I have been thinking about writing this blog for quite some time now. For those that do not know me I am a white, 50-year-old teacher that was raised in Central Texas. That is relevant because I have spent the past 20 years living and teaching in the Rio Grande Valley along the Texas-Mexico border. In case you have never been here we are located just north of the Rio Grande river with no real valley to speak of and the vast majority of the population is Latino and Hispanic. It is completely different from anywhere I have lived in my life and I would be lying if I said there was a smooth transition when I first moved here. But it has become my home.
In the past year or so the border region has become a focus of politicians and even more so in the last couple of months when Donald Trump and others have made the immigration question a focal point of the upcoming election. Now I hate politics but sometimes one has to get involved and take a stand and it riles me up and pisses me off when I hear anyone insult and make false accusations about the people I have grown to love. You see the demographics of the classes I teach are at least 99% Hispanic and I sometimes wonder where the other 1% are. But I never see it that way. When those students walk into my classroom they aren’t Hispanic to me. They’re just my students. Some of them are citizens and some are immigrants. Some of them may even be undocumented but I don’t know and I have never asked in 20 years. It is my job to teach the students that come through the door of my classroom and I am going to do my best to give every one of them the best education I can. Furthermore, I was raised as a Christian and the Bible taught me that when we don’t get a choice in who we help. We’re supposed to help them all. So I teach them. If they can’t speak English, I teach them. If they were born in Mexico, I each them. What’s more is I grow to love them. Every last one of them. Some of them have gone from being my students to being co-workers and lifelong friends. Much has been said about the quality of people who come to us from Mexico. They have been stereotyped as criminals, murderers and rapists. Donal Trump said that “Mexico doesn’t send their best.” Well, I disagree with Mr. Trump. While I know that not every person that comes across that border is the model citizen I can point to numerous students that have not only excelled here in the United States but are going to continue to excel and become role models and make this country better than it was before. Students that I know were born in Mexico that attended school and graduated from Texas schools that are attending Ivy league schools and are graduating with degrees in Engineering, attending medical school and are going to stay right here and make a huge contribution to our society. They come from a proud culture and heritage of hard work and determination.
I don’t know much about politics and I don’t know what is going to happen after the next election. But I know I am not going to turn my back on the people I love. The teachers I teach with and the students I teach have become my family and in the Hispanic culture we stand up for our family. I’m not asking you to change your mind about policies but I am going to ask each and every one of you to remember the people you are talking about are my people.
It has been a while since I have written anything down here but I think it’s about time. Today would have been my brother Bob’s 50th birthday and he has been on my mind all day. He was born two days before I had my first birthday. Being so close in age we shared many things. We shared a room, we shared a birthday party and we even got in trouble together many times. To be honest he was better than me at just about everything that little boys found important. He was faster, he could climb trees like a monkey and he was fearless. I can remember than mom put us in swimming lessons when we were in 1st or 2nd grade and Bob was the youngest one to go off of the high diving board. He was also extremely talented. He could draw anything. Back in those days in the back of the magazines there was an ad for an art school with a cartoon character. It promised that if you drew the picture and sent it in they would send you information about the school. Every time he free-handed it flawlessly. He put model cars together with skill and they looked just like the picture on the box. He could have been an artist. Maybe that is why he was so complex. He was gifted and brilliant and yet he was always seeking approval. He did things that were difficult to explain or understand, both positive and negative. He was generous almost to a fault and would spend long hours helping people who needed it. In high school and college I really had no clue what I wanted to do with my life but not Bob. He figured out early that he wanted to be a mechanic and he did whatever it took to make that happen including becoming the first person in our family to graduate from college. And I may be biased but I believe he was the best mechanic I ever knew. Although there are others that probably knew him better toward the end of his life I knew him in a unique way. I am glad to say that I saw him when he was at his best but I also saw him at some of his worst moments.
He loved his family although I don’t think he always knew how to show it. I know he struggled with some things and I felt as though there was nothing I could do to help. If he was still here today I would simply tell him I was proud of him and everything he accomplished. There is an old saying that sometimes you don’t realize what you have until it is gone. We take so much for granted. People and the time you have with them is so precious, don’t ever take it for granted.
