Imagine This . . .

Dentist Canva

Imagine for a moment that you are a dentist.  You have several years of experience under your belt, and you know that you are very skilled at what you do.  You could make a lot of money in a private practice, but you decide to open a clinic to serve those who are considered at risk of serious dental problems and those who are disadvantaged and have not been receiving the services they need.  Although your clinic will be open to everyone, you know that people who are satisfied with the dentist that they have will stay where they are.  You want to have a diverse client base, but you have a desire in your heart to attract and serve clients who are somehow in need.

You enjoy working at your new clinic, but there are challenges that you did not face in your previous practice.  You are now struggling financially, which was never an issue before.  You spend a lot of time teaching people, kids and adults, why dental care is even important.  In your suburban practice in an affluent neighborhood, families could not get enough dental care.  They would ASK you for tooth whitening procedures and referrals to the orthodontist.  Now you are passing out free toothbrushes and toothpaste because many of your patients need them.  You replenish the supply with your own money each time you get paid.

You find yourself trying to think of new and creative ways to reinforce basic dental health to your patients.  You look for ways to entice your patients to adopt good habits because you know that if you can get them started, then they will eventually see the value of what you are asking them to do.  With better dental care, they will have better overall health, increased confidence, and more job opportunities in the future.  Many of them just don’t see this yet.  But they will.  You refuse to give up on them.

You know that many of your patients have very difficult and unusual life circumstances, so you have flexible hours to try to accommodate them.  Sometimes they have to bring their children to the clinic with them because they do not have anyone to help them with childcare.  Sometimes they cancel on you at the last minute because they work two jobs and cannot pass up an unexpected opportunity to earn some extra pay.  Sometimes, you come in early or stay for late appointments, and the clients just don’t show up.  Sometimes, you work really hard to help a family, and you can see at the next appointment that they did not follow any of your instructions at all.  It can be disheartening.

But some patients cry when you help them.  They cry because they never thought that they would get the help that they needed.  They cry because your clinic offers the understanding, patience, and flexibility that allows them to do what is best for their families.  They cry because you recognize their individual needs and respect their humanity.  Sometimes, you cry, too.

You feel really good about the work you are doing in this clinic.

Then one day an inspector from the state visits the clinic.  He looks very serious.  He seems unhappy.

He says, “You are a terrible dentist.”

You are horrified.  You ask him how he came to this conclusion.  He pulls out two charts covered with graphs and tables. One chart shows data from a wealthier suburban dental practice.  The other chart shows data from your clinic.

You are a smart person.  You are a dentist, after all.  You know this isn’t good.

“Our data indicates that the patients at your clinic have many more cavities than the patients at other clinics.”

“Yes, they do.  I serve many patients who have not had good dental care in the past, and some of them are not convinced that dental care is even important.  That is why I came to this clinic in the first place.  To serve these people.”

“You say that you are serving these clients, but the data shows that many of your patients are not brushing their teeth twice a day, even after they visit.  If this clinic were good, your patients would be brushing twice a day.  You are just taking their money.”

“Please remember that many of my clients were not brushing their teeth at all when they came here, and now they are brushing more than they ever did before, even if it is not twice a day.  I work very hard to find new ways to educate and inspire them to improve their dental health.  Plus, we do have patients who now have excellent teeth thanks to our clinic.”

“At this other practice, almost all of the patients brush twice daily.  Their patients also do not skip appointments.”

“I think our client base is not the same.  My patients are wonderful people, but a large number of them have serious medical or mental health conditions, multiple jobs, or other unusual circumstances.  Some of them are caring for sick family members or raising children with little help.  Some of them have been in and out of the criminal justice system.  Some of them have had very bad experiences with the medical profession in the past, and we are working hard to rebuild their trust.  We do experience more cancellations than other dental practices, but we believe that what we do is very important, and we do not stop trying to help people.”

“The other practice has a record of fewer cavities.  Therefore, it is an excellent dental office with excellent dentists.  That office and those dentists are much better than you.”

