Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Monday, October 28, 2013

Parenthood: Week 22 – Judging Other Parents

Almost every parent judges over parents

Yes, we shouldn’t judge others. There’s no need to make ourselves feel superior as parents by putting down what other parents do, but it’s part of our nature.  Like other instincts as parents, denial of these thoughts isn’t really productive.

Parenting is a unique experience for every person. You can’t really compare two parents because each kid is different and the parents themselves are different. You can reasonably compare two football teams that are playing each other by the same rules. However, you can’t really do that with parents because often, they are not even playing the same sport.

So you hear a parent talking about something they do with their child and you think they are making a bad choice. Of course at the same time you reflect how you are making a better decision with your kid in a similar situation with great results. What do you do we this?

If the other person is receptive you can give your opinion. Of course if you are very close to them and what they are doing could seriously harm their child you have a responsibility to speak up. Otherwise, you keep your mouth shut. They probably know that you are judging them, because they are probably judging you, so just keep quiet.

The choices we make as parents are fraught with insecurity. None of the baby books and n doctors can tell you 100% that the choices you are making will lead to the absolutely most positive outcome for your child. So you do your best and you make a lot of decisions, most decision based on your parental instincts and faith.

This is one of the most difficult things about parenting. Sometimes, the best way to work through insecurity is to see at someone else and think that you are doing better than them and that you know better than them. Is the best way to make you feel more secure? Not really. But sometimes, it helps.

We should never make ourselves feel bad because of the way that we react to the world around us in our thoughts. If a parent does something that we think is strange, chastising ourselves for thinking this, creates a negative feedback loop that only ensures that this these judging thoughts will only lead to self-hatred. Instead, turn that judging instincts into an role play exercise.

What would you do differently and why? What part of the picture are you not seeing that might prevent this other person from doing what you would do? What does your reaction say about your own insecurities about being a parent? Let these judging thoughts lead you back to yourself so that you can ultimately become a better parent.

Nobody’s perfect. We all think things that we are not always proud of. There’s no shame in these reactions. The problem comes when we articulate these thoughts in inconsiderate ways and beat ourselves up as opposed to examine them as expressions of the challenges and insecurities in our own lives.

We create stories so that we can judge fictional characters and do this less in our personal lives. But sometimes this isn’t enough. When you are a parent, the insecurities can be overwhelming and it seems like you can’t help but to judge other parents. So go ahead and judge them, give yourself that relief and that reassurance, even if it’s fleeting. Later come back and reexamine those thoughts and through this process, these thoughts of superiority will ebb.

Judging other parents shows that you are insecure about being a parent yourself. Being insecure as a parent means that you are thoughtful about the choices you make and love your kid enough to worry about them all of the time.

As my mom told me, "it's a parents' job to worry."  So do your job and judge away. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Year 4: Week 8 – Putting The Teacher In Music Teacher

Once upon a time I was a musician, but now I’m a teacher.

Within the community of music teachers there is a wide variety. There are some teachers who only teach because they aren’t financially stable otherwise and there are music teachers, who teach not as a fall back from playing professionally, but as their profession and true love.

These are two sides of spectrum and many teachers fall somewhere in-between their devotion to their art as a musician and their love of teaching.

Is being a great musician and a fantastic teacher mutually exclusive? Can you have both? Sure, of course, but even if you find someone who has both qualities, in order for them to become a master teacher, their musicianship needs to take a back seat to their passion as a teacher.

If you asked me about why I wanted to be a teacher when I first started teaching I would probably talk to you about my passion for music. This is not as much in the forefront of my brain. Especially after the years that I taught special education (which I talked about in this previous post), I realized that I would still be a teacher even if I didn’t teach music. The only reason I teach music is because it’s my personal area of expertise. I wonder how many other music teachers feel this way?

I know I’m not a great musician. I don’t play any instrument good enough to gig professionally, I don’t have the ears to  evaluated an advanced high school or college group and what I studied in college, music composition, is something I have no desire to pursue any longer.

However, I’m all about talking to other teachers about the ways children develop, reading about innovative ways that music teachers relate to their students and writing arrangements for my students to perform. As much as I love music, I love getting to know my students even more.

If being a teacher is a close second to being a musician for you, it doesn’t stand in you way of being a great teacher. However if brings a perspective to your craft that places what you teach over who you teach. For some circumstances this could really connect with your students but in many others it will not hold up over the long run.

For me it wasn't an active choice but a mindset that evolved over time.   I wanted to be a great musician at a certain point and then I wanted to be a master teacher.

Now, I just want to be for my students, a present caring force in their life first and a teacher second. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Monday, October 21, 2013

Parenthood: Week 21 – The Crying Game

Every time Ollie laughs it makes a unicorn dance and every time Ollie cries that unicorn is staring at me with angry eyes getting ready to charge.

Dealing with Ollie when he is crying is the most exhausting thing about being a parent. Nothing else in the world seems to matter when he’s crying and I want to stop doing whatever I’m doing and comfort him.

When Ollie cried when he was first born, it was mostly tearless screams. His eyes would shut his eyes tightly and tense his whole body. This was tough to deal with but it’s a lot easier than a fourth month old crying.

Now when Ollie cries, there are tears, big tears. He cries with adult sized tears and when they show up on his baby-sized face, it’s the saddest thing you have ever seen. The tears alone wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t paired up with that look in his eyes. Whenever Ollie is crying and I pick him up, he calms for a second, just long enough to open his eyes. He’ll looks directly at me with these desperate and longing eyes that pierce into my heart.

Part of me is freaking out and panicking every time Ollie  melts down. But I know I can’t panic. So I try to stay focused and calm for Ollie’s sake. This is really hard to do and takes an tremendous amount of emotional energy and control, which manifests itself as physical exhaustion by the end of the day.

What’s even worse is when Ollie cries and I have to let him keep crying. If he has a dirty diaper in the car, he sometimes has to cry and wait as I find a place to pull over. When he’s hungry, sometimes he  has to wait for Diana or for a bottle to heat up. And sometimes he starts crying while I’m going to the bathroom. It feels pretty horrible hearing your baby cry while you are in the middle of doing your business.

Hearing your baby cry when you can’t immediately make them feel better is also exhausting.

The amazing thing about babies is that when you figure out exactly what is upsetting them and you take care of whatever was making them cry, they can switch to happiness really quickly. Most of the time, laughter isn’t too far behind tears.

Being disturbed by Ollie’s crying is one of those things like missing Ollie when I’m away from him that I’m probably never going to get over.  They show I’m connected to my son and invested in his well-being in a very powerful and personal way.

For every time he cries, we've got to make sure he laughs.  I don't think the laughter will make him cry less but it'll help him continue to experience the range of human emotions and keep the unicorns at bay. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Year 4: Week 7 – Good Intentions

It’s common to tell kids that it’s their actions that we dislike, not who they are as a person. While this is an important message, I’m finding that embracing the action and more importantly having faith in students' intentions helps us speak more directly to our students. 

I held one of my third graders after class earlier this week because he was making funny faces during an activity. I asked him what he was trying to do. He was worried about being in trouble so he didn’t respond.

“It looks to me you were trying to make other people laugh,” I told him.

“No, I wasn’t,” he replied.

“Well, I really like people who make other people laugh, I love making people laugh, it’s a lot fun, so it’s not a bad thing,” I explained.

“I guess I was trying to make people laugh,” he said.

“That’s great, I like that about you, the problem wasn’t that you were trying to make people laugh, you just did it at the wrong time, which instead of being funny, ended up being rude.”

I told my 5th grade students that the vast majority of things that they get in trouble for are things that they do not do with bad intentions. Most of these things are stuff that really aren’t bad by themselves, it’s mostly about timing.

When I talk to kids about speaking out of turn, I almost always follow it up with reminding them how much I want to hear what they have to say, I just can’t have a conversation when they are speaking out of turn.

It’s challenging for students to understand how something that they do that they don’t intend to be bad can get them in trouble. That’s a harsh reality but it’s also affirming.

Our intentions are at the root of our interactions with the world. If we put faith in these intentions, then we are putting faith in children themselves. If we can see the actions, however inappropriate, as expressions of these longings to know others better and make ourselves known, we find ourselves in conversations with students built on a foundation of belief that they are a good person.

In the same way that we should never question the intentions of our co-workers, we should never question the intentions of our students. They deserve that level of respect. Of course, it’s important in these conversations to help students understand that your intentions as a teacher are not to get them in trouble but to help them grow as a student and a person.

We all need to find a way to "love the sinner," and maybe it's in the intentions that we find the student we can learn to love. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Parenthood: Week 20 – The Things I Miss & The Things That I Can’t Imagine Living Without

There are some things that I miss about my life pre-Ollie but there are also some things that I can’t imagine living without that Ollie has brought to my life. So let’s start with the 5 things I miss pre-baby (in no particular order).

1.  Uninterrupted Television Viewing: There was a time that Diana and I could watch full episodes of hour-long television shows without interruption. Now it’s more like fifteen-minute chunks here and there. Our DVR is more full than it's ever been. Ollie has a way of interrupting things.

2. Weekly Poo-Free Laundry: We used to do laundry once a week and rarely if ever were there poo or puke stains on any of the clothing.  Now, we do laundry once every two or three days and those stains I was talking about, that’s part of almost every single load.

3. Doing Nothing: There’s rarely nothing to do around the house related to Ollie. Beyond the laundry, there are bottles to clean, diapers to take out, laundry to fold, and things to read up on. If I’m sitting at home doing nothing, I am ignoring something that needs to be done, sometimes this is okay, but I ache for the days when I truly had nothing that needed to get done.

4. Quickly Getting out of the house: “Wallet, keys, phone, you good? Let’s go.” Now when we go out, first off we have to make sure that someone is watching Ollie and if we are taking Ollie there’s a whole production. We have to make sure that we are going during a time that is good for Ollie and pack all of the stuff he needs. Now it’s “diaper bag, carrier, car seat, extra outfit, stroller, burp cloth, you got the baby? Let’s go.” Prepping to leave the house used to take 2 minutes, now it’s closer to 10.

5. Sound Sleep: We are blessed with a baby that sleeps really well. However, even when he does sleep for long lengths of time, it’s a different kind of sleep. Part of my brain knows that he may start crying and I don’t feel as relaxed when I sleep because of this. The whole slowly waking up and crawling out of bed thing, yeah, I miss that. Popping out of bed immediately as painful as it can sometimes be is now a regular occurrence.

Now here are the 5 things that Ollie has brought to my life that I would never want to live without.

1. Baby Talk: I love talking to people about their experiences with babies. It’s like I’m part of a special club that only people who are parents can be members. The things I’m learning from people around me has helped me bond with people I never expected to and in ways that I never imagined.

2. Perspective: There’s the whole “well, eat your food because other people in a foreign country are starving,” approach to forcing kids to live their lives with perspective. That didn’t really have a big effect on me. Having a healthy baby while knowing about the struggles other babies and their parents go through, that level of perspective is the most powerful I’ve ever felt. Every time I hear about a child suffering or dying, it hits me in an emotional way that reminds me of my blessings and provides a level of perspective that has made me a better and more thankful person.

3. Feeling Needed: Everyone needs to feel needed. Ollie needs me. He can’t do anything by himself and while this is sometimes exhausting, it’s a really special feeling knowing that someone relies on me so much. Yes, the responsibility can be overwhelming, but knowing how important I am to him, validates my life.

4. Riding The Roller Coaster: Yes, life is different every day, but when you have a baby, that difference is impossible to ignore. Every day as Ollie grows, how he sleeps changes, the way that he moves develops and every day brings new challenges. Yes, like a roller coaster, it can be a little scary, but at the same time not knowing what’s around the next turn is the best part.

5. The Partnership: Diana and I have worked on projects together. There was our wedding that we planned, raising Buffy, the European vacation and buying a house. All of these things we did as partners.  These projects had their challenges and rewards but none of those things required us to work together with the amount of teamwork and cooperation that we share with each other every day as parents. I feel closer to Diana than I have ever felt in my life.  I am proud of not only how well Ollie is doing but how well Diana and I have worked together to help Ollie.

