Experts

As a teacher, there can be an underlying pressure to be the expert. The authority. The know-it-all. I’m supposed to promote the questions, but also know the answers. At least that is how it used to feel.
But I’ve learned that while kids are amazing learners, they are also some of our hidden experts. They are surprisingly experts of many pursuits.
Sure, they often haven’t quite mastered the fine art of shoe-tying. They may not know how to handle their burgeoning emotions, how to be content at not being the first in a line, or how keep their fingers from exploring the deep recesses of their nostrils. But they are still experts in many areas where I may be completely clueless.
One of my students loves animals. We call him our animal expert. He is obsessed with furry four-legged thingamabobs, creepy creatures that crawl, and the slimy, slithering animals that repulse my inner being.
Another student loves to ice skate. She can spin, twirl, and glide gracefully over the ic that I can barely walk across while remaining upright. Another student is a badminton expert. Someone loves Guitar Hero and often finds reason to strum his air-guitar Gibson with delight while moving through the classroom. Another boy loves cycle-cross bike-racing. Another girl loves basketball, running and (cough) cats. Ewww.
My point? 
That THEY are the experts. They are the teachers, and I am the novice. And it is a wonderful dynamic. I don’t have to know everything. In many cases, I know nothing. They get to teach me.
Being the expert carries a lot of pressure. But being the student brings a great deal of freedom. I’m free to make mistakes, which I do quite often. I’m free from the burden of having to already know things, or feign that I do. I’m free to ask questions.

I am free to learn.
We have a saying in our classroom. It goes something like this – the smartest person in the room is, the whole class.
As individuals, it is unrealistic to be gurus in multiple areas, but collectively, we can share the love of learning, and the fun of exploring. We don’t have to be experts, because we are expert learners.
I’m participating in the “Slice of Life” writing challenge (hosted by Two Writing Teachers) by blogging every day this month.

All Heart

You have your talents, and I have mine. Perhaps you can sing, dance, paint, or conceptualize the next culture-altering social media app. As for me, I like to run, write, and teach math, science, history and literature to my students. And if appreciating the delicious genius that encompasses Double-Stuf Oreos is a talent, then I can do that also.
But I’ve never been considered especially talented at jumping rope.
Every year at school there is an event called “Jump Rope for Heart” where the kids do various aerobic exercises to promote heart health, and to raise funds for the American Heart Association. My first year teaching, I was honestly lucky to string five successful jumps together. Because I don’t have the talent for jumping rope. Or maybe the coordination.
But I have the heart.
So each year I try to improve. I have nowhere to go but up, right? And the kids love it when I join them for the event. So on Monday, when one of my students asked me if I’d join the class to jump rope on Tuesday, I gave the hesitant “sure…”
Because as a teacher I realize I don’t always to be better than my kids to model for them. I just need to have heart. I need to have the willingness to step into my weaknesses. I need to have the mindset that doesn’t say “I can’t”, but instead, “I’m not getting it, yet”. And with that mindset, I get a little better each year. With this heart, I get a little stronger each time.
This year, my goal was 100 consecutive jumps with the rope.
I made it to 97.
So close, and yet so far.
Not to be deterred, I took pics of the kids, rested, cheered students on, and then tried again.
By this time my legs felt like jello. For whatever reason, jumping rope is not my thang. But overcoming obstacles is. Because challenges reveal the heart.
So I got in line again, went up to the parent volunteer to be counted and began anew. 
Now having the moms from your classroom volunteer to count your jumps can be a real ego crusher. Especially when their little 3rd or 4th grade child is pushing out 700+ jumps, backwards, forwards, side-straddle, and whatever other fancy moves they come up with while barely breaking a sweat. But putting ego aside, I had an obstacle to tend to.
So I began jumping. My legs were sore by 20. When the mom called out an enthusiastic “FIFTY”, I wanted to call it a day. When she murmured 75, I thought “for the love of everything holy, isn’t it okay if I just stop now?” 
But I smiled and kept jumping, until my cadence faltered and my feet finally succumbed to entanglement with the rope. 
Smiling, the parent volunteer called out “One Hundred Twenty Two”.
Elation. Jubilation. I felt as if I had just won the World Series.
And in that moment, jumping rope served as a reminder that obstacles and challenges measure our resolve. Our tenacity. Our heart. 

I’m blogging every day this month with friends and colleagues from Two Writing Teachers.

