Why Teach

Preschool me. 1985.

Preschool me. 1985.

“You can be anything you want to be…”

We’ve all heard it. We may have uttered it to someone else at some point in time. It’s an incredibly overused clique. A phase we say in an effort to uphold the fairytale of the American Dream. It’s a well meaning thought, but at one point I stopped believing it.

I was around the age of 14 when I decided I no longer subscribed to the  “everything you want to be” promise. My grades in 9th & 10th grade were horrendous. As in, a 0.5 GPA horrendous. I was unfocused, unmotivated, and unlikely to graduate. Some of my teachers had given up on me, as did many other adults in my life. I could see it in the sideways glances they gave me every time I arrived late to class. I could read it on their faces, hear it in the tone they used when speaking to me. But there were a few, who continued to treat me as if I had potential. One of them, Mrs. Callahan, was my literature teacher during freshman year. I think she saw through my act. She might have had a hunch that, even though I feigned disinterest in class as we decoded verses of Romeo & Juliet, I went home at night and poured over the pages of that tragedy, rewriting passages that spoke to me in the lined pages of my spiral notebooks. Though I failed to turn in my assignments, I’m sure I did well on my tests. Maybe it was because of that that Mrs. Callahan treated me as if I had a chance, but I think there was probably more to it than test scores. She took time to check in with me, and to offer after school help, which I sometimes took her up on. I remember how her validation made me feel, during that tumultuous time in my youth. It made me feel respected, and worth the trouble.

Fast forward three years: I was a mother and a Senior in high school. I was on independent studies. My grades increased dramatically, as did my focus. I was a determined student who began expressing my desire to go to college, despite my circumstances. Still, very few took me seriously. But my home studies teacher did. Mr. Coombs worked patiently with me as I inched my way toward graduation. He advised me to enroll in Jr. College, then transfer to a University. He beamed in the audience as I received my high school diploma. And I took his advice. I went on to Sacramento City College and eventually transferred to a University.

My path into early childhood education (ECE) was not an intentional course when I first set out on it. I enrolled in a few child development classes so that I could become a better parent. My original plan was to take the pre-requisites needed for a nursing program. But I soon discovered that early childhood education was what interested me most. So I continued with it, and eventually applied for an early childhood program director permit with the California Commission on Teaching Credentialing. I pursed both an undergraduate and graduate degree in ECE. At age 26, I landed my first job in a school district, and have been teaching ever since. 

Lately, due to various factors including the uncertainty of funding for early childhood teacher salaries in my district, I have been considering pursuing a multiple subject (K-8) credential. Over the summer, I met with many of my past advisors to discuss my options. I was taken aback by some of the responses I received.

“Don’t waste your time on that. If you’re going to go back to school, get into another field.”

“With your level of expertise, I’d consider administration. You’re too bright to remain in the classroom.”

“Have you thought about teaching higher ed, or public policy? You should.”

I mulled over these responses for several weeks, wondering how we, as a society, got to this point. This place where teaching at the PreK-12 level is considered a second-class profession, something that is undesirable and unrewarding. I thought of the hundreds of students I’ve taught over the years, and the families who continue to return to my classrooms to visit and update me on their progress. I thought of Mrs. Callahan, and Mr. Coombs, and Mrs. Garcia, my 1st grade teacher who surprised me by attending my graduation party when I completed my M.A.

And though I’ve entertained the idea of teaching college students, pursuing a career in policy, or joining the ranks of administrators, I ultimately listened to my heart, and applied for a credentialing program. 

My loyalties do not lie with test developers, or administrators, or policy makers who have never stepped foot into a classroom. I’ve pledged to serve families, and the students they are raising. I’m ever so grateful for the educators in my life whose belief in my abilities fueled the drive to complete my goals. 

I can be anything I want to be. 

 I choose to be a teacher.

