Honor the Transitions

Recently in a new yoga class, I heard the teacher say, ‘Honor the transitions.’  She went on to say how important it is to be mindful  of how one moves from one pose to the next.  This is a time for your body to ‘reset’ itself after intense stretching or working of muscles on one side before you move to the other. The transition is important for preventing injury and gaining maximum benefit from the poses both before and after it.

That short sentence, Honor the Transitions,  got me thinking about transitions beyond the yoga mat, mainly because they are all around me right now.  My own child, a junior in college, is transitioning to another country for studying abroad this semester.  A close friend just sent her firstborn off to college. Another friend’s child has changed schools.  My students and I are moving from summer to fall,  from holidays to school days.

As I think about transitions,  I remember a coupIe of years ago I had a young teacher completing her internship experience with me.  Her university sent a supervisor out to observe her on a few occasions.  She was a natural in the classroom and had a well-prepared lesson, so about the only critique he had for her after the first observation was this:  Work on your transitions.   He went on to explain, and I agreed with him completely, that this is the hardest part of classroom management for an inexperienced teacher. Nothing in the textbooks can teach you how to do this; you must get in front of the students and practice.  You learn how to do the transitions in the classroom with the students.    New teachers have the tendency to either move too quickly through them, not anticipating the time the students need to shift from one activity to the next,  or they fail to give specific directions opening the door for chaos to erupt.

Here the classroom and the yoga mat are reflecting life back to me.  Transitions should be approached with time, space, and intent, recognizing what was before and what is to come.  They are also messy –  in and out of the classroom. Even with the best of plans, the transitions sometimes yield up confusion and turmoil,  at least temporarily.The place where we most feel the loss of control is in the transition points. Only the oldest, wisest among us are really good at them and that’s because they’ve learned from  experiences – many of those difficult ones.

If you’ve walked a child into kindergarten or moved one into a dorm room, you know the conflicting emotions of grieving an ending and celebrating a beginning at the same time. If you have bought car insurance for a sixteen-year-old or a corsage for a prom date, you know the feeling of ‘first time’ and ‘end of an era’ at the same time.   Those rites of passage are worth attention, not just for the pictures to post to social media; but to pause in gratitude, awe, and humility at what has gone before and to prepare for what is to come.

Both as mother and teacher, I’ve barreled through many transitions without time for myself or those around me to segue from one thing to the next and I’ve entered ‘the next thing’ too often without reflecting upon what I left behind. My lesson this week from my classroom and my yoga mat:  Honor the transitions.

So What Happens When…You Do Hurt Them?

So what happens when…. this was the subject line of an email I received a few days after I wrote my last blog post.  I smiled. I knew before I opened the emailed what the rest of it would say: …You do hurt them?   My smile was not because hurting anyone is pleasant or funny, but because of the inevitability of it.  When you interact with other people all day long, somewhere in all those words somebody will get hurt occasionally.

My colleague went on to explain that she’d refused to let a kid off the hook in answering a question in the beginning days of school.  She assumed, like most of us  high school teachers would, that he was apathetic and unprepared.   Later she learned that he had “serious academic issues –  some processing problems,”  and now she feels “awful!”

How did I answer her?

You just do what you are doing.

Buried in her question was most of my answer.  She had already recognized what she had done.  She’s self-aware, a reflective person by nature, and willing to grow and change as a professional.  She had the presence of mind to think about what she had done and put a name to it.  To recognize is to identify, to acknowledge, to accept, to admit.

Secondly, she confessed.  In reaching out to me, in telling another person, “Hey, I messed up,” she is finding solidarity and accountability. Those two things can carry a person through most anything.   Confession to another person means somebody to feel my pain and  share my regret because they’ve had this experience too and somebody to help me lessen my chances of messing up again. Telling our stories has tremendous power both to heal ourselves and help each other.

Thirdly,  I told her to start again with awareness. We are given a sunrise every morning.  Mercy is extended to us upon waking.  She could, the very next day, just be kind and supportive to that student. He will in time see that she genuinely cares for him and her ‘push’ wasn’t personal. The beauty of the Gospel is that even our messes are redeemed and used for good purposes in the lives of others and ourselves.

