Closing a Chapter: Final Reflection for the Fall 2023 Semester

Picture of a violet screen with the words "Please Wait" in white letters

It is the end of the fall semester.

As has been my tradition every semester that I teach, since the beginning of my academic career, that means it is time for a final reflection.

This final reflection, however, feels both similar and very different from previous final reflections.

It is similar in that I am finding myself ready for a break after a long semester and in that I am feeling so proud of how far the students I’ve had the privilege to work with have come in this semester.

It has been a particularly hard semester in terms of teaching, as I took on a new prep which I assumed would not be a particularly hard lift in terms of content knowledge (which it wasn’t) but that I didn’t realize would be extremely time intensive.

This semester, I taught the second semester of an action research seminar during which I was ostensibly supposed to guide the two cohorts of Masters students I was working with through a systematic inquiry into their own practice which they had set up in the spring. However, for many reasons beyond my control and that of the students, the course and the semester were not as simple as it might have appeared on paper. Our work required many hours of learning, unlearning, and close collaboration with the wonderful working professionals in the course. It was extremely fulfilling, particularly as they shared the impact of the process of action research for them, and as they shared their “products” and findings of their action research with one another.

When I say this final reflection is different, I suppose it is to be expected. This semester was the beginning of a transition which only now feels very real. I chose to stay for the fall semester at my current institution to support the transition of our new external department chair (a role I took on for an interim year last year as we conducted a search for a chair) into the institution and role, and to more actively support the doctoral student I’m working with. Although I was primarily still in my current institution, I began to lay the foundations for my transition to my next institution where I will begin in the new year.

I am grateful to be able to have had one more semester in a community that I love deeply, but transitions are hard, and given the multiple state, national, personal, and professional commitments I have and had this semester, this transition particularly was a lot, at times too much, for me, particularly in a time in the world when so many are suffering. As I tried to power through things, it was clear my brain, my body, God/ the universe were not okay with me continuing to pretend that I had no limits.

I am grateful to have survived.

I am grateful to have been given multiple chances to choose differently as I move to this new role.

I am grateful for the grace, kindness, and generosity of those in my community who love me deeply.

My university “clearance,” the process of check-out and transition, has officially begun. I am cleaning out my office which (strangely) never felt fully like mine, even after more than 10 years. Next week, I will return my keys and technology. I’ll keep my e-mail (for a year) and many of my friendships (for a lifetime, I hope), but in many ways, it feels like my time at CSULB will be quickly erased and soon it will be as if I wasn’t ever there. It is humbling to have given so much to an institution, to a place, and to feel like when it is over, things will go on, in many ways, as if I hadn’t ever been there.

I know this is not fully true, and that there will be parts of the work I’ve contributed to that will endure long after I am gone. But I also am feeling acutely the ways in which institutions cannot love you back.

And it is strangely okay.

Because as much as institutions cannot love you back, people can, if you invest deeply in them.

My time at CSULB’s College of Education has been an incredible blessing to me. I will be forever grateful that the search committee and dean that brought me into the university saw who I could be and opened a door for me. I worked hard to make the most of every opportunity I was given, including those that I “shouldn’t” have had; I overcame the skepticism people who doubted me because of the type of institution I worked in; I built relationships with beautiful teacher candidates, (teacher) educators, communities; I strengthened the work of teacher education in my institution, community, and state. I was fortunate. I take none of it for granted.

It has not been easy, but it has made me better, and I will ALWAYS cherish this time.

This chapter is closing. I chose to close it in a way that is in integrity with who I am and my commitments.

It has not been easy, but it has made me better, and I will always be grateful for the lessons I have learned this semester.

The chapter closes, but the story continues.

I am looking forward to the next chapter, to building alongside cherished community (established and new) and to continuing to grow in humility…after a pause.

