A Teaching Timeline (Warning: extra long post!)

1983

I am a twenty-one year old, fresh out of college with three months of substitute teaching and one semester of student teaching under my very loose belt.  Other than babysitting when I was twelve, this is the sum total of my experience with kids when I stand in front of my first class of third graders.   I quiver in my sneakers as they look expectantly up at me waiting for instructions.  They know what to expect better than me, after all they have been in school for three years already.  They are the experts on what is supposed to happen; I am the novice.  Even though they don’t seem to realize this, thankfully, I feel it in every cell in my body.  They are waiting for me to tell them what to do, I think in terror; I have no idea what to tell them to do!   Finally I just begin to speak.  I tell them a bit about myself and how happy I am to be their teacher this year. I ask them to tell me about themselves and they open up like a tidal wave.  Once they start talking, I can’t get them to stop.  I realize quickly that I have to eventually get them doing something else, but for now I am just relieved that they are doing something.  And I listen.  Their stories of their little lives are so interesting! They live in a barrio in Tucson, lots of poverty, drugs, neglect, hunger, fighting;  but they are also scrappy, street-smart; and I recognize and identify with that and we fall in love.  We have a hell of a year.  It turns out they love to learn anything new- my biggest problem that year is managing all that they want to do.  I follow their leads and as they come up with project after project, researching and creating, reading and writing, making and solving problems.  We write a newspaper every week on topics of interest to us.  We write and present plays, learn about and enjoy a Thanksgiving feast complete with turkey and trimmings, write letters to local politicians on issues that bother us, take the public bus every week to the public library to use our new cards to take out books.  We dance, sing, play games, have really deep and caring morning meetings, make daily goals for ourselves and check in several times a day to adjust them and assess them.  These meetings include my bringing the list of skills we need to cover and learn and master, and negotiating with the kids when and how we will do this.  I meet with individuals, small groups, pairs of partners.  We are in chairs, on the counter tops, under the tables. People walk in to speak to me and cannot find me as I am in some corner sitting on the floor having really engaging conferences with my eight-year olds. I am constantly assessing their growth and knowledge and adjusting my expectations and lessons.  

For the next seven years, I grow, they grow and things only get better.  I have one really tough year when my first graders (I moved grades several times that first seven years) were such a mess, they didn’t learn a thing.  That year, I had an elective mute, a fetal alcohol syndrome student, a sexually abused little boy, two students who were alingual (or could not communicate in either English or their native Spanish), a little monster who destroyed my classroom on the first day of school and continued to do so until he was transferred to a different teacher, at least one physically abused child, and eighteen other little ones who couldn’t sit still.   I own that I couldn’t reach and teach them, and wish I could have that group now so I could make sure they get the skills they need to succeed, now that I have the skills I need.  That is what it means to develop the craft of teaching- reflecting on what works and what doesn’t work, and gathering a “bag of tricks” or a repetoire of strategies to insure student learning.  Over that seven years, I completed a Master’s Degree and gave birth to twins and a third baby.  All by the time I was 28.  To say that I changed as a teacher over that time is an understatement. To say that I became truly the professional educator who knew and understood kids, and could match them with resources and instruction to ensure their striving to meet expectations is more accurate.  During that time, there were objectives for each grade level- a list of skills they were required to master.  I had the complete freedom to design curriculum and assessments to meet the objectives. Each year they took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills as a formal assessment to check up on their growth.  It was taken for 45 minutes a day over three days and included reading and math tests.  It was incidental to our daily work and learning.  I did no test prep at all, other than to be a cheerleader and tell them to do their best.  Looking back, I see what an incredible experience that was for me, and for my students.  My first class of kids, who now turn thirty-eight (!) are mostly parents, working and raising their own families. The ones that I hear from or about through the grapevine have become adults I am proud to have taught.

