The importance of a teacher

She found me in the library – where else? – and proposed something unlikely: would I like to join the year book club?  Miss Banga was my English teacher in my sophomore year and I thought she was great.  Not only did she spend her days doing what I hoped to do someday but she also was comfortable with herself in that she laughed easily, she enjoyed her students so made us all feel good about being in her room and she adored literature which showed in the way she lovingly talked about authors and even in how she held her books.  I was her fan from the start.

As a student who was trying to get through high school while flying under the radar, it never occurred to me that I would join a group that wasn’t sports. But since she was the one asking and she clearly had noticed my proclivities ( a word she and I would use unashamedly ),  I didn’t want to turn her down.  So in my junior year I stretched out of my comfort zone because she asked me to and I found a place to blossom.  By spring, she asked me to be the editor the following year and I accepted with no hesitation.  That year was a glorious one in which I had a purpose, daily connection with this lovely teacher who instilled all her confidence into me and an ever-increasing view of who I was to become.  And it was all because of how the Lord used her.

Sidney Hook insists that “Everyone who remembers his own education remembers the teacher, not the methods or techniques.  The teacher is the heart of the educational system.”  In my experience, this is true. In my Kindergarten through bachelor’s degree and beyond education, I’ve had my share of teachers. Some lacked passion, some lacked skill and others lacked kindness.  Others went above and beyond, knew their students and brought their A game every single class period.  They listened and noticed; enlivened and inspired.

To enter a classroom takes a measure of trust and for those who love education or those who endure it, the teacher makes the experience.  Sure, I’m thankful if they’ve discovered an effective technique to help me learn fractions (no one ever did in my case) or have a method of classroom management where all are valued (a few got it right), but what I really want as a student – and will remember – is your love.  Not only do you love the subject, but do you love your students enough to notice them?  Being known is one of the first steps in trust.  To be noticed and feel that someone finds you interesting or capable or worthy…that is not only memorable but precious.

As I begin another year as a teacher, aka the best job in the world, it’s humbling to know that I stand in the heart of the educational system for my students.  For some, I’m going to get it right; for others, my peers will. Since I now teach homeschooled kids, their moms and some dads have been the heart of their educational system and I reap the benefits in having students who are grounded, bright and centered.  For many, the parent is the heart of the educational system.  Together, we aim to give your child an education that will transcend these childhood years.

Thank you for teaching me that, Miss Banga.  You’re so humble that you probably would brush off the compliment but knowing you, you’d just want me to go out and do that for someone else.  I hope everyone who teaches kids does because every touch point is an opportunity to realize that this child’s life is important and what we do today matters for a lifetime.


Are devices keeping our teens from reading?

A year ago I was happily plodding along on the treadmill at the gym.  I was doing what I always do – reading – while trudging along at level 4.  That’s grandma pace – don’t judge.  I switched the book back and forth while holding onto the rail but then had to lean it against the touch screen so it was straight ahead of me.  Before I knew it, I was running!!  I jumped off and saw that the touch screen had crept up to 14.  That’s full-sweat, sprinting-up-a-mountain fast.  If you know me, you know I don’t run, but I was — because the book was so good!! I was so completely engrossed that I didn’t even notice  how my legs became independent of my awareness.*

Is that kind of absorption an anomaly?  Would I have done that if I were a teenager?  Actually, I’d be more likely to be on my phone.  Anywhere you see a teen with time to kill, you’ll see them staring intently at their handheld devices.  If they’re not sending or receiving a text, they’re looking at apps, playing games or checking a status.  And it’s not just teens; adults are guilty here, too. Here’s a concern: teens have much to learn yet, like how to read body language and voice inflections, how to think and respond to a conversation, how to engage a real live human.  These are important skills, people!

A whopping 78% of teens have cellphones.  The Washington Post reports that teens spend an incredible 7 1/2 hours a day consuming media.  That’s mind-boggling!!!  After school and sleep and family time, when do kids read?  Additionally, articles have been written about the lost art of patience or how few of us allow ourselves to be still and have nothing to do for a moment without panicking (I’m at a stoplight….I can’t just sit here!! Where’s my phone?)  Following that lead, some adults bemoan that teens will know nothing of being quiet, reflective or patient.  Maybe….but does that define all teens?