Protocol Over People: Why (Educational) Institutions Need to Stop Dehumanizing People of Color

In the fall of last year, I was asked to participate in a faculty diversity panel for a leadership retreat at my university.  I did so.  I rescheduled my week, drove 8 hours roundtrip, prepared my words carefully, spoke from my heart, and did it all for no compensation.  As part of my participation, I was asked to fill out travel paperwork for liability purposes.  I did so.

Last week, I was informed by my department office that I could be reimbursed for mileage to the retreat.  It was a token, but I appreciated the gesture.  I was then informed that the money would be coming from my own personal travel funds.  I asked if it might be possible for the Provost’s office (who sponsored the retreat) or the Vice Provost’s office (who asked me to be part of the panel) to reimburse the $80 mileage cost so that I could maintain my scarce travel funds for the multiple academic conferences I was scheduled to participate at in the Spring.  My department assistant said that it couldn’t hurt to ask.

I sent an e-mail to the administrative staff member who had helped to coordinate the panel.  I never heard back.  After a couple of days, I e-mailed my department chair and dean and they both offered funding for my mileage.  While I thought that it made more sense for the funding to come from the university, since I was there at the request of the university, I was just grateful that it was taken care of.

End of story…or so I thought.

Today, I was told, by my department chair that our fiscal office had been contacted by the Provost’s office who informed them that a “faculty member” had contacted the Provost’s office directly for money and that all requests for money should be processed first at the department level then at the college.

I had broken protocol, and apparently, I should have known better.

I want to preface the forthcoming rant with a few things that shouldn’t be relevant but may come up: 1) In my email to the Provost’s administrative staff, I was both gracious and respectful, even to the point of being deferent.  I reminded the administrator why I was e-mailing (specifically that I had participated in a faculty diversity panel for the retreat that was coordinated by that office) and also said that if I wasn’t emailing the appropriate place that I hoped they would excuse me and let me know who to contact; 2) I also stressed that the $80 wasn’t a big deal (Except that it was…or should have been.  I was already doing hours of unpaid labor.  I was not asking for a stipend. I wouldn’t have even asked for the $80 mileage had I not had to file the request to cover the liability); 3) I am not upset because I don’t respect protocols.  There are reasons for protocols and I know every faculty member on campus can’t go to the provost office for requests EVEN WHEN the request of the faculty member was made by the Provost.  I understand that.

But, here is why I am angry.  The humanizing and respectful thing to do would have been for the administrator to e-mail me directly to say, “Hi Betina, Thanks for your message and we really appreciated your contribution to the leadership retreat.  There’s actually a protocol for reimbursement that should start with your department office.  If your department and/or college office doesn’t have funds to reimburse you, then have your [title of fiscal officer] contact us.  We don’t deal with faculty member reimbursement requests directly because we don’t have the capacity to do so.  Best, Administrator” That would have actually been a much easier e-mail to send than 3 e-mails around me which eventually got back to me and referred to me as “a faculty member in your college” and completely dismissed that there was LOGIC to my request.

To be fair to my institution, this is only the second time in 6 years this has happened to me personally.  The other time was in my first year when I was not angry, I was sobbing uncontrollably in frustration at the fact that a poster order that I tried to place at least 5x was kicked back to me with no explanation and that NO ONE would explain to me how to properly make the request.  This happened in my college fiscal office.

With that incident fresh in my mind, I went to a local school where one of the first things I saw was a substitute teacher remove an African American boy from a class that one of my student teachers was teaching.  Neither she nor I felt that this was an appropriate thing for him to do, but neither of us was technically the teacher of record.  I believe that the substitute thought he was doing the right thing by removing the disruption from the class. I imagine that the protocol was for “disruptive, defiant” students to be sent to a “buddy teacher.”  My student teacher was in an awkward position.  I was in an awkward position. But neither of us should have let our awkwardness stop us from doing what was right.