1993

I am teaching first grade, back on the east coast.  My students live in a wealthy suburb of New York City, Westchester County, but they are an anomaly.  They live in abject poverty, with parents who do not speak English and are working two and three jobs to pay rent and buy food.  Their parents are mostly illiterate in any language and although they fear school, they respect and support teachers without question.   I am having a ball, working with these little ones and watching them learn to read and write in two languages, meeting and exceeding grade level expectations.  I have lots of freedom to design curriculum and assess the children; I work hard, they work hard and we all learn.  But there are rumblings from above.  New terminology is being thrown around: standards and standard-based learning; high-stakes testing, and later in this period, the effects of the 1983 study A Nation at Risk are coming to the forefront in the poorly nicknamed No Child Left Behind act.  By the end of the 90’s there is state testing in grades 4 and 8 that create a backwash of panic and test prep.  Our students performed poorly on the new tests, and everyone now, including the custodians and secretaries, are taking ability-level groups and reams of copied worksheets and practicing with the students to prepare them for the tests. Although I am teaching early childhood, our faculty meetings now consist of discussions about how the lower grade teachers can support test prep by incorporating verbal and writing activities designed to prepare those students for the fourth grade test.  Results are being published in the newspapers, and real estate values are affected.  Teachers are being bullied into spending more time in test prep, and social studies and science, as well as music and art, all but disappear in our low-performing district.  I fight for the kids at faculty meetings; continue to attend conferences, workshops and book studies on teaching and learning; and take suggestions to my colleagues, the principals and superintendents;  then close my door and teach the way I know kids learn.  I earn a reputation as a troublemaker, and grow weary of trying to protect my students from what I believe is at best a waste of their time and at worst, permanently damaging.  When I began teaching, I swore an oath to myself: I would never do to any of my students anything I would not want done to my own children, nor anything that was done to my friends and family who had poor experiences in school.  I was losing sleep and struggling with my conscience, and after many years, I left that district and went to heaven on earth- a district whose administrators verbally stated, and backed up with practice, that they shared my vision for kids.

2003

I have been in my new district for several years.  I have moved grade levels a couple of times, and found joy in each experience.  I am able to share creative ideas with colleagues, and listen to theirs.  Our kids perform well enough on the state tests to allow us some freedom to negotiate curriculum and be the professional educators that we are, although we are expected and encouraged to teach the same units and information at each grade level in all four elementary schools across the district.  We, as colleagues, do not always agree on what works, but generally there is respect at our meetings; the administration mostly loves and appreciates what we do.  We work hard, the kids work hard and everyone grows and learns.  But there are new rumblings.  The federal government is watching now.  They are closely monitoring our high-stakes test scores and leaning on the state for improved scores and more testing.  No Child Left  Behind is taking affect in a big way and two things are happening in schools: either they are bending to the mandates or they are protesting.  Those that protest receive reprimands, sanctions, threats.  Parents are mostly unaware at this point of the snowball charging down the mountain, gathering speed and ammo and headed directly at their children and teachers.  Teachers who sound alarms are being talked about as lazy or crazy or worse.  We begin to feel pressure, even in our high-performing district, that we are not doing enough to raise test scores.  I fight for the kids at faculty meetings; continue to attend conferences, workshops and book studies on teaching and learning; and take suggestions to my colleagues, the principals and superintendents;  then close my door and teach the way I know kids learn (sound familiar?).    But it gets harder for me to buffer and protect the kids.  My principal complains each year that I am not giving her enough “4’s”, or exceed-level test scores.  I tell her I teach children, not tests.  She asks for compromise; I ask if she would say that if her own children were in my class.  She moves me to kindergarten, which is wonderful by me. It’s the last bastion of joy in school, but I see the writing on the wall: for how long? I have to justify play time, I have to follow scripted programs, I have to do constant formal assessments and report results.

 2013

The new APPR, or teacher evaluation system, kicks in.  It is a new instrument, and my evaluation is suddenly 40% based on student test scores and 60% based on administration, including a second unannounced formal observation.  But wait, kindergarten does not do state testing.  Oh yes they do now.  All of this happened between September and June of this school year.  The federal government has made it clear that unless states and their districts jump through the mandate hoops, they will lose all of their federal funding.  Everything is putting the cart before the horse, as those at the top say we have no more time to waste planning and making sure we are doing the right thing for kids.  Committees and task forces are formed at the state level and do not include a single educator or school administrator.  State Regent Board of Education members throw up their hands at public meetings and blame the governor.  Parents are finally wide awake and worried, now that their children are taking tests over six days for 75-90 minutes a session.  They are writing letters, attending protests, joining groups like Opt-Out; pulling their children out of public school. It is an unmitigated disaster.  I, who have always been a strong public education supporter, believe that if my children were in school right now, I would take them out and either home-school or private school them.   Classrooms in poverty stricken areas still have no materials to help the children learn, and the teachers are burning out even faster than before as their jobs and pensions and retirements are being held ransom to get these at-risk children to pass the tests.  I still smile at my students every day and make every day special; I believe that some other teachers I work with also do this, but lots of them are folding to the pressure and becoming frighteningly robotic in their systematic teaching.  Children do not smile as much inside the building, although they still find fun and happiness wherever they can, being kids.  Things are dismal and getting worse, and the only thing the State Regents gave me in response to my query about what I can do to bring change in the insanity is to wait it out.  I have less than ten years of teaching ahead of me and I can only hope things get better before I retire.