“But I used to work at that office.”

“You are not a good dentist.”

“When I worked there, you said that I was an excellent dentist.”

“You have really let yourself go since you came here.”

“Actually, I have learned a lot by working at this clinic.”

“I am going to recommend that your clinic is closed.”

“But what about my patients?  They will have nowhere to go.”

“They can go to the more successful practice.”

“No, no, no.  They do not feel understood at that practice.  They are tired of being treated like nuisances or outcasts when they ask for help or try to do the right things for their families.  They will fall far behind in their dental care because there is no flexibility.  Many of my patients really need this clinic.  I feel like there is a misunderstanding here.”

“I am sorry.  You are no good.”

 

This is what it feels like to be an ECOT teacher right now.

 

I will be the first to say that we need major education reform in this country.
BUT . . .
Please do not believe everything that you read.
Please think about what data actually represents before you jump to conclusions.
Please understand that newspapers are clearly showing bias and journalists are not doing their homework.
Please do not drag students, teachers, and families through the mud when your actual concerns are about politics and school funding.

You can disagree about politics and school funding without distorting information and minimizing the good that is being done for many kids, both in traditional classrooms and in the online environment, by excellent teachers!

 

Back to School Edition: Tip #5

ice cubes

Catch up on the first four tips starting here!

Back to School Tip of the Day #5

Keep it cool. Creating an open line of communication between you and your child is SO important.  Investing time in talking and listening when your son or daughter is young increases the chances that you will have a finger on the pulse of what is happening when that kid becomes a teenager. Listening to your child, whether she is crying about a devastating disagreement with her friends, struggling to make a difficult decision, or just laughing about something that happened at school, shows that you want to hear it all, both the big moments and the small ones. It encourages your child to trust you and to seek your advice when times are hard.

But you already knew all of that, right? This is where things get a bit more difficult. Listening, at least for me, is the easy part; controlling my reactions can be very hard, especially when one of my sons is feeling hurt.

Trusting your child is important, especially if he is feeling unsafe, but it is also important to realize that what he shares with you in the heat of the moment is often shaped by emotion. Respect your kids and listen to them and let them know that you appreciate what they share. Help them to brainstorm solutions and teach them how to navigate the choppy waters of relationships. But also remember that children (and even adults) sometimes allow their sadness, anger, fear, or frustration to give them a biased view of a situation. It’s our job as parents to help our kids see the bigger picture, and sometimes that means that they need to accept some responsibility for the situation at hand.

When your child says that the teacher was mean to her, be sympathetic, but don’t lose your cool and rush to call the local news. When your child says that this is the worst school year ever, be understanding, but don’t immediately leave the principal a voicemail with words that are only allowed on television after 10 p.m. When your child complains about other kids or parents, don’t grab your megaphone and announce it to the neighborhood. Acknowledge your child’s feelings. Breathe deeply. Let everyone cool down. Consult others you trust. Take some time to assemble the puzzle before you say or do something that you will need to apologize for later.

Here’s the truth, friends.  In many cases, today’s drama is tomorrow’s “no big deal.”

Unless, of course, you just went Real Housewives in front of the school’s security camera.  Uh oh.  In that case, you’re on your own.

How can you get your child to tell you more about his day?
Join us tomorrow for ideas!

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/98640399@N08/9378147944″>Ice 9331</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

Back to School Edition: Tip #3

Light Bulb

Did you miss the first part of this series?
Click here for Tip #1 and click here for Tip #2!

