Category Archives: Teaching & Learning

What every kid needs to learn before you give them tuition or luggage.

My daughter went back to college a couple weeks ago after being home for the winter break.  I thought that she would be about 24 years old before I would have this feeling that is exploding from my heart. I can’t really put my finger on it exactly. Satisfaction? No, not big enough.  Vindication? No, too dramatic.  Elation? Yes, that is it. I am elated.  Not that she left. Rather, I am elated that, after just one quarter of college, we have definitive proof that we accomplished some big things we set out to do as parents. Before I go on, I will admit that I made plenty of mistakes as a parent. It is impossible not to make mistakes. Parenting is the most complex undertaking in life, I believe.  Also, I should share, there are many things about our daughter that we are proud of other than the ones in this post. The things I am going to share are things that I think every young adult should learn before getting luggage or tuition, and being sent out into the world.

Ultimately, our goal was for our daughter to leave our house at 18, able to navigate the adult world secure in the knowledge that she had the skills to be successful and independent.  I believe that people do not learn how to be an adult when they are 18. They begin learning as soon as they try out their first “NO!”  As with any skill, adulthood has to be scaffolded with a gradual exchange of responsibility and a commensurate increase in freedom.   For example, one of our goals was for her to be able to travel alone safely as an adult.  When she was little, she traveled with me by airplane.  I helped her pack, understand boarding passes, handle bags, get through security, and navigate the plane. Then, she traveled by plane with a friend, and parents waiting at each terminal.  She experienced being alone on the plane and having to get her needs met. Next, she traveled with her team by airplane, and I traveled on another plane (because I am smart).  She was able to do most of what she needed to do, but her safety net (coach) was right there. She traveled to the opposite corner of the country with a friend on a plane, navigating major airports. She did everything on her own. Last thanksgiving, she even booked her own flight. Gradual exchange of responsibility from me to her. She had chances to make mistakes, with a safety net. Though that safety net was about the same through all of this, she used it less and less. And when there were problems, we started by asking what she could do to solve the problem.  As a result, she learned that she could trust herself to solve problems and advocate for herself. Children need opportunities to try, and even fail, if they are to learn.

These are not in age or priority order. They are all equally important to us.

Banking and Money:  We opened a bank account for her quite young. She went to the bank with us to deposit her money. While we provided for her needs, we reminded her that she had her own money if she wanted to buy something that we did not want to buy for her. I remember the day we were shopping when she admitted, “I like it enough if you are buying it, but not if I am.” We laughed. No one bought that sweater. Our gauge became: Would you buy this, if you had to pay for it? As soon as she was old enough, she got her a debit card. Keeping track of it and her money became her responsibility. Our accounts were linked, and I got alerts on her spending. I never intervened unless I thought there was a possibility of fraud.   As soon as she was old enough, she got a small credit card to establish credit. She learned what it means to have a bill you must pay.

Work:  There are things you can only learn working for someone other than your parent.  She babysat in middle school, and got her first job in high school.  Her first couple of jobs had big challenges.  She learned that money is earned. She learned how hard and how long you have to work to save up money. She learned about being on time, and having a positive attitude even when you really don’t want to do something. She also learned that if you don’t like your job, you can go get another one, but it is always best to leave on good terms.  From unpaid internships, she learned that sometimes you can earn something other than money that pays off big dividends on your future.

Rights:  She probably would not agree, but one job in particular taught her a painful but necessary lesson.  She has rights. Though an employee, she has the power to advocate for herself and protect herself.  We taught her about Labor and Industries, and employee rights. We showed her how to research the law and file a complaint. This was one I had not really planned for because I never had to assert my employment rights, fortunately. I could see that she felt she could not stand up to her boss for fear she would be fired even though she was in the right.  Though I helped her navigate the process, she filed her complaint on her own. It was a powerful lesson for us all.

Self-Advocacy and Negotiation: These are skills best learned young.  Believe me, the first time she shouted “No” at me, I was not thinking this.  But we quickly realized that, if she learned she must mindlessly submit to anyone in authority or power, we would be diminishing her power as a human and putting her potentially in danger.  We wanted her to trust her gut and set boundaries for the treatment she would accept from others. I heard too many stories from teens who were assaulted because they did not feel they had the power to say “stop” or “no”.  We also wanted her to have the confidence to state her case to get her needs met or to address an injustice.  Let your child talk to their teacher when there is a problem.  Coach them about who to talk to when they need help. Stepping in feels supportive as a parent. To a teen, it can communicate that you do not believe that they can solve their problem on their own.

Self-Management: This is a hard one as a parent because it is so hard to see your child unhappy. But it is important. Children need to have some freedom to make choices that could have positive or negative consequences.  Then they have to experience living with the consequences, good and bad. Take homework for example, she was allowed to manage when and where she did it until she began missing assignments. Then we set a time and place. We also set expectations around how she could get that freedom back.  We never had to talk about homework again. She apparently did not enjoy studying with me at the kitchen table as much as I enjoyed spending the time with her.

