Thursday, May 16, 2019

Teacher Self-Care

I was honored to give a talk on teacher self-care recently at Delta Kappa Gamma's state convention in San Francisco.

This was my first time speaking on this topic but I promise it will not be my last! It was a small group because it was early in the morning (and let's be honest, part of self-care is sleeping!) but it was such a great group.

I was able to use my story as a cautionary tale (if you don't know it, check out my book, Literally Unbelievable: Stories from an East Oakland Classroom). I burned out, hard, and it was avoidable.

We talked about how none of us have EVER had a professional development on self-care. And how most teachers don't make it five years. How we give absolutely everything to our students, at the expense of our families, our friends, and ourselves.

It turns out that the old cliche about putting your own oxygen mask on first is true. We cannot help anyone if we are not healthy. Yet we're expected to put ourselves last. When I sprained my ankle and taught on crutches, I tried to take an afternoon off for a doctor's appointment. My principal said, "Well, I suppose you can take it off, I mean, if you're not really here for the kids..." for a doctor's appointment. For, incidentally, an injury sustained at school. Every one of us has similar stories. We were expected to teach with strep throat, with the flu, with sick children. We expect it of ourselves and pride ourselves on never being out sick. It's unsustainable.

If we want teachers to stay, and if we want teachers to be good teachers, we need to work on this. It was a wonderful experience, and I hope to do this talk many, many more times.

Teachers and their students deserve it.

Monday, May 13, 2019

It's Not the Teaching

My favorite thing about teaching is not teaching. I'm sure there are teachers who love that part of it - who live for the moment that a lightbulb goes on in a student's mind and who are fascinated by pedagogy -- who stay up thinking about different ways of explaining a math problem or a grammatical concept.

I don't mind those things, and I like some of them. And, of course, it is wonderful to see that light bulb go on. But that isn't why I personally teach.

For me, the reason to teach is the whole child.

I love dealing with their brains. Their brains are so different at different ages and stages of development! Sometimes students are absolutely infuriating but it's totally developmentally appropriate. Sometimes you can almost literally see the neural pathways forming, like when third graders start questioning why Native Americans are called Indians, and I want to cheer them on: "Yes! Think things through! Taken nothing for granted!"Sometimes they are so impulsive that I wanted to spend the entire day teaching them self-control, and throw out the math and spelling lessons. Kids -- of any age -- have FASCINATING brains.

But I also love being trusted with their emotions. There is no higher honor for me than a child trusting me with their difficult emotions. And there are so many of them! I was working with a 6th grade tutoring student recently and, in a one-hour session, I saw him cycle through sadness, crying, embarrassment over the crying, worry, relief, happiness, anger, and more. Because that's how it is when you're in sixth grade. Sometimes they ask me for advice or say they want to talk, and sometimes they just start to act out or cry and I have to figure out what happened and if I can help.

Sometimes I'm involved in the emotional trauma. These are two apology notes I received from sisters who had noticed my bowl of quarters (laundry money) and helped themselves to some. I noticed some money missing, talked to a few parents, and it turned out that several parents had noticed their kids coming home with extra quarters. It was too much temptation for impulsive kids. These two were really afraid to apologize because they thought I would hate them. They wrote apology letters and paid me back and we talked about times that we had all done things we knew were wrong because the temptation was so strong. They thanked me for not being angry and letting them apology and they gave me extra-strong hugs that day. Their mom thanked me later for helping them with valuable life lessons and being a good teacher and friend to them, which made my heart happy.

Because it's so important to get to know kid as whole people and not just brains or academic machines, I look for all sorts of connections. My dog, Ruby, is one perfect example. I now tutor mostly out of my home, and the students adore her. We recently had a birthday celebration for her ninth birthday (what I'm going to do when this dog leaves us, I do not know, because she has almost 30 best friends now), and she got presents, hugs, a doggie cake, and many many notes like the one up above.

Another way to connect with kids, and one that I can do easily working out of my home, is to feed them. Kids come to me after school or in the early evening and I always offer them water and often a snack. Some of them are comfortable enough with me that they'll ask for a snack and I tell them I'll share if I have something but I won't always, and they are comfortable with that. But I always try to rustle something up, even if it's just sharing a cut-up apple, because there is something very special about sharing food with people.

It's an honor to work with kids, and it is even more of an honor to be trusted and loved, and yes, even taken for granted by them.

Monday, February 11, 2019

A Different Perspective

(this is a photo of my classroom one year. Yes, that says "rape." No, the district did not come to repaint it until I threatened to do so myself. Yes, that means third-graders had to walk by "rape" on their classroom for weeks.)


I am fortunate in having stayed in touch with many of my students. They have provided me with positive feedback about the book I wrote about us: Literally Unbelievable: Stories from an East Oakland Classroom. It's been eye-opening to hear their perspective on their elementary school years now that they are grown. One of the most common things I hear is that I protected them from a lot of the issues when they were kids. I hope so. They deserved to be protected - much more than I ever could.

Since the book has been published, I have been able to talk to a few people who grew up in East Oakland, went to schools very near the one where I taught, and had parallel experiences to my students. If they had lived a few blocks east or west, they would have been at my school.

Their reactions have been even more interesting and frankly, it's been an honor to see. I met with a woman last week who went to elementary school near where I taught, just on the other side of the McDonald's in our neighborhood. I knew people who taught at this school and knew that it was very similar to our school.

We were talking about our experiences and I told her about what it was like to be a year-round school from the teacher's position. It is detailed in Literally Unbelievable but to summarize, the kids were divided into four tracks, by language, because there wasn't enough room for all of the students at once. I was telling her about how I had to teach in the auditorium and once in the auditorium lobby and she was remembering the places where she had to try to pay attention and how distracting it was to keep moving classrooms.

Then I told her about our four tracks: Track A was "other Asian" and was a sheltered English (ELL) track. Track B was English-only and we called it the "Black Track" which always bothered me but came from 100% of the students being Black. Track C was the Spanish-language track and Track D was the Vietnamese-language track. She stared at me. She said, "I was track B. This makes so much sense. The Black Track."

I went on to explain my concerns with the kids being racially segregated and how my principal brushed off my concerns with "We don't separate them by race, we separate them by language," but I could tell she was still processing.

It hit me. What would it be like as a Black woman to realize that you were literally in a segregated class and that your teachers may have referred to your group as the "Black Track."

The truth is that I have no idea. I still have white privilege in that I can be outraged about this, but I wasn't one of the kids involved. 

Sunday, January 20, 2019

"There Are No Children Here"

This book was the one that inspired me to write Literally Unbelievable: Stories of an East Oakland Classroom. It is the story of two brothers growing up in a housing project in Chicago. The title comes from their mom saying, "But you know, there are no children here. They've seen too much to be children."

I was reminded of this book recently when I had dinner with a former student. She's 14 and in 8th grade. She was telling me about what she and her close friends have been through: homelessness, near-homelessness, sex trafficking, seeing people shot, friends who have died, parents and siblings in prison, watching drug deals, being locked in closets while family members smoked crack, and (unsurprisingly) depression, psychosis, and suicidal ideation.


We have to do better by these kids. They are being robbed of their childhood.

What to do?

Well, raising awareness is key. That's why I wrote Literally Unbelievable, so that people can understand what these kids--children--have to deal with.

Learn about it and tell everyone you know.

Then make some noise. Talk to your representatives and tell this that this isn't acceptable. Volunteer for groups in your community (if you're in the Bay Area, I have some ideas in the appendix of the book)

Please share other ideas! We can't consider this acceptable.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Sumando con Dinosaurios!

I have friends (Mexican citizens) who run an orphanage in Reynosa, Mexico. It’s called an orphanage but many of the kids there are not orphans, but kids whose parents cannot take care of them for a variety of reasons. I first visited/volunteered in the summer of 2000, as a new teacher, helping some kids get up to speed before the school year started in the fall. I quickly learned much more from any of them than they learned from me, and try to go back every year, keeping in touch when I am not there.

This orphanage is called Pilar de Esperanza (pillar of hope) and it truly is a hopeful place. It is set up to be a family, with some of the original kids now staying on as young adults and helping out. One of the other adults running the place is from Holland but has lived in Mexico for 20 years, calling herself now “Dutch-Mexican.”

The kids at Pilar mostly go to school in the city of Reynosa (the orphanage is a few miles outside the city limits), but some of the youngest or most academically behind students are taught on the premises. Their teacher, Paulien (the Dutch-Mexican woman) thinks of creative ways to teach with very limited resources, and I was happy to play a very very small part in their math class recently.

A friend was cleaning out her house and gave me a bunch of small plastic dinosaurs, thinking (correctly) that I’d know what to do with them. I gave two to a child I work with at home, and they were a HUGE hit. One had spikes and one had flippers so he obviously named them Spikey and Swimmy. He did his whole lesson with me in Spikey and Swimmy’s voice, and told his mom that it was the best lesson EVER. He has since reassured me that Spikey and Swimmy live in his closet but there’s a small window that they can see out of so that they don’t get sad. (I love children).

The rest of the dinosaurs went to Paulien and she is using them for prizes and also for addition! I’m sure the kids were thrilled to be “sumando con dinosaurios!” (Adding with dinosaurs).

Any time you can make math a little more fun for kids, it sticks in their head better!

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Teaching is More Exhausting Than You Think!

I’m often asked why teaching is so exhausting. Since I’ve left the classroom, I often tell people how much less tired I am than when I was teaching. With private tutoring I have one, maybe two, kids at at time. There are weeks that I work all 7 days, with 5 of the days being 9-11 hours days. I have many fewer days/weeks off than I did when I was in the classroom. On paper, I work many more hours. And it is SO MUCH less tiring. 

So, why is teaching so tiring? This list will not at all be exhaustive and I’d love to hear from other teachers because I’m sure I have forgotten some important reasons.

First of all, we’re always “on.” Teaching in front of a classroom is a performance. I don’t mean it’s insincere, but you are definitely performing. Keeping the attention of 20-36 students is no joke! I knew a first grade teacher who, when he sensed that he was losing the attention of his students, would walk into walls, in his own slapstick routine. No kid fails to find that funny, and he would get their attention. Most of us don’t do that, but we do funny voices, little dances, jokes, and more. I know that I always froze up when I realized that adults were in the room because I felt so self-conscious about all the silly things I was doing, that totally worked for the kids. I very rarely feel self-conscious in front of children, but throw a peer in the room and it’s tough.

Besides the performance aspect, we also have to be “on” in that we have to be aware of everything in the classroom, all the time. While we’re teaching a math lesson, we have to be aware of the kid trying to touch another kid (and plenty of desks are double desks so they can’t get away easily). We have to watch the child who can’t be trusted with scissors. Depending on the age we work with, we have to make sure all the phones are put away, no one is snapping bra straps, kids aren’t cheating, no one is eating crayons, kids aren’t squirming in their seat as a precursor to having a bathroom accident, they understand the lesson, their earbuds aren’t in, they’re not drawing on the desk, and much, much more. The hyper vigilance required is astounding.

During “breaks” — recess and lunch — teachers rarely get a break. Recess is usually 10-15 minutes and, depending on where your classroom is, it can take that long or longer to walk to the bathroom, wait for other teachers using it, and walk back. I STILL, 10 years later, have dreams about not having remembered to make copies in time and rushing to do it during recess, along with every other teacher who forgot or had to adjust lesson plans. If you need to call parents, plan field trips, or just plain call your doctor, this is when you have to squeeze it in.

Lunch is, in most districts, “protected” time for teachers. Most contracts allow for a “duty-free” lunch period of 30 minutes. We all know that this is a joke.  First of all, you have to walk the kids to the lunchroom and make sure they all get their lunches and sit down and begin eating. Most of us try to leave the classroom a little early to get this done, but sometimes are reprimanded for that by administrators who have somehow forgotten how long it takes to get children through the lunch line. We then try to scarf down our lunches (and if we forgot lunch, we usually just power through without eating because there’s not time to get anything) and do all the things mentioned in the recess time. It’s no wonder that teachers have such a high rate of bladder infections — we don’t have time to go to the bathroom frequently enough!

But at least we only work 6 hours a day! Right? You can deal with an exhausting job if you only work 6 hours a day! 


I know teachers who get up at 5 am to prep for the day. I can’t do that - I’m far from being a morning person. I prepped late into the night instead. I would go to social events with stacks of grading or lesson plans to work on because I needed time with my friends and I still had so much work. I usually left the school as soon as I could because I was so exhausted that I needed a nap. I’d make the copies I needed at school (or often at a copy shop, paying out of my own pocket, when they put copy limits on us without providing us with enough materials), go home and take a nap, then start hours of lesson planning, cutting things out, laminating (I bought a laminator!), gluing, organizing, grading, writing in journals, etc. 

