh starts and a fair amount of flailing.

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Here’s to more than just survival.

This year brought yet another new school, yet another fresh start, and new lessons to learn: Read more of this post

Postcards from the Mitten State

I often lug my camera around, but I am really bad at sifting through the results in a timely manner.

I have also neglected this personal blog in favor of a new teaching blog. (Knowing my tendencies to neglect my personal life, this should not be a surprise.)

Spring and Summer were both chaotic and emotional, navigating preparations to move and goodbyes to students, coworkers, friends, and family. (And even while looking for jobs in warmer climates I was aware that other states might not have the same magic of a Michigan Spring.) Here are some snapshots.

Spring Planting Day Read more of this post

Year Six: Leaving Loose Ends Untied

Through the eyes of my students.

At the end of the school year or of the quarter, wrapping up my time with each group of students, I always feel the same pressure: not enough time. Along with the anxious countdowns to summer vacations and sleeping in and having a personal life, I always wish I had more time. Students finishing projects or presentations without the chance to present them. Graded work that goes in the recycling bin after grades are submitted. Students that have struggled all year, and who suddenly have a light bulb go off in their brain sometime in June, just as productivity dissolves into field trips, class parties, award ceremonies, and absences. Language use blossomed at the eleventh hour: students making Spanish puns, or understanding Spanish puns and begging me to stop, students having entire conversations in Spanish, interviewing each other in Spanish, and then suddenly it’s the last day of school, and… ya está.

On the last day of school, there were lots of hugs and lots of crying, especially from graduating 8th graders. This year the end of the school year was particular emotional for me, as well. My husband and I have been toying with the idea of an out of state move all year, and in the final weeks of school I was using the time difference to my advantage, scheduling phone interviews with West Coast schools after my own school day had finished.

Remote interviews are pretty exciting. Hypothetically you could outline your professional qualifications over the phone while in a bathrobe, or via Skype in pajama pants and a blazer. (I’m not admitting that I did that, of course. But who would even know, right?) Sometimes high tech online video conference rooms malfunction, and your video flips upside down while you are describing how adept you are at integrating technology into your lessons. And sometimes you set up a phone interview for the last day of school, after emotional goodbyes to students and sharing funny and touching memories with staff over beers. This already might not be ideal, but then the sky might open up, spitting lightning and thunder, and dumping down buckets of rain right when you are trying to find a quiet parking lot for the interview.

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The Long Winter

This winter was harsh here. Like a trauma, it had to pass before I could write about it.

I took pictures. School was cancelled a lot. I spent many hours gripping my steering wheel and inching across slick roads. I lost sight of bare pavement for months.

Mostly I hid under the covers, wrapped in my red sheets, and watched the days slide by – world soft & white or wet & dark.

Discontent settled in around me, like dust on shelves. I didn’t brush it off. I wrote my name in it, on every filthy surface.

Spring came, and we got drunk on the rain and the excess warm air. Neighbors stumbled out of their doors, to shed layers, draw on the sidewalk with chalk, shout up the street, ride bikes, to sing or shoot guns, somewhere far away.

For me the dates on the calendar are pointed inward. Square boxes become curved lenses, and inside I am still disastrous. Fairy lights reflected in puddles are burning cities, for no good reason. If there’s nothing to flee, I lose direction.

This is nothing new – this is the same every year. Ice to mud to green. I relearn everything, every time.

 

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Season Spaces

September through December. A new apartment and communal dinners in Ypsilanti, cold sleet on Canadian beaches, bookdust and hazy skylines in Detroit, graduate work in sociolinguistics that I wish I could spend more time on. All that and more is drowned by – more than anything – the color and noise of my students.

For the first time in a long time, I have had the chance to go through the photos I’ve taken over the past few months. It’s good to see the small spaces in between the all-consuming parts of my life. The hardest parts of these months are not captured in photos. No photos of the expanses of pavement, no crumpled cars, no parking lot naps, no steering wheel tears, no grades, no spreadsheets, no adolescent angst. Maybe all those things can fade away, leaving only the residue that is beautiful – captured textures leftover from transient things like meals, dusk, autumn leaves, snowflakes.

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fall08 Read more of this post

Year Five: Becoming a Better Teacher vs. Becoming a Statistic

(Things remaining out of reach)

Since finishing my first year of teaching, I’ve tried to take a moment at the end of the school year to reflect on the year and what I’ve learned. I ended my first year a little shell shocked, began to pull things together for a second year, and by my third year could see some structure emerging from the chaos. The following year I was working with kids in Spain on a Fulbright grant, but something about my reduced responsibility as an assistant, the shortened work week, the long lunch breaks (with real plates and silverware), the frequent holidays or strikes, the Mediterranean two blocks away, the distinct lack of snowy Michigan commutes, and the weekend travel made it seem more like a sabbatical. At the end of the year I was busy packing up, watching things burn, and walking the Camino, with no time to reflect – at least not in a digital format.

So it’s my fifth year of teaching, and I’m back in the mitten, at another Detroit charter school, teaching K-8 Spanish once again. The school year wrapped up weeks ago, and the summer “break” is speeding by. I still haven’t gathered the words to summarize this past year.