I am aware that I look back on some of the early years of teaching with nostalgia.  By no means was it all rosy and by no means were states and districts making the best decisions for kids even then.  But they had not yet crawled so far up our ahems and tied our wings and micro-managed our days.  Gone is any semblance of professional trust in educators; apparently we are all lazy, shiftless, cheating, lying, stealing, selfish kid-haters.  Gone is any leverage for teachers to make decisions about their students’ learning based on ongoing, informal assessments.  Gone is all the evidence of developmental stages a la Piaget,  of multiple intelligences a la Howard Gardner, of learning styles and teaching styles.  We are in a new age of “one size fits all or else.”  It’s a brave new world;  I’m still fighting, but I’m more than a bit worried.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Little Things Make Me Happy

My life is anything but simple. And I won’t deny that I like it that way. When someone asks me “how are you?” my pat answer is busy, busy, busy. Even with the kids grown and gone, my time and schedule are full, sometimes to the point of out of control. So I am not what you would call a simple person, because I love and crave change, noise, social events, action and adventure. However, living in the woods now, out of sight of the nearest neighbor, is a pleasure for those rare quiet times in the rocking chair on the front porch with coffee mug or wine glass in hand. In spite of my reputation for vibrating audibly when I’m out doing my thing, there are many, many little things in my life that make me happy and put a smile on my face.

Hummingbirds are the first thing that come to mind. For most of my adult life, I have had a fascination with these minuscule, busy, buzzy creatures. When I lived out in the Arizona desert, hummingbird sightings were anything but unusual. Less common was my thrilling experience actually touching and holding these miraculous tiny treasures. Three times! Not many people can say that…The first time, one flew into the house through an open door. It was terrified and beating itself against a window trying to escape. I came up and cupped it in my hands and took it outside. When I opened my hands, it just sat there for a moment before zooming off. I like to think it was enjoying being close to me as much as I was enjoying holding it. Most likely, it was just taking a moment to regroup after realizing it was still alive and free again. Another time, I stepped outside my door and one just came up and landed on my shirt. I froze until it realized that I wasn’t a giant flower, and then took off. The third time, I rescued one that had hit a window trying to get at a flower pot on the inside. It was quivering in the grass when I picked it up and then it flew away. I can sit and watch my hummingbird feeder for quite a long stretch of time, and when I hear the loud buzz that warns of an approach, the smile grows on my face even before I catch my glimpse.
hummingbird feeder 3

Flowers, both in the garden and in vases around the house always brighten my day. Something about the riot of color and the gorgeous arrangements just do it for me. This is nature at its most impressive “look what I can do”, all dolled up and showing off. This could be hereditary; my tante Kitty in Amsterdam filled the house with fresh cut beauty from the local Bloemenmarkt. When I was a teenager and spending the summer with her, one of my jobs was to go to the flower market each Friday morning and negotiate to make the most magnificent bouquets for the cheapest price.

Babies of all kinds, human and animal, draw out an involuntary awwwwwwww and a pouty lip and a silly look on my face. I am a sucker for big eyes and tiny toes or paws. I want to stop, touch, play, watch, engage, anything to keep the little cutey nearby. And nothing, on the whole planet, can make me happier than listening to and watching an infant have a good long belly laugh. Their entire bodies are just a bundle of unbridled joy. Who could resist?

The beach makes me feel almost primal. The sound, smell, sight and power of the ocean has an emotional impact on me that “happy” does not begin to describe. Standing at the edge of the shore, with the waves trying to drag me in, or diving through them like a seal, or sitting and watching the sunset with dancing orange and purple layers over the horizon- I feel a deep contentment, like coming home.