I am clear that a little 12-year old who wasn’t doing anything more than, PERHAPS, chatting with a friend (and several other students were as well) missed out on his English class today and sat in another room, feeling like his teacher (and this other random adult in the room) didn’t have his back.  My student teacher and I spent most of a 2-hour debrief talking about how to own responsibility in that situation and build back the relationship with this student. She told me of an earlier incident in which the student had cried in class because another teacher hadn’t listened to his side of the story.  Her mentor teacher had simply dismissed his deep distress because the other teacher hadn’t called his mother or written a referral.

No harm. No foul.

Except that it is.  What message are the educators in this room giving this child about his life, his emotions and his education mattering? Why are we so willing to dismiss the damage done if the end result is that the “situation is resolved” and “no one got in trouble.” Why don’t we tell these stories?

I write about these two incidents not because they are equal in degree, but because they might be easily dismissed by those who cannot understand how deeply traumatizing dehumanization is.  I am an educator because I believe in the humanizing possibilities of education, in the power of education to liberate and connect us, and in the power of people, the power of love, the power of words.

But today, I am deeply discouraged by our educational institutions, even ones with individuals that I firmly believe are trying their best to “follow the protocol” and keep the ship running.

I will get my $80 from the university.

My student teacher will take responsibility for her part in what happened to her student tomorrow and work to reconcile their relationship and rebuild trust.

But long after that $80 is spent (to be honest, it’s already spent, but compensation as dehumanization isn’t the point of this post), long after the bell rings tomorrow, long after the next time he is or I am put in our places and reminded that we are only conditionally accepted, even by those who may ostensibly be on our side, the institutions will still exist, and they will continue to dehumanize us and those who are like us or unlike us, if we continue to accept that this is protocol. This is the way things are.

Unless we work to change these institutions.  Unless we work to humanize them.  Unless we remember to relate to one another and be responsible for the fact that our institutional protocols only serve us, if we can remember that we should be serving one another.

I hope you’ll read this. I hope you’ll share it.  I hope you’ll commit to doing better.  I believe telling our stories can convict people to change and can spark collective action.  We cannot change institutions alone, but in solidarity with humanity, we can find the power and courage to change.

What is Academic Life Like?

I saw this academic meme once (variations of which have been published in relation to other professions) that noted that the perception from the outside is different than the lived experience of those of us on the tenure track.  I’m actually pretty used to that, as prior to becoming an academic, I was a middle school teacher.

Some people outside of education think that K-12 teaching is all about working 7:30-3:30 and getting summers and holidays “off.”  It’s a nice “career” where you get to spend your day working with kids and spend time with your kids.  What could be better? (Actual educators know that teaching is NOT just about that you are in class with students, but also about lesson planning, preparation, assessment, working with parents, participating in professional development opportunities, working with colleagues, etc., involving long hours and often continuing through the summer.  All of this goes on behind the scenes, but is the real work of teaching.)

Similarly, faculty life in academia, with it’s flexible work structure, can be seen as an even more cushy profession.  I mean, I’m on an early career 3-year course release so I only teach 3 courses a semester (WAY less than the 5 that I used to teach at the middle school level).  I still get summers “off” and now, not only do I get to spend the summer with my kid, but I have time to volunteer at his school and be the treasurer for the PTA.  Why do I always seem so stressed on this blog?

Well, here’s why: I am a nerdy workaholic with poor boundaries that values teaching and is a team player.  So, finding balance isn’t easy.  What does that translate to?

1) I have to find (make?) the time necessary for academic work (i.e. reading, writing, research, presentations, etc.) and there’s a lot of time necessary for academic work.