Cell Phones: They are a fact of life. The sooner kids learn to use one appropriately, the better. We bought her a cell phone when she entered middle school so that we could be in touch with her in an emergency. We made it very clear that we owned the phone and could revoke it if she violated the rules.  We talked about safety rules. Though we never felt the need to do it, we were clear that we would read her texts if a problem occurred, or we felt she was in danger.  She loved her phone.  We only had to take it away one time.

Social Media:   I was a high school principal so I knew all too well the devastating mistakes developing and impulsive minds could make.  I was initially very much against allowing her to have any social media. But then I realized that she was eventually going to have it. Since to that point I knew nothing about it, she could have set up social media and I might not even have known she did.  We all needed to learn about online safety. She needed to practice using social media with supervision to prevent bigger mistakes later. There were only a few issues but they were great opportunities to talk about how easily things can go wrong on social media.

Grocery Shopping:  This seems a bit silly because kids usually go to the store with a parent at some point. There is a big difference between tagging along, dropping protein bars in the basket when your dad isn’t looking, and actually planning for a week of healthy eating.  We sent her periodically to the store with a budget and a list to do the family shopping.  As a college student, she understands how much cheaper it is to buy food at the store and cook it at home, than to go out for dinner.  She understands how to select fruits and vegetables, check expiration dates, and read labels.  For the record, her dad gets all the credit for this one.

Cooking:  We started this one pretty late because she was an athlete who was often home late.  It did not make sense to have her cook after school and practice. In her senior year, she took an interest in nutrition and learned to cook. You are at the mercy of cafeterias and restaurants in the dorms. But when you move out, you might be eating a lot of soup and frozen dinners, if you don’t know how to cook.  Again, her dad gets all the credit here. I do know how to cook, but he is much better at it!

Laundry:  Need I say more?

Doctor and Dentist Appointments: This grew from necessity, but turned out to be a great skill.  I could not manage her schedule and mine. Eventually in exasperation, I told her to call her doctor and make the appointment. We gave her an insurance card and explained how insurance works.  Ultimately, she was comfortable going to appointments alone and advocating for herself.

I remember when she was in high school and she said to me, “I am adulting all over the place.” I thought it was cute. I mean, it’s not like she had to worry about a mortgage. I realized over this winter break, that she was adulting all over the place. Every day, she is adulting more and more. She is right on schedule. When she moves into her apartment next year, I won’t have to worry about whether or not she will be able to feel herself, pay rent, or keep herself safe. I also know that she understands that she can always ask for help or advice. Even adults need a safety net.

IMG_0151

Adulting All Over The Place

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2020.

Obstacles and Opportunities

My career got off to a rocky start.  The ink was still drying on my degree and teaching certificate, as I set out to find my first teaching job.  With the optimism of Shirley Temple and the enthusiasm of a Mouseketeer, I combed the job postings.  I soon discovered that the widely-advertised science teacher shortage did not apply to biology teachers of which there was a disturbing glut. Undeterred, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and went back to school. I subbed during the day and went to school in the evenings to finish my chemistry and general science endorsements. Having suffered through Rocks for Jocks and Intro to Weather, I was again hopeful. But it was not to be.  The next school year was forever marred by the tragic bunny boot accident of 1990 wherein I blew out my back.  I was out of commission for six months. When I was finally back in action, there were statewide teacher strikes.  I was starting to think that the Universe was sending me a message that my stubborn Greco-Celtic nature refused to see: You are not supposed to be a teacher.

I was desperate to find a job when a friend gave me a copy of What Color Is Your Parachute by Bolles.  It seemed like a sign.  I spent a couple of weeks reading the book and diligently completing each exercise.  It was the first time I intentionally considered what I needed in a job, or really thought about my personal characteristics in relationship to a job.  I just always knew in my heart I was a teacher.  (I think I convinced every child I ever babysat that “School” was a very fun game all kids played.)  I pored over each page like the book was the map to a long-buried treasure.  At the end of the all of the exercises, I was supposed to select someone, who knew me well and would be completely honest, and share the results.  I selected my husband, who knows me best of all and who is incapable of anything less than brutal honesty.  I made a poster out of all of the exercises and proudly explained what I had done. I told him that somehow all of this information pointed to what I was supposed to be in life.  I asked him, not without fear, “So what do you think this all says I should be?”  He looked at the poster, took a beat and said, “I think it says you should be a teacher.” I don’t know what I was expecting but that was not it.  “A teacher?” I asked.  “Yes,” he said, “It’s obvious.”  I probably should have felt reassured or comforted by his pronouncement.  Instead, I just stared at the board looking at the “obvious”. All that work and reflection, and I already was what I was supposed to be?! Once that sunk in, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and got back to looking for a teaching job. And I admitted to my husband that he was right.

I think with all of the obstacles I encountered in getting a teaching job, I just assumed that I had made an error.  I assumed that I was really supposed to become something else in life.   I forgot that I loved teaching. I forgot that I was never happier than when I was in the classroom. I forgot how exciting it was to see that moment when a kid got something and the lights went on.  I forgot that obstacles sometimes are just obstacles and not a billboard from the Great Power of the Universe warning you off from some horrible error you are about to make.