#NotMyPresident

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I pledge allegiance

To the flag

Of the United States of America.

And to the President.

My President.

Your President.

Though many of us didn’t vote for him.
Like it or not, he is my President.

He is not the President I wanted,

though neither choice was inspiring.
In a perfect world,

Or even one with a reasoning electorate,

A person who consistently bullies others…

Not my President.
A person who objectifies women,

Not my President.
A person who marginalizes

Entire cultures and ethnicities,

Not my President.
A person who spouts from the cuff

Without facts, understanding, or balance

Not my President.
A used-car salesman,

Who dispenses promises

like Halloween candy

Providing a sugar rush

Without substance

Or nutrition.

Not my President.
A reality TV star

Consumed with fame

Instead of concerned with pain

Not my President.
Blustering bravado,

Fear-mongering,

Groping on the side,

Not my President.
This is not the model that we share with our children.

The highest office in our land,

Occupied by the lowest of morals.
But the reality is

This is my President

And yours.

We honor the office

If not the occupant.

We honor the legacy

Of those who have served

If not the season

Of one who is self-serving.
So I pledge allegiance

To the flag

If not the President

Of the United States of America

And to the Republic
Our republic

Made of Republicans

And Democrats

And Green, or Libertarians

Or the disenfranchised
Our republic

Meant to stand

As one nation

Singularly acknowledging

Collectively embracing

All of its’ people

Even those who claim

#NotMyPresident
A plural republic

Of multiple religions

Various cultures

And diverse dreams.

Even the dreams

Currently darkened

By a nightmare election

Awakening to

#NotMy President
One Nation

Under God

worshiping differently

Or not at all

Ideally Indivisible,

Striving to live united

Without coercion to be uniform.
Each of us desiring

A “My President”.

A leader who inspires

Unity and collaboration

Instead of fear and isolation

A leader to be proud of

And emulate

And claim as our own.

My President.
That is our mandate

Not Republican

Or Democrat

Not to repeal

Or replace

Merely laws and programs

But to refresh

And rejuvenate

The offices

In our Government

With people who listen

Who get us

All of us

Not one party

Or one race

But one nation.

Craving Liberty

And thirsting for justice

For all.

 

Signature Move

Signature

Signature — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Characters and letters
Swirled together
Sometimes in a flourish
Sometimes in a rush
Yet always unique
Always personal
Form a signature.

Our name.
Our autograph.
Stamping documents
And letters
As accurate
And personal.
Declaring
Our best efforts
Our heartfelt wishes
Creating our signature.

Our signature
Is our promise.
Our signature
Is our bond.
Vulnerable,
Authentic,
Uniquely Us.

Uniquely Mrs. Bolger.
Distinctly Mrs. Camp.
Specifically Mrs. Cochrane.
Authentically Mrs. Donovan.
Exclusively Mrs. McAvoy.
Genuinely Mrs. VanSlyke.
Intimately Mrs. Zeivel.
Each of you soon
Signing off,
Bidding adieu.

.
Your students –
Years of faces
Hundreds of names
Now grown
Raising families
Realizing dreams
Making a difference
Those students –
Are your signature

Stamped for a lifetime
By your words
By your labor
By your lessons
And by your love.

Those lessons
Teaching them to form letters
And to forge character.
Properly organizing verbs and nouns,
And learning the primary elements
Of language
And literature
And our national constitution.

Your lessons –
Your signature lessons that taught them
Not only how to count
But more importantly,
that they count
That their words matter.

Your signature lessons that taught them
Not only how to graph a function
But more importantly,
how to function
within a society
that is sometimes cruel
and polarizing.

Your signature lessons that taught them
Not only how to write with voice
But how to find their voice
and how to speak life into others.

Your signature lessons that taught them
Not only the value of x or of y
But the value of struggle,
Of facing down their fears
Being able to make mistakes
And emerge stronger
Braver
More ready
For the road ahead.
Preparing them
And preparing us
for this day
when we part.

We, your colleagues –
Friends in the hallways
And in the lounge
Partners in the trenches
Navigating the ever changing seas
Of curriculum
Standards
And whatever passes for
“differentiated standardization”
We, your colleagues –
Are your signature

Verified for a lifetime
As kindred spirits
Of this spiritual calling
Known as teaching.

