Tag Archives: life lessons

Guiding Word 2016

Last year’s guiding words for me led me on many adventures.  I experienced new things, met new people, and learned a lot.

I gave a lot of thought to this year’s guiding words, and ultimately decided on one: empathy.

I’ve been thinking about empathy–or the lack thereof–throughout this year.  Actually, for the last several years, I’ve thought about it with my students, disturbed by what I perceive to be an increasing number of them who seem unable to empathize with others. I’ve often said that the world would be a better place if we all practiced more empathy. Too often we judge too quickly; we view other people through only our own perspective based on our own experiences or ways of thinking, knowing, and being in this world.  I catch myself doing it.  I see others doing it.  We all need to do better if we want our world to be better.  So…

Inspired by the saying “kindness begins with me” and my own personal life philosophy (stolen from Mahatma Ghandi, of course) “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” I’ve chosen this word to guide me through 2016.

I expect this to be an interesting journey.

(PS: yesterday I wrote about how my 2015 guiding words got me Jazzercising with a great new group of ladies, and I intend to write more about the other ways in which I got out of my comfort zone in 2015. I need to write more again.).


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Teaching: It’s a Calling

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from a former student of mine—a beautiful caring, smart young woman who I taught as a freshman. She went on to transfer to a 4-year school, get her Bachelor’s Degree, and become a teacher. And she’s a great teacher. But like so many great teachers, she wonders if it’s worth it; and by it, I mean teaching—and the sacrifices one makes to continue fighting to do right, to make a difference, in spite of a system that actually discourages it.

At almost this exact time last year, I wrote a blog post called “Teaching: It’s More Than What I Do.” And I’m not sure if it’s the time of year or what, but I figure that sharing the exchange I had yesterday is a good reminder—not just to her but to me and to anyone else who teaches—of why we do what we do.

Her: How do you continue to want to be a teacher when so any things go wrong every day?

Me: I hold on to the very few things that go right. And try to remember them when things go wrong. It sounds like you’re having a rough day.

Her: I’m not sure. I decided two weeks ago that after this year I was not going to teach anymore. It wasn’t a day where something particularly wrong happened. I was just miserable and realized that is my normal. I’m just tired of being busy being miserable. It takes up my whole life, and I don’t know that it is worth it.


You are a teacher. Whether or not you do it in the context in which you currently work or not, you are a teacher. You always will be. Just today, after having read this message from you, I came across this line in a book (totally unrelated to work) I’m reading (Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Wells):

Teaching a calling

You have the calling, [name redacted]. It’s in you–it’s a part of who you are. I know this because it is a part of who I am too. And so whatever you ultimately decide to do to make a living–you will always be a teacher. You may, however, choose not to do it in the way you have been.

With that said, let me assure you of this: all the good teachers want to quit. All the good teachers get frustrated and tired and depressed and wonder whether or not it’s worth it. At LEAST once a year, I decide it’s my last year. Sometimes–it’s ten times a year that I make that declaration. And I really mean it. Because I also feel tired and miserable all of the time, and it is my normal. And then something happens–sometimes it’s the very smallest thing–and I realize I wouldn’t really be able to do anything else–not because I can’t or I’m not qualified or interested. I always end up being a teacher–even when I’m not a teacher. And then, I’m in for another year.

You asked me how I keep doing it. And I said I hold on to the few great moments and the hope & faith they give me that what I’m doing makes a difference–it counts. I have a giant bulletin board in my office with pictures and notes from students–a collection of ten years’ worth of students. I hold onto every little tiny glimmer and stick it to that board, so on the days when I really wonder if it’s worth it, I can look back on those words from actual students–and let them tell me whether or not it’s worth it. Usually, they convince me it is. Sometimes I have to look at it again. And again. And then again. And then I still want to quit.

This note from my giant bulletin board is actually from the student who e-mailed me yesterday--sent years ago.

This note from my giant bulletin board is actually from the student who e-mailed me yesterday–sent years ago.

But do you know why I want to quit? It almost never has to do with those students. It almost always has to do with all the other BS. The students? 9 times out of 10, even when the students are causing me grief–they’re not causing enough to make me want to walk out the door. And I don’t do what I do every day for anyone other than the students. And that makes it worthwhile for me. It’s worth it when their lives are changed–even in small ways–because of something I did, said, or created. It’s worth it if that ‘s only true of one out of every 500 students I see in a year. And so ultimately, I keep teaching because of them–for them–and because that’s who I am–a person who wants to make that difference–even when it’s small and even when it’s only one out of 500+ times.