Last weekend, I went to a reunion and visited with students I taught over 20 years ago.  As we reminisced and laughed, that period of my life came rushing back with the kind of clarity you only get when remembering something that was really special in your life.  After all of the struggles to find a job, I ended up in a small town where I taught science and coached volleyball, basketball and track. It was the perfect place for me. I knew, even in the hardest of times, that I was where I was meant to be, doing what I was meant to do.

 

I chose this picture from the reunion for this post because it reminds me of special kids and the adventure of teaching them.  It was so great to catch up with them and hear about their adventures in life.  It was an amazing day.  I am grateful for all of the obstacles that led me to that town and those kids.  Side note, the chicken is locally famous for being the star of a senior prank played out over generations in the town. It was a great reminder the mischief and mystery of working with teenagers!

chicken pic.jpg

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Give It a Try

About 20 years ago, my sister called me and asked if her daughter could job shadow me to fulfill a graduation requirement.  Hopefully, I hid my surprise.  After all, I was a high school principal.  I could not imagine that any high school student, ever, in the history of mankind, dreamed of being the principal.  I certainly hadn’t dreamed of being a high school principal, and I was one.  Being a principal never crossed my mind, in fact, until my husband remarked one day, “You should be a principal.”  To which I quickly replied, “Are you kidding me?! No one wants to be the principal.”  Did he even know me?  Apparently, he did. You can imagine my angst when I had to admit he was right, and tell him I was going to graduate school.

As to my niece, I said, ‘Yes, of course, you can shadow me”.  I thought it would be fun to have her job shadow me. I knew it would be fun to spend the day with her. When the day finally came, she spent the night at our house and went to school early in the morning with me. That alone should have warned her off the job.  It was about a 20-mile drive, and we chatted along the way. I remember nonchalantly saying, “So, you want to be a principal.”  If she did indeed want to be a high school principal, I didn’t want to discourage her with my incredulous tone.  She remarked, in the way only a teenager can, “Yeah, that, or a dental hygienist.  I haven’t decided.”  I chuckled to myself thinking that neither sounded like much fun, if you were 17 years old, in my opinion.  Then I thought, those two professions couldn’t be more different. Oh, to be a teenager.  A time when everything is a very real possibility. The sky’s the limit.   A time when you have shed the childish dreams of wanting to be a superhero or professional athlete or ballerina for the more likely, albeit disparate, options: principal or dental hygienist.

She spent the whole day with me.  I can’t recall all that happened, but I imagine it was a day in the life of a high school principal: visiting classrooms, talking to students, dealing with some thrilling operational issue (translated: someone is in my parking spot!), meeting with parents, doing paperwork, dealing with discipline, going to meetings, changing the world one kid at a time. Riveting stuff for a 17-year-old.  Of course, she was seeing high school, for the first time, from my perspective, not that of a student.  At the end of the day as we drove home, I asked her, “OK. So, what’s the verdict? Are you going to be a high school principal?”  She did not miss a beat, “Oh, heck no.” She laughed, not derisively, but more like ‘you must be crazy’. Hopefully I hid my disappointment. I asked, “So, you are going to be a dental hygienist then?”  She thought about it a moment and then replied, “I don’t know. But your job is really hard.” (Update: She didn’t end up being either, but is gainfully employed in a career she is very good at.) She was right.  Being a high school principal is the hardest job I have ever had. I didn’t mind the challenge though, because I loved the job.  I loved almost everything about it, even the hard stuff. (Maybe not staying up until 1 am on prom night, but that’s more about my internal clock than anything else.)  It was purely luck, though, that I loved it. If you think about it, I jumped into graduate school, with a considerable price tag, based on a belief that I would be a good principal and I would like being a principal.

College is expensive.  Though I think it is money well-spent, all post-secondary training is expensive.  While I don’t think you have to know for sure what you want to do with your life at 18 years old.  I think you owe it to yourself (and anyone who is helping pay your tuition) to explore what different careers entail.   More and more, kids are doing internships, apprenticeships and job shadowing before they start their post-secondary training. Frankly, I feel blessed that my child is in a school district that is committed to connecting students with internships. My daughter is in her 4th internship experience in physical therapy and sports medicine.  She has never been more excited about her learning. Even though she has had some wonderful classes with engaging teachers, her internship experiences of hands on, deep learning have been the most transformational learning experiences she has had. I am so grateful to the adults who have made this possible and mentored her. The physical therapists, softball coach and counselor, who made these possible, have quite literally changed her life.  Listening to her talk, fast and loud and animated, about some amazing experience she had that day is so wonderful.  Listening to her fluently use the language of the profession she hopes to have some day makes my heart sing.  More important than the learning itself is learning that she does, in fact, have the aptitude and passion to pursue this career. It is about learning what you will actually do in that profession on a daily basis and, knowing that you not only can do it, but you want to do it. When she started, she thought she only wanted only to work with athletes. I think her experience, with so many different kinds of physical therapy patients, and her realization of how rewarding it is to help someone heal and grow, has expanded her world.

