February in the Classroom


February.  An all-encompassing term that brings visions of darkness when you leave for work and when you get home.  Cold weather.  Incessant reminders that you need to do your taxes.  And for teachers, feelings that your hard work will never, ever pay off.  Disbelief that your students still need to practice routines and procedures after all this time.  Thoughts that you’d make a great barista, or maybe should really have a go in the essential oil business.  Wondering if you can pay the mortgage as a dog walker.

It’s not just me, right?

This is the fight.  This is where it gets harder than I thought it would.  This is when I have less passion than I need.

This is when I’m tempted to use the words of Sheldon’s mother on Big Bang Theory and respond to defiance with a biting, sarcastic:  “I’m sorry, did I start that sentence with ‘if it please your highness?'”

I’ve written about this before.  Today, I need to write about it again.  February has come early this year.  There’s no avoiding it, but there are ways to deal.

1. Put something good IN.  Read a little bit each day of something that inspires you…NOT related to teaching.  Something that inspires to you to live your life well and fully alive.  Listen to a podcast.  Watch old movies.  (At this moment, I’m watching the original 1968 Yours, Mine & Ours.  Although, even a good episode of Grey’s Anatomy can do the trick.)

2. Find your theme song.  I like NeedToBreathe’s “Hard Love” and Andra Day’s “Rise Up.”  I have few relationships in my life that are harder than my relationship with teaching.

3. Hold on to the moments that feel good.  For me, last week my principal caught a really good moment during reading fluency practice and posted a picture on our school’s social media page.  My principal thinking I’m doing a good job is obviously not a primary reason for me to do a good job, but it’s a “this is fun” moment for me.

4. Hold on to a reason.  A few months ago, a non-teacher friend told me: “You’re not teaching math.  You’re teaching character via math.”  For me, that’s the reason.  I don’t care nearly as much about my students’ math and reading as I do about their kindness, their growth mindset, their work ethic.

5. Eat, move, sleep.  You know all this.  You know it will make you feel better.  I know you don’t want to do it.  Do what you can.

6. Meditate.  Or knit.  Or journal.  Or go to yoga.  (You can kill two birds with one stone on the yoga mat.)  Do something else meditatively:  Fold laundry.  Vacuum.  One year I found sharpening pencils during my plan time to be the most mind-clearing thing.  Find some silence and headspace.

This is the hard love.  This is the fight.  This is the doing without the feeling.  This is the saying without the believing.  Teachers, our own character is being developed in the Februaries.  I’m not a bad teacher because I have doubts and struggles and sometimes have to pretend to care.  Sometimes the feeling leads to action…and sometimes the action leads to the return of the feeling.  We are learning commitment and real love in the Februaries.  This is humanity.  This is what makes us good teachers.


Not Easy

I am sharing my classroom with a wonderful student teacher this fall, and I’ve become accustomed to sharing the kids and the teaching with her.  It’s amazing.  But, I had the kids to myself today. All day, I’ve been thinking about being a safe place for them, being an adult who has a positive impact on their lives. Things like this anti-bullying ad from the UK always stick with me, remind me of the power the school experience has on a child.  We (teachers, classmates, everyone) have the power to wound deep enough that it makes you tear up when you’re 45 years old, thinking back on it.  We have the power to fuel moments of humor so joyful that a giggle arises, decades later.  We have the power to teach lessons of strength and empathy and growth that make you look at your life as an adult and wonder who you would be without those experiences.

The people in the video are Lance and Tom.  They are married to each other, to help you put some of their conversation in context.  Lance is Dustin Lance Black, the American screenwriter and filmmaker responsible for the movie Milk (for which he won an Oscar) and the miniseries When We Rise (amazing!!!).  Tom is Tom Daley, the British Olympic diver.

Around 1:40, Lance asks Tom if school was always easy.  Tom says, “It’s never — I don’t think school is one of the easy things.  It teaches you life experiences.  It’s something that gives you a lot of preparation for what the real world could be like.”  But after listening to Tom’s experiences, how he was bullied for being an Olympic athlete, my heart cries out:  But, how???  How does he have this perspective now?  How does he see those experiences as preparation, as strength-training rather than injury?  And how can I be a teacher who contributes to kids’ ability to get stronger rather than be wounded?

In some ways, it’s my job to make sure school isn’t any easy thing.  I make it harder, on purpose.  I bring them to the edge of their ability every day, and then push them a little farther.  I ask them to explain their thinking and defend their answers.  I teach them to solve their own problems, which might mean they can’t ever count on me to solve things for them.  I want them to leave my room empowered to be brave and strong and take charge of their own lives, whatever that means at this age for them.

I teach second grade, kids who start the year as 7-year-olds.  Most of my poignant school memories happened after that.  Second grade is mostly a little-kid blur in my memory.  And yet…

There were 10 of us in the class, in a tiny Catholic school in a tiny rural town.  Our teacher was Sister Josephine.  I remember all my classmates’ first and last names, and I’m still Facebook and/or real-life friends with most of them.  I remember joining in with my classmate Jeremy, being silly at the chalkboard while practicing our cursive E’s.  We got in trouble and I was mad at Jeremy for being silly, but mainly I was mortified that I had joined in.  I remember a classmate tattled on me for erasing.  Erasing!!!  I didn’t get in trouble, of course, but I was mortified that someone tattled on me.

I remember at my first confession, telling the priest that I stole some earmuffs because everyone else had earmuffs and I wanted some.  He asked me if I stole them from a store or from a friend.  I had actually stolen them from the lost-and-found, but my 7-year-old logic said I needed to answer with one of the choices he asked, so I said I stole them from a friend.  My penance was to give them back and apologize to the friend.  (Surely also some Hail Marys.)  Again with the 7-year-old logic, I waited to put the earmuffs back into the lost-and-found until my friends Lisa and Stacy were with me, and I apologized to them that I had lied about the earmuffs being mine.  So I gave them back, and I apologized to some friends, just like the priest told me to.

It was the first time I knew I did something wrong and attempted to undo it and make amends.

I remember that all the other girls got their ears pierced in second grade — all six of them, but still, ALL of them.  Our family rule was that I had to wait until I was 12.  I remember being very glad that some girls had blue sweaters and some had red sweaters (the only two colors of sweater allowed in the school uniform) and I could at least know I wouldn’t be the only girl with my color of sweater.  Between the earmuffs, the ear piercing, and the sweater colors, second grade was really my initiation into wanting to fit in.  There was nothing malicious about any of it.  No one bullied me in second grade.  No one made fun of my lack of earrings or my hat that wasn’t earmuffs, or anyone’s school uniform.  The desire to fit in was just arising to take its decade-plus place of prominence in my development.

Long-lasting hurts from wanting to fit in came later.  Like Lance in the video, I have stories from later school days that I think back on with a physical reaction, a clenching of the stomach, a mortified blush in my face.  What did the adults do, that I remember second grade stories with humor and compassion for my little 7-year-old self and her Questioner logic?

I would give anything to protect my students from those stomach-clenching kinds of memories.  Are my students just innately safe from long-lasting hurt because of their age?  Did Sister Josephine and the priest do anything to make the story of the earmuffs preparation for real life, a childish practice for serious apologizing and amend-making?  Or was that just always the way it was going to be, because I was 7 years old?

I absolutely love the message that Lance wraps up with at the end of the video:  “The thing that you’re being judged for, or bullied for, might be the thing that’s going to get you an Olympic medal or a world championship, or an Academy Award one day.  Those differences are really valuable eventually.”

Music Favorites: Sigh No More

The music: Mumford & Sons: Sigh No More  (Released 2009)

You may have heard:  “Little Lion Man”

Even better than that:  “White Blank Page,” “Awake My Soul,” “Thistle & Weeds”

Why it nourishes my soul: The first song I heard from Mumford & Sons was “Roll Away Your Stone.”  A class I took for my masters degree, Building Classroom Communities, changed my life.  The instructor, Marty, guided us through community building as a group ourselves, and we learned how to apply the practices in our own classrooms.  As a result of the deep trust and connections that we built, many of us touched deep traumas in our past with healing.  The final project was very open-ended, and one of my classmates made a slide show set to “Roll Away Your Stone” about her marriage.  I loved it and I jotted down the lyrics so I could find the song again.  Shortly after that final class, I bought Sigh No More so I could have more.

This album is full of lyrics that ignite memories of Shakespeare and scripture.  The first line of the first song is: “Serve God, love me, and mend.”  Yes…Much Ado About Nothing, right away in the first breath of the album.  “There will be a time, you’ll see / With no more tears / And love will not break your heart / But dismiss your fears” … I can’t add any words to that.  “If only I had an enemy bigger than my apathy, I would have won” … Let that one plant itself in your mind for awhile.

The musical landscape of Sigh No More feels like it has its roots in English folk music, and maybe a little bit of bluegrass.  The harmony and chord progressions are both familiar and fresh, that perfect balance of comfortable and engaging.  The feel is beautifully melancholy and cathartic.  Without any words at all, “Thistle & Weeds” would still entangle itself in my inner world after a few repeats.

Bonus listening:  Watch “Awake My Soul” live in a backyard.  Watch Mumford & Sons sing the old hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” live.


About Music Favorites:

“Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”  (Elvis Costello)  But I’m going to go ahead and do it anyway.  Read all my Music Favorites here.

Music Favorites: The 20/20 Experience

The music: Justin Timberlake: The 20/20 Experience – The Complete Experience (Released in two parts, March 2013 and September 2013)

You may have heard:  “Suit & Tie,” “Mirrors,” “Not a Bad Thing”

Even better than those:  “Strawberry Bubblegum,” “Amnesia,” “True Blood,” “Drink You Away,” “Murder”

Why it nourishes my soul:  I found Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids on Netflix in October, and it has basically been on repeat in my house ever since.  Live music has a magical quality for me – it makes me love the album version more than I did before I heard the song live.  I’ve been a noticer, an enjoyer, of JT’s radio singles forever.  But now I’m definitely a fan.

The “sonic landscape” of The 20/20 Experience has been a balm to my soul for the last couple of months.  The sound has a cohesive quality from the first song to the last, and yet, everything is completely different.  “Pusher Love Girl” takes my imagination immediately to the Rat Pack.  “Blue Ocean Floor” is ethereal and beautifully surreal.  “Drink You Away” is better than most of what’s on country radio.  And “Not a Bad Thing” is perfect in its catchy-ness, and follows the pop formula exactly – and the lyrics are probably my favorite on the whole album.  I think the variety is what holds my attention in this album.  I’m impressed with JT’s ability to create something new, completely different from anything he has created before.  From one album to the next, you can hear that he continues to learn, discover, and create new concepts each time.

Bonus listening:  Definitely watch Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids on Netflix.  You won’t be disappointed.  JT singing “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” at the White House is an amazing display of his vocal skill and his passion for Memphis soul.  His collaboration with Chris Stapleton at the 2015 CMAs is so good.  And he and Matt Morris sang “Hallelujah” together for a Hope for Haiti event.

About Music Favorites:

“Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”  (Elvis Costello)  But I’m going to go ahead and do it anyway.  Read all my Music Favorites here.

Over winter break, on several trips back and forth across the state to see family and friends, I listened to a LOT of music.  I indulged my recent obsessions and revisited old favorites.  I realized that I would love to keep a record, somehow, of the music that feels like it feeds my soul.  But I don’t want just a list…I want to talk about why each album means so much to me.  It’s so very personal.  My love for a song or an album grows out of simply repeated listens, how the music and lyrics make me feel, how a little piece of one song will be stuck in my head for a few days and speak to every situation I find myself experiencing.  That kind of soul-deep connection should be expressed.

Weariness, Scramble, Immersion

Sometimes it feels like being a public school teacher is ALL about time management and prioritizing.  You don’t have time to get everything done.  You just don’t.  If you want to do this, and enjoy this, you have to learn to live with that reality.

It might not be specific to teachers.  It might just be a universal truth of adulthood.

In the life of a teacher, at least, you never get everything done.  At some point, you just have to stop anyway and go home.  I seem to be naturally predisposed to fight against this truth.  I don’t want to accept that things won’t get done.  When things “fall off my to do list,” as I say when I write something week after week, I take it as a personal failure.

I’m working on it.


This area is my “office.” These two tables can pile high in a short amount of time!


One thing I’m recognizing recently is that there are three general paths in the day-to-day grind.  You can experience the weariness of staying a couple of hours after the students are gone.  Or you can experience the scramble of coming in early and working for a couple of house before the bell rings.  Or you can experience the immersion of taking work home.  Choose your adventure wisely.

Good Weary

This path is my healthiest path.  The weariness of going home at 6:00 instead of 4:00 and knowing that everything is in its place for tomorrow is a good weary.  Like getting in a hot shower after a hard workout.  Like packing up your instrument after a long day of music performances.


A dark line = something DONE.

Like napping in the Colorado sunshine, with your niece asleep on your chest, with a mountain in view, after a week of hiking in the heat of the Utah desert.


(Best nap ever!) (Unrelated photo because it’s almost summer and my spirit is ready for travel and sunshine and sitting places where I can see mountains. Or oceans. Or just anyplace that is someplace else.)


At 4:00, I always want to just go home.  Always.  The trick is to have a snack, and get moving forward.  Knock out a few things on the list for tomorrow.  Start crossing things off.  Keep going until everything for tomorrow is crossed off.


Pack a snack. Eat the snack you packed. Ignore the vending machine downstairs.

Then I go home, without a work bag, tired and hungry and weary, and whatever I do with my evening, I’m free.  It’s a good rest, the freedom of knowing there’s nothing I should be doing for work right now.  “I did everything I need to do” is my freedom mantra.

In the morning, I’m saved from the immediate feeling of anxiety that hits me if things aren’t ready for the day.  I feel free to have breakfast.  I feel free to get into God’s word, to sit still in His presence for a bit.  I feel free to go into work at 7:30 and plan for next week, or wander in at 8:15 and chat with people who are standing in line for the copier until the bell rings.  Either way, in that moment, it’s a pure choice, not tainted by stress and overwhelm.


On the other hand, I know colleagues who can come in at 6:30 every day, and do their prep in the early morning hours.  I’ve had seasons like that.  For them, getting out of school as soon as possible is key to their rhythm, and they don’t seem to be bothered by that ticking clock in the morning.  The scramble in the morning is energizing.  At 4:00, “It can wait until tomorrow” is a freedom mantra for them.


Quiet…bright…buzzing with possibility…


The third path is immersing yourself in the teaching life, 24 hours a day.  These colleagues appear to arrive at 8:00 and leave at 4:00, day after day.  They carry big bags of work almost daily.  Some need or enjoy the flexibility of time, doing their work after their kids go to bed or after their partners leave for a late shift job, or they simply catch a second wind late in the evening.  Some prefer to do their work in their pajamas, on their couch, watching TV.  I call this immersion because there appears to be no line between working and not working in a giving day.  They are a teacher today, or they are not.  Teaching is an identity.


The truth is, there is a little bit of each story in all of us.  Being prepared is a good feeling, and early morning hours can be magically productive, and teaching is absolutely a part of one’s identity.  All of those things are true, together, no matter what I choose to do today.  I know my best choice is usually to stay at work through the late afternoon, leaving my classroom ready for tomorrow, and bringing home nothing but my empty coffee mug.  But sometimes, circumstances – or my attitude – convince me to take a different approach.


Fear & Doing


I made a decision a long time ago that if I want creativity in my life – and I do – then I will have to make space for fear, too.

–Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic


This is my story of hiking the Fisher Towers Trail.

This is not the story of the trail, how it was created, what kind of rock or vegetation you will see, or when it became a public trail.  It’s not the story of our family vacation, who came with us, everywhere we went, or the retelling of events in order.  Those are good stories, beautiful stories.  But those are not this story.

This is my story of hiking the Fisher Towers Trail.



You see, a few years earlier, I hiked most of the Angel’s Landing trail with mostly the same group of people.  On that first trip to Utah, I discovered just how real and present a fear of heights could be.  I found that fear could actually stop me from doing what I really want to do.  I experienced that fear could make me miss out on an irreplicable moment.

On this trip, in August 2014, I was pretty determined to crack the code to my fear, to find a way to defeat it.  I wasn’t expecting to not feel fear.  But I wanted to be able to do things and have adventures and cherish them without fear getting in the way.


The night before our Fisher Towers hike, we had talked about the trail extensively.  A couple of people in the group had hiked this trail before, and they spoke of a spot where you had to climb a ladder down into a small canyon and go up on the other side.  I had seen a picture of my brother-in-law sitting on an outcropping off the overlook point, and he said he had “hopped across the ravine” to get there.  You can’t know an experience from a description, and you can’t see everything in a photo.  But my imagination was not interested in this logic.  I was imagining coming to the top of the ladder and being in tears, unable to continue.  I was imagining getting to the overlook and sitting alone, far away from the edge, while everyone else enjoyed the experience together.  I spent much of the evening looking online for pictures and descriptions, thinking that knowing was the way to defeat the fear.

Finally, after so much perusing and not feeling any better, I made a decision.  I would go first, as much as possible.  I wouldn’t say anything to the group; I would just lead the way.  When we got to the ladder, I wouldn’t hang back and let someone else go first; I would just put one foot on the top rung, and then step to the next rung, and go.  I would just keep moving.  I couldn’t freeze if I kept moving forward.

I also had this instinct that the way to defeat the fear was to do the exact opposite of what I felt like doing.  Fear said, watch other people do it first.  Fear said, sit still, don’t move.  Something deep in my adventurous soul said, push back.  Push directly into those forces.

I didn’t tell anyone about my thoughts.




By the time we reached the overlook at the trail end, I had done quite a bit of internal, unspoken fear-conquering.  I did, indeed, do the ladder first.  It wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the situation my imagination had created, maybe 8-10 feet down the ladder then up a steep switchback, but that doesn’t matter.  What mattered, for me, was that I kept moving forward when I knew this unknown ladder situation was somewhere in front of me.  When it arrived, I put one foot on the ladder and just kept going from there.  Before the group had completely caught up, I was down the ladder, and up the other side of the ravine.

IMG_8420 IMG_8422

Shortly after the ladder, I was again leading the way, and the trail seemed to end at a wall.  When we got close, we saw a small opening in the wall, about the size of a large doorway, and I moved forward into that opening — and found myself looking out at a steep drop-off and a huge landscape view.  My heart jumped into my throat, my veins felt like they were buzzing, and my hands were shaking.  I sucked in a sharp breath and took a step backwards.  I couldn’t even tell if it was still trail on the other side of this opening, or if we had taken a wrong turn somewhere.

While I recovered myself, my brother-in-law went through the opening and found the trail alongside the cliff.  My sisters offered to go next, but I recited my “one foot in front of the other; keep moving forward” mantra and stepped through the opening again.


“The very act of doing the thing that scared me undid the fear.”

–Shonda Rhimes, TED Talk


At the end of the trail, I spent some time on those rock outcroppings.  There was a light buzzing in my veins, but it was nothing compared to the view.  And if you can believe it, the feeling of satisfaction was even better than the view.

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It was somewhere along the trail that day that I realized I might like come back someday and hike Fisher Towers alone.


No Sarah or Megan to hold my hand when my heart jumped into my throat.  No Jon to confirm that we are still on the trail.  No Dan toggling between light-hearted banter and reciting bible verses.  No Amy chatting and getting to know each other better along the trail.

It was like something inside me bloomed to life, something that was strength of my own, something I didn’t realize was missing.  Or maybe I didn’t quite realize that it was something that was possible to have.

In fact, almost two years later, I can see a trajectory that I think began that day.  I do hike alone now.  Better than that, my inner conversation is less and less wanting to find someone to imitate, and more and more knowing who I am.





But that day, I also felt solidarity with my fellow hikers.  Giving in to my fear would have meant that I didn’t get to be on the trail with them.  It would have meant that they wouldn’t have been there to witness my accomplishment, and I wouldn’t have had the joy of the adventure.

Instead, we enjoyed the accomplishment and adventure together.



And that steep drop-off right before we went back through the opening in the rock?  I knew I could walk right past it, or stop and enjoy the view for a moment.  Fearless is a powerful semantic, but courage is much more empowering to an experience.  Fear would come with me.  But the doing undid the fear a little bit.  And exploration and adventure were leading the way.

Marking the Journey: The Lessons

So, Lent comes to an end this weekend.  Logistics this year mold my experience into a multi-day celebration.  Last night we met at church to figure out how to have 100 choir and orchestra musicians share a stage with a giant cross that will be raised into the air at the climactic moment of the service.  I am work-free for a five day weekend that constitutes our spring break.  There will be more music, a bit of family, a bit of solitude, hopefully a bit of hiking or at least “medium-distance wandering” outside.

Here is what I learned from giving up TV this Lent:

Just because it was spiritual and meaningful the first time, doesn’t mean it will be spiritual and meaningful the fourth time.  The first Lent I tried this, I learned so much about my relationship with TV, about my relationship with silence and solitude, about how TV has the capacity to be an obstacle to my relationship with God and with other people.  But, in small part because of that experience, I am different now.  I have a more positive view of silence and solitude than I did a few years ago.  Indeed, I now understand that both silence and solitude are essential to my soul’s well being, in moderation.  I now have the ability to see when TV is becoming an obstacle to the parts of life I want more of, and I can fix it.  I naturally “take a break” from TV whenever I need it.  I use TV to be inspired by stories I love and to motivate me through tasks I despise.

Because I know myself better than I did before, I recognize what I need each day and in each situation.  The 40-day examination of this habit was redundant.  It has been examined enough for now.

Giving up a habit or indulgence for Lent is a different practice than examining one’s relationship with a habit or indulgence.  Giving up something you enjoy to enhance your Lenten spiritual experience is best done when you have the intention of joining Jesus in his suffering in order to join him in the joy of his Resurrection.  This is a valuable and wonderful intention.  But it is not where I am spiritually right now.

The God of the universe doesn’t need me to make sure I’m in a place of sacrifice and suffering for a particular 6 weeks each year.  He created my soul apart from time.  He colors my soul with characteristics, desires, impulses, as He sees fit, regardless of the calendar.  I learn over and over again that it is better to listen for His rhythm in my life, not the rhythm of the calendar or any other worldly control.

Awareness to the rhythm of my soul is more valuable than seeking constancy or balance in every moment.  This is a lesson that must be relearned, over and over.  The past week or so, my spiritual practice — how I find connection with God — has been a creative sort of energy.  I need to be inspired by art and make art.  God is asking me to join him in creating.  I need to put myself in the path of other makers, as often as possible.  I need to make something, as often as possible.

Someday soon, this part of the rhythm will pass for now, and I’ll need to delve into scripture, or clean my house as a catharsis, or indeed, to empty myself of something to make space.  Or something else I don’t know about right now.  That’s the point: I can’t predict my own soul’s desires, much less God’s work in my life.  Spirituality, following Jesus, is a relationship, a conversation that continues.

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