And it’s who you are, too. You want to make that difference. And so you will keep teaching. Maybe it won’t be high school English. Maybe it won’t be public school. Because if you are truly miserable day-in and day-out and think you would be happy doing something else, somewhere else, then you owe it to yourself–and the world who needs you–to try something new. But you, [name redacted], will always be a teacher. And you will always change lives–and make the world a better place. You can’t not. You care too much. The downside of caring so much is that you also feel every failure as if it’s yours. You care so much that you give your all when maybe you should try to give a little less–but you couldn’t if you tried. You are also, like me, a perfectionist, and you don’t want to do anything less than the absolute best–which means you’ll always be busy, always doing more, always be forgetting to take time to relax and enjoy something other than your job, career, calling. But you should focus on doing those things. Because even if you move into another career–you will face the same problem. You will always give more. You will always give too much.

One of the best decisions I made was to make some rules to limit myself. I no longer answer student e-mails on weekends. I leave my laptop at work. I accept that not everything I need to do can be done in the 40-hour work week. And if it can’t all be done, then something will just not get done. I prioritize so that the thing that doesn’t get done isn’t going to be something that is actually detrimental to my students. Usually, it’s some administrative BS that I hate anyway.

Probably none of what I’ve written here is very useful other than this: I understand. It’s hard. And you have to do what’s best for you. But even if you leave the k-12 system, you will always be who you are: [name redacted], Teacher. And you will teach and mentor and change lives. One way or another. And however you choose to do it will be great.


Filed under Teaching & Learning

Ch-ch-ch-changes…a helpful reminder

As higher education professionals, we change lives. That may sound arrogant or even impossible, but make no mistake—it’s our business.   Sometimes the changes are small, sometimes they’re big. Often, they’re unrecognized—by us, by administrators, by the State or the US Dept. of Education, or even by the students themselves.

Not long ago, I had a student in my Freshman Seminar class who had missed several meetings in a row.  I didn’t have much hope that she’d be returning, and I was actually surprised to see her when she finally did show up.  Our lesson on that day was on the connection between Self-Awareness and Self-Management.  After class, I pulled her aside to speak to her one-on-one about her absences. She said, “This. Today. This is what I needed to hear. I was really having second thoughts about college, about whether or not I could do it. I was having a lot of self-doubt. This is exactly what I needed. I’m glad I came back. I won’t be missing like that again.” She didn’t. It’s not like I planned that—I couldn’t have.  Sometimes we set the stage for success, and the students just aren’t yet ready.  And sometimes they are. Sometimes, the timing is just right.

Often, we don’t appreciate the impact we’re having on students’ lives. We don’t see immediate results from a lot of our endeavors.  We never hear back from that student who failed 3 classes 6 ½ years ago. We often don’t see the difference we make. But that doesn’t mean we don’t make a difference.

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Filed under Community College, Higher Ed, Teaching & Learning

Setting the Stage for Success

Today was the start of the third week of school. A student withdrew from my class last night. So there’s the first blemish on my student success record this year. Bleh.

I’ve talked before about student success and the College Completion Agenda <insert eye roll here>.  And one of the things I’ve said time and again is that learning–real learning–is not measured by completion or graduation. It may not truly be measurable at all. And yet, increasingly in Higher Ed completion and graduation are the means by which we are being judged. More graduates = more success. Right?

Wrong. Of course, there’s not much we can do about that.  When the government ties Financial Aid to numbers, we have to give them numbers.  And the numbers they want are completion, graduation, and now, more ever than before, employability.

A former student came to visit me today.  Six and a  half years after I first taught him. We talked and laughed–particularly over the part where he failed one of my classes.  Correction: 2 of my…no…3 of my classes. He failed 3 of my classes. And today he invited me to his graduation at the 4-year university down the street.  He’s been accepted to law school. And he wanted me to know that–despite failing multiple classes and, admittedly hating me for a time, he had come to appreciate what I’d tried to do for him when he was in my classes.  He hated me because I pushed him and made him work. And he didn’t want to do that then. Clearly, he was capable. But he wasn’t ready.

I tell my Freshman Seminar students that the most important thing they will have to learn to embrace in order to succeed in college and life is personal responsibility. It is until that happens–until they accept that they are in control of their learning, their education, their lives–that they will ever get anything out of the college experience.  That maturation in thinking is what college is all about.

And you can’t measure it. And it takes time.

That student who withdrew form my class last night? It might just not be her time. Maybe she’s not ready.  But that doesn’t mean that I failed. It doesn’t mean we failed as an institution. It just means she wasn’t ready. But like the student who came back to see me today, she may be ready a little further down the road.

