Why We Shouldn’t Wait For Perfection To Let Our Voices Be Heard

For much of my adult life I have held back from expressing my voice. I thought that once I had refined my thoughts and written what I wanted to say in a precise and organized fashion that my voice would be worthy of sharing. The problem was that I could never get it right. My thoughts refused to come out exactly the way I wanted, so instead of risking vulnerability and criticism, I opted to silence myself, and I put my ideas on hold for a better time when they would come together in a more articulate, concise, and profound way.

I found myself particularly out of my comfort zone this week when I assumed a role that I had never undertaken: sports commentator. It was the much anticipated staff versus eighth grade boys’ basketball game, and I sat shoulder to shoulder on packed bleachers with my seventh grade students. To my left sat one of my students who has a visual impairment severe enough to prevent him from seeing a basketball game from the position of the courtside bleachers. He could experience the excitement in the air as hundreds of amped up middle school students stomped in sync, clapped, and cheered. He could hear the intermingled voices of his peers amidst all the chaos, and he could periodically catch a score update, but his limited eye vision could not capture the play-by-play action on the court.

Realizing that it would be difficult for my student to fully enjoy the game without some commentary, I clumsily and inarticulately began to string together a verbal account of the game as it unfolded before us. I messed up on technical terms many times along the way. I didn’t verbalize every play perfectly. During my hurried description, I missed a few ball fumbles here and a few passes there. I had to recruit one of the boys sitting in front of me to be a second set of eyes and double check my facts. “Who fouled whom?” I leaned over and shouted above the roar of excited students, my hands waving wildly in the air as I struggled to quickly and succinctly convey the back and forth action of the game to my student. I’m certain my loud voice and dramatic gestures must have pegged me as an over-aggressive sports enthusiast to the elementary teachers sitting on the other side of the court with their classes.

I stole a glance at my student from time to time, embarrassed by my inability to express the correct technical terms of the plays taking place on the court. When I saw the smile on his face, I knew that he was not concerned that my ability as a sports commentator was less than ESPN worthy. He was not judging me for misstating what type of foul Mr. M. just committed or for accidentally calling a Hook Shot a Jump Shot. My commentary was enough to paint an image in his mind of an experience that he would not have been able to fully engage in without my shaky, inarticulate words. When the game ended, we parted ways to our separate third period classes, but not before he expressed one of the sincerest thanks yous I have ever received from a seventh grade student.

My experience as a sports commentator reminded me that we can’t always wait for a time when point a and point b line up perfectly to let our voices be heard. Sometimes others need to hear our voices, even when we have not rehearsed what to say and our words come out in a jumbled mess. A scratchy, hoarse throat followed me throughout the rest of the day, reminding me of the power of voice, of language, and of words. Not necessarily the kind of words that are perfectly polished and refined, but words that grasp, claw, and struggle to convey ideas for the authentic purpose of helping another see, feel, and experience a moment.


Chipped Plates

Monday morning breakfast served on immaculate china. Adjacent chairs. Shared prayers. His fingertips tentatively brush her knee, satisfied by her flush of exhilaration.

Sunday night’s supper served on faded, chipped plates. Silent, individual prayers. Opposite ends of the table. Canyons between her pinched lips and his downcast eyes.

Weekly Writing Challenge: Fifty

Today They Are Still Little

The rush and flow of millions of gallons of river intermingles with high pitched kid laughter. The river slaps, pushes, and forces its way over the tops and sides of rocks that have been worn smooth, compliant, and accepting of the inevitable nature of their fate, as they are positioned in the path of the river’s relentless downstream pursuit of the Pacific Ocean.

Unaware of the river’s loudly proclaimed domination of the silent, subordinate rocks and similar other little battles and harmonies that take place in the natural world that surrounds them, My daughter, J. and her friend R., pretend the day away.

Today they are still little enough to stand atop a giant sailing vessel (a large river rock) harpooning a killer squid (a shadow in the depths of the water) as giant bubbling rapids (small undertows in the current) threaten to overtake their vessel. Today they are not worried if what they pretend appears as silly to anyone else. They are not out to impress or to make a statement. Today they still know how to play and how to live completely in the moment.

They are on the cusp of adolescence, but today they still hold onto days of pretend worlds and magic.

Accepting Vulnerability As An Educator

I had one foot out the door, sunglasses and beach hat in tow (parka, umbrella, and rain boots would be more accurate in my neck of the woods). The relaxation and rejuvenation that spring break would bring rested lightly on my mind. That was right before I found out that the week following spring break, one of my lessons would be observed by an entourage of people, including: four of my fellow teachers, two school administrators, who knows how many people from the district office, and a formative assessment educator. I won’t hesitate to admit that I was (and still am) scared.

