What’s My Story?

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Helsinki Airport Baggage Claim. Surprise representation.

 

Truth: I’m at a 2-day seminar for women educators interested in leadership. It is being led by a dynamic current head of school who has made it her mission to help stock the pipeline with capable women who belong in international school leadership.

We’re talking about the power of storytelling. Strong stories, told well and with intent create connections. The premise makes sense. Neurological research suggests that our emotional responses to stories feed and change our social brain. Being inspired has physiological consequences.

Our stories matter. How we receive and process stories matter.

And I am stumped. Because I consider exactly this – storytelling – to be an area of weakness. It’s why I never try to retell a joke or describe a supposedly funny thing I did. I’m willing to read fiction but not create it. Even true stories from my life feel odd to relate. To think of a story that is of emotional heft for me that then bears out some truth about my larger message feels like a significant hurdle that shouldn’t be.

Which is why I have taken on the expense of coming here, of taking part, of learning from fresh voices. As I run through my mental files, searching for the story I might need or that might do the job, I keep coming up with a blank. Or with stories I can’t find a connecting thread to. This is the point: facing the challenge of not knowing, of feeling off-base. By tomorrow, something will emerge. And it will be the right thing because it will be what I have at the moment.

From there I can build.

Right this moment I don’t know what my story is. Or which story is mine. Tomorrow I’ll know. I can hardly wait.

What I Will Fret Over, 2018

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A few years ago I wrote a blog post about what I would fret over regarding my two sons and their futures. It’s near the end of 2018 and what I will fret over is some of the same but more and with a different urgency.

At the time I realized:

On my deathbed I will not be wishing I had fret more over my children’s education.

Rather, when that day arrives I may fret about their futures. About whether they know how much I love them. I will hope that they know how rich they have made my life. I will hope that they understand themselves to be capable and extraordinary human beings. I will pray that they have learned to trust others, how to reach out for help, how to care for and love others especially when loving is hard to do. I will fret that we have not had enough time to say all the things that we wanted to say to each other. I will fret over whether their passion for life and learning will be enough to see them through, in and on whatever paths they pursue. It is extremely unlikely that I will fret over how they did or are doing in school.

Today, following the election of an openly fascist president in the largest country in South America, who joins the ranks of world leaders poised to desecrate nature in hopes of power and profit, to punish indigenous populations for existing, to carry out nationalistic policies which openly discriminate and uphold racist divisions. In the midst of these developments, I fret for the future not only of my own children but children across the globe who will grow up knowing perhaps only the unrest, anger and deception that lie at the heart of the rise of unjust regimes.

And I fret over education and how we practice it. While I have found wonderful nurturing communities of educators who are deeply committed to opening minds rather than closing them, I need to remind myself at times that we are not necessarily the majority. The willingness of my allies and accomplices to face their own biases in order to better serve the children in front of them is not the norm. The rigorous pursuit of inquiry, liberation and radical imagination is not the focus of our professional development programs or degree granting institutions. Rather, we insist that new teachers learn to look past inequity and miraculously raise test scores. Education officials may suggest that gun training for teachers is a higher priority that ensuring that all children have adequate access to counseling services in every school. At the ballot box, funding initiatives to guarantee the coverage of school necessities in communities across the US struggle to pass and take effect.

We are living in a time where we have become comfortable with idea of stealing. From our children and grandchildren. With our political choices we are showing them that we are indeed selfish and short sighted, stingy and cruel, poor historians and lazy thinkers. All of our proud speeches about respect, care and critical thinking run smack into the reality of what they can witness on a daily basis – dehumanizing rhetoric, never ending violence against the vulnerable, the hardening of a ruling class that refuses to change itself.

My fretting today is the kind that has me writing at 4 am instead of sleeping. It’s the fretting that is physiological and that rekindles old worries and insecurities. It’s the kind of fretting that these new regimes aim to foster. Because a fearful, disoriented and unsure populace is much easier to manipulate with strong man arguments and false promises. But I am an educator. I’m not a superhero. I am a parent. And at this moment I am fearful.

And I have a little faith. I have two sons who know some things about care, respect and critical thinking. They are avid readers and understand that this matters. They have strong imaginations and dreams about what they want to achieve. In my classes, I work with eager students who have seemingly boundless energy to climb, jump, run and tumble. As they grow, I hope that they also build their strength of character and learn to recognize and counter injustice wherever they find it. Many of them will. Among hundreds of previous students, several have already made that commitment.