Back to School Tip of the Day #3

Don’t leave the teacher in the dark. Sometimes our instinct as parents is to withhold information that is painful to discuss. We do this with the best of intentions, to protect our kids from embarrassment, judgement, or ridicule. Maybe you have a child who has a history of disruptive behavior, and you are afraid that sharing this with the new teacher will cause her to see your child in a negative light. Maybe your child has had trouble concentrating in the past, but you don’t want the teacher to expect this because you are hoping that this year will be different. Maybe there are things going on at home like a divorce, the death of a grandparent, or a recent move, that are causing stress for your child, but you consider these to be private issues or just find them difficult to discuss. As a mom, I totally understand this desire to protect by withholding, but trust me when I say that YOUR CHILD’S TEACHER NEEDS TO KNOW. He wants to create a smooth transition for your child, and you can help him plan for your child’s success by sharing critical information, such as how your child learns best, how she typically behaves, when she feels most stressed, and what has helped her to be successful in other classrooms.

This information impacts everything from the seating chart in the classroom to the way that kids are grouped to the teaching methods that are chosen for each part of the material to the strategies that the teacher uses with your individual child. Sure, the teacher will eventually figure out that this child is painfully shy and that those two children should never be seated together and that another child feels anxious unless she is close to the teacher, while that child has a tummy ache every afternoon after lunch and another cries whenever she thinks about her old dog that probably will not live much longer. The teacher will eventually figure out the other fifteen students, too. But when the first nine weeks is like a giant riddle, then a lot of time is wasted just figuring everything out.

It is a common misconception that teachers just know things, that information that is given to one teacher one year automatically trickles to the next grade level, but that isn’t always true, especially in the higher grades. Unless your child has needs that have been documented on an IEP, for example, there is a good chance that your child’s new teachers will need you to start from scratch in explaining what might work best. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true. Most schools have not perfected a way to update and transfer this kind of information from teacher to teacher, and I have yet to attend professional development on extrasensory perception, which is surprising since that could be more helpful than some of the PD I have attended throughout my career.

If you have a child in middle or high school, he probably does not want you to talk to the teacher much, if ever at all. He would really prefer that his parents didn’t even know that he has teachers and that his teachers didn’t even know that he has parents. This is totally normal and is a sign of healthy development, really; he should be gaining more independence as he matures. Unless you are planning to be his roommate in college, it is very important for him to start learning to handle some things on his own. This does not mean, however, that you should not communicate with his teachers at all anymore. It just means that you need to learn to operate like a secret agent, and, fortunately for you, e-mail makes that very easy for our generation.

Although older kids suddenly want to tackle everything independently, common sense says that they don’t go from “mom handles everything” to “I’ve got this all by myself” overnight. By the upper grades, your job is to guide your student in addressing her own problems and encourage her to talk to the teacher herself, but it is still your responsibility to inform the teacher of key information and to check in once in a while to see if your child is following through with her responsibilities. In many school districts, you can check your older child’s performance online at any time, which can help you to keep an eye on her academic progress, but that report may not indicate if she spends a lot of time alone, has a negative attitude, or has to be reminded often not to sleep in class. While you might think that those issues would warrant a call from the teacher, keep in mind that the high school teacher may see 150 students in a day, so unless you ask, you may not be notified of a behavior that does not stand out as unsafe, disruptive, or extreme. This is why conferencing with the teacher is still important, even when students are in the upper grades. A teenager who wants to sleep during math class may not trigger an alarm in the mind of the math teacher, but you may see it as a sign that something has changed with your son or daughter.

Here is another reason to communicate openly with your kid’s teacher. When you have limited information and you are trying to solve a riddle, you may make assumptions that are wildly incorrect. Think about this example. You are teaching a high school student who always sits in the back of the classroom. He rarely completes any of his work, doesn’t talk to many other kids, and refuses to explain his lack of effort when you try to talk to him. He appears to be extremely tired day after day and seems to have no support from home. It looks like he just doesn’t care.  You have tried to contact the parents because you are concerned, but you have gotten no response. The same thing is happening in his other classes. What might you conclude? Really, what would you assume?

Did you guess that his father has terminal cancer, that he is exhausted from caring for his father at night while his mom is at work, and that his mother is emotionally overwhelmed and has not had time to return your calls? This information might dramatically change your approach with this student. Every student has a story that impacts his learning, and I, as the teacher, can’t choose the best approach to help him without knowing what that story is. It might surprise you that the school wouldn’t be aware of a story this heartbreaking, but it happens all the time.

