Atmosphere

By the worktables in the art room at my school is a window, and above that window is a message from the art teacher to her students:

You are my why!

The words draw your eyes as soon as you walk into the room. They convey more than a greeting; they impart a sense of importance, of being wanted, of being cared about. They are a word-hug of welcome, of belonging, of mattering.

I think about how little is in teachers’ control these days, how the art of teaching is increasingly straightjacketed, hijacked. Expectations on top of expectations, a precariously unwieldy, wobbling mountain, stones heaped one by one, Greek thlipsis until a person’s spirit is crushed rather than one’s actual body. I see, hear, and feel this incremental adding of weight in every day interactions with colleagues. Opening lines from the old Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life come to mind, when the angels, appearing as stars in the cosmos, are talking:

FRANKLIN: A man down on Earth needs our help.

CLARENCE: Splendid! Is he sick?

FRANKLIN: No, worse. He’s discouraged.

—Truth.

A gallery of teacher faces appears in my mind.

Then I see these words on the wall and I think, that’s the breathing room. 

The beginning of atmosphere.

Before learning, before discovering, before creating, before engagement, empowerment, objectives or standards, before all the materials and tools are ever distributed, there’s atmosphere. 

It’s both bigger and smaller than the what of climate and the how of culture. Atmosphere in a classroom still lies wholly within the power of the teacher. It starts as small as the heartbeat of the teacher that keeps showing up to say You are my why.

The heartbeat, the breath, that keeps the entire organism alive.

Today

 

Bubble in reeds

Today … a bubble in the reeds. Claudia DeaCC BY

Today held some rare things.

A teacher said, “Come sit with me while I do my reading groups. I don’t learn by watching but by doing.  Just be there with me and jump in when you see a way I can make them better.”

A third-grader read me his rough draft about experiencing an eclipse, relating his understanding of the science behind it, yet conveying real fear at watching the sun go dark. I sat, listening, in awe of his inspiration, his words.

Another third-grader read her narrative draft to me. How she helps her grandmother to dress and brush her teeth, but not wanting to, wanting instead to go outside and play or watch TV . . . . I sat blinking back tears as she spoke her truths recorded there on the page. She has no idea how powerful this is. How powerful she is. And she’s eight.

I walked down an empty hallway and suddenly heard song—a student coming up the stairs, walking back to class, singing to herself in a vibrato that almost sounded trained. I turned around to see her moving her arms and hands in time with the words. Sign language. I didn’t know she could sing. Or sign.

Had I somehow fallen into a parallel universe, a facet of paradise, maybe, where beauty is multiplied exponentially? Somewhere over the rainbow?

But no, these were only moments in a regular day. Wondrous bubbles against the usual backdrop. Shining, ethereal, iridescent.

And all I really did was show up and listen.

Not another hand turkey

Last week ended with a professional development session. One of those “compliance” types for which it’s hard to muster enthusiasm. I’ve led professional development under some tough circumstances—like, for an entire staff on the last day before winter break, when snowflakes began billowing on the other side of the window—so I know how hard it can be. I attempt to make whatever PD I do as inspirational and practical as I can for teachers (in the case of the snowfall, it was “Bye! Vacation starts now!”).

But this time, I was an attendee. The whole week had been out of whack between the holiday on Monday and my battling a minor illness. I was happy to see the end arrive despite some trepidation about this PD session.

Especially when we participants were asked to draw hand turkeys.

For real? I sighed. Is this in any way productive? 

I couldn’t recall the last time I did this. In my early elementary years, surely.  I tried to remember helping my own children trace their little hands in autumns past.

But I complied. I penciled the outline of my hand onto white paper.

We attendees were then told to write “something we’re proud of” on each of the four so-called tail feathers. These things could be personal, professional, or both.

Well, this was kinda different. The four things came to me pretty quickly:

My blog. It was born as a way of making myself write regularly, evidence of “walking the walk” as a teacher-writer. I can’t stand before colleagues and profess my love of writing or testify to its impact if I’m not doing it on a regular basis. That’s how the blog started; it soon became a keeping-place of memories and reflections, a patchwork quilt of my life now and long ago. Not to mention that it threw the doors wide open for meeting other teacher-writer and reader friends who’ve enriched my days immeasurably. That I’ve sustained it for nearly three years feels like a true achievement.