I’ve been working on a manuscript for an article (that I just sent off today) for the past several months.  This process has involved extensive reading in the literature of my field, conceptualizing a study, getting it approved by an institutional research board, data collection (which actually has been taking place for a year and a half), data analysis in working with a research assistant, writing, revising (with the support of a research partner at another university), revising again, finding a journal that I think would be a good fit, editing and submission.  I’ve always been a good student so I thought, when pursuing an academic career, that this would be ideal.  I mean, they pay me to read and to write! Except that I put a TON of work into my teaching (see #2), leaving less time to read, write and think than I need, thus rendering the nerd in me somehow deeply unsatisfied at my academic publication progress.  I have a lot of data and some really interesting things to say (I think they’re interesting at least), but I need the time to stay current with reading in my field, opportunities to think deeply about the literature I read (which is hard when sometimes you don’t have a lot of time or opportunities to talk about your field of research with colleagues), time to analyze and write about my data, time to present and get feedback.  And, the most frustrating part, is that I need acceptance (which is completely out of my control) in order to validate the academic work that I’m doing.  So, while my fingers are crossed with this latest submission, almost 6 months + of work could result in a “we’ve chosen not to move forward with this article.” Sigh.

(And this is just the process on my single authored work.  My joint-authored submissions involve all of this and collaborative meetings to discuss and align voice in the papers–yet, that’s often regarded as “lesser” work depending on the order of my name in the article. Double sigh.)

2) Teaching 3 classes to the level that I expect takes a lot of time.

I’ve never been shy in identifying as a teacher.  While as a person, I am a research nerd, as a professional, I’ve always been a teacher, and the only reason I left my middle school classroom was to make a bigger impact on the profession that I love.  So, when opportunities for curricular revision come forth including the integration of new literacies & technologies, aligning coursework to research in our field (both pedagogically and in terms of curriculum), and integrating engaging activities that model strategies for my preservice teachers, of course, I’m going to take the extra time to embed them into my classes.  And, each semester that I teach a course, I revise it.  I do reuse some of my materials from semester to semester but rather than resting on my laurels from the previous semester, I use the time that I save from not reinventing the wheel to tweak and add to the course, often spending extensive time giving feedback and working with individual students each semester.  While I am teaching far fewer hours in front of the classroom, the depth and length of work I’m now assessing and the high stakes of teaching in a professional program mean that a lot of my week is spent on teaching.

3) Being a team player means various levels of service which all takes time too.

One of the aspects of academia that often is hidden to those on the outside is the idea of service; however, service is an important part of the review process, and fundamentally something that I believe in.  I serve on various departmental, program, college and university committees.  I’ve recently been on a couple of time-intensive grant committees and I serve my professional community both through speaking and consulting engagements throughout the state.  This is just the beginning of my career, so at some point, I expect greater commitments at the state and national level, likely meaning more travel and less space in my calendar, but providing opportunities to make the difference that I want to in my field.

4) In addition to all of this, there is “flexibility” so I can fill my schedule with family commitments. Oh wait, that also takes time.

Remember that part about bad boundary setting?  Well, as a former teacher, I know the importance of parent volunteers, particularly for public schools.  So, when asked to serve as PTA treasurer, I said sure and put my name on the ballot.  Then, when my son’s teacher needed someone to check off homework each week, I also committed to that.  I drop off my son at school every day (unless I’m out of town for work); I scale pinterest for ideas for his birthday party (why didn’t I just do Chuck E. Cheese?); I attend as many “during the day” school functions as I can–because I know that time is precious and it’s a privilege to have the flexibility in my schedule.  But, that same flexibility leads to the regular 16-hours a day that I work on several days a week when I’m not at his school.  I’m privileged not to miss those moments, but I’m exhausted.

So, every once in awhile I need days like today, where I did some academic reading, submitted my manuscript and aside from answering a few e-mails and responding to discussion board posts, I took the rest of today for myself.  I napped.  (In my 6th month of pregnancy, this is more of a requirement than an option yet it’s been WEEKS since I last napped because of the start of the semester) I took myself to lunch and bought myself new eyeliner.  Now, I’m writing this week’s blog (because Friday will be full of mom-commitments–homework check-off and Chinese New Year celebration at school) while junk television plays in the background.  Ah, balance. Today, the balance was in my favor, and my life seems amazing, but I know I have to keep working at it because there are more 16-hour days right around the corner.


The Value of Humanity: Fall 2014 Semester Final Reflection

After binge blogging during the 30-day blogging challenge in September and keeping pace for the first week of October, I fell woefully behind in blogging as the semester came into full swing and as I began to deal with the reality of my own limitations. But, it is the end of a semester and time for a final reflection–my thoughts on this semester and key thoughts from the last 6 weeks, which have been lived mainly offline (or at least, off-blog) for reasons of self-preservation.

I’ve entitled this blog “the value of humanity” because this semester has taught me a lot about valuing my own humanity as well as that of my students, and reinforced my belief in the fact that certain members our society are not valued, are not heard, and are victims of violence that goes largely ignored and unseen by the vast majority of Americans.

On a societal level, the last 6 weeks have seen two grand juries choose not to indict police officers in fatal incidents with two black men,  the fatal shooting of 18-year old Michael Brown and the chokehold death of 43-year old, father of 6, Eric Garner.  Similarly no charges were filed against police in the shooting of another young black man, John Crawford standing in the toy aisle of a Walmart a toy gun in the open carry state of Ohio, the same state in which 12-year old Tamir Rice was shot and killed in a park because he had a toy gun, a death that goes before yet another grand jury, one ruled a homicide by the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on the young boy.  All of this, in the last few weeks, spurring response in protests, including the Millions March and the #blacklivesmatter movement on social media.  In the aftermath, there has been deep anger, including some rioting, but there have also been important dialogues, peaceful protests and national attention to these deeply rooted issues in our country.

But society does not end at our borders.  In this same 6-weeks, we have seen the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, Mexico, from a teachers college, students on their way to protest educational reforms and raise funds, to speak out against the corruption of the Mexican government at the hand of drug cartels and corruption as well as the brutal execution of “Felina”  an underground social media reporter and doctor whose death was publicized via twitter by her killers.

What does this say about the value of humanity? About the value of each and every life?  About the value of protest?  I’ve been struggling deeply to reconcile this deep disrespect for human life and for justice and my own beliefs in the value of engagement.  We cannot make change if we fail to engage, turning a blind eye to what happens in the world around us.  If we value humanity, we must continue to find ways to talk with one another and listen to people’s experiences without invalidating them because they don’t match our own, we must work towards and contribute to justice, and we must be tireless in this commitment.

But, how does one remain tireless in the face of physical and emotional exhaustion?  This has been a second exercise in valuing humanity this semester, a very personal one.

This semester, more than any other, I have had students who have experienced and shared personal trauma that has impacted their participation in class.  In 15 weeks, I have had students struggling with homelessness, death and dying of family members, eating disorders, severe depression, major medical issues and I have had to reconcile my desire for them to get the most out of their professional preparation with the reality of their situations.  This is also humanity.  The human experience on this personal level has reminded me of the patience required to be a teacher educator and has reminded me to use these moments to remind my future teachers of respecting the humanity of their own future students.  We don’t know what students are carrying with them into classrooms unless they tell us and if we aren’t aware of their humanity, we quickly forget our purpose in teaching.  It is not just about teaching content, it is first and foremost about teaching students.

Finally, this semester, perhaps the hardest lesson I’ve been working on is trying to value my own humanity and that of the new human life inside of me.  I found out early in the semester that I’m pregnant.  I am incredibly grateful and happy for the opportunity to bring another being into the world, and my own blessing has made me even more committed to make the world a better place for my children and all children (and adults).  Yet, that commitment doesn’t always give me energy to draft a blog response, deal with the heavy trauma of the events around me, bring compassion towards my students’ humanity.  The spirit is willing but the body is weak.  So, this semester has been about reconciling and understanding that my commitments may be judged by others, but in the end, the path towards educating future educators, towards social justice, towards creating a better world is not achieved in a moment, but in many moments and a lifelong journey.  I know my commitments and work to honor them, but I also have to know my limitations and work to honor the humanity in myself.

I’ve learned so much this semester and I continue to learn and grow and be moved by the value of humanity. I know it will continue to be my life’s work to help others see and promote that value as well.

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…