Certain odors also make put an involuntary smile on my face. Coffee, anything citrus, baby powder, Australian Gold sunscreen lotion, sauteed garlic or onions ( in fact, many food odors, but then you all know if you have been reading that I love food), my Aunt Hindy/Oma’s kitchen- all tickle my olfactory sense and create a feeling of positive emotion.

Material things don’t usually make me happy. I went, in my early life, without most of them and it helped put those “things” in perspective. They don’t matter. But every once in a while, a thing will make me want to hold it, own it, display it, use it. Most recently it is a coffee mug from a non-existent coffee shop from a soap opera that I have been watching off and on for thirty years. I found it online, and I just wanted it. So I bought myself (and my friend and fellow-soap watcher) one, and it makes me cheerful in its whimsy. A bit embarrassed (it effectively outs me as a soap opera watcher) , but cheerful, nonetheless. I love certain things that I own- some of my clothes, shoes, furniture, etc. And they even make me happy to look at them or wear them. And someone I know and love will call me out if I don’t publicly admit that a new sports car is fun to have too. But that is really happy with a lowercase h; not exactly what I am getting at here.

The moral of this blog post is, I guess, find what makes you happy and surround yourself with it. Remember to look at it (or smell, taste or touch it) and savor the joy it brings. Life is too short, stressed, busy, and full- if you do not make time to notice something that is positive every day, you are truly missing out.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

I’d Like a Small Cup of Brain Cells, Light and Sweet, Please

Coffee! I mean a small coffee… Darn it, it happened again! This blog entry could also be called “Growing Older Phenomena #492”. One of the most annoying things about getting on in age (I hate that phrase, but it applies more and more on a daily basis) is how my memory is spotty and getting spottier by the minute. It’s weird too, because I can remember conversations word for word that happened five years ago, and what I ordered for lunch yesterday, but not the names of the people my husband just introduced me to. For the fourth time. Really, how many times can you get away with, “I’m sorry, I’m really bad with names”? Words come and go; and not even obscure words either. Sometimes I cannot finish a sentence that should end with something like “miso soup” just because I can’t come up with it as the sentence is already coming out of my mouth and the image is clearly in my head. Sometimes, the wrong word will come out of my mouth (“We just chose the miso soup for the house; it’s a beautiful light brown”) and I won’t even notice until the person with whom I am speaking looks at me funny. It’s truly bizarre. And scary. And embarrassing.

It’s getting so bad, I have downloaded several apps onto my smartphone and put them in a folder I call “Brain Train”. These apps are supposed to be challenges and games that improve skills like focus, memory, language, problem solving, attention, flexibility, visual spatial ability, IQ, creativity, concentration, executive function (what the hell is that??) and even will-power. All that for free and in five minutes a day. I should be good for a while… if I remember to play every day.

I have my own way of organizing all the scheduled events in my life. I mostly keep them in my head, and up until recently, this has worked well. I would like to blame the fact that I am juggling a lot of balls as far as claims on my time are concerned. After all, I teach in a public school, which means I have regularly scheduled meetings and lots of surprise ones; I teach as an adjunct professor, which means that my schedule or class location can change as often as every few weeks; hubby and I take ballroom dancing classes, which also have to be scheduled each week; and I have tons of other things to do, places to go and people to see. But I no longer have kids at home to impact my schedule with sports and doctor appointments and “play dates”. So in reality, it should be a bit easier to remember the events in my life.

But I am finding it more and more embarrassing when I space out a planned meeting at school, or am late for a dentist appointment I forgot about, in spite of the reminder phone call, email and text message; even more so because I work with some young people who are highly addicted to organization and calendars to the point of being ridiculously anal about recording and color-coding their plans (you know who you are and don’t make fun of me and refer to this blog posting when we go back to work in September. Remember one day, you too will be old and forgetful- mark my words well, young grasshopper). And so I have started to write all of these things down. I write them in my plan book, record them on my phone calendar, or on a birthday calendar to inform me of upcoming special days for my loved ones, and on an app that sends me reminders and encouraging messages like Dream Live Love, and on notes to myself that look just like post-its all over the desktop of my computer. Then I forget to check them. Oy.