Coaching. My daily work. I collaborate with K-5 teachers on English Language Arts instruction.There’s a different ebb and flow to it each year.  The work can be like riding a train and watching the landscape zip by at an alarming rate. It’s sometimes like trying to irrigate monotonous, barren deserts. There’s a lot of new expectations of my teaching colleagues this year, new curriculum, newly-tweaked standards (again). With new and greater demands on top of all the old ones, it’s easy for a teacher to feel constrained, paralyzed. Every time I can help simplify, problem-solve, or streamline the work of classroom teachers, I feel like the “flow” gets better for them and for their students. We ALL grow.

My sons. I am so proud of who they are and where they are in life. Both of them are working on seminary degrees, one in music, the other in graduate divinity studies. One knew his path from early childhood, the other took the long way round, but both have chosen paths of service. On this note, my heart becomes too full for words. . . .

The Facebook devotional.  I don’t have a Facebook account (preferring Twitter) but my husband does. He’s had it for years and has never written a post. Last week, out of the blue, he said: “I need your help.” He’s a pastor. For three decades now he’s tirelessly served churches and communities. He’s married people, buried them, held their hands during their darkest times, laughed and rejoiced with them in the better ones. And ministry is changing; social media is a way to reach out . . . so, enter me.  Would I help him craft a short devotional post each day? It’s a small thing, really, but if the words help someone, or give them hope . . . then to me it’s a way of giving back. See, November marks three years since my husband was diagnosed with ocular melanoma. He lost his eye, but he’s alive. He’s here. Cancer-free. Every day is a celebration. There’s always, always, always something to be thankful for . . . yes, I’ll help him share it each day.

I suppose the professional development presenters may have wondered why I kept working on my hand turkey throughout the entire session. They may have thought I’d tuned them out. I hadn’t. I was listening. What they had to say was actually quite helpful. I processed it all as I added more and more detail to my turkey—let’s hope the facilitators thought I was sketchnoting. One thing just kept leading to another until I realized that the words on the tail feathers represented more than things I was simply proud of. This is the work of my hands, I mused, as I wrote and drew with one hand inside the outline of the other. Each thing I’ve listed is an opportunity, a piece of life’s work given to me.

—Gifts. 

Pride wasn’t the appropriate sentiment. Not even close.

I draped my turkey in a banner bearing the word “Gratitude.”

Isn’t that where the personal and professional roads should converge, anyway? Or the point of origin from which they radiate?

It is for me.

It is from this crossroads of gratitude that I wish you professional and personal joy, in all the work of your hands.

Happy Thanksgiving.

What is literacy?

Museum of the Navy

Quarterman shipfitter looks at blueprints, 1943. Museum of the U.S. Navy

“Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across disciplines and in any context.

The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another and empowers them to achieve things they never thought possible. Communication and connection are the basis of who we are and how we live together and interact with the world.” 

International Literacy Association, 2018

On the eve of the New School Year, I contemplate my role in the scheme of things. In the face of changes in staff, in curriculum, in differing perspectives on literacy instruction.

I am defined by literacy. I’ve loved reading and writing all my life. My professional work is literacy: As a coach, I collaborate with teacher colleagues across grade levels on how to best teach English Language Arts in ways that meet the needs of all students.

When it comes to defining literacy, I rely on the International Literacy Association, for no two dictionaries, and hardly any two people, seem to have the same idea of it. Some believe it’s just reading and writing. But it’s so much more . . . .

In the ILA definition several things jump out at me, beginning with

the ability to interpret

in any context

I think of my grandfather.

Over a hundred years ago, my grandfather left school to work on his family’s little North Carolina farm. He married during the Great Depression. When tenant farming, sharecropping, and other odd jobs like painting houses weren’t enough for him to “make a go of it,” Granddaddy rode with men from his hometown to Newport News, Virginia, in hopes of landing steady work at the shipyard.

Granddaddy became a shipwright, responsible for helping build the keels of ships, less than a year before Pearl Harbor;  when America entered World War II, production continued around the clock with the invention of a new thing: aircraft carriers.

He made his living; he took care of his own. He retired from the shipyard when I was five. He and Grandma moved back home and there I spent my childhood summers.

In the evenings he sat in his recliner while Grandma and I sat on the living room floor. She spread the newspaper out on the carpet, handed me the “funnies” section, and then she read the rest of the paper in a loud, clear voice to Granddaddy—his years around industrial equipment in the Yard had made him hard of hearing.