There’s a lot we can do to help set the stage for students to succeed. But ultimately, they’re the actors in their own plays, and if they’re not ready to take the stage and give it their all, well…they’re just not yet ready. That’s all.

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Do You Have A Minute?

So I finished my week of Powering Down and Unplugging. I was on vacation, so I can’t really say I was more productive without being constantly connected, but it was more relaxing, and I honestly (despite being a social media addict) didn’t miss it that much.

But speaking of productivity, I did pick up a brilliant idea from my father-in-law that I intend to implement upon returning to work in January.  I lose all sorts of valuable time at work when people just drop in, and ask “Do you have a minute?”

As my FIL concurred, these people always require more than a minute, and I am distracted from whatever task I was working on before the interruption. This, obviously, decreases my productivity during my time in my office. Case in point: this semester when we hit the end-of-the-semester grading crunch, I actually had to take a sick day to finish grading all my students’ projects from home because I couldn’t get anything done in my office. I often end up working from home, after hours to finish stuff I should have been able to complete in the office during regular business hours–had I only not had all those extra minutes stolen from me.

I’d like to be able to unplug more than once a year. After work or on the weekends would be a great time for that–except I can’t because I’m usuallyconnected for work. The number of e-mails I write, read, and respond to after hours or on the weekend is absurd. I’m hoping that implementing my FIL’s idea will help.  Here’s what he shared:

He used to have this sand timer he would keep in his office. And when someone would walk in and say “Do you have a minute,” he would flip the timer and say, “I can give you two.” I need a sand timer…because this is brilliant in its simplicity. If people can’t get what they need in two minutes, they should schedule an appointment. Really.

Note: This applies to the administrative part of my job. Obviously, on the teaching side, regularly scheduled office hours are specifically for student drop-ins.

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Powering Down and Unplugging

I ran across this article the other day, and I agree with the idea that “people have a pathological relationship with their devices.” I know I do. I’m constantly checking the smart phone, the tablet, the iPad, the MacBook, the laptop…and the list goes on.  And I’m a big social media addict, regularly using Facebook, Twitter (multiple accounts), Instagram, LinkedIn…you get the idea. I’m connected–as connected as a person can be probably.

I also agree with this: “Our addiction to screens is affecting our well-being, productivity and creativity…”. And I’m ready for a break.  Today is my last day of work until January 3rd. And I mean that. I am not checking that e-mail account one more time effective immediately. For real. I’m also going to unplug my other devices. Ok–maybe not so much unplug as at least put on Airplane Mode (i.e. disconnect from the Internets). I still want to get phone calls or text from friends, my husband, and in case of emergencies. But I’m saying no to e-mail (all 4 accounts) and no to social media (all…however many accounts) and no to the internet in general.

This isn’t altogether new for me.  For the past two years at this time, I’ve done the same thing. And each time I really enjoyed it. I read books, watched movies, wrote,  relaxed, played with the dogs, went on walks, cooked real meals, and just generally enjoyed the time off.  The difference between those years and this year is simple: for the last two years, we went up into the mountains, where there was no service.  So even if I wanted to, I couldn’t check in. And again, I loved it.  It was so freeing.  This year we’re at home and Verizon works just fine here.  But I’m making a commitment. Effective tomorrow I’m putting these mobile devices on Airplane Mode and disconnecting for a week.  We’re having a real vacation.

“See” you in a week–when I’ll probably tell you all about how awesome my time off has been. Happy holidays!

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Is this wrong? Yes.

So today on my ride into work, there was a discussion on the radio about this letter a teacher in NY sent home with her pre-K students.  The question offered to listeners/callers was this: “Is this wrong?”  The answer is yes.

The letter in question attempted to address the personal hygiene (or lack thereof) of children in the class. Here is a photo of the letter:smelly letter

If I were a parent who received this letter, I would write a letter back, and it would look something like this:

Dear Teacher,

I am writing this letter to inform you that you have failed–both as a teacher and a human being.  Allow me to explain why using a traditional scale: U = Unacceptable; NI = Needs Improvement; A = Acceptable; E = Exceeds. I have organized this from least important to most important for your benefit.

Professionalism: U

Did you hand write this with a marker and mimeograph it down the hall? How am I supposed to take you seriously? My (hypothetical) 4-year-old can use an iPad. You can’t use a computer? It’s 2013; if you’d like me to read something, type it up, print it out, and then send it me. I refuse to read scribble from anyone other than my child who just learned to spell his name.

