Monday, May 30, 2011

Dear Teachers (who are currently looking for a job)

I know it’s hard. I’ve been there. I’ve filled out the online applications, I’ve been to the cow-herding experience called a job fair and I’ve seen the important month of September roll around and been without a teaching job.

Finding a teaching job is not easy. The screening process and online applications make it near-impossible to get a face to face interview. There’s rarely any feedback from these online applications and there is no reliable source available for teaching jobs online so you have to resort to checking individual school websites.

So how do you get through this process, into the front door and in front of kids so you can actually show people that you can teach and get that gig? Now I’ve got no magical answers but I do have some tips that got me my first three jobs in education and have helped me end up in a dream-job.

  • Don’t close doors before you get to the interview: If you are certified to teach K-5 apply to EVERY single job opening you find that includes those grades. If you are a music teacher that only specializes in choir, apply to orchestra and band jobs as well. Don’t limit yourself before you get into the door. If you think you are only able to teach specific grade  you may be right, but getting a gig in an area that is not your specific strength can lead to success and also can be a stepping stone to a position you really love. I never thought I would teach elementary school but after not finding any high school position, all I could find was an elementary gig and it ended up opening a whole new world of education that I now love.
  • Work In A School: A couple years ago when September came and I didn’t have a teaching job I took a job as an assistant teacher. I was a 1 to 1 aid assisting a student with special needs. Was this a step down for a high school band teacher with a master’s degree. Kind of, but it got me into a fantastic district and gained some valuable experiences and connections helped me get to my current job. Whether it’s being an assistant, substitute, secretary, or lunch room supervisor, get into a school. Being in a school around kids and teachers will continue to strengthen your teaching even if you aren’t actually teaching.  Being part of a school community is an important way to make connections and creates  a foothold to work your way into a more preferred position.
  • Use your connection: If you send in a resume to my school and walked in the door and asked to speak with a principal, you probably won’t get past the security desk. If you called me up, chatted on the phone and I felt you were someone who could add something to my school I could walk you right in and introduce you to not only the principal but other teachers and move you passed the initial screening interview. Btw, if you are looking for teaching gig in the Chicagoland area, let me know (  I got my first job through one of my professors and if it wasn’t for an amazing reference call from one of my colleagues I wouldn’t have gotten my current job. Talk to people, let people know at every party you go to and every social event you attend that you are looking for a teaching job. Having an in, knowing someone on the inside is critical. Yes, you can get a job without any connections but in my experiences it’s the people who know people who get the good gigs.
  • Treat finding a job as a job: If you’re not spending 10 hours a week looking for jobs, filling out applications and calling people, you’re not working hard enough. This isn’t a fill out one job application a week and wait by the phone process. This is a fill our ten applications a week, drive to schools, bang on doors, call up everyone you know on the planet kind of process. No one is going to give you a job, you have to earn it.
Is there a light at the end of the tunnel for everyone looking for a teaching job? No, just like how everyone who wants to be a rock star can’t be one. But if being a teacher is that important to you, I believe you can make it happen. You may have to move to a smaller town, be underemployed and do work that you never imagined yourself enjoying but it can happen.

One last thing to think about: Why do you want to be a teacher?  Are the tribulations and frustrations of finding a job worth working with often aggravating and exhausting future generations?  If not, that's okay.  there's plenty of other fields that welcome people with educational backgrounds.

If it is, go for it. Don't give up.  Somewhere there's a school that needs you and a classroom of students yearning to be taught by someone just like you.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Week 32: The First Band Concert

“They are late.” This though echoed in my head as I stood on stage waiting for my middle school students to show up for the our first performance as a middle school band. One of the main parts of my job this year was to start a seventh and eighth grade band. We had a demonstration concert in February but this performance on the Spring Choral concert was our first major concert performance.

I decided to combine the two bands into one to allow for a stronger overall performance but because of circumstances the only time the seventh and eighth grade bands had to work as a group was from 6:30-7:15 before the concert which was set to start at 7:30. So when I checked my watch and saw that is was 6:50 and I didn’t have the majority of my students on stage ready to rehearse I started to feel a sense of panic.

Around 6:55 it seemed that I was able to began. We warmed up with both grades together and performed our piece. It went reasonably well but there was a couple things I wanted to fix. I wanted the beginning to be more solid and for the band to play the ending perfectly together.

Every time I started my students there was at least one student who was not paying attention who missed an entrance or didn’t quite play with the whole ensemble. I doggedly rehearsed my group, calling students out for not paying as close attention as I felt like they should. After four or five unsuccessful tries to get my students to play in unison as I thought they could I looked at my watch as noticed it was 7:10.

And then I gave up.

As a band director I've been taught to be uncompromising, to pursue a level of performance until it was right, but somehow at that moment it felt silly. What did my students really need from my at that moment to feel successful that evening? To play a couple notes perfectly or something more. So I put down my baton and talked to my students.
We’re done playing. We’ll be fine.  You sound great, and you know your music.
I just want us to think about a couple things. What I’m about to say, I’m saying not to make your nervous but to help you understand the importance of what we do tonight.

We have a lot of traditions at this school but rarely do students get to start traditions in our school.  Tonight you are starting a tradition as performing as the first concert band in our school’s history.  That's important and you should feel honored to have this opportunity.

Making the choice to do band this year, trying something new with a new teachers that you don’t know takes a lot of courage and I admire your willingness to take a chance with band this year and me as your teacher.

I am already proud of you and proud to have worked with you and the way we perform tonight doesn’t change any of that. You’ve already earned my respect as musicians and as young adults. Tonight’s performance is to share what we do with our community and most of all have fun.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Buffy's First Herding Lesson!!!

To celebrate her second birthday we took Buffy back up to Wisconsin for her first herding lesson.

She had a herding instinct test last year in which she did really well.  Buffy caught on quicker during the instinct test but she did a great job during her first lesson.  At first she was just distracted by everyone watching but once she got it, man did she go.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Jack Sparrow by The Lonely Island featuring Michael Bolton

No, I didn’t see the new Pirates of the Caribbean film last weekend. Honestly, the last film confused me so much that I am particular eager to revisit that universe right now.

Don’t get me wrong, I thought the first three films were a lot of fun specially the first one. It was a fresh take on the pirate genre and Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow is one of the greatest characters in film. Apparently I’m not the only person who feels this way.

Andy Sandberg came onto the musical landscape with his SNL digital shorts. First there was the epic “Lazy Sunday” and of course “I’m On A Boat.”

With the release of their new album Turtlenecks And Chains, they premiered the video to “Jack Sparrow” on SNL a couple weeks ago. I immediately thought this was the funniest thing Sandberg’s group The Lonely Island came up with but it left my wife slightly mystified and I understand why.

First off, you have to understand what is awesome and not so awesome about Michael Bolton. This 1990s adult contemporary singer was probably the furthest thing from “cool” growing up. He hit the charts with covers of classic soul songs like “When A Man Loves A Woman.”

So to have to him appear nonsensically with The Lonely Island is pretty weird but funny at the same time. When SNL does impressions of people often they create characters that do not even vaguely resemble the person they are trying to imitate, like Jimmy Fallon’s Barry Gibb. They add random aspects to their personality that may not make logical sense but somehow work just like Bolton being a geeky film fan.

The Lonely Island switched things up and play the straight man role pretending to be legit rap stars talking about clubbing. For once they are not making a fool out of themselves and their reactions to Michael Bolton are hilarious.

Of course this would never happen in reality. The song would stop and they would have a discussion but the idea that the song keeps going and they are trying to work it out while Bolton just can’t get on the same page is hysterical. He just doesn’t seem to get what is bugging the boys about this chorus  (which is well done and creates a really cool musical juxtaposition with the verse).

"Jack Sparrow" is both well-crafted and silly.  It's preposterous while somehow being logical and seriously seeing Michael Bolton dress us like Erin Brockovich, priceless.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Week 31: Being The Teacher Your Students Need

When I first started thinking about becoming a teacher I emulated the teachers that inspired me. My image of “Mr. Tang” was amalgamation of educators who I looked up to. I borrowed quotes and teacher techniques from these master teachers but I found that this was not a very successful way to go. Things that worked with others teachers didn’t work for me, so I started to develop a different image of “Mr. Tang.”

