Trigger warnings and Play

Warning: the contents of this article might be offensive to some. In that, it might make you conjure up images of snot, mucous, throw-up, broken arms and the like. Consider yourself trigger warned.

Last weekend’s Globe and Mail had an article in its Focus section about trigger alerts. Essentially, trigger alerts are advance warnings that might alert one to potentially harmful, anxiety-inducing, adverse information found in course material, books, public and private settings and environments, writing and other venues of transmitting influential stuff that might need censoring.

In other words, someone could be bothered at the very least- offended at the most, by what they encounter.

According to the article, university professors are being asked to provide trigger warnings in advance of their course readings- to the extreme that any sort of ill-affect, including panic attacks and anxiety disorders, might be provoked by the influence of the potential literature, and could thus be avoided through use of such an advance cautioning system. That is, through using a trigger warning so as to alert.

Essentially, trigger warnings are kind of like car horns: they jar you so that you pay close attention. Or kind of like the jarring bellow of a teacher just before her student runs in front of the swing-set. You get the idea.

The thought of which gave me pause to consider the various trigger warnings that I should offer to all those incoming students of mine who are going to be attending my upcoming K classes in the fall. The four year-olds, that is. If I was to provide a trigger warning for them, here’s what it would look like:

Be aware, Prospective Clients of the Public School System. Entering the educational system and thus attending kindergarten classes might bring on the following adverse, unpleasant affects:

1. Sickness, after you come into contact with every cold and flu virus known to humankind, which incidentally must FIRST cross the threshold of the school doorways before filtering out into the world at large.
2. Dirty, filthy clothing, as you wear said ‘virus’ proudly like a badge (because I can guarantee: you will be wiping your nose all over those super-adorable little shirts and dresses that looked spick and span when you left home in the morning but look like a compost dispenser by the end of the day).
3. All manner of cuts and bruises, as you manage to find every dangerous corner, table, wall and other sharp object or the like inside every classroom, hallway, music room, gym and secretary’s office within the school. And yes, quite possibly even the bus.
4. All manner of broken body parts, (yes again, I said that right), as you experiment with gravity on the outdoor playground equipment. Or school banister railings.
5. Writer’s cramp, as you are reminded for the bazillionth time to hold your pencil with proper, standardized pencil grip.
6. Discriminating taste buds, as you realize halfway through the month of September that you still have twelve years ahead of you eating Flakes of Ham sandwiches.
7. Joy at discovering that mom has no idea what happens to said ‘sandwich’ when Teacher turns her head to read out the lunch menu. For that matter, neither does Teacher.
8. Cold, wet feet, upon discovering that playing soccer in mud puddles a foot deep causes one’s clothing from the hip down to become completely soaked. And then some.
9. A propensity to needing bandages, as you discover that sticky, adhesive substances are quite fun to apply to the body. And then rip off two seconds later.
10. A paranoid sense of personal space as your teacher patiently explains to you why standing one cm from a person’s mouth is not far enough away.

These are merely the top ten. I could write more. So much, much more.

The author of the Globe article goes on to cite a recent Atlantic Monthly critiqueon the topic of micromanaged kids and their helicopter parents. And he does so as to say the following: “Kids are no longer left alone to find their way, invent spontaneous and sometimes risky forms of play, to confront and overcome unknowns, to do things themselves, and to fall, fail and then get back up again.”

To which I say, au contraire. Where there is a will, there is always a way.

I was on outdoor duty Friday, and I can assure this good man: children are still testing the waters of safety, running towards the road, hiding beneath trees, escaping the confines of their boundaries, sitting on the top of the monkey bars, sliding down the slide backwards, hitting one another over the head with pinecones, branches and possibly rocks (oh my nerves) and banging into each other when playing and running.

Falling down. And then getting back up again.

And interestingly, some of these kids do have helicopter parents.

While I see that there is still a propensity towards anxiety in children of helicopter parents, by and large, most kids are running around full-tilt on the playground, as if their life depended on it. And loving every, single minute of it.

‘Cause that’s their job. It’s what they have to do.

At least, it is for the healthy, happy P.E. Island kids I know and teach.

Living Five Minutes at a Time: My Messy Beautiful

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It matters how you treat people.

It matters how you live your life, how you do your job, treat your friends, speak to your kids, care for your animals.  It matters. And it matters that you infuse love into what you do, through each and every seemingly small moment of the day.  Even if those moments are organized into minuscule, five minute increments.  As small and insignificant as that portion of time might seem.

And yet.  Five minutes can be long enough to make a mess of things.

I know.

Lately, I have been living my life either five minutes ahead or five minutes behind where I ought to be.  It’s like I am either rushing too fast or moving too slow.  In all, I am not thinking/living in the moment like I feel I should be. That is, if I was to be ‘living up to’ my best, ideal vision of myself.  That ideal I hold so dear.  And when I sat down to really contemplate this thought, I came up with eight random things I wished I had known about, five minutes before/after they happened.

1. That bag of dirty laundry that I left behind at my lovely friend’s house in N.J. (while traveling during Spring Break)- wish I had known it was sitting there in her man cave five minutes before we left (instead of ten hours later). #nicepartinggift

2. That curb that I sideswiped while backing out of my sister-in-law’s driveway (causing Husband to curl up into the fetal position)- wish I had thought about it five minutes before getting behind the wheel. #soyouthinkyoucandrive

3. Those three fish tacos I ate recently at the Ground Round- wish I had purused the menu five minutes longer before deciding what I was going to eat that particular night. #intestinalgrief

4. That one hour trampoline privilege (Sky High, N.C.) that I paid a left leg for- wish I could have traded it in for Twinkies five minutes after I started jumping (like my life depended on it).

5. And while on that thought… regarding the one hour trampoline privilege that I recently paid a left leg for- wish I had a catheter inserted because five minutes after I started jumping (like an Olympic gymnast on steroids), I was making like a crazed woman for the lady’s room.

6. That email that I was recently trying to save- and all those pictures and other important stuff that seemed so NECESSARY at the time- wish I had remembered that PURGE means GONE FOREVER about five minutes before cleaning up my email queue.

7. But then too. Those beautiful children that I mama-bear growl at, for various reasons or another, and whom I rush along and nag- sometimes I wish I could just remember- five minutes before those words and frustrations pour out of my mouth- that these are just moments in an otherwise beautiful life.  They are not worth getting in a blathering dither over.

8. And this one.  Ouch. This one hurts my ego a little. That conversation I had with my mom recently- that one during which I proceeded to unload all my petty little troubles- wish I had been able to go back five minutes in time to the moment before she proceeded to tell me about a very tragic loss that had occurred in her life when I was away on my trip.  While I was going on and on and on about my bladder troubles and other petty little worries.

Sometimes five minutes is all we need to put life into perspective. 

Five minutes is enough to show me how beautiful my life can truly be. How beautiful it truly is.  If only I am willing to stop and take the time to see the beauty in the moment.

Want to hear five of the best minutes of a day in my life recently? It was without a doubt, when I went to a small grocery store in the town of Cornwall, P.E.I., Canada. Not an event I would usually connect with morphing into daily high points, but that day it was. The cashier: she was friendly, pleasant, affable. I could hear in her voice, as she talked, that she just genuinely liked people. Liked her job. She called me ‘hun’ three times. And while that normally wouldn’t rub me the right way, that day those words seemed almost soothing.

“Anything else I can get you hun?” she said smiling.  Then later…
“Are you paying for that with debit or credit, hun?”
“Thanks, hun. Have a nice day!”

And maybe it was her smile. Maybe it was the respectful way she talked to the meat manager as he brought up a box of seafood to be priced. Quite possibly it could have even been the combined effect of both she and her colleague in the cash right next to her, a woman whom the older gentleman in line after me greeted her warmly with, “Ah Lyndsay! This makes my day just to see you here!”

And with all that love, it isn’t too far-fetched to surmise that this little grocery store is a good place to work. A good place to BE.  It exudes an atmosphere in which love is valued.  In which small moments are valued. For you can feel love palpably. People in this store genuinely seem to like being here, and perhaps the reason is because they just feel like they’re with friends.

It’s that kind of store.

And I couldn’t help but think of that well-touted line, ‘whatever you’ve been given to do, do it well’, in reference to these two women and their ethic of care towards their customers. Because they weren’t just delivering a service that day: they were offering love. Five minutes at a time, and in the process, the whole ordeal had the effect of moving me in a very profound, emotional way. I really felt touched by the kindness I observed and experienced.  And I can only hope to live up to that high ideal as I also go about my life’s work, inside my own home, workplace and classroom, living with and teaching the little and big people I’ve been called to learn alongside.

What a great inspiration it is to watch people doing what they love to do and seeing them doing it well.

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Because really, when it comes down to it: we’re just people living our lives, five minutes at a time.

Five minutes: it’s all we need to put everything else in our messy, beautiful lives into perspective.  Because that’s what this is all about- the messy in our lives is really the beautiful.  And if I was really being honest, it’s not about five minutes before or five minutes later- it’s really about living out both the frustrating five and the pleasurable five in life- at one and the same time.  Does this mean we cannot talk about the small stuff- the random things we wish we could do-over?  Of course not. In talking about them, in VENTING at times, we realize that they are just small moments that comprise a bigger life.  In validating our small moments- and learning to laugh at them, we come to appreciate the bigger picture that much more.

And in the process, we realize- life is full of moments that we live.

Five at a time.

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This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!

 

 

 

 

Living love- it’s harder than it sounds on paper

It is much easier to write about love than to practice it. Much, much easier.
I want to be very real with you tonight. Intimate in my transparency, if possible. I want to talk about what love put into practice looks like in my life. Right now.

But to preface this revelation, I must say at the outset: when we preach the loudest and proclaim the most vocally our thoughts, beliefs and feelings, words that are written down or easily spoken have a funny way of coming back to you and challenging you to live up to what you believe.

Isn’t life funny that way.

Today was a challenging one in terms of love for me. I really had a hard time living up to the standard of love of which I preach. Of which I write. For I write often about love- it seems so easy to say it. But living it? That’s another story. But I press on. I continue to seek love, in spite of myself. And all because- although I aspire to love, I am still an amateur. I am a work in progress (as are we all). When I say I believe in love- I truly do. When I say it is the reason for everything, I really mean that this is my life conviction. But would I go so far as to say I have arrived? That I personify love?

Heavens, no. Hardly.

I had a headache all day today. I knew from the get-go, it was going to be a tough one. Pressure seemed to be rising from the minute I placed my cold feet on the bare boards of our bedroom floor.

I felt that pressure- that responsibility: to live out what I believe. I am accountable for my words.

There were so many times today that I just wanted to pack it all in. To say, ‘look, it ain’t worth it.’ To curl up and say, ‘its too hard- too demanding to love.’ Love is too hard. It is. There were so many times today that I just wanted to do what I naturally feel. My nature is one that is not naturally prone to love. I would rather criticize. Would rather find fault. I would rather complain or point fingers. Or take offence and protest.

By nature, I am prone to rigidity. To exactness. I am a perfectionist. I am not naturally loving and patient and kind. I was not born empathic. Not born to be understanding. Those qualities have come to me through supernatural intervention. And I do mean that. Anything I am or hope to be is through the grace of God. The work of Jesus- His love and light shining out through cracks and crevices in my broken life. And I promise you that if there is any evidence in my life of love, it is the love of God shining through me. I am not naturally this way.

Baby, I really wasn’t born this way. And I would never have you to believe otherwise: that I have this all wrapped up. This handle on the power of love. I am love in progress, as evidenced in a broken life.

Yes, today- I was faced with challenge after challenge. I wanted to react to each of these challenges- retaliate with words that were cutting. Because that is naturally who I am. I am not kind by nature. Not caring by birth. I am actually critical, if I were to be really honest. Judgemental. I am no saint.

But I have felt compelled toward love of late. I have felt drawn. And although my nature is one that would lead away from love, I have felt the power of transforming love in my life to such a degree that I have chosen love over what comes naturally.

And the fact that I am so drawn by Love is enabling it to become more natural as the days go by.

When I feel pulled toward a critical spirit, what I am faced with is a choice. And I am learning- as hard as it might be, that love is a choice. Love is one of an array of options that I am faced with daily. I can choose criticality, or I can choose kindness. I can choose impatience, or I can choose tolerance. I can choose frustration or understanding. Anger or empathy and gentleness. And although it is not my natural bent to do such, to choose the latter of that array of choices, it is who I want to be. It is who I am becoming, this person who loves. A lover: of people. Of imperfect, broken people, just as I am. So I choose love, over and over and over again.

I willingly choose love.

I chose love today when all I really felt was frustration. Frustration with circumstances. With people. With the ways in which I am interpreted. Frustration with not being heard. Frustration with not being listened to- I chose love as a response . And rather than react to those things in my life that get my ire up- that work against me, causing me to feel annoyed or inconvenienced, with the grace of God, I chose love. I continue to do so.
It is only by the grace of God that I can.

I do not share this intimate look into my inner self so as to self-denigrate my being or to paint a pitiful picture of myself for good wishes. To disparage the person I was born to. I love this person I am. She is me- I am her. I am coming to love the person I have been and hope for the person I will be in the process of my becoming loving.

No, I don’t write all this so as to garner support and accolades. I tell you all this so as to say: it is through weakness that we are humbled. Through loss that we experience gratitude. Through pain that we overcome, so as to know the heights of joy. It is through self-denial that at times we come to understand the power of love.

So when I feel frustrated that my students aren’t listening as best they should. When my own four children fight and argue. When my spouse takes an opposing view. When I run into a professional obstacle or hurdle . When I find myself disagreeing with another human being. When people just plain rub me the wrong way. This I know- I am a person too: and I am humbly both the irritator and the irritated at one and the same time. Imperfect as I may be.

I am so very aware of my imperfection- of my own personal need of grace. As are we all. Every single one of the human beings we encounter in this life are needing of grace. So, there is no other choice but to love. It is truly the best option.

Nevertheless, I am faced with a choice. Love or intolerance. It’s mine for the choosing. And with the grace enabled me through transforming Love Himself, I choose love. By the grace of which I stand complete, I choose love. Because Love chose me, I make the effort to choose love as well. Because it is the better way, I choose love.

Because it is the only way in which I can transform the person I am into the person I want to be, I choose love.

And through the power of love, I continue to make that choice.

Daily, I choose love.

A challenge and response: Must we choose between Love and Academics?

I really appreciate my friend for challenging my thinking, as you will come to read below.  I am providing her challenge to my thinking and perspective along with my response to her.  This welcome challenge was issued to my last blog post regarding What is Worthwhile Knowing: A Teacher’s Perspective.  I would readily open any feedback you might have to offer by way of challenge or rebuttal.  Thanks to everyone who reads my writing.  I welcome all your views.  Iron sharpens iron.

To me:

I get where you are coming from- and I agree- students learn more effectively when they know that their teachers care about them. But as a parent I don’t send my child to school to primarily feel loved, he has that from me, from everyone in his life etc- what I send him to school for is to learn and to reach his full potential. That to me is the priority. Sometimes I feel that we are moving too far away from that since there are so many children who aren’t getting the love that they need from their families. But I really feel that we have moved too far. Our academic standards have greatly decreased…students reaching university in 2013 are not as prepared as they were in 2005. We need more focus on the academics….not less. I see it at the university level- our students are not as prepared for higher learning as they were 10 years ago. This is what we should be talking about- because the education system is failing their future learning potential. Sure they feel loved….but they can’t perform simple math or spell….by grade 12….this is a major problem! This is the reality that we need to correct. You may be on a different end of the spectrum being in kindergarten where feeling secure and loved is extremely important….but I don’t think that it is the universal focus of sending kids to school…at some point we have to shift more towards the academic side. I am sad for students who I meet in my class who are very intelligent, but have not been academically prepared to fully access all that they could from university. The education system is failing those kids. My favourite teachers from school are not the ones who made me feel loved….but who stretched my mind and expanded my knowledge beyond what I thought I could know- they pushed me to be who I am today and to them I am grateful.

 

To my friend: I appreciate that you wrote me with your perspective. And I appreciate that we both have different perspectives- unique to our own understandings, backgrounds and situations. It is good for me to be challenged in my thinking- to push myself to understand the ‘why’ behind my writing, of late, about love and care. About curriculum of the heart. It is something I feel so deeply about that at times I need to step away from it- step outside of my own thinking- and examine it with new eyes. New perspectacles, if you will (to use our favorite blogger’s analogy).

You mentioned that you “get” where I am coming from, but I wonder if we can truly ever get something like this. I think we have to believe it. You state that “as a parent I don’t send my child to school to primarily feel loved, he has that from me, from everyone in his life etc.” I am glad that your son has that. Many do not. In fact, it is not the norm to have what your children and my children have for experience. Two parents in the home who are university educated, double incomes, every opportunity. A comfortable lifestyle. Values that support life-long learning and ambitious achievement. These things are not the norm, as you well know.

That being said, I agree that even for those parents sending their children to school who are not in your or my position, those parents still might echo your sentiments: that they aren’t sending their children to school primarily for love. They might even agree that they are sending their children to school for the very same reasons that you state: to further their academics. Widen their possibilities. Further their potential. Whether or not parents are sending their children to school for reasons that reflect your stance or reflect mine, the fact of the matter is this: children and students learn best when their learning is cushioned in an atmosphere of love, care and compassion.

What is love? Am I talking about warm, fuzzy, sweet-talking love that always pleases? Am I talking about feel-good, low-pressure therapeutic love that focuses solely on self at the expense of all else? What is love, anyway- it means so many different things to so many different people. What I am talking when I refer to love in my writing is that which is the deepest emotion known to humankind: something so over-arching, all-encompassing and profound that it permeates our very being. When I speak of love, I am talking about everything that is good in this world which could be then funnelled into our being. So as to inspire, motivate, compel, arouse, encourage, stimulate, provoke and stir up whatever might lie dormant within us. Whatever might lie fallow. Whatever is ready for awakening.

Love as an emotion is often highly undervalued in education. Sure, we embrace it in its place: but it is always put into its box and asked to sit there until it might be of use. It is not always on top of everyone’s list of priorities when it comes to academics.   In fact, love might very well be at the bottom of the list for some, as you have expressed. It is so often undervalued through statements that contend that it is a poor reason for a teacher’s purpose in offering an education to their child. After all, and you are right here: our job as teachers is to deliver curriculum. Teach the standards. Expound the outcomes. We are expected to deliver on the core fundamentals of a solid education: the arts and the sciences. And in doing so, prepare our students for the workforce.

But what if love was the standard by which everything else was measured? What if love made me a better teacher? What if love made my students better students? What if love made people better, just through experiencing it?

What if the love I showed in my care and concern for students then allowed me to, in love, inspire them to have a passion for language, for prose? For nuances in language? For poetry, literature and classical writing?

What if love opened a door to enable me to share with my students a passion for mathematics? For precision and exactness? For reasoning and rationalizing? What if love paved that way?

What if love gave me the inch that could buy a mile? What if love was what every foundation I built upon? What if love was everything? In everything, through everything about everything?

What if love was everything?

Can we ever really know for sure if it was what really made the difference- or not-when we who have always known love are the ones calling for less of it? We who have always had love at our fingertips saying it is unnecessary? When we who are deeply loved, who have always had love at our disposal, are saying it is the drain on academics and learning? Keeping us from excelling? And by what standards, I might ask? Are we really in any position of saying that love isn’t necessary, in such sweeping statements, when we’ve always had enough ourselves? What if your call for less love was the unravelling of that one student who could have been destined for great things. But because love was removed, then became a hardened, bitter being?

Who are we to say?

You are right- love isn’t everything. There is also pain and sorrow. There is hatred. There is always an equal opposing force to everything we know. And I could say that we can teach without love, but then the door is wide open for anything else to move in. Anything else but love. And while you claim you didn’t need love, and I am assuming that you are implying here that some teachers might have adopted stances that were quite the opposite to love: for some students, this would close the door to learning. And quite possibly forever. I am glad this was not the case for you. This wouldn’t apply across the board, however. What works for one scenario might not work for another. But we all need love. We certainly don’t need hatred or ill-will. Nor do we need hardness and rigidity. While learning might still transpire, it does in spite of these qualities. Not because of them. Unlike with love which paves the way.

As for taking that chance- of doing away with love in favour of dry, rigid adherence to the standards: I am not willing to take that chance. So I continue to offer love. And offer learning and opportunity to my students in as passionate a way as I know how.

So, what about academics. We are in the business of learning. How can I the teacher find balance between my call to love and my job to teach? When I offer love, I find that my passion for learning is that much easier to transmit. When I show care, I have won my students’ confidences so that I can then offer instruction. When I value their opinions and thoughts, I find they are stimulated to think above and beyond what I ever dreamed possible. When I open the door, and I know they trust me, I also know they will follow. And sometimes they even lead the way.

Why are students not ready for university, as you have so aptly pointed out? One cannot argue with statistics. But maybe they can offer some plausible reasons for such. My belief is this: I feel that quite possibly we have not offered enough in the way of love. Perhaps students haven’t known the freedom to explore, to climb to lofty heights and ambitions. Perhaps love never paved the way. Maybe students do not know the grace that is compassion-perhaps if they did we would see more students moved towards social justice and outward thinking. Perhaps students have not been shown the generosity that is passion and joy for learning. There might not have been allowances made for outside the box thinking. There are a multitude of reasons for why the stats are what they are.

Perhaps schools have failed our students in not preparing them for university. And perhaps we have also failed in not offering them a curriculum for life in stressing the importance for love to underlie their very existence.

Perhaps if we focused more on love, we might see changes that surpass even our own expectations: for learning, life and love itself.

What is worthwhile: A Teacher’s Perspective

Not long ago, I wrote an article called “What Students Remember Most About Teachers” to which I received a phenomenal response from my readership. I continue to hear daily from people with stories to share about the teachers who made an impact on their lives- hear from those as well who share about the teachers who have chosen worthwhile ways in which to interact and be with their students, in the day-to-day lives of their classrooms. Last week, I received this comment, a comment which stopped me abruptly in my tracks, causing me to consider to an even greater degree the message behind that article I had written. Here is the comment in its entirety:

I’m new to the world of teaching – just finished my internship in a lovely kindergarten classroom. However, at the end of my experience three months ago, one of my students unexpectedly passed away. It has had a profound effect on my view of a teacher, but it has been difficult to put into words how my priorities changed.

This letter explains it.

To me, it is of course important to cover curricular objectives and make sure students are learning and growing. That is what teaching is. However, at the end of the day, the most important thing to me is that my students enjoy themselves and know that they were cared about. Because if, god forbid, it is their last few weeks on earth, I want those weeks to hold as much joy as possible.

I know that’s not quite where you were going with this letter – but it rings true anyway. Thank you.

As I read this teaching colleague’s letter written personally to me, images immediately conjured up in my mind of the horrific days just a little over a year ago whereby I found myself to be in a very similar place as she finds herself now. Because at our school, a sweet little boy just down the hall from me, one grade level up- fell ill and later died on the heels of a busy school week. He was in school Friday, dead on Saturday. No warning. One last picture taken the day before, during Show and Tell, to hold a lifetime of memories. In fact, I sang and played the piano at his funeral. Jesus Loves Me, This I Know. How can one ever forget the image of a small casket holding one so precious, so full of potential and promise. It is a mother’s worst nightmare. And although I was not his mother- nor was I his classroom teacher, I am a mother to four other sweet children whom I held that much more tightly, that much closer because of this tragedy. And teacher to countless others I call my own. I hold these all a little closer, a little tighter, now that I know better. Now that I know more. Because one never comes through an event like that unscathed. Unbroken. It was heart-breaking- words fail to adequately sum up the emotions that were experienced at the time.  Experienced still, for many of us. It affected all of us in our school- and indeed in the surrounding communities as well. Such a profound and senseless loss.

And when one has experienced loss in such a way, I don’t think you ever look again at things in quite so casual a manner. No longer are you asking the same questions, going through the same rote motions. Habitually living your life. Rather, you ask yourself this: if this were my childrens’ or any one of my students’ last day here on earth, would it be a pleasant, happy, peaceful one for them? Would I in any way be a hindrance to them in living out their last moments here on earth with joy and hope? Would I actually be a help, offering them kindness, love, compassion and concern? Would their last day on earth be the best day imaginable, the most fulfilling one possible: and all because I stopped to consider what might be the most worthwhile way in which to spend that day with them? All because I chose to show care and concern over frustration and impatience? Important considerations for teachers to keep in mind. Because when it comes down to it, it really isn’t about the curriculum we teach: it is about the heart with which we teach that curriculum. It’s about the love we show in our words and in our actions.

It’s really about love, when all is said and done.

Donald S. Blumenfeld-Jones poses an important question in an article on curriculum as to what the right question must be for determining curricular studies. In order to get at what is important- what is CORE in terms of schooling and time spent “on task”, one must first ask “What knowledge is of most worth? Or even, “What knowledge can we not do without?” In other words, what is worth giving our time and attention to- our thoughts and intentions towards- in terms of learning.  In terms of mental, intellectual and physical growth?

William Schubert in his article “What is worthwhile: From Knowing and Needing to Being and Sharing” poses thoughts on what is worthwhile in terms of learning. In terms of needing. Experiencing. Doing and being. In terms of becoming. And he extends these thoughts to what’s worthwhile in terms of sharing. In terms of contributing. What is worthwhile in terms of wondering. In other words, what is worth spending our precious time on earth as we live life, from second to second. Minute to minute. Day to day. Year to year.

We only have this one opportunity: what is worthwhile doing and being while we’re at this job of living our lives? Or as teachers, we only ever have the day we are in RIGHT AT THAT MOMENT with our students: we are only ever guaranteed that one day in which we are living. Are we doing our utmost to make that one day the best one possible for our students? As if it could be their very last?

Today, we are on our thirteenth storm day. Meaning, there have been thirteen non-consecutive days thus far in the school year here on P.E.I. for which school has been cancelled due to this unusually brutal winter we are having in Atlantic Canada (a winter which seems to be brutal in much of the rest of North America as well, I might add). Currently, there have been five consecutive days of cancelled classes, stimulating much talk in public and private circles which concern themselves with educational matters. People concerned with outcomes and expectations. People concerned with time off task and focused in-class instruction. People concerned that students might not be absorbing information and skills within the four corners of the school walls, thus they must needs not be learning. People concerned with the matter that students need to be gaining knowledge in school rooms, not whittling their time away doing what kids like to be doing: whatever that might be. There will be calls that extra-curricular activities should be cancelled and that there must not be any wasted instructional time.

But what is really of most worth will never be discussed: that is,  that students need teachers for more than merely instruction. They need teachers because teachers care. Care about them. Care about their person. Care about who they’ve been, who they are now and who they will one day become. Care to listen and to offer advice. Care to empathize and offer compassion. Care in little and big ways. That’s because teachers are interested in students as people- not just as consumers of knowledge. Not just as sponges who must soak up information. Buckets to fill up with important knowledge and skills.  Teachers care about students because intrinsically we believe deep down that what is of worth knowing the most is this: our students.

We want to know our students.

And while we might be taken to task on matters of educational import, matters of the heart are really where it matters. And those matters are what teachers like myself will continue to spend their time on in spite of the call to “time on task”. Because what is of worth your last day of life should ever be in our minds: should be ever compelling us to stop and take heed. We have no idea how long- how much time anyone on this earth will be given. If this were the last day for anyone in my circle of influence, I should hope that the time they spent with me was worth their while.

Was worth spending it with me.

What a precious responsibility we have been given.  May we never take it lightly.

What is of most worth? Is it love or curriculum? Kindness or literacy? Compassion or numeracy? Empathy or time on task? Teaching to the test or teaching to the heart? The answer to each of these questions lies somewhere within us all. It is up to us to answer the questions wisely and carefully.

And the ways in which we answer these questions speak directly to where our heart is calling us.  That is, speak directly to whether our heart is calling us toward love or away from it.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

What’s love got to do with it, anyway? Got to do with education? Got to do with teaching?
What’s love got to do with it?

Everything. It’s got everything to do with it.

I am delivering a dynamic lesson on adding detail to writing. It has spanned two days of teaching, and I have covered the gamut. I have used mentored text. I have used my own illustrations. I have allowed more than enough time for the students to think through, talk through and share ideas. I have all the bells and whistles- anchor charts; word walls; alphabet and number charts; soft music. Nice sharp pencils, which I just barely finished sharpening this morning. In spite of the rush. The classroom has even been designed so as to be conducive to writing. We have a writing centre and various writing stations, but there are of course other spots in the room that a writer could settle down for a productive writing session. I can’t imagine what stone I have left unturned.

“Okay, everyone!” I urge. “Let’s get writing!”

And with that send-off, I see the students scatter into all four corners of the room, ready to write. And I think to myself…”what a wonderful—”

…wait a minute.

All but one has settled down for that intended writing session. There is always one.

In a matter of minutes, I can see that the best laid plans are still only plans. For this little writer has not been inspired to write today much more than a scribble. And when I approach and ask why, I am met with a bit of defiance. A little bit of defensiveness.

And some little feet propped up on the table.

This was not what I envisioned the writing session to be.

No not at all.  Rather, I had pictures in my mind of children, heads bent low over papers, hands moving furiously. But never did I conjure up images of students sitting back, smug looks on their faces. Telling me “I’m done” after three minutes have barely passed since the send-off.
This is not what my ideal vision would be under any circumstance.

I approach the student quickly and ask how the story is unfolding, as we have spent considerable time developing the idea for this book that he is making. He points to a circle on the page. I ask what it represents. “A circle,” he says smugly.  I am not ready to admit defeat, so I probe further.

“What is it suppose to be?” I ask.

He looks at me and shrugs.

“A circle,” he repeats.

I know and he knows- that the story he had told me he would working on today was about a movie he had seen over March Break. He had left our gathering place on the blue rug with ‘next steps’ already in place. But here we are- with circles that look more like scribbles than they do circles. And these ‘circles’ are covering his page.

It’s easy to forget that teaching, like all of life, is not about us. It’s not always a rejection of what we hold near and dear to our hearts when plans fail to follow through. Sometimes, it’s just that people are different. Some of us enjoy writing. And some of us do not.

I later talk to this student’s mom about our writing session, and in the process I realize a few things.

I really like this boy. A lot. And the more I try to understand him, the more I realize I can accept him: just as he is.
• I need to work harder at helping this student see the value in writing. If what we are doing is not connecting, there needs to be another way. Another approach taken.
• This student is more than just a would-be writer. He is a comedian, a reader, a brother, a son. He is a strong personality with the ability to stand his ground. He isn’t easily persuaded. He has resolve. This child is going to be fine- so what if he decided this week to just draw circles? Next week might be a whole different ball game.

Which brings me back to my first question: what’s love got to do with it all?

There are many aspects of my job that I am required to do. I am required to deliver curriculum. I am required to teach certain skills and knowledges. I am required to prepare my students to enter the next grade- the next level. The next unit. I am required to look after my students in their parents’ absence. Overall, I am required to begin preparing them for life. Real life.

But in all the descriptors that I have been given, no one has ever required of me to love them. Interesting, really. Their parents have much the same job as mine, but love is always underlying the relationship. Why is this so? And why is it not something we think that we as educators should be compelled to feel as well?

In spite of this fact, I find that love happens anyway. We come to love our students, in spite of ourselves. In spite of the odds. They wrap themselves around our hearts and we are not easily able to let them go. We think about them after the buses pull out of the parking lot. We consider their needs as we prepare lessons for the next day. We care about their lives as we make after-hours phone calls. We enjoy when we run into them at Wal-mart on the weekend.

We end up loving them. We really do.

Because in the midst of teaching and facilitating and preparing and instructing, I find myself caring about the students I teach. In the midst of guiding and disciplining and leading my students in key areas of fundamental learning areas, I find myself empathizing with them. In offering to assist them during writing workshops, I find myself coming to understand them better. In watching them discover key math principles, I find myself delighting in their learning- appreciating the young wonder that is a five-year old mind. In listening to their stories- as told by them and by their families, by their parents: I find myself coming to love these children. As if they were my very own.

I can’t get them out of my heart. It’s about love, really.

And even though I am passionate about writing and reading and math and science- and passionate about learning in general: I am more passionate about people. And I have come to believe that my calling is relationship, not teaching. The teaching is secondary to my calling to connect and relate and commune with those little people who show up in my room every day. It’s about reaching my students through relationship so that I might later on influence them to use their learning to develop their own relationships with people they trust. So that they might come to see that getting an education is about finding ways to connect with people in the world around them. So that they can thrive and flourish in this wild and beautiful life we have been blessed to live.

It’s about using the learning of writing so that they can then encourage, persuade, inspire, motivate and compel.
It’s about using the learning of math so that they can then reason, problem solve, analyze and explain.
It’s about using science to wonder, imagine, discover, uncover, explore and investigate.
It’s about using social studies to remember, consider, understand, appreciate and recollect.
It’s about making school a place that we learn the art of relating to people so that we can use the knowledge and skills we learn there in that place we call school- so that we can then go out into the big, wide world we live in with other people, and use those skills to better the world around us.

So that we can transform the world through love.

Through LOVE.

So you see, love has everything to do with it. Without love as the basis for learning, how are students to then know that love underlies everything we do? Everything we learn? Everything in life?  Love is everything.

And love has everything to do with it. For without love, writing is just a subject. It’s just writing.  So is reading and math.  They are just a skeleton.  Love makes them whole.  Breathes life into them and makes them come alive.

We will have more writing sessions much like the one I have described above. I realize this. I am no naïve fool.
But what else I understand- what I know for sure about our future sessions is this: I teach people, not subjects.  I teach boys and girls, not writing.  I teach human beings full of potential and wonder and possibility.

So when we have those kinds of days, we’re going to get through them. Together.  And always through the power of love.

Love and labels…

When he was a little boy, he was never called gifted.  He never went to formal school.  He was a Down’s baby.  Not a baby or child with Down Syndrome, among other distinguishing characteristics. Not a child with exceptionalities.  Not a person with special abilities.  No.  He wasn’t all that.  He was mostly a label.  To his extended family- a bit of an embarrassment.  But to his Daddy, Mother and Sisters- a little boy to love.  A brother.  A child.

A human being.

Today we are very careful, for the most part, to avoid labeling human beings in our speech and dialogue.  It has become a bit of a political issue, in part.  A bit of a cultural taboo.  But although we don’t outwardly label per say in our public conversations (particularly in our professional ones), we still internally characterize people based on distinguishing features.  How large or small they are.  The color of their hair.  How tall or short.  How light or dark their skin color.  And in more careful ways, we distinguish people based on race, gender and class stereotypes, among other classifications, so as to compare and contrast. So as to distinguish and remember.  And at times, so as to stereotype.

Within school settings, this classification system is certainly apparent.  We level children based on reading and writing abilities, we stream them according to academic or more generalized capabilities. We offer modifications and adaptations according to learning abilities.  And we individualize programming where warranted. We’ve gotten very good at classifying students.  Boxing them into their little slots.  But the one thing we aren’t so good at is blurring the lines that separate.  We have a hard time taking people at heart value- never mind face value.  We have a hard time seeing the human being inside the `casing`, if you will.  And sometimes I wonder if we at the school level are really helping anyone at all.  Throwing around medical/academic labels and soaking up diagnosis.  Trying to fit everyone into boxes.

There are two ways of approaching this issue of classifying people (particularly students as people): personally and generally.  When I think of the issue of classification in schools as a teacher (or by way of a teacher`s perspective), in allowing each student their distinctive category of existence, I see that it gives individuality to the child.  It helps us see them for who they are as well as support them in their specific needs.  Being able to support children in specific ways levels the playing field.  It allows children of varying abilities to all get whatever they need (academically, physically, emotionally) to grow and develop into wonderful, unique human beings.  This is why schools whole-heartedly endorse inclusion in education.  Because school should ideally be a place for everyone.  Regardless of ability.  Because of ability.  And teachers should be very good at meeting students where they are at.  At seeing potential in kids.  At helping them achieve their personal best.  At assisting them to strive for higher and more.

Thus, teachers then often utilize labels to assist their students in gaining access to supports within the school setting so as to allow them opportunities that might not be afforded them otherwise.

The other way to approach the issue of labeling is personally.  As a parent.  A mother or father.  A sister or brother.  When labeling becomes personal, there are a whole host of things to think about.  First of which is seeing the child as the person the adult or caregiver unconditionally loves.  Because this child is someone they have dreams and hopes for.  Someone they want the absolute best for.  And when they see this child, they do not see the label first.  They see the person.  The possibility.  The potential.  And true, they know that diagnosis and classification are part of becoming human in the literal sense, in the spiritual sense- these little people in their care and wrapped around their hearts are already realized potential.  They are already the whole package.  There isn’t anything about them needed to make them more `worthy of love`- they already are loved.  A diagnosis, a label or any other way of classifying these little and big people with exceptional abilities won’t change how much they are truly loved.

When you love someone, you react to labeling in different ways.  Some embrace it as a means of hope.  Others repel it as a means of differentiating.  Labeling can met with both reactions at one and the same time.  The thing is: you love this person.  And you want the best for that loved one. Is that best achieved via a label?  Is that best better off without a label? Hard questions to answer.

And for the teacher, we must be extremely sensitive to this dilemma.  Because while it might be prudent for efficiency and streamlining- for services: to have a child labelled.  For the parent, it is a fragile decision which they must weigh heavily.  Against the individuality and unique person-hood of their child.

As a teacher, I am becoming more and more romanced with the notion that we are more alike than we are different.  I must preface this with an acknowledgment of the fact that I certainly realize and am sensitive to the truth that we are indeed different by virtue of the fact we are unique, special people.  By virtue of the fact that we are unique human beings.  But within that thought is an even lovelier one that compels me to think thus.  We are similar by the very same token.  We are similar to one another by virtue of all the qualities that make us human- our emotions, our feelings, our biology, our chemistry, our spirituality. We are the same by virtue of the fact that we have so much in common.

We all bleed red blood.  We all breathe in air.  We all need nourishment and fluids. We all need love.

Sometimes as teachers we try to express this need for recognition of the similarity and it gets misunderstood to be an over-generalization.  In other words, if I were to say that all children were exceptional- by virtue of the fact that they are all human beings and  ALL HUMAN BEINGS ARE THUS EXCEPTIONAL!  It might get misconstrued to read: “All children are the same and should be treated the same.  Every time.  Period.” Which is certainly not what I would want to express by saying all children are exceptional. Not at all.

What I would really be saying in that statement is this:  all children are fundamentally human beings.  That is our label.  It is our essential label.  It is what unites us together as people.  We are the same in that we are all part of this thing called humanity.  And as part of humankind, we are all alike in many, many ways.  One way of which is that we are all exceptional.  We are all gifted in different ways.  We all have abilities. It is our exceptionalities- our own unique bent toward being ‘able’, if you will, that make us different.  We are all able and dis/able in different areas.  And that is also what makes us similar and different at one and the same time.  The fact that we all have these similarities makes us same.  The fact that we are all different in these similarities makes us us the same.

We are similar by the very things that make us different.

Which leads us back to the original theme: to label or to not label- that is the question.  What does it achieve?  Do the key stakeholders in that label have a voice?  Does being labelled get them something they need that they otherwise would not have?  Is that label a comfortable one?  And if not, why must it be used?  Does it create division or does it bring them closer to being the same?  Is this important (to be similar)?  And if not, why not?  Is it important to be different?  And if so, why is this so?

In the end, we can wear our labels only for so long.  Because when it comes down to being essentially human, that label really doesn’t make much difference.  We don’t need it to be loved.  To be cherished.  We don’t need it to be a brother or sister.  A child that is loved. A human being. And perhaps that is what levels the playing field in the end.

Love.

For true love eliminates the need for labels by virtue of its existence. And it does so once and for all.  Bringing us together under its all encompassing umbrella of humanity.  Bringing us together in hope.

We Always Have Enough

I have written a lot about teaching and what’s important, but I would be remiss to not emphasize the reason I feel so strongly about creating a caring ethic within the classroom and school.  And for me, that reason is very personal.  And I certainly do not apply this reason as a blanket explanation for everyone in my situation, because it might not be true of everyone in similar circumstances to me.  Nor would it preclude other people who are not like me.  What I really want to say is this: I am a better teacher because I am a parent.  Which really means that for me personally, it took becoming a parent to realize what it means to care deeply for children and their innate abilities as human beings.  It took becoming a parent to learn how to really love.  And it took becoming a parent to learn the depth of empathy and compassion and love.

I am not this type of person naturally.  Some people are.  It would not take becoming a parent for them to learn how to care.  I am in absolute awe of these people.  And I do not say that with any tone other than that of respect and wonder.  For people who are naturally in possession of understanding as it concerns children and creating an ethic of caring, I would give you my absolute admiration.  I wish I was like that.  But I know who I am.  And I am a work in progress.

When I became a mother, I became one reluctantly.  Sure, I fell in love immediately.  Sure I was for all appearances a great mother.  But being a mother took a great deal of effort on my part.  I was not naturally nurturing.  Not naturally patient.  Not naturally empathic.  I was very self-centered in a lot of ways.  Becoming a mother took the focus off me and placed it on the ‘others’ in my life.  It made me broaden my horizons.  Made me learn to care about people in ways I was unused to doing so.  And I believe it made me a better person.  Because it required so much of me, I had to transform in certain ways.  And when transformation is a positive experience, as it was in my case, there is much to be gained.  Much to learn.  And much room for growth.

Similarly, when I became a teacher, I became one reluctantly.  I was on the track towards getting my double honors degree in Political Science and Journalism.  I was going to be a foreign correspondent.  I didn’t actually aspire to be a teacher.  I probably would have picked any other career than this one had I been given a choice.  My life path led me, however, to meet a boy.  And that boy lived on a small Island where there was a small university.  And that university offered neither of those areas to major in.  So, after much deliberation and counselling by my future husband, I instead chose to take a different path and become a teacher.  With a specialty in history (not my first love) and a minor in Political Studies.

Life is so interesting.  Because when we are in the moments we are in, we wonder why life is unfolding as it is.  I certainly asked those questions of myself.  I was driven and focused- not patient and long-suffering.  I wasn’t the best pick for teacher material.  But somehow, I enrolled in the small program offered in my province and I found out very quickly that while teaching might not have been my first love, I could come to love it deeply as I grew into myself.

The ‘self’ I grew into was a different person than the one I had been before.  And while I hate to say ‘better’ I will say I developed some character traits along the way that helped me grow as an individual, teacher and then mother.

1.)    I became more empathic.  As I realized that teaching was less about subjects of expertise and more about people, I found it appealed to me more as a career choice.  And in time, because of the people I interacted with and was involved with- I eventually saw teaching as less than a career and more of a calling.  It became for me a higher calling- a sacred thing.  For I saw that I was accountable for the ways in which I interacted with the human beings in my care (all of them, from staff, to students to parents to general public and personnel): I saw them as people.  And I began to care more and more deeply about the ways in which I interacted with people.  I began to care about the students and their overall experience.  I began to care about teachers as people.  I began to care about parents (especially after becoming one) because I saw how much their children were their absolute treasures here on earth.  How much my own children were mine.  And I began to consider how much trust I placed in teachers myself- and how much trust parents entrusted me with looking after these treasures.  And in the process, I became more empathic as a teacher.  As a mother.  As a friend.  As a wife.  As a person.

2.)    I became more loving.  Love is so many things, which I have written about a great deal lately.  But truly, loving my children is the most unselfish thing I have ever had to do.  And loving children in general has been a possibility for me because of my own journey in motherhood.  For being a mother taught me what love entails.  What it is.  And since I now know that love is something we never run short of- there is always enough: I am able to offer it to all of my ‘children’- both those who were given to me as a gift from God and those entrusted in my care as a responsibility within my calling.  I can love because I now know how- freely, lavishly, honestly.  Does this mean I have to give everything to everyone in the same manner?  Equal does not always mean the same.  What I give my own four children is not equal to what I give my students.  Nor should it be.  There is a balance that must be struck between our private and public lives.  But at the same time, there is fluidity in how I care.  And love can still be love even if it is different.

3.)    I became more understanding.  Becoming a mother has helped me understand people in ways I never would have considered before motherhood.  For instance, I have a whole new appreciation for difference after having giving birth to four distinct human beings.  Each one is unique.  Each one is special and extraordinary by virtue of their individuality as a human being.  So are all children.  I really never gave much thought to this fundamental truth, though, before having children.  It was only after having children that I realized how WONDER-ful children are as people- and how great care must be given to understanding them- as with all human beings.

I tell you all this not to make a point about being a teacher and how it has influenced my mothering for the better.  I tell you this rather so as to show that I can be both a great teacher and mother because both have made me who I am today.  Both have contributed to the person I am now.

Sometimes we think that we can only be one thing really well.  Or do one thing really well.  I remember becoming a mother for the first time and saying to my own mother that I would never have time to do anything else that required time again.  Because I could quite tell- I WAS NEVER GOING TO HAVE ANY TIME TO MYSELF AGAIN. EVER.  That statement has obviously been recanted because look at me now- I have more than enough time to whittle away precious hours checking out my friends’ Facebook statuses.  I also believed I wouldn’t ever have enough love for more than one child.  Now I have four.  And that’s not counting my school kids.  I have love to multiply- and it just keeps coming.

The thing is: all of our experiences in life contribute and enhance the person we are.  Whether that be motherhood/parenthood (as in my case), volunteer work, care for an elderly parent, or any other type of experience that involves one directly with people: it all makes us grow.  Because people are food for the soul- both those we love as well as the ones we aren’t so fond of.  They grow us as people- from the inside out.  And that is why when people ask how can we find balance, I like to think that when it comes to love, there is no need for balance.  When it comes to care, no need for balance there either.  Nor with empathy or understanding.  Because when it comes to these essentials in life, all we need is a cup overflowing.

There just is too much love, care, understanding, empathy or compassion in the world to give to balance the scales.  So rather than try to find the elusive balance, I think the key is this. Tip the scales.  Tip the scales on love.  Tip the scales on empathy.  On hope.  On grace. Compassion.  On all those qualities that make us grow and develop as people.

For in doing so, we discover this: that when we give, we always have enough.

The Seven Tenents of Love Put into Practice

I am seeking to make my own journey in education one that is characterized by love.  By empathy and kindness.  By an overriding influence of Care.  In order to have a Curriculum of Love as the guiding light within our classrooms, we must acknowledge that we are part of a vast connection of interconnections- even within the borders and boundaries of our own four walls.  That is, within our classrooms there are children and students representing much diversity and much difference.  We are very much the same even while we are uniquely different and special. As educators, we must never lose sight of this tension: the fine line between similarity and difference.  While I am similar to you by virtue of the fact that we are human beings, I am different from you by the very same token- no two human beings has ever been- nor ever will be- exactly the same.  We hold this tension carefully in our hands as educators, never losing sight of the awesome responsibility it is to recognize our students for their individuality and complexity.  Along with their connected humanness.

In Becoming Human, by Christian philosopher Jean Vanier’s (1998), he proposes seven aspects of love for educators that will transform the heart.  This kind of love that he speaks of is an antidote for fear (those fears expressed by both teachers and students) that are found inside our classrooms. Curriculum theorist and poet Carl Leggo, writing in his relevatory essay called Living Love- Confessions of Fearful Teacher, echoes this sentiment that educators need to address and understand these aspects of love so that they might in turn transform their classrooms from the inside out.  In Leggo’s paper, he outlines Vanier’s tenets of a curriculum founded on love, for he sees them as the guiding hand of direction.  Those aspects are: revelation, understanding, communication, celebration, empowerment, communion and forgiveness.  I will include Leggo’s thoughts on each tenet as well as attempt to explain them in brief by way of elaborating on how I see them personally expressed within my own classroom.

To love is to reveal.

Leggo asserts that we need to tell each other our secrets because all the human family has the same secrets.  In being transparent, we seek to live out a text of openness that is based on love.  As teachers, we need to show our students our frailties. We are not always feeling happy. Not always feeling joy.  A few months ago, after a particularly difficult morning getting away from the house, I was on my way to school with my four daughters in tow when I broke a tooth eating a piece of raisin bread toast.  And I did so because I have a habitual problem with grinding out all my concerns on my poor permanent teeth throughout the course of my sleep.  This was the fourth tooth to break in two years.  Breaking that tooth was the proverbial last straw for me that morning, even at the early hour of 8:30 a.m.  Everything came crashing down on me: the stressors of work and home and school.  The difficulties I was having in a few key relationships.  The tensions of raising four children.  The stress of everyday living.  And when I got to school and met the principal at the door, I just lost it.  In front of all the children.  In front of every one.  And while I quickly ushered myself into a far corner of the school to “cry it out”, out of the view of curious eyes, I still had to face the children one last time before taking the day off on “stress-leave;” I had to face them so as to explain to them why Mrs. Gard was losing her marbles.  I told them in as simple terms as I could muster that Mrs. Gard would be taking the day off work because she had broke her tooth.  And unlike five and six-year olds who want to lose their teeth, Mrs. Gard herself did not wish to lose any more teeth than she already had.  At a most alarming rate, nonetheless.  This was most definitely not a celebration for the tooth fairy but a time for recuperation. They got that- it was not lost on them.  And in time, they would remind me of the day I broke my tooth- and all because I was willing to reveal to them my humanness.

To love is to understand.

Canadian poet Margaret Avison (2002) says “there’s too much of us/for us to know.”  We thus open our minds and we open our hearts to understanding each other so that we can begin to know and be aware of our complexity as human beings.  We must begin somewhere.  bell hooks (2003)  says love in the classroom calls teachers and students to open their hearts and minds.  As a teacher, one of my greatest challenges and privileges has been to understand my students.  I am drawn to understanding like a moth is drawn to light.  I think it is one of life’s greatest mysteries- the unfolding of our personality and character through conversation and shared life experiences.  Each of my students is unique and whole, and the challenge lies in uncovering their gifts and capacities.  My recent blog about one student I’ve named K. is a great illustration of my own discovery of his person.  It is through understanding that we truly come to love one another.

To love is to communicate.

With communication comes community and communion.  We often think of communion as the breaking of bread around a communal table, and certainly that is part of it.  One of the most relaxing parts of my day as classroom teacher to four, five and six year olds has been our shared lunch time meal.  I’ve arranged our tables to form a block so that we are face-to-face with one another.  The conversation is rich with laughter, conversation and joy.  There is usually lots of silliness- compatible with the sense of humor of this age group!  In learning to live together we must be committed to learning to communicate with one another.  We share the joy and the sorrow, as I have already expressed in the aspect of love that concerns itself with revelation.  Overall, a focus on love is a commitment to living together and learning to communicate with one another.  Communication allows us to understand one another better.

To love is to celebrate.

We celebrate with joy and engagement.  And certainly classrooms need to be places for celebration, laughter, acknowledgement of joys, and commendation of individual self-worth.  When I started teaching kindergarten, I knew that I wanted to develop a writers’ workshop for my students so that they could discover the joy of writing that I have come to love so very much myself.  I worked closely with a Literacy coach to find the best approach.  One thing she felt strongly about was that writing needs to be celebrated.  Even if it is as small as the sharing of stories on the blue rug: there must be time for each student to showcase their work so as to experience that thrill of pride that comes with accomplishment.  I celebrate all of my writers.  In fact, recently I took part in a three day in-service on writing in which I spoke about my writers’ workshop program with teachers from all across the Island.  And the writers that I wanted to acknowledge first and foremost were my struggling writers.  Theirs’ were the stories I shared prominently.  The pages of their books are filled with seemingly in descript scribbles and wordless text- but it is writing to them.  And it is writing to me.  And I enthusiastically celebrate their amazing accomplishments.

To love is to empower:   

Leggo writes that love seeks transformation- an ongoing process of creative change.  Love calls out the gifts in others.  And each of our students comes to school with their own unique talents and abilities. We as teachers must seek opportunity to empower our students- so that they believe all is possible, even from the greatest of possibilities down to the small.  Whether we empower them academically or emotionally, as teachers we find a passion in our calling to make that impactful difference in the lives of our students so that they are then able to leave their own mark on the world.  Often, the most powerful expression of empowerment in my classroom is by way of our words.  I have a five year old student in my classroom right now who came to me with limited speech.  Throughout the course of the year, she has found her voice.  And she uses her voice now as a means of expression, assertion, connection and relationship.  Even for my students who have no ‘voice’, in the conventional sense of the expression, they have still been empowered to speak and relate to others through the methods available to them: communication devices, PECS, sign language and body language.  To communicate is a form of empowerment.  And I am learning to be more aware of each student and how they can access this source of self-expression.

To love is to be in communion with one another. 

We recognize the ‘otherness’ of each person- each unique individual, and we acknowledge the connections we have with each other by way of this recognition.  According to Leggo, we need to learn to tell our stories to one another, practice an ethic of love along with forming loving relationships with one another.  And it is through trust in each other and love of each other that we find the antidote to fear.  Trust and love go hand in hand.  We must not fear each others’  ‘otherness’.  And though trust is harder to come by as we get older and more ‘wordly’, it is often a naturally, effusive response when one is five.  I am often amazed at how trusting- at how innocent their faith in us as adults often is.  They have trusted me with their most private secrets- sometimes outright hilarious, sometimes sweetly sentimental and at other times, heartbreakingly sad.  I will never forget the stories my students have told me and the ways in which they have expanded my thinking about what it means to become human.  The process itself is one which breathes life and love into this accepting heart.

To love is to forgive. 

We think at the same time as we open up our hearts.  And thinking is often what stalls us in the act of forgiveness- we remember.  We have a hard time forgetting.  The mind holds captive secrets that are hidden in deep recesses of the heart. But we learn to forgive – first ourselves, so that we in turn can forgive others.  And in the process, we find that we are able to better understand that love can compensate for a multitude of errors.  In becoming a teacher, I had to learn to forgive those in my past who formed deeply felt impressions of what education was all about- conformation, mind control and thought policing.  I had to forgive the very ones who hurt me most.  And I had to forgive so as to learn to love.  I am convinced that I am the kind of teacher I am today because of the painful experiences I went through as a child and teenager.  I have learned to forgive, and in the process I have come to understand, even if only minutely, what it means to love.

Carl Leggo asserts that in order to live fearlessly, we must learn to live in and with love.  What I love about kindergarten is the fearlessness I find in students learning at this level.  The fears are there, true.  But by and large, there is no shame in fear at this level.  Perhaps that is what it is- a lack of shame.  For there is great belief in one’s ability. How is it that we lose this ethereal quality as we grow in number of years?  There is something so beautiful and hopeful about a five year old mind.  And it is in great part those minds which have taught me much of what I know for sure about love and what it really means for this simple teacher to become human.  To become all I was meant to be.

To be fearless in love.

When teachers choose love…

It’s almost recess and I am urging the children to put away their snacks so as to ready for the recess bell.  The students start slowly stowing their lunch boxes inside their backpacks and heading for the door.  All except for one, that is.  The same One who, day after day, has persisted in waiting until the last possible minute to head out the door.  The same One who made us all late for our school-wide outside activities.  The same One who has been persistently and consistently slow to dress for outdoor recess the whole year.  He can’t get his boots on.  Can’t zipper up his coat.  Can’t find his mittens.  Doesn’t know how to do the button on his pants.

And it has not been for lack of trying to help him on my part.  I’ve investigated this situation extensively.  From the very first of the year, I knew that this student would be special.  No, there is no diagnosis for this exceptionality.  There is no underlying medical or psychological reason to offer as explanation.  This student is otherwise happy and carefree.  But in the aspect of self-care skills and independence, he has exhibited an obvious lagging behind the others.  It is something I have worked with him on continuously throughout the year, as well tried to understand through ongoing conversations with family around what we could do as a team to support this student in his personal growth.

But today, we are no father ahead than we’ve ever been.

Right now, it is recess.  And I have umpteen dozen things to do.  The first of which is use the bathroom.  And I want this little guy to “hurry up” and get himself out the door to join all the other children in the school for a refreshing run around the snow-covered playground.  Goodness knows, after weeks of indoor recess, we all need some fresh air and room to move.  And in my head, I know there is no reason why he can’t get ready as quickly as all the other children.

“C’mon, K.” I urge.  “Everyone else is out there.  You need to get moving.  The bell has rung.”

K. is not moving.  In fact, he is sprawled out on the floor, his clothing and footwear spread out in disarray.  I feel the irritation welling up inside me.  I really want to say, “Look Buddy.  It’s March.  Every other one of your classmates can dress themselves without much assistance or urging- why can’t you?  And don’t you know- I have better things to do than stand here walking you through each step of your dressing process?  Besides, it’s my Break too- and I have to go the bathroom!”

As it turns out, K. finally gets the last piece of clothing on just a minute or two before the bell rings to call everyone back in.  I tell K. that he will be in with me for lunch for having wasted the entire recess.  We’ll have a chat together then, but first- I need the cushion time to bring my irritation levels down.  It’s a good thing we have an hour and a half.

The lunch bell eventually rings, and I send K. to the gathering rug with every last article of his clothing, including his boots, while I supervise the others.  Who, by the way, are quickly out the door with only minimal help from me with a few zippers and mittens.  I take a deep breath and start to wonder.  What am I going to do/say to K. that will make a lasting impression?  My first instinct is to lecture about all the reasons why dressing independently and quickly is something he should be interested in: all his friends are doing it on their own, he is missing a great deal of his recess time each and every day- and furthermore, doesn’t he care that his teacher can’t get to the bathroom?  But I know that none of these reasons really matter a great deal to K.  I am going to have to get a little more creative.

At some point, between the door and joining K. on the rug, I realized something.  I realize something is missing in the way I am dealing with K. in this particular situation. It is a kind of a lagging skill of my own, to be truthful. For I realize that I am not showing K. the utmost of kindness and love that I know I have within me to give.  I am not choosing care.  Not choosing LOVE.  I am instead finding him inconvenient to my own wants and desires.  So at some point between the door and the rug, I make a choice: I choose love over irritation.   I choose kindness over frustration.  I choose to CARE.

And when love is the choice we make, everybody wins.  Every time.

I still realized I still had some teaching to do with K. before I could send him flying out the door to join the others.  I still had some fences to mend.  And I still hada few words of my own to say.  Here’s what happened next.

I slowly walked over to the rug, thinking fast on my feet as I made it the twenty steps to my little chair.  I didn’t want to waste this opportunity because I knew K. was listening to me for perhaps the first time that morning.

“K., how old are you now,” I asked.

“Six,” he said quietly.

“Six!” I said with awe and wonder. “Wow, K.!  You are so big.  You are growing so fast!  Tell me, what are some things you can do, now that you’ve turned six?” I asked, looking expectantly at him, supporting him with my tone of voice and my constant eye contact.  I lean my body towards his.

“Um, I can get dressed on my own…” he mumbles, still not sure where this conversation is going, but he thinks he might be on the right track.

“Yes,” I say, “but what ELSE can you do- you must be able to do so many things, now that you are six!  What kinds of things can six year-olds do?” I inquire again, looking more curious this second time I pose the question.

He thinks for a moment and then brightens.  Then, he starts to make a list.  I look at him encouragingly, nodding my head to show him I think his list is absolutely amazing.

After he finishes, I hold his eye contact for a moment.  And I tell him I am impressed with his prowess at so many six-year-old accomplishments.  Then I ask, still supporting him with my choice of tone and body language, “Do you think now that you are six you might be able to get dressed all by yourself?”

At this point in the conversation, he realizes this is not going to be a detention conversation any longer- this is a real conversation now.  He no longer feels any pressure.  No shame weighs him down.

He looks up at me and eagerly nods his head in agreement.

“Well,” I say with a wide smile, “I wonder- could you ever show me how fast you can get dressed- I bet you are super-quick now that you are six!”

He looks excited for the challenge.  With the vigor of an Olympic athlete, he starts tearing into the pile of clothing.  Then he comes over to me for help with a button; to which, I show him how the two ends fit together and he promptly does it himself.  Two minutes later, he is completely dressed.

I smile at him proudly.

“Look at you!” I marvel.  “You are all dressed- and you did it yourself!  Go on outside- and have fun!”

K. turns on his heels and is out the door in two seconds flat.

And I am left sitting on a little green chair in an empty elementary classroom with the hopeful realization: that love is a choice.  And when we choose love, we all win.

Because love supports.  Love lifts.  And love lets us fly with the wings of an eagle.