I miss you brother.
“Kindness can transform someone’s dark moment with a blaze of light. You’ll never know how much your caring matters. Make a difference for another today.”
― Amy Leigh Mercree
Recently I agreed to be a part of a committee called RTI which means “response to intervention.” It is a program designed to help students who need a little extra help with their classes or behavior. I didn’t really think much about but I need hours for my Masters internship so I thought, why not!
This past week we met for the first time to review the files of the students that had been identified. At first there was nothing unusual, just a few kids that were habitual trouble makers and we were trying to come up with ideas to help them to be successful. Everything was going pretty well until one of the members brought up a kid that he had just enrolled the previous week. The assistant principal said that he was only a freshman but he did not want to be in school and was so adamant about it that he was causing a scene in the office. When the principal spoke to the student one on one he was asking him if he was having trouble at home or in school and when he pressed he saw the student start to break down and cry. As we talked in the committee we discovered that he had been a good student early in junior high but something happened during the 8th grade caused him to snap. It was all I could do not to cry in the middle of the meeting. I can’t hear stories like that without thinking about how we can somehow make a difference. I had a new perspective on the committee. I suddenly found myself wondering what could be so bad that would cause a student to hate school so bad that he wanted to fight? I sat there and thought about him and wondered how many other kids there were like him?
It reminded me of something that I have thought about quite a bit over the past four or five years. That is, that we as teachers really have no clue what our students are going through or have gone through. Since I have been in my current teaching position and school I have had one student painfully admit that they had been sexually abused in the past, three or four admit that they had thoughts of suicide and at least six that lost a parent or close family member while in my class. I imagine that if that many have actually admitted it, then there are many others that are too ashamed and embarrassed to tell anyone.
It reminds me that as a teacher my job is to teach these students Chemistry or Physics. But as a human being it is my responsibility to help them deal with life. In my opinion there are some things that are more important than academics. Sometimes students have real issues and if I can somehow help them with that then I consider that to be successful. If I can make a connection with a student maybe I can make a difference. Numerous former students have told me that school was difficult for them and that I made it more bearable for them. Those are the stories I cherish and long to hear. Lately I have been thinking about my future and what I will do once I get my Masters degree. I still don’t know exactly what the future holds but part of my decision will based on how much I will be able to help students.
This is a pretty exciting semester for me. I am finishing up my Masters degree and in December I will be walking across the stage with that degree in my hand. My mama will be there hopefully and I know my dad would be proud of me of he was here and I’ve got to say that I am pretty proud of myself. But once I am finished is when the real decision time comes. With a Master’s degree will have more choices and can even become a principal but that would mean leaving the classroom. Right now I can’t even imagine a life where I wasn’t in the classroom. I know it sounds weird to some but it is where I feel most at home when I’m not at home. Nothing makes me happier than standing in front of 30 high school kids waiting to see what s going to happen next. It is the one place I feel that I can really be myself. When I’m in the classroom I can be funny, serious, smart, kind, loving, strict and even angry and most of my kids understand. The classroom is my sanctuary. When I’m there with my kid and everything is running smoothly everything is right with the world and I love it. But the main reason I love being in the classroom is because when I look at those kids in front of me I see hope. People talk about how bad our kids are and how they worry about the next generation but they just don’t see what I can see. I can look back at the students that I have taught and see so many of them making a difference in the world. I think I am fortunate to live in a time where it is so easy to keep up and stay in contact with people so easily. I see wedding pictures, children, posts about their careers and each time I just think how proud I am to be a part of their story.
I am sure if the right job comes along I will take it but it’s not going to be easy. I was watching a documentary called the American Teacher the other day and they quoted some statistics that 46% of teachers leave teaching before their 5th year and that in the next 10 years over half of teachers in the work force today will be eligible for retirement. I felt like a special breed. Someone who can walk through the Blackboard Jungle and not just survive but thrive and go back for more. One of these inevitably I will walk out of the classroom one last time but it is not this day and until that day I am going to enjoy every second of it. So I want to dedicate this to all of my students but also to all of my fellow teachers that have persevered and love their job!
Well school has started and I have been super busy but tonight I am taking the time to share a special post with you. My last post was about my thoughts on the ALS challenge. This is a follow up to that post. Jennifer is a very intelligent and hard-working former student of mine. Recently she was piked to do the ice bucket challenge but she suffers from lupus. Instead of declining she hose the opportunity to raise awareness of her own. I applaud her effort and asked her permission to share her post here. I knew that she struggled but I was unaware of all that she has had to endure. I think what she is doing is to be commended and it reminds me that there are many people who need and want our support. So if you are one of those that have criticized the ALS challenge, do what Jennifer did and find a cause that you can support and raise awareness for it. We can never have too much awareness for worthy causes.
“First, I have recently been nominated to do the ALS ice bucket challenge and for medical reasons I must decline. Also, when I donate to a charity I don’t do it for gratification or to get noticed so I won’t be posting whether or not I am donating.
Second, I am raising awareness for a cause that is near and dear to my heart. As many of you know, I was diagnosed with Systemic Lupus in 2008. Since my diagnosis, my life has spiraled out of control at points. Not a single part of my body has been unaffected by Lupus. I have been diagnosed with Stage 4 lupus nephritis, Raynaud’s phenomenon, arthritis, pleurisy, pneumonia, bronchitis, chronic inflammation, silent migraines, and the list goes on. How does lupus affect me? I wake up at 2:30 / 3:00 every morning not by choice. Many of my medications cause sleeplessness. I toss and turn until about 5:30. I struggle to get out of bed. My body is very contorted at this time because of the arthritis. Most times I cannot brush my own hair or teeth. I start to take a shower, but I can only use hot water. If the water is even luke warm, my fingers, toes, and sometimes nose turn blue. Cold water also causes my lungs to hurt. I continue getting dressed when I want to do is go back to sleep. I then make breakfast which often makes me nauseated because I just took all my medications. By 12:00 pm I need to nap because I am too exhausted. I usually don’t wake up until 3:00 pm. I make lunch / dinner and I am asleep by 7:00. This is a typical day when I don’t work. This doesn’t include the back pain from my kidneys. I need to drink water but when I drink water my lungs fill up with liquid. This also doesn’t include the constant migraines or the auras that cause me to go blind.
It is estimated over 5 million people live with this horrible disease everyday. I urge you to go and read more about it at www.lupus.org. There is also a link to donate.”
If you haven’t seen somebody do the ALS ice-bucket challenge you have probably been living under a rock. If you have an active Facebook page like me then you more than likely see 5 -10 a day. This past week not only did I see videos but I witnessed one in person and my son participated in one. I don’t remember any kind of charity event that has really taken off like this one has. But what has prompted me to write about it is the folks that have been criticizing the challenge. Of course everyone is entitled to their opinion and I have no problem with someone who genuinely does not want to participate or cannot donate. As far as I’m concerned that is their business and their choice. What I do have a problem with is those that feel the need to criticize anyone and everyone who has chosen to participate. The reasons they give range from wasting water to people being uninformed and simply doing it for attention. I find the last one a little hypocritical since most of the most of those speaking out against the practice also posted a video. If I was challenged I’m not sure I would do it or donate but I certainly have no problem with anyone that does. I see no problem with bringing awareness to a good cause and I think it is awesome that people are trying to have a little fun while doing something good. It has helped to raise more money than they have ever done for ALS research. But the main reason that I think it is a good thing is I have talked to one friend that has had a relative suffer from ALS and I have seen three videos created by ALS patients. Everyone of the ALS patients has said that each time they see an ALS challenge it gives them hope. Each time they see a challenge awareness is raised and hope is given. Each time they see one they have hope that someone is no more sympathetic and can relate a little more. I can only imagine what it would be like to have an incurable disease. If something as simple as pouring a bucket of ice water on someone’s head gives another person hope then that is a small price to pay. Inspirational author Orison Swett Marden said, “There is no medicine like hope, no incentive so great, and no tonic so powerful as expectation of something tomorrow.” Sometimes we can’t give much but if we give hope we have given enough.