We like to think that fair means that all of our children are treated the same, but the truth is that treating everyone the same is not fair. However, your child’s teacher cannot meet your child’s individual needs if you aren’t up front about what is going on in your child’s life. You should know that when you share your private information, your child’s teacher has a responsibility not to share that information with other students or parents. Before you share, you should also know that teachers are mandated reporters, which means that they are legally bound to report if child abuse is suspected, even if that information was shared with them in confidence.

If you want your child to get off to a great start this year, consider sharing any information that might help the teacher meet your child’s needs right off the bat. You have control of the light switch.  Don’t leave the teacher in the dark.

If your child is having a tough day at school, how can you brighten the gloom?
Check out Tip #4 tomorrow!

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/64111606@N00/3424750103″>Create Your Own Light…</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

Back to School Edition: Tip #2

If you missed the introduction to this series and tip #1, click here!

Back to School Tip of the Day #2

You may not like a teacher’s style, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t work together for the good of your child. Let’s say that you and your child’s teacher really do have totally different approaches to, well, everything. Let’s say that you don’t like the worksheets that she sends home or the way that she organizes her classroom or her dry sense of humor. Let’s say that you have conferenced with her about some of your concerns, but you are convinced that last year’s teacher did everything better. As long as your child’s safety and success are a priority for this teacher, your difference of opinion does not mean that the year is ruined – unless, of course, you choose to look at it that way.  Suck it up, Buttercup. 

This is a tough one, I know, but the reality is that you can be supportive of your child’s teacher even if the two of you are polar opposites. First, remind yourself that there is usually more than one way to the same end result. You may not like the technique, but that doesn’t mean that your child will not learn and grow, maybe even exponentially, this year. Give it some time. Second, remember that this teacher is another human being, not an evil super villain. He is just a guy who is continuing to develop in his career, who has feelings (Can you believe it?), and who faces challenges outside of work, you know, like everyone else. Make an effort to get to know him better. Try offering encouragement when your impulse is to write a nasty note instead. Share your concerns, for sure, but throw in some positive comments to open the lines of communication. Make sure that you are building a bridge and not a wall between you and the teacher. Finally, keep in mind that a teacher is accountable to lots of people – the board of education, school administrators, students, and parents, to name a few. Whatever it is that you don’t like about her classroom, another parent loves. If you think there is too much homework, someone else thinks there is not enough. If you think the teacher is too relaxed, someone else thinks she is too strict. I know that your friends all agree with you when you complain, but I swear this dynamic is true. It may just be necessary to accept that “different” does not necessarily mean “wrong,” and if your child isn’t complaining, then be careful not to project your own frustrations onto him. You want him to be happy, even if you are not.

If your child is complaining about something that bothers you, too, then have an honest, age-appropriate conversation about it. (If you are worried that your child might announce to the class that her mommy says the teacher does everything wrong, then your kid may not be ready for this.) It’s important for older kids to know that adults can work together and respectfully disagree. There have been a couple of occasions when I have said something like this to my frustrated child, “I understand how you feel. I would feel that way, too.  If I were your teacher, I probably wouldn’t do it this way. But I’m not your teacher, and this isn’t my classroom. I have talked to her, and I know that she has reasons for doing things this way, and we both really want you to be successful. It’s okay that we don’t agree. But it’s not okay to be disrespectful or to disobey the rules of her class.” Even when you tell your child that you disagree with the teacher, be sure to emphasize what the two of you do have in common – a commitment to your child’s achievement. Your child shouldn’t have to choose sides.

Although it can be frustrating, it can actually be GOOD for your son or daughter to learn to work with different teachers who have their own unique styles and routines. After all, school is not just about academics. It is a training ground for real life. Being adaptable is a life skill that has helped my husband and I to survive marriage, for example. (I would suggest that one of us has had to endure a little more than the other, and he would agree, although I think he might be applying that to the wrong person.) Anyone who has been employed knows that adaptability is also essential to achieving success at work. If my husband and I had quit a job every time we disagreed with a co-worker, then we would not have been able to afford a new air conditioner this summer, which also might have ended our marriage. I really can’t stress enough how important adaptability is to long-term relationships.  (I’m only partly joking here, people!)

If all else fails, think of it like this. You are Gwyneth Paltrow and the teacher is Chris Martin, and you have vowed to work together for the good of the kids despite your differences. On the bright side, you will only share child rearing with this teacher for a year, while Gwyneth and Chris will be working out their issues until the end of time. See. There is always a silver lining if you search for it.

Come back tomorrow for another back to school tip!  How much should you tell the teacher?

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/10361931@N06/4268864706″>Macro of sharpened colored pencils aranged in a circle</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

Back To School Edition: Tip #1

 Bus

Hey, I think I saw you in the school supply section yesterday, grabbing the last blue-Mead-100-page-wide-ruled-spiral-notebook off the shelf just as another mom tried to snatch it up. Oh, how school shopping brings out the best in us! Every August, you and I, we stalk the aisles as if we are on a safari, commissioned to find some rare species on the edge of extinction, and every year I think, “For the love of God, school administrators, can’t we just add some money to our already frustrating school fees and order this stuff in bulk?”

Even though I might, maybe, complain just a little bit about school supply shopping, the truth is that I love it as much as I hate it. I enjoy the ritual of it, the anticipation created by a backpack overflowing with sharpened crayons and undefiled paper and fresh markers. Maybe that’s because I always loved school as a kid, or maybe it’s because I crave a routine after the seduction of summer. Maybe it’s because I see the start of the school year as more symbolic of a new beginning than January 1. (Or maybe it’s because I need some alone time. I really, REALLY need some alone time, people.)

Regardless, we all invest quite a bit of time and money into gathering all of the tangible things that our kids need to get off to a good start at school, but sometimes we forget to think about the intangibles that can make a HUGE difference in the quality of our kids’ year. Somewhere between organizing all of the supplies, planning the first-day attire, and grocery shopping to fill the lunchboxes, it might be a good idea to create a mindset for the school year that will help your child to achieve happiness and success. For that reason, I’ll be sending you one tip a day for the next nine days, some things to ponder as we all prepare for the big first day. And if you are TOTALLY OVERWHELMED by nine posts in nine days, please don’t worry. Once school starts, things at my house speed up and the blog will slooooow down! I promise!  I’ll aim for once a week . . . if I’m lucky!

Back to School Tip of the Day #1

If your first impression of your child’s new teacher is negative, keep it to yourself.  I remember one particular meet-the-teacher experience when I was, well, not impressed. The meeting left me expecting a disappointing year for my son, but, fortunately for us, I later discovered that my first impression had been totally wrong. This teacher turned out to be sweet, creative, and very effective in working with my kid.

The truth is that you can’t really tell what a teacher will be like in the classroom after talking to her for five or ten minutes. (Keep in mind that sometimes talking to parents can be just as intimidating for teachers as talking to teachers can be for parents!) You also can’t predict what your experience with a teacher will be like just from talking to other parents, whose opinions are often based on the opinions of ten-year-olds and, at least partly, on gossip.

But here is the most important point: Even if you don’t think you are going to like the teacher, if you want your child to get off to a great start, you need to put on your happy face when talking about school with your child. You can commiserate privately with a friend. You can schedule a conference with that teacher every week. You can make an appointment with the principal if absolutely necessary. But your goal is to foster a good relationship between your child and that teacher, and this will be virtually impossible if you are badmouthing her in front of your kids or openly venting on Facebook. (Everyone knows that Facebook is where we pretend to be happy, anyway, so just default to that social norm in this situation.) And one more thing to consider: Most “problems” are actually just “miscommunications” that can be easily resolved if you aren’t afraid to raise your concerns in a face-to-face conference with the teacher. Try this before erupting like Mount Vesuvius and see what happens.