This new image of myself as a teacher was a closer reflection of who I was outside of the classroom and this got me pretty far. I developed confidence in myself as a teacher and was able to let certain parts of my personality come up to my students while maintaining a professional decorum.

This year I noticed that “Mr. Tang” wasn’t being as successful across the board. For the first time I taught a wide variety of grades from 3rd to 8th and the teacher I wanted to be simply didn’t work for all of my kids. I remember earlier in the year teaching a great 7th grade class and then teaching a 3rd grade class and have it not go nearly as well because I was more concerned about being a certain kind of teacher than reacting to my students.

I started changing whom “Mr. Tang” was depending on the age and the class and thing started clicking. A fellow teacher perfectly articulated this saying “Teaching is not about being the teacher you want to be but being the teacher your students need you to be.”

How I want to be as a teacher is relevant but it seems more important that I can adjust to my students. Sometimes I feel like I get whiplash changing the tone of my voice, my posture and the way I explain things for different grades. Some of it is unconscious and some of it is very deliberate. The tough part is that is all needs to be genuine.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have goals about the kind of teacher that you want to be, however you shouldn’t that pursuit blind you from the students in front of you. I don’t want to be a teacher who has to reprimand kids with a harsh tone of voice. Too bad, I teach third grade, if I don’t express anger to them, they don’t know the boundaries.

I don’t want to be a teacher who calls people out for minor jokes because of their implications. Well, I’ve got to, I teach middle school students. If I don’t have talk with a student for making a sexist joke, he or she may emotionally damage one of their peers. I don’t want to be a teacher who gives kids bad grades, but if I don’t I’m doing a service to my students.

Being the teacher your students needs is especially hard when you don’t know what your students need you to be.  I still don’t know what kind of teacher some of my students need to be this late in the year. I may never figure that out but that doesn’t stop me from trying.

I've given up on trying to be "Mr. Tang."  Being a teacher isn't about "being" someone, it's about "being for."

Don't forget when you teach that the song really isn't about you.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"Dancing In The Street" by Mick Jagger & David Bowie

I love bacon, I love peppermint stick ice cream and I love my mom's beef noodle soup. As much as i love those three things separately, they don't quite work together. Kind of like this song:

Mick Jagger, one of the greatest lead singers in rock music + David Bowie, the original pop music chameleon (anything you think that Lady Gaga is doing that is innovative Bowie did it first) +
"Dancing In The Street," one of the greatest pop songs ever that defined a generation
= . . . yeah. . . not such a good time.

I do admire how hard Jagger and Bowie seem to be trying to sell the song during this music video and there is something hypnotic about watching this train wreck of a song.  After watching this video you will feel something, maybe not what the artist intended but you will feel something  . . . and yes anger at me for wasting three minute of your time is totally understood. 

Monday, May 16, 2011

Why You Should Go See Bridesmaids . . .

Last Saturday afternoon Diana and I decided that we would visit the Garfield Park Arboretum. It was a gloomy day and we figured seeming some flowers and exotic plants would be a fun way to spend the afternoon.

However after a quick discussion and the fact that the Arboretum was a half an hour drive, my wife and I decided to run across the street to our local movie theater and watch Bridemaids.

While the trailer looked funny it was the fact that the reviews for this movie kept coming in really positive that convinced me to go. Three and a half stars from Roger Ebert isn’t something to scoff at and after watching the film I realize what the critics are so excited about.

Bridesmaids is raunchy. It features one scene in the first third of the film, which is a South Park scene come to life. There is liberal use of expletives and the subject of many of the conversations firmly earns the R rating. While it’s fun to see that woman can be just as gross as the guys. As great as these scenes are this is really not what the film is about.

This is a film about woman, but it’s not a chick flic.  It’s kind of a romantic comedy but it doesn’t have any of the clich├ęs from that genre. Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo have written a script that subtlety articulates the way that woman interact with each other. Each conversation while laced with jokes speak to deeper feelings like when Annie played by Kristen Wiig freaks out at the Bridal Shower. On the surface it’s brilliant physical comedy but at the same time she is speaking to her own thoughts and insecurities adding a layer of depth and drama.

