Day 1: Chinese Class and Other Adventures

Today was the first day of the Spring 2019 semester.

It was a really hard day, but honestly, I’m really proud of myself.

My son needed a last minute ride to school, putting me an hour behind schedule on a day where I already had very little give time.  But, I got to take him to school so he could serve as a “student ambassador” to visiting students from China, and during the ride, we got to talk and he reassured me (once again) that my first day of Chinese class would go well.

My 10am meeting was super productive and great, but went until 11:50 and instead of eating lunch quickly in between the meeting and my class, I ended up just snacking on a few (delicious) chocolate shortbread cookies and rushing to make it to class in time.

My first Chinese class. Chinese 101.  As I texted my husband after the class, “This was the most awkward educational experience of my entire life.”  I am great at school. I have always been great at school. School has always been my comfort zone.  But, until today, I have always been pretty much the traditional student.  Younger than most of my peers and progressing along the expected timeline.  Today, I was, by far the oldest student in the room, and I felt awkward even entering the room.  I think I enter the room like a professor (because I mean, it’s a part of my identity). There’s a cadence in my step, and I was not dressed like a student (because for the rest of my day, I wasn’t a student). So, when I first walked in the room, everyone paused (or at least it felt like they did).  Then, after saying hello to the people around us, we had to do introductions: Name, year at CSULB, major.  SIGH.  I didn’t really know what to say so I said I was faculty working on my second bachelors in Chinese studies, which is, of course, the truth.  And then, because I have been reading rooms of students for the last 18 years, I saw the sideways glances exchanged.  I could barely find a partner willing to work with me on the dialogue. It was awkward. But, maybe it’s awkward for many people, maybe it was also awkward for me 20 years ago and I’ve just forgotten.  I’m not sure.

I had an hour between my class and my second meeting of the day with the dean and some other colleagues.  I scarfed down 3 pieces of leftover slices of pizza from a birthday party my daughter attended over the weekend.  Then I spent the next hour addressing e-mail.  It took the whole hour and I didn’t finish.

My next meeting should have ended with JUST enough time to get to my son on time before his martial arts lesson.  But, traffic was terrible. I was late getting him from the library to Tae Kwon Do, and just before arriving to pick him up, the low tire pressure light went on in the car.  I dropped him off, went to the nearby gas station, checked the pressure on all 4 tires, determined which tire was low, pumped it, and recalibrated the tire pressure system.  So much for using that time to write.

Our plan for dinner was a local taqueria, but they didn’t have fish tacos or quesadillas so we detoured to get dinner for the whole family because, after being gone all weekend, I didn’t have time to plan meals for the week.

When we finally arrived home, despite all there was still left to do, we had family dinner time. I caught up on a few e-mails. Then, Nate and I did family Chinese homework time, which was awesome for both of us.  It was awesome for me because I actually feel like I’m learning something and it’s an accomplishment to see a page full of characters in my own handwriting. It was awesome for him because he actually got his homework done much more quickly (because he was focused on doing it with me instead of with the distraction of 2+ electronic inputs). I tucked in Jo, finished my character writing for the day, responded to a few more e-mails, and finally, sat down to blog.

It was an absolutely crazy day.

But I’m really, really proud of myself.

Today, I did not let my fear stop me.  Today, I did not feel guilty for what I couldn’t accomplish.  Today, I didn’t get angry at the things I couldn’t control. Today, I did something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I am learning a lot, but perhaps most importantly, I’m learning patience with myself.

Beginning a New Year

I’d like to read and write more this year — in quantity, time, genre, and frequency.

I’d like to be more intentional with my time and energy. I hope to be more present with those I love and more deliberate with my choices in relation to technology.  I hope to use my time wisely to support my goals and those I care about around me. I’d like to do more of the things that bring me joy, and fewer of the things that I feel obligated to do because I’m good at them. I’d like to act with conviction and certainty.

I’d like to be kinder to myself.  I’d like to make self-care a priority, and take the time and space that I need to do what I know works for my physical, mental and spiritual health. I’d like to feel less guilt and let go of that which I will inevitably feel more quickly.

I’d like to set better boundaries and stick to them.

I’d like to pray more, reflect more, think more.

I’d like to cook more, eat more delicious food, explore new places, help my children to experience new things, and be open to change.

Will you join me? I’m pretty sure I’ll need the accountability to transform these desires into realities.

No matter what you’d like to do in 2019, I hope that you bring all of your best intentions to fruition this year.

Reflections on Humanizing Connections

Tiny wildflowers among the rocks in the Coachella Valley

The end of the semester always comes fast and furious, with myriad assignments to grade and curriculum to cover as 15 weeks culminates with “trying to get it all done.”

And usually, I get sick in the midst of it.

I used to have my body trained to not get sick until the end of the semester, operating on pure adrenaline until final grades were submitted and then collapsing in a heap of exhaustion to spend all of winter break ill.  Now, with a 3-year old, exhaustion comes early, and I have, for the last two years, spent November and early December fighting some type of laryngitis + virus that keeps me away from my normal morning runs and forces me to slow down, sleep more, and be more intentional in speaking.

And with that, I remember to reflect.

This morning, after grading a couple of fieldwork reflection assignments from my preservice candidates, I was struck by both students’ focus on the importance of recognizing students’ assets, social-emotional learning and literacies.

I teach secondary literacy classes, and generally explore disciplinary and content area (general) literacy strategies to support student learning, with a mix of 21st century literacies including technological literacy and the 4Cs from the P21 framework.  However, I’ve been really thinking about my teacher education practice because of some professional development opportunities that I’ve had over the summer (namely the Transformative Teacher Educator Fellowship summer institute and the Center for Reaching & Teaching the Whole Child summer institute, particularly with a focus on the CASEL social and emotional learning competencies) and have been trying to integrate mindfulness practices and a focus on more humanizing approaches to consider students as whole people, particular students of color, English Language Learners and students with special needs/disabilities, who have often been marginalized or defined by what they are not rather than by who they are.

From week to week, this sometimes feels like exploring the rocky terrain and sinking sands of a trail I don’t know (as I did last week when trying to come back from my illness). But this morning, I read these fieldwork reflections and was inspired by my credential candidate students who framed the students they worked with (in 1-on-1 tutoring experiences) in terms of their assets, and funds of knowledge they brought to the classroom from their homes and communities.  Both reflected on the importance of humanizing approaches and how it will shape their practices. One drew from a student’s religious background to show how math and tessellations were a part of Islamic art, engaging the students’ interest in a concept that hadn’t previously seemed relevant. Later this same candidate, after an incident involving the student he was working with and another adult, was able to pull the student aside, discuss his behavior, acknowledge his emotions, and then work with the student to resolve the situation so that the student could reintegrate himself into the classroom.   The other student noted the importance of making sure that the student she worked with felt stable (and grounded) before moving on to the academic content at hand, learning patience and persistence and that the lesson wouldn’t always move on exactly as planned.

In seeing my candidates’ reflections, it reminds me of the importance of the work of educators.  When we remember to acknowledge what students bring to the classroom, to work with it (rather than trying to work around or ignore it), and to respect students’ humanity, we build and rise together.  It is inspiring. It is energizing. It is humanizing.

Even in our most human moments, at the end of the semester.

Mid-Semester Academic Mama Check-In

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

I am super tired.

Yesterday, I had two phone call meetings, an in-person and taught two classes in addition to prepping and grading.  Last night, after teaching back-to-back classes, I picked up my son from evening Tae Kwon Do practice, had a long talk with him on the car ride home about responsibility (after he forgot to turn in his fundraiser packet and only came to realize it a month later after we looked for his items and they weren’t there).  Then, I came home and finished up a meeting agenda and minutes.

This morning, I have already prepped my daughter for picture day and checked my son’s math homework before sending them off to school. Today, I have a pile of grading to do, another class to teach, 3 meetings, another set of office hours, a class that I’ve been stressed about for the last week, and several e-mails to send.  I also need to, at some point, prep a conference presentation for next week, finish an Institutional Research Board submission, do a paper review, and work on my next article.

This weekend, there’s laundry (which is never really done), weekend volunteering at the Tae Kwon Do competition, dinner with old and new friends, singing at the 50th anniversary of our Presbytery with my church choir, Chinese school, spending time with my 3-year old.  And there’s a husband in there somewhere…the best one, longstanding and patient.

It’s mid-semester.

It’s all good. It’s full. But, it’s also exhausting and overwhelming.

So much. So full. But also beautiful.

Take it one breath at a time, one moment at a time, one task at a time.

Be present. Keep breathing. Keep writing. Keep going. Or rest, when needed.

Keep reaching out. Hold on to community. Take in the great moments. Let go of those that aren’t so great.

Do the work, but attend to the people.

It’s going to be okay.

Moving through Critique

Another semester, another set of evaluations.

Evaluation time always stresses me out, to be frank.  I’m still working towards tenure and although my evaluations are generally high, I know they’re vitally important to the tenure and promotion process so I worry.

But it goes beyond simple self-interest.  If it were just about not getting tenure, it wouldn’t be so important.  It’s also about self-improvement.  Part of why I dislike the end-of-semester evaluation process is because it’s a one-way conversation.  I would have liked to genuinely sit down with critical students and engage with these critiques earlier in the process, not because I worry about the tenure process, but because I believe in what I do and I believe in the value of understanding when what I do doesn’t land with students the way that I intend.

This semester, I had 2.5 critical evaluations (2 sets of critical comments; 1 set of semi-critical numerical markings with no comments) out of 57 students in my pre-service credential courses.  It’s a 95% approval rate, my best friend pointed out to me.  You can’t make everyone happy, my husband told me.  I know, logically, that these are still high evaluation marks, particularly given the stances I took last semester in the courses I taught. These things are true, but the critiques I received offer points of reflection.