While teaching at ZLO (Zacchaeus Learning Opportunities in Whatcom County) this year, I had reason to not worry too much about the demise of our kids at the hands of devices.  What you have to know is that I’m very passionate about books.  When I read a book I love,  I must tell someone about it!  Who better than my eager students?  So, knowing I had some real readers in one class in particular, I gushed about a novel I devoured in two nights.  I handed the book over to a girl who grabbed it before the jealous others and went on with class.  Two days later – two. days. – the book was returned.  She loved it as much as I had and read it just as fast.  This was great news to the other girls who had it on hold at the library and couldn’t get it fast enough.  Sure enough, two others read it in two nights as well.

This didn’t strike me as unusual because I knew the quality of these girls.  (For the record, the boys in this group are just as zealous about books) However, I sometimes forget that more and more kids choose a game or app over a book.  I understand the allure, but personally, I get bored with those.  I want to go away.  I want to meet new people.  I want to see how others react to situations I know little about.  Basically, I want to learn in the most pleasing way I know – through reading.

Thankfully,  I’m not alone.  Reading isn’t just for older people!  Teen fiction has been exploding and if you push aside the vampire and teen lust titles, you’re going to find some fine reading….books so good you’ll be completely engrossed.  Sure, there are books that leave me with a ‘meh’ but I ditch it and grab another.  There’s always another good one waiting to be discovered.  And if you find a great book – tell a teen!  They might be willing to put down their phone and tear through it in a night or two.

* the book was The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

The chocolate cake connection

One sunny morning about 15 years ago found me standing at my kitchen counter frosting a cake.  It was three layers of chocolate and silky frosting was going on smoothly.  What makes this cake different from the myriad I have made was that my mom was standing on the other side of the counter watching me.  As I worked my spatula back and forth, she noted nonchalantly, “You’re just like your grandma.”   My hand froze.  “What?”  This from a lady who hardly ever mentioned her mother, childhood, past…and oh how I wish she had!  I had so many questions about my ancestors but those questions were always just met with a shrug.

Again, “What?”  I had to contain myself from shaking her shoulders and pleading with her to open the floodgates of memory.  How am I like her? I knew some ways from my memory alone.  She could be quite mischievous and chuckled when she heard of something a little naughty, her eyes twinkling.  She loved to listen to the baseball game while sitting in her sunny living room and she kept the police scanner on, always interested in what local law enforcement was encountering that day.  I also clearly remembering her “peeling out” around the corner in her huge blue Buick.  For a 70-something year old lady, she knew how to floor it – and she enjoyed it, too.  Grandma loved music and having family over for coffee, always with a little sweet something served on the side.

This particular morning it came out that my grandmother was known for her cinnamon rolls and chocolate cake.  Hold the phone.  How did I learn of this some fifteen years after my grandmother passed away?  Here I was, becoming known for my cinnamon rolls and chocolate cake, completely oblivious that I was echoing my grandmother so many miles & years away, so distant from knowing the real her, yet behaving like her through a simple recipe. I don’t know how I landed on those two items in particular to craft repeatedly, but I was somehow drawn to them.  Mixing flour, butter and sugar is so relaxing, so natural…I feel very much like me when I’m at my counter making something sweet for someone I love.  Knowing that so many decades ago, she was doing the same thing, is so gratifying.

I know lots of people have lost loved ones; I also know women my age who still have their grandmothers and parents.  Losing them so long ago compounded by living away from my birth family for almost 30 years makes me a little more keen for moments like these, I guess.  Even though I’m so much like my mom and grandma in copious ways, that experience made me a little different in that while I’m making or baking or serving that cake or those gooey rolls, I make sure I remember to tell a story of what those two were like… or me.  I’ve raised my kids’ eyebrows with a few stories of my youth (like they can’t quite envision me as a spot welder), but I want to make sure they remember a few things about me and my ancestors from when we were younger.  Hopefully, when many years have gone by and my kids enjoy a piece of my cake made by their own hands in memory of me, the stories they hold will be sweeter than the frosting on the cake.

Teen titles every parent should read

It was so much fun to be the guest speaker recently for a school celebrating the joy of reading.  What better person to talk about it than a local lady who has been known to hug a few books and generally get quite excited about them?   I alternate my reading between adult and teen books, always on the prowl for a good one.  The teen authors have much to offer, if you can weed through the dark themes that seem to dominate the industry.  Thankfully, there are authors out there who write good stories that are well-told.  I shared these titles with the group and so many moms wanted the list that here it is.

Kathryn Erskine has written an important book here that helps us all understand those with Asperger’s Syndrome. Hearing Katelyn filter her experiences through her eyes is funny and heartbreaking at the same time.  She’s incredibly honest about life yet her honesty isn’t always appreciated or understood by her peers.  Meanwhile, her dad is grieving the loss of his son at a random school shooting.  In Mockingbird, Katelyn needs to navigate school and dad’s confusing (to her) grief but her school counselor and others come alongside her to teach her the nuances that other children know naturally.  A great book that makes kids sensitive to those kids who might seem ‘different’ but they don’t know why.

