On Humanity and Humility

The past 36 hours have been a humbling and humanizing journey.  I left my home at 5:15 am yesterday morning for LAX to take off for the National Association for Multicultural Education 2012 Conference in Philadelphia where I was to co-present today on the work that my school community did over the loss of a dear student last year on campus.

Crafting the presentation itself was a deeply emotional labor of love, for several reasons.  First, losing Paul, a seemingly healthy 8th grade football player and all around great kid, was a painfully traumatizing event for students and for myself.  I have always had a very close relationship with my students and watching their pain while dealing with my own was difficult and a very personal process.  This brings me to the second “labor of love” point, which is that I connected so deeply with Paul’s death because of the sudden death of my own mother when I was 16 years old.  The death of a 14-year boy and a 56-year old woman might not seem so obviously connected, but the pain of dealing with seeing someone in the prime of their lives, with hopes and dreams yet fulfilled, one day and then saying good-bye forever, completely without warning the next is the same no matter what age you are or they are.  And if you experience this type of loss more than once in life, every subsequent loss brings you back to the pain and inexplicability of the situation.

But, my presentation wasn’t about loss, it was about life and moving from tragedy to honor.  Being a middle school teacher for 10 years was, for me, the biggest honor (next to motherhood) that I’ve ever experienced in countless ways, one of them being the way that several staff members and students came together to honor Paul after his death, even in the face of administration and district pressures to “put the incident behind us” and move forward.  We did move forward, but we did so through the grief, through several ceremonies, celebrations and even through curriculum that honored the reality of loss and of the people we missed in our lives.  I wanted to share this testimony of strength and character that my students showed with others who might benefit.

So, I arrive at the airport, ready for an 8-hour day of travel.  I was not ready to receive an e-mail from the women with whom I was sharing my session (who were also supplying an LCD projector and laptop for our intersecting presentations) that they could not attend the conference because of last minute illnesses.  I’ve learned from being the mother of a daughter with a serious illness that you can’t really get mad when people are ill.  I mean, you can (and I have before), but really, people can’t help that they’re sick.  What could I do?  I sent a gracious e-mail thanking them for letting me know and resolved that I would figure out the problem upon arrival in Philadelphia.

When I woke up this morning, I decided that I would just go old school on the presentation.  Sure, it had visuals, and more importantly an embedded video, but I had to make the best with what I had.  I headed to the conference.

I chose for my first session a film screening and diversity dialogue led by Lee Mun Wah on his upcoming film, If These Halls Could Talk, a documentary about the discussions between eleven diverse college students over 8 days. I expected to see an interesting (and tidy) dialogue about emergent cultural understandings that developed over the time students were together.  What I actually saw touched me deeply.  I saw men and women engaging in honest and open dialogue with people of other races and the opposite gender.  I saw people have the courage to confront one another and to state their real feelings about race-based (and to some extent, gender-based) oppression, guilt, shame and pain. I saw people give voice to what I wish I could say, but often feel so paralyzed and so unable to convey.

Tears began to fall, fast and furious.

I cried because I saw in the film the work that is my passion—dialogue between people who don’t talk in “real life”, breaking down barriers, and being real with one another.  I cried because I saw in the film the world that my own children and my students live in today. I cried because I felt the pain of silence, the pain of fear, and the pain of societal judgments and assumptions.

Then Lee Mun Wah said, “The cure for the pain is in the pain.”

It was then that I realized that I was crying because I felt my humanity.  My tears were not just professional and related to the work I do with students; my tears were personal, the tears of a child, a woman, a mother that I had suppressed or apologized away for many years because I didn’t feel that what I had to contribute was good enough, that it mattered or that even if it was or did, that I would be heard.

It turns out that there was a Mac store down the street and an LCD projector in my room.  After two sprints back and forth between the conference and the store (I got the wrong cable at first), I got my presentation set up and waited…and waited…and waited.  Finally, Margaret, a woman whom I had met earlier that morning at registration came and helped me recruit another person.  By the end of the session, I had a grand total of 3 people.  3,000 miles, $30 (for the cable) and 3 people.  Humbling.

But, not really.  What was really humbling was seeing that I had lost touch with my passion and my life’s work, my humanity and my heart.  For reigniting that commitment, this conference has been priceless.  I hope that those of you reading this will keep in dialogue with me about social justice (in and outside of education), ask me about why its so important, and push me towards honoring the real work of my heart.  I can’t get there without community reminding me of who I am and reminding me of the importance of breaking this type of silence.

Monday Morning

It’s Monday morning.

For many people, Monday morning generally comes with connotations of dread at the return to the school or work week, but, as a child, I looked forward to Monday mornings.  I loved school and wanted to see my friends (in a time before social networking kept me connected to friends all the time). I felt competent, accepted and happy at school.  Then, I became a teacher, and though there were those occasional Monday mornings of doom, generally, I was excited to see my students and colleagues, get back into my routine and introduce new concepts.  Again, feelings of competence, acceptance and happiness abounded.

But today, I feel like I’ve entered “the new normal” — new to me but normal to everyone else — where this Monday morning, I’m just not feeling it.  Perhaps it’s because this Monday morning, rather than easing into the week with Office Hours (my normal routine), I’m off in a bit to 2 observations before heading to campus.  You’d think that being the one doing the observations the pressure would be off, but actually it’s been one of the most stressful situations I’ve been in in a long time.

Part of my job this semester (as I’ve mentioned before) is supervising student teachers.  In this role, I work as the liaison between the university, cooperating teachers and student teachers with a focus on mentoring my student teachers and helping them to develop in their emergent practice.  During my first 6 weeks supervising, everything was going smoothly.  I have a wonderful group of student teachers with a lot of potential as beginning teachers.  I also had a great group of cooperating teachers with whom it was easy to work.  I have been co-facilitating my student teaching seminars with a colleague with whom I have thoroughly enjoyed working.  It was all great.

And then came the second placement.  Same student teachers and facilitation set up, but a new set of cooperating teachers.  In my second group of cooperating teachers, while all of them are strong in their pedagogy, there have been definite differences between my mentoring styles and theirs. These differences and the ways that they’ve been expressed to me have left me feeling as if I have something to prove professionally, for the first time in a long time.  They make me question my professional identity and my extensive work mentoring teachers.  And, they just plain make me uncomfortable.

Honestly, I think this comes from always being such a “good girl” and a people pleaser.  I always want to get it right and have molded my identity constantly to please others.  But now I’m in a position where one size doesn’t fit all (did it ever, I wonder?) and where there is no prescribed “right.”  Right for me has to be based on authenticity, and while I sometimes wonder what is authentic for me, given my people pleasing nature, I think that deep inside I know.  And, I have follow my gut, even if it means that I am uncomfortable because comfort doesn’t lead to change and it doesn’t honor my commitments in life.

It’s Monday morning.  And it’s time to start a new week.

The Importance of Rest Stops

November has been one crazy month and there’s still a week to go.

I’m a teacher educator in California and I teach a curriculum design course as well as supervising student teachers this semester.  This means that a lot of my students have been under pressure this month to submit designing instruction, assessment and culminating teaching experience tasks for their preliminary credentials.  Many of them work or are taking a full class load so this extra stress for them is a lot on their plates.  Add to that the fact that I have a tendency to absorb the stress around me and you get a pretty stressful month.

Not that it’s been a cakewalk for me this month either.  I’ve been traveling for conferences.  I had the privilege of attending the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention in Las Vegas last weekend (indeed that’s what inspired this box) and this week, I’m heading to the National Association for Multicultural Education Conference in Philadelphia to present on a subject close to my heart. Plus, I signed up via twitter to be a facilitator with this really exciting online collaborative project called “Beyond Facebook 12” which groups high school students together to design blogs on topics of their choice.  I love professional collaboration and am so grateful for all these opportunities, but traveling can be really exhausting and meeting new people means being “on” all the time. And it means cramming a week’s worth of observations and teaching into 2 days.

And then, there’s my life outside of teaching. November is always a busy month as it is the month of my twin daughters’ birthday and Thanksgiving, which for our family is an incredibly important holiday since 8 years ago, on Thanksgiving was the first time our daughters (who are adopted) came over to our house for dinner.  With the twins’ birthday and Thanksgiving, there’s extra family time (and travel for them, as they both live on the other end of the state) which means less time for work in a month when most of my final assessments are due.

So, it’s been a crazy month and that’s why I want to advocate for the importance of breaks.  Given my workaholic nature, I am not prone to breaks.  In fact, I only learned the meaning of this word a couple of years ago after an extended hospitalization.  And even after being told repeatedly that I needed to take them (by pretty much EVERYONE), I still struggle with self-care when there is a pile of grading to do; a lecture or presentation to prepare; or a grant application due in a few weeks.

But, this weekend, I’ve been giving myself a break (at least as much of a break as I can give myself, which still means writing two letters of recommendations, checking and responding to work e-mail and writing this blog).  And, if this professional time is an extended journey, these breaks are the very necessary rest stops–a time to refuel and recharge, before the next stretch of the road.

See you on the other side.

What I’m Most Grateful For

Today is Thanksgiving day in the US, a time for reflection on what we are most grateful for, and since this is a professional blog, I thought I’d take a few moments to express gratitude in relation to my professional journey thus far.

First and foremost, I am thankful to be able to be on this journey at all.  With the advent of many alternative pathways to credentialing and online programs, it’s not an easy time for traditional schools of education in general, and it’s an even harder time for the California public school/ university system, so the privilege of working where I work, in the position that I’m in, is one for which I am incredibly grateful.

I’m also thankful to have a family that supports me and tries as best they can to understand the fact that I seem to ALWAYS be working on something, often at all hours of the night (even on Thanksgiving).  My family helps me to not completely lose myself to work and reminds me that my self worth is not constituted by the number of publications I secure in an academic year.

In addition to my family, I’m surrounded by fantastic colleagues, students and professional connections.  I love the people with whom I work.  My colleagues are wonderful mentors and brilliant scholars, but more importantly, they are compassionate and thoughtful human beings who are committed to improving public education.  I’ve been privileged to establish and maintain relationships with students (both as a professor and in my former life as a public school teacher), all of whom have such great potential to make a difference in the world.  And, finally, I’ve been able to forge new connections and maintain strong collaboration with other professionals, both through face-to-face meetings and interactions and through online collaborative spheres.

There’s so much more to be thankful for, but I don’t want the loud music and announcer voiceover to signal me offstage like a bad awards show acceptance speech, so I’ll leave those acknowledgments for another post.

Just Keep Swimming

I’m just going to apologize in advance if this post reflects my current inability to clearly articulate anything.  I have assessed about 20 lesson plans today and I’m exhausted.  Still, this whole blogging thing is addictive and I have a lot on my mind so it’s time to attempt to write, articulate or not.

What I wanted to write about last night originally was identity.  I’m really interested in professional identity as an area of research and it’s fitting because I’m in such a time of transition in terms of my own professional identity.  One of the big struggles I’ve had in this transition is dealing with issues of professionalism.

First off, I want to say that I’ve never fit a particularly traditional model of professionalism.  As a teacher, I dressed, well, like a teacher, in jeans and sweaters mainly.  I allowed my students to friend me on facebook.  I even adopted (not in the metaphorical sense, in the legal sense) 2 of my former middle school club advisees who needed a home.  While I taught the importance of standard academic discourse, my classroom was often a place of regular code-switching and I developed fluency and comfort in speaking like an urban teenager (minus the rampant racially problematic language).  While not traditional, my professionalism was highly respected and I rarely felt unsure of who I was in the classroom even as others may have questioned what I did.

But, as an academic, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of constantly questioning myself and my professionalism.  Is it okay to wear (nice) jeans to campus when I’m not teaching, but may be holding office hours?  Do I have students refer to me by my first name or as Dr. Hsieh? What tone do I adopt when giving lectures? Do I have what it takes to make it in academia? Even more irritating than the questions themselves is the fact that I’m asking these questions of myself.  They reflect insecurities that are largely foreign to me, given that I’ve constituted a large part of my identity in the professional sphere where people have to this point always respected my work and my way of being, even if it hasn’t always been traditional.

A few weeks ago, in a moment of profound reflection after being rejected from AERA, I wrote these words on facebook, “I am understanding that when you go from being a big fish in a comfortable sized pond to a tiny fish in much deeper waters, you have to learn how to navigate new obstacles. But, that doesn’t mean that you’re a new fish. You have to embrace your identity as exactly the fish that you are and grow to be your own type of beautiful fish in the deep waters of your new home.”

And I was right, so to these words, I will add the profound words of Ellen DeGeneres as Dory the fish in Finding Nemo, “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…”

My name is _______ and I’m a workaholic

“I have some crazy issues with overcommitment.”

I posted this on facebook tonight to which a friend of mine who is also a professor replied with this pithy comment, “Tell me about it sister! I do the same thing. All the time. I can’t say no. When will we learn? How many mental breakdowns will it take? I’ve already had 3 in the past few years…so, my answer is n>3.”

And she’s right.  I’ve certainly had more than 3 mental breakdowns due to overcommitment.  In fact, even my students (who have only been with me 12 weeks) know about my compulsion to overwork.  Case in point, one of my students frantically e-mailed because the dropbox for my assignment closed 15 minutes early (it was 9:59 pm when he e-mailed).  I was, of course, online and promptly logged in, changed my deadline to compensate for my 15 minute “human error” and responded back to him.  He then replied, “Thank you for you quick response, I wish you and your family happy holidays.  I would tell you not to work so hard but I know you will anyway =).” Wow, it’s that obvious, huh?

Academia could probably be renamed “Overachieving Workaholics Anonymous.” And, since this is the case, I’ve clearly been destined to be an academic since childhood.  Let’s examine the evidence, shall we? In 6th grade, I was assigned to read a second book because I finished a first novel before all my other classmates.  I not only read the book, but then proceeded to write a summary of the book set to the rhythm and melody of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” In 10th grade, I had 100% going into my high school honors chemistry final so I asked my teacher, who didn’t give A+ grades if he would give me one if I got every question on the final correct.  I did and he did. Then, I became a teacher, which for someone with a tendency towards being an overachieving workaholic is pretty much like crack for an addict.  Lesson planning, curriculum design, assessment, professional development, mentoring, leadership roles, developing relationships with students–you name it, I did it. And I still do, as an academic, except now there’s the added aspect of original research as well.  And I’m competing with a bunch of other overachieving workaholics.  Result: work harder or soon I’ll just be a workaholic without tenure.

But when I stop and take a moment to reflect, I realize that this isn’t really who I want to be in my life.  Entering teaching and academia really shouldn’t be about the seemingly endless piles of assessments and to-do lists that grow by the hour.  It should be about students, my students and their students and about growing critical thinkers rather than overachieving workaholics.  And again I’m reminded to do the assignment myself, to be the change I wish to see in the world, to remember what my real calling is.

Originally, I meant this blog post to talk about identity (namely in reference to how students refer to me, hence the title) as well as talking about my workaholic nature, but now I see that writing has taken me down a different path of exploring my identity and the whole name thing will be left for another day.  I’m okay with that.  It is a journey after all.

And admitting you have a problem is, I’m told, the first step.


First Year Faculty Transitions

I’ve always believed that if you want students to do something and do it well, you, as a teacher, have to do the assignment yourself.  And one of the things I have been advocating that my students (who are prospective teachers) do is to make sure that they take time out to reflect: now in their preservice courses, soon, as they enter their student teaching placements, and later, through their first years of teaching.  It’s important to develop as a reflective practitioner, I tell them, citing authors such as Donald Schon and Max Van Manen.  And I truly believe that reflection, individually and collaboratively is the key to improving practice.  But then I come home, look in the mirror (or honestly, given that I spend so much time at work, I’m probably more likely to be looking in the mirror down the hall from my office) and I wonder if I’m being slightly disingenuous since I have no first year teaching journal to look back upon.

True, I have a master’s thesis and a BTSA portfolio that really encapsulate a lot of the reflection that took place during my first year of teaching practice.  And, I have lesson plans and plan books from that first year.  But there are times when I look back and wish that I had a collective record of my thinking day to day during that first year.  I remember that I cried every day my first 3 months in the classroom, but for the life of me, I can’t remember what could have been that bad.  This is probably because 11 years later, as a seasoned veteran of the urban public middle school, it takes a lot of drama and angst to get me worked up.  Don’t get me wrong, I never lost the passion, the sensitivity towards students and the drive for perfection that were most likely at the heart of those early tears, but I have harnessed my passion, developed a bit of a thicker skin, and let up on myself a tiny bit.  The question that is left without those reflective journals is, “How?”

And, I really wish I knew how right about now.  I’m in the crux of a new transition, from the classroom to academia.  My students are prospective teachers and I’m a level removed from the secondary classroom which still holds a deep place in my heart.  It’s a transition that is fueled by passion, commitment and a bit of perfectionism, but it’s an incredibly hard one.  I’ve left the comfort of curriculum I know, being at the top of my game, and being deeply loved by my students.  I’ve left the security of the place and profession I’ve called home for all of my adult life  to face uncertainty, rejection (sometimes harsh rejections from peers!) and tons of imperfection all over the place.

But, I’ve also left for opportunities: opportunities to make a difference with future generations of teachers and students, opportunities for further reflection and research, opportunities to grow professionally and personally in new and exciting ways.  I have the gift of great colleagues and fantastic students who all have been teaching me a lot in my first semester.  And, now, I have another opportunity to have a first year journal and share my transitions, for myself, my community and my students.

So, the journey begins…