Grammar: U

Unkept? You’re talking about my child, not my lawn. The word you’re looking for is unkempt. Also, you use a comma before a coordinating conjunction when it’s used to combine two independent clauses. You missed two of those. And one more–please proofread and edit before you send me or my child anything else. I really don’t want him picking up bad writing habits. (FYI: If you’d typed your document in Microsoft Word, spell and grammar checker would have helped you with your struggles to appropriately use Standard American English.) Also, periods. Enough said.

Communication: U

Did you really need to send this out to everyone (Consider reading my post on Bcc and Reply All and apply to this situation if you have the critical thinking skills to do so, which based on this evidence, I doubt.)? Don’t you think it might have been more effective to have targeted your message to a specific audience?  And is a generic handwritten letter really your best device for getting your message across? A more appropriate method of communicating to parents of children you think stink would have been a personal phone call. Furthermore, watch your language! “Enough said?” Really? Your tone is…self righteous and arrogant and…all around negative. It’s like you were hoping to start a fight, not resolve an actual problem. Also, for the record, despite the all-caps title, this is not actually an urgent notice. An urgent notice (!!!) would be something like, “There’s black mold and asbestos in our classroom, please only send your child to school tomorrow if he has a Hazmat suit!” An offense to your olfactory perception is not urgent.

Empathy: U

Empathy, since you seem to have none, is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s (like a 3-year-old’s) shoes and understand how they likely feel and then behave accordingly. Did you even stop for a second to consider how these supposedly dirty and stinky kids might feel upon discovering that their teacher doesn’t even want to be near them? Or how their parents might feel upon receiving your letter? You should know this, but I’ll go ahead and make sure it’s clear: sometimes people do the best they can with limited resources. I read that 30% of the population in your area lives below the poverty line. Maybe they’re doing the best they can. You should at least consider the possibility.

Social Responsibility: U

Look, if some of the children in class are really a health and safety concern, you might consider that the appropriate action to take is reporting a case of possible neglect. Sending a letter like this home to an abusive and neglectful parent could actually make things worse for the child in question.  If you are that concerned, call DSS and let them know.  Had someone done that for my foster kids, they would have been removed from their abusive home years before they were. Speak up–you may be the only voice those children have, so instead of marginalizing (and dare I suggest bullying) them, be an advocate for them. Be a friend to them. Be a role model. It’s your responsibility as a teacher and a human being.

Enough has not been said here, but I feel like this might be a good starting point. I encourage you to reflect on your behavior, consider the ways in which you may have better addressed this issue, and make a commitment to do better in the future. Accept that this was a BIG mistake and make a plan to better yourself. In short, take this as a a teachable moment. Learn. Grow. And then maybe you’ll be able to rise from Unacceptable to Exceeds (or at least Acceptable).  Let me know if I can help.


Parent of (a hypothetical) child in your class.

PS: Finally, please sign below indicating you have read this report in its entirety and understand its contents.


(Bad Teacher)

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Teaching: It’s More Than What You Do

Once upon a time, many years ago, I was at a gathering of educators and was involved in a group discussion with several veteran instructors. We were discussing all manner of education-y things when one senior instructor said to us, “you need to stop letting this be SO important to you. This is your job. It’s a job. It’s not who you are.”

I disagreed then. And I disagree now. Because, I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, teaching is not just a job. It is, in fact, who I am. Or at least a very big part of who I am.

I’ve often thought about doing other things for a living. I’ve thought of leaving public service for the private sector. I’ve thought of making more money. I’ve thought about going to work for 40 hours a week, no more, no less. I’ve thought of giving up the late-night grading sessions, the constant e-mail checking, the daily insults to my intelligence and dignity.

But I can’t. And I don’t really want to. Because even though there are days when I hate my job, I love it. And it is me. I can’t do anything else. My students try my patience and shred my last nerve…but they also challenge me. They make me want to slam my head against the wall, but they also inspire me to try harder and be better. They make me try harder and be better (because if I slack off even a bit, they will eat me for lunch).

I spend most of my time trying to figure out how to get them to figure out whatever it is I’m teaching that week. Sometimes I come up with a new idea the day or hour or five minutes before class. And when it works, the payoff is amazing.

And knowing that, understanding it, and being willing to work towards that (as opposed to a nice Christmas bonus) is not just what I do for a paycheck. It is who I am.

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Run down, way down…

So here’s the thing: this last week, I completely and utterly failed at anything domestic: I did not cook, I hardly cleaned, laundry did not get done…and so on. I did, however, work my butt off at…well, work. I had meeting after meeting after meeting. And then I had some more. And of course, I had to actually teach my classes. And it was the week for student complaints. And I had papers to grade. And I didn’t sleep for…I don’t know…days? Insomnia and I are tight like that.

