Servant Leadership (Part I)

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The past two months have been an absolute whirlwind. Not only am I a first year teacher, but I am also the only one at my school teaching 7th grade Pre-AP math. The prior teacher “is no longer with the district” and left none of her material, so I am having to develop all of my own lesson plans, including quizzes, tests, and differentiation activities for my students at different learning levels. I have duty before and after school twice a week, I am coaching the school’s math club, and the choir director found out I was a three-time All State Choir member, so on Thursdays I am using my conference period to do voice lessons for our choir girls.

I spend my weekends grading papers and attending mandatory GT workshops where I spend 8 hours of my Saturday learning about how to better reach my Gifted & Talented students. Though normally a neat freak, my state of my apartment has devolved into one of barely controlled chaos. I no longer sort my laundry by color, I actually leave dishes in the sink, and I can’t remember the last time I did a deep clean of my kitchen or bathroom.

I used to cook dinner for Seth about once a week, but these days, he usually gets to my apartment before I do and either has dinner cooking or has brought over take-out (which I then pack as my lunch for the next day).

This first year of teaching has been the most chaotic, involved and stressful of any job I’ve ever had, but it’s also been the most rewarding. More on that later. But suffice it to say, I haven’t felt like I’ve been a great girlfriend lately, and I tell Seth all the time, “I want to do something for you. Do you want me to try to get to the grocery store to make dinner tonight? Do you want to go for a bike ride after work? We used to do that all the time. Could I give you a back rub?” I want to do something! Seth has been selflessly serving me and patiently holding this relationship together while I try to keep my head above water. But he always just smiles (I can hear his smile over the phone) and tells me he’ll take care of everything. And he does.

The one thing I’ve been able to offer our relationship the past two months is gratefulness. I notice and appreciate everything Seth has been doing for me, from the big things (grocery shopping and cooking dinner) to the little things (picking up a dead roach in the front entryway). He even scrubbed the toilet bowl at my place a couple of weeks ago. He is so selfless and kind and loving, and he does it all joyfully, which has stirred my heart to love him all the more.

In the midst of my nonstop schedule, my friend Emma texted me and asked if I was up for a girls’ weekend trip. She’s a 9th grade math teacher, and her roommate also works in education, so they get it. And they suggested that the three of us take a mid-semester break to recharge. I was so excited and relieved at the thought of a break that I even agreed to give up a precious vacation day to take off Friday so we could make it a three-day weekend.

Seth and I attend bible study on Wednesday nights, and last week as we were walking back to our cars after bible study, Seth asked, “Could I come over and make you breakfast on Friday morning? You’re going to be gone all weekend, and it would be nice to see each other before you’re gone for three days.”

It was a sweet offer, and I wanted to see him, but he’s been doing so much for me lately that I felt a bit guilty at the thought of him doing one more thing to serve me. “I’d love to see you! But you don’t have to make me breakfast.”

“I want to.” He smiled.

I did like the thought of having a homemade breakfast together. And it would be nice to have some quiet time together before I left on my girls’ trip.¬†“You really don’t mind?” I asked.

He wrapped his arms around my waist and gave me a gentle kiss. “It would be my joy.”

So I packed Thursday night and looked forward to not only my girls’ weekend but also some quality time with my sweetheart.

Authentically Aurora

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Building Character, Not Just Academics

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On my very first day of teaching EVER, I invited my students into the classroom and instructed them to write on the board in response to three prompts:

  1. What are your expectations of me as your teacher?
  2. What are your expectations of each other as classmates?
  3. What are your expectations of yourself this year in my class?

After about five minutes I had everyone sit down, and we reviewed their responses as a class. These would become our social contract for the year.

In each of my six class periods, I was largely pleased with their responses. Some students wrote a teacher expectation of “no homework” and the like, but for the most part, I saw phrases like “be patient with us” and “be kind, not mean”. Against such things there is no law.

However, in second period when I asked, “Is there anything else anyone wants to add that they may not have written up on the board?”, a large, dark-haired boy in the front row raised his hand.

“Yes…” I checked my seating chart, “…Art?”

His brows drew together angrily. “One of my expectations of you as our teacher is that you get kids out of here who don’t deserve to be in this class.”

The previously silent classroom seemed to get even quieter. Perhaps I had heard wrong. “Excuse me, what?”

He repeated himself. “Like those two.” He pointed down the row at two smaller boys, Ernie and Kevin. “They’re not smart enough to be in Pre-AP, but their parents put them in here anyway. You should kick them out of your advanced math class or they’ll hold back the whole class.”