Of course, the good outweighs the bad. That doesn’t make the bad things go away and it’s important to complain sometimes and get that stuff out of your system. As petty and as silly as the annoying things about parenthood can be, it’s important to acknowledge those feelings and work through them. The good things don’t cancel out the bad and make them disappear; they just make them seem like not as big a deal.

. . . and feeling a little hand squeeze your finger helps a lot.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Year 4: Week 6 - Paternity Leave

 Last Fall, I took time off at the beginning of the school year to attend my grandmother’s funeral in Taiwan (I wrote about this in this post).

 For the past two weeks, I’ve also been away from school as part of my paternity leave.

This is the second year in a row that I’ve taken time off from school in the beginning of the school year. Last year it was unexpected and this year it was planned. Even though I knew that these leave was coming it was still difficulty to plan for and it’s been hard to be away.

You don’t realize how important it is to take time off to be at a funeral until you do ,and I didn’t realize how important taking my paternity leave was until I was spending time with my family.

I love my job and it’s important to me that I express my commitment to the school. This is why taking time off is something that I don’t do without a lot of thought. So there was a time that I considered not using up all of my paternity leave in the Fall because there simply didn’t seem to be any good time for me to be away from school.

After much thought and discussion with my wife, I realized that taking my paternity leave was not disrespectful to my school or and wasn’t negligent to my students. If you really care about being a good teacher than you have to start with having a balanced life at home and one of the ways I could do this was by taking my paternity leave and taking care of my family.

Beyond the financial benefits of not having to have a babysitter, me being home and spending time with my family has been one of the most important experiences that has helped me grow as a teacher.

I taught for seven years before having a kid and I got pretty good at what I did without having the perspective of being a parent myself. I’m not saying that you can’t be a great teacher without being a parent, but for me it has helped a lot.

If I truly value children, parents and families as a teacher, than that needs to start with how I treat my own child and my own family. My school has put their money where their mouth is and providing this time because they feel it’s important as well.

I’m looking forward to seeing my students next week. While I’m not looking forward to being away from my son, my time as a teacher has made me a great dad in the same way that my experience as a dad has made me a better teacher.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Why I’m a Democrat (as opposed to "Why I’m Not a Republican")

I believe that we are defined by what we do, not what we don’t do. In the same way, our political choices should be made on who we support, not whom we dislike. In the wake of the government shut down this week, I began to question: am I a Democrat because of what I don’t like about the Republicans or is there something about the being a Democrat that relates to who I am in a positive way?

My parents have more often voted Republican than Democrat. Part of this had to do with the fact that my father was had a small business and Democrat tax policies seemed to hit him harder. Lately in my discussions with them, they have been increasingly annoyed with the Republicans stance on homosexuality and woman’s rights. I doubt that they would call themselves Republicans at this point, but I don’t think they would put an Obama bumper sticker on their car.

It was never clear in my household where my parents felt I should be on the political spectrum. In high school I started developing views that social welfare and public services were essential to our country and I remember my dad arguing these points with me. But at the end of it, I always felt he respected my opinion.

In college, I would say, I was pretty apolitical. I wouldn’t get into discussions about politics with friends and even though most of my friends were Democrats, it didn’t make me lean towards that side any harder.

The first time I felt truly proud to call myself a Democrat was during Obama’s first presidential run. People joke about “so how’s that ‘hope’ working out for you?” For me, the spirit of that election still energizes my passion for this country, my interest in politics and my belief on America.

Today, I am proud to call myself a Democrat, and here’s why:

The Platform: The 2012 Democratic National Platform is a fascinating read. Anyone who claims to be part of either party really needs to read the party’s platform. The foundations of this platform are based in the idea that everyone deserves a quality of life if they work hard and play by the rules. Gender, sexual orientation, access to health care, and education should not hinder people’s ability to fulfill their American dream. It is our collective responsibility as a people and a government to ensure that everyone is given a fair chance.

The platform recognizes critical programs like Head Start, values the roles of great teachers and the rights of workers to organize. It asks for equity in law so that a minority because of money and influence cannot get away with crimes and acknowledges immigration not as problem, but as part of the American tradition that has made our country great.

