Tuesday, May 22, 2018

A teacher's life lesson in resiliency

Last month I invited a dear friend and former colleague John Dube to teach a lesson on resiliency to my senior students in my Psychology in Literature.  Want to know why?  Like John always says "I'll get back to that point in a minute."

I first met John over 20 years ago when we were told we were going to co teach together an American Studies course.  John is a social studies teacher and I am an English teacher.  I can only imagine what John--then already an experienced teacher with many more years teaching than I--thought of me as the rookie English teacher.

I was very impressed with John's passion for teaching his students, his knowledge of content, and his ability to manage his classroom.  In our few years that we co taught together, I learned a lot from him.  I learned more about American History than I had in my high school and college courses.  I learned to laugh at myself.  And I learned the importance of treating our students as young adults.

We definitely collaborated and cooperated together as we created and planned lessons, shared classroom time, and worked with our students.  Ideally in a co teaching situation, two teachers share one group of students (approx. 20-25 students).  But we were assigned almost 40 students to teach at the same time.  One thing that kept us sane with challenging classroom conditions was having a sense of humor and a creative approach. One of my favorite lessons we did was create a mock speakeasy as a culminating project for the 1920s and The Great Gatsby.

I also wondered how John was able to balance being a working parent.  He and his wife Eileen had twin boys Evan and Connor who were toddlers at the time.  They were the cutest boys; John would sometime bring them in after school and they would love to run around his classroom. I on the other hand would come home exhausted after school from teaching and coaching.  I couldn't imagine coming home to the second part of my day having to put in the love, patience, energy and time into parenting two children  (years later, I would indeed be able to with my own children, but John made it look easy at the time).

Flash forward:  Many years past and John and I reconnected on social media over Star Trek.  I know--those of you who know me would never associate me with Star Trek (maybe Star Wars, but not Star Trek).  However, my husband is a Star Trek fan and so is John.  John was making Star Trek models and sharing his work online, so I asked him to make my husband one for a Christmas present.

Okay, back to the lesson on resiliency.  I will first say that John traveled during his April break to my current school in Massachusetts to conduct his lesson.  For that alone, I am grateful to John.

He currently is teaching a class nicknamed "The Happiness Course" which is based in positive psychology.  My Psych in Lit. curriculum incorporates positive psychology throughout the course.  So a lesson resiliency would fit perfectly.

And like the quality veteran teacher that he is, John had my students engaged within seconds of starting the class.  He included a power point presentation that started off with a picture of his son Evan that had everyone smiling.  He took them through a series of activities and discussions about what resiliency is and what it looks like.  By the end of the class, John shared why he designed and now teaches this course to his students.

He showed a slide that had a link to a video of Evan's memorial service.

Tragically Evan died six years ago at the age of 19.  He was studying abroad in Scotland through his Bates College program.  He was doing a polar plunge with his friends; when he came out of the water he collapsed, couldn't be revived, and passed away.

As one can empathize, the insufferable pain of losing your 19 year old son is unbearable.  It is not the natural course of life, we parents are supposed to die before our children.  And as one can imagine, there was not one sound in my classroom as John shared that is why he teaches this Happiness course:  in memory of Evan.

John discussed openly, honestly, and emotionally his grief for the loss of Evan.  He shared that he knows every day he has to make a choice to get up because some days it is so hard to get out of bed mourning the loss of his son.  John encouraged the students to consider the importance of living in the present moment--to enjoy their lives to the fullest.  He made lots of suggestions of how to stay in an emotional place of gratitude in order to make it through the brutality of life--like losing your son.

As I said, my students were so affected by John's life lesson.  Below are some of the students' responses to John's lesson:

"I learned that resiliency is a topic that everyone should be taught about. His talking was very inspirational... One thing that stuck with me was he said you decided whether or not you get up in the morning."

"I learned that a definition of resiliency is the ability for somebody to bounce back or recover from a hard time. I think this was a really good lesson for me to have and I will definitely use what I learned in my daily life and in the future."

"One thing that I took away from the class lesson today was he told us to focus on the present instead of the future. I personally tell myself 'I can't wait for high school to be over' etc. etc, and I think that life will be perfect right after we graduate, which isn't the case! A lot of people put time limits on happiness and that is something I need to work on. As a second semester senior I need to live in the moment, and be prepared for the good times and the bad times that lay ahead! I really enjoyed today's lesson, and I think it was very inspirational. Resilience is a trait that needs to be focused more on, especially learning about it in high school, and I am very lucky to have this lesson before heading off to college. Thanks again for letting him teach today!"

I smiled at the previous line about "letting" John teach that day--it was an honor and a loving reminder for me just how precious and how short life is.  Having the opportunity to have John teach with me again for that class reminds me of the amazing relationships educators form with other educators.  We teach from our life experiences and from our hearts.

John now encourages his students and loved ones to commit random acts of kindness and compassion--these acts are how he honors Evan's life as Evan was a wonderful human being filled with love and life.

This past weekend was the sixth anniversary of Evan's death, John has asked people mark the anniversary with a random act of kindness in the spirit of Evan--and I will add in love and respect for John and his family.  I wholeheartedly know Evan's spirit lives on through John and all of the students he teaches.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

There's more than one Dr. J.

I am standing like a deer in headlights in the English Department room; I am excited, scared, and nervous at the thought of beginning my teaching career in just two days.  I am talking to my department head and a couple of other first year teachers when another young person comes bounding into the room.  She literally is bouncing around the room picking up a couple of books and some supplies.  I immediately can feel her positive energy as she stops to introduce herself. 

"Hi, I'm Maryellen.  I'm one of the English teachers in the department."  She is friendly, energetic--and oh, did I mention nine months pregnant?!  Our department head says, "What are you doing here?  You should be having your baby."  Mary Ellen exclaims, "I know--I'm trying to!  I just did an aerobic workout on my Reebok step--trying to move things along.  I thought I would come in and pick up a few things for my maternity leave."  

I think my mouth hit the floor in shock--as I processed Mary Ellen's words.  She was ready to have a baby--and here she was calm, cool, collected, well maybe, actually more like energetic, enthusiastic, and excited!  She wished us rookie teachers good luck, said she'd stay in touch, and no joke--literally ran out of the room.  I thought, wow, can I borrow some of that energy?

Maryellen had her baby girl Jordi a few days later.  Mary Ellen would return to teach in January after her maternity leave was over.  In the meantime, I barely was keeping my head above water in my first semester of teaching.  Maryellen occasionally would check in with us newbie teachers, but of course she was taking care of her newborn at home.  When she did return months later, she became a lifeline, a mentor, and most importantly, a lifelong friend to me.  

It is critical for rookie teachers to have veteran teachers to throw them a life preserver--heck, life preservers--because we know there are many a day that rookie teachers are struggling.  Mary Ellen was that person for me.  I was so grateful to her as she shared many of her lesson plans with me, cheered me on when I had a classroom victory, and made me laugh at myself when I made mistakes.  She reminded me that none of us should take ourselves so seriously.  We all make errors--but we aren't those errors.

Reflecting back on my first two years of teaching, I learned invaluable lessons from Mary Ellen that I still embrace and embody in my teaching and parenting today. Oh and from here on out, I will refer to her as M.E. (I began calling her M.E. probably more out of desperation because when I needed to share a teaching story to say Mary Ellen was too long to get out in one breath).

*Teacher/student connection:  M.E. treated (and still does) her students with empathy, compassion, tough love, and humor.  She commands their respect and offers it right back to them.  She challenges them to think, to feel, and to take action in their lives--and they do. 

*Sense of humor:  She makes her students laugh and she makes her colleagues and friends laugh.  M.E. knows that laughter really is the best therapy.  

*Storytelling:  M.E. fosters a love for reading and writing in her students through her own personal story telling--M.E. has a talent for sharing a good story--she can invoke tears and/or side-splitting laughter as she delivers a story that usually offers an antidote.

*Food.  She feeds her students.  I quickly learned from M.E. that if our students are hungry, they won't be able to access the schoolwork we are asking them to learn.  She has helped many a student access resources necessary for survival.  She has helped students earn their high school diplomas or G.E.D. She has helped students obtain scholarships in which to provide them with the opportunity for a higher education.

*Her family.  A couple of years later, Maryellen gave birth to her daughter Meghan.  Her commitment to motherhood is another way she has become a role model for me.  She would blend her family in with her teaching by using family stories to provide personal examples within the English classroom.  She also would bring her daughters to school events where she could support her students while teaching her daughters valuable lessons.

She has worked both in suburban and urban school districts.  She recently earned her PhD and now is affectionately called by her students Dr. J.  

I am so grateful that after 20 years, M.E. and I stay in touch.  We adore one another's families.  We offer each other collegiate support.  We still tell each other stories and we still laugh a lot.   M.E. and I share a favorite poet--the beloved Maya Angelou.  It is only fitting that I end this blog with this quote as it beautifully reminds me of Maryellen.

"It's the fire of my eyes and the flash of my teeth, the swing in my waist and the joy in my feet.  I'm a woman phenomenally." Maya Angelou

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

When the student becomes the doctor: How my (former) student became my father's eye doctor

Flashback with me 15+ years:  One of my high school sophomores named Jeff asks me if our whole English class can walk down to the auditorium so he can sing and play an original song on the piano  for his creative writing assignment.  And we do.  And he is fantastic performing for his fellow 20 classmates and me.  What he wrote and sang, my memory fails me--but I do remember loving his creativity, enthusiasm, self-confidence and his willingness to take a risk. 

Reflecting back to 15 years ago, Jeff was an intelligent, personable, fun, goofy, and insightful student.  He also had high emotional and social intelligence.  I had the honor of teaching him for two out of four of his high school years.  He was one of those teenagers who I knew would be successful with his life because he had a free spirit determination about himself. 

At the time, I had just moved back to Massachusetts from New Hampshire.  I was newly hired at Westborough High School after teaching for five year in New Hampshire.  Jeff and his classmates were caring, supportive, and energetic with me as a new teacher to WHS.  They were open to my nontraditional ways of teaching traditional material.  There are particular classes a teacher remembers throughout her career and Jeff and his class were one of those classes.

Flash forward to two years ago: I'm visiting my dad at the nursing home where he  now lives.  I'm talking to a woman named Suzanne, her husband Michael, and Suzanne's father Morty who is a resident at the nursing home.  My dad and Morty share a table for meals in the dining room.  Long story short, Suzanne and I put two and two together and realize that her son Jeff was my student years ago.  She says, Oh I didn't recognize your last name--Stoker.  I knew you as Eldredge.  She then added, did you know Jeffrey and his friends went to your wedding ceremony (back in 2003)?  I did recall and remember thinking how thoughtful and special Jeff and his classmates were to see me get married.

Present day:  So what is Jeff up to now?  He is an optometrist at his parents' practice in Westborough.  And I am so grateful to Jeff and his parents, because recently when my father started having problems with one of his eyes we decided to go see Jeff.  While I was sitting in the office waiting with my dad for his appointment, I could hear the receptionist talking with Dr. Cohn.  I couldn't help but smile--the boy who played the piano in front of his classmates, the boy who would ask an insightful question as well as a goofy one--was now an eye doctor--and was about to examine my dad's eyes and take care of my father.

Because my father has Parkinson's disease, I needed to accompany him into the actual appointment and in this case, I had to help hold my father's head (due to the dyskinesia he experiences from his disease).  Who knew an eye exam could be an awesome experience, but it was for my dad and me.  To have Jeff, a former student, examine my dad and offer his professional expertise and opinion when 15+ years earlier I was teaching Jeff, was, yet, another wonderful reason why I am so passionate about teaching-- the wonderful teacher/student connections that form.

During the appointment, Jeff was very respectful, gentle, and funny with my dad. He preserved my dad's dignity as I know it must have been very hard for Jeff to look steadily into my dad's eye as my dad's head moved.  When all was said and done, Jeff was able to rule out anything too serious.  However, he did recommend that we see a specialist to clean my dad's cataract.  He said this specialist would have the best chance of a successful procedure with Dad.  Dad had the procedure last week and thankfully is doing great.

As I probably have said before, we teachers rarely have the opportunity to witness how our students turned out as adults.  And fortunately, not only was I able to see how Jeff turned out; I was given the gift of him taking care of my father.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Text of Courage

A few days ago, one of my favorite former students sent me the above text.  (Yes, teachers do have favorite students.  And if you ask me if you are/were a favorite of mine, I, of course will say, yes! ;)

I love these inspirational touchstones because they embody the phrase "big things come in little packages" and words matter.    A wonderful family friend gave me my first one years ago.  It said "Breathe."  I would keep it in my pocket and whenever I was feeling anxious, I would hold the stone and remember to breathe as a way to calm myself down and keep myself in the moment.

Years ago, I decided to collect the stones and pass them out to students when a student was in need of a kind and/or inspirational word.  And although I know how much my breathe touchstone means to me, I wasn't sure what impact the small rocks would have on others' lives.

One of the first stones I gave away was to Lucas.  I never had Lucas as a student, but he was a student in the class two doors down from my classroom.  Lucas would always say hello to me as he walked by; he was the type of person who had an infectious personality--students and teachers so enjoyed being around him.  He was passionate, enthusiastic, smart, intense and fun.

One day Lucas came to see me.  He was upset over a personal issue.  We talked for a bit and I grabbed my bucket of stones and asked him to pick one randomly.  I knew it wouldn't be the answer to his problems, but I told him it might help in a small way.  The first stone he chose was patience. Well in typical Lucas fashion, he showed his gratitude by giving me a big hug and went on his way. 

The following week, Lucas came by and told his ELL teacher Jackie and me that he got a tattoo of the word on the stone.  He proceeded to pull up his shirt in the middle of the hallway and there across his chest was the word patience.  Both Jackie and I yelled at the same time, Pull your shirt down!  Looking back, the scene of these two older women yelling at this student to pull down his shirt must have been quite comical.  Lucas then whipped out his phone and showed us a picture of the tattoo on his phone.  (that was more appropriate, I say with a laugh!).  When Lucas was passionate about something, he was all in.  And to be honest he wasn't the most patient person, but he wanted to be--so much so that he literally had it embedded in him.

Later on in the school year, he came back for another stone and chose wisdom. (He did not tattoo this word.)  When he graduated from high school, we were all sorry to see him go.  We had learned as much from him as he had learned from us.  The following school year, in between classes a student whom I did not know came into my classroom. He introduced himself and said Lucas had encouraged him to come see me.  The student said Lucas told him I was someone to talk to and to ask for a stone.  All I could do was smile internally--that was so Lucas--to look out for his friends in an act of compassion. 

Tragically, almost a year ago, Lucas passed away.  Needless to say, we are all still grieving.  To lose such a young person who was filled with such love is heartbreaking and devastating.  This year, I have his younger sister Lydia as a student.  Recently, she shared that her family was going through Lucas's things and found the touchstones he had chosen.  She and I had an emotional moment together as the pain of not having Lucas was/is palpable.  Seeing the stones reinforces that words do matter--as they connect us in so many ways.  I now keep stones and quote cards available to pass out to students--and I lovingly think of Lucas.


So when my former student texted me the picture of the stone last week, I began to further think about the word courage.  Every day, we teachers bear witness to great acts of courage by our students and by our colleagues. Some of these acts may appear small to others, but we know they can be monumental for our students and us.

Some examples:

*a student raising her/his hand
*a student getting to school
*a student sharing that she is struggling because her mother was diagnosed with cancer
*a student who has cancer
*a student who tries out for a varsity sport
*a student who stands up to a peer who is bullying
*a student asking out their love interest on a date
*a student overcoming an injury
*a student sharing her parent is an alcoholic and she is scared

*a teacher who is willing to share something personal to model vulnerability for his/her students
*a teacher who is willing to make a mistake
*a teacher who is able to laugh at himself/herself
*a teacher who is sick and still keeps on going

This list of courageous acts goes on and on...and I encourage you to add your courageous acts in the comment section.

FDR said, "Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear."  I thank Lucas, former students, current students, and colleagues--for constantly showing me what courage looks like.