It seems that sometimes in life we just jump in because of how we imagine something is going to be without really doing any research or exploration.  We have an idea of what we want to do and we commit.  Sometimes we find success. Sometime we abandon the idea altogether.  Where college and careers are concerned, I think it is an expensive proposition to jump in without exploring both your personal characteristics and the characteristics of the job.  There are so many medical careers, for example, if you like science. If you are not a people person, however, you might want to steer away from nursing into, say, pathology. I have said it before and I will say it again.  This process is not about finding a career you can fit yourself into. It is about finding a career that fits you.  No matter how much you love animals, if you are afraid of swimming, being a marine biologist might not be for you. Trying out a career through a job shadowing experience or an internship is as much about learning what you need in a job, as it is about learning what the job will require from you. Finding out something is not ‘your thing’ is not a failure. It is information. Important information that can lead you to a happy, fulfilling life.  The fact is that our lives contract or expand in relation to the beliefs we have about what we can and should do. We should give ourselves permission to try something out, regardless of our age, our past experience, or our image of who we are right now. We should be open to the possibility that it will be ‘our thing’.  We should not condemn ourselves when we abandon something that just isn’t ‘our thing’.  I know there is the perfect career for everyone.  We just have to give it a try.  What do you have to lose really?

 

lhsp

Me circa 2003, doing some riveting principal-ing.

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

The Fear Brain and Reigniting the Curious Mind

We don’t give much thought to our brain. I don’t anyway. I take it for granted most of the time.  If you think about it, that 3 pounds of fat, protein and water (according to National Geographic ) is a truly miraculous organ. It spawned the Sistene Chapel, the International Space Station, the Gamma Knife, War and Peace, Swan Lake, Bethoven’s Fifth, the Hadron Collider and Magnetic Resonance Imaging. The list is wondrously endless. I even read recently that some of the brains at Batelle Labs developed an implant that made it possible for a paralyzed person to pick up a spoon merely by thinking it.

Of course, those are rare and exceptional examples of the brain’s potential when provided with an environment conducive to learning, creating, and innovating. Not every brain lives in those types of environments, and the brain is ultimately a survival organ. Centuries of real and imagined danger have honed its ability to recognize and respond to novel stimuli and threats. If you think about early settlers in the Americas for example, it makes perfect sense.  A frontiersman, let’s call him Bob, mesmerized by purple mountain majesties, who couldn’t spot the grizzly racing down the slopes early enough to take defensive measures, probably ended up as the bear’s picnic lunch. While the bear was finishing Bob off, his more fear-alert neighbor was running off with his girlfriend to the nearest Justice of the Peace and subsequently consummating the union to pass on his fear alerting genes to the next generation.  Mission critical to the brain is the preservation of the body and much of that happens subconsciously.  You only have to touch a hot stove once. You don’t have to walk around saying, “Don’t touch hot stoves. Don’t touch hot stoves.”

While encountering bears is an unlikely threat nowadays (although my first high school lockdown was due to a bear wandering around behind the gym- more about that later), the truth is that children do encounter threats to their safety and it is easy to misinterpret a child’s behavior because we are unaware that an unconscious threat response is happening. I know.  I have, regrettably, made that mistake more than once in my career.  A couple of decades ago, when we were blissfully ignorant of the sheer magnitude of homeless children, I made that mistake and it has stayed with me as a painful reminder that I cannot know what motivates another person’s behavior.  He was new and that alone made him standout.  I knew how hard that was having moved around as a child, so I tried to connect with him.  He always seemed to be looking over my left shoulder like that was as far as he could stand to make eye contact with me. I was suspicious.  My dad always told me that looking someone in the eye was a sign of honesty and respect.  So that was my lens.  It didn’t occur to me that there could be another reason.  His answers were monosyllabic and curt.  He fidgeted like he was itching to get away from me.  He kept bouncing his backpack on his shoulder as we talked- not rapidly but periodically like he was checking to see if it was still there. After a few minutes, I gave up trying to talk to him.  He stomped away without a word.  He was disheveled and dirty.  It made me wonder if he didn’t care. Again, my lens came through, my dad always told me that you should dress nicely because it looks like you care about yourself and, if you care, others will. “If you dress like a bum, people will treat you like one,” he’d say.   It didn’t occur to me that the condition of his clothes wasn’t his choice.  I met him again, under even less jubilant conditions, a couple of days later when he was brought to my office for verbally attacking his teacher.  When I was working on my Master’s degree, one of my professors, a wise and experienced administrator, once told me that every behavior has a positive intention even if I can’t see it.  It was hard seeing the positive intention in his actions that day. It took some time, but eventually he meted out the information. It was like he was testing our trustworthiness with every morsel. The teacher had told him he had to leave his backpack in his locker. It was a common rule back then. That seemed reasonable to me, again through my lens.  He had valuable things in his backpack.  We have locks for the lockers, I told him. He didn’t trust the locks. That seemed silly but I didn’t say that outright.  And then we got to the real issue.  Everything he owned in the world was in that backpack.  My lens shattered. I let that sink in. He was homeless.  I think he was the first kid who had ever said that to me. Everything he owned was in his backpack.  Chaos and uncertainty ruled his life.  What was he going to do, explain to the teacher, in front of the other kids, that he was homeless?  I could not imagine the burden of that for a young man.  Of course he was angry, who wouldn’t be?  Of course he attacked, he believed he was in danger of losing everything.    In the end, we figured out a way for him to feel safe about his backpack. He taught me indelibly to ask first.