Thank you
Dear friends
For autographing our lives
With your unique signature.
Thank you
Dear colleagues
For pouring your hearts
Into generations of souls
Who now carry your lessons
Your love
Your signature
To dream
To strive
To believe
To be extraordinary.

One Extraordinary Degree

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(As we celebrate “Teacher Appreciation Week” I wanted to take a few moments to express my appreciation for a friend and colleague who is a few weeks from a well deserved retirement.)

In science we learn that at 211 degrees, water is hot, but that at 212 degrees it boils, producing steam. Steam that can power a locomotive. Steam that can set off a chain reaction.
We learn that one extra degree makes all the difference.
This lesson transcends science, having applications in all areas of life. One extra degree of effort. One extra degree of courage. One extra degree of perseverance. The extra degree that separates good, from great.
Every so often we cross paths with someone that epitomizes this truth. We are fortunate to work around and alongside someone that consistently gives that one extra degree in every area of their life, and by doing so, leaves an impact that is extraordinary.
For the past twenty-five years, Cindy Zeivel has left an extraordinary imprint on the students, staff members, and families that make up the Frank C. Whiteley School community. Possessing a rare combination of velvet over steel, Cindy has been the heart and soul of helping students and staff members to be extraordinary in their own right.
Along the windows in Cindy’s room are many plaques, diplomas and awards. There is her Golden Apple plaque, and the diploma for her Masters Degree in Teaching. There is a trophy marked “best teacher”; a plaque titled “Most Inspirational Teacher”, and a substantially-sized book labeled “Who’s Who Among American Teachers”.
No doubt she has rightfully earned these awards, and many more, but Cindy has never been one to rest on her laurels. She has never required notoriety to prove her extraordinary value to our school. Her credentials are the constant stream of students that come back to visit her, even several years after graduation, because she has left an indelible stamp on their lives. Because she has helped them experience the extraordinary. They are Cindy’s credentials.
There is a quote emblazoned above her whiteboard; a credo for how Cindy leads her students, her colleagues, and other members of the Whiteley community towards the extraordinary.

“You are stronger than you see, braver than you believe, and smarter than you think.”                    ~ Christopher Robin to Pooh

Through her example and her influence, Cindy empowers us to be stronger. She inspires us to be braver. She enables us to be smarter. She leads us to be extraordinary.
At first glance, Cindy is warmth and joy. This is her velvet side. She greets everyone with a welcoming smile. She hugs her students. In her eyes, everyone is special, and she lets them know it. She cooks with her students, ostensibly teaching math, science and life skills, but also through this breaking of bread, she builds community. She leaves notes in student’s lockers. She loves students, everyday. And these are students who are not in “her” classroom. She just wants them to know how special they are, and how much they are cared for. She serves sick families, tutors former students, and while her car is one of the last to leave each day, she spend her time at home reading journals, grading papers, and writing notes for her students late into each evening.
Beneath this genuinely kind exterior, Cindy has a steel resolve. She gives her extra degree in all she does, and expects the rest of us to do the same. She is committed to making our school extraordinary. Even as she approaches the finish line of an exceptional career, she spends herself completely towards this end. She serves on countless committees. She mentors students in our PBIS program. She volunteers for virtually every activity, from movie nights, to multi-cultural events. She helped lead our “Water for South Sudan” project. She serves on our foundation committee. She came in for several weeks over her summer, crouched on her aging knees, to paint inspirational quotes on the stairway risers. She helps run our annual school spelling bee. She facilitates the yearly national math competition. She was an integral member of a small group of teachers who worked to craft a new vision statement for our school.
Soon, this exceptional teacher, colleague, mentor, and friend, will conclude an amazing career. It is incumbent upon us to savor these moments, and capture the vision, passion, and drive that she embodies. To take a moment to reflect, and express our appreciation for colleagues like Cindy. She is passing the torch, leaving us to see how much stronger, braver and smarter we have been made by this extraordinary leader. Reminding us of perhaps her greatest lesson, that one extra degree makes all the difference.

 

Swamp Oasis

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When we consider places to travel, we are often thinking of beauty, relaxation, or adventure. Our minds and hearts are flooded with imagery of that excites and invigorates us. We think of beaches, lakes, or oceans.

But we typically don’t dream about swamps.

Swamps are the backwoods siblings to our adventures. They are more likely to be listed on places to avoid, than destinations to dream of. But beneath the surface of the swamp, life is teeming. And the swamp is a necessary part of our ecosystem.