Five Ways My Teenager Has Influenced My Parenting Style

So, my oldest son Elijah, is nearing his 18th Birthday, which means he is almost an adult. In many ways, he is already like a little adult. He drives himself to work & school, manages his own schedule, and has an active social life outside of the family. In addition to this man-child, I also have three younger children who are 12, 8, and 4 years old. Basically, I have children all over the developmental spectrum. But the manner in which I parent the younger three has gradually shifted as my eldest grew and taught me a thing or two about mothering. Things that once seemed important to me when Elijah was little, are trivial matters to me now. Over time, I’ve also learned to place more importance or other aspects of parenting that I didn’t give much thought to when I started this journey some 18 years ago. When you have an almost-adult at home, it changes the way you view your other children. Elijah is a walking reminder that my little ones will only be little for so long. That’s an obvious clique, I know, but one that is hard to comprehend in it’s entirety when you are cradling your first newborn and time seems to be standing still. Here some are the things I’ve learned as a parent of a teenager:

1) Our children do not belong to us.                                                                                      When my Elijah was little, I spent a lot of time dressing him up, showing him off, and delighting in the fact that he showed interest in the fads and hobbies I introduced him to. I can’t say I thought of him as a possession, but I certainly felt a sense of ownership over the little guy. Not so much anymore. Though I can see that many of his attitudes and beliefs about the world are a reflection of the home in which he was raised, he also has a mind and will of his own. As he should. Soon, very soon, he’ll venture on out of the nest and into adulthood. The days in which he was my default sidekick are a thing of the past. This realization is constantly on my mind as I watch my younger children grown into their own unique personalities, and it gives me the patience & perspective to deal their increasing bursts of autonomy. Yes, they are in my keeping now. But someday soon they’ll be independent of me with lives of their own. Last week, Elijah randomly text me during the middle of the day asking me if I was busy that evening & if I’d be willing to accompany him to his friend’s soccer game. I wistfully remembered the days in which I made all his plans and accepted invites on his behalf. Then I smiled, and cleared my schedule for the evening. When your teen invites you somewhere, you accept. Graciously.

2) No matter how cool you think you are, you’ll never be one of them.                         I had Elijah when I was 17. Which now makes me 34 years of age with a 17-year-old kid. Which means I sometimes fool myself into thinking I’m still kind of hip in terms of pop culture & trends. But boy, do teenagers have a way of humbling us. Soon after Elijah entered middle school I realized I will always be ten steps behind in terms of what’s “in”. Though we largely share the same taste in music, fashion trends, and some aspects of pop culture, my son still views me as out of touch & jokingly refers to my friends and I as “old.” He cringes every time someone asks if I’m his sister. In his own subtle way, he has reinforced the fact that he values me more as a parent than as a friend. Because I’m not his peer, nor does he want me to be. I’m here to enforce rules, impart wisdom, and provide guidance. And every now and then, he’ll hint at how grateful he is for the relationship we have.

3) Be mindful of your screen time. What are you reaching for?                       Teenagers are really into their electronic devices. But I’m sure you already know that. I preach moderation, and have always put limits on screen time though it’s sometimes difficult to enforce, especially as they get older. I’ve filled their days with a multitude of alternative activities including outdoor excursions, trips to museums, libraries and other such places in an attempt to show them the world beyond screens. But still, when he’s not playing baseball or at work/school, that teen of mine has his smartphone in hand almost always. A while back, we were talking about what a clingy toddler he was, and I quipped that he now reaches for his phone more than he reaches for me. Minutes later, the profoundness of the statement hit me. What do my younger children see ME reaching for? Am I more likely to be holding a device, or their hand? I’m already self-conscious about this, as I work with families on a daily basis, and I constantly see parents with faces in screens while their children attempt to get their attention. But this conversation prompted me take a hard look at my own behaviors, and make a concerted effort to put the problematic ones in check. Have you reached for your child today?