I will admit that sometimes I forget on purpose. For example, if you catch me off-guard and ask me how old I am, I have to actually do the math before I answer. If I meet someone I don’t like, I am not beyond forgetting them completely as soon as we part, and having them remind me next time that we have met before. But these are not a real problem.

I have a lot to look forward to. My mother, who is twenty five years older than me and we all know how damned fast the last twenty five years went, forgets entire conversations from one day to the next. She still functions completely in her life, and is healthy and happy; but it takes all of my patience when she tells me a whole story with four-part harmony that I already heard yesterday. And quite possibly the day before or the week before or all of the above. I already tell my kids that when (not if) I start doing that, they should give me a signal of some kind that means “you already said that, possibly many times”. I promise not to deny it or get mad.

I have been through all the fear related to this issue and attempts to stop/change/fix it that I am sure many women my age go through: Do I have early onset Alzheimer’s or dementia?? Is this a result of some of my youthful adventures/experimentations/indiscretions?? (All of which I will deny, by the way) If I take this daily cocktail of resveratrol, gingko biloba, ginseng, Omega 3, vitamin B and ginger, will it help?? I have come to believe that, unfortunately, forgetting is part of the aging process- like accepting the dreaded phrase “middle-aged” and finally agreeing to color my graying hair. I just got off of the phone with my mother who is a bit distraught that she, at seventy-six years old, has just been given a card from the NYC DFTA (Department for the Aged). She said that the term “senior citizen” doesn’t sound so bad anymore. Yep, a lot to look forward to.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Growing Older Phenomena #351

Your children, all of them, in a very short period of time, make life-course altering decisions- and here is the phenomena: you survive! Not only do you survive, but the amazing thing is that while their lives are moving in new and sometimes scary directions  (scary to a mom who has, after all, spent her and their lives together protecting them, cleaning up their messes, and administering first aid both physical and emotional), your life does not change much at all!  Sure, you lose some sleep, sprout a few more grays, add yet another wrinkle; but in reality your day-to-day continues on in the directions that you are choosing.  In fact, and I find this startling, no one out in public even knows that earthshaking things are going on in your family.  It’s all new to me, this idea that my kids can, will, and do make choices and it has nothing to do with me!  Truly now, I am the mother of adult children and the transition/break is complete.  It’s a very, very odd feeling.

As I progress through life stages, things keep hitting me in the face.  I think I have it together relatively well;  at each stage of my journey  I have always felt that way with confidence. And then WHAM, something unexpected happens and I feel broadsided, t-boned.  It’s like walking through a maze in complete darkness and hitting a turn, literally.  Sure, looking back I can think “hello, Captain Obvious” but that is the crystal clear vision of hindsight, a wonderful gift of boy am I dumb, who knew?

 When I was a teenager, I had it all together all right: I knew I was going to graduate from high school, move out west and start my life’s adventures with little connection to my past.  WHAM- out of no where this guy shows up and he is stubborn! He insists on joining me on my journey.  Sharp right turn…  In my twenties, I had it all together too: I would be a teacher, own a house, have a couple of babies. WHAM- how about three babies in a year and a half, and a move back to the east coast with no jobs, money or place to live.  Sharp left turn…Raising children while teaching full-time became my next stage.  Our focus as a family was to really create a GREAT family- fun, adventure, learning, time together, family first.  We did it, and we did it well.  WHAM -the darn kids grew up, went off and did exactly as we taught them to do: be independent, find your own way and start your own version/vision of life.

I have not written on this blog for a long time due to the fact that I was kind of afraid to do so.  Afraid to say out loud, in public, indelibly and forever on the internet, that I was freaking out a bit about the rapidity of the changes and the drastic-ness of it all.  That I was in a transition and a breaking of the path I was on and heading in new directions.  But wait, once again, it is not me that is going through all of these changes; so why does it feel as if I am? I thought I was in Stage 3 already- the empty nest, the kids on their own and us adjusting to being a couple again.  Little did I know that this was a years-long transition and that the break was not yet complete, the way it feels now.

Don’t get me wrong please- I am not unhappy or regretful. I merely find myself, once again, pondering and reflecting on where I am, where I came from, where I might be going next.  One thing I have learned is to add the “might” in the last part of that sentence.  You truly never, ever, ever know what is going to happen and where it will take you.  I have learned to fasten my seatbelt and hang on, because I am not really walking through a maze in pitch darkness, I am really on a rollercoaster plunging and twisting and turning in the pitch darkness.  Wheeeeee.   All along my way, I have sought out role models- people who have already been where I am headed and can offer some support, advice, hand-holding, sympathy, empathy; some  been-there-done-that-and-you-do-survive.  I admire them, listen carefully to them, take what gems I can from them, and then double-check my seatbelt.

I am a very fortunate woman.  I have three amazing adult children that I guided in the beginnings of their paths, an amazing man to accompany me on my journey,  and true friends who stand beside me as I careen through my days.  I am in the third decade in my chosen profession; starting new hobbies; and finding more adventures to enjoy.   All I can say is: hang on!

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Spring Break ’13

Yeah, I’m not going to Cancun and winding up on “Teachers Go Wild” so don’t get too excited.  In fact, it is going to be one of those stay-cations, where I spend it catching up with neglected stuff.  I love my whirlwind life, but it causes me to let certain things go way too long.  Those things would fall under “not as much of a priority” on my to-do list, and I think it would probably be an interesting exercise to consider what those would be in my life as compared to someone else’s.  I will also be spending this five-day weekend doing things I cannot do when I am in full throttle, even though they are a priority.

On my first day off, I had an appointment for an oil change for my car at 7:00 a.m. (which turned out to be a $2000 repair job due to a broken exhaust pipe and new rear brakes. )  That is just a teeny bit early for a vacation day, I agree.  But I also had a 9:30 appointment at the hair salon for a badly needed remodel, and a lunch date for the birthday of a good friend (although I did not remember it was her birthday and just thought we were having lunch.  Sometimes my memory is a victim of my whirlwind- did I feel like a horse’s ass….),  and grocery shopping, cleaning, preparing for a craft for the entire kindergarten for the week we return, and errands to do.  Day 1 of the vacation…exhausting.

Today is Day 2.  I woke up at 7:45 for an 8:00 dentist appointment, and the only reason I slept so late is that one of the cats kept us up all night playing with something outside our bedroom door and I was too lazy to get up and throw her down the basement stairs and close the door.  I am going to visit with a dear friend in the city who is just out of the hospital, and am planning to cook a meal or two for her and her children.  Somewhere in the middle, I have to go to the paint store to purchase paint for the new bathroom and pick up free fabric samples for the kindergarten activity, do more errands and more cleaning, and get ready for the arrival of one of the girls and her bf and my mom on Friday.

 Day 3, Friday- a friend and former colleague who is thoroughly enjoying her retirement, is coming to lunch.  That gives me all morning to get stuff done.  Once she is here, we will chat the afternoon away; until mom shows up around 3 and then I have to cook a large meal so that when my daughter and her beau show up after struggling through traffic on I-95 from D.C. and arriving around 1 a.m., there will be a full meal waiting.

Saturday, we are heading north to New Hampshire to spend the Easter weekend with our other daughter and her boyfriend.  And his parents, and twenty-five of their closest friends who have no where to go and will join our “orphan” Easter celebration.  (We used to do an “orphan” Thanksgiving in Tucson before kids, and I am happy that she is continuing the tradition of opening up a celebration to those who live too far from home) I will be lugging a twelve pound ham, the makings for mac-n-cheese for thirty, Passover goodies that I never sent, and a variety of other items, up the coast.  We will spend Saturday night in Portsmouth, bar-hopping with the twenty-somethings, after dropping Grandma off at the hotel.  She will enjoy her one Buttery Nipple shot and that will be it for her.

And then Sunday, Easter, it is time to cook up a storm and have a feast.  We will miss our son, who is toiling away to finish up his college semester- start strong finish strong, son!  We will leave most of the clean-up to the young’uns as we have to drive back to New York and get up for work on Monday. 