Things are looking up. My new school has the central organization and supportive leadership that was lacking previously. I have tuition assistance, a real contract and benefits, and administration who listens to ideas and input from staff. There is a lot of parent participation, and the school feels like a community. This helps to balance the fact that I am back on a cart instead of in a classroom, and that I am teaching 7-8 classes a day, 10-13 classes per semester (with a varied and inconsistent amounts of time with each group, that’s approximately 35 lesson plans a week!)

This year, for some reason I am finding it hard to cobble together a list of things I’ve learned, or things I did right this year. Starting at a new school is like going back to your first year of teaching in many ways. You have to get to know new staff and new students, a new set of school policies and politics, new expectations and curriculum. (Unless you are a Spanish teacher and just do everything from scratch.) On the other hand, unlike a first year teacher, I had a sizable collection of lesson ideas and resources from my previous lessons, along with lots of cultural tidbits and increased fluency (albeit a bit lispy) from my year in Spain.

As a first year teacher, however, I made up for my lack of experience with determination and an optimism in the face of the reality which (sometimes literally) punched me right in the idealistic face. For some reason that idealism and optimism is what was missing this year. For years, a voice in my head kept reassuring me that this would get easier, that I would get better at it, that I would learn, that they would learn. Something about looking back on five years has muffled that voice. It might be the expanding black pit of student loan debt, the long commute with eyelids fluttering on the highway, the student casualties that rack up whenever you work with large numbers of young people, especially in the environment I work in – students defiant or failing or suspended or expelled or more concretely lost to suicide, cancer, violence, tragedy. More than anything, what was drowning everything else out was purely selfish: exhaustion. I’ve seen other teachers bite the dust – lack of budget, lack of all-powerful standardized test scores, too many opinions, too much work for not enough pay. I’ve heard the statistics of teacher attrition for years, and somehow assumed I wouldn’t burn out.

I thought that five years in I would have figured things out a little more, that I wouldn’t constantly be overdrafting my bank account, that I would have time for family and friends and grocery shopping and sleep. More importantly, I thought I would be a better teacher. As it turns out, to be a good teacher you have to have drive and enthusiasm and the willingness to give up a lot of things for your job, but you also need to have a reservoir of mental stability. I didn’t have that this year.

I still care about my job and about my profession. (I even care about this soul sucking M.A. that is inching closer each day.) Even more than that, I care about my students. They are worth the exhausting hours and emotional roller coasters. So I’m going to remind myself of that, and I’m going to pick my mantra back up and trust that it is going to get better.

(And it probably will. A few more weeks and wedding planning will be done. A few more semesters and grad school will be, too.)

Maybe that’s the hurdle I crossed this year as a teacher: I kept my head above water. I taught the things I knew how to teach. I put together delusional outlines of the things I planned to teach each grade, and then usually scrapped them as schedules changed without warning, or my own time limitations caught up with me. Kids learned Spanish, sometimes despite me. (The blessings of working with the younger grades.) We sang, and had mini-dialogs, and greeted each other in Spanish in the hallways, and rapped about ourselves using describing adjectives. Onward and upward.

By the end of the year the kids wrote down the things they could do in Spanish after spending the quarter with me, in the form of “I Can” statements.

Of course, the first and second graders illustrated theirs in adorable ways.

(I like the one kid’s honesty about his achievement. “I can name one color in Spanish and that is rojo.”)

Okay, okay. I’ve learned things.

I can name one thing I did this year: I kept going.

I can recall and describe my reasons for doing what I do.

I can make progress, inch by inch.

I can become a better teacher.

I can try again this coming year.

(More) Gratitude Lessons

Other than my photo project, I’ve been silent here recently… partially from a lack of time and a lack of inspiration, but mostly due to a lack of perspective. This school year has been rough. I am teaching at a fantastic school and doing a job I enjoy, and with enough experience under my belt that I occasionally even feel like I am doing a good job. On an intellectual level I don’t have any reason to complain, but I have felt awfully whiny about elements of my life that I thought I had accepted already. Never enough time, never enough money, never enough energy for anything but work.

Now it is Christmas break and with some time to breathe comes some time and space for an adjustment of perspective.

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A couple of Fridays ago, I was in my 1st grade class – my kiddos who are tiny and sweet and who don’t even need me to use English with them anymore – when the classroom teacher came in and showed me the headlines on her phone. A young man walked into an elementary school in Connecticut, and killed an entire classroom of first graders, and shot several teachers and other school staff who were trying to protect them.

Just the day before, we had practiced our school’s lockdown procedures – locking doors, herding kids into corners or sometimes even closets to huddle silently out of the line of vision of anyone outside the school or in the hallway. Since I travel around to different classrooms, I was part of several drills – learning where kids need to hide in each classroom, and hearing several teachers’ attempts to make children realize the seriousness of these drills, without scaring them.