So, what does this have to do with the brain?  Everything, it turns out.  Whether we flee, fight or freeze when faced with danger (real or imagined), the brain takes over to protect the body.  In the classroom, students may appear that they can’t learn or won’t learn when in fact they may be reacting subconsciously to perceived threats or to stimuli that reminds the brain of a past threat. Every child starts out curious. Every child wants to learn. They soak up the sights and sounds and taste and feel of a world that is new to them.  They want to know how and why. Why is the sky pink tonight and not blue? Where does rain come from?  How do fish breathe?  Where do babies come from? Or my child’s personal favorite, what’s that smell like (usually asked at the most inopportune moments)?  If you are a child, who merely by luck is born into a family with educated parents with financial resources, you will probably hear things like “what a great question”, “let’s look that up” or “I’ve always wondered that too”.  You might even hear an actual answer to the question.  You go to school confident that you ask good questions worthy of adult consideration. You learn that adults think you are smart enough to find or understand the answer. But what if you are born to parents who are not educated or who don’t have financial resources?  What If you are homeless and survival is the most important thing?  You might hear “enough with the questions”, “I have no idea” or “don’t bother me right now”.  Exhausted people in survival mode are not always able to regulate their emotions.  You internalize your parent’s emotions.  You make those emotions mean something about you.  You might feel like you have irritated, angered or offended your parent.  You learn not to ask questions. You learn questions upset adults. You learn questions are dangerous.

These two children will look very different in the classroom. One will look engaged, ask questions, make eye contact and offer answers. The other will appear disinterested, not ask questions or offer answers. It is easy to mistake their learned response for not caring about school or for being less intelligent when, in fact, that is not true. This is why trauma informed practices and social emotional learning are so important in school.  If we want all children to learn, we have to understand their behavior.  We have to help them develop the social emotional skills needed to both keep them safe and help them learn, like growth mindset, grit, social awareness, self-management, and sense of belonging. We have to reignite their curious mind.  None of that will happen overnight.  It takes consistent, intentional behavior by influential, caring adults.  It may not happen overnight, but it can happen. It happens in classrooms everyday across this country.  Through our actions, we can communicate to every child that we believe they can learn.  Through our actions, we can communicate to every child that we think their questions are valid and worth our time.  Through our actions, we can reignite the curious mind. Through our actions, we can quiet the fear brain and make room for the learning brain to grow.  If you are wondering just how to do that, ask yourself “What would I say right now if I were talking to my child?”

If you want to learn more about:

Social Emotional Learning
– Check out Panorama Ed’s work: https://blog.panoramaed.com/
– Check out the Committee for Children’work:  https://www.cfchildren.org/

The Fear Brain – Read The ecology of human fear: survival optimization and the nervous system (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4364301/   Mobbs, D et al, 2015)

How class and race influence the classroom – Read: Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (Lareau, 2011) https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520271425/unequal-childhoods

Trauma Informed Practices
– Check our Edutopia: https://www.edutopia.org/article/trauma-informed-practices-benefit-all-students
– Read: The Heart of Learning: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success  http://www.k12.wa.us/CompassionateSchools/HeartofLearning.aspx

I chose these pictures because they remind me of the curious mind of the child. This was my daughter’s 5th grade Invention Convention project. She designed and made a cover to keep tennis shoes laces clean, dry and knotted.  I think she is brilliant. The greater truth is that, by the luck of the draw, she was born into a home where education is important, her parents have the time and resources to help her, and every time she asked a question (millions of questions actually – just ask her third grade teachers who had to give her a daily limit) she was encouraged to find the answer.  All of that helped her develop a curious mind. Every kid deserves that opportunity.

Invention Convention 2

Invention Convention 3

Invention Convention 1

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Empathy Gap – Don’t Fall In

As soon as I shut the door, I knew. I heard the click of the lock and my stomach sank to my feet. I collapsed forward. My forehead hit the top of the window giving me an unobstructed view of my purse and both sets of my car keys sitting prominently on the passenger seat mocking me. Don’t ask why I had both sets of car keys, I have no idea. With a symphony of colorful words going through my mind, I raced around the Jeep trying each door even though I knew they too would be locked. I called my husband. I’m not sure what kind of magic I thought he could do from 15 miles away. His first question, “Where’s your spare?”, had me banging my head on the glass. He must have sensed I was a woman on the edge because he didn’t ask why I had them both.  He did say the obvious, “You’re going to have to call a locksmith.” There I stood in the freezing garage, boot-stomping, dirt-kicking mad. Any thought of going back in the building was crushed when I realized my security card lay next to my keys on the seats of the Jeep. I was supposed to be meeting a dear friend to celebrate her birthday and I was already a bit late.