Bluefish is another winner because it’s simple to read but you just love the characters!  Travis lost his parents and his dog.  Velveeta has a dysfunctional mother but a sensational personality.  When she notices that quiet Travis can’t read, she sets out to help him, but both of these kids need help in other ways, too, and they find true friendship and healing in each other.  It’s sweet but not trite.  My 7th graders love this book as much as I do.

I’ve read The Outsiders more than twenty times and I never tire of it.  Sometimes parents have questioned my choice, but after they read it and their teen raves about it, their mind is changed.  This novel simply changes how we look at people. Do we judge by appearances?  We don’t like to think we do, but…we do!  I encourage my students to read it with their Christian eyeballs. Life is harder for the Greasers, but they have solid friendships and a thoughtful boy who narrates the story.  He longs for people to get along and to understand why others can treat those who are so different from them as poorly as the Socs do.  Readers ‘get’ how they also judge others and they’re inspired to see them as people, not as a stereotype.

I read Wonder in two days.  Three teens I recommended the book to read it in two days and my hubbie read it in an afternoon.  It’s not because it’s simple or brief, it’s because it’s so good!  Once you have it in your hands, you want to just keep going!  Auggie enters fifth grade as a first time public schooler because he’s had so many facial surgeries.  A number of voices tell the story of his school year and how his face might be different but his rockin’ personality totally wins people over.

The Wednesday Wars is part of my reading curriculum and I recommend it to everyone.  Holling begins 7th grade thinking his teacher hates his guts, but as the year goes on, he and she bond through a variety of experiences and she becomes just who needs to grow into a wise and thoughtful young man.  Along the way, Holling has hilarious adventures and learns not just about himself but also about his friends and family, all with their unique quirks.  This has a beautiful message but kids are so busy laughing and commiserating with Holling that they’re more than happy to read it.

Happy Reading!!  If you have a recommendation for me, please let me know!  I love to find great fiction.


Atticus still gets it right

My 10th graders and I just finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird.  It was their first read, my 7th or 8th….and it doesn’t get old.  Some say it’s a civil rights novel; others know it’s way more than that.  When a novel is written that well, you can glean out of it for years. That’s what I’m doing today.  I’m thinking of the people who could benefit from being reminded of Atticus’s advice, and that is to try walking in someone else’s shoes for awhile.  Oh how much better our interactions would be if we try to imagine what a situation is like from their point of view.

If you’ve read the book, you might remember that feisty Scout could scrap with the best of them.  The nanny/maid Calpurnia was too strict with her, her new teacher Miss Caroline was mad that she came to school already knowing how to read, her brother Jem didn’t want her hanging around him at recess and Walter Cunningham got her in trouble at school so she shoved his face in the dirt at her first opportunity.    Life is rough for a 6 year old.  So, she pours out her troubles to her wise and gentle father who listens quietly and doesn’t reproach her.

I know a few people right now who are facing a relational conflict.  I bet they wouldn’t mind a turn on that swing, getting kind advice from a man known to millions as calm-headed and wise.  Thank goodness we can be reminded of what Atticus told Scout that day – and spent the novel trying to teach his kids – if you only try to think of what the other person is experiencing, you might not be so upset.  It’s hard for us to do that.  Don’t we think we’re always right?  How could there possibly be another way to look at it, after all?

Last month I was in a crowded Aeropostle, squeezing my way through a narrow gap to get a different size shirt for my daughter.  I had been shopping too long, was too warm, felt light-headed and thanks to low blood pressure, kept having to take deep breaths.  Those breaths sound like irritated sighs apparently, b/c I heaved in a good amount of air just as I was squeezing by a mom and daughter, stroller in tow.  The older woman gave me quite an acidic, dirty look.  I so wanted to say, “Lady, don’t assume my breathing has anything to do with you. (way to assume the worst, btw!)”  But it’s not so easy to explain an odd health issue like I have, in a crowded store at Christmas time,  so I let her think what she wanted to think.