For the Democrats family values are about allowing people to have flexibility in their jobs to care for their children and protecting children in foster care and adoption programs. In one of the most touching parts of this platform, the Democrats continue to work to offer men support to be good fathers and help them create stronger bonds with their children and their families.

The part of the platform that hit home the most was about women. From making sure women have fair pay to having access to protecting reproductive rights, the Democratic platform addresses one of the most important social issues of our time. Gloria Steinem’s words echo in this document:

Whether or not woman can determine when and whether to have children is the single biggest element in whether we are health or not, whether we are educated or not, how long our life expectancy is, whether we can be active in the world or not.

The Heroes: Hillary Clinton is taking on global changes with optimism. Dan Savage is the most important voice in human sexuality tirelessly spreading the idea that sexual expression is a freedom and universal right. Oh yeah and you can’t forget Bruce Springsteen. Many of my heroes, the people, I respect most in this world are Democrats. These are people who understand facets of our society in deeper ways than I can comprehend. I respect their work and in this way, I honor their beliefs and support the causes and the party they hold dear.

The President: I am proud of President Obama. As a political leader he has weathered a storm of political turmoil with grace and honesty. His instinct is to take the high road without being afraid to point out the truth, which while is sometimes unpopular is necessary. As a Commander-in-chief he has navigated some of the most challenging conflicts of our time while representing the best in American diplomacy opening lines of discourse without compromising our safety and security. As a legislature he has made steps forward to protect the rights of American woman, workers, families and children through economic acts like the Libby Ledbetter act and the Affordable Care Act.

And as a moral leader President Obama epitomizes the best in the American spirit embracing the plurality of the citizens of America with his statements on Gay marriage, Civil Rights and immigration.

The reason I’m a Democrat is because my optimistic belief in the American people is the same belief I have in the American government. The government is not some demon out to destroy our society; it’s an expression of our shared beliefs. To say that government in the problem is to say that our values are the problem, and I simply don’t believe that.

The Democratic Party is not flawless. However these flaws are not in the philosophy of the party or the values that are defined by this philosophy. The flaws are in the choices that are made by politicians. As frustrated as I get when Democrats make bad choices, I know that their motivation lies in the values that are important to me politically and in my personal life.

If the reason you are a Democrat is because you hated Bush or the reason you are Republican is because of your disdain for Obama then you are not what you claim to be.  At best you are simply being a contrarian.

Go beyond the headlines and the talking points and find the party that resonates with your beliefs.  Be with the party that lays out a path that will make for a greater America and challenges you beyond your fears to be a better American. 


Monday, October 7, 2013

Parenthood: Week 19 – The Name Game

About 6 hours into child labor, Diana asked me what name should we choose for our coming son. I looked at the short list of names we had decided on as possibilities and she said, “Oliver, let’s name him Oliver.” Without disagreement or discussion, I agreed with Diana. In retrospect she probably could have won my approval for almost any decision that would affect both of us like the paint color for our new house or where we would take our next vacation.
When people ask me how we came up with the name for our son, I usually tell them that story. It’s true, this actually did happen, but there’s a little bit more to it than me going along with Diana during a tense and stressful moment.

We knew Ollie was going to be a boy as soon as the technician could see. Even before she could “officially” see that Ollie was a boy, she said that she was 90% sure. Diana and I figured that we would have enough surprises in our life even with knowing our baby’s gender.

This allowed me to have time to unpack and work through my feelings about having a son and kept the baby gifts from being all yellow and green.

We figured out a couple things that were important with our son's name:
1. Our son needed a first name that was more than one syllable because of having a last name that was one syllable.

2. We wanted our son to have a unique name that not everyone had, however we didn’t want our son to have a name that people would have trouble spelling or think was crazy.

3. It was important we like both the full name and the nickname.

4. Since his last name is Chinese we wanted his first name to reflect his Welsh and Polish heritage.
For the first couple weeks after we found out we were having boy, this is how it worked: Diana would come up with a list of names and I would reject almost all of them because I previously had a student with that same name. This is a thing that teachers have to deal with. We associate names strongly with certain students that we like or dislike. Of course if there’s a student who is more challenging you don’t want to name them that and even if you use a name of a student you like, it can feel weird.

