Between the recent, high profile demands for more space for mental heath by athletes like Namoi Osaka and Simone Biles and the frantic plea of parents to get kids back in school for everyone’s mental health, emotional wellness is forcing its way into mainstream conversation, largely because of its long overlooked absence. It is hard to talk about being mentally well, when admitting when we are not is subject to criticism and shame. This is the moment to make progress toward living healthier emotional lives.
There is a difference between being mentally unhealthy and mental illness. I know that it is easy in memes and tiktok to reduce our current feelings into a mental illness, but the reality is that mental illness has many layers beyond just our feelings in the moment. It is true that mental illness is on the rise during this time and suicide attempts and completions are increasing among young people. It is also true that a significant proportion of these may be due to untreated mental illness that pre-existed this pandemic time and was exacerbated by being alone.
We are all having moments of being mentally unhealthy right now, especially young people. I have been doing a LOT of learning about emotional intelligence and mental health (I can give you more references if you like!) and there are two key ideas that come forth in that that I think apply to this moment of collective trauma, grief and, in some cases, excruciating monotony that we are all living through:
First, it is important to ACCURATELY identify what you are feeling. Too many times we jump to the wrong word and feel that we cannot address our current state – for example, when people say they are SO STRESSED, but that can mean SO MANY different things! You can be overwhelmed, feeling pressured to succeed, exhausted, and each of those things requires different action on our parts and needs different support.
Second, We can and should regulate our emotions. You don’t need to sit in your feelings and we need to actively do something to change our mindset. You have no obligation to stay sad just because it is overwhelming you – that doesn’t mean you need to suddenly be happy to please other people. Rather, it means that you need to recognize that you are feeling sad, consider why you are feeling sad and then regulate – for example, you might be feeling sad right now because you miss friends, but you really need to finish a paper right now, a healthy choice would be to send a quick text/email/whatever to a person on your mind to set up a time to talk AFTER you finish your paper. In terms of mental health, this accomplishes MANY important things – you are connecting with another person, you are setting a small goal and achieving it and then you get the reward of time with someone you care about. That is really really good for your brain.
Overall, I think we need to shift the conversation to talking about things we can do to be mentally healthier rather than labeling ourselves with mental illness. Being mentally healthier doesn’t require a therapist (though those are always helpful!!!) or medication; you can do some positive self talk by focusing on what you CAN do, you can go for a walk, you can exercise, you can meditate, you can change your environment – literally turning your chair or desk to face a different direction or sitting in a different space really helps (this is why so many people work in coffee shops in addition to free wifi!) – or listen to different music (why do you think people love vibing?!?).
It is clear that the pandemic is changing and we are being required to adapt quickly. While we thought that there was an end in sight, the journey through this pandemic is still uncertain and rocky. Making fundamental changes in the way that we look at mental wellness will make traveling this rocky road (and the future ahead) easier.
Even when my head is going in every direction imaginable, I come across surprising pieces of writing that pull me back into focus.
The sentence is from Pet by Awkweke Emezi. There are so many layers to this short novel (that I would definitely recommend to someone looking for a fresh and surprisingly lyrical new voice in literature).
But more so, I am enraptured by the idea of being in the path of someone’s joy. What a beautiful space to inhabit.
If you come across some must read sentences, please send them my way!
I will leave it to my children to list the innumerable downsides of being the child of a teacher. And, I can also can list for you the challenges of being a teacher with school-aged children, not limited to feeling like you are always doing school work. Always.
But, there are many benefits, particularly when your children have been fortunate to have excellent teachers whose philosophies on learning generally mesh with ones you support. In the spirit of taking on Distance Learning with an intentionally positive attitude, I thought the key things I want my teacher-self to remind my parent-self of during this challenging time. Hopefully others can benefit, too!
Learning is Messy
During the year I pursued my Masters in Education, I was observed frequently. Whether by the teacher I was working with or my program supervisor, I got accustomed to being observed by educators. But, once I started teaching full time, I found myself most frequently being observed by people looking to make donations to our school program, generally people not trained in education. Suddenly, I started to see my sometimes chaotic classroom through a whole different lens.