Pacing around the garage, I Googled “Locksmiths near me” and quickly picked the first one on the list.  It was a risk, but I didn’t have time for background checks and online reviews.  The man who answered sounded far away, but what he was lacking in proximity, he made up for in enthusiasm. He said he would be there in 20 so I called my friend to tell her I would be late. I’m never late. I hate being late. Lateness stresses me out.  My dear friend, when I told her my sad tale, wondered if I was safe. She asked if I needed help. She assured me that it was fine. Of course, she said all that. I would have said all that in her position. That’s what friends do.  But in my head, I was not so kind.  “I cannot believe you did this again.”  “Focus on what you are doing!” “Get organized already.” The truth is that the last time I did this was 11 years ago. I know that because it was in front of the Holiday Inn in Pullman, Washington on the Sunday morning after I graduated. I went out to clear the snow off my Jeep and I locked the key in the ignition with the engine running.  So, I don’t lose my keys all the time.  (I did back in the 80’s but that is a whole story all by itself.) Second, I am generally focused. I was distracted by a particularly hilarious string of texts my sisters were sending.  Who wouldn’t be?  Finally, organized? I am not neat, but I am very organized. So, my whole mental punishment was way out of line and I should have just followed my dear, sweet friend’s compassionate lead.  I did not.  It was made worse because it was the end of the day. People were slowly heading to the garage to leave and, of course, wondered why I was pacing around like a bull before the fight.  “No. My jeep does not have electronic locks. Why? It makes it easier to take the doors off! Do you happen to have a tool for that on you?”  “Yes. I know it is not smart to carry both sets of keys.”  They meant well but let’s face it- I was in a mood.

The locksmith arrived earlier than he estimated. I was right, he was enthusiastic.  In fact, he seemed perfectly suited to the job.  He moved around the Jeep quickly, wasting no time assessing the situation and determining his best course of action.  He was a bit thrown by the whole “no electronics” in the door thing.  He must have asked me four times what year the Jeep was and, each time, he was surprised when I said 2018. He was reassuring. I would guess he is faced with angry, stressed people all day long.  I didn’t seem to faze him a bit. It took him only 15 minutes to open it up and I was on the road. I had only five miles or so to go but I hit every single light.

By the time I got to the restaurant, I was pretty much done. And then, as I sat in my Jeep in the parking lot, I took a breath. I remembered why I was there. I was there to celebrate the birthday of a woman I dearly love.  I was there to spend a couple of precious hours with someone I only get to see about once a month.  I was in danger of missing those moments because I was so irritated with myself over a fairly small mistake that was fixed in 15 minutes for $72.  It reminded me of something I heard Dr. Adolph Brown say about empathy last week at a conference I attended. His presentation was one of those heart-swelling, tear-inducing, thought-provoking, inspirational events that feed my heart, soul and mind. (Seriously, if you have the chance to hear him speak, do not miss it. You’ll thank me.)  I love that type of speaker- the ones who give me a visceral learning experience and leave me not merely inspired but changed.  He was talking about the “empathy gap”. This was a presentation to a group of educators, so his remarks were related to working with students. He talked about the importance of empathy. Empathy is the missing piece of the puzzle when we are trying to figure out how to reach students and engage them in learning.  If we have empathy, it changes how we look at each other and that, in turn changes how we treat each other.  If we take the time to learn about and understand another person, rather than assuming we understand them based on what they look like or act like, we can develop a relationship.  Learning is about relationships. Kids- and adults for that matter- cannot learn well without a sense of safety, belonging, and understanding that comes through positive, healthy relationships. Dr. Brown also reminded the adults in the room that the ability to have empathy requires that we develop compassion for ourselves.  We cannot teach children what we do not know ourselves. If we do not have compassion for ourselves, we will have difficulty having compassion and empathy for others.  Social emotional learning is not just for children.  As adults, we need to attend to it as well.  So, sitting there in the parking lot, having mentally flogged myself over those keys, I reminded myself to have a little compassion and give myself a break.  I let it go so that I would not miss the present worrying about the past.

DSC_0050

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Have You Thanked a Teacher Lately?

I have a confession to make.  I have a box in my garage that I take out every time I am wondering about whether I am making a difference in this world.  It’s not full of trophies.  There are no framed awards in the box.  Nothing is engraved or embossed.  It is a box of notes and gifts I received as a teacher.  Some are on beautifully printed cards. Most are on college ruled paper.  Some of the things in the box only I would understand- like the blue ribbon from one of my seniors that he got for showing his dog; or the watercolor a father painted for me after I coached his son in track; or the flyer commemorating the march from Selma to Montgomery that a graduate sent me with a small rock she picked up on that very bridge. The handwritten notes thanking me for things I would have said were “just doing my job” but that seemed big to a teenager. Unnecessary apologies from kids who were just being kids but who were mortified by their actions as they matured.  Candy canes stuck to notecards wishing me a relaxing winter break without homework to grade.  Invitations to graduation parties. College graduation notices. Wedding invitations. Precious remnants of life as a teacher.

You see, teaching is a really hard job. Whether you are an elementary teacher working with 30 students all day or a secondary teacher seeing 150 students in 55-minute blocks throughout the day, you are completely focused on them the whole time. You spend your free time thinking of new ways to engage your students in the learning. You worry about not reaching that kid in the back who seems to be fading out of school.  You cheer for them to succeed in and out of the classroom. You hope they believe you when you tell them that they can do it; that they are smart enough. You pray they will be persistent enough to get it and resilient enough to survive the painful times they come up short.  I believe that at the core of every teacher is a desire to make a difference in the lives of their students. It is not just to impart academic knowledge but to play a part in developing healthy, happy, competence adults.  It is helping them navigate growing up, solve problems, and negotiate with adults. It is helping them discover and develop their talents and passions. It is helping them overcome their fears. Failure in any of that is, frankly, painful as a teacher. Being a teacher is not just a job like any other job. Being a teacher is central to who you are as a person. It is a calling.

In my own life, teachers have been so important in helping me to become who I am today. I am sure every one of them would say that they were just doing their jobs.  But they are wrong. They were doing so much more.  Ms. Rassmussen was my kindergarten teacher at Sunset Elementary School. She was so kind and patient that even today, when I think of her, I picture a fairy princess.  I was so scared to go to kindergarten and she made it a place I wanted to be. Sister Estelle at St. Luke’s gave me big bear hugs for seemingly no reason at all.  She knew I needed them even when I did not.  Mrs. Elam at Redan High School wouldn’t cut me any slack when I did not understand freshman science. She believed in me even when I did not.  Mr. Rabitoy at Mt. Si High School made me want to be a biology teacher. Mr. Byrd at Redan High School taught me that the only person who could limit what I could learn is me.  Mr. Harshmann at Pinelake Junior High, who noticed I was not acting normal in class, took on the school bully for me.  I became a principal because of Mr. Venn at Mt. Si High School.  Dr. Lokken gave me my first shot at teaching with a job teaching CHEM101 lab at the University of Alaska.  Dr. Guest taught me to live my best life to the very last moment even if I know that moment is coming soon.  Madame Seay at Redan High School taught me that smart girls are powerful girls.  Mr. Odum, who was forced to enter me in the 100 m lows (I’m 5’4”) to satisfy the district rules in track and field, taught me to lose with grace and to win with grace.

I have written my share of thank you notes to teachers as a student. Now that I am a parent, I feel that gratitude so much more deeply.  It is an amazing thing to know that your child is surrounded by caring adults who know her well and want her to succeed.  Though I have thanked many, I know I can do better. I think it is natural to thank a teacher at the end of the school year. Those are very special notes.   I know teachers appreciate knowing that they are making a difference throughout the year too.  In December, when everyone is tired and cold and waiting impatiently for the winter break, a note of thanks will make a teacher’s day, or week, or even year.  A thank you note to a teacher is like a long drive in golf- getting one will keep you playing with a smile for a very long time.  In fact, I know teachers appreciate knowing they made a difference whenever you are ready to tell them. You might be thinking of a teacher right now that you had many years ago in school.  It’s not too late to tell them that they made a difference in your life.

To all the teachers, school counselors, school staff members and principals, thanks in advance for making a difference in so many children’s lives this year!

I selected this picture of a Eurasian Eagle Owl because it reminded me of the first teacher I ever knew- my Aunt Marita.  She loved owls and had a jewelry box full of owl necklaces. I think owls look wise, as teachers are, so I always thought that was why she had so many.  Perhaps she only liked them because they were beautiful.  I took this photograph in a bird photography class I recently took. I learned so much in the class. I am thankful for that teacher for this beautiful shot.

DSC_9480

Class!
(1/250 sec., f/6.3, 450 mm, 1600 ISO)

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

The Truth Will Set You Free

I was two months into my first year in a new school when I found myself hunched over a lunch table in the staff room praying for an earthquake. Not a big earthquake. Loss of life and limb was not necessary. I didn’t even want property damage. I just wanted everyone to get stuck in first period under their desks waiting for the ‘all clear’ until it was time for third period. So, there I was: palms cradling my forehead, deep groan of dread building in my throat, listening to the clock tap out the minutes to my doom. I dreaded second period. They were mean. They were never prepared. They never ooh’d or aah‘d when I lit something on fire or made things bubble over a beaker. On lab day, they acted like they were being forced to act out a Shakespearian drama through interpretive dance. And they were mean. I had never had a class like this. I loved science and every day I wanted students to love science. My classroom management skills were good for a relatively new teacher. I only had one awful day student teaching and I blame that on my ill-chosen outfit: pastel checked sweater and cream skirt. (That color combination is responsible for prison riots. You cannot blame teenagers for losing it.) So pretty much every day for two months, I sat in the teacher’s lounge and prayed for temporary illness, fire drills, mild earthquakes and locust. They never came. At 8:20 every morning, I trudged to my classroom chanting in my head “You are the teacher. They are teenagers. You can do this.” But on this particular Monday, I could take no more. I realized I needed help. The other teachers tried to help. They gave me advice. They told me their “second period” horror stories. I am pretty sure the Shop teacher even had a few covert come-to-the-mountain talks on my behalf. All to no avail. I knew I had to figure it out. I also knew that just beyond the staff room, a mere 20 feet away, sat the very man I needed to talk to. I swallowed my pride and prayed it would sit firmly on top of my breakfast. Just the idea of talking to the principal made me nauseous. I was only in the principal’s office one time as a student. As I sat across from him, that moment flashed back in my head. Believe me, the principal’s office is just as scary at 26 as it is at 16. The principal was a lanky man with straight, jet black hair that looked perpetually two weeks overdue for a cut. He reminded me of a cowboy in an old western. Everywhere he went, he seemed to mosey along like he had all the time in the world. I sat across from him and explained my problem. I asked if he would come to my class and observe. I told him that I had tried everything, and I just needed him to tell me what was going wrong in this class. It was a risk, as a new teacher, to even ask. (Less risky than the earthquake I was praying for, I guess.) But I really didn’t think I could take another day.

He came to my class the next day probably sensing I had one foot out the door and, since I was coaching three sports, fearing he would have to replace me in the middle of the year. He came in after the bell. I was worried that my students would all be on their best behavior with him there. It turned out that I had nothing to fear. They gave him quite a show. He took it all in. At the end of the class, he asked to see me after school. Now, that got ooh’s and aah’s. The rest of the day dragged on as I faced the possibility that asking for his help might just have ended my career. When the final bell rang, I headed for the office where he was waiting. His office felt a lot smaller than it had the day before. I scooted my chair closer to the door as I sat down anticipating the need for a rapid escape. I opened with, “So that is pretty much how they are every day.” With fingers tented, he tapped his chin, took a breath and said, “I can see why you are concerned.” I charged into the breach and asked, “So could you tell what the problem was?” He pronounced, “yes.” I had just a millisecond of hope before he continued. “It’s you.” All of the air went out of my lungs and I am pretty sure my heart stopped beating. I know for a fact I was staring at him in utter shock and disbelief when I squeaked out “me?”
He didn’t make me wait, which was good because I was already rewriting my resume and considering becoming an ornithologist (birds being clearly nicer than teenagers). He said, “Catherine, you do not teach that class like you teach your other classes. It is obvious to me and it is obvious to them. You walk in and expect them to misbehave. You don’t plan interesting activities because you don’t trust them to act appropriately. The problem is you. If you taught these students like you teach the rest of the day, they would act like all of the rest of your students.” As any smart, new teacher would do, I thanked him for his sage advice and taking the time to help me. Then I stormed out to my Jeep and used the 52-mile drive home to question everything from his parentage to his education degree. At about mile 30, I remembered that I had asked him into my classroom to assess the situation and give me his advice. Pretty stupid move if I wasn’t going to take that advice. So, I did 22 miles of soul searching and realized he was right. The situation was completely in my control. They were teenagers. I was the adult. My job was to teach them even if they were expertly applying the principles of aversive therapy on me. The fact is, even a porcupine has a soft belly. I needed to turn the tables on them- expect them to want to learn and participate in class. And deal with it like an adult when they did not. I had to teach as if they were already my favorite class. It was a lot of work. Harder than any other class I taught that year. It took months to turn it around. In the end, they were my favorite class that year.

I cannot say that I was grateful to have such a direct and honest principal at the time. But I am grateful for having learned the lesson. The cold, hard truth is tough to take sometimes. But as my dad used to tell me (often), the truth will set you free. It saved me in this case. Our perceptions drive our actions and influence all of our relationships. Perceptions are a reflection how we see ourselves in others. They grow out of our experiences and feelings and, because of that, they are flexible. Perceptions are less like granite and more like clouds. The fact is we can change how we see things. When we change how we see something, there is something in us that changes as well. I had to take responsibility for my behavior. I had to ask myself, “would they be different, if I thought they were?” In the end, it made it possible to see them as they really always were- just a bunch of normal teenagers trying to figure out life.

I chose the photograph below because it was another lesson in changing my perception. I came across this grave marker in the Annagh burial ground in Ireland. I dismissed it quickly as not worth a photograph. I was taking pictures of all of the graves in search of ancestors. In the burial ground, other graves were marked with large ornate crosses adorned with Celtic knots. As I was walking through, a local man stopped and told me that it was a Famine grave -probably an infant child not yet baptized who could not be buried in the cemetery proper. It changed my whole perception of how worthy of a photograph this weathered stone was.

DSC_0397-1Famine Grave
(1/200 sec., f/7.1, 100 ISO, 55mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.