As A Teacher

Almost Everything I Know, I’ve learned in a Classroom – My Own.

Almost everything I know, I learned in a classroom – My Own

It was 16 years ago that I first stepped foot in that classroom. It was the result of an impulsive decision. I wanted to change the world, make it better. On a whim, I applied for teaching credentials from the state then faxed my resume to three schools. Two weeks later, I was sitting with a thousand other people in a hotel conference space for New Teacher Orientation. A week after that, I was setting up my classroom, studying textbooks, writing lesson plans, designing a curriculum. 

Ten years ago, I became the Region I Teacher of the Year. A lot has changed since then, even the school region’s name and boundaries — it’s now the North Region.

It was all a whirlwind of activity. Every year is. And a classroom is a home away from home.

Teaching changes how one views the world. Our very perception of time is altered; it’s faster, determined by the school calendar: quarters and semesters, progress reports, standardized tests. A teacher’s year isn’t twelve months long, it’s nine. 

There is always a clear beginning and a definitive end. At the end of each year — even a really bad year — there is always a sense of hope, joy, nostalgia. After all, each school year always ends in graduation, a commencement, a celebration of what was and of the possibilities that lie ahead.

Always, I felt ready to do it all again: to teach literature and writing, yes, but also to push students to think critically, to look closer, to push them to achieve more than they thought they could, to dream and, more importantly, to believe in their ability to achieve those dreams – and then to dream bigger.

Over the years, I’ve watched these kids grow up and thrive academically, personally, professionally. I’ve cheered them on as they achieve greater milestones. I’ve attended college graduations and weddings, proofread graduate school applications and resumes. We’ve built a team, an extended family.

They have inspired me.

That is, of course, the great irony. I wanted to change the world. I never anticipated how much my students would change me. (Related: What have I learned this year? Teaching is Hard)

I learned about perseverance and tenacity, about team-building, about the impact of socio-economic disparities. I learned, and continue to learn, about pop culture and evolving language (slang and colloquialism are – after all – the evolution of our language). I’ve learned that we often underestimate young people, that we don’t spend enough time listening to them or acknowledging their viewpoints, but we do spend a lot of time projecting our own apprehensions and expectations on them. I’ve learned just how meaningful and impacting it can be to have someone in your corner, someone that believes in you. I’ve learned just how few kids have that.

In short, I have learned every day.

Their energy is electrifying, even the cynicism that Gen Zers are so known for is not totally devoid of hope. On the contrary, they possess an astounding amount of optimism, a sincere belief that they can be agents of change, that we have the ability to fix our problems, that even in the absurdity of the present moment, there is joy.

To the Class of 2021: Resilience

The lotus flower is everywhere: novels, films, tattoos. I never really thought about why that was. But recently, I read about a Buddhist ceremony where they pieced together a broken, porcelain lotus flower. They glued it together, a painstaking process, and then rather than sanding down the glue and painting over it, they accentuated the cracks with gold paint.

They weren’t trying to hide the cracks, they wanted to accentuate them – show them off, celebrate them.

“Our liberation,” they said, “is not about transcending or distancing ourselves from trauma or pain and suffering, but in acknowledging it.”

That struck me. After all, as a people, we spend so much time in trying to get over things, to bury our grief, forget our heartbreak, ignore our disappointments.

What if that’s what keeps us from growing?

I looked into this idea, and into the imagery and I learned that the lotus flower is actually one of the oldest religious symbols. It symbolizes, among other things, regeneration and enlightenment. They are one of the oldest living organisms, they can tolerate extreme heat and extreme cold, even having survived the Ice Age. Their seeds can live for thousands of years without water.

In fact, they can thrive almost anywhere, floating on ponds and rivers, embedding their roots deep into the mud below. Each night, the flowers disappear, submerging themselves into the murky water and then reappearing each morning, perfectly clean.

Lotus flowers are common in literature, myth, and art. They are also one of the oldest religious symbols, representing rebirth and enlightenment.

The religiosity is obvious: the imagery of rebirth and resurrection. But it is also a testament to faith and renewal, to the flower’s refusal to be defeated, taking the nutrients it needs to grow and flourish, without succumbing to the darkness below.