I’ve seen snapshots from my students’ lives. Many of my kids know far too well about humans hurting other humans, and what guns can do. I already think a lot about kids and guns. On that Friday I was already thinking about guns and schools, as Michigan legislature stayed up late working on a variety of worrisome bills, including a push to allow concealed weapons in gun-free zones like schools. Friday afternoon, the news about Sandy Hook trickled into our school building, in whispered conversations between teachers trying to keep their composure in front of small faces. Those two news feeds ran parallel in my head, and my grief was immediately mixed with anger and fear.

As stories about the events at Sandy Hook began to emerge, it was clear that the school did everything they could. Teachers stepped in front of bullets and gave their own life trying to protect their students. Imagining myself in a similar situation (an unavoidable nightmare) I have no doubt in my mind that I would do the same thing.

A tragedy like this necessitates discussions of guns, discussions of mental health, and beyond. For me, a more personal question is: If my students are worth taking bullets for (which they are, without question) then why aren’t they worth just teaching? Particularly in this country, teachers are in general expected to work long hours at a job that requires a lot of continuing education, but without salaries to afford grad school, loan payments, or even more basic things. (What if you want to get married? Have a kid? Save for a house?) It is an important job, and it’s worth those things, which is why I chose this profession in the first place.

If my life was literature than tire shops would be a device to symbolize a change in perspective. For me the scent of tire rubber is connected to catharsis. Why is that? Anyway, last week I got a flat tire, and while waiting for it to be fixed a woman next to me struck up a conversation, starting with asking where I got my tights. I said that I got them somewhere in Spain (which already makes me feel like an asshole. Ohhhh, these old things? Some little place in Spaaaaaaaiiiin…) and she asked about what I was doing there, which led me to a conversation about teaching, and her to describe her life as a single mother and an aspiring travel agent or interior designer, once her daughter is old enough that she can go back to school. She was surprised to learn that they spoke a different language in Spain, and wasn’t sure where it was – in Mexico, right? Wait… next to China, then?

I was incredulous and tried my best to be tactful, but my vague amusement quickly turned to shame. She said something along the lines of: “It really sounds like you have your life together” and I felt ashamed of my own anxieties. I struggle with debt from getting my degree, with the stresses of the job I wanted so badly and worked towards for years, and with how to make my expensive photography hobby more self-sufficient and perhaps income-generating. I still feel the socioeconomic divide very strongly when talking to people who grew up with new clothes, waterproof shoes, paid tuition.

I don’t think it’s entirely useful to discount anyone’s anxieties, even my own. (I do enjoy reading White Whines, however… while there will always be people more unfortunate than me to feel empathy for, there will always be people more privileged for me to judge?) I always cycle through anxiety, punctuated by injections of perspective, followed by guilt for being anxious, then guilt-fueled attempts at gratitude, which often disintegrate into anxieties again.

2012 has been a year of teaching myself how to be content in the here and now, which was harder than I would have expected in some very incredible heres-and-nows. I lived in a beautiful Spanish city on the coast, and felt guilty when I hid under the covers and longed for the faces I left behind in Michigan. Now I am back and dreaming of the sea. (For me and for humanity, the capacity for discontent is endless.) I am still trying to learn the gift of gratitude and the art of living in the moment, but 2012 has held a lot of lessons.

In the coming year I want to continue those lessons, and be grateful without being guilty.

Tracing shapes with the spaces around them

(Santiago – less of a destination than a pause along the way.)

This is not me catching up on my 365 project. (I do have photos… un montón! Soon!)

This is not a description of the Camino, of the End of the World and monumental shifts, of transatlantic flights and preparations for a new job.

This is not a collection of the sights and sounds and smells that are floating around my headspace, both more vivid and more distant now that I am back in more familiar scenery (which in itself has become both vivid and distant.)

This is a reminder to myself:

Of how at the time your feet hurt, or sweat was dripping into your eyes, or something was grating or distracting, or the past surfaced like gold mist or a greasy oilslick, or there was just something more exciting just on the horizon or next week or in a few months. How like artists working with charcoal, we look at the spaces around bodies – making shapes by filling in the empty spaces, by shading in the things that are missing.

I was dreading leaving Spain and coming “home.” I had trouble imagining myself falling back into the once familiar routines: driving, alarm clocks, expensive vegetables.

Now I am home and I remember what it’s like to run into familiar faces on the street, to have so many friends show up at the bar that we have to push seven tables together, to go home to my parents’ house for dinner. I don’t feel as displaced as I thought – on the contrary, I feel as though the past year of my life didn’t exist – just a vague recollection of blue skies and old stone, fading into Midwestern cloudcover. I am sad to watch it recede behind me, but I am also looking into the future with a lot of hope – a new job, new students, a house with gardens and a fantastic kitchen, shared meals and wine on autumn porches, a wedding sometime next summer.

But this is not about the past or the future – this is about the present. I don’t want to feel wistful later about how I was too wistful now, losing hold of these handfuls of days.

So for now I am living out of suitcases for a few more weeks, sleeping in the freshly painted nursery of one of my oldest friends while she is growing a new little person inside of her. I am waking up by myself to much needed rain on the window. I am drinking beers with people whose faces I missed, and speaking in my native language. I am making budgets and picking up side photography jobs. I am sketching out the skeletons of lesson plans. I am savoring one more week of sleeping in. I don’t know if I’m home yet, but I am content.

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