What if, after a few weeks of school, you still don’t like the teacher?  Check out Tip #2 tomorrow!

photo credit: <a ef=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/57166722@N00/2756087093″>New York</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

To the Mom in the Preschool Drop-Off Line

Preschool

Hello, friends!  Watch for some back-to-school posts on the blog in the next few days!  I am excited that THIS post is also featured on The Today Show Parenting Blog.  Please click here to give me your vote!

To the Mom in the Preschool Drop-Off Line:

I see your child before class, so sweet and small and pure of heart. I see those chubby cheeks, that baby face, reminders that this little person who is growing oh-so-quickly was swaddled in your arms not long ago. I see him clinging to your leg, his knuckles white, his eyes glossy with tears that are just about to spill.

His anxiety is running high, and so is yours, but your acting skills have come a long way this year, Mom. You deserve a round of applause, a standing ovation. You should get an Oscar, really, for pretending that preschool drop-off doesn’t bother you, that helping the teacher peel your crying child off your body one finger at a time is no big deal, that watching the director pull your sobbing little guy from your car doesn’t feel like your heart is being crunched in a vice. You don’t want to make the situation worse, and your child is anxious enough on his own, so you do your best to appear calm every time. You don’t have the minutes or the privacy to meditate before preschool since small children are always running circles around you, but you try to channel your inner yogi while zipping the jackets and buckling the car seats and running back in the house for that thing you forgot.

You start the engine each morning knowing exactly what is going to happen. It’s an uneasy feeling that gets your adrenaline pumping so that this drive to school is somehow similar to dipping your toe into a shark tank or leaping from a plane when you are afraid of heights. You think that maybe it is most like having a tooth pulled. It might be necessary. It might be the right thing to do. It might pay off in the long run. But it is also painful. And you choose to do this three mornings a week. Who has a tooth pulled three times a week? Eventually, you would run out of teeth.

The teachers at school are very nice. They smile. They tell you that, although the first ten minutes are difficult, your child is usually fine after that. He asks about you often and watches the clock, but he has friends and is learning quickly and likes to paint and loves the playground. They really enjoy him, they say, and you know that they do, but you sense frustration. Maybe you should try a sticker chart to encourage him not to sob inconsolably every day? Maybe you should offer a reward if he does not cry for a week when he goes to school? Maybe it would be better if you did not walk him to class but used the drop-off point outside instead?

And you wonder, “Do they honestly think I haven’t tried these things?”

The truth is that you have tried everything. You are still trying everything. You have sought advice from every mom you know. You have read every mommy blog that you can find. You have asked the preschool director and the pediatrician for ideas. No one has found a solution to this problem. And maybe there is no solution because there isn’t a problem. There is a child. Your child. Your child, whom you love to the moon and back, who experiences separation anxiety. Maybe that is just who he is and you cannot change it and it is going to take time for him to learn the strategies he needs to cope. Maybe you need people to understand and accept it. Maybe you need to accept it, too.

You remember that your older son cried once when you left him at preschool. After school, you talked to him. You looked him in the eyes. You asked him why he cried. He wasn’t sure. You asked him if he was afraid at school, if everyone was nice to him. He loved his class and his teachers and his friends. You explained that he was going to go to school whether he cried or not, so wouldn’t it be better to enjoy his time at school? Mommy would pick him up every day, right on time, and she wanted him to have fun with his friends.

He never cried another day.

Other moms told you not to worry. This would last only a few days. He would stop crying when he got into the routine. “It’s normal,” they said. “My kids cried for a few days, too.”

Then they said to give it a few weeks. It would be fine. Really, it would. Maybe their children had been sad a little longer than they had remembered, yes, now that they thought about it, but soon those kids were skipping down the halls in a rush to get to class. “Trust me,” they said. “It won’t last!”

Now they don’t say anything. They just smile, a sideways kind of smile with a cocked eyebrow that shows empathy. But you wonder if they are thinking about where you must have failed as a mother. Because that is what you are thinking. It has to be your fault. Did you hold him too much or too little? Is it because you decided to stay home with him for a few years? That sacrifice seemed selfless at the time, but was it selfish? Is it because you moved, and it took time to trust people, and he was with you, and you only, so much of the time? Did you genetically gift him with your own anxieties?  What a horrible gift. What did you do, and how do you unravel it now? Maybe you need to be more understanding. Maybe you need to be more stern. How do you stop your child’s suffering?

This is the cry of your heart, but you are a smart lady, and your mind knows better. It is not your fault. The pediatrician said that it is not your fault. You know that everyone faces unique challenges that must be overcome, and your children will be no exception. You had just hoped that those challenges would not start so early, with your sweet little boy facing anxiety, real anxiety, at just four years old.

I know that you use the drop-off line, because that is what the teachers asked you to do, and that you smile as the director lovingly drags (because there is no other way) your child from the car. I know that you thank her every day for her patience. I know that it makes you sad to see the line of cars behind you, all of those moms and dads watching your child make his dramatic entrance every day. I know how hopeful you are whenever he has a good day, or a good week, or a good month, and how devastated you feel when a new wave of anxiety consumes him and it all starts again.

I know that when you pull out of the parking lot some days, your stoic façade cracks, and tears stream down your cheeks all the way home.

I know that you are a person who likes to be in control of your life, and it is hard for you to accept that this is out of your control. You want to fix things for your kids, to make them happy, and you cannot fix this. I know that you know that this child is a tremendous blessing and that other parents face greater challenges, but I give you permission to feel what you feel. Your sadness and guilt and anger are real, and problems are all relative, anyway.

I know that it will get better, that your child will grow and he will mature and he will learn about his emotions and how he can cope. He may outgrow his anxiety, or he may not, but he can learn to manage it with time. I know that he will eventually go to school without tears, but it may be a long time before that happens, and that is okay. I know that your child is his own person with his own schedule. I know that you are trying very hard and that you will find loving, supportive friends who will understand. I know that his anxiety does not diminish his kindness, his intelligence, his enthusiasm, and his loving heart. I know that you have an amazing kid.

Most of all, I know that he is really, REALLY lucky to have you on his team.

Sincerely,

The Mom Who Won the Oscar for “Best Performance at a Preschool Drop-Off” in 2010

Some Moments Cling To You

*I wanted to write something in honor of Teacher Appreciation Day, and here’s what happened.  I dedicate it to my student, and to all of the teachers who carry their work – the seen and the unseen –  home with them at night.*

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When I was teaching in brick-and-mortar classrooms, I lugged a heavy bag of books, lesson plans, and ungraded essays to my car every afternoon after school. And people noticed that bag. They couldn’t miss it, really. They would sigh or smile or shake their heads when they saw it, the evidence that my job was important, that my school day did not end at 3:00.

The books, the plans, the papers – those were conspicuous. Everyone saw them. But the invisible burden that I carried home as a teacher often weighed much more. The questions that haunted my quiet moments. The concerns that intruded when I lay down at night. The moments that replayed over and over again on the video reel in my mind. Had I done enough? Could I have done better? Were all of my students safe and warm and well-fed at night? Had I left any children behind that week? How could I be more and do more for my class in the future?

I remember one typical morning, now so many years ago. My classroom was abuzz with students, chirping greetings to one another, trading stories with loud voices and dramatic gestures before the first school bell rang. Teenagers surrounded my podium at the front of the room, sharing anecdotes with me while I mentally reviewed my plans for the day ahead.

“Mrs. Ware, I actually heard something about Edgar Allen Poe on The Simpsons last night! I’m not even kidding!”

“Mrs. Ware, I didn’t finish my homework, but, I swear, you will NEVER believe what happened!”

“Mrs. Ware, did you hear about the track meet yesterday? We did awesome!”

“Mrs. Ware, my mom is going to kill me if I don’t pass English! You have to help me!”

One by one, I addressed their concerns, and, one by one, they shuffled back to their seats, still chatting, organizing their papers before our day officially began.

And then the last girl, a quiet girl, a girl who normally avoided drawing attention to herself, was the only one left at the front of the room while her classmates talked and giggled in the background. I smiled warmly, wondering what had lured her from the safety of the periphery.

“How can I help you?” I asked her, but she seemed reluctant to answer, maybe a bit regretful, as if she had moved her pawn too quickly and now wished she could change course.

After a pause, finally, she spoke. “I . . . Mrs. Ware, I was going to tell you . . .”

And just before the words could overflow, she hesitated again. Her sweet face, staunchly loyal, kept her secrets – but her eyes betrayed her. There, pain twisted and danced in oily swirls. It was brazen, whirling, flashing, taunting, while her words took shape.

She summoned her courage and, softly but firmly, spoke the words that I did not expect: “Mrs. Ware, I have the same problem you do.

I looked at her, and I thought about it, and I had absolutely no idea what she meant.

The front of the room was suddenly a bit less comfortable, the air a little harder to breath, because I could not respond to her until I understood what our problem was. She could tell that I was struggling to answer, and she was uncomfortable, too, so she rescued me, or maybe rescued us, by offering a lifeline. Words were not her favorite, but her eyes were still talking, and I needed help, so I followed them. I watched attentively as they descended slowly from my face – to my neck – to my shoulders – to my big, round orb of a belly, firm and heavy and eight months.

“I have the same problem you do,” she said.

And those words that had been hanging, suspended in the air, now smashed to the floor and shattered like glass. And my heart fell, bruised and broken, with them.

Because I had been caught off guard, at this time and in this place, with a classroom full of students and first period about to begin and a bachelor’s degree in English that did not prepare me for this moment. Because her pain stabbed me, and it hurt, and I felt for just that moment the fear coursing through her veins. Because I wanted to fix things for her, for all my students, that I knew I could not fix. Because I imagined that Hardship had been her companion for a while now – and that he wasn’t going anywhere soon.

And because my baby, the tiny acrobat inside me, had been a prayer, a dream, and a plan, but never “a problem.” Those words stung. And I thought about how both of us had sobbed over a pregnancy test, but our tears had sprung from very different wells.

And because I was reminded that academics only matter to humans if we first meet their most urgent needs – and that is daunting – because every day in every classroom there are students whose needs are great, and only some of them will share.

At school and in life, most moments pass, one by one, with little notice or consequence. At the end of the day, you know that seconds, minutes, and hours elapsed, but in the whirlwind of planning the seconds, minutes, and hours to come, what is over is often quickly brushed aside. But, like the fine threads of a spider’s web, certain moments entangle you. They cling to your skin, and you cannot easily shake them off. They will not leave you.

That one moment, when a student and I shared all of the joy and the sadness and the fears of being human, will never leave me. It remains crisp and vivid on the video reel in my mind and still visits me when I am quiet. What followed that moment, however, is cloudy. I remember that she talked. I remember that I listened. Time passed quickly. My family grew. The school year ended.

And I never saw her again.

I don’t know if she remembers that moment when our lives collided in such a personal way, but I hope that she understands, now that she is all grown up, how deeply I cared. I hope that she knows, whatever I may have said, that she mattered more to me than commas and semicolons and sentence fragments. I hope that she knows how much I appreciate that she invited me in, that she allowed me to view the world, and my own experiences, through a different lens; it was a defining moment for me, a moment that shaped me as a person and as a teacher.

Most of all, I hope that she is well, that she is loved, that she is happy – but I accept that I will never know. Over a thousand faces have passed through my classrooms across different schools and different states, and it is impossible to follow them all. I often think of those faces and wonder about the adults they have become. I wonder how they remember our years together, whether certain moments cling to them, too.

So many of my memories are a blur, but some moments refuse to leave me. And for those ones, the ones that cling, I am grateful.

photo credit: common classroom via photopin (license)