Maybe the analogy is a little heavy-handed, perhaps kind of cliché. But it’s been on my mind a lot lately — as we approach the end of this school year, the end of this pandemic — especially when I think of all of you, and of us, and what we’ve lived and seen and lost. And I think again of our tendency to either embrace escapism or defeat, hiding our scars or keeping our wounds open and wallowing in that suffering.

We can’t erase our stories. We can’t ever defeat our demons. Instead, we learn to accept what is.

People keep talking about a return to normal, as though that’s something that we could ever achieve. We can’t return to normal. We can certainly rebuild and bounce back, but we’ll never have the lives that we were supposed to have. We’ll never have those moments, those experiences, those milestones. We’ll never become the people that we would have been.

Instead, this was our path. This was not the year that we wanted or the one that we expected. It has been a dark time in our history – for so many reasons. That’s part of my concern for all of you. There are so many problems in the world. And there are so many things that you’ll face.

How will you respond to them? To quote Hemingway, “the world breaks everyone.” What will you do at those moments?

You could choose anger. It’s certainly easier to rage against the world and everyone around you.

You could give in to despair, give up and give in. That can be tempting.

You could become numb and cynical, choosing the quiet comfort of apathy.

I hope that you don’t. I hope that you’ll get back up, tend to your wounds, and find that “afterward [you] are strong[er] at the broken places,” ready to go on with the messy business of living.

I hope that you take solace in what you learned this year. You can adapt. You can survive. You can emerge stronger and wiser than you ever thought that you could be. You can absolutely help make the world better.

I hope that you do.

I hope that you aspire to serve a purpose greater than you, that you choose to give back. But you must remember that first and foremost, you have to learn the lessons that are meant for you. To be self-aware means doing the work of unpacking all of who we are — not just our best intentions but also our most destructive tendencies — of acknowledging our flaws and shortcomings. Only then can we begin the work of being better.

To survive, to thrive and bloom, we need to be tested. The murky darkness threatens to submerge us, envelop us, but it also nourishes us, makes us stronger and more resilient.

As we close out this year, as you look forward to new adventures and new challenges, remember that your scars, literal and figurative, are nothing to be ashamed of. They are a testament to your victories. Learn from them.

Remember: you can, and you will. I believe in you.

Books that everyone should read

With the pandemic raging and social distancing orders in place, people are spending far more time at home. And, in spite of Books Imageour 21st century technological dependencies, it is the old world habits that have brought us the most comfort. From baking and cooking to reading, we’ve rediscovered the joy of slowing down.

Another habit that can provide a temporary escape from the dystopian conflicts we’re experiencing right now — reading.

Far too often, people associate reading with homework: the late night assignments, annotating textbooks, digesting information and regurgitating it for exams. Those anxiety-leaden memories can keep people, especially students, from reading for the sheer pleasure of it.

It’s also true that many of the greatest, most celebrated works of fiction are actually pretty bleak. Most of our favorite novels explore big questions: free will versus fate, morality, heartbreak and suffering, death and destruction.

And yet exploring these ideas, the fundamental nature of humanity, helps us.

So when my graduating seniors asked for book recommendations, so that they could continue reading – for fun – I wondered what to recommend. Novels or nonfiction, classics or contemporary literature?

I decided on all of the above.

There are many lists of classics that everyone should read or of the 100 best books of the last 100 years. This is not that kind of list.

I polled friends and colleagues and even posted the question on Twitter. I loved the

books tweet

The question posed on Twitter, “What books should everyone read?” drew a lot of suggestions. Scroll through the recommendations

response, and encourage everyone to look through the thread and reply with their own suggestions here.

There are great suggestions on this list, ranging from young adult novels and contemporary fiction to well-established canonical works. Most importantly, it’s a glimpse at what people are reading and thinking and the enthusiasm that we share for great stories.

Here is the curated list — including classics and newer works, both fiction and non-fiction.­­­

1984 by George Orwell

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Go Tell it On the Mountain by James Baldwin

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

The Stranger by Albert Camus

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Revolutionary Road Richard Yates

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

This is definitely not an exhaustive list and, surely, there will be titles here that some will disagree with. Please scroll through the suggestions on Twitter and add your own.

 

Do Good in This Life. After 45 Years, Joe Walpole Retires

Anyone privileged enough to learn from Joseph Walpole, could never forget him. Walking into his classroom was

Joe Walpole began his teaching career 45 years ago. After a long and inspiring career, he is retiring.

always special — and whether he was discussing rhythm and meter, or the “art of styling sentences,” or love, loss and conflict in literature – the lessons came alive, the students sat engaged and enthralled.

“Like good writing, teaching is an art, and Joseph Walpole is the best I’ve ever known,” said Helena Castro, activities director at Miami Lakes Educational Center (MLEC). He taught more than grammar and mechanics, he taught his students about life. “His lessons came not only from books, but from his own hardships and triumphs, his time in the U.S. Navy and teaching abroad,” Castro said.

And yet, Joe’s storied teaching career began after a serendipitous encounter. He saw a billboard advertisement looking for college graduates to teach English in the Virgin Islands. He called the phone number and the rest is history.

Walpole has taught everywhere, from private schools to penitentiaries, around the world. And everywhere, his students remember him, send him holiday cards and emails, dropping by to visit.

“I am literally here because of Mr. Joe Walpole,” said Dr. Steve Gallon, who was once a student in Walpole’s ninth grade English class at Miami Northwestern Senior High School. “When he met me, I could have gone left, I could have gone right; Mr. Walpole helped guide me forward,” said Gallon, now Miami-Dade County Public Schools District I school board representative, at Walpole’s retirement party.

Dr. Gallon went on to major in English and became the youngest principal in MDCPS history and then a schools superintendent in New Jersey, before returning to his native Miami.

Throughout his career, Joe has inspired many students. His literary alumni now span the globe. There are millionaires and writers, business people, journalists and scientists. They remember his lessons, not just how to write a killer thesis statement, but they remember that he believed in them.

“Mr. Walpole believed in us, so much and was so proud of us when we accomplished our goals, he was so excited to hear where and when we were accepted to college,” said Jason Ledon, a recent graduate of MLEC heading to Carnegie Mellon in the fall. “When Mr. Walpole is proud of you, you become proud of yourself.”

Now, after 45 years of teaching, Mr. Walpole is saying goodbye to the classroom. He is retiring from Miami Lakes Educational Center, where he spent the last 16 years of his teaching career, the longest he’d stayed at any one school.

It’s not just the students that will miss him.

“Joe makes us better teachers and better people,” said Erica Evans-DeSimmone, the Cambridge Academy leader at MLEC.“He has been the heart of this academy, and we are going to miss him.”

Walpole has said that, throughout his career, he has sought “to do good in this life.” To help “engrain values: the old verities that will anchor students through life, truth-seeking, responsibility, courage, compassion, and respect for oneself and for others.”

If the outpouring of support, love and appreciation that he has received is any indication, it is safe to conclude that Joseph Walpole has, indeed, done good.

——

A version of this story was published in The Miami Laker on July 8, 2019: http://miamilaker.com/Education/ArtMID/570/ArticleID/6598/MLEC-says-goodbye-to-favorite-Joseph-Walpole-

 

A New School Year: How to have a great first day & a successful school year

The first day of school is just around the corner and with it, comes the first-day jitters. Children may be anxious – and excited – about the change: new classroom, new teachers, new friends and maybe even a new school. The change can be a little daunting.

It’s not just the first day that is nerve-racking, a new school year can be challenging for children and their parents.

But, it’s not just the kids who are nervous.

The first day can be pretty nerve-racking for parents too. The best way to combat these stressors is to prepare, not just for the first day, but to set the groundwork for a successful school year.

1. Dress up, coordinate and organize. Shopping for school supplies can be a fun way to help kids get organized and gain some independence and responsibility. Sit down together to create a lift of what they will need. Do they need a lunchbox? A new calculator? Then, set some ground rules, and allow kids to choose their own bookbag, pencil case, water bottle and some basic school supplies (pens, pencils, crayons, etc.). Color coordinating notebooks, folders and supplies might be fun and useful. Older kids who have several subjects and teachers, may find it helpful to coordinate what they need for each. Say, green folders for math and blue for reading. It may help to keep track of homework and assignments for each class.