For the past week I have been seeing Facebook posts about teachers getting their rooms ready, parents sending their kids to school and students leaving for college. It’s one of my favorite times of year. We all see it differently and it brings so many different emotions.
Very young students are still enthusiastic about the first day of school. They love getting those new backpacks and crayons and it’s all so exciting! It is the parents that have difficulty letting the young ones go. As they get older it becomes less cool to be excited about school the zeal turns to dread and you have to tear them away from their X-Box kicking and screaming.
College freshman are the most extreme. As a high school teacher I have seen it for years. There is the one group that cannot wait to put their high school years far behind them and get started with this new chapter in their life. Some see it as the goal that they have been reaching toward for years. Others see it as the opportunity that their parents never had. A chance to make them proud and at the same time, rise above their current circumstances. Still others just see it as a chance to escape and be on their own and free for the first time in their lives. But not everyone sees it this way. There are those look at college as the wind and waves of a tremendous storm that is about to swallow them. They know the benefits and the opportunities but also recognize that they are leaving their comfort zones, their families and friends. They are leaving high school where many of the decisions were made for them. They realize that this is a time when they will be tested and they will see what they are made of. The beauty is that most of them will conquer that fear and anxiety and rise to new heights that they never imagined and will learn so much about themselves in the process.
That is one of the reasons I love the first day of school. If I could borrow a line from Forrest Gump, “the new school year is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you are going to get!” It’s so true. Generally students are the same year after year but individually they are so unique and every student that comes through my door has something different to bring to the table. Some are funny, some are artistic, some are intellectual but many don’t know what they are. Many of them are floundering around trying to find their niche in this world. They may not find it completely in my class but hopefully, together we can take a step toward finding who they are. What I see is that all of them are beautiful and powerful and my job is to help them figure that out. My mind is filled with anticipation about how I can make their life better and how can they change mine. I know that personally I can never really change the world but I have the opportunity to change the world for about 150 students and they in turn can make a difference. I can help them see things they have never seen and they can help me see life from a new perspective. The magic of a new school year and the first day of school is that the possibilities are endless so let’s get it started! Let’s have a great year!
Today I’m not going to write anything except an introduction to a song that most of you have probably never heard but is something that all of us could learn from. The song is Don’t Shoot the Wounded by Chuck Girard
Don’t shoot the wounded, they need us more than ever
They need our love no matter what it is they’ve done
Sometimes we just condemn them,
And don’t take time to hear their story
Don’t shoot the wounded, someday you might be one
It’s easy to love the people who are standing hard and fast
Pressing on to meet that higher calling
But the ones who might be struggling, we tend to judge too harshly
And refuse to try and catch them when they’re falling
We put people into boxes and we draw our hard conclusions
And when they do the things we know they should not do
We sometimes write them off as hopeless
And we throw them to the dogs
Our compassion and forgiveness sometimes seem in short supply
So I say…
We can love them and forgive them
When their sin does not exceed our own
For we too have been down bumpy roads before
But when they commit offenses outside the boundaries we have set
We judge them in a word and we turn them out,
And we close the door
Myself I’ve been forgiven for so many awful things
I’ve been cleansed and washed and bathed so many times
That when I see a brother who has fallen from the way
I just can’t find the license to convict him of his crimes
So I say…
That doesn’t mean we turn our heads when we see a brother sin
And pretend that what he’s doing is all right
But we must help him see his error, we must lead him to repent
Cry with those who cry, but bring their deeds into the light
For it’s the sick that need the doctor,
and it’s the lame that need the crutch
It’s the prodigal who needs the loving hand
For a man who’s in despair, there should be
Kindness from his friends
‘Lest he should forsake the fear of almighty God
And turn away from God and man
So I say…
©1982 Sea of Glass Music/ASCAP
Last night we learned that a wonderful actor and comedian Robin Williams took his life at the age of 63. That coupled with the reality that the new school year is fresh on my mind took me back to a time when I was a new teacher. It was 1988 and I was fresh out of college and I had no clue what theory I would use or which educational philosophy I would follow. I didn’t know about the Lesson Cycle or the 5 E model. I just wanted to teach. Then the very next year the movie Dead Poets Society came out. As soon as I watched it I knew that’s the kind of teacher I wanted to be and today I want to share with you all of the things I learned in this movie that have made me a better teacher.
