Category Archives: healthy teacher

Grandfather’s Blessings

There are some books I know – before I even finish reading the Introduction – that I have to own. It’s less about the words contained on its pages and more about the very existence of the writer.  That this writer is giving me something that is otherwise missing in my life. Adding their book to my shelves somehow adds their light, their perspective, their energy to my day to day.

I first felt this way when I read Mary Pipher’s The Middle of Everywhere. I had just gotten a full-time job as an ESL Teacher at a well-respected refugee resettlement agency in Chicago. I had dreamed of teaching in a setting that holistically addressed newcomers’ needs, offering not only English Language classes, but also employment training, cultural orientation, housing assistance, and comprehensive case management to ensure that students were enrolled in school and that families received the public benefits they are entitled to.  I had imagined that I would truly fit in in such an environment.

What I found, sadly, was an office full of knowledgeable, seemingly inexhaustible social workers who were so burdened by their clients’ infinite needs and the limitations of an under-funded, tied-up-in-knots bureaucracy that they were miserable.  Their frustration manifested itself in nasty comments about clients and in a privileging of those refugees who arrived with a ready understanding of American norms.  I quickly knew I wouldn’t be able to stay there long.

I sought refuge in Mary Pipher’s perspective. As a psychologist working closely with a growing number of refugees in Lincoln, Nebraska, Pipher sits with her clients, gives them time to share their stories.  She offers them the safety to revisit their past experiences of tragedy and trauma, to use their distinct cultural knowledge to shed light on their current struggles, and through this process to settle into their American life.

I kept this book on my shelf at work long after I was done reading it.  Having it there helped me connect to the way of being that I wanted to bring to my students.  So she was not my co-worker. Her perspective was present in my office every day.

I was struck by this feeling again as I read the Introduction of Rachel Naomi Remen’s book, My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging. In fact, I paused on page 5 ordered a copy of the book, knowing that it wouldn’t arrive for a week and a half, and that I would have finished reading it long before then.

In the middle of the section entitled, “Becoming a Blessing,” Remen writes about an organization dedicated to helping children cope with the grief of loosing a parent or loved one. As part of their work, they sew and distribute pocket-sized velvet and velour hearts. A touchable, stroke-able symbol of the love their parents felt in life – and continue to give in death – to comfort the child’s less visible, less concrete, but aching heart.

She describes writing to this organization, telling them about her work helping physicians deal with grief and death in the professional setting – revolutionary work in that they are un-teaching these doctors to numb themselves to death – and receiving a donation of hundreds of these same plush hearts. For the doctors.

I think of teachers. For every student who graduates with college plans, how many have dropped out? How many have fallen into lives of violence and addiction, been to prison, had their lives changed unexpectedly by pregnancy, put others’ needs ahead of their own dreams? How much violence do we see on a daily basis, within the walls of our schools? How numb are we to recognizing the painfulness of these losses, of this violence?

When I was student-teaching, a tragedy struck the community I was working with. A van carrying 15 refugee adults to work at a chicken processing plant in Gainesville, GA got a flat tire on the highway.  The van flipped over and crashed. Passengers, likely not wearing seatbelts, were thrown from the vehicle. Two men died, six or seven others were injured. The five children of the two men who died attended my school. One was in my second period.

I had an unusual level of freedom during my student-teaching, and two days after the accident, we invited the students into a conversation about death.  I shared some of the traditions that Judaism has around death and mourning.  The teenagers described their Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Ethiopian Orthodox, and ethnic traditions. We found surprises in the differences; marveled at the similarities.  Through learning about each other’s traditions around death and mourning, we saw clearly that the experience of loosing a loved one, and the act of seeking comfort in grief, is universal.  Then we wrote cards to these five friends and classmates who, two years after receiving “refuge” in America, saw their lives dramatically changed again.

I was certainly impacted by the things I learned that day, but my most pervading feeling is the sense of gratitude I feel for being able to give that discussion to the kids.

I’m clinging to that teacher, afraid I am loosing her.

When that discussion happened, I was still steeped in the Adult Education mentality that the classroom is the perfect place for such discussions.  Adult Education philosophy and pedagogy recognize that such discussions enable students to share their emotional burdens so that they can set them aside for a few hours of study.  It teaches that these conversations force students to confront issues of cultural relativity. And it values lived experience as a source of knowledge.

The environment in which I now teach could not be more different. It is a fast-paced school, where the focus is on mastering standards and getting students’ literacy and math skills up to a level at which they have a fighting chance of passing Graduation Tests. Knowledge exists on paper, and our students are chasing it.  Knowledge exists outside of oneself, and is measured by standardized tests in a language these teenagers learned to read only a few years ago.

In such an environment, there is no space to pause.  To talk. To feel.  I have often wondered what I would do if our community were struck with a tragedy similar to the van accident. Would I ditch the already-tight lesson plan in order to have a conversation? Would my students know what to do with such open-ended discussion?  More importantly, would they understand that the insights gained through such conversation are just as important as writing a paragraph or calculating a ratio?

My growing book collection – The Middle of Everywhere, My Grandfather’s Blessings – is my soft, fuzzy heart.  My reminder that there are people in the world who do their work with the same intentions I have.  Who meet their clients’, patients’, and students’ immediate needs for housing, medicine, and literacy without sacrificing time spent in truly healing, strengthening, overcoming, and discovering.  They are my guide; they are doing the work of un-teaching me to be numb to the things that matter most.

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Setting an Intention

I used to have a yoga teacher who instructed us, at the beginning of every class, to “set an intention for today’s practice.” Sitting on a borrowed mat on the grimy floor of the unused basketball court at the Irving Park YMCA, I closed my eyes and tried to figure out what she meant. An intention. Don’t judge the instructor for her slouching shoulders? Don’t scoff at the moms in matching athletic gear who chatter during their downward dogs? I leaned back and tried to shut out the noise of the ceiling fans, the glare of the gray sky against the snowy street slanting in from the bare windows. Something told me that’s not what she meant by “intention.” But, what was mine?

I attended that yoga class regularly from mid-2007 until the end of the summer in 2009. Two years in which my main intention was to avoid loneliness during the seemingly endless afternoons of “split shifts” teaching ESL classes in the morning and at night, sharing my off-time with Ellen DeGeneres and the droning voice of the often angry host of Talk of the Nation.

In 2009, I got laid-off. Re-hired. Took a full-time job teaching at a smaller program. Didn’t like it. I realized that though I adored my work, it didn’t fit my lifestyle. I joked that I’d spent four mostly single, completely childless, post-college years working the perfect Mom Job. Flexible schedule, childcare on premises. Class after class full of doting mamas and grammas from Mexico, Ecuador, Korea, Yemen, Sudan. I needed a change; it was time to work my ass off.

I got accepted to grad school, moved back to Atlanta, and started jumping through the hoops that would qualify me to leave Adult Education for a job teaching immigrant and refugee high schoolers in the public school system.

The summer I moved back to Atlanta, I traded in parents for their children, and with that, Paulo Freire for Common Core, and communicative language instruction for Standardized Testing with Accommodations. While I used to have students who lovingly referred to me as their “American daughter,” I now have students who call me, half-jokingly, their “American mother.”

Before leaving Chicago, anticipating that I might not be as happy in the famously stressful public school environment, I thanked my former co-workers in Adult Education for teaching me how to stand in front of a classroom, how to communicate with and effectively teach English Language Learners, and for solidly grounding me in a commitment to community-based education. I was ready, I told them, thanks to this solid foundation, to spend a few back-breaking years fighting the beast of the public educational system.

Back-breaking turned out to be less of a metaphor than I expected.

During the first few weeks at my new job, every introduction came with unsolicited advice and, more often than not, a horror story. The teacher who suffers from hearing loss because she got an ear infection during her first year and never went to a doctor. The teacher who was hospitalized for a severe – and preventable – kidney infection, also during her first year. I was familiar with this kind of sacrifice, because I had suffered from severe heartburn and digestive system discomfort throughout grad school and student teaching, but never sought professional attention – there was just always so much else to do.

Among teachers, especially teachers in under-performing, under-funded, over-scrutinized schools, there is a tendency to wear our problems like badges, every illness testament in our bodies to how hard we work. Don’t end up like me, we say knowingly, to the wide-eyed new recruits, resigning ourselves to martyrdom, rather than seeking happiness.

This morning, I attended my first yoga class in almost a year. Thanks to my full-time job, not only can I afford a ten dollar class at an actual yoga studio (with curtains on the windows and a clean floor), I also have the summer off and, with it, the time to re-connect to my friends, my home, and myself. To think about how I will proceed.

This summer, I am finally setting that intention.

I do not want my badge. I want out of the toxic teacher-culture.

I am not a “career educator.” I figure I’ll be in this rigmarole maybe ten more years. I want to have kids, and to be around while they’re kids. I will return to community-based education, to teaching survival skills, Citizenship, reading, with adults who never believed they’d have the opportunity to learn. I’ll help foster the ever-tenuous relationship between the community organizations and the public schools. I’ll return to poverty wages, lack of health insurance, because through building relationships with communities of new Americans, I find joy comes easy.

But the time for that is not now. I know that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be, and I pray that when the time for change is right, I will know, and will embrace that change the same way I’ve dove full-speed into public high school.

My intention is to live more fully during the school year, to care for myself every day, instead of catching up during breaks.

My intention is to bring joy back into aspects of daily life, where for the last three years I have found stress. I will again enjoy cooking, taking proper care of my houseplants and my ridiculous cat, and I will fill my house with music.

My intention is to continue working on The Artist’s Way, and to continue opening myself up to spirituality and a spiritual community that I have been running from.

My intention is to reconnect to writing, and to find a voice that is somewhere between the poet of my high school years and the academic I’ve grown comfortable hiding behind.  I hope to use this space to make sense of – and give voice to – some of the things I’m learning as a hippie hipster queer almost 30 year old public school teacher, as a feminist anti-Zionist Jew in an interfaith relationship, as a wannabe academic, sometimes artist, foodie on a budget.

Everything is, and will be, a work in progress. I’m eager for your comments and even more interested in your critiques.

In peace,

an orchard and a dome

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