2. Have a walkthrough. A lot of the stress over the first day is the unknown. Combat that by getting familiar with the environment. Visit the school. Have them see where their classroom is, where the cafeteria is, where they will be picked up and dropped off. Whether someone is driving them to school or they are boarding a school bus, have a practice run. Everyone feels more confident once they know where to go and what to expect.

3. Set goals and get familiar with the curriculum. What will kids learn this year? A lot of this information is online on the parent portal, the school’s website, and was likely provided at student orientation. Parents may not know what it’s like to be in school anymore. Not only has it been a while since they were students (and some of those math formulas may have slipped your mind since then), but the curriculum has changed a lot.

Helping kids with their homework, and working with them, is an effective way to show concern for what they learn at school and to get to know what their academic strengths and weaknesses are.

This is also an excellent opportunity to discuss goals with older children. What does a successful year look like? What will it take to balance school work with sports and/or extra-curricular activities? Again, this is about preparation.

4. Technology is not the enemy. Yes, kids are spending a lot of time online and that is not always a good thing. Too much screen time — whether that is watching television, playing video games, or engaging in social media – is not good for their health or emotional well-being. However, there are many free learning tools online, from apps to video tutorials, help kids find ways to enrich what they are learning at school.

5. Routines are good. Like a standard bed time and morning wake-up call, having a routine — that includes homework— helps kids organize their time efficiently. What will they do when they get home: take a nap, have a snack? Whatever it is, make it a habit. Set aside a designated place and time for homework every day, maybe the kitchen counter while dinner is prepared or a quiet space in the living room. Avoid distractions, like television and cell phones, during this time.

6. Communicate. This is an opportunity to get to know who their friends are and what their interests are, but asking children about school also shows them that their parents value their education. Try to avoid general questions, like “How was your day?” These will most likely produce one-word answers (fine, okay, and good tend to be the general answers), especially as kids get older. Instead, try specific questions, like What did you read in class today? Did you enjoy the story? Why or why not?

7. Get to know teachers. Everyone is busy and it may be difficult to schedule a conference during school hours. Student orientation and open house nights are great opportunity to meet teachers, faculty and staff and to get a feel for what children are learning in school. But remember that you can always send an email if you have questions or concerns.

Teachers spend a lot of time with our kids and they are great allies. If there are concerns – some parents worry that their children may be too shy and introverted or the opposite, too chatty and off task – or if parents have questions on including enrichment opportunities at home, their teachers can help. And teachers can often spot problems or irregularities (missed homework assignments, change in demeanor or disposition) that can be indicative of a bigger problem.

8. Read, read, read. Parents usually read to their babies and toddlers, but that habit does not have to end in elementary school. Reading with a child is an invaluable way to spend quality time together on a daily basis. As children get older, and develop their own interests, help them foster that love of reading. Reading Harry Potter, for instance, as a family can be a great way to bond and promote the lifelong joy of reading.

9. Sleep is important for learning and for optimal health. Studies indicate that Americans are not getting enough sleep, especially children. This chronic sleepiness does not just make kids cranky; it can be bad for their health. Lack of sleep impairs the brain, making it difficult to focus, remember and learn. This is not only important on the first day, when many families are getting reacquainted with an early morning alarm, but throughout the year. There will be projects and homework assignments, kids are notorious procrastinators. Make sure that they are not sacrificing sleep to finish up school work.

School is stressful. It is where kids prepare for the future, where they experience some of their first triumphs and failures. Add to that all of the intellectual and physical changes that go along with adolescence and the result is a rollercoaster of emotions, for them and their families. Working together to face those challenges will help make those life transitions a little smoother.

The Harbinger Celebrates its Tenth Anniversary

Today, my journalism students celebrated their newspaper’s tenth anniversary. Donald Trump, the president-elect, is on the cover. It is the third presidential election that The Harbinger covers.

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The senior editors surprised their staff, and me, with a small celebration — there’s never much time in a newsroom, even a student newsroom, for self-congratulation — and they praised the students on a job well done.

“Remember that you are a part of something special and that you are leaving your mark on this publication, on this room and on this school,” they said.

One of them turned to me and asked, “so how does it feel to have steered a publication for 10 years?” And I wasn’t sure how to answer.

I had a flurry of emotions and ten years worth of memories: an amalgam of faces, conflicts, stories, deadlines, layouts. There were breaking stories and broken hearts, celebrations and disappointments, tears and laughter.