Some occasions call for apologies, not an easy thing coming from the teacher to the student. We mostly expect them going in the other direction.  But there is tremendous power in that act to create a lasting relationship with a student. To show yourself as a flawed human being, to show them what humility looks like, to recognize the dignity of their feelings, to show them that power doesn’t exempt us from continuing to learn out of our own frustrations and failures,  those may be some of the best lessons we ever teach them.

Then, I told her to let it go.  In starting again, mindful of what you have learned, don’t waste time and energy and emotion on the guilt.  Nothing creative comes out of guilt and we need creative teachers in our classrooms.

And lastly,  don’t be surprised when you mess up again.  Pride is the problem when we are continually shocked at ourselves for imperfection.   If you’re like the rest of the human race, you’ll make mistakes and you’ll hurt someone with your words once in awhile.  When you do, start with step one: recognition… and repeat the above process.

Teacher as Student: The Growth Mindset- Learning Empathy and Humility

I’ve been in Atlanta all week attending an AP Institute. This training is for a new class I am teaching next year, and the subject- Language and Composition – is my favorite strand of the English curriculum. I’ve been looking forward to this week for a few months and I expected it to be interesting, intellectually stimulating, and fun. It was.

It was also challenging and humbling. I walked into a roomful of strangers Monday morning at 8:00, many of whom had more education and teaching experience than I, though they are younger people. At noon, four hours into knowing these people, we headed to the cafeteria on the campus where our training was held. I thought of my freshman students who every year write about the social terrors of the lunchroom the first week of high school. As I filled my water glass while trying to balance my plate, I wondered where I was going to sit, which table would have a space for me. I felt my freshmen’s pain.

Without realizing initially what was happening to me, I was being put through the paces my students go through each time they start a new class at a new level. Our instructor, Valerie Stevenson of San Diego, CA, a master teacher, wasn’t about to just show us course material and how to construct a syllabus for this class. Oh no! She had us taking the sample multiple choice test, writing a synthesis essay, a rhetorical analysis, and an argument. If that wasn’t enough, she handed us sample student papers, instructed us in the scoring guide, and told us to score them “the AP way.” My first attempt at that was unnerving. Let’s just say I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and it showed the next morning when I brought my homework to class.

When I whispered to her during the break that I had given the “9” paper a “5” and that I felt I might not be cut out for this work, she laughed. “So you are not good at it yet,” she said. She and I had previously discussed Carol Dweck’s  The Growth Mindset, required summer reading for teachers at my school and on Valerie’s recommended resources list. I’d read that book last fall thinking about all the parents I knew who should rear their children to have this ‘growth mindset’ instead of instantly thinking they should make A’s in everything from the beginning of a course. I’d read that book with my nose in the air, never once seeing myself as that student. “I bet you were that student who was usually good at things the first time and when you hit something hard, you lost confidence and backed away,” Valerie said. Bingo! Ouch! Was this woman a psychologist, too?

“It’s the growth mindset,” she said. “You’ll get better with practice. Can you see, now that I have explained it, why it was a 9?” I answered ‘Yes’. “Then you are going to be fine,” she said, “If you are seeing, then you are learning.” She was so breezily confident in me and unworried about my future in her profession that I decided maybe I was taking myself and my performance in the moment entirely too seriously. Then she went on to confess that she made a “D” in seventh grade English. This woman, this master teacher who has made a name for herself across the country as an English teacher and AP Consultant, made a D in seventh grade English. Another teacher standing nearby, a seasoned AP teacher attending her second institute as a refresher course, confessed to failing Freshman Comp as a college freshman. Carol Dweck’s book was standing in front of me.

I’d bought into Dweck’s arguments when I read it, but I hadn’t really experienced it personally in recent memory. I’d used the concepts with my students, ninth graders beginning high school, repeatedly telling them it was OK not to be good at something the first time you try. I had not put myself into a situation where that was possible.

Empathy and humility. Who doesn’t want to have those virtues? Yet acquiring them is another thing entirely. We don’t just ‘muster up’ humility or empathize by an act of our wills. Rather, these qualities are worked into us as human beings by the circumstances of our lives. At every turn, though, we will unconsciously avoid the very situations designed to make us humble and empathetic creatures because the situations are uncomfortable and unpleasant.

My ‘going back to school’ this week met my expectations as interesting, intellectually stimulating and fun. It exceeded my expectations by being challenging, and humbling. I’m practicing to become a good AP Lang teacher and grader and more importantly, an empathetic teacher and human being. I can see it; but as Valerie said, “Not yet.”