At that moment, I wanted to have “Learning is Messy!” emblazoned across the front of the room. I don’t mean it as literally messy with papers everywhere (which is also the case in my classroom… I digress…), but often, learning does not look like what we remember about being students or what we see continually shown to us as effective classrooms in media and elsewhere. Not to get too up into learning theory, but, in a general summary, we have to experience intellectual disruption in order to learn. Things have to get moved around and reconnected at a neurological level, and that takes form differently in each brain in the room in ways that are generally similar but wildly different individually.
As often as we write a comfortable story of what an ideal learning space looks like, the reality is that sometimes it’s the messiest situations that result in the best outcomes. For example: a student may be talking to another student while the teacher is talking. To an outsider, this may appear as defiance, but the teacher may know that person talking is a terribly shy verbal processor who is saying the material aloud to their table partner who also happens to need review constantly, and thus now has the ideal table partner. And, all this is happening while fifteen other students are quietly writing diligently in what “looks” like school (and maybe 12 are doing the task with intention), three are trying to find a way to secretly look at their phones, and two more are intensely staring in the wall because they need to eliminate all visual distractions to concentrate as a person is talking. Messy.
Distance Learning has been and will be wildly messy. As a parent, I have to remind myself to look for the learning and ignore the rest. Can my children tell me something they learned that day? Can they connect it to previous learning? I also have to remind myself that my children’s learning styles look different – I have one child that works in intense bursts, one who works slowly and steadily and one who is entirely unpredictable beyond being able to only sit for 15 minutes at a time. There is a lot of mess when these worlds collide, so I have to think about how to acknowledge and embrace their different needs while also doing my teaching job. It is a demanding task, and I will fail many times. This brings me to my second point.
“Progress not Perfection”
My daughter and I both wear bracelets with this message emblazoned inside. I need it because my “‘type A’ is for Amy” approach to everything often ends in me being a grouchy, stressball mess. My daughter needs it because being neuro-atypical (ADHD, dyscalculia, dyslexic elements… you name it, we might have been grappling with it) means that school is a lot of work . Each day we just have to remind ourselves that it is important to make progress.
In Distance Learning, it will be hard to know what progress looks like because as parents, we are trained from our own educational experiences to look at the products of our learning, not the process. Grades, test scores, college admissions… they all are external rewards for a job well done. As educators, we are trained to look at and plan for progress toward growth. And, we realize that finishing our class is just to prepare the student for another space. A teacher once told me “Not every light bulb will go on in your class – some will come before and others after – but your classroom needs to be a space where it CAN go on.”
Focusing on progress helps kids realize that they have control over their learning and that they have room to grow. As a parent, familiarize yourself with the learning goals for the grade level or subject matter. Set reasonable goals with your child about your expectations and what is of importance to you. If a child is working on sitting still through the lesson, then give them a chart to mark it. Even a middle or high school student likes to be rewarded for not picking up their phone during a lesson or contributing something to class discussion if they are normally silent. As parents, we can be clear about what progress is in a time where grades are more ephemeral than ever.
There’s Always Tomorrow
A teacher knows how many days they have with students (in most cases, 180) and that if something goes awry one day, there is always the next. As parents, we sometimes lose sight of that as we are helping our children learn because our big picture parenting focus (hopefully) is getting them to adulthood and beyond. This is one of the many reasons I get so incensed about the weight some people put on standardized testing. The SAT is one day of your academic life and measures your aptitude for taking tests and your educational context. How often in life are we truly subjected to that sort of do or die pressure? I’d say not that often, and when we are, the answers are not multiple choice.
So, when things don’t go well in Distance Learning, as in life, I take is as a moment to step back and reflect. For my elementary school aged child, that means taking stock to decide if I need to communicate with her teacher and support team that it was a tough day or do I let her work through it tomorrow? With my older students, I have to help them reflect when something took them longer than they expected or they didn’t do as well as they anticipated. Anyone who knows me or my children knows that I am a disaster at managing screen time with any consistency, but what I am able to do is talk to my children when they seem stressed by school work and suggest reducing screen time as one of a list of options they could use to have more success. Then, after our device-free dinner (one thing I am generally able to maintain), I ask them if they have something to work on after dinner, give a reminder about the screen and see what happens.
Acting as if high school, in particular, is about always producing the best work does nothing to help kids learn. That being said, expecting them to bring their attention and resources to each task they undertake and to assess where they are and what tools they are bringing to their learning is the best recipe for success. Having these conversations when they are in the learning process rather than them beating themselves up after they don’t get an outcome that they want is critical to their growth. So sometimes, that means tackling disappointment by planning for a new approach tomorrow.
And most of all, Be Kind to Yourself
With all things, this mantra is key: All with Grace. Choose whichever metaphor that you want for this moment – uncharted waters, uncertain times, the unknown – the past that prepares us for what is ahead is not in concrete instructions. Rather, it is based on our values, our connections to one another, and our fortitude in being kind to ourselves and one another.
I suck at distance learning. This is not me being self-deprecating. This is me just putting some truth out into the universe. There are things I am really good at, like writing 60 word speeches for graduation – I have that down, and there are things I am reasonably good at – making my sophomores get very excited about listening to podcasts. But online learning design is not one of my core competencies. This Spring proved that.
Hardest part: Sarcasm doesn’t work online. Heck, it barely works in class with sophomores first semester, when there are a number of them get legitimately nervous when they catch a glimpse of the “Ashes of Problem Students” urn from one of my dearest former students (who is alive and well and not in the jar… PROMISE!)
Getting into a rhythm with my students is a big part of the first six weeks of school. I figure out what their interests are, and they figure out that there will be no bloodshed. I have always felt most successful in my classroom when I am closest to my real self. I’m not going to get to say “Hi!” to kids in the hall or have them see me looking like every bad high school movie’s stereotypical English Teacher trying to carry 10 books plus my tea up the stairs (EVERY DAY). Having to be intentional about building an online community is going to feel really unnatural.
So, what does this mean for me? WORK… and a lot of it.
First, I am being trained on a learning management system, Canvas, that is used by Foothill College that I must be certified on in order to teach my seniors the English 1A and English 1B courses that they take through Foothill. It is hard, but educational, for me to slip into student mode. Canvas feels like the gazillionth learning management system I have trained on… and that being said, I’m still waiting for someone to figure out how to make a tool that works for teachers. It is functional, but will again require that I change my approach to teaching lessons to accommodate the required tools, rather than the tools working for me. Sigh… And I am relatively technology adaptive – I can start with something and quickly get a sense of where the roadblocks will be or what I need to brush up on. I feel for teachers whose careers have spanned decades and may not be confident in how technological tools are organized.
Second, I am engaging in conversations with colleagues. These are not “woe-is-me” venting type conversations, but practical conversations about how to change assessments so that I can better use them at a distance to understand what my students know and are able to do. While I always make this my goal and frequently revise assessments, those adjustments are based on having access to students and watching their faces as they grapple with a topic. I cannot count how many times a revision to an assignment came from a student looking completely confused as I worked through a task one on one with them, after I saw them staring at a screen doing not enough during work time. So now, I need to look very carefully at each assignment, cut down the (very important but hard to do at a distance) process work into smaller chunks and really think about what I want the final outcome to show me. And, forget anything that would be easy to cheat on. All those quick quizzes (with searchable answers) that would help give me a quick touch point if students got the main idea from a commonly assigned text go out the window.
And, as I have written about before and will write about again soon, we are constantly doing the work of anti-racism and cultural humility (a topic I will write on later). Right now, there is a lot of momentum for positive change, and weaving that through distance learning is going to take patience and finesse. Teaching is not just about the paperwork; the life work takes time and energy.
Third, but not last because this list could go on to infinity, I am considering how I am going to get my planning and grading done with three children in my house who need support, food and downtime. Even the most sympathetic and supportive of people do not fully understand the amount of time and work that goes into preparing for teaching well. I hold myself to a high standard, which I think any parent would want a teacher to do, but sometimes, it comes at a cost (usually in cutting corners on dinner (“Take out it is!”) or health (“That hour workout is going to have to wait.”)). Now, I have to add on top of it learning an entirely different way to do my job in real time?
It’s as if someone told you that you need to take the work you’ve done over the past year and record it in an entirely new language that very few people speak by next week and you have a limit on what letters you can use because the characters can only be used so many times. While you are doing your work, everyone and their second cousin fifteen times removed will have an opinion about where each letter is placed, even though they don’t actually speak the language but are experts in their own language, it it totally sounds better and was easier to learn, and they could certainly do it faster (in their memory).
I get some energy when I launch in a new adventure, and I know that I will make some new discoveries teaching online that will improve my work long-term. I am trying to bring a positive mindset to this change, because I will need every ounce of energy that I can get. In terms of how it will affect my job as a distance learning, parent. That’s for Part Two…
Finding time to watch as much TV (or episodic programming now that we are in the age of streaming) is hard to do in normal circumstances but, with driving my children to 100,000 sporting events taken off of my list of daily to-dos, I have had a little more time for indulging. Here are my top 5 favorite shows from Shelter in Place.
Killing Eve (Streaming on BBC America and Hulu)
This is my absolute favorite streaming show that is FOR ADULTS – the violence can be gruesome and surprising, so if you get easily affected, this is not for you. But, if really messed up people navigating messed up situations involving international intrigue and assassins, this is your show. Created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge from a novel series by Luke Jennings, Killing Eve is smart, fierce and surprising. Sandra Oh plays Eve to make her both surreal and relatable, which pulls you deeper into the complicated relationship built with her counterpart/nemesis/mirror Villanelle. Jodie Comer is fantastic as the multi-faceted assassin, and after you watch a season or so you have to watch her be interviewed so you can see how much she changes her accent and affect for the role. A-MA-ZING!!! This was appointment TV for the newest season’s release and it did not disappoint – it has been so long since I waited a whole week to see where things went next!
Monk (Streaming on Amazon Prime)
Cannot get better than this throwback favorite during Shelter in Place. My 11 year-old (currently binge watching Phineas and Ferb) and 13 year-old (currently binge watching both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gossip Girl) both enjoyed the show, which is saying something. I love mysteries and police procedurals as a category, and Monk does not disappoint. I also love the way that they show the real battles of living with a severe anxiety order. The characters never lose love for Monk even as he unwillingly sends himself into spirals of his own making. I think my kids also like that they can recognize some of the San Francisco backdrops. The content is fairly light but presented in an engaging fashion by skilled actors, so you stay tuned in throughout.
Marcella (Streaming on Netflix)
Another in the ABSOLUTELY only for ADULTS category, Marcella is one extraordinarily messed up individual. I don’t know why BBC goes to the absolutely darkest places IMMEDIATELY, but I love that they do. This is a show that my husband (who watched Game of Thrones religiously) balks at. He often says “Oh! So glad you decided to end the day on something light!” when we sees me wide-eyed and loving the horrible situations that these characters with their incredibly broken moral compasses create. Marcella is a detective who experienced a trauma and has blackouts, but she tells no one. She often wakes up covered in blood. Awesome. The first season also features her navigating her imploded marriage with two teenaged children who have zero time for their mom’s distorted world view. This show will stress you out in a good way.
Alias (Streaming on Amazon Prime)
It is a huge challenge is finding things that are suitable for the audiences in my house. My youngest is an age where she tends to want to watch shows that make my head want to explode (Why is Sam and Cat a thing? Why does Ariana Grande talk like that? Why did someone say “Yes! This dumpster fire is perfect for an eternal life in streaming!!!”?), but she’s not quite old enough to watch what my teenager willingly consumes. So, this journey took us to rediscovering Alias. I forgot how much I loved this show. Do not place the plot or character decisions under much scrutiny – you will ruin the illusion. But, Jennifer Garner is fierce in this show and I adore Gina Torres in most things. This show was ahead of its time in terms of female characters really driving the action. My girls now both want to learn martial arts and be spies.
Veronica Mars (Streaming on Hulu)
I loved Kristen Bell as a teen detective when this show originally came out – I read so much Nancy Drew as a kid, I was squarely in the demographic for the show’s release in the early 2000s. What I have come to appreciate in re-watching it with my 13 year old is the range of issues that the show tackled that were far before their time. In the first season especially, the dialogue is sharp and the character arcs engaging. Some of the characters seem to begin as caricatures of teens from various backgrounds, but over the course of the stories, the audience discovers that there is much more than surface and they persevere beyond the stereotypical realms where they are relegated in other shows.
Clearly, my tastes tend toward investigative procedurals with strong female characters… I might have a type of indulgence TV. I probably need to branch out – so if you think there is something else I should be watching, drop me a line!
When I first started teaching, my husband was horrified at the fact that I enthusiastically assigned required summer reading for the students who would be coming into my class the next Fall. Now that two of our kids are in high school, he sees the merits as our teens while away the hours on youtube, tiktok and Netflix, but he still likes to needle me as that mean teacher. Fortunately, I’m in good company as all our rising 10th, 11th and 12th graders have assigned books, which, ironically, end up being the most frequently cited as the students’ favorite books from high school.
I am careful about choosing summer reading – it needs to be something a student wouldn’t necessarily pick up on their own, that is easily readable and somewhat fun. I am re-reading two books that my students are reading this summer: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (for the rising sophomores) and The Count of Monte Cristo (abridged) by Alexandre Dumas (for the rising seniors).
Returning to Trevor Noah’s memoir is a true joy. This is my third time reading it, and I find more to enjoy each time. While my students don’t know much about the history of apartheid, they do know what it is like to navigate a society that is designed to confound you at every turn. Noah’s balance of humor and brutal truth is perfectly suited to rising 10th graders who are both trying to find their place in the world and getting very fired up about injustices that they see. His writing is fully accessible and I love seeing what students pull out of the text that interests them. Noah’s audiobook is a gift in itself, and hearing the story in his voice makes it leap off the page. There are so many parallels to the unrest that has been running through the students’ social media feeds this summer; I am so looking forward to hearing what connections the students make when we meet in the Fall.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas is over 1000 pages in its original form… so abridgment it is! I am also requiring my rising seniors to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, so I am pushing their patience. But, Monte Cristo is cited EVERY YEAR by a senior as their favorite book. The story, if old-fashioned, is gripping – a revenge fantasy that exceeds the possibilities of imagination. Students get caught up in the romance, the absolute injustice of his situation and the details of the Count’s plan, forgetting that there are so many pages in the book (which is my secret evil plan all along… insert evil laugh). This summer, I am also reading The Black Count by Tom Reiss as a companion. This Pulitzer Prize winning book tells the story of Dumas’ father, Alex Dumas – the son of a French noble and a Black slave from what is now modern-day Haiti. Alex, the father, was a highly decorated member of the French military during the time around the French Revolution. It is a fascinating story of the African Diaspora, and a really cool backstory for many of Alexandre Dumas’ novels.
I love discussing these books with students in the Fall. They are enough escapist enough to be fun but connect to issues enough to get people talking. Let me know if you have read and enjoyed (or not) either of these!
And then I go in other places online, and I get dizzy with the ways in which people are throwing around “student potential” and “productivity” as the hallmarks of a school system. Many of these same parents are the ones trying to streamline courses for their students to take the highest level of math humanly possible (and paying for summer classes so that their student can succeed in math the following year because they ALREADY WERE TAUGHT THE CONTENT). My guard immediately goes up and I am done reading. I have asked myself why I shut down – I’ve decided it is that the ways in which people talk about this decision matters. The assumptions loaded into people’s comments belie some realities about how our public school system is built on the principles of community but functioning to serve the pressures of individualism. Community focus puts the needs of the whole before others (i.e. compulsory, free education for all) ; Individualism puts the individual first (Who can get into the “best” college? How many APs do you have? Advanced this, advanced that… I can go on)
I read about this Community/Individual tension a lot in essays and books about Culturally Responsive Teaching, but I look at it through new eyes in the discussions about back to school in Fall. Most teachers, certainly the successful ones, think of their students before themselves EVERY DAY. Part of being a successful teacher is parking your ego at the door. So, when parents don’t acknowledge that underpaid teachers are already trying to sustain the broken model of public education when they ask them to do more, teachers react. It is the step too far.
In the community where my children go to school, I hear parents worrying about our kids getting behind… my question is behind what? We are all flying blind. This has never been done. And public schools are certainly not funded well enough to do it well and protect teachers effectively. If your student is struggling, so are most kids. If you are worried about future competition from the kid next door whose family got them a tutor and who is in advanced something-or-other. you need to step back and evaluate your priorities. We need to help preserve our kids’ mental health – and school is an important part of that- but the idea that schools have the money and resources to truly protect the teachers is naive. If there is any moment where we can truly rebuild culture around the value and benefit of public education – this is that moment.
How are we valuing what matters most for building community rather than just what is serving our individual children? We are isolated in our homes right now and it is easiest to thing of just what works for our household, but that is why we, as the adults in the family who vote for our school boards and pay taxes to fund these schools, have to take those steps to think about the community that our children will be going back into once in-person schooling is again able to be taken for granted. If we don’t think of everyone, the schools will be even more broken than before. Do you want your child to have the best opportunities possible? Consider how they can work together and how adaptive you are teaching them to be? How are you modeling working together? How are you encouraging them to do their best even under difficult circumstances?
And, thinking of everyone who need their children to be back in school so they can work a minimum wage job to barely put a roof over their heads or so that their child can get lunches, we need to do better by you. In the end, this and mental wellness will be the reason many districts go back. But, when the conversation becomes about performance and learning, all I can hear is the assumption that someone else’s job matters more than the teacher’s well being. Your job is hard to do when your kid is around. I get it. So is mine. But I’m expected to do it without complaint because I’m a teacher.
My kid is really struggling in distance learning, but I am uneasy about asking elementary teachers to put themselves at risk because it is easier than the work I need to help her through this difficult time. I don’t know what we will decide – she has significant needs that are best met in person, but we don’t want to stress her out with the procedures and systems that will be necessary to keep her safe at school when she goes. As for me, I will do what is asked – my administration is bending over backward to serve the teachers, families and communities that our students come from. I know the choice they will make will be based on the fact that we can work together to do what is best for the kids and keep the teachers’ families safe. It doesn’t mean I’m not stressed. But, it is where we are right now.
I guess what it comes down to in this rant is that I am so tired of people not being required to think about what they say/post in public forums about all aspects of life. We are asking our children to be agile critical thinkers and innovators who incorporate ideas and challenge their assumptions, and yet we so frequently don’t do those things they desperately need to see.
I feel better for getting it off my chest, but it’s a long road ahead…
I have been trying to get off of Facebook for a while now. There are a ton of compelling reasons to get off of Facebook: weak security controls, election interference, Facebook’s insidious interference in the policing of East Menlo Park and East Palo Alto – something I just recently learned about and am trying to educate myself about (read this thorough investigation from Vice to learn more). The two things that keep me there are ironically necessary to working against the injustices that are being perpetuated: staying connected to my former students and finding articles and voices that people I respect, doing the work of social change are reading, sharing and writing. If people have alternatives that have worked for them, please share!
I am pretty aware of social media tools and trends – when students pick them up, it affects the way they view communication and in turn has a direct impact on how I teach. So, I know that I probably should be monitoring feeds on Twitter. I am so overwhelmed by Twitter. It makes my head spin. About 5 years ago, I decided to try to jump into Twitter and found a very rich and vibrant conversation of teachers talking about very detailed strategies and techniques. It was amazing but also sent my hummingbird brain into a million spirals. I still dip into that pool when I need inspiration or want up to the minute details about current events, but I think it is a space meant for people whose brains are wired differently than mine.
So, that leaves me with Instagram because Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube are definitely for the young people, as my resident young people remind me all the time. Instagram is where I hear about breaking stories before they show up in my news reading – my former students post things that matter to them and is far more effective than mainstream media at getting the word out. It does require I use multiple sources (or as I try to teach my students, horizontal rather than vertical reading). I had read an article many years ago (that I can’t currently find! Sorry! I really like to cite sources!!!) where a white male journalist wrote about only adding women to his Twitter feed for an entire year. He talked about the topics that he read about and opinions that he encountered and how it impacted his way of thinking. The first thing that I did as the Black Lives Matter protests took hold was to add new voices to my Instagram feed to find out what people were thinking.
Here are three of my current thought-provoking favorites that I think others might like:
Rachel Cargle (rachel.cargle) – I have already gained so much perspective from Rachel Cargle’s posts that deconstruct language and reflect on her experiences as a Black woman leading the conversation in anti-racism. Her focus on the mental health of communities of color, particularly Black women and girls, through the Loveland Foundation is a space where I want to dedicate thought, time and resources.
Leah Vernon (lvernon2000): A few years ago I started following Leah Vernon along with other body positive people (including Megan Jayne Crabbe – bodyposipanda who is awesome!) while working with a student who was in recovery from an Eating Disorder. Leah is very open about her ups and downs in life, and she challenges stereotypes of body image and what it is to be a Muslim woman. She gives me much to think about and I encourage others to check her out.
Teach me Public Health (teachmepublichealth): This is the most recent addition on my list, and I am loving it. I don’t know a ton of background on the person posting, but it is really great information that is well-sourced about the impact of many current issues on public health. It was shared by one of my former students who has always been very active in social justice issues. The account shares information on wide-range of topics in a condensed fashion that lead you to learn and want to learn more.
Here is a list of some of the other voices I have added to my feed in the past month (and some who I followed elsewhere but forgot to add to my instagram, Roxane Gay? How did I not have her on Instagram before now???). I already follow many other voices like Angie Thomas, Jason Reynolds, Kwame Alexander, Jacqueline Woodson who write for young people – I will write more about them later!
Grappling with the invisible benefits that I earned through the lottery of birth means I also have to deal with uncomfortable topics of money and status. Over time, I have realized that this comes from the fact of my upbringing and the narrative of the family I have built. My husband and I are both from families where work ethic was an important part of our narrative – my father worked his way up from challenging circumstances to find financial success and my husband’s Irish Catholic father believed hard work and character were foundational to building the nest egg that feeds our generation. So, separating out hard work from socio-economic status is a difficult but important process for me.
Again, I am not always awesome at this. My students, who are the first generation in their families to attend college, have been important in changing my perspectives. Their parents work incredibly hard, making sacrifices I could not imagine – sending your child to Eastside’s boarding program out of 8th grade! I can’t imagine! As I examined what is different between the ethic they show and that my father taught me, there it not much. Working hard resonates across both. But, I see that race plays a huge part in why some people find financial gain at the end of struggle and others don’t. This is part of Eastside’s mission that I think is most powerful – give these students every privilege and expectation that are implicit in the schooling at the most prestigious (and largely white) private schools, and let these children shine. There are certainly pros and cons to this model, but it is what we do, very well, and we are seeing the fruits of our labor as students create their own success on their own terms.
I am so glad that I can contribute at Eastside as a teacher, and I don’t have to worry about the fund-raising work. Asking for money makes me crazy uncomfortable. Yet, in my life with my kids in school, I am asked for money all of the time. I was shocked when entering the school district the dollar amount that was asked (and received) from all families each year as voluntary contributions. $1000 per year… per child… to the district plus other giving directly to the school site. It was a lot to take in as I watched my students struggle to make the parent contribution of $250 per year at Eastside.
This vast divide made my brain split in two. How could I be members of both of these communities?!? So many realizations came piling in on me – how my students must feel in college surrounded by students who were used to this sort of giving, how much we have equated quality of education by the dollars put toward the program, how the donations of food and time are valued- it was a lot. And to know that the PTA had a budget overflow from one year to the next… my head spins to think about how these two worlds are so physically close, yet so far apart.
I told myself early on that as my kids got older, I would encourage others around me to engage in “Yes, and…” giving. Meaning, it is great to support the learning environment of your own child AND where can you also give to help a child who does not have the same advantages. As I say all the time, my children don’t need me to give money to their schools. They have two college educated parents and early childhood literacy skills that work particularly heavily in their favor, not to mention the other privileges of race and zip code. What we all need is to give to the schools and programs where there are not two college educated parents, because if those students are better prepared, schools will become more diverse and rigorous for everyone. (Here, I could and often do go into a rabbit hole of unfounded fear, college admissions and assumptions about access that I will save for another time…)
In my mind, giving is better if it is not performative. This is where the challenge comes. There is a lot of celebration and ceremony around large giving events – galas, auctions, dinners, etc – and connecting with others who care about the same cause is so important to building community and raising the status of organizations often overlooked. But, I challenge myself and others to find small ways to give quietly to programs that benefit communities that I am not necessarily a part of. How do I find these? Usually through my generous former students who highlight charities in the communities where they are living and working that echo the challenges they faced as children. It takes some work, and requires that I follow people on social media to see what matters to them.
If you want to know more about giving to causes outside of your daily lives, I would recommend that you start by adding different voices to your social media feed. Follow celebrities, see who they follow or when they post meaningful messages from voices you are unfamiliar with. The “Pass the Mic” movement on Instagram was very helpful in this regard – many public figures that I follow – including Ellen and others – had a takeover of their page by a woman of color for a day or two. I found a lot of great ideas and movements that way. If you come across a movement you are particularly interested in, let me know. I would love to add it to my list.
To use an overused somewhat charged phrase, when something is making you uncomfortable “Lean In” to that discomfort with “Why” questions. Then, see if you can find answers that help you grapple with the discomfort. I still have a lot of unresolved feelings about the polar nature of my work and home worlds, but I try to sit with them to see what I can learn and how I can better understand the path to connecting them.
My son Andrew is going to be a junior in high school. I find that wildly unbelievable, as do many of my coworkers and friends that have known him since he was being carried around the high school campus by my students and being taught to say as much slang as they could get him to mimic before I caught on. Most of the time, I take his growing up for granted, especially during Shelter in Place, because I see him every day, and now that he is a teenager, he is in a world I know something about (even though he will tell you that I puzzle him just as much as any other teen puzzles their parent).
So, when I listened to him as a contributor to his second podcast on My Digital Tat2’s Media in the Middle series, I was taken aback by hearing him in his own context, saying things that were interesting to me as an educator and as a parent, in addition to as his parent. I have always been fascinated by the way that adolescents form their world views and feel so fortunate to see it, but watching it as a parent is so amazing, gratifying, and with all things child-related, puzzling. He remembers things that I clearly don’t, but he also catches things I didn’t know he did. It makes me proud to hear him state opinions, listen to others’ and take the risk of speaking up.
I am super proud of all my kids, and will surely brag on them another time, but I found this episode very timely and a good reminder about what teens are going through right now and what we can learn about what they see adults doing. I have to give a huge shout out to My Digital Tat2 for all that I’ve learned from them and the world they’ve opened up to my kids!