My favorite scene features Melissa McCarthy (the character in the trailer who burps), talking the Kristen Wiig. McCarthy plays this character as an vulgar more masculine counter-balance to the other  bridesmaids, but somehow in this quiet scene between her and Wiig she peels back that surface of the character showing a touching and powerful expression of friendship.

There are many scenes like this in the film reminding us how hard it is truly is to be a great comedic actor and how much heart this film has.  Bridesmaids a challenging film. It doesn’t go where you expect, it doesn’t resolve perfectly and it’s brave not only in it’s vulgarity, but where it goes emotionally.

Yeah, you come in expecting an all out raunch-fest and the film gives you a little of that but the other stuff, the rest of the film will really make you think about the woman in your life, the chinks in all of our armor and what it really means to be a friend.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Week 30: What Diversity Means In Education

The first time I became aware of “diversity” as an issue in education was during the my Freshmen Convocation at Northwestern University. This was a welcoming ceremony at the beginning of the year in which then president Henry Bienen welcomed my class to the University.

One of the first things Bienen said in his speech was “your class is the most diverse class in Northwestern history.” He then went on to list the demographic of the freshmen student body including hometowns, religious denominations and race.

This statement of diversity seemed odd to me at the time. It didn’t seem so much like an expression of pride but a defensive reaction trying to prove to people something that had previously been doubted. What really made this statement seem ridiculous is that I found out after attending the Freshmen Convocation the following years as a member of the Northwestern University Marching Band who performed at this event, was that Bienen made the same diversity statement to every freshmen class for the next three years.

I grew up in Seattle. At my high school school diversity was so much a way of life that it became a non-issue.  There weren’t racial focused clubs at my school. Yes, we did have cultural fairs but they were as much focused on the Caucasians as the minorities. This idea of diversity never came up.

Things are different now and in my past 6 years as a teacher diversity has become one of the most talked issues in education. It’s something that everyone seems to want to discuss and improve on but at the same many people don't know what to actually do with this topic. . . including myself

My school like most is working on diversity. We not only discuss diversity in our mission statement but we also have a separate diversity statement. It’s been a challenge to really think about the way I teach in a way that truly embraces diversity to better educate my students. I already teach different kinds of music from different cultural backgrounds and I work hard to present material in different learning styles. What else am I suppose to do?

This week I figured out part of an answer. At the beginning of one of my fifth grade music classes, one of the students asked me where I was from. Instead of giving the quick answer of “I’m was born in Seattle, and my parents were born in Taiwan.” I pulled up a world map on my computer, projected it on the screen and told my students about my cultural background.

I explained to them that I identify myself as American even though many people look at me and categorize me as Asian.  I told them how other Asian-Americans more closely associate with the culture of their ancestors and would say that they are from Taiwan even if they were born in America.

I told them about the freedom we have as American to identify with different cultures even if we do not ancestral connections to them. I expressed to them that people's cultural identity changes throughout people’s lives and being “not sure” when something asks you where you are from is valid and brave answer.

My students brought up issues of their background and how they aren’t sure what to say when people ask them about their own heritage. I encouraged them to be honest, state some facts about their ancestors but not to let that limit them in the way they perceives and construct their own cultural identity.

We spent more half the class on this discussion and it had not direct connection to the music lesson I had planned to teach but it was worth the time.

When people look at my father-in-law, Andy, who is a second-generation immigrant like myself, they don't wonder about his heritage as an immigrant because he’s Caucasian. Yet people automatically identify me being from another culture even though I'm just as American as Andy.

While this may seem unfair, it’s the way it is and students are conscious that I’m not Caucasian and when they ask me about my heritage it’s not out of or disrespect but out of a longing to understanding themselves.  They see me as a person who can help explain to them how to understand and handle their own cultural identities. That’s not something I asked for and it’s not a burden.  It’s an opportunity to open up conversations with people and talk about the differences and the diversity that makes our world beautiful.

I still don’t really know what this diversity stuff is really all about but part of me feels like I’ve found one way I can play a part in helping my students understand what I'm still trying to figure out.

This may not be the answer to what diversity means in education, but it's a start.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"This is what star wars would be like with more black people"

Feel like smiling?

"Move yourself and glide like a 747."

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Gift Of Cooking: A Mother's Day Reflection

A couple weeks ago I was feeling overwhelmed by life. I was hungry and tired and as I sat there thinking about what I wanted to eat. I looked inside my refrigerator saw some leftover chicken, carrots and celery and went into action.

I put some water on the stove to boil and then chopped up some vegetables. I threw the veggies into the pan with some chicken stock, and cooked the vegetables while the broth reduced. I put some noodles imported from Taiwan into the pot once the water boiled. As soon as the noodles were done, the broth had reduced into a gravy with the veggies. I put in the chicken meat, black bean sauce, Chinese BBQ sauce, some sesame oil and some chili paste in to the gravy. Then I threw the noodles into pot, tossed it all around and after 10 minutes of cooking, I had dinner.

Yes, there was the practicality of having food to eat which was great but there was something deeper about the meal that I had prepared. The flavors, the textures, and the even the warmth coming up from the noodles touched my soul in a personal and meaningful way. It was like I was able to create for myself a reminder of the who I was, the people I came from in my life and the center deep within myself that I needed to take on the challenges in my life.

After finishing that bowl of noodles I had one thought, “thanks mom.”

It’s not so much that my mom taught me how to cook but that she taught me to have a relationship with food. It’s not just about the science of cooking, it's about understanding and appreciating the art and magic that happens when flavors come together. She taught me that loving food was not gorging on food, that great food doesn’t necessarily cost $50 a plate and that cooking was something to be enjoyed.

When I was a kid, my favorite place to go was the grocery store. It was a magical place full of possibilities. Some of it was the simple pleasure of ice cream but more it was watching my mom move through the store, carefully and deliberately taking things into her cart like a painter putting colors on her palette.

Cooking for my mom is never a chore. I've never heard her complain about cooking. Yes, there are some days, especially when the weather is hot when she doesn’t feel like cooking but those are rare. My mom taught me that cooking is something we do for ourselves and that it’s a way express care to the people around us. One of life’s joys is preparing a meal for people you love and watching them share in the fellowship of a meal. Breaking bread bonds people like nothing else and being the person who made it happen is truly a beautiful feeling.

I’m an Asian-American and I’m still not sure what that really means. What I do know is that cooking is one of the strongest connections I have to not only my Asian background but also my American heritage. When you prepare a dish you are reflecting all of the people who contributed to the creation of that recipe through thousands of years. You are connecting to multiple cultures and through that one simple action and you define where you came from and where you are going. I feel grateful that my mom passed on the skills to do that and to share that connection with the people in my life.

It’s often said that the people in your life that you love are always with you no matter how far away you are from them. I know that’s true, because every time I’m cooking I feel like my mom is right there with me even though she’s across the country.

Thanks mom.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Week 29: The Crying Game

If you’re a elementary school teacher who has never made a kid cry, either you haven’t been teaching for very long or you aren’t being a great teacher. That may be an exaggeration but it’s kind of the truth.

Sometimes when my students cry in my presence it has nothing to do with things I’ve said or done but other times I’m not so sure. What most teachers do in these kinds of situations is consider if it’s sometimes that he or she has done before looking for other reasons for the tear.  This is an important instinct, however it can make things a little rough because the reality is that often it’s not your fault and that’s hard to recognize and reconcile when you a kid that you are talking to burst out into tears.

I remember the first student I “made” cry. She was a fourth grade French horn player. I was student teaching and my mentor teacher let me teacher her private lesson. We were working on playing high notes. She tried to play a note a couple times without playing it clearly and then she got it. I was really excited for her looked over to her book and pointed to that note and asked her to play the note again. Instead of hearing the note, I hear soft sobs. I looked over to her and she was crying exclaiming to “It’s so hard.”

At that point the lead teacher jumped in, took her for a walk in the hallway and calmed her down. He told me later that it wasn’t a big deal, but I’ve never forgotten the look on her face as she as crying.

Then second person I made cry was during my first year of teaching of high school. It was a similar situation except this was a with a Junior in high school. We were working on a piece and I asked her to try something again and . . . she burst into tears. She asked to be excused and I let her leave the room. After class she came back and told me that her grandmother died the night before and that she was having a hard time with that.

Since then I’ve dealt with my share of crying.  This year I've probably had about ten kids cry in one of my classes. I think maybe two of those situations were in a direct response to something I said to them, but most of them had were like the Junior in high school, there was something else going on.

Even though I know that most of these kids tears are unrelated to me, it’s still hard. It’s uncomfortable and a little disturbing to have people around you who get so upset that they cry.  And yes, when I third grader cries, it’s usually about something inconsequential in the grand scheme but at that moment it could not be more important to the student.

Now that I’m a more experienced teacher I don’t fear kids crying because of things that I say but that doesn’t change the fact that when it happens, I just want to do whatever I can to make them feel better. Sometimes that’s not what the students needs at the time. Sometime we need to feel bad so that we can realize how we need to grow.

That's one of the hardest lessons to teach people but it's an important one for all of us especially teachers to learn.  If I didn't feel bad when a kid cried in my class, I would never reflect on my teaching and become a better educator and more importantly a better human being.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Rising by Bruce Springsteen

This morning I sat in room of fifth graders, most of which were barely a year old on 9/11, watching one of my fellow teachers explain the significance of the death of Osama Bin Laden. To these children the events of 9/11 might have well been the attack on Pearl Harbor. Even though they were alive during the times of the attack, they have no memories of these events. It feels strange to me that there is a whole generation of people who do not have the first-hand experience that was the pivotal experience for many people in my life.

As I watched this discussion, the words of President Obama came into my head as he quickly made real the effects of 9/11 to the country during his speech last night.
And yet we know that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world. The empty seat at the dinner table. Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father. Parents who would never know the feeling of their child’s embrace.
That was the most powerful statement he said last night and I’m glad that the speech wasn’t a flag-waving celebration but rather a thoughtful, solemn and deliberate message of unity and thanksgiving. While I understand the need to exuberantly express patriotism, it’s not the most meaningful way to make events relevant in our lives because it doesn’t really reflect the true depth of our feelings

After 9/11, one of the most famous songs recroded was “Courtesy of the Red, White And Blue” by Toby Keith which featured a line about sticking boots up certain orifices as being the “American Way.” At the time it came out, I thought the song was fun, but driving to work this morning a more personal song, much like the message The President gave last night came to mind: “The Rising” by Bruce Springsteen.

The Rising stands as the most significant and important album in popular music about 9/11. It’s centerpiece is the title track which tells the story of firefighter rushing up the steps of the World Trade Center, dying and rising to heaven.
Can't see nothin' in front of me,
Can't see nothin' coming up behind
I make my way through this darkness,
I can't feel nothing but this chain that binds me
Lost track of how far I've gone
How far I've gone, how high I've climbed ...
On my back's a 60-pound stone [oxygen tank]
On my shoulder a half mile of line [fire house]
It is not clear in the song when he dies but in the third verse, Springsteen describes the journey to Heaven.
I see you Mary in the garden
In the garden of a thousand sighs
There's holy pictures of our children
Dancin' in a sky filled with light
May I feel your arms around me
May I feel your blood mix with mine
A dream of life comes to me
Like a catfish dancin' on the end of the line
Through the sadness of death there is comfort and beauty in the afterlife. This brings meaning to the actions of the firefighter and to us as the sky changes from the ominous to hopeful.
Sky of blackness and sorrow (dream of life)
Sky of love, sky of tears (dream of life)
Sky of glory and sadness (dream of life)
Sky of mercy, sky of fear (dream of life)
Sky of memory and shadow (dream of life)
Listening to this song this morning the world made just a little bit more sense. The death of Bin Laden doesn’t change everything in our lives and for me, neither did 9/11. Yes, the world felt different and the sky seemed a slightly different shade but life continued.

After 9/11, I remember my mother telling me that the way we honor those who have passed is to continue to live our lives and go about our daily business in the best way that we can. That’s the same thing we need to do with the knowledge that Bin Laden is dead. We continue and honestly, I don’t feel like celebrating. I feel sad remembering those who we lost and hopeful that his death will prevent the suffering of others.

"The Rising" is a personal story in which we find ourselves, our fears, our hopes and our dreams.  We do our jobs every day, work to make a better tomorrow and Rise up together in a dream of life that we all share.  That is the American way.