Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: education

Online Learning for Those Who Just Can't Anymore

So I’m in the unique position of being able to look at the pandemic through the lens of the exhausted higher education faculty member as well as the eLearning professional.

In the past year, I’ve started working as an eLearning professional at a community college. Before that, I taught for 15 years as an ESL instructor with almost all of that teaching done in the face-to-face modality. I have also taught online and used a flipped learning approach frequently over the past few years.

My Lens as a Teacher

Just last week, a new group on Facebook emerged: Pandemic Pedagogy.

In the first few days, as instructors swarmed to the site, it became clear that there were a few currents of sentiment that went like this:

Just… like… how the hell am I supposed to teach online?

I’m utterly exhausted from teaching already, and now I have to do even more work?

I’m an adjunct instructor and I don’t get paid for this extra work. LET’S REVOLT.

Be kind to your students! Their lives are completely disrupted, just like ours, and they may not have reliable internet access! Figure out how to maintain educational equity!

I’m falling apart because the kids are home and I’m creating all this new content and I’m not keeping up with grading and I keep getting desperate emails from students and I’m worried about my health and the federal government is a mess and I can’t find toilet paper anywhere and my spouse says my job is so easy because it can be done online and I CANNOT DO THIS ANYMORE.

My empathy for teachers everywhere right now is real. This flat-out sucks. Teaching online isn’t “easier.” Having done it, I can say that it is definitely more time-consuming, as you are constantly communicating with students, generating or posting content, and trying to keep up with grading.

Then, multiply all those efforts times THREE, FOUR, or FIVE and you start to understand why some teachers are seriously ready to bail out in the middle of semester and work at Kroger or Amazon (They’re