I could go on and on and on. The social interactions; switching between talking to colleagues, parents, students, and administrators;and more. 
I remember in my second year of teaching, a friend came to teach the kids a few martial arts moves during PE. He was "in charge" of the kids for about 45 minutes, and that's in quotes because I did all the crowd control and took care of their behavior. At the end of it, he sat down, exhausted, and said, "Wow! So that's what a day in your life feels like!" I said, "No, that's what about 1/10th of a day in my life, with all the hard part done for you, feels like.

He didn't respond.

For you, what is the most exhausting thing about teaching?

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Family Giving Tree!

I had such a great time speaking to the Drive Leaders for Family Giving Tree last week. This organization provides back-to-school backpacks and holiday gifts for under-resourced children in the Bay Area. Rather than re-explaining everything I like about them, I'm just going to quote from my own speech! Please check them out at their website or on Facebook!

Think of yourself as a student, or a parent of a student, at this school. Think about all the things I’ve just mentioned, and the financial stress that comes with trying to keep your family housed, safe, clothed, and fed. Now imagine that you’re getting ready to send your child to school with the feeling of shame that comes from not being properly prepared – not because you don’t want to do the best for your child, but because you literally can’t afford to.

In many more affluent schools, parents and PTAs join with teachers in providing books and supplies. Our school didn’t have a PTA and most of our parents couldn’t help out much, although they did when they could. And supplies and books were more important for kids who didn’t have them at home, so teachers used their meager paychecks to buy these for their students.

Now that I’ve given you the context, I think you’ll understand why we as teachers are so grateful for Family Giving Tree and for all of you and your work with getting these donations into the hands of students who need them.

Many of my students came to school with their belongings in plastic grocery bags because they didn’t have anything else to carry them in. I started asking my friends in tech who went to trade shows and got laptop bags to donate them to me. Pretty soon my class was the only one with 20 kids proudly sporting laptop bags, but they were not really the right size or shape for third-graders. They did, however, help the kids with their dignity, as they had something that didn’t look like a trash bag to bring to school.

Even when the kids got a backpack substitute, they usually didn’t have school supplies. Their parents wanted to help but they just didn’t have the money. I spent thousands of dollars of my own money each year. That’s right, thousands. On a beginning teachers’ salary! But what the school gave us was in no way enough and I needed to help these kids learn.

In addition to what I spent myself, I started asking people for supplies. I posted on Craigslist and got supplies from strangers. I begged friends for supplies. I asked my family to give me money for my classroom instead of Christmas and birthday presents. I was shameless – because it was for the kids. In fact, one of my friends who worked at Pixar Animation studios, recently reminded me that when we met, I asked him to come talk to my students before I even told him what my name was! I had one friend who made holiday gift boxes for all my third graders and the joy on their faces as they unwrapped the boxes – which contained practical school supplies, socks, art supplies and fun toys… well, these kids would be in their 20s now and it still makes me smile. If you want to hear more about how effective donations are, I have some great stories in my book. The truckload full of paper donation – and I mean full – is my favorite, but is a little too long to tell here.

People stepped up as I asked for help, and I had another surprise. I thought that my students would feel embarrassed about these donations. I thought they’d feel like they were accepting charity and have some shame about it. I was totally wrong. The kids were not only grateful, they saw these donations as proof that people cared, and that they were special. One third-grader said it, straight up: “People keep helping us because they know we’re special and they know we need an education.”

Now, a lot of people and groups try to help, and not all of them do it well. Every single teacher has a story of people who come in and donate… junk. I’ve gotten donations of stained clothing, used wrapping paper, and random tea bags. Family Giving tree is one of the good groups. Before I agreed to do this talk, I asked specifically how they communicate with the schools about the needs of the kids, and they gave me the answer I was hoping for.

Family Giving Tree talks to teachers and administrators at the schools to find out what is actually needed in the backpacks. They don’t assume, they actually talk to the people in the know, which is something I wish everyone did! There’s also a grade differentiation of the backpacks to make sure they have what is needed and appropriate. They also make sure that the contents of the backpacks are consistent, so there is no envy between kids.

This model is one of generosity, not of pity. It is not looking down on people and helping them because we feel sorry for them. It’s respectful and thoughtful, and actually helpful in a way that maintains the dignity of the recipients. This is essential I’m so grateful for all of you. I hope you will keep doing the drive every year and keep increasing the number of backpacks you collect, because there is so much need out there!