Similarly, we all love to be an integral part of a purposeful workplace, where the business that gets accomplished actually leaves a stamp of wellness and compassion on this earth. But we don’t necessarily crave chaos in the place of doing that work.

Inevitably, there are days that your workplace is a swamp. It is comprised by wetlands of creating a dynamic environment where students can grow and explore, while you also navigate how to prepare them for standardized tests. There are muddy paths of dealing with critical parents or equally stressed colleagues, while trying to balance mandated curriculum that doesn’t necessarily serve the best interests of your students. Yet you trudge through the morass, because your in the business of changing lives, showing compassion and grace to those students and staff who may also be swamped with their own private issues or demands, and the overwhelming logistical challenges that accompany them. Indeed, you tread through murky waters.

But in some swamps, there can exist an oasis of beauty. A respite place. A refuge from the annoying bugs and the pungent odors. Your spirit and your smile can provide a respite for those that enter your building, and your classroom. Your kindness and compassion touch the hearts of those that muddle through the muck and mire of their own journey. Outwardly, you give a high-five at the doorway, a star on their paper, or perhaps provide the only encouraging words they may hear all day; but inwardly, you provide a reason to smile while they are parked in your presence. You provide the empathy that those swamp-travelers might not see in their own homes. You provide a friend that says, “I’m with you on this journey. I’m with you in this swamp.”

Thank you friends, for making the swamp a lovely place to travel through, especially for those that would rather not be there. Thank you for your grace under pressure. You shine like a star in the darkness, giving light, and hope in an otherwise gloomy environment.

All the Time in the World

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Sitting in the local Starbucks doing schoolwork, and I noticed a gentlemen who just pulled into the parking lot, lifting a large wheelchair from his trunk. He has my attention. Within minutes, he wheels in an elderly woman who I guess must be his mother. He is playful and kind in spirit, filled with respect and patience as he suggests possible menu items for her to consider. Listening to their conversation is priceless. I’m guessing she has some form of dementia, since much of her chatter is difficult to parse out. She is mostly apologizing for eating so slowly, but he is so gentle and reassuring that they have all the time in the world. What a precious moment to behold, and a beautiful sentiment to dwell in.

All the time in the world.

To connect. To enjoy. To be together. I was the lucky fly on the wall, sitting at the table behind them.

Earlier this morning, I was on a different wall. Instead of coffeehouse colleagues, I was surrounded by followers of faith, in our local congregation. While listening to the pastor’s sermon, I was scribbling several thoughts. I’m always struck by the counter-intuitiveness of the scriptures. How death to self leads to life. How walking into our weakness leads to strength. How faith is forged through blindness. He also discussed various illusions of control we can have in our lives, how we can trust in God with our eternity, but not necessarily trust him with our future. So true.

As usual, my mind also wandered to word play. As the pastor delved into the topic of our faith, I was rolling around various contexts of leaping, and the joy I feel in this simple, childlike gesture. As a trail runner, I love leaping in the forest, whether it is over tree roots, streams, logs, or bounding up and down hills. I love leaping over the mud, wondering if I can clear the muck without sliding, or at least spraying my legs and shoes with splotches of black goo. I relish the challenge of jumping, hoping my leaps will reach far enough, or high enough, to clear obstacles. Or looking for new areas to leap into, sometimes blindly turning to head down new paths in hopes of a fresh adventure. And on my longer runs, I enjoy stopping frequently, to jump repeatedly on to a bench, a log, a small wall, or some other perch, in an effort to strengthen my core. There is a masochistic pleasure in testing my stamina, concentrating on coercing my tired, shaking legs, successfully over the hurdle each time.

Lastly my thoughts reflected on the many layers we all have. I recalled a message from years ago, when the pastor revealed that when he wants to know how someone is doing, he makes sure to ask multiple times.

“How are you?” To which the person usually responds, “I’m doing good.”

“How are you, really?” Now the person pauses, but usually answers similarly “Overall, I’m ok.”

“Really, how are you?” Here the person stops and reflects, trusting that the person asking has a genuine concern to know beyond a merely superficial answer.

Because when we really want to know how someone is doing, we need to make the time to communicate and connect. We want to assure them that we are ready to leap into the mire with them, or gently listen while they collect their scattered thoughts. We want to assure them that all of their layers are fearfully and wonderfully made, and that for them, we have “all the time in the world.”