I have a feeling I will need to go back to work so I can recover from having time off.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

May the Best Man Win

And so we begin again- the 2013 fifth-grade ballroom dance team has been chosen.  After hours, days, weeks of after-school practices and lunchtime tryouts, fifty boys and girls sat in a crowded classroom on Friday afternoon to await the announcement- which twelve had been chosen to compete in New York City’s Colors of the Rainbow competition.  The entire fifth grade, over seventy children, had been trained in ballroom dances and was preparing to perform a showcase for the school and the parents.  It is one of the activities that makes our building stand out from the other three elementary schools in our district.  But beyond the training, we choose to participate in the optional competition part, and every year more kids try out for the team.  The fifth grade teacher who leads the practices is an amateur prize-winning competitor herself, who hopes to open up the world of competitive dancing to a new generation.  I am the sorry assistant coach who watches the team far surpass her lame dance moves after the first week. 

On Friday, we spent the first fifteen minutes of the meeting reiterating the facts: ”There are fifty of you; we only need twelve.  We had to choose not only the kids who showed the best current moves, but also who showed the most potential; who listened to criticism without falling apart and fixed the problems quickly; who would not bow under the tremendous pressure of dancing against ten other teams of fifth graders in front of an audience of hundreds of parents; who could take being judged and deal with the consequences; who could commit to daily after-school and weekend practices, often giving up other well-loved Spring sports.  If you were not chosen, it does not mean  you stink at dancing.  If you do not get onto the team, do not let this stop you from pursuing your love of dancing.  If you do not make the team, do not be mean to those who do- we need your spirit and your support as we go out there and face the other schools.  If you do make the team, do not think you are better than anyone else and do not act as if you are…”

After all of this, the principal calls the names.  As the first several names are called, the rest of the group cheers loudly for them.  But as the list progresses and it starts to sink in that the odds are growing smaller for the remaining kids, the cheers turn to a quieter clapping.  When the last name is called, only those kids with huge hearts are still applauding.  Then there is silence.  Then the tears begin.  Everyone is crying- those who made the team cry with joy; those who didn’t cry bitter tears; some who made the team cry for those who didn’t.  Oy, ten-year-olds.

And then the fallout begins: parents of children who didn’t make the team say their children were “utterly shattered.”  There should be follow-up meetings to soothe the children who didn’t make the team.  The competition has no place in the school at all; that it ruins a wonderful program for all of the children; that the children are too young to deal with such a blow to their psyches.  That this part of the program should be discontinued.

And all of this brings me to the topic for today’s blog posting: competition with children.  Is it a good thing or a destructive thing? Is it a natural part of growing up, or a part to be delayed and even done away with?  Is it necessary and if so, is it to be considered a necessary evil?

In order to answer this question, I have to defer to the experts: children.  Having been a kid-watcher for thirty years, I have learned many amazing things about people and the development of social groups.  Here is what I see: pecking order is a natural thing- every year in every group, there are leaders and followers. As much as I try to give each child an opportunity to take on both of these roles, it is an artifice, temporary, a trying on of a costume for fun.  I have come to see that even the smallest of children recognize the difference between the chooser and the choosee, the decider and the ones who deal with the decisions.  And here is something else I see: among the leaders with the strong personalities there is competition.  They thrive on it, live for it, die by it:  me first, me best, me now.   As much as I try to dull the sharp edge of “losing”, its sting cannot be mitigated.  When I say losing, this can be anything from not getting the toy you want to not being chosen to hold the door as the class walks to P.E. to not getting called on to share a thought or to answer the teacher’s question to not getting elected for Student Government.  The disappointment, anger, disbelief of not getting what you want causes the strong personalities to plan retaliation or to try even harder.  It causes the quieter ones to feel sad, left out, unimportant, unloved. 

And so the question remains- at what point in a child’s life should she first face competition?  When should he discover that life is not always fair?  Everyone gets a trophy for showing up.  Everyone’s mom or dad will fight for their kid to “make it”.  Everyone is wonderful at what they do and should be given praise to help develop self esteem and confidence.

Well here is a newsflash: not every kid is good at everything.  Yes, they can improve their ability with hard work, but I wonder if they will be willing to work hard for what they want if they have a false and empty type of self esteem based on mommy and daddy’s love and support.  How about we teach the children to deal with adversity, with failure, with “NO”?  How about we stop coddling the kids emotionally, and teach them how to comfort themselves, learn about their own strengths and weaknesses and get what they want by working towards it?  How about we let them develop self esteem by earning it- and if they don’t make the cut, how about we teach them to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and find another way.  Persistence is one of the Habits of Mind that leads to success.  How about we give them a hug of empathy, share a story of similar hardship and help them get back on their feet?