I’m not always good at this but I try to remind myself that in their shoes, things undeniably look different.  And most often, people’s responses to us have less to do with us and more to do with them.  (Glass half empty, anyone?)   My husband is particularly good at slowing down, stopping to think, giving the other the benefit of the doubt – and believing that something else might be going on that is affecting things.  I think he and Atticus would have been great friends.  Meanwhile, I still have plenty of Scout moments where people just don’t make sense, life seems unfair and I need a calm and patient listener.  Thankfully, I’m reminded again to practice walking in another’s shoes and hopefully, I can play ‘Atticus’ to someone else who’s tempted to rub someone’s face in the proverbial dirt.

An open letter to teachers

Dear teachers,

You know you have an amazing job, right?  You also know how difficult it is (well, if you’re doing it right, it is).  Much has been written about your incredible influence, your impact on kids, how kids are our future.  I won’t belabor that.  I’d like to tell you something different, if I may; a few things I’ve observed over the years of being in a variety of types of classroom settings.

1. Those kids that are true children now will someday be your friends and peers.  Or, they will be the parents of your children’s kids. Seeing them that way now prevents you from treating them in a way that might be condescending or unkind.  These kids are your future friends.

2. Therefore, remember that their spirit is more important than your content.  Yes, we all have educational goals for them, &  for ourselves as teachers, but don’t let that get in the way when a child really needs a little sensitivity.

3.  Please, I beg you, try something new.  Have you used this project a million times?  assigned the same book?  used that same worksheet?  Please, please try something new.  If you fail, who cares?  The earth will still rotate.  The kids won’t care…they’ll see someone who tried.  And parents will love that you innovate.

4. Hate the question “When are we ever going to use this”?  (I do, too!) But kids are really asking, how is this relevant?  So…tell them!  There have been times when I was teaching something that even I asked that question.  So, I tweaked it; or dropped it.  That question pushes us to answer it…and it can be answered.  All skills are transferable…it’s up to you to show your kids that.

5. This one keeps us sharp: most kids are incredible observers.  They might not always perceive correctly, but they know what’s important to us, they learn our attitudes, they intuit our values.  Teachers don’t have the luxury (is it?) of going in, doing the job, and leaving.  It’s so much more than that.  It’s about your person-hood, too.  Who you are is just as important as what you’re teaching.  And because of that, the job is weighty.

So tomorrow morning, when you go into your classroom, know that your day is filled with great opportunity.  Someone’s looking at you bright-eyed, another apathetically, perhaps, but you will influence them.  Years from now, they might not remember your content, but they’ll remember your compassion.  Maybe they’ll even pay for your coffee when they tell you that.


For pity’s sake….say you’re sorry!!

Growing up, I was taught to say “I’m sorry.”  And say it I did.  When I was dating Fred, he had to tell me to stop saying it all the time, because at the first hint of annoying or inconveniencing anyone, I’ll say it.  But I was so genuine!  So I’ve toned it down but sometimes I feel like the only one who will cough up the words.

Where has that practice gone?  Just this week, two occasions stood out to me that clearly needed an apology.  These aren’t relationship-killing events, but obviously, someone gaffed and should have said something.  The first happened just today.  I was at a luncheon, having a lovely time.  The host came up to talk to me just after I’d sat down with my plate of food so I nibbled a bit but quit eating so I could focus on what he was saying.  Discreetly, I just put my napkin over the bulk of the meal and then stood up after a bit because the conversation became lengthy.  A good-hearted soul was cleaning up and outside of my eye shot, swept up my plate and threw it away.  I saw her nearby and went over to her and asked if she indeed had my lunch.  She looked in the bag, said an eloquent, “Oh….yeah.”  and moved on.  Uh, excuse me?    A simple, “Oh, I’m sorry about that!”  would have been nice.  I felt a little disregarded but an acknowledgement of the Oops would have made it a little softer.

I was an observer for this next example.  Some folks were sent an email from their employer saying they needed to do A in order to get B.  Time passed and they did not respond.  When the time came for them to need B, they were told….well, you needed to do A.  ‘Oh, yeah, I saw that but just didn’t do it.’  Uh, what?  When they were told again, that the parameters were clearly defined and they are capable of doing it, they just shrugged and muttered, “well….”

I don’t get it.  How can people so frequently express apathy?  Especially to the face of someone who is clearly invested or cares?  Why not say, “Oh, I’m sorry.  I’ll do that right away.”  When one can see another is inconvenienced, irked or just downright flabbergasted with their bumble, just say a simple “I’m sorry.”  It does so much to assuage.  (Look it up.  It’s a great word.)

Beyond just having good manners, when you say you’re sorry, a tendril of kindness connects two people.  It’s simple civility and it sure seems as if our world could use a little more of it.  I’m sorry.  That’s just what I think.