1) Humor- Obviously Robin Williams was a master at humor but everyday in my classroom I become a comedian at least part-time. When students are laughing they are not bored and they want to come back. I always think that this might be the only place they are all day where they can have fun. If I can make my students laugh at least once a day then I feel that I have had a successful day.
2) Unconventional teaching- In the movie John Keating was constantly doing something that would seem out-of-place in an English classroom. As a matter of fact he would literally go outside the classroom to teach. There are scenes where students look at each other and you can see them asking themselves, “Is this guy for real?” or “Are we allowed to do this?” I love it when my own students get those looks or when they actually ask me those questions. Unconventional teaching strategies are often misunderstood and criticized but very rarely ineffective.
3) Passion- John Keating had a passion for the subject he taught and he made that completely clear on his first day of class and he didn’t apologize for it. I don’t think any subject can be taught effectively without passion and enthusiasm.
4) Thinking for themselves- He challenged students to think for themselves. Too many time in education we try to tell students what they should think. We give them lessons with the right answers and move on and don’t allow them to question or see a different side. By teaching students to think for themselves we prepare them for the real world. You can see this portrayed in the last scene of the movie that is so well done when the boys fight that internal battle of whether to take the easy way out and go with the flow or literally take a stand for what thy believe to be right.
5) Caring- Keating genuinely cared for his students and made himself available to them. There is an old saying that says, “Students don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” I fully believe that students learn best from someone that cares and in whom hey can place their trust.
6) Disagreeing with colleagues- One thing that I didn’t see the first time I watched the movie was his interaction with a colleague. The other teacher questioned his teaching technique and they had a discussion. They ultimately disagreed with each other but remained friends to the end. In education we must have discussion and debate. There will always be differences of opinion but when we communicate we can solve problems and move forward. I think today we call it collaboration. But the bottom line is that we can disagree as colleagues and still work together to reach the goal of teaching students. I am fortunate that I am able to have open discussion with many of the faculty at my school.
I owe a great deal to this movie and to Robin Williams for portraying the character so well. I can only hope that my teaching has had a lasting impact on the students that have come through my classroom and been in my care.
First of all I have a newsflash for all of you. Nobody is perfect! Profound right? Now let me explain why I am stating the obvious. It seems like in this world of imperfect people we somehow expect to find perfect relationships, perfect jobs, perfect families and perfect situations. The closest thing I have had to perfection was a vacation and since I had to pay for that it wasn’t really perfection. Just like two wrongs don’t make a right, two imperfect people cannot make a perfect couple. In the 80s we had The Cosby Show and Family Ties showing us that the perfect couple can have the perfect family and perfect jobs. Even when there was a problem it can be solved in 30 minutes with a perfect solution. Tough problems might take two episodes. I find it very ironic that two of the child actors(Lisa Bonet and Justine Bateman) were going through very real problems while portraying roles in these “perfect” families. The reality is that the perfect job, the perfect spouse, the perfect president or the perfect county doesn’t exist. But you can be happy in imperfection. This is a personal struggle of mine. Without really saying it or consciously thinking it, I was seeking perfection. I have changed jobs several times in my career looking for something better only to find that every job has pros and cons. More importantly I was seeking it in my marriage and the reality was I was letting something beautiful slip away. Instead of seeing and holding onto what I had, I constantly focused on what I didn’t have and what my wife wasn’t doing or providing. How terrible and what a recipe for failure. If we focus on what we don’t have we will be constantly disappointed. John F. Kennedy once said, “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.” I think the same can be said for relationships. Unrealistic expectations and the myth of perfection is destroying many marriages and families. These expectations are also robbing us of our happiness and fulfillment. Life is about choices. It’s about time to choose where your focus will be. As for me, I know she isn’t perfect but I am going to choose to see my wife for what she really is, which is one of the best blessings I have ever received. Thank you Kristen!