So this morning I have fear and some faith. I have community and back up. I know which side of history I am on. Today I will fret. I will also fight.

image via Pixabay.com CC0

The Problem That Is/Isn’t

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“The problem,” she said, “is not that I read too much. It’s that I feel too much of what I read.”

“The problem,” he said, “is not that I watch too much, It’s that I have seen more than I know how to handle. And I cannot turn away.”

“you know what your problem is?”

“My problem? My problem is that I am empty and full at the same time.”

My responsibilities are not my regrets, but they do cost me some energy. I take these responsibilities. I have chosen these responsibilities. They give me purpose and keep me going but they are not weightless. They don’t defy gravity. I get tired. I run out of steam. And my stuff still gets done. That’s the deal. That’s how this works. You know that.

I put words on the screen. Not even on the real page. So that I’m writing without really writing. Just putting stuff down. And then someone will come along and say, hey, I get it. I hear you. That’s the shit! And I will feel humble and arrogant at the same time because nothing is just one thing anymore. It’s always more than one thing. Multidimensional both/and, never ever just tidy and set. And it tires me out. And here I come again, scrolling right through to the next set of problems I want to think about but don’t have time because you know, I need to hang up the laundry and clear the dishwasher and thank God, the cookies are already baked and packaged for tomorrow.

Then someone asks, “Hey Sherri, can you…?” And I say “sure, not a problem.”

Because what is and what isn’t a problem can shift.

“My problem,” I said, “is, in fact, nothing more and nothing less than me just trying to live a life that makes sense some or even most of the time. I’m a beginner and a veteran at once. I’m gifted and I suck. I need more sleep but I keep staying up late. I’m a mess and a marvel.”

“Hey,” they said, “what you need is a vacation!”

And I said, “you know what? You are right.”

 

I used to think…

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I used to think that I understood children and that therefore I could become a good teacher. Now I see that my understanding of children is only partial, and with regards to individual children, actually illusory. I think I understand them but really I’m just applying rough proxies which don’t work for this child. Or this child. So for some children I need to go back to square one and rethink everything I thought I knew about children and learn some new things about this child and break down my myths about understanding children and becoming a good teacher. I used to think I knew kids and now I see that my purpose is to learn kids, one at a time, always ready for a surprise.

 

I used to think that my strength as a teacher required standing my ground in the classroom; being firm and confident. Now I believe that my strength as a teacher requires being firm and confident in my capacity to be imperfect. I can admit mistakes. I can ask for help. I can do things over. I can apologize and ask how to be better. These things don’t just help me teach more effectively, they allow me to become a better colleague, friend, adult.

 

I used to think that in order to lead, you needed to have a title and get paid more. Now I see that it is possible to lead effectively by example; that people often find it easier to emulate and follow behaviors that they like and appreciate in others. I also see that leadership by example can go either way; it doesn’t have to be positive and constructive. Negative leadership is equally possible. That’s the conundrum. (Although few would admit to liking destructive behaviors, every time that we tolerate and accommodate them, we demonstrate where we really stand.) Given that, I try to set the example I (hope to) observe in others. I envision leadership less as a tower of relative importance and more of a circle of engagement with added facilitation responsibilities. There are no titles or formal recognition in this mode of leadership and it has the potential to have influence in some of the most unlikely places.

 

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What We Mean When We Talk About Quality Of Life

Vienna, Austria is consistently rated among the cities with the highest quality of life. I agree with that evaluation. Here’s one example.

I had some time on my hands early on a Saturday morning. I decided to visit a public park that I normally wouldn’t visit.

Playground spaces always speak to me: How much room is there to run and jump? How many different ways can kids challenge themselves and their dexterity? How many pieces of equipment are designed for multiple children? How is fun built into the design of the space? This part offered a series of playgrounds and play spaces, including the skater park at the top. All of it looked so welcoming. I was fascinated by these giant swings that I actually put down my backpack and had a go. It was calming and delightful.

While I was composing this on my cell phone, the post published before I could finish. I wanted to describe the things I saw and how they struck me, like this tree above. I had never seen one like it before. It was a needle tree but in the shape of a deciduous tree. I was genuinely fascinated. Trunk like a cypress and these very bright light green fingers of needles hanging down and the roots threatening to burst its concrete casing.

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Since it was so early in the morning, the park was nearly empty and gloriously peaceful. Ponds, fountains and rolling green spaces made me feel incredibly grateful for the time I took to explore and discover. Privilege in action. That’s part of quality of life.

