Finding My Passion and Finding It Again

It’s happened again.

Every semester, I await the first day of classes with nervous anticipation.  My last post chronicles the insecurities that incessantly nag away at my subconscious (and prevent me from precious hours of sleep).

But, without fail, when I enter the classroom, hear the introductions of students as they share a bit about themselves, watch them work together or individually on various assignments, answer their questions and begin to explore with them a subject for which I have a deep passion, I realize that this work is really my calling.

It’s a similar feeling to that which I used to feel in the middle school classroom, and that which I felt again in my work with new teachers as a literacy coach and inquiry group facilitator.  The closest thing that I can compare the feeling to is that of coming home after a long journey, except that really it is both the feeling of being home and the feeling of wanderlust combined.  Home in that I am just where I am supposed to be, and wanderlust in that I am renewed with energy to push further, climb higher, and explore ideas that I haven’t before (or at least that I haven’t with these groups of students before).

I am a teacher.

I get to make a difference every day.

And now, I get to teach teachers, who will have opportunities to make a difference each day with their students.

What an awesome privilege.  What an awesome passion….

…one that’s worth a couple sleepness nights every year.

Will They Like Me? Will They Learn From Me?

A new semester starts tomorrow.  It used to be that on of the eve of meeting students for the first time, each semester or school year, I couldn’t sleep, plagued by a singular thought, “Will they [my students] like me?”

So, let me begin by saying that I understand that this probably should not have been my primary concern ever.  Like parenting, teaching is hard work where invariably in order to help students grow the most, they won’t always like you.  I’ve always understood that my job is to be a guide and teacher and in the course of that, sometimes, you make tough decisions that students don’t agree with.  Plus, I worked with middle school students for too many years to think that them liking me was all about me.  People, in general, and adolescents, specifically, sometimes have issues and they sometimes just don’t like you, no matter who you are or what you do.

Still, knowing something intellectually isn’t the same as worrying about something emotionally, and I found myself regularly concerned about my likability among the students I worked with.  This concern showed clearly in my teaching and translated into a focus on the relational aspects of my practice.  Establishing strong relationships with my students became a hallmark of my teaching career. Many of these relationships have continued for years, some over a decade, through the wonders of modern technology.  My students have become friends, family (my daughters, who are legally adopted, were former students at my school), and colleagues and I truly treasure these relationships.

More recently a new form of the question has begun to keep me awake on the eve of a new semester, “Will they learn from me?” I don’t think that this question is actually a completely separate question from its prior iteration.  After all, students must, at least, respect a person in order to learn from them.  But, learning has an added layer of complexity when compared with likability.  Students have to feel that their teachers have something of genuine importance or relevance to contribute to their learning or their lives, in order to learn.  My students have to take the information presented to them, think about it, process it, transform it, and apply it to truly learn it.  That’s a pretty tall order.  Luckily, I’m really passionate about content area literacy so I feel like what I have to contribute is both valid and valuable, but I still find myself always wondering if my students will think so.

What’s been helpful is my own continued learning.  The other day, my yoga teacher shared this teaching from the Tao Te Ching:

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

Lao Tzu (c.604 – 531 B.C.)

Ever since then, I’ve been working on keeping present to this idea of doing my work then stepping back.  Part of my work will always be in the being of someone who students can learn from; part of it will be in conveying the content that I teach; and part of it will be in facilitating students learning from one another.   But another part of it will be in continuing to make teaching less about me and more about learning, stepping back and letting students move forward, take charge and apply their learnings to new situations around them.

And that gives me some measure of serenity as I enter into this new semester.

Writing is Hard…

Among other things, I teach content area literacy courses.  (For those of you reading this who might not be familiar with what content area literacy is, it’s VERY basically reading and writing in subject specific contexts–I’ll be posting more about the course itself once the semester starts, but that’s the simple definition for now since that’s really not the topic of this particular post) Before I came to the university, I spent many years teaching English and was the co-director of the Bay Area Writing Project, the founding site of the National Writing Project.  I teach writing.  I believe in writing.  And in many circumstances, I love writing.

But, to be honest, sometimes writing is hard.

I didn’t actually always think writing was hard.  When I was little, I used to compete regularly in creative writing contests and even write for fun on the weekends.  I used to write historical fiction in middle school because I thought it would be cool (I don’t even think I asked for extra credit!) and even academic papers through high school weren’t really ever problematic.  College and graduate school became trickier, but still, I prided myself in strong academic and personal writing skills. In fact, even these days, sometimes I don’t think writing is hard.  I mean, I am writing this blog of my own free will and I certainly write enough facebook status updates to fill several pages a week.

But, starting with my dissertation, writing became a lot harder, a lot more frequently.

I’ve thought a lot about this and I think that a large part of why writing suddenly became harder is because at that point, writing became not only about proving myself and my skills, but also about proving that I had something valid to say.  I wasn’t writing a story for my own entertainment.  I was no longer given a topic and asked to argue for particular ideas.  I was asked to generate new, innovative (or at least substantive) knowledge.  Writing was not just for the approval of a semi-omnipotent teacher or professor, but was submitted for acceptance to a larger body of my “peers” in the research community.  Suddenly, this type of writing became a sort of representation of who I am as an academic, as a researcher, and (in a weird, problematic and possibly pathological way) as a person.

But that wasn’t the only problem with this new type of writing:  I suddenly found myself writing pieces that were bigger than me.

Let me explain.  As an academic, my worst nightmare was having nothing to say, but what I began to discover as I wrote was that, at times, I almost have too much to say and it all comes out as a jumbled disorganized mess that I don’t even want to look at, and that I certainly don’t want to represent me.  So, when I get a “revise and resubmit” on something that upon close rereading, I wish I had never submitted in the first place, my first instinct is to completely scrap it and start all over.  Depending on the day, “start all over” means to rewrite the entire paper or to just scrap the entire study for being less methodologically rigorous than it should have been.

These two things make writing these days (at least writing for publication) hard.

As part of my job, it’s also not optional.

So, here I am, writing about writing and how hard it is, as a form of procrastination because what I really need to do is go back to some of the most basic pre-writing strategies I know: brainstorming; planning; outlining (or doing some kind of organizing); gathering background information; sticking to the topic (even if it’s a self-generated topic); revising; editing.  I need to sit down and patiently organize myself and my thoughts to write some pieces that I’m proud of…or at least okay with. And I need to remind myself that I’m not just writing as part of my job, I am writing because I hope that someday what I write will make a difference for teachers and students.

I’m hoping to write and submit at least 2 articles this semester, but in order to that, I’ll have to remind myself that while writing is hard, the opportunity to be in a profession where writing just might make a difference is a privilege. And, like many other things in my life, if I want the results that I hope for, I need to be patient with myself, get present to my purpose and then get down to business.

I’ll keep you updated.

Balancing the Personal and Professional: Ongoing Lessons in Doubt, Humility, and Self-Acceptance

Monday morning, 6am:  My 6-year old is asleep.  Even before I hear his plaintive cries against going back to “boring school,” I began to feel that nervous tension in the pit of my stomach that invariably signals internal conflict and insecurity.  I try some deep breaths to clear my mind, which works for a few moments before thoughts of each agenda item for the day comes through my head: get up, get ready, get Nate (my son) breakfast; pack his lunch; take him to school; come home and renew my IRB certification so I can finally submit an IRB proposal for research (that I really should have done last semester); wait for my daughter, Asha (visiting from the Bay Area) to wake up then take her to the airport for her flight home; preview and sort articles for a lit review; blog; revise Spring syllabus; pick up Nate from school; go to the dentist (for dental work that I’ve put off for 2 years!); hand Nate off to my husband who will drop him off at Chinese school while I’m at the dentist; pick Nate up from Chinese school; return home; collapse in a puddle of exhaustion. (Oh, and remember to eat and breathe somewhere in between all those other things…)

That’s pretty much how the day went yesterday, except that, I didn’t have a lot of time or brain space left to blog. Looking over it, the schedule seems pretty normal for me, which I’m really working on not judging.

Most people tell me that I’m too busy.  Perhaps they have a point. I’ve spent most of my life doubting the way that I’ve structured my days, feeling that, in the end, I don’t have enough time for either my family or my professional life, both of which are extremely important for me (and, until very recently, leaving next to no time for my own self-care which I’m coming to realize really isn’t a sustainable model for life).  This doubt has led me to question my choices to parent my children in the way that I do; it’s led me to wonder why I felt that I needed to get a PhD and become a professor, a move that both financially and professionally has led to greater instability for my family and myself; and it’s led me to hypothesize about how life might be so much simpler if both mother and scholar were not such an important part of who I am.

Humbling.  Indeed, these thoughts are.  I can’t imagine not being a mother.  And I also can’t imagine not continuing on a lifelong path of learning and teaching through academia.  Both have been my dreams since I was a child.  And yet, having it all doesn’t look so glamorous on a day to day basis.  I’ve had to come to accept that I’m not going to get everything done every day (which, for me, has been quite the journey in itself).  My children won’t always think I’m the best mom and, indeed, some days I really won’t be.  I will have to re-earn the professional respect that I had spent many years building as a teacher, and that respect will only be garnered through a lot of hard work and long hours, that will have to be wedged between being a mom-shuttle service or will have to be bought through daycare.

All of this is something that I’ve worked hard to find peace about.  I study identity, and at the core of mine, I know that mother, teacher, and scholar occupy central places.  I’m hoping that in 2013, friend and human being might actually work their way in a bit as well.  But, for now, it’s on to revise my course assignments for the Spring before picking up the little guy from school…and life continues on…