I estimate that in the past seven years I’ve taught around seven hundred students. So there’s a lot of names that I have strong feelings about.  While Diana got frustrated about this, she understood this and we continued to work together to find names that might work.

After looking through multiple baby name books, the names that made it to our short list came up from our own ideas or from friends. It was the latter process that led us to Ollie’s name.

Diana’s friend Alice really loves the name Oliver but her boyfriend is named Ali, so she has given up that name for her future baby because of the confusion between Ollie and Ali. That’s where we got “Oliver.”

Over breakfast one of my friend's Allie told me that if she was a boy, her parents were going to name her Jameson. We laugh about the connection with the name of an Irish Whiskey but after thinking about it, Jameson made the list as well. The origins and meanings of these names made sense. Oliver is associated with olive and its symbolism of peace. Jameson means “son of James” which works, as James is a family name for Diana’s family. It’s one of her brother’s middle names.

Then there was the discussion of whether we would do “Jameson Oliver,” or “Oliver Jameson.” We don’t mind Jamie Oliver but there was the issue of O.J. associated with the not so revered football player.

What’s interesting is that all of these cultural associations and well as well as the fact that many names remind of students I have taught ended up not being of any real significance. Last school year I taught three boys named Oliver and when I think of the name Oliver, or look at my boy, I don’t think about any of those students I’ve taught that share his name.

Names are important, but the meanings we attach to names are often fluid and the same name can have multiple associations good and bad. Yes, cultural history is important and family heritage should be considered, but I don’t think choosing Ollie’s name was one of the most important decisions we made.  The name is a big decision but it's more about the identity that one creates around their name than the name itself.

If you ever met Ollie, you would agree that somehow we landed on the perfect name for our special little guy.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Year 4: Week 5 – In Defense Of Textbooks

Not all teachers are created equal. Some teachers like myself would prefer to write their own curriculum and create their own teaching materials and assessments. Some teachers would rather teach out of a text book. Is one approach innately better than the other?

Some people argue that teachers should be creating their own materials, but this ignores the reality of teaching in many school districts and communities.

I was taught in college that teaching was all about creating innovated curriculum.  I really enjoyed doing this, however, I learned the hard way my first year as a teacher that I simply didn't have time to create everything from scratch. The hours I could have saved using materials readily available and created by other educators would have allowed me to focus on the many issues I struggled with at that job that eventually led to me not having my contract renewed after my second year.

As I started my next job as a special education assistant, I still held onto idea that I wanted to create my own material. So I was pretty shocked when I learned that I would be teaching small group reading and math not only out of textbook but also by following the script. I'm not talking about a suggested way of asking questions in a teachers guide, I'm talking about a word for word script.

I initially thought this was ridiculous until I started working with this program. I was teaching math and reading to students who had various developmental issues and one of the strategies was repetition. For example, it was important that a student spoke a short "a" sound a certain amount of times. The script allowed me to not have to sit there and count how many times they read a word or did a math problem. Instead I could focus on their understanding, their focus and assessing their progress.

Keep in mind, I was trained as a music teacher so these programs allowed me to teach these other subjects, I hadn't studied. It was a scripted reading program that helped me teach a kid how to read. That's one of my biggest accomplishments as a teacher, and I still get teary-eyed remembering him read to me at the end of the school year a book he couldn't read at all that previous September.

I've met remarkable teachers who create their own curriculum and amazing educators who teach out of a text book. Like most teachers I'm somewhere in-between. If I had the time, I'd create all of my own stuff, but it's not realistic and while I enjoy academic research, the time I save using other peoples' materials is better focused on getting to know my students.

There's a disdain that some educators associate using textbooks to government education standards, to standardized tests, to NCLB and finally to the downfall of American education by turning teachers into robots. And no, I don't think that it's okay for principals to evaluate teachers strictly on their adherence to a textbook. Also, I don't think a teacher should stay 100% with a textbook, that is simply not a responsive way to serve students.

So if you aren't using a lot of stuff from textbooks, check them out. There's a lot of great stuff out there that will give you some awesome material and perspectives on different ways to teach. Don't work so hard.

And if you have a textbook that you are forced to use, think of it more as framework to build off of than a cage. In this way, the possibilities are limitless.