I eventually asked:

Why do you read the paper to Granddaddy? Why doesn’t he just read it?

He can’t, Dear. 

Why? Is something wrong with his eyes?

No, no. He just never learned to read, not much, really. He quit school in the fourth grade to help on his family’s farm, you see . . . .

I was stunned. This was the first time I’d known of anyone who couldn’t read.

It hurt my heart for him.

But I later learned that he could read intricate blueprints and build to those precise measurements. That’s what he did at the shipyard all those years.

It’s something I can’t do.

 the ability to identify, understand, interpret

using visual

materials across disciplines

and in any context

My grandfather was always a farmer first; he read the days, the seasons, the weather.

He read nature. When he and I came across strange worms gliding over his front sidewalk, he couldn’t identify them but instinctively knew to leave them alone. Decades later I researched them (land planarians) and learned that if he’d tried to crush or chop them up, every piece would have replicated and they would have destroyed the good earthworms that kept his garden so abundant and healthy.

Signs, symbols, meanings, he understood. Not in or from books, but from life. He possessed visual-spatial acuity. Keen intuition. He read the times in which he lived, comprehended that the way of life he and the generations before him had known was passing forever. He reached for better things. He worked hard. He collaborated with a lot of different people. The shipyard management eventually asked him to be a supervisor, and that’s where his courage ran out. It required regular paperwork. He declined the position.

My heart ached again, deeply, on learning that.

The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another

and empowers them to achieve things

they never thought possible.

That belief is behind everything I do with teachers and students.

The greatest man I’ve ever known indirectly taught me, years ago, that reading and writing are the keys to opening doors of possibility and opportunity. He also taught me that literacy is so much more, long before this digital age.

We have to be able to read words and ascertain their meaning, but our survival depends on more. We must be able to read the times, read people, read what we see, what we are creating. And make sense of it. We must interpret. That’s the entire, inherent value of reading and writing in the first place.

We must communicate well with one another, recognizing that each of us possesses different strengths, all of which are valuable to helping each other. Communication is the keel on which all good relationships are built. We must speak, but we must listen more, absorb more, understand more.

Communication and connection are the basis of who we are

and how we live together

and interact with the world.

My grandfather survived—his family survived—because of his clarity of vision and sense of purpose.  He knew he lived through unique times. In his last years he preserved his life experiences for future generations not by penning a memoir but by recording his stories on a set of audiotapes. I don’t think he ever knew just how unique, how extraordinary, he was. In my mind I see him now—thick white hair, plaid shirt, gray pants with a black belt, black shoes, his big, wrinkled, work-worn hands folded in his lap, leaning back in his recliner listening to my grandmother reading. In addition to the nightly newspaper, she read the Bible through to him each year.

And so, on the eve of the New School Year, I contemplate my role in the scheme of things. I think of the constant adaptation of teachers to the times and the changing tides of literacy instruction; of students, each of whom has strengths and gifts that may not be obvious at first. I think of their futures and know that clarity of vision and a sense of purpose are vital to their learning and well-being. To all of our well-being. I think of my grandfather reading complex blueprints and going forth to build something previously unknown in a vastly changing world. I think about life literacy as well as literacy for life. How we live together and interact with the world.

For, in truth, we are building the world.

*******

Here’s the story of Granddaddy and I encountering those unknown worms long ago: First do no harm.

That kid

Legos

Legos. qrevolutionCC BY

I woke up thinking of him today.

Don’t know why.

Maybe it’s because another school year just ended and memories are flowing thick and deep, like they always do.

Maybe something subconsciously reminded me of the collective sigh of relief when he finished elementary school and moved on a few years ago.

I am not sure.

But here he is again, so clear in my mind.

He arrived every morning long before the school doors were open, jumping, running on the sidewalks, talking to himself, singing. Staff spent the first few hours of each day trying to calm him down.

My first real encounter with him came in third grade when I, as the literacy coach, worked out of the room across from his classroom. In better moments, he’d appear without warning in my room: “What do you do in here?”

“I plan reading and writing lessons. Sometimes I have reading groups in here. Want to read with me?”

“Naw,” he said, wide-eyed, shaking his head emphatically, bouncing back to his room just as the teacher realized he’d left.

In the worst moments, the teacher came to enlist my help.

“I need a breather,” she said once, gray-faced. “I can’t do anything with him today. Can you please just stay in the room for a few minutes?”

So I stepped in. Everyone was seated, working on something, except . . . that kid. He was standing by a classmate’s desk. Taking things off of it.

“Stop it!” she kept saying.

“What’s going on?” I asked her.

“He’s taking all my supplies that I’m trying to use for this project,” said the exasperated girl.

Leaning down to his eye level, I addressed that kid: “Did you ask her permission to borrow her supplies?”

He snorted and flounced away from me. He kept grabbing pens and markers.

Firmly accentuating every word, I said: “Leave her things alone. If they aren’t yours, do not touch them without permission.”

At this moment, I realized the whole class had stopped working to watch.

He didn’t return the items. Instead, he marched to his desk, took out a wrinkled piece of notebook paper, wrote a word on it, and waved it around in the air:

Bitch

I took odd satisfaction in his spelling the word correctly.

Just then his teacher returned from her “breather.” In fractions of a second, she absorbed the scene. She was livid. The rest is a blur, her ushering that kid out of the room while the others bent quietly back to their work.

He wrote me a note of apology while doing his time in the assistant principal’s office. Delivered it to me himself, later that day.

He’d drawn flowers all over it.

That was the beginning of my being his “safe place.” When he couldn’t function in the classroom setting, his teacher sent him over to me for a few minutes, until he was able to return. One day was especially bad; I cannot remember the details of his actions. His teacher, red-faced and teary-eyed, escorted him over and immediately returned to the rest of her class.

Pacing back and forth like a caged animal, his eyes suddenly landed on the Legos on a table in the wet area of the room. Without a word, he sat at the table, and, block after block, immersed himself in building.

Presently his teacher came back, and on seeing this, turned to me. Turned on me, actually:

“Why are you rewarding his behavior like this? Why should he disrupt the class completely and get to come over here and play?” This teacher, usually so mild-mannered and nurturing, was angry to the point of visibly shaking.

Caught off guard, I took a step back. “I didn’t think of it as a reward, or even playing. He’s decompressing—this seems to be exactly what he needs.”

She stared at me for a long minute. Then she turned to that kid and said, “Are you ready to come back to class?”

He got up without a word and followed her.

Many more times that year he came, played with the Legos for a little while, and went calmly back to class.

I learned, talking to him, listening to him, that his mind functioned in overdrive. Warp speed. Hyper-curious. He asked questions other students didn’t think to, without reservation. He noticed minute details that others, adults included, frequently did not.

Such as, seeing me walking toward him in the hallway: “Hey, Mrs. Haley! Where are you going? What’s wrong with your hip?”

“What?”

“Your hip. One’s higher than the other.”

I looked at his earnest face, stunned. He was right; a touch of scoliosis left one hip slightly higher than the other, which plagues me every time I have to buy pants or jeans, making sure the one side is long enough.

He was also a math whiz. Scored high on his tests. Reading, not so much. He did decide to read with me a time or two. I later watched him work hard on his reading test, but there were too many things vying for his fractured attention; too many choices, too many strategies to remember.

But he tried.

And then he went on to middle school.

One day, at the end of another school year, I was walking through the parking lot with boxes to place in my car when I heard, “HEY, MRS. HALEY!”

—That voice!

A human projectile came from nowhere and threw its arms around me, tight.

That kid.

“Hey!” I said. “It’s you! How are you?”

“Good!” he said. “How’s that hip?”

That kid.

That rare kid, with rare insight and gifts that many may never see.

Woke up thinking of him today.

God, please let him make it.

Most meaningful moments in school: A student’s perspective

Jumping for joy

Jumping for joy. kilgarronCC BY

“So,” I ask the student, “what are some of your favorite memories from all your time in elementary school?”

She’s working on her fifth grade graduation speech. Making this farewell address to the school is part of her official role as Student Council President. She’s struggling with framing her thoughts, which is why I’m here.

She looks off in the distance, past the walls of the room where we’re sitting, scrolling back over the chapters of her young life. I wonder what she’s remembering. Maybe a time she accomplished something she thought she couldn’t? Winning a class competition? A book that a teacher read aloud? A moment in a lesson when she learned something powerful that will remain with her for the rest of her life? I hope that’s it because I want to know it. And tap into it.

Finally she smiles. “There was this one time my first grade teacher just started tossing candy around the room.”

I blink. “Um, okay . . . why did she do that?”

The student shrugs, still smiling. “I don’t know. I don’t think there was a reason. I just remember she had a lot of candy and she started tossing it around for us and the other classes.”

Six years of elementary school and this is her favorite memory.

Having nothing to do with learning, achieving, growing, or rationale . . . but everything to do with spontaneous joy.

“All right then,” I say as I jot notes. “You can put this in your speech. Maybe call it the time you remember it ‘raining candy’ and explain what your teacher did.”

“That’s good,” she nods.

“Can you think of any other special or meaningful moments from all your time here?”

I wait as she scrunches her face a bit, thinking hard. Then another big grin:

“Yeah, the time the fourth grade teachers got together and sang to our classes.”

They sang? I never knew they did this. I’m curious. “Why did the teachers sing to you?”

“Just for fun, I think.”

Her eyes are so bright.

We finish fleshing out the draft of her speech. She is pleased. As she heads back to her classroom, I walk the hallways, replaying the conversation, mulling the moments that hold significance for such an accomplished student.

Just simple, unscripted, uninhibited moments when teachers were having fun.

How few and far between are they?

But how priceless to students, in the long educational scheme of things.

I walk on, carrying both the lightness and the weight of it.

Like Superman

Superman

Superman. Ian HarveyCC BY-SA

I’m seated at the old computer table, listening to second-graders read. Poetry conferences, we’re having. Revisions and final edits before their teacher sends everything off to publish a class book of poems.

“Is it my turn? It is it my turn?” he keeps asking me, from his seat in the middle of the room.

Actually, he’s not on my list of students that his teacher asked me to meet with. So I say, “Not yet. Not yet.”

He manages, somehow, to sneak between his classmates. I look up from notes I’m making to find his impish face beaming up at me. His tiny body wriggles in the chair beside me.

“My turn!” he insists.

I call across the room to his teacher, who’s also conferring with students: “May I PLEASE work with our friend here?”

“Yes, sure!” she answers. “I’m about to meet with him, but if you want to  . . .”

If I want to?

How can I say no?

“Okay, YOUR TURN! Read your poem to me,” I tell my exuberant conferee.

Grinning, he shoves his paper over to me.

There’s nothing on it. Not even his name.

“What, you haven’t written anything yet?”

He shakes his head. He’s still smiling. “No! But my English is bigger!”

He remembers.

At the beginning of the year, I assessed his reading. Just as I was about to console him on his having missed all of the words, he patted my arm and said, “You have big English. Me”— he patted his chest— “little English.”

His perception of everything around him is astonishing.  Whether he has all the words for it or not.

I’ve noticed, in the hallways, that he doesn’t greet me as Haley! anymore. Now it’s Hi, Mrs. Haley. That when I say How are you? he says, I’m good.

“Yes,” I say, “your English is a LOT bigger. That’s for sure. Now, this poem. What do you want to write about?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“Well, what do you like?”

His face lights up. The response is immediate: “BASEBALL!”

“Okay, so, what do you want to say about baseball?”

I take the paper and pencil.

“I like baseball,” he says.

“Perfect.” I write down the words. “That’s your first line. What else?”

“I like hitting the ball with the bat.” He acts this out. He’s a boy full of endless energy.

“Great. That’s your second line.” I write it down. “What else can you say about playing baseball?”

He thinks, gets excited, garbles his words. Something about running . . .

“Wait, slow down. Did you say running?”

He nods, bouncing in the chair. “I run like SUPERMAN!”

Superman . . . 

The first time I saw him, over a year ago, when he came to the United States, to our school, he had no English at all. Unused to a school setting, he frequently had outbursts because he couldn’t communicate his wants, his needs, his questions, his feelings, anything.

He was a frustrated, forlorn soul.

Wearing a Superman shirt.

My first words to him were, “Hey, you’re Superman.”

I pointed to the on his little shirt.

He didn’t understand, but he smiled.

Now, he understands.

Within five minutes, the poem is written. I point to every word, reading to him, then he points to every word, reading back to me. I watch him bounce away to his desk to copy the poem over in his own handwriting.

I write, too:

So you run like Superman when you play baseball.

Maybe you really mean that you fly

because you do

because you ARE Superman.

We shall stand marveling in your wake

it’s a bird, it’s a plane

it’s you.

Supersonic.

*******

For an earlier encounter with my little friend, read Big English

For the record, poetry is an excellent way to help English language learners—really, any student—write more. Poems can be brief with less emphasis on conventions. Energy can go freely into capturing images, ideas, emotions, and building vocabulary.

I am

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They’re so excited to see me, because this is Something New.

I come to kindergarten to support a new teacher and students struggling to master sight words.

Today, we work on am.

We read the word several times. I ask my six little friends at the table to think of sentences with the word am:

I am wearing a dress.

I am a boy.

I am eating a banana.

One little boy says, “I am a good reader.”

His face is full of light. Of hope. This is what he believes, that he is a good reader.

Dear God, never let anything squelch this hope. 

He is more than a data point

more than a projected

 subgroup statistic

 system failure

evaluation to be held against a school, a teacher.

I look at this child.

I say, “Yes. Keep reading, keep trying, and you will get better and better.”

He grins from ear to ear.

We keep working on am. We write the sentences that they compose themselves. I am writing them on strips as they write them on paper. They trace mine with a finger; I cut the words apart. I scramble and they reconstruct. We read a short book where I am recurs over and over.

“This is fun!” says another little boy, beaming.  “When will you come back?”

I am. I am. I am. I am. I am. I am.

Yes, you are.

You are here.

You are little human beings with a big future.

You are full of potential, possibility.

I am honored to have this time with you.

Your why

Last Friday at school our professional development centered on finding our whys. For we are not made of what we do; we’re made of why we do it.

In a YouTube video, comedian Michael Jr. puts it this way: “When you know your why, you have options on what your what can be.” To illustrate the difference between knowing what and knowing why, he calls on a member of the audience (a school music director by the name of E. Daryl Duff) to sing a few bars of “Amazing Grace.” Duff’s voice is resonant, beautiful. Michael Jr. then asks Duff to sing as if a couple of specific, tragic things had happened to him; the transformation is stunning. Duff sings in a higher key with a vibrato full of emotion and energy—see the “Know Your Why” video).

It’s a perfect example of how our power, our potential, lies in knowing why we do things.

So, my colleagues and I got to work on finding our whys. 

We were to map at least five peaks and valleys in our lives; if we needed help, we could use a memory prompt based on the work of Simon Sinek:

Our principal modeled the activity first (let us remember that good teaching and good writing have a primary rule in common: Show, don’t tell). The peaks and valleys didn’t necessarily have to be milestones in our lives, but experiences surrounded with much meaning or emotion, maybe turning points, times we gained knowledge that changed us. The more specific we could be in listing several significant life events or people that made an impact on us, the better we’d get to our why. 

Mulling the suggestions and the need for specificity, I chose these events, people, and moments that first came to mind as being beyond the norm:

Thinking of such experiences and writing them can be emotional, but sharing is where the emotion really kicks in.

Laughter. Tears. Reassuring hugs.

In pairs who were moderately comfortable with each other, but who didn’t know each other really well, we shared some of our peaks and valleys. We didn’t have to share everything we wrote, just the items we wanted to share. We told why we chose these points in our lives and what stood out about them. While one partner read, the other listened for connections or patterns in those life events, made notes, and then the roles switched.

We then shared what we discovered about one another.

In my case, my father’s sudden death (my lowest valley), reading “The Murder of Robbie Wayne, Age 6” in The Reader’s Digest when I was a young teen, my birthday party when my mother invited a boy who had bullied me, and a boy who did one of the greatest acts of kindness I’ve ever seen back when we were in 5th grade (I wrote about it: The Valentine) all connect to my present notions of fairness, doing what’s right, and being an advocate.  My having asthma as a child, my husband’s loss of an eye to disease two years ago, and my return to college to finish after a span of many years have a common theme of overcoming. The others—my husband’s ministry, my grandmother’s belief in me, my volunteering to do a play with elementary students when I was still in high school, my blog, the professional development I’ve led in writing, my boys’ individual accomplishments in music and leadership, and the high school teacher who saved the lead role in The Matchmaker for me to read in class—are tied to inspiration.

Synthesizing all of this leads to drafting a why statement comprised of our contribution and our impact:

To _____________________ [contribution] so that ___________________________ [impact].

Mine, at the moment, is this (still working to tighten it further):

To inspire others so that they know they can overcome obstacles and setbacks.

This is why I do what I do; some of the whats are literacy coaching, encouraging others to write, and writing this blog.

I wonder, now, how many colleagues—how many people in the world, actually—have their whys and whats aligned. Seems to me there’d be incredible frustration, anger, anxiety, depression, imbalance, and utter lack of fulfillment when whys and whats aren’t aligned, when people don’t recognize their contribution or see the impact they can make. I think of people in jobs that don’t match their whys and how such dissonance makes for misery.

In The Art of Coaching, Elena Aguilar writes of a teacher struggling with classroom management. The man couldn’t bring order because, when he was in school, he suffered being stereotyped and devalued by a teacher. Being the authority figure for his students felt like he was doing the same to them. He went into teaching because he had a genuine love for the kids, but his core beliefs, his why, the very essence of who he was, wouldn’t allow him to establish the needed structure.

He couldn’t change his why; he could only change his what. He ended up leaving the teaching profession.

“When you know your why, you have options on what your what can be.”

We are not what we do.

We are why we do it.

Knowing that, as Robert Frost might say, makes all the difference.

Trust

Child jumping

Едно, две, триии…(One, two, three…). Vladimir Petkov. CC BY-SA

I am eleven years old, standing at the end of a pier beside my uncle. He’s holding both of my toddler cousin’s hands as she jumps from the pier’s edge toward the murky green depths of the Piankatank River. She squeals with delight. Just as she dips, her father swings her back. She lands safely on the wooden slats, laughing. Over and over she jumps. Her feet never touch the water. 

I know the water is over her head. The biggest jellyfish I’ve ever seen are floating all around. We can’t even go swimming because of these ghostly orbs, larger than my head and so heavy that when I catch one in the crab net, it fills the net and I can barely lift it from the water. Hunks of the jellyfish ooze through the net, too, plopping back into the water.

I shudder.

I’ve composed a song in my head:

The Piankatank River 

Ain’t the place to swim

Because it’s full of jellyfish

And other things within.

I don’t even know what other things are within but I sense that they’re utterly treacherous. My toddler cousin’s reflection zooms out again over the shimmering, placid surface. Back she swings to safety.

“Why isn’t she scared?” I ask my uncle.

He smiles, holding tight to his daughter’s small hands. “She knows I won’t let her fall. She has no fear because she trusts me completely.”

My little cousin jumps once more, with wild abandon. Her face turns toward the sky as she swings backward, dangling from her father’s hands.

Her expression is one of absolute joy.

That image, that moment, has never left me.

He was enjoying her joy. Allowing her freedom to dare, to be a risk-taker, yet keeping her safe at the same time. Had he been less attentive, less vigilant . . . she might have gotten wet, or worse. I knew what dangers awaited, the harm that could come, and also that my uncle wouldn’t be doing this if he weren’t confident in his own strength. I marveled at his easy assurance and peace of mind. He wasn’t afraid, either.

Of myriad connections I can make out of this moment, the one that rises to the surface of my mind first is teaching. Creating the conditions for good learning to occur means letting children explore, dare, make choices, take risks, all stemming from a foundation of safety, an environment of trust. Children have to know they can take leaps and that their teachers will not let them fall, that they have nothing to fear.

For that to occur, we as teachers must  recognize our own strength and continuously strive on behalf of those entrusted to us. Teachers must be risk-takers, too. We must believe that we can get students safely from where they are to where they need to be, even beyond. Not just for now, this quarter, this year, this test – but by inspiring students to actively pursue learning for the rest of their lives.

It’s no small feat, when our own piers stand in the murkiest of depths. But we’re standing in the singular position that affects outcomes. What lies within us is greater than external forces. By far. We make the leap when we move from belief to action, from self-esteem to self-efficacy. Trusting others, trusting self, trusting in the safety of shared trust, strengthening one another, propelling each other forward. Professional trust isn’t holding on loosely; it’s everyone holding on tight, not letting go. When done with confidence, responsibility, and mindfulness, we develop a dynamic of grace, a synergy of poetry in motion – swinging out over the depths with our faces turned skyward.

The safe environment of will not let you fall. 

A paradox, really, that it takes a collective grasping of hands to experience the freedom, the joy.

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