4) YouTube can be a great teaching tool.                                                                          Speaking of screen time and technology, I’ve noticed that Elijah and his brothers use YouTube for all sorts of things besides watching pointless viral clips for entertainment. They’ve taught themselves everything from how to repair a bicycle, to updating smartphone software, to creating their own incense holders. After watching my son plunk away at the piano keys using a YouTube tutorial video, I got an idea. That week, my toddler suddenly developed an aversion to teeth brushing. After a few nights of literally holding her down while struggling to clean her teeth amidst thrashing and flailing limbs, I decided to take a more logical approach to her dental hygiene. The next evening, right before bedtime, I sat her in front of the computer and searched for images of  “toddler tooth decay.” Video after video popped up of children with teeth in varying states of decay. I explained to her why it’s important to brush her teeth, and showed her the cavities that form when we don’t. She was cured. That night, she willing opened her mouth for her nightly brush, without a peep. I’ve used this method for other things as well, including the time my two youngest began complaining about seat-belts and booster seats during a long road trip. After watching a video of crash-dummies being ejected from cars during an accident, they smartly made the decision to stay buckled, noting that it’s far more comfortable to be strapped in than to be injured in an accident. Kids are pretty logical. When we began to show them the reasons behind our rules, you’d be surprised at how well they cooperate.

5) In the end, your influence does matter (but there is no magic formula).                                        Just as we spend 18+ years watching over them, they are observing us as well. As Elijah enters adulthood, I can clearly see the way he is a product of his parents, step-parents, and extended family. All of our collective habits, hobbies, conversations and attitudes are downloaded into our children’s brains during their formative years, and they without a doubt influence the people they become.  Here’s the catch: it does not necessarily mean  they are doomed because of certain circumstances or redeemed due to others. I’ve been working in the field of education for 15 years, and during that time have worked closely with hundreds of families. I’ve met children who have come out of “broken homes” to become grounded, whole, and productive young adults. On the flip side, I’ve seen children from affluent two-parent, religious households slide into depression and addiction. And in between those extremes I’ve witnessed a wide array of stories play out which have lead me to believe that there is no magic formula to raising a child. But there is one thing that continually arises as I hear the individual accounts of children and their families: we internalize the realities of our childhood. We absorb the environments we are raised in. But we come out of them with our own unique understanding and strength. And no one, not even our parents, can predict what that will look like when all is said and done.                                                         

Rules of Engagement

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2014 has begun, and many of us are prompted to reflect on the personal changes we’d like to make in the coming year. I’m hearing talk of fitness & organizational goals among other things, but I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking on my communication habits and how I can improve all daily interactions, especially at home.

The past couple of months, I’ve noticed a rash of relationship advice posts going viral. Interestingly enough, all of the most popular ones are written by men, and shared mostly by women. (Personally, I think that speaks to the infamous male/female communication gap highlighted by John Gray in his well-known book Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus). I can just visualize it: Ladies across the nation, clicking on links while juggling nursing babies, sinks full of dishes, a pressing work deadline or perhaps, all of the above. They are met with the eloquent musings of a thoughtful male, and quietly nod in agreement, hoping that their partner may read the words and change a few of his ways. Very feminine mystique-ish, don’t you think? Anyway, if you’ve somehow missed out on these little online gems, I’ll do you a favor and offer a brief synopsis of each:

1) Marriage Advice I Wish I Would Have Had (AKA: Divorced man’s marriage advice):  Basically, a list of 20 things guys can do to be the epic husband that every woman desires. Loving, light-hearted (but not lackadaisical), selfless, attentive to detail, romantic…you know, the kind of spouse that Bruno Mars would be if he lives up to everything he croons about in his songs. Hindsight gives a clarity that cannot be achieved when we are caught up in the eye of the storm, and apparently Mr. Rodgers now has 20/20 vision. I am really curious as to what his ex-wife’s take is on his widely shared, “How to Be the Best Husband Ever” post. But that’s another story, I’m sure. Moving on…

2) Marriage Isn’t For You (AKA: Guy gets schooled by his dad in Relationship 101): In short, a man expresses doubts regarding his upcoming marriage, and is given some strong advice from his father—advice that quickly became internet viral once it was published on his blog. This guy (Seth Adam Smith), basically concluded that marriage is not for YOU, but for the person you marry. “You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy,” Smith recalls his dad telling him. “More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children.” Um. I’m sorry. But I kinda think that marriage should be for you, in addition to all those other wonderful folks mentioned. Is that selfish? Never mind, don’t answer that. Next…

3) Brad Pitt’s Love Letter to Angelina (AKA: Fake love letter that has been circulating around the internet since 2009, but has suddenly resurfaced with Brad Pitt’s name attached to it): This one is truly silly. Full of grammatical errors and lacking any real substance, it’s claim to fame seems to be the closing line which states, “And then I realized one thing: the woman is the reflection of her man. If you love her to the point of madness, she will become it.” Oh my goodness, people. How gullible can we get here? Obviously this letter was not written by Brad. It’s been discredited  by Snopes and several other sources, but even then…obviously. Okay. Well, apparently not that obvious, because it was shared millions of times by people who presumably thought it was legit. sigh. I guess that madness/love talk really moves us, huh?

In light of all these wildly popular advice posts, I’ve decided to take a little ride on the relationship advice blog bandwagon. Not because I’ve had a wonderful track record in these matters…I haven’t. Or perhaps I have, depending on who you ask. In any case, I was in a long-term relationship for 14+ years. I’m now in a fairly new relationship, with someone who happens to be an excellent communicator—in addition to being open-minded & well read —yet even he steers clear of these viral columns. Why? Because, in the end, the advice they contain is quite arbitrary.

Our relationships are so wildly varied that it’s impossible to create a list of do’s & dont’s that applies to each and every one of us. This goes for marriages, friendships, and parenting roles. Naturally, there are societal norms that are agreed upon, and for good reason. Infidelity, BAD. Physical & mental abuse, BAD. Open communication, GOOD. Honesty, GOOD.  But aside from all the obvious, there are infinite grey areas that cannot possibly be generalized and remedied by any one help list or another. All of us have behaviors we will tolerate, situations in which we will compromise, and things that will prompt us to back off completely. Sometimes relationship issues will resolve themselves beautifully, other times they will fall to pieces despite our efforts to hold them together. I believe in commitment, in nuclear families, and in giving it all that you’ve got. That said, I also know that life endures should these things fail. Families carry on. Love may whither, but can be reforged and recognized in new ways in the wake of sadness & hurt.

Here are some of the relationship observations that I’ve made over the course of past years:

1) Do not ever assume you know what is going on inside someone else’s relationship/marriage. Chances are, unless you live with them, you don’t. And even if you DO live with them, you probably still don’t get the scope of it. How many times has a couple announced they are splitting, and the reaction has been, “But they seemed so happy together!” People have a way of masking their issues, even from those they know best. And the inner workings of a couples private relationship-especially the negative aspects- are not something they are likely to parade around at the neighborhood block party. Sometimes issues are hashed out for years, away from public sight, until it finally comes to a head which is usually when outsiders begin to catch wind of it.

2) When a loved one is going through a break-up, set aside your judgement and surround them with support. If you can’t put aside your judgement and personal feelings toward the split, tactfully say so, then step aside. Pretending to do otherwise can cause harm, even if you don’t intend it to. People naturally take sides when a break-up happens. Heck, look at the whole Team Aniston/Team Jolie fiasco that surfaced during Brad Pitt’s overly publicized divorce. We can’t help but to silently judge others on their decisions, even if we may not have the slightest idea what was behind the break-up in the first place. Relationships don’t just fail. There are typically a plethora of issues behind the decision to split. Most of the time, each person comes out of it with their own version of events. And who’s to say whose truth holds more validity? This is not the time to play jury. If you are a true friend, this is the time to be a listener. To be a supporter. A tear-wiper and a hand-holder. Regardless of the circumstances, breakups are an extremely trying time…add the burden of being subjected to other’s opinions and gossip, and it can truly take on the feel of a public trial. And no one wants to be subjected to that.

3) Men, treat your women as you would hope your daughter’s husband will treat her someday. Women, be the wife that you would want your son to marry. This one is a no-brainer. What our children witness in their homes in regards to parental relationships, is what they will go on to seek and mimic once they begin relationships of their own. Growing up, I watched my parents argue diplomatically, negotiate fairly, and forgive liberally. Though their union eventually ended based on other issues, these were the key lessons I took away from my childhood. Sadly, at the time of my divorce, I barely recognized myself, as I was not holding true to the manner in which I was raised. I intentionally used words to hurt, and I held grudges. In addition, I also found myself repeatedly tolerating behaviors that I never thought I’d put up with. We had become different people than those we had set out to be, and together, it made a poor example for our children.

4) Hindsight is 20/20 (But only if you allow it to be). If you are honest with yourself, you can learn valuable lessons from your past relationships, as painful as they may be. For a while there, I seriously thought I had done everything right. Well, almost everything. Little by little, I begin to slip off my high horse as I contemplated my role in the desolation of the marriage. It literally took sinking to the lowest of lows, and coming back up again, to realize just how flawed I had been. In my current relationship, I have been able to gain clarity on the harmful habits and shortcomings that are characteristic of some of my interactions. Now that I can see them for what they are, rather than hiding behind my own justifications, I have begun making a conscious, dedicated effort to correct myself. It’d have been easier to just blame it all on my past relationship, but that kind of outlook provides no room for growth.

I hope that, for you, 2014 brings closure where needed, growth when welcome, and peace in all areas of your life. If you are like me, you begin your days  contemplating ways to bring about a more positive world, for you, your loved ones and your children. But at the end of the day, serenity is bred and taught at home. If we can not find refuge in our relationships…then where?

Carry on with your public resolutions, those which focus on your health, your career aspirations, and your financial goals…but I urge you to silently make a pact to yourself, and use the coming year to improve on the interpersonal bonds you’ve been meaning to strengthen. Hold yourself to a higher standard. Communicate, reach out, connect, forgive. I think we’ll be surprised at how much improvement we can make in our own little lives, without ever having to read through another self-help link again.

Living up to Ideals

The tick, tick, tick of the biological clock...

The tick, tick, tick of the biological clock…

So, this past week Gallup released a poll revealing that 58% of Americans said that the ideal age for childbearing is  25 or younger. Enter,  social media debates. For days now, I’ve watched my newsfeed explode in response to this survey, and I braced myself for the argument I’ve come to know well. The one that suggests that the older a woman is, the better parent she will be. “Do you even remember what you were DOING at age 25?!” screamed one irate blogger. “I’ll give you a hint…think round the clock parties, frat-boy chasing, and all around debauchery!”

Pardon me, but do you know what I was doing at 25? Giving birth to my 3rd child. By choice, I might add.  So while some of you made  habit of stumbling home from clubs at 2 am, some of us were in the routine of nursing our infants back to sleep during that un-godly hour. It’s all good…don’t judge my lifestyle and I won’t look critically upon yours. To each her own, right? And don’t you dare for a second feel sorry for me, or my children. I wouldn’t have it any other way. And I’m pretty sure— based on the way my children happily embrace their lives every day— that they wouldn’t change it either.

My first child was born when I was 17, and my last at age 30, and I can tell you this much…that feeling of protectiveness and profound dedication to each one of my children was the same as a teen as it was a grown woman, once they were placed in my arms all squalling and naked and helpless. And it’s here that I always feel as if I have to add a side note: the one that assures the reader that my children are socially well-adjusted, empathetic, scholarly young citizens in the making. And even if they weren’t, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that the age of their mother was a contributing factor to their hypothetical failure to thrive  (But that’s another topic in and of itself).

These kinds of polls serve no purpose, really, except to stir up a slew of debates that are constantly circulating in the world of motherhood. Debates on age, education, financial stability, marital status, and how these play into the public perception of the “ideal” parent.

It’s provocative to say that, biologically speaking, the ideal age to have a child is at 17 when a women’s  body is at the peak of its fertility. In terms of social parameters, no one would go out on a limb and declare that having a child at 17 is a good idea. But all that aside, it’s impossible to pinpoint a perfect age for one to embark on this amazing journey called parenthood. Perhaps you weren’t ready to set your life aside for another when you were 25. Consider for a minute that some of us were. And maybe think about that the next time you go spewing your ageist notions of who the ideal parent is, for the rest of us to hear.

 

 

Sticks & Stones: Why I Write

We tell ourselves stories in order to live…”
-Joan Didion

Whoever came up with the saying “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” must have been really out of touch. Sometimes words do hurt. Not only that, they can infuriate, resonate, and bring us to tears. There are a few people in my life who have the ability to literally stun me  with a single phrase, and believe me, if given a choice, I’d rather those select few come at me with a stick or rock than subject me to one of their signature tongue lashings. Thankfully, over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at brushing things off. But the other day, when my ex-husband reproached me with, “Get a life…” I have to admit, it irked me. Because I knew with near certainty what he was referring to.

These days, our interactions are mostly decent, save for the occasional spat over schedule changes or share of costs in regards to the kids. And even those tiffs have lessened in their severity as time heals the wounds of our split. I can’t even remember what brought on this particular comment, and 9 times out of 10 I’m able to tune out his verbal jabs without much thought.

But this one….this one was personal.

Without delving into too much detail over past arguments and the surrounding issues, I’ll just say that, during our separation, it came to light that he looked down on my time spent social networking, blogging, book clubbing, etc. From what I could decipher, he viewed these activities as  pseudo-networking, grabs for attention, and a general waste of time.

Which in some ways, I understand. Granted, I became social network savvy during the late night hours when I was home with sleeping children (one of whom was almost always nursing), and finishing my grad school thesis. But in any case, I used these networks as an outlet for my creative writing thirst that was pushed aside as I prioritized research papers, lesson plans, and the day-to-day demands of mothering multiple young children.

Often, I left social functions early so that I could put the kids to bed, leaving him to enjoy the remaining hours of the gathering without young children in tow. Other instances, it was during the phases where he’d attend  things like Friday night (or more accurately, early Saturday morning) poker tournaments during which I usually camped out on the couch with laptop, textbooks, and a snoring child or two. In any case, my thirst for writing was quenched in the solitude of such times, when my brain was burnt out on college course work, but stimulated enough to engage in other activities. I started with MySpace rants, graduated to Facebook notes & statuses, threw in the occasional forum discussion, and eventually started blogging.

Writing is not a new thing for me. In high school, I was known to skip class and steal away to a nearby park, where I’d post up against a shade tree and furiously write away in my spiral-bound notebook. The difference between my writing then and now is that now, I share.

Some people, say I over share. But the way I disperse my personal information (including  pictures and random thoughts) is representative of the way I share in general. Much like my parents & grandparents before me, I’m a giver. I don’t take much issue with sharing my time, information, assistance, or possessions.

When I consider the most profound memories of my life, nearly all of them came during a moment of story-telling, unexpected disclosure, or midnight ramblings that took on a life of their own in the glow of a melancholy moon. The single most powerful memory I have of my grandfather is the time he took me aside during a family wedding and told me of his rebellious youth, and the ways in which he finally centered himself again. At the time, I was a reckless, defiant little 14-year-old mess. But up until then, I had never heard the stories pain and suffering my grandfather endured growing up, and the way he expressed that in his adolescence. I was floored. And forever moved. And to this day I can still feel his hands grasping mine across the brightly colored polyester table cloth as he pleaded with me to consider what effect my actions were having on my family, and the effect they would have on my life in general.

Stories. Memories. Spoken & written word. They enrapture me. I’m intoxicated by the emotion that creeps into a parents voice as they describe the moment they first laid eyes on their newborn baby. I’m humbled by the courage it takes for the families of my students to disclose their personal history, or current conflicts in efforts to come to terms with a complicated home situation. It’s delighting when some random youngster at the park sits on the bench next to me & launches into an impromptu monolouge, stringing together random events and phrases in no particular sequence. (Given that this kind of thing happens to me pretty frequently, I’m convinced I must have TEACHER written all over me, even when I’m not in work mode).

We learn so much from each other through the passing on of stories…history, vulnerabilities, differences, and most importantly- similarities. Erin Morgenstern said it beautifully when she stated: “You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”

There are stories I have read, or heard, or perhaps told myself, that have given me the strength to push through stagnant periods in my life during which no other lifelines were present save for the hope breathed into me with tales of resilience and growth. Books whose well worn pages are nearly as familiar to me as the faces of my own children. And almost as treasured.

Yes, words can hurt. They also heal, inspire, and invigorate. And this is why I write. To relieve myself of day-to-day burdens. To laugh at my circumstances and take things less seriously. To reflect, and renew. To relate. To forgive.

Because each and every time I read a comical blog, listen to a touching recount of a random memory, or come across an emotionally raw article or broadcast, I’m inspired to pick up my pen and add a line or two to this collection of works that is life.