The two major critiques that I received in the Fall had to do with responding respectfully to student concerns (by 2 students) and bias in the course that I held on the day following the election (1 student).  Another critique was that I shouldn’t assume people have time for endless reflection (1 student) and that there’s too much work in my courses (there is a lot of work, but, to be fair, I gave warning of this at the beginning of the semester…and frankly, good teaching is a lot of work).

So, here’s the thing–I don’t want to actually spend this reflective moment justifying myself.  Some of these critiques (reflection, hard work, advocacy) are part of who I am and my professional identity.  I embrace and accept that those things.

But, I am listening to the critique as well.  I have been thinking a lot, in this post election era about the importance of listening and empathy.  No, it wasn’t my intention EVER to disrespect or belittle a student.  It also wasn’t my intention to create an unsafe, biased space on the day after the election (in fact, it was my intention to do the exact opposite).  But, I am acutely aware of the power that I have as a professor, and respect for students is at the CORE of who I am, so I want these students to know that (whether or not it was my intention or even whether or not I agree with them), I hear you; I get that you were left in a space where you felt disrespected, and I am using your critique to think about ways to be more vigilant in expressing my intentions and creating a space for dialogue where more voices can be heard. We can only ever move forward if we can begin to listen to one another instead of staying safely in our own camps.

And, if the student who wrote the evaluation that referred to being a “failure of a teacher” if their students don’t vote is reading this blog, I want to apologize if I said anything like that.  I honestly do not recall saying this, and I think it’s an incredibly problematic statement, given that some students (undocumented students, immigrant non-naturalized students) don’t even have the right to vote in this country AND given the complexity of teaching–no one point makes a teacher a failure.  We are all trying our best.  I do think that it’s important to teach students civic engagement.  I don’t apologize for that.  I do think that students need to participate in their families, communities, and society in productive ways. And, I think it’s important to vote.  Voting is one of those ways.  But, I certainly wouldn’t ever judge a teacher’s success based on the voting rate of their students.  So, for that, if I said that or left you with that, I apologize.

But, here’s the thing.  We are all trying our best.  I am too.  I’ve been at the teaching thing for a long time, yes, and the human thing for even longer.  But, I am imperfect.  My beliefs and intentions don’t always match my actions or how I’m received.   Sometimes they do and we’ll disagree.  Granted.  Sometimes they don’t and my actions will get misinterpreted. Granted.  Sometimes, I need to be more thoughtful about how I speak out of emotion about the things which I am passionate about.  Granted.  But I cannot let the critique stop me from action, from advocacy, and from engaging with that which I fear.

And that is why, despite the fact that I also don’t have so much time for reflection, I do it: because I have to keep acting every day; because the course of a semester is long and I have just begun a new semester where I am certain to make mistakes; because this work is my calling.  I have a deep love for my students and their future students. Personally, I want to keep improving. And as a member of this society, I constantly see openings for action that call me to do better. But I refuse to be driven by the fear of critique.

The work is hard.  And critique is hard…particularly when you are trying to step out and be heard. But, all of this is necessary if we are to be the change that we wish to see–whatever one’s version of that change may be.

With the Time You Are Given

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It’s tenure file time around my university.  Having finally made the decision not to go up early, the deadline is not looming over me, but I do have friends and colleagues going up who have been updating me on their progress as they reach the finish line and submit their files.  One of my dearest friends and colleagues started her narrative with the question, “What will you do with the days you have been given?” and I thought this was the perfect topic for reflection this week.

I was thinking while driving yesterday (a dangerous thing for an academic as I’m liable to keep driving past my destination) and conceptualizing what I hope will be my next research study.  My mind automatically went to what the simplest study would be for me to conduct, related to a topic that I find relatively interesting in an area in which I know there’s relatively little scholarship to date.

After attending a meeting of my church’s social justice committee, however, my friend’s words struck me, “What am I DOING with the days (in academia) that I have been given?” Is my research a reflection of what’s important to me? Of my real life’s work? Does it represent who I am as a person? Or is my scholarship safe and somewhat divorced from my core commitments? Do I do the work that is easiest for me to do (for a variety of reasons) or the work that pushes me to be the person I want to be? This led to some furious brainstorming of a different study/ topic that I’m passionate about, combining my life’s work with my core passions and commitments around teacher support, development and issues of equity.

I realize this isn’t the first time that this tension has arisen for me.  Before accepting my first teaching position, I was encouraged to apply for a position at the middle school where I student-taught.  Though diverse, this school had more of a suburban feel and higher performing population than the urban site where I ended up accepting a job.  I would have loved teaching at my student teaching site, and it would have been great, but it wouldn’t have felt authentic to my core commitments.  It would have been doing good work, but not necessarily MY WORK.

And that’s something I’m growing in and towards–knowing what my work is and how I want to put myself out there in the world, as a person, an academic, a professor, a lifelong learner, a person of faith, a mother, etc. It’s a life of inquiry.  But there’s nothing else I’d rather do with the time I’ve been given.