It’s high school, and every staff grapples with telling their story, with the desire to leave their mark.

And they do. Each staff builds on the progress of the one before it. And in this way, they are each a part of an even bigger story.

img_4371There are 22 student journalists working out of our newsroom. They are reporting, writing, tweeting, blogging, streaming video, documenting the year.  While The Harbinger alumni, scattered across the world, continue to learn, grow and succeed.

So, how do I feel? I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of their story.

 

As Teachers Know, School Is A Home Away From Home

My kids are off to college.  It is a bittersweet moment.  I am – of course – incredibly proud of them.  I’m excited for all of the experiences and opportunities that lay before them; but I am also sad, and a little worried, because they will be on their own and so far away from home.

I won’t suffer from empty nest syndrome, however.  I still have more kids to help get into college, about 150 of them this year.  I’m not referring to biological children, but to my school kids.  And, for about 180 days that begin on Monday, school will be their second home, where they’ll learn, work, laugh, cry, write, calculate, interpret and grow up.

And teachers are an integral part of all that.

the girlsTeachers returned to school last week, to unpack, rearrange, set up and plan for the first day of school.  I walked in to school this morning, fueled with a double dose of caffeine, to send and answer emails and begin all the heavy lifting.  They call these days work days for a reason.  There is a whole lot of work to do. There are desks to move, boxes to carry, activities to be planned.

And, as we sit down to plan lessons – juggling texts, secondary sources, standards and activities—it could all become a little daunting.  Will I reach them?  Will they get this?  Is this rigorous enough? Is it too rigorous? Does this lesson infuse the common core standards? In the midst of all the work there is to do, it is easy to get a little overwhelmed, maybe even wallow a little in self-doubt.

Just as I was in the midst of all that, four of my girls sauntered in.  Each of them is heading to college this week.  Each has spent some time at their respective schools, from one year to three, depending on the visitor – Harvard, Columbia, University of Florida, Florida State University and University of Central Florida—to get acclimated.  And each came back home, to their school home, to surprise me and to talk hurriedly and excitedly about their summer.

image

The MLEC High School class of 2013 is all grown up. Now globe-trotting juniors and seniors preparing for their careers.

They wanted to tell me how well-prepared they felt.  They wanted to thank me.  These are the moments that teachers live for.  They are the reason that we trudge to and from trainings and professional developments, why we learn and adapt for changing standards, tests and curricula.  It is not for higher teacher merit pay or for school grades – although both are nice – but for moments like these, when Aileen tells me, “I was one of the few freshmen in the class and I got an A,” or when Crystal says that she used her notes on Othello to tutor her friends and classmates, for the moment when Gaby said, “at first I was intimidated by their GPAs and SAT scores,” but then she realized – they all realized—how much they learned in high school.  They realized that they were prepared for college, and – best of all—they came home to tell me all about it.

I am preparing for my eleventh first day of school.  As kids can attest, it is both exciting and nerve-racking.  What will Monday bring?  The only thing that I know for sure, are that at each desk will sit a student who – whether she knows it or not—is building her Mugfuture.  My job is to help her shape it, to make sure that she, and all of her classmates have all of the tools that they need.

Over the years, I’ve lectured and graded, proofread hundreds of college application essays, helped students complete their FAFSAs, written letters of recommendation and worn the dozens of hats that teachers do each day.  I’ve been there to console them after rejections and losses, and to encourage them to push through.  I’ve been there to celebrate acceptances, triumphs and awards and to shake their hand on graduation day.

And another group of young women are off: leaving my classroom, and beginning the next chapter of their lives.

And another group of young women are off: leaving my classroom, and beginning the next chapter of their lives.

But, most rewarding of all is hearing from them.  Opening my inbox to find an email from a student who graduated in 2008 with exciting career news; running into a former student and finding them happy, healthy and successful; and, of course, welcoming a former student home for a visit as they talk excitedly about their lives.  

  Yes, most rewarding of all knows that we reached them.  They learned.  They navigated through the seas of adolescence, the drama of high school relationships, the trials and tribulations of pretests, post-tests, lectures, essays and assignments and that – through the cacophony of all that—they heard us, they listened, they learned, and they appreciate it.

Teachers collect moments: thank you cards, notes, the small things that remind us why we work so hard.