My first instinct was to find a way to get out of the whole thing. After all, it isn’t a required observation. Then my thought process shifted to the idea that if I couldn’t get out of the observation, how I might go about getting a different class period to be observed. There are always classes that function more smoothly than others for any given number of reasons, and the particular class that is scheduled to be observed is not—to put it bluntly— my most smoothly running class period of the day. I spent several days contemplating how I might better adjust circumstances to benefit me and shed the best light on my practice before I finally internalized and accepted the importance of vulnerability and transparency as an educator.

I am wracked with anxiety at the thought of having at least ten sets of eyes watch my every move. I feel like my students and I will be specimens in a fishbowl. It’s humbling to have your performance as an educator assessed. But at the same time, all of the professionals who will be observing me have valuable insights, wisdom, and feedback to give. If I am willing to be transparent, humble, and accepting of constructive criticism, I have the potential of improving my practice in ten different ways. And, by the same token, if putting myself out on the line for one class period means that other educators can benefit from what I do well in the classroom, as well as areas that I have yet to improve on, then my observation means that we can grow as a community of educators. This not only strengthens our skills as professionals, it benefits the students that we are responsible for educating. These professionals are there to help me, to support me, and to grow as educators themselves. We are a team with the best interests of students at heart.

Ultimately, I have decided to accept this position of vulnerability with good faith that to be vulnerable is to open myself up to becoming the best educator I can be. Am I afraid that I will trip over my own feet, become tongue tied, or look foolish in front of my colleagues? Yes, I am. The risk, however, is worth the potential outcome.

Mean Teacher Confronts The Desktop Graffiti Bandit

Five or six of my seventh grade students huddled around me, sweet expressions of sincere concern etched across their faces.  “You are definitely not a mean teacher, Ms. C.,” they chorused as we stood together examining the writing that had been scrawled across one of the desktops.

I’ve certainly seen harsher words than “mean teacher” written by middle school students, but still, my feelings were hurt.  My initial reaction was to have the office summon the student from the class that he was currently in so that I could interrogate him and make him confess to what he had done.  What was he thinking?  Did he not realize that I would easily be able to figure out who had written the offensive remark?  Seventh graders do not keep secrets.  Wasn’t he aware that his peers would immediately tell me?  My initial reaction was defensiveness. 

Realizing that my first reaction is not always the best one to act on, I stopped myself from responding immediately to my student’s negative behavior.  Instead, I casually wiped the desk clean, thanked my fourth period students for their expressions of support, and moved on with my lesson. 

I continued to think about what could have caused my student to react so negatively toward me.  As I worked to recollect my interactions with him during the previous class period, I remembered him bringing his writing sample to my desk, as all students were instructed to do when they had completed their final draft.  The school district that I work for requires middle school students to complete a writing sample of their best work, and they ask that teachers do not provide guidance so that the samples will be authentic assessments of the writing that students are capable of constructing independently. 

My student had brought his writing to me and wanted me to read it.  I told him that I could not give feedback on it until it was assessed by the district office, but he still insisted that I read it.  (It’s important for me to mention that I was simultaneously trying to reply to the email of a concerned parent, answer the questions of a small group of students who had gathered around my desk, and now read the writing sample of the afore mentioned Desktop Graffiti Bandit.)  I skimmed his writing sample without giving his writing the consideration that it deserved.  I don’t remember the exact comment that I made, but I am certain that it was not thoughtful or substantive enough to merit the time and care that he had put into his writing.  I was a mean teacher.

He was clearly proud of what he had written or he would not have placed such importance on me reading it, especially since I wasn’t the one who would be assessing it.  It’s true that I couldn’t give him a list of suggestions for how to revise and edit his paper, but what my student wanted from me wasn’t feedback over how to improve his writing.  He wanted to know that I appreciated his work, his effort, and his voice.  Instead, I was distracted by trivial details that stopped me from being present for my student. 

The writing on the desktop was starting to make sense.  He was making a blatant statement that went something like: You don’t want to give my writing the consideration it deserves?  Then perhaps you will pay attention to the writing on this desk.  It was an intentional effort to grab my attention.  His negative behavior was most certainly his attempt to communicate a need, a need that I had clearly failed to meet.

He could have internalized his frustration at my insensitivity.  This is what the vast majority of students would have done; most would not have acted out in such an overtly defiant way. Of course I do not feel that students should regularly scrawl negative comments across desktops as a way to express their feelings.   However, his message was clearly one that I needed to receive and one that I might have failed to realize if it had not been presented to me in such an obvious way.

I mulled the incident over for much of the evening and came to school this morning prepared to handle the situation in a different way than I might have if I had reacted immediately after my discovery of the writing on the desktop.  I found my student in the hall before first period and brought him into my classroom for a one-one-one conversation.  I apologized for not taking the time to read his writing and give him the response that he deserved the previous day.  I told him that I had taken time to read his writing when I could focus on it in a quiet, distraction-free space and that I really appreciated the beautiful imagery and feeling that his words had evoked.  His countenance immediately lightened, and the sense of pride in his eyes was unmistakable.  I also reassured him that I wasn’t out for vengeance on the Desktop Graffiti Bandit but that I was more concerned about making sure that my students’ needs were being met so they wouldn’t feel inclined to write on my desktops.  Then I dropped it. 

Third period rolled around, and my student’s disposition had been completely altered.  He was more sunny and upbeat than I have seen him in months.  He was communicative and eager to assist me in any and every little task that I had on hand. 

This incident taught me several important lessons:  First, it’s easy to get caught up with rules, procedures, and trivial distractions and lose sight of what really matters—being present and available in the moment for the students who depend on me.  Second, the power of apology and attempting to rectify the situation when a student’s feelings have been hurt is huge.  Third, there are multiple ways to address a student’s negative behavior, and sometimes kindness, communication, and acknowledgement are more powerful than the administration of justice.


Reframing My Perspective On Failure

Is there hope for those of us who have to work against our natural dispositions in order to see the beauty in every day? My natural disposition is to gravitate toward the negative. A naturally negative attitude coupled with an all or nothing personality is a bad combination, and that is exactly what I have. I cringe at the way that sounds, and it’s not easy to admit that’s who I am. The people in my professional life would likely be surprised by my self assessment, and that’s because I put up a pretty good front and shield who I am with a smile and positive words. I internalize the negativity. The people who are closest to me are the ones who bear the brunt of its impact. It’s difficult to admit that what is going wrong in my life weighs more heavily on me than the good and the beautiful that is all around me, but it’s something I have to be honest about in order to take steps toward reframing my thinking.

Most of January and for a large part of February, I was doing a pretty good job focusing my energy on the positive aspects of life. I was trying to live in the present and spend time doing little things with the people I love. My son wanted to go running on the beach, and instead of telling him maybe later, I decided to forget the dirty laundry and the sink full of dishes. It felt incredible to be alive, breathing in the open air, spending time with my kiddo—time which feels like an hourglass of precious minutes sifting by as he gets ready to transition into high school.

My daughter loves chess and she wanted to play night after night, a request which I obliged. She encouraged me with words like, “Mom, you’re actually really good at this!” She and I both know that games of strategy which require thinking several steps ahead are not my strongpoint. But what she was really trying to communicate to me was that she appreciated spending time with me, having my undivided attention, and it didn’t matter that I was no competition for her. She could see my effort. I was spending some of the precious, limited time that we have in this universe doing things that really matter—the only things that will have any significance once my time runs short and I am left to assess whether or not I accomplished what I really wanted to in this life.

After a long, gratifying run of balancing my time well and finding the positive attitude and energy to spend my time on efforts that really matter, I fell into a funk. The messy house demanded too much of my attention. More planning and preparation than I anticipated went into getting ready for upcoming lessons that I had to teach. I spent too much time trying to manage personal writing goals that I had set for myself. I fell into a squabbling disharmony with my husband that left us alienated and distant. Suddenly, I found myself sitting behind an empty computer screen, uninspired and lacking clarity of vision. My daughter wanted me to bake something with her in the kitchen, and my son wanted me to take him to the library. I was too busy, however, staring at my empty computer, alienated from those I love, trapped in my own hazy-headed mind. That’s when I realized that within a handful of days, I had fallen completely off course. My energies and efforts were once again lacking focus and my priorities were skewed. I was ruled by negativity and doubt.

I think one of the hardest things for me is working to get myself out of a funk. It takes so much mental energy in the first place to psyche myself up to start working toward the goals I have set for myself: being happy, nurturing good relationships, balancing my time well, and being mentally and physically healthy. And it’s so easy to fall out of the habits that I have spent so much time working to foster. I can spend weeks and months looking for the beauty and the positive aspects of each day but inevitably I will slip, and there will be times when life feels like a total dumping ground. Each time this happens, I feel a tremendous sense of frustration and failure; it makes me hesitate to jump back into the saddle again because I’m afraid that I will fail like I have so many times before.

This is where I think a reframed perspective on failure for me, and those like me, needs to step in. Instead of spending energy agonizing over times when my priorities get tangled up and I slip into negative thinking or I get lost in my own head and alienate my loved ones, I need to expect that sometimes I will slip. Instead of harshly reprimanding myself and spending an unreasonable amount of time devoted to regret, I need to come up with a plan for what I will do when I fail so that I can jump back into making an effort to see the beauty in each day as immediately as possible.

I am still working on what this plan will consist of. Any suggestions, ideas, and opinions on this topic are greatly welcomed.

Letting My Daughter Define Who She Is

Letting My Daughter Define Who She Is

Mamalode posted a piece that I wrote about my experience watching my daughter balance type 1 diabetes and sports.