As I explained to someone on FB the other night:

A regular full-time faculty load is 5 3-credit hour classes per semester. As Department Head, I’m granted a 2 3-credit hour release for administrative work. So I currently teach 3 3-credit classes a semester, which is 9 hours of class time each week.

We work on the Carnegie unit system that assumes 2 service hours (course prep, planning, grading, etc.) for every credit hour, so presumably 15 credit hours/ week is 30 service hours/week. But
let’s get real: we actually usually spend more that the Carnegie suggests. Then, we have a mandatory 8 office hours/ week bringing us to 38. Then, you add in committee work, college service, academic advising, etc. The work week for which the State pays us is 37.5 hours.

So as Dept. Head, I do 18 service hours for teaching + 8 office hours per week. The remaining 11.5 is supposed to be for administrative work, including program development, hiring of faculty, training of faculty, scheduling of courses, and like fifty-two other duties that include, but are certainly not limited to, things like ordering all texts for the department, conducting inventory, and responding to student complaints/concerns regarding classes, instructors, any anything else that might bother them. I spent at least 8 of those hours in meetings this week. And another 3-5 writing reports and or creating presentations (or parts of presentation/reports) related to those meetings.

So…yeah, add in the complete inability to sleep at night, plus a little sinus problem I’ve been battling….oh, and covering for not one, but 2, instructors who are out…I’m a little run down. Hence, the lack of blogging and/or doing anything else, including keeping up with any and all household chores.

On the upside, I succeeded at my job. And I did well and right by my students. And stood up for my employees–even when it meant I took a hit (or two) myself. And my students…they learned. They learned some important things. And I know because they told me or showed me. And there’s always that.

Oh, and my husband still loves me and reassures me it’s completely fine that we ordered pizza for dinner twice in the last two weeks and ate all our lunches and several dinners out.

Luckily, the weekend means cleaning, laundry, and cooking, so I’m just about caught up and ready for Monday again.

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From This Week’s Lessons: Embracing Interdependence

One of this week’s objectives for my College Skills classes was to get students to understand that they need to develop a college support network and embrace interdependence for success.

So one day we did two activities:

1. The Chair Lift (adapted from Skip Downing)

2. Video Clip: “Finding Green Food” from The Land Before Time.

In the chair lift activity, one student sits in a chair at the front of the room.  His job is to remain seated in the chair.  Another student is instructed to “cause the chair to rise 18 inches off the floor.”  Generally, I choose a good-sized male student for the chair and the tiniest female student possible for the “raising of the chair.”  The rest of the class is instructed to observe and consider what they would do in the “chair raiser’s” position.  The chair raiser usually struggles at first, walking around the chair, pushing it a little, making a half-hearted attempt to lift a side of it, and declaring things like, “This is impossible!” Sometimes one or both students involved in the demonstration ask questions as they try to figure out this puzzle.  All the while, I just keep repeating the directions: “Your job is to stay seated in the chair.” and “Your job is to cause the chair to rise 18 inches off the floor.”  Eventually, the students observing will begin to offer suggestions until finally they determine the task is possible if several (usually at least 4 who are instructed to be careful and lift with their legs to avoid injury) of them work together. I follow this with a minute paper: “What’s the life lesson here?”

Next, we watch the clip from The Land Before Time.  My students get super geeked out about this movie.  Apparently, it’s quite popular with their age group.  I never have to summarize the plot for them; they do it themselves.  If you’re not familiar, this is an animated adventure film starring anthropomorphic dinosaurs in search of The Great Valley, a place that has been spared from the devastation of a series of catastrophic events (earthquake, volcano, etc.).  As plant-eaters, they need to find “green food” despite the fact that most of the land is now barren.  In the clip, they find a tree with green leaves way up at the top, and have to figure out how to get to them since none can reach the leaves alone (including Petrie who should be able to fly but can’t because he’s too scared and has never learned).  Here’s what happens:

The Land Before Time


We do another minute paper: “What’s the life lesson here?”

Students then do pair/share, followed by small group discussion about these life lessons.  They write out what they’ve learned to share with the large group, and then we go over those lessons together:” don’t be afraid to ask for help, “sometimes a seemingly impossible goals is possible with the help of a team,”  “don’t be too proud or stubborn to seek help when you can’t do it alone,” and so and so forth.  This leads to a mini-lecture on building your college support network and an assignment to begin doing that via the Staff Interview Assignment (only after we’ve already done “appropriate e-mailing), where students are forced to go out on campus and engage with one of a list of volunteer staff members.


Filed under Higher Ed, Teaching & Learning