Teachers collect moments: thank you cards, notes, the small things that remind us why we work so hard.

 

What happens to a Dream Deferred? Students Immigration Status May End their dreams of college

G. Tejeda

Giancarlo was three when he moved to the United States, the only home he has ever known. Now his dreams of college are in jeopardy. Photo by Fabiola Santiago, The Miami Herald

There are thousands of students in Miami-Dade County that are forced to live in the shadows: bright, talented students whose legal status in the United States prevents them from realizing their dreams.  As educators, we often only hear these stories at the end of the school year – if at all — when graduation is upon us, and it is too late for us to help.  Too often these kids remain silent and afraid, because there is so much on the line.

This year, I met one such young man.

Giancarlo Tejeda arrived in the United States when he was three years old. His parents fled their native Colombia, escaping the bloody turmoil at home, to provide their children with the opportunity to grow up free from the fear of repression and violence.

It’s a story that is very American.  All of us are here because we searched for freedom.  Unfortunately, Giancarlo and his family are undocumented immigrants. For his entire academic career, he has kept this secret, concerned that if people knew, his family’s safety would be in jeopardy.  So he and his family have lived with the constant fear and anxiety of being discovered. They’ve worked hard at whatever work was available and possible, who now had to face the reality of starting anew in a foreign land.  Many young people face these challenges, and although their legal status and the need for reform may be controversial, the trouble they face is indisputable.

You would never guess at Giancarlo’s struggles by looking at him or observing his behavior in school. He is a fantastic student, excelling academically and socially. He is graduating magna cum laude, in the 92nd percentile of his class, and has — throughout his time at MLEC — won various awards in competitions ranging from programming and engineering to science and technology.

He never told anyone about his immigration status, not his friends or favorite teachers, not his school counselor, not even the schools to which he applied.  He never complained. He never asked for help or for sympathy. He always wanted to be held to the same high standards as everyone else.

I just learned of his situation and felt that I had to help. Giancarlo was accepted to New York University and the University of Florida.  NYU is not offering him any financial assistance because they consider him an international student, ineligible for financial aid.  This is yet another obstacle.  He cannot apply for federal aid or student loans.  He is worried that his dream, which is so close that he can almost touch it, may be forever out of reach.

I look at Giancarlo and see a talented young man with a long resume of academic success. He had the brilliance and steadfast tenacity to learn and grow and excel. Imagine what more he could have done with just a few more resources. Imagine if the fear of discovery had not been a heavy presence in his home. Now imagine what he will do and what he will accomplish with a college education and what an impact he can make on the world.

There are far too many students like Giancarlo in Miami-Dade, too many children that have grown up here, that don’t know any other home.  We have already educated and cared for these children in our public schools and in our communities.  Why not give them the opportunity to come out of the shadows and give back to the only neighborhoods they’ve ever known?

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To help Giancarlo achieve his dreams, visit his crowd-funding sitehttp://www.gofundme.com/rb6p5dtg?pc2

Watch his interview with CBS4http://cbsloc.al/1CtekSi

Teaching, a Never-Ending Rollercoaster

Teaching is like riding a roller-coaster.  The highs are exhilarating, the lows sudden and stomach churning.   

A teacher’s day can be turbulent. The highs are amazing, the lows often sudden, unpredictable and laced with anxiety.



A classroom is a second home, for the students and for us. And here, we face all kinds of obstacles: from mathematical equations and philosophical quandaries to convoluted metaphors, heartbreak and errors in judgement. 

There are days that, when locking that classroom door at the end of a long day, I walk out feeling like a gladiator — exhausted but victorious –having defeated the day’s monster: senioritis, high-stake tests whose computer programs malfunction, or whatever the day’s foes were.

There are other days when I feel wrought with anxiety. Did I cover this subject well enough? Did they get it? Did they learn? Was it meaningful? Are they prepared for the next course? The next subject? The next test? Am I setting a good example? Have I helped prepare them for college? For the world? Is there something else that I could have done? Could I have explained this better? Given more feedback? Did I give too much feedback?

So often, I find myself giving so much and wishing that there was just a little more that I could give, wondering if my best was simply not good enough. And every great teacher that I know has shared this same self-doubt. Regardless of test scores or student achievement, we are only as good as our last lesson.

I don’t know if that angst is engrained in us by a system that uses test scores to determine our efficiency, or that vilifies and blames us for every educational short-coming or if teachers just never feel satisfied with their performance. And neither answer brings much comfort.

But that’s no matter. Tomorrow’s victory: a college acceptance letter, an A on a test, an insightful comment in class discussion will erase all that doubt… At least until the next class period.

Related story: “Why So Many Teachers Feel So Bad So Much of the Time,” via Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/01/18/why-so-many-teachers-feel-so-bad-so-much-of-the-time/

Miami: sun, palm trees & embracing differences

My classroom doubles as a newsroom, work space, photo studio and home away from home.

It is the place where the kids brainstorm, write essays & articles, and — every once in a while — solve a few life crises.

This was one of those days. It was way after school and the editors were completing a deadline. But, that frenzy had subsided and the conversation had changed. Their tone was different. The volume was lower and the girls looked worried.

My girls, and their families, are from all over the world. In Miami, that's the norm.

My girls, and their families, are from all over the world. In Miami, that’s the norm.

Placing my counselor hat on, I ask what is wrong. Iqra’s eyes were wide and her face was folded into the saddest frown I’d ever seen. Gaby seemed just as dejected.

There really is no place like Miami.  At least that was the conclusion that a small group of my graduating seniors came to after visiting colleges across the country.

Many city-dwelling metropolitan teenagers find the rural areas where many of our country’s universities are located kind of, well, quiet.  But, it wasn’t the lights or the noise or the late-night entertainment that they were referring to.

“I’ve never felt like a minority before,” said Iqra, who is of Pakistani descent who is a minority even in South Florida.

“Apparently, I have a ‘Miami Girl’ accent,” said another, who commented that people who spoke in a Southern drawl thought that she “talked funny.”

The kids are actually right.  Miami is different.  Minorities make up the majority in Miami-Dade where, according to the Census, only 16 percent of the population is White, non-Hispanic.

This is very different from the racial and ethnic make-up of the rest of the country, and even from the rest of Florida, where Whites make up 63.4 and 57.5 percent of the population, respectively. And college enrollment rates are similar.  In 2010, 61 percent of college students were White.

The United States has always been diverse.  For hundreds of years, people travelled here to begin new lives.  And, the newest groups to arrive always struggled to adapt, fit in and overcome their ‘otherness.’

But these kids are different because they never knew that they were different.  They were born and raised in South Florida, where asking someone where they are from is the natural follow-up question to “what’s your name?”

They grew up in a place where different was normal — where different colors, languages and dialects made up the tapestry of their experiences.  These kids grew up in South Florida, listening to rock and salsa and hip-hop and reggae and reggaeton, where hijabs are almost as common as headbands, where a pot luck lunch means an international buffet and a trip to the beach meant meeting tourists from around the world.

So adapting to college life is going to be difficult for them.  It is difficult for everyone.  It is that moment where kids take that big grown-up step into the world and try to make it on their own.  Any kid packing their bags to move into a college dorm for the first time can attest to the excitement, anxiety and absolute fear that they feel.

This is only natural.  They are still young enough to remember their teen identity crises – scarred by memories of acne, braces, first heartbreaks and bad haircuts.  Now they find themselves in a whole other struggle.  Now these kids find themselves at the bottom of the social order again.  College freshmen — feeling the pressure to succeed, to select the right college major, to build a life for themselves, while learning to balance their social lives — which can be a pretty big challenge at some of these schools.

But these kids have a little extra on their plate.  Not only are they navigating through the regular rites of passage, they face another mini identity crisis.  Each of these kids was born here.  They never felt like anything other than American.  Now they’ve discovered that, in other places, many people don’t see them that way.

On their recent trips, some of my students found themselves reluctant ambassadors of a culture that they, second or third generation Americans, are only partially aware of.  They may find themselves explaining that not all Hispanics are Mexican, not all Asians are Chinese and not everyone in Miami is a “Cocaine Cowboy.”

They found that it’s not just their mothers’ home cooking that they’ll miss, not just the weather and the beach and the palm trees, but also the amalgam of culture that makes up their home.  What they found was that, as my student surmised, is that there really is no place like Miami.