Stunned, it was purely by the grace of God that I managed a reasonable response. “Well, Art, that leads us nicely into our next topic, which is ‘Expectations of Each Other as Classmates’. You’ll see all over this board words like ‘kind’ and ‘respectful’.” I looked pointedly at him. “So we’re not going to have any more comments like that in my classroom. Is that understood?”

Art stayed behind after class. He told me again his concerns. Totally flabbergasted at his blatant arrogance and prejudice, I suggested, “You know, Art, I’m happy to have you come alongside me as the teacher and help tutor some of these other students if they need to be brought up to speed. Instead of tearing down our classmates, let’s work together to build them up, okay?”

Art laughed – a hardened, angry laugh. “They’re beyond help.” And he walked out of my room.

Yesterday I gave my first test of the year, and I marveled as I graded the papers from second period. The high-and-mighty Art only got 20% right. And little Ernie got an 80%.

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. -Proverbs 16:18

Authentically Aurora

The Teaching Rollercoaster

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Only 1 week into teaching, I can already attest to the fact that the rumors are true: Teaching is an emotional rollercoaster.

I haven’t even met any kids yet, and I’ve already climbed into the rail car and taken a few dips and turns! Just in-service was enough to get me pumped up and then anxious; excited and then stressed out at the mountain of things I have to do before next week. My To Do list is currently five pages single-spaced, and every day I am finding out about more things I have to do that I didn’t even know to ask about (like a Word Wall. Apparently every teacher – even math teachers like me – are required to have a “Word Wall” in their classrooms. I only know this because I overheard a conversation – who was going to tell me?!).

But at the end of the day – even the Alexander Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Days – I am still glad I am here at not in corporate.

I am still sure this was the right decision. It’s going to be hard, but it’s going to be good. In corporate, all of the vision casting was elaborate and verbose, but it never came to fruition; it was just rhetoric and word fluff from the top down that took no input from the lower ranks. They had no heart; no pure intent behind the syrupy words.

But here in my school district, it’s evident that the Superintendent at least – and also my direct Principal – genuinely believe in the shared vision. They legitimately took input and feedback from all stakeholders – parents, students, teacher and the community – to determine and develop our shared mission, values and purpose. They are passionate and authentic and bought in.

It’s not a perfect district (people are, after all, messy), but I can tell that they truly believe in empowering teachers and students (even if they’re not very good at equipping new teachers like myself). They encourage thoughtful challenge of the status quo.

I really think this is where I belong. I really think I finally found a fit. It won’t be perfect, but I think God has a purpose for me here, and I am excited to walk forward into this first school year as a teacher.

Authentically Aurora

Diego Turned Angel

On Child's Level.pngI’ve never considered myself to be certifiably insane, but – deciding to be a long-term sub for the last month of the school year? – maybe I should reconsider the state of my mental health.

After I resigned from my cushy (and soul-numbing) corporate job in April, I took a three-week long term substitute teaching assignment at a nearby elementary school. I figured it would be a good opportunity to learn some key teaching skills before I started my full-time teaching job in August. And I was right.

What I hadn’t taken into consideration were the facts that:

  • These 5th graders in my class had already finished their state testing and so felt like there was no more learning to be done.
  • They believed that they ruled the world (as the oldest grade in their school).
  • Summer (and graduation from elementary school) was less than one month away.
  • It was a Title I school.
  • I had basically zero experience with classroom management.

Suffice it to say, I nearly died those first few days. I had kids threaten to have their parents sue me when I said the wrong thing, had kids tell me they hated me and I was the worst teacher ever, had parents calling in wanting a parent-teacher conference because they believed their child was being bullied, had to get a counselor involved because a fifth grade boy was following girls into the bathroom and touching them inappropriately… It. Was. Madness.

But I survived. And I am better for it. And, looking back, it was actually a lot of fun. Because – for the first time in nearly eight years – I actually had purpose. I actually felt challenged. And I finally made an impact.

Diego was one of the kids I nearly sent to ISS the first day I subbed. He talked incessantly and, as soon as I got the class calmed down and on task, he (as a natural leader and the class clown) had the power to get them all off task again. I felt like I was constantly battling him for the class’s attention.

And Victor. He was the most simultaneously hateful, cynical, apathetic person I have ever met in my entire life. He loved to argue with me in front of the class just for argument’s sake. He knew I couldn’t physically touch him, so he openly defied me on a daily basis when I asked to speak with him privately outside. He refused to go in the hallway, and I couldn’t physically force him, so for a long time, I lost the daily battles of power struggle with Victor – the most arrogant, abrasive student I can imagine I will ever have in decades of teaching.

But as the weeks went on and I learned students’ names and personalities and values and insecurities, I slowly learned how to individualize not only my teaching but also my motivation and discipline of each one.

On my last week of subbing, the students were supposed to be engaging in silent reading time. Diego repeatedly got off task, reading out loud in an intentionally loud voice and distracting other students. When I asked him to read silently, he claimed not to be able to read without saying the words out loud (this was a lie). He – like Victor – refused to go into the hall with me, so I knelt down on his level and whispered to him quietly.

“Diego,” I sighed. “I know you think I don’t like you, but I do. I think you’re adorable. You’re smart, funny and a natural leader. You have so much potential!”

I shrugged my shoulders and continued as I knelt beside his desk on his eye level. “You are not a bad kid. But right now you are making bad choices. I can see the kind of man you could be, and I really want to see you reach your full potential. You are natural leader with a lot of power to do a lot of good in the world. But in order to do that, you need to start making better choices.”

To my surprise, Diego’s eyes started to water. He was tearing up, and I realized he probably had never been told by anyone that he had potential; that he had value and worth and power to do good in the world. So I went on, “It’s really up to you. I only have a few days left here, so it won’t affect me either way. But every day, you make choices that have consequences, and those can be good or bad consequences. I hope for your sake – and the world’s – you choose good.”

Diego just hung his head and wouldn’t make eye contact with me after that, so I left him alone, but he was surprisingly quiet the rest of the day.

The next morning, the class was working individually on a math worksheet, and – to my surprise – Diego raised his hand and asked for help understanding how to add fractions. He’d never expressed interest in learning before. Encouraged, I knelt by his desk and gently explained to him how to find common denominators so he could add (or subtract) fractions easily. I watched the lightbulb flash in his eyes as he “got” it, and he worked a few problems on his own to show me that he understood the concept.

Later that afternoon, some girls got in trouble for selling homemade “slime” (that ended up clogging the school toilets), and a lot of the kids – exposed to this entrepreneurial spirit for perhaps the first time – were trying to figure out how they could make some side money selling something at school. Diego came up to me and asked simply, “Will you give me five dollars?”

“Why would I give you five dollars?” I asked, not unkindly.

Diego looked thoughtful. “What if I gave you something?”

“Like what?” I asked, forcing him to think through what he was asking.

“Hmm… like a cake?” he suggested.

“That sounds nice,” I told him. “What kind of cake?”

He furrowed his brow, thinking hard. “Maybe chocolate or strawberry?”

I smiled. “Diego, if you bring me a chocolate cake tomorrow, I will give you five dollars.”

I had little to no expectation that the little man who’d given me so much trouble would actually follow through in baking a cake, but the next morning, Diego bounded into my room, beaming with delight he tried to hide a bit as he dashed up to me holding a little 9″x9″ foil pan.

“I brought it!” he exclaimed, and I peeled back the foil to see chocolate icing covering what looked like a homemade box cake.

I smiled at him and pulled a $5 from my wallet. “Here you go,” I told him. “You earned it!” His delight as he accepted the money made me smile all the more.

In retrospect, I probably couldn’t have done that exchange with Diego if I was a full-time teacher or if I hadn’t been about to leave that school campus, but I’m thankful for the way it worked out because not only did I finally make a meaningful, positive connection with a formerly disruptive student, but Diego also learned some important lessons about entrepreneurship, determination, and the power of our choices. He finally had someone show him tough love and believe in him for becoming more than he was.

The next day was my last day, and I had essentially no hope for a reconciliation with Victor, but even he surprised me. Early in the day, I kept Victor outside of the computer lab to talk with him before he went in. I gave him a similar speech to the one I’d given Diego, and like the other boy, Victor started to tear up. I don’t think either one had ever experienced a loving “I believe you for better” heart-to-heart. And at the end of that school day, Victor – the thorn in my side and bane of my existence – was the first to volunteer to stack chairs on the desks before recess. He picked up loose papers and helped me tidy up the classroom without being asked, and my heart was warmed by his transformation.

After a tough few weeks, God gave me two amazing reminders of why I’m going into teaching. It’s going to be hard but good. It’s going to be challenging but worth it. There are days I will want to cry in frustration, but I believe there will be great purpose and impact on individual lives. And that’s what I want to be about in this next year and in this next season of life.

A few weeks later, Seth and I were at dinner with some friends – old and new – and one of the new girls asked what I did for a living. After a few moments, we made the connection that she had formerly been a teacher at the elementary school where I’d subbed. “Oh my gosh! You’re THAT sub! I heard you did an amazing job, and all the teachers there want to have you back as the sub for their classrooms!”

I smiled and thanked her, storing up those words in my heart. As we drove away in his truck hours later, Seth turned to me and said with a squeeze of my hand, “Your reputation precedes you. I’m proud to have you by my side.”

I’m glad to be there. It’s nice to be appreciated.

Authentically Aurora