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I have some thoughts about parent-teacher conferences

As a teacher I enjoy the opportunity to sit with the parents of my individual students and to talk about their accomplishments their challenges and our relationship. There’s a similar structure to each of my conferences and although I teach about 130 students on average I feel like I know each of them well enough to speak to parents and say some things about each child individually.

First of all, I thank parents for coming.

Next, I ask: what have you heard about PE so far?

Whatever the response, the question puts the parents and their child in the spotlight. My task is to listen carefully.

Based on their responses I can begin to share my observations about their child or children with them. Most often I have plenty of good news to share with a few anecdotes of recent wins.

When I have difficulties to share or describe I spend a considerable amount of time providing context. I tell parents about the structure of our class: what the expectations are, where their child shows signs of struggle and I always emphasize the expectation of change over time. It’s vitally important to me that parents understand that each child is working on something; each child faces or will face a challenge of one kind or another. As will their teacher. Process, process, that’s what we’re about.

While it seems that conferences are built up as a sort of reporting structure where teachers prepare a sort of ‘show and tell’ about students and their progress to date, it’s also an opportunity for teachers to learn about families. In my case, parents are often eager to share some information about themselves and their child’s sport enthusiasms and disappointments; previous injuries or wonderings about potential areas of brilliance. In fact, parents often want to know if I perhaps have a hot tip as to which activity might offer their child the greatest joy or opportunity to shine, or both.

In these listening moments, I find all kinds of inspiration. These are the windows which allow me to envision a student more fully and accurately with plenty of light and the proper shading.  This is where the conversation becomes animated and we’re no longer focused on the nuts and bolts of Physical Education but the blossoming of a wonderful young person. I enjoy exploring possibilities with parents by asking about previous sports experiences and learning more about how students see themselves in various physical contexts.

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“So what does your child enjoy doing?”

10 minutes. That’s how long I have to talk with parents about their child in my PE classes. For new parents I often focus on my observations of the child seems to have landed in their new school and how this seems to be playing out in PE. For veteran parents we can talk about new demands in the program and how their child is adjusting. What I love is the back and forth, the element of surprise for either of us at learning something new, the chance to put a concerned parent’s mind at ease about a difficulty.

This round I hosted about 40 conferences over two days. In the spring there will be more students in the mix as student-led versions become the norm. In these bursts of dialogue, I feed my calling to listen and respond with care. Honesty is at the forefront of my mind along with compassion and good will. I want us all – students, parents, teachers – to be successful because of each other.  Conferences are a chance for me to truly “use my words” and lay the foundation for student successes that stretch well beyond the gym and gallop all the way home.

 

image CC0 via Pixabay.

Ski Jumping and Parental Awe

The more I write, the more I ask myself: Which stories are mine to tell?

My youngest son participates in ski jumping. It’s a fairly spectacular sport: Jumpers in a squatting position on especially wide and long skis, place the skis into a metal track, zoom down the steep track at high speed and cast themselves into a straightened body position which allows them to glide down the steep hill and land safely in an upright position before returning to a squat in order to brake the skis.

By now I have watched this process hundreds of times, weekend after weekend, performed by children as young as six on small hills, to the 8 and 9 year olds who advance to hills from 15 to 30 m, on up to the next group of older kids who may jump on hills anywhere from 40 to 70 m in length. As a family we’ve been at this for a little over 2 years and our son’s progress has been swift.

As a spectator I have learned a lot but I remain remarkably ill-informed about all the ins and outs of the scoring process, the finer points of measuring the distance jumped, and which wind is the good kind. I suppose, this is part of what makes watching a joy. I can lose myself in the aesthetics and daring of the enterprise. The risks are real, yet observed cases of real injury have been extremely rare.

My son asked me what it’s like for me to watch him in action. “Well,” I started, “I think I hold my breath, actually. I can film you and keep the camera still but I get pretty nervous, especially for the first jump.”

Meanwhile I was thinking but could not really find the words to describe the pride that swells in my throat, the relief that settles over me every time he returns from his flights unscathed, the sheer awe of watching him test the laws of gravity a little farther each time.

There is an unusual joy in being able to see our children succeed first hand. To witness my son’s satisfaction with his own performance becomes its own great gift.

While I cannot tell his story of sailing through the air on skis, I can tell my story of what it feels like to be connected to the person doing the sailing. Miraculous.

This is what my son watches for inspiration: