The Life-Giving Necessity of Humanizing Spaces

I have been in a deep funk the last few days…weeks…months, my friends.

Today, I finally figured out (again) what’s been going on.

I have been doing too much.

If you know me, in real life, or via this blog, you’ll know that this is no great revelation and nothing new.

I do too much.

It’s a problem.

It stems from me always trying to prove my worth, and thereby undervaluing my time, overcommitting and refusing to give less than 150% to EVERY SINGLE THING.

It’s not sustainable nor realistic, and it makes me feel terrible, like I’m failing at everything because I’m not present to anything, or anyone.

Thank God for community.

I’m fortunate to have had several text, in-person, and social media conversations over this persistently funky time with people who love me deeply.  It took all of them (and a trip to Target) for me to realize what was happening.

I am not a machine.

The work that I do, the work that I’m deeply committed to, is humanizing work.  It requires me to be fully present to my humanity and the humanity of others.

I can’t do all the things and truly do this work.

I mean, clearly, I can do all the things.  I can get them done, and do them well.

But, I won’t ever thrive as long as I refuse to set boundaries, as long as I fail to value my own worth and time, as long as I am not intentional.

And, what are all the things, if there is no meaning to the work?

If I lose the humanity in the work, if my choices dehumanize me and the work I am doing, what am I actually doing?

At the core, it leaves me feeling like a complete failure, when to the external world, I may be getting the most accomplished.

There can’t be justice, peace, and sustainability, if there is not presence and intentionality.

I can’t create humanizing spaces if I continue to make dehumanizing choices in my own life.

It is the reckoning.


I know this is my demon, that sense that I am only possibly good enough through the things that I get done. And all the things I am doing are good things. But, there is such thing as too much of a good thing.  And not all the good things are for me in this time.

As I’m writing, my son is watching his 3rd Star Wars trilogy movie in a row on his first day of summer break. Last night, as I finished up some work at 10pm, my husband was playing a networked video game with his brother. My daughter is a bounty of joy and energy and wonders why I can’t spend every moment playing a pretend game, reading a book, or watching a video with her.

They get it.

I have a lot to learn.

As a dear friend said to me this week, “We are all unfinished.”

So, I will begin learning.  I will try again. I will breathe.  I will prioritize time with those that feed my spirit.

I will likely fail.

And it will take me awhile to recognize my humanity, but it’s going to be okay.

I just need to begin fighting for my own humanity and humanization as if the world’s also depended on it, because in some ways, through our webs of mutuality, it does.

You’ll Never Walk Alone

Dear graduating 2019 MA Cohort in the Linked Learning Curriculum & Instruction program (and friends),

This morning as I woke up, I saw your many posts from commencement last night.  I saw the joy of celebrating this momentous occasion with students, colleagues, friends and family.  I saw the light of the culmination of a program that has had its ups and downs for you all. And in all of that, I saw hope, my hope and yours, reflected in your radiance.

I also woke up with the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (see video above) playing into my head, and it made me think of you.  (Note: While this song is most recently famous for being the team song for the Liverpool Football Club, I know it from the musical Carousel and more specifically from my high school choir, and it’s stuck with me all these years.  I really loved the version that I posted above, which took me a minute to find on YouTube)

So, with all of this, in my head and my heart, this is my commencement speech to you, which is more like an open letter to you, my last lecture, I suppose, about the times you will feel alone, but that you will walk on knowing that truly you are never alone.

Teaching can so often feel lonely and isolating.  When we are in our classrooms and our lessons aren’t going well, for whatever reason.  When we are looking at our grade rosters, knowing that each student has such amazing potential for success and feeling their greatness in our hearts, then seeing that those numbers and letters don’t reflect that greatness, especially for students from historically marginalized groups.  When we are trying to advocate for what’s right for students, colleagues & communities and coming up against institutional barriers, so many institutional barriers, at so many levels.  When we are fighting for a living wage after coming home exhausted each night.  When we have to say no to myriad social invitations (because, hey, we’re still cool and have friends) because we need to prep or grade or do something extra that prompts our non-educator friends and families to say, “Why are you working so hard? Why don’t you just show them a movie?” or “Don’t you already have a worksheet for that?” or “Aren’t you done at 3pm?”  When you are sitting in a classroom, trying to grow yourself, and being saddened, sickened, frustrated by how much you know and don’t know about the educational system and how much there seems left to do. When we, on the regular, stare inequalities and inequity in the face and don’t know what to do except for cry, then regroup and come back to do better.

I know all of those feelings.  I’ve felt them all in the last month, maybe even the last week.  I want to acknowledge that these are the realities of being an educator that cares deeply for students, that believes in their greatness, and that teaches in a  school system that is so far from ideal that the injustice wears you down sometimes, especially when you know that even with many individuals at many levels trying their best, the systemic nature of inequality is persistent.

But, here’s where the lyrics to the song come in.

When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high and don’t be afraid of the dark 

(Well, don’t be so afraid that it scares you into inaction)

At the end of the storm is a golden sky and the sweet silver song of a lark

(There are always moments of golden sky and sweet silver songs — they come in the small moments of seeing student growth and improvement, your own growth and improvement, those incremental changes in your classroom & schools.  They also come in the big moments of commencement, of collective action that results in better teaching and learning conditions for students, in structural change that I know can come through our collective advocacy)

Walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain,

Though your dreams be tossed and blown 

Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart,

And you’ll never walk alone.

You’ll never walk alone. 

My dear forever students, colleagues and friends, walk on with hope in your hearts.  Hold it, keep it and cherish it, like I hold on to you, your growth, your commitments, your collective action, like I cherish each and every one of you.  I will never walk alone because you all walk with me.  You will never walk alone because you walk with one another.  You carry me.  You carry your students, in your heart.  Teaching is about not walking alone.  It is about being a collective; it is about working together to bring about structural change, because we cannot do it alone.

Stay with one another when your dreams are being tossed and blown, when you see the end of the storm.  Celebrate your victories, regroup after your defeats.

I love you.  I believe in you.  I know that we will continue to build coalition and to work towards change.  I am so proud of all you’ve accomplished in this program, but I know that it is truly a commencement, the end of a program, but the beginning of a lifetime of continued growth and improvement.

Thank you for letting me walk alongside you in this journey.

With all my heart,

Dr. Hsieh


There is so much to say, so much I haven’t written, and I don’t know where to start, so I will start by writing.

When I was in graduate school, a mentor once taught me about the concept of “brain dumping” and “writing to clarity.” It is this process where you have so many things in your brain but don’t know how to organize them so you just start writing, and then your organize and cut and cull later.  But you get it all out, when you are holding so much in.

That is not the way I usually blog.

I usually have one clear thing. I start with the title and the picture.  Then I write.  Sometimes I stray from my topic, but generally, I write, in an organized, linear fashion, so that it’s easy to follow. I write for my readers as much as for myself, this imagined audience, since who knows who reads one’s blog? Especially now, when it is such a busy time.

But today is not like usual.

It is the end of a semester that has not been the usual.

I didn’t really teach a class this semester.

I supervised student teachers and a doctoral dissertation. I did a lot of support for masters action research projects.  I helped to facilitate a faculty inquiry group.  I did too much service and traveling.  I started a lot of papers that I’m working on finishing now.  I started my journey to reclaim my heritage language, Mandarin.  I ran two half marathons (#11 & 12). I coordinated a 4-year birthday party. I survived the transition to middle school & teenage years.

I did things, but not the usual things.

I’ll teach again starting next week and a class in the fall. I am still supervising. I am writing. I am running (slowly). I am mothering. I am singing. I am planning to take my second Mandarin class in the fall. I am doing the work that I love and living a life I love. I am returning to the routine.

But I have not been reflecting as much as I’d like.

This semester, there have been things, but not the usual things.

I am currently confronted by my silence, by my deference, by the ease of invisibility, of the discomfort of confrontation.

I am haunted by the demons of “not good enough” of “you will never belong” of “they only like you because you do all the things” — these demons that drive my overwork even when I am exhausted and barely holding on; these demons that tell me that the A in my Mandarin class means nothing since there was never a perfect score, since I still can’t understand the e-mails from my son’s school, since I still can’t have a real conversation in Mandarin; these demons that keep me silent when people push back, even though I know it means that I will be doing more work, work that I choose by not choosing NOT to do it and knowing it has to get done, by choosing not to speak up, by swallowing the words that won’t hurt them but are killing me; these demons that keep me silent because I am afraid of their judgment, afraid to lose another person I love, afraid that someday they will all see through all the things and when they do, they will see that I am just a very lonely middle-aged woman who has made many choices that were probably ill-advised. They will see that I struggle even though I smile.  They will see that the demons were right and that there is no more fight in me.

These demons have become my friends.  They have helped me to survive.  They are a part of my culture and my being and so, even though I know they are lying, and I am trying to fight them, I do not like confronting them either.

Today, I should be happy.  And, in many ways, I am happy.  It is a day of celebration, of commencement, of culmination.

But commencement means the end of one thing and the beginning of a new thing.

Endings and beginnings are hard for me, even when they are celebratory, even when they are planned.

I have not written to clarity.  I do not know what to cut.  I do not know where to end, but it seems that I don’t really have more to say. This is a messy blog, one that perhaps is not good enough, one that does not belong, one that people may not read or like because there is no uplifting ending, but it is honest.  It is where I am at in this moment, and where I need to be so that I can drive to campus, to be with my people, to celebrate them, to be present, to end and begin again.

When the Teacher Becomes a Student

It’s almost the end of my first semester of Chinese classes.  I started this semester 3.5 months ago with a few phrases of spoken Mandarin (mixed with some Taiwanese words that I didn’t realize weren’t Mandarin) and a lot of fear.  I’m ending having mastered at least 100 characters and having a decent grasp of almost 100 more.  It’s a start, but there’s a long way to go on the journey to develop my heritage language.

Something happened today as I was working in the language lab with my partner for our oral final (not pictured above–above is the extra credit typing homework).  We were getting our dialogue checked by the TA in Chinese, a kind, graduate student, native speaker.

She pointed out a few errors that I had made with phrases and characters–nothing major, some “rookie mistakes,” as I like to call these small errors when you’re learning something for the first time, then she asked if my partner and I were Chinese minors.  My partner said she was, but I was a major.  I noted that I was just beginning though.

The TA said, “That’s okay,” to me and then said, “Your Chinese, I think, it’s very good though.” I thought, with that phrase, that she was talking to my partner who then said that she had watched many Chinese films and dramas.

I have been feeling pretty bad about this interaction for the last two hours, which is ridiculous because: 1) I don’t know whether in fact, she was complimenting both of us on our Chinese or just my partner; 2) my partner is very good at Chinese; 3) I’m not here for anyone’s approval because that is what has been stopping me for 35 years prior from taking Chinese classes earlier; and 4) you can be good at Chinese and make mistakes or not get compliments.

This isn’t doesn’t mean anything, but it also means everything.

What I’m realizing lately is just how far I have to go in so many ways.  I am such a people pleaser.  I thrive on recognition.  I want to be the best at everything and when I’m not the best at something, I inherently feel like I should just give up, go home and do something I’m much better at.  This is not a healthy attitude, especially in academia, but also, in life.  And it’s one I see in my own children, which prompted me to take up studying Chinese in the first place.

As an academic, I’ve come to terms with the limits I have on my time and energy based on institutional structures and personal life choices, but I’m not there yet, as a student.  As I mentioned in earlier blog posts, it’s been a hard transition for me, going from full time student to full-time professional (parent, active faith community member & volunteer) and part time student.  In fact, at this moment, while I’m blogging, I should be prepping my summer class, studying for my final and working on multiple research projects). I’m also in the midst of the last week of training for a (charity) half marathon while also doing a weeklong global poverty awareness challenge and waiting in the library for my son to arrive so I can take him to Tae Kwon Do.

I’m frankly struggling with everything, and in these moments, when I need the most validation ever, I also tend to feel the most inadequate, which probably explains my ruminating on not having my Chinese complimented (which may or may not have happened anyways) and spending a half an hour that I really don’t have to blog about it so I can let it go.

As a teacher, this reminds me of how vitally important it is to be aware of my power, that complimenting one person in front of others, while not being a willful omission or malevolent gesture, can cause unintended self-questioning.  It also reminds me that we never know what our students might be carrying with them from past experiences, what they’re going through (big or small) in a moment, how hard they’re trying, even when they’re making a bunch of mistakes.  And this all makes me reflect on the fact that, when we make a bunch of mistakes, it’s because we’re stretching, growing and learning.  I am learning so much, and I am making my fair share of mistakes along the way. That is part of the process.

These are good reminders.  They are reminders that I am doing the best I can, that we all are (or at least the great majority of us are), in any given moment. So, I will tell myself that my Chinese is pretty good, for a beginner, and I will get to the many other things I have to do, after I breathe and publish this post.