Serenity Prayer (and Teaching)

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Some things teachers cannot change or have little say in:

  • The adults who work at our school
  • The students who show up for class
  • Their parents and home life
  • The curriculum (we may have input, but unless we get to make the final decision, we go with what comes in the box)
  • The physical space we call “classroom”
  • That impossible faucet

Things we can change:

  • How we react and respond to the adults in our building.

I don’t think I said two words about anything during my first 900 days as a teacher, and I was a science teacher at a middle school. I did what I was supposed to do: show up, teach, return the classroom key to the office before I go home, rinse, repeat. I was the quiet type anyway, so quiet that when I announced my decision to become a teacher, this person laughed, “How can you be a teacher? Ha!! You can’t be a teacher, you’re so quiet!” I was offended and said, “Shut up, bitch!” Actually, no, I didn’t say anything, I just smiled, a quiet smile that betrayed my suspicion that she might be right.

I found my voice on Day 901, on staff dress-up day, maybe it was Halloween. I walked down the hallway in scrubs borrowed from my husband at the time. A male teacher who also donned scrubs said pleasantly, “You can be my nurse.” Equally pleasant, I said, “I’m dressed as a doctor today.”

Maybe that was a trivial story, but the likes of it happened a lot. I was a young Asian (am still Asian) female (still this too) — and somehow this permitted certain people to say whatever to me.

  • How we treat our students.

I failed and failed at this. The same way I’d failed at times as a parent to my own three children. I yelled, sent the kid out, made sure I got the last word because I needed everyone to know I was in charge. The side effects of my behavior always included shame, regret, guilt. Mostly shame. To give myself some grace, most of these incidents involved my believing the child had lied or demeaned another person.

Then I got better. I learned to hit the pause button and quiet my indignation. I learned to listen — like listen to their eyes and hand fidgets, their breaths and moments of silence. I learned to get the full story, at least find more truths than the half-truths I was getting. I learned to see the child in front of me as if I were his mother. Mostly, I listened to the better version of both of us.

I read what a student had written about another teacher, fresh from a recent incident. He didn’t want to give me the paper, and I only asked for it because he was supposed to be writing an assignment on that paper. As I was reading, he said, “I didn’t mean to… I was mad…” I finished reading and looked up, “Do you feel better now that you’d written this?” Tears brimmed his big brown eyes, he nodded, “Yes.” I crumbled up the paper and tossed it into the garbage can, “I’m glad. No one else needs to see that note. I love you. [The teacher whom he’d written about] loves you too. We care about you.” He straightened up, wiped his eyes, and thanked me, and off he went to lunch. Not until he was out the door that I thought, Ah, shit, he still owes me the assignment. But then I thought that no one else needed to know that he wrote on a different topic instead. Full credit.

Most days it was about giving my students the best math tasks and challenging them. But on all days, it was about kindness and making the most of our time together. I did always laugh with my students though. Sometimes we laughed so hard we were in tears.

  • Know that parents are sending us their best.

That’s it. End of story. Just like the customer is always right, the parent is always right. They may have funny ways of showing it — like being belligerent and crazy — but they do care about their babies. Also, no matter what color skin the parent has, he/she cares about his/her child as much I do about mine.

  • Make the curriculum come alive.

There are a lot of good resources and people out there to help us with this. Teach in a way that no software or Khan can replace or replicate what we do. To make math come alive, we need to come alive. Students are the best bullshit detectors, so let’s not even try. Make up for our shortcomings with all that we are passionate about, and hopefully topping that list is building a relationship with our kids. Even if math is not their favorite subject or dividing fractions is a big zit, they still enjoy coming to your class and think you’re badass for coming to their games and wearing that stupid costume, for the third year in a row.

  • Attend to your physical space.

Bring in real plants, they make everything better and don’t demand much more than some water and light. And they don’t talk back. Hang shit up. Anything. Some teachers have perfected this, I’m the least of them. Maybe this is the only reason to get on Pinterest. Please don’t post Classroom Rules though. I mean, do you post Home Rules in your home? Mr. Vaudrey says music is good for your class too.

  • That faucet.

Quit your job. Change building. Investigate this most important feature the next time you interview for a job.

And wisdom to know the difference.

This wisdom should help us talk more about thriving in teaching rather than mere surviving in teaching.

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