I guess I feel that competition is a part of the human experience- an important part.  That winning and losing both teach us survival skills.  And that we cannot, as adults, protect children from disappointment without doing them serious damage.  And that we fail, as adults, when we don’t teach children that losing is an opportunity too.

So here we start again with the Colors of the Rainbow competition….Go team!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Life’s Little Disappointments

And big ones too-life is full of them.  We make mistakes and the repercussions ripple on like the stone thrown in the lake;  sometimes for years and sometimes affecting lots of other people.  We make choices and follow paths, and make more choices and follow more paths.  Trajectories in our lives are mirages of our own inventing.  We feel regret and disillusionment with ourselves; we feel like losers.  Things seem like they are bad and getting worse.   And in the end, here is the truth:  none of it matters. 

 Easy words to say.  So I’ll say them again: none of it matters.  When we’re young and life stretches endlessly before us and the paths are a confusing jumbled maze, we follow one or the other and see where it leads.  Doors swing open or clang shut in our faces; and after a hurtful period, we dust ourselves off and start a new direction, lesson learned.  As we age and go through life’s stages, we tend to hang our hats on stuff…look where I came from, look where I am, look where I’m headed.  Smoke and mirrors.  It doesn’t matter how old you are, the doors still open and close and you still choose what to do next. 

What really matters is that you are living your life to its fullest potential.  That you do not allow others to push, guilt or humiliate you into doing something that is wrong for you.  That you do not buy into a set idea (who sets that anyway??) of success.  That you do not continue on the same path if it is going to hurt you even more.  In the end, at the end, you and only you can look back and hopefully say: what a ride. 

Maybe it’s the fact of being a child of holocaust survivors and refugees, but I do not take anything for granted: not my money, not my friendships and relationships, not my health.  I have been so fortunate to this point, even when I have struggled, that I can only be grateful, thankful and even a teeny bit proud.  I have been called callous, aloof, brave, strong, even recently, a rock star.  I love that!  It does not matter what others think of me, only what I think of myself (although the “rock star” comment may be an exception to that statement :)).  I believe myself to be smart, kind, generous and thoughtful; and a bit of a cockeyed-optimist, to quote a song from the show South Pacific.  Lots of choices over my life have taught me how to be this way.  Adversity is the best teacher; failure comes in a close second.  Attitudes that come from a deep place inside and  say,  “Well, that didn’t work.  What am I going to do now?” save us and open up the new doors.

What you do with your life, as far as a career, is not all of who you are.  I am a teacher- and I love it and do not see myself doing anything else for the next ten years.  It’s a HUGE part of me.  But, I am so much more.  Of course, wife and mother and daughter and sister and auntie; but as far as what else I love to do: writing, photography, travel, cooking, technology…just a few of the other things that define me in big ways.  My career pays the bills, there is no doubt about that.  And I depend on it to do so.  But my bills are of my own creation and I can change them at any time by changing what I do and how and where I do it.  I’m fortunate in that my career path, with minor side trips of my own design, has been steady.  Not all people are that lucky and some have to change gears even though they thought they were all set.  Our current economy and policies have done a lot of damage to good people who are just trying to follow their dreams.  And yet, to those people, I say again- do what you can to make things work or have a go at some new path.  Not easy to do, and lots of raw emotions to deal with, but honestly what choice do they have?  The serenity prayer reminds us to change what we can and accept what we can’t.

People choose the wrong partners, the wrong jobs, the wrong cars, the wrong homes, all the time.  Only when the wrongness becomes obvious (and this can take years)  does the person go:  Oh, shit.  Once that little ah-ha moment occurs, it’s up to each of us to figure out how to right ourselves.  Sometimes, like a car trying to get up a snowy hill (ahem), we have to put ourselves in reverse, back up  a bit, have a look around and go a different way.  Sometimes we have to call for help (ahem, again), or wait a while or turn completely around and find a completely different route.  I am still talking about life, but that analogy based on a recent occurrence in my own, seems pretty perfect.

When things look bad, remember Winston Churchill’s famous quote: “If you are going through hell, keep going.”  He also said, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”  Wise man!

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments