Teens: Windows into our past

When we hear about teens, it’s usually accompanied by sighs and frustrations, not joys and revelations. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Teens get a bad rap on a fairly consistent basis, one most of them don’t earn or deserve.

In recent weeks, with graduation in the air and kids returning from college to spend the summer at home, I’ve been fortunate to have sit-downs with some of my former students, to get a glimpse into how they have grown and changed since I last saw them, when they were taking finals and dreaming about their futures.

It’s been a blessing, to say the least. It’s reminded me how much I love teenagers, how satisfying and yes, intriguing, it is to see them transform before my eyes into young men and women who finally realize that their parents aren’t entirely stupid and that there’s more to life than what you want right at this moment. They are planning, thinking, goal-setting, and being practical. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.

Yesterday, I had coffee with a previous student who is now a grown young woman just finishing her freshmen year of college. From the moment she walked in, statuesque and beautiful, a smile as wide as the Mississippi River, I was in awe of her growth and maturity over a one-year time span. She had made the same mistakes I remember making freshmen year as she tried to find her place in her new college world. Hearing her stories, her frustrations, and her doubts, I was transported to my 19-year-old self when I was already on my second change in major, questioning whether becoming a sorority girl had been the right choice, and wondering if the guy I was dating could be The One (he was!) I was mesmerized by her stories of successes and failures, but more importantly, by the lessons she was learning, the experiences forming the foundation of who she will become.

Listening to her talk through her lingering doubts about her major, about what makes her truly happy, and about how she wants to spend her time, I longed to get those days back again. Remember when the world lay before you? When you could change your major four times and still be just fine? When you moved from group to group, discovering who you were and what you really believed? Those young adult years were profound. They were filled with promise, despite all of the unknowns, perhaps because of the unknowns. Our lives weren’t really on any particular course yet. We weren’t bound by obligations and monthly mortgages and jobs we don’t like that nevertheless pay the bills. I’d almost forgotten that feeling, it’s been so long. It was joyous to sit in its presence again.

I’ve always believed in the importance of multi-generational friendships. I have friends like this young lady who is 19, and I have friends who are 90. Each age and stage has something unique to offer, something to remind you of your past or to help you foresee your future. Being in a teenager’s presence is like staring into a mirror that reflects who you once wanted to be. When you dreamed, what did you see? When you hoped, what was it for?

My goal for myself has always been to have a “life well-lived,” in any way I choose to define that. When was the last time you asked yourself what a life well-lived looks like? Are you living it now?

Few of us wish to return to our teenage selves. But what we can do is remember what it felt like to have a life of promise. From wherever we are right now, no matter our age, we can adopt that attitude.  We can see our lives as wide open, ready to accept challenges and change our minds and take risks. There’s something to be learned from the young adult mindset. It’s never too late to learn it.


Letting go

How many of you out there have packed up your children and sent them off to college, or the military, or another state or country where they are starting a new life? My guess  is a lot, given the Facebook posts and Tweets I’ve been following for the past few months. Some have truly let go, dropping their kids off and waiting longingly for Thanksgiving. You’re currently in the middle of the longest stretch you’ve ever faced without seeing your kid, and it’s killing you. Some have let go, but only until next weekend. Your children are texting you, you’re still solving problems, and you’ve managed to feel homesick, even though you’re the one still at home.We all process our children’s growth and independence differently, and that’s as it should be. There’s no  one right way to help your kids leave the nest.

There’s a duck family in the lake behind my house. When the ducklings first hatched, the mama was relentless in her defense and protection of the little ones. She visibly stiffened as we neared, her eyes large and forbidding. Soon, her brood was swimming, and as we approached, she placed her body squarely between us and her ducklings but encouraged them to keep swimming. Now, she swims ahead of them, and at our appearance, she pauses, but only slightly. She can sense that her ducklings are bigger now, more equipped, more ready to defend themselves.

In the last few months, I’ve had to step away from my Mother Duck role completely, although I’ve been swimming ahead for a while now. My daughter, after traveling through Europe for a few months last year, decided to take an even deeper plunge into the unknown. In June, she left with a backpack and malaria pills to travel around the world. As I hugged her goodbye at the airport, I knew I wouldn’t see her for a year. Not a week, not until the next holiday, but a full year. That does something to a mother’s heart.

I don’t think I knew what conflicting emotions truly were until I saw my daughter beaming on the coast of Crete while I worried myself sick about the bombings and shootings in Europe. On the one hand, I was trepidatious, watching the news, following the violence, checking in with her via text every day. On the other hand, I felt indescribable joy for her as she discovered the beauty of Budapest and the hidden streets of Croatia.

Her experiences only became even more awe-inspiring when she arrived in Japan, which she described as a completely different world, in every way possible. She fell in love with the people, the culture, the rice balls, the Critter Cafes. She spent a month in Japan alone, savoring the atmosphere but realizing if she didn’t leave now, she never would. On she went to the Philippines where she became a certified diver and spent her days swimming with whale sharks and diving WW2 shipwrecks. Yesterday, she arrived in Cambodia for a month-long yoga retreat. She sent a video of a tribal priest blessing her and chanting a welcome while she smiled peacefully among this strange language and culture.

How can I deny her this? Why would I want to?

Parents, I know it’s hard to let your child go, but if you’re finding yourself questioning your decision to do so, ask yourself those same questions. Your children may not be traveling around the world, literally, but they’re exposing themselves to the world and enjoying their own form of self-discovery. How can you deny them that? And why would you want to?


Let’s retire the “why I’m leaving teaching” posts forever

As my former pastor used to say, “I’m an equal opportunity offender.” Get ready, because it’s about to be a bumpy ride as I set out not to offend, but to plead with my fellow teachers to please, please get off the “life sucks being a teacher” bandwagon.

It’s everywhere. I see it on Facebook almost daily. On Twitter. Forwarded in emails. Diatribe after bullet point after screaming headline that bemoans the state of education, lists the many ways in which teachers are fighting a losing battle, and worst of all, tells young adults who are considering teaching to run as fast as they can in the opposite direction. Don’t think I don’t get it. After almost two decades in education, I know all about it. But I’m not going to scream it from the rooftops, and I’m about to tell you why. All I ask is that after you get mad at me, you take a breath and just think about this.

You’re not frustrated because of low pay, unruly kids, uninformed government decisions, and discursive meetings. Okay, you are, but that’s not what really gets under your skin. What bothers you is that you love what you do, and other people keep making it harder to do what you love doing. Period. Now that we’ve identified the problem, allow me to make some humble suggestions. As someone who’s been a happy teacher my entire career, let me tell you how you’re hurting yourself and making your job harder than it has to be.

1. When you share angry teacher letters, highlights about the myriad problems in education, and yet another blog on why a great teacher has decided to leave the classroom, you merely perpetuate the problem. You feed into the talk about town that teaching sucks. You agree with it, publicly, to everyone who knows you. You spread the word that teaching is a horrible career and those who are considering it must be deluded. You keep promising college students from following their calling by sounding the trumpets that their calling is garbage.

2. This demeans our profession and you as a teacher. You create the very problem you are fighting. If you want to be treated like a professional, act like a professional, not a petulant child. Furthermore, you are announcing to the world that you don’t like your job. And seeing as your clients are innocent kids and parents who are entrusting their prized possessions to your care, that’s not such a great message to send out into the universe. If you want everyone to respect you, have enough respect for yourself to stand up for your profession.

3. You make yourself a victim of bureaucracy and idiocy. There is plenty of that in education, and to a certain extent, you must play along. But you have a certain amount of autonomy in your classroom. You are free to love your kids and teach them to love learning. Your hands aren’t tied. Regardless of what test kids need to pass or what new math methods come around the corner, you still get to teach and watch light dawn on growing minds. You get to be responsible for that and take some credit for it. You are not a victim.

4. Anyone can point out what is wrong, but if you really care, do something about it. Get involved in your community and in local politics, vote for the right people, lobby, speak out. Take on a leadership position that allows you to effect change. Do any of the things you are free to do as American citizens, whatever might be in your comfort zone, but do something. It’s hard to respect someone who moans and groans their way through their career. You have a choice to embrace it or to denigrate it. Your call. Your consequences.

5. If you are really, truly unhappy being a teacher, please, for the love of all things holy, quit. No child deserves to have a teacher who doesn’t want to be there. Children should not be surrounded by bitterness and frustration when all they want to do is learn. If you’re unhappy with your current situation, change it. You owe it to yourself and to all of your students.

If you know me, you know I’m not some “pie in the sky” teacher who is naive to the problems in education. But as far as my students know, I love coming to school every day, I’m excited about what I teach, and I have a passion for my subject. It’s not put on, not fake, not a big show. I just happen to believe that teachers should be proud to be teachers, that they should laugh with their students every day, they should care enough about them to give them everything they have, and  they should leave school knowing that no one, anywhere, kept them from teaching their kids.

When my daughter graduated from college and got her first teaching job, it was one of my most proud moments as a parent and a teacher. But it doesn’t hold a candle to seeing her face as she tells me stories about her students, falls into bed after an insanely busy day, and exuberantly reads her kids’ test scores (from the very standardized test she is opposed to) as she discovers that she taught them, really taught them. Ask my daughter’s students if she was deluded for going into education. For that matter, teachers, ask your own students. Their answers may get you to drop the negativity once and for all.

Senior retreat 4

Know your students, teach them, love them. What happens next in education is up to you.

How two Chinese teachers restored my pride in America

Lucy, me and Apple clearer






In the last week, I’ve done something I never imagined myself doing: I’ve hosted two teachers from China while they studied our school system and took copious notes about our strengths and weaknesses. Did I mention that I let two strangers with a limited understanding of English stay at my house?

I showed them to their rooms, but they chose to stay together in one. Too much space, too much distance between rooms, and they felt more comfortable being in close proximity. They marveled at the number of bathrooms in our house, the amount of love we have for our dog, and the high activity level we maintain from day to day. During rides to school or over dinner, we stuttered through conversations, constantly searching for common words and understandings. My favorite verbal mishap was when I mentioned I had to stop at the doctor’s office for a shot. Their eyes widened with alarm until I found the right word, the one they knew, inoculation, which made them feel infinitely better. That’s when I realized how many idioms we Americans use and how confusing our vocabulary must be to the international visitor struggling to understand us.

But this blog isn’t about language barriers. It’s about how Americans convey what kind of people we are without using any words at all. In the last week, I’ve been proud to be an American, and all the cynics and news programs in the world won’t sway me from that pride.

My first foray beyond the house was taking Lucy and Apple to my church. I nearly cried when everyone in the vicinity – including “Mama,” who struggles with Altzheimers and always sits in front of us; the young girl with Downs Syndrome and the sweetest smile this side of Texas; black, white, and people of all backgrounds – extended their hands and warmly welcomed my guests to our church and to our country. They spoke slowly, considerately, putting our visitors at ease. Then Lucy looked up and noticed the orchestra. With an intake of breath, she listened intently to the violins’ mournful strains, and I’m sure it didn’t escape her notice that many of the orchestra members had faces like her own. I looked around my church – really looked, for maybe the first time – and noticed the colors, the mixed heritages, the age differences, the variety of dress and style. I remembered, gratefully, that I belong to a church that welcomes strangers and makes them feel at home because we ourselves were once strangers looking for a home.

At sermon time, I found the proper chapter and verse and handed the Bible to Lucy. Intrigued when she pulled out her cell phone, I watched as she typed unfamiliar English words, found the Chinese translation, re-read the passage, and then nodded her head as understanding blossomed. She worked 10 times harder than anyone in that sanctuary that day, all to understand what the rest of us take for granted.  We have the freedom to read whatever religious text we like, to make our own choices about what we believe and what god we worship. We can freely hand a Bible to someone who has journeyed thousands of miles to learn about us, with no fear of punishment or even judgment. Lucy and Apple cannot say the same.

Later that week, I took my guests to visit some other schools so they could see the variety of educational options we enjoy in the U.S. Say what you will about the state of schools in America; I, for one, see some wonderful things going on, and I am proud that my Chinese guests got to witness them. In each school, the principal took time to introduce him or herself, to set up a personal tour, and even to offer a Chinese interpreter. My guests walked from classroom to classroom where they heard their own language being spoken, where they saw their own flag hanging with 50 others, all representing the cultures within the school. And everyone they met extended kindness. I don’t teach at these schools, but I beamed with pride over the facilities, the diversity of the population, the choices offered to students, the engaged learning taking place, and the respect afforded these strangers from a faraway place. At my own school, students and teachers welcomed our visitors into their homes, carted them around Houston, and invited them to teach Mandarin and speak to the Chinese Club. We made the trip possible, and because we did, Lucy and Apple came to an important realization: No one had to bend over backward for them, but they did, because that’s what Americans do.

When I asked my new friends for their thoughts on Americans, they didn’t hesitate. They said we are the most warm-hearted people they’ve ever met. They said we work harder than they ever imagined, that we are nothing like the stereotype of Americans they see in films. They loved that we offer our kids choices, give them voices, and respect them enough to value their opinions. They were flabbergasted by our loyalty to our pets, our love of hugs and open affection, and our happiness. They found us to be courteous drivers (who knew?) , patient, and polite. In short, they were clearly surprised and impressed by us. Listening to our music, seeing our kids display impressive talent in the arts, and noting our entrepreneurial spirit, they suggested that maybe our freedom has brought about a high level of creativity and ingenuity that they lack in their own country.

Lucy and Apple have only been with me a week, but I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve teared up watching my fellow Americans interact with my Chinese visitors. Despite what our media and nightly news would have us believe, we really are a kind, open-hearted country that embraces people from all walks of life. I’ve seen it firsthand, and I’ve never been more proud to be an American.


Top 10 parenting books

how to talkI don’t know about you, but I love a great book suggestion, especially when it comes to helping parents be better at the most important job they’ll ever tackle.

Below are my favorite parenting books, in no particular order. I would LOVE to hear yours!

1. What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Murkoff and Mazel
2. Parenting with Love and Logic by Cline and Fay
3. How To Talk So Kids Will Listen… by Faber and Mazlish
4. The Strong-Willed Child by Dobson
5. Family First by McGraw
6. Getting to Calm by Kastner
7. Positive Discipline for Teenagers by Nelson
8. Uncommon Sense for Parents of Teenagers by Riera
9. The Well-Behaved Child by John Rosemond

10. Add your favorite here

Teaching your kids about honor and respect

If you’re not teaching your kids about patriotism, honor, respect, and love of our country, you need to start now. If you don’t feel especially equipped to do so, there are people out there who can help.

Every time a national holiday rolls around, I think about my good friend, Mac, aka: Major Kelly. Mac is a retired marine, but nothing about his demeanor, code of conduct, or belief system is retired. Mac wears his hair short, has 14% body fat at age 62, and works tirelessly to fulfill his duties. Luckily, one of those duties is leading the Reserves Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC) at a public high school in Georgia.

Mac was the first person I met when I started my teaching job at that school. He went out of his way to introduce himself, ever so politely, and to offer his help with anything I might need. No job was too large or too small for Mac. He was and is a consummate gentleman who feels duty- and honor-bound to represent himself and his country with dignity.

How many people can you name who live like this? And have your kids been exposed to them? The lucky students who go through Mac’s program are held to the highest standards of responsibility for one’s actions, promptness, respect when addressing and dealing with others, physical discipline and overall health, an understanding of our nation’s history, and a knowledge of current events and politics. Where do your kids stand in these areas? Do they possess these attributes? Can they speak intelligently about these topics? Do they have a sense of duty when it comes to their responsibilities and place in the world?

On this 4th of July, ask yourself if you’ve instilled a sense of pride in one’s country in your children. Have you taught them to represent their country and themselves with character and self-respect?

We teach our kids a lot about the minutiae of life so that they can survive and excel in our world. But sometimes, we don’t see the forest for the trees. We concentrate on the day-to-day requirements that make up our lives and forget the overriding themes that should guide us all. Our kids’ characters are what define them, what determines how they will respond to life’s twists and turns, how they will treat others. Their level of self-respect will define how they will allow others to treat them, what they will do when confronted with positive and negative temptations, and what will be their bottom line.

Don’t overlook what can be learned from this holiday and what we, as a nation, need a desperate reminder of: Our kids need character, they need respect, and they need a deep appreciation and love for the country in which they were so blessed to be born. Teach them this, and talk to them about this. And expose them to our nation’s heroes who have fought to preserve our safety and security and who have much to teach about honor and duty.