Finding and holding onto the optimistic

Today’s post is a re-“print” of a reflection I wrote over five years ago after teaching a specific summer course to international military members. For some reason, the spring months are usually where I reflect on my teaching career and especially this year, remember the good, the positive, the optimistic. This is different than “toxic positivity” running rampant right now, especially in education circles. I in no way want to dismiss the difficult and seemingly impossible – just bring forth a memory from the back of my mind to steel myself for the remainder of the school year. Enjoy!


Originally written and published in July 2015.

“You’re our teacher?” a chorus of voices asks as I walk in five minutes late and breathless from losing my way on the first day of the writing pre-course at the Sergeants Major Academy on Fort Bliss. I’m young, and I’m intimidated. I’m not even 30 and I know that these men (and one woman) have served for 15 to 20 years or more in order to achieve the highest enlisted rank in their military. What is more is that out of the 23 students I’ve been entrusted with for the summer session, there are 21 countries represented, and they have been hand-picked by their military or government to represent their countries by attending the Sergeant Major Course.

As we give introductions to the class, myself included, I think about how I’m glad my husband is a soldier so I’m not completely blindsided by the military culture here. I also wonder, How am I going to pull this off? Twenty-three students from 21 countries. Twenty-three accents, 23 levels of English, 23 levels of writing, 23 experiences with education, 23 people who are most likely older than me.

I’ve anticipated this day for the past three months, and I’ve met with the other instructors, past and present, to get the lowdown on this course. What is it like? How do you fill the time? I have lesson plans at the ready, PowerPoints and group discussions as my artillery. I’m no stranger to the classroom: I began my career in a small room at the back of a music store when I was 14, teaching piano lessons to people of all ages and ability levels. I graduated from college and taught high school Spanish for two years, when I was barely older than my students. I studied linguistics and TESOL in graduate school, and after graduation I landed my first full-time faculty position at the university.

The previous year had been a challenge as I tried to navigate the choppy waters anyone encounters in a new academic position. New people, new administration, new students every semester. New languages, new countries, new accents. I had transitioned from teaching Spanish to English-speakers in rural Illinois to teaching intermediate English to Mexican nationals on the US-Mexico border to teaching advanced composition to students from many countries on several continents. I hesitated to take this summer position because of the busy year, but knew I would get cabin fever over the summer. I decided to go for it.

We start out on a first-name basis; I tend to think this is one of the best icebreakers, a way to remove walls and get past our titles christened by our institutions. I repeat their names until I get them right – it’s something my students in the past have always wanted me to do. We spent four hours the first day doing typical first-day things: introducing the course, learning names, collecting a writing sample, filling out a questionnaire. I go home exhausted but less nervous for the next day. Tomorrow I see the same sea of camouflage fabric, and day after day I am better able to match the pattern with the country, and the countries with the flags. I anticipate learning more about their experiences in writing and English.

“We are used to being told what to do,” one soldier says in response to a seemingly unorthodox writing task I’ve asked them to complete: freewriting. They comment on their grammar and spelling and handwriting, that it’s not “accurate” or “good” or “neat”. I tell them that for freewriting, I don’t care about their grammar, spelling, or handwriting, but that their ideas are what are valued. I think a little impatiently, Can we just get something – anything – down on paper first? Can we get away from whatever they’ve been taught “good” writing is? I say it countless times over the six-week period: “Let’s just write.” While it isn’t said out loud, I think we all know that this isn’t just a research writing class.

“Too many chiefs, not enough Indians,” remarks one soldier with a laugh as his classmate serves as the group’s scribe. These soldiers’ experiences as leaders have allowed them to transfer their knowledge of leadership to the classroom. They are not shy to participate in class or to give their opinions. They debate and disagree with one another diplomatically. They complete any task with focus and participate fully and graciously in class activities. Group discussions and activities, grammar games, whole-class presentations by the students: these are components of any language class I’ve developed or taught. At some level, English learners share similar characteristics and experiences in language acquisition. They can benefit from many of the same activities and approaches.

“When I flew into El Paso, I thought, ‘Am I back in Iraq?’” An example of our informal conversation is followed with raucous laughter from comrades who can relate to the American sponsors’ deployments to the Middle East. Although these soldiers hail from 21 different countries, the common threads of military service and separation from family unite them. One of the purposes of the pre-course is not just to teach the soldiers standards of American academic writing, but also to encourage long-lasting multinational friendships as they move into the Sergeant Major Course, in which international students will comprise only 9% of the total class. Some of the students have their American sergeant major sponsors present in my pre-course, all of whom offer clarification of directions given in class, advice for where to eat, rides to the Academy, and opportunities to interact with another native English speaker.

“You’re literally affecting nations,” my husband tells me as I recount the events of the day over dinner. We’re in the third week, almost halfway through, and our classes have become tight-knit groups despite knowing each other for a short amount of time. At this point, the class exemplifies the dynamics of a familiar, comfortable, and symbiotic environment: I’m the teacher, they’re the students, and we all learn from each other every day. If I try to wrap my mind around the implications of my husband’s observation, I become speechless.

“Wow, it’s time for another break already?” On the top of each of the four hours we have a ten-minute break, and as the last three weeks go by, there doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day to accomplish all that my static lesson plans dictate. I’m used to this feeling and change lesson plans accordingly. Their topics for the final writing assignment, an argumentative paper, cover issues such as United Nations policies, preservation of the Amazon rainforest, and training the next generation in the military.  As I read their final papers, I watch these countries pass through my fingers and realize how important professional written and oral communication are in the global context.

In the course of four hours a day, six days a week, I never assigned grades to any paper.  I think the mere twenty-some of us can agree that this exceptional environment that education textbooks only wish they see in action taught us more than any number grade or comment in red ink could. We brought the world into four walls, and now we will take what we learned back out into the world.

Plan A is Plan A

In a one-on-one session with a student today, these literal words came out of my mouth: “Bear with me with biology; it’s been 20 years since I’ve had this class.” (For the record, I teach ESOL but a student came to me for language help with her bio class.)

I became a teacher long before now. Professionally, I’ve been at it for about 15 years. But before that I taught piano lessons at my local music shop. Before that, I was giving my sisters lessons using a chalkboard mounted on the wall behind the Laz-E-Boy in the living room.

I thought teaching was a great aspiration, but for me it was always a placeholder until I could do the thing I really wanted to do: take care of my own children.

When I learned that having my own children probably wasn’t in the cards for me (for many reasons.. check out those posts here, here, and here), I had a major identity crisis. Yes, I was a teacher still, but in my heart of hearts I was also a mother. I was a wife and a mother before anything else. Besides “teacher,” it was probably the first identity that emerged when I was a little girl. I’ve always been very maternal, be it with dolls, stuffed animals, my sisters, the younger siblings of my friends. I always knew I would be very suited for a long-term relationship as someone’s wife. And even then, becoming a wife was an avenue for becoming a mother. (Yes, I’m very traditional about some things. But only for myself. You do you.)

It’s taken now many years and dozens of therapy sessions, plus a whole lot of mental bandwidth, to disengage from my identity as a mother. During that identity crisis, I was still serving as a teacher but refused to accept that it was now (or still?) my life’s work. Another one for the record: I do believe in callings, in God’s will. As such, teaching has always been my life’s work.

It hasn’t been until this school year that I’ve finally felt liberated from my dormant and unfulfilled “mother” identity. It could be that I’m more comfortable in my own skin. Or that I’m back teaching in a high school as I spent four years in elementary, which has a role of its own in my healing from the hurt of infertility. I spent a lot of time and energy exploring other potential life paths in the past few years.

I started my professional career in high school, first in student teaching at a school in a very small town in the middle of cornfields, and then in my very own (windowless) classroom of wide-eyed Spanish students in another school surrounded by cornfields. I even started my (amateur) teaching career while I was a high school student. So many positive formative experiences happened to me while I was that age.

There’s a type of magic for me of being in a high school building. There’s not only nostalgia, but a feeling of “home,” and if you lead me to the band room, that feeling is only amplified.

School in post-COVID-closure 2020 may look very strange to my 14-year-old self who once sat in freshman biology class thinking about what 34-year-old Elizabeth would be like, or do with her life. But there’s something about imparting knowledge on others, about creating a classroom community, about leaning into the hard days and frustrations that makes me feel like I belong.

I don’t communicate these words lightly. In the five weeks since school has been back in session I have considered quitting my job at least five times. I could write many many posts about the difficulties of teaching these days, and a treatise on the inequities and bureaucratic bloat of the American public education system.

But late last week I had a realization. Me di cuenta… I realized that now is a good time to lean in. To embrace my chosen profession. To receive my new students, whom I have known for all of a month. To welcome new families, immigrants or not. To keep creating lessons that are fun to teach and hopefully to learn. To call on my creative brain to step up. To take advantage of the wealth of pedagogical knowledge I’ve amassed in the 13 years since I was a teacher candidate.

In our society that says that having a plan will make you successful, “they” are awfully silent about the plans that emerge from the shadows, or a child’s dreams that want to be Plan A when they grow up. I have come full circle, where my Plan A is still my Plan A.

Snap out of it

The world is at a fever pitch right now. Everything is heightened, stressed, tenuous, uncertain. Almost anything could be the straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were. Everyday I resist the urge to actively look for said straw. It’s tempting to fall into a feeling of hopelessness and live just for today.

I’ve had thoughts of “I can’t believe this is the world I’m living in” or “I don’t want to live in this particular world anymore.” Let me be clear: this is a thought of escapism that all humans are prone to, not one of suicidal ideation.

This thought usually comes to me at the strangest times while participating in the most mundane tasks: driving home from an uneventful grocery store trip. Sitting outside on the patio. During seriously normal things that I would be doing in any world at any time.

There are days that feel totally normal; at my school we’ve been back in the building for a week now. A week ago I was pretty nervous and unsure about it, and really having a moment saying goodbye to my home office and my furry work assistant (for now). As a person who is very easily distracted and needs a good solid block of quiet time to get good deep work done (Have you read Deep Work by Cal Newport?), I’ve curated a really cozy, quiet space at home.

It’s quite a change from when I began working from home in mid-March. I hated mixing work and home life. As soon as I walked in the door, the teacher persona came off and the regular Elizabeth returned, along with comfy clothes. But then I was Teacher and Regular Human Being in the same space. But as the time went on, it got easier and as it turns out, for me it was all a state of mind.

Being back in the building was actually nice. I was able to be in my classroom, making it quiet and cozy just like my office at home. I was able to interact with my students virtually and even get some really good deep work done.

Stepping out of my classroom after a long but good week of work, I looked at the blue sky and changing trees and realized that we have a little less than three full months left in 2020. There is a presidential election looming. Who knows what else could happen.

However, there was a salient moment when it all came together for me, and I return to this moment in my memory often. Usually I’m jolted awake by my alarm, but there was a day (probably a weekend morning) where I slowly woke up, first my mind woke up, then my eyes opened, and I found myself on one side of a very cozy Missy sandwich. She and Aaron were still fast asleep, and I just lay there, letting myself wake up, and realizing that this is what it’s all about – we’re healthy, safe, have curated a pretty nice life, actually, and we’re grateful for it.

An unfortunate rite of passage with an okay ending.

Infertility has been an unfortunate rite of passage. It’s something I didn’t know I’d have to go through, unlike other rites of passage, and until I did, there’s a lot I didn’t know or realize about life in general. Funny how specific life circumstances can teach us so much about just… life.

Fertility or the lack thereof is the grown-up version of ‘haves and have nots’. And just like when a boy teased me in fifth grade about having ‘Walmart brand’ shoes, it’s obvious now that I don’t have the latest and greatest, if that’s what our (excessively) child-reverent culture considers as the latest and greatest these days.

Life has taken an unexpected turn. I a year ago I signed a contract for a new job that involves me working at an elementary school. With kids. Young kids. Kids who could be my kids age-wise. I was originally hired as a middle school Spanish teacher, but an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) position opened up and so I was asked to move to that role. Of course I jumped on it since ESOL is my jam. My thing. The catch? I’d be working with grades K through 5.

The peace I have as I walked through my building, and even as I passed pregnant staff in all stages, can only come from God as I’ve walked through the grief and healing process. A year ago, even six months ago, I don’t know if I could go to work and come home still in a great mood, not even thinking about how I’d be sending my kids off to school, too, at some point.

I’m thankful. I’m fortunate. There are other people I’ve known of who have to quit their teaching jobs because it’s just too heartwrenching to be around children. But teaching is my heart. I’ve been doing it since I was 14, before I even knew I wanted to be a teacher, before deciding on a college major, before meeting who I thought would be the father of my kids. Before infertility. Teaching has been a constant, and I treasure the teacher-student relationship.

I had a fantastic year. I grew to love all 20 of the students on my caseload, and many many others from my students’ classrooms. I bid them goodbye on Tuesday afternoon, their little arms and hands hanging out of the bus windows, waving. “I love you! Have a good summer! Make good choices!” were my phrases of choice.

And teaching for me still comes back around to an old cliche, well known among those of us who ‘don’t go into teaching for the money’ that ‘if I impact just one life, it was all worth it.’ And that, my friends, is the truth, and you don’t have to be a parent to accomplish that.

Finding our voices

Every time I get the inspiration or urge to write, something stops me. It’s almost like a paralysis, but it’s completely intangible. I imagine it’s a bit like being under anesthesia, able to feel but unable to speak. Actually, that’s exactly what it is.

Two years of hopefulness followed by hopelessness ad nauseum can really render someone speechless. Screaming on the inside but unable to formulate shapes with the mouth and vibrations with the vocal chords.

There’s so much to say and nothing at all. Some days I feel like an old woman, content to sit in the silence, meditating or pondering the rays of light that come through the window. I move slow, think slower, and hours can go by with nothing more than a few sentences loosely parsed together.

I’m trying to find my place in the world. I feel like part of my soul is missing some of the time. At almost 31, I’m established in my career but not necessarily because this was my goal. I fell into career success. Great, right? Kind of.

Nevertheless, every day in my care are 20 children, ages 5 to 10, all learning English and finding their place in the world, too. They’ve been my focus of whatever maternal instinct has survived this descent. I cherish their smiles and hugs, and their insightful and goofy anecdotes about life. I help them write, putting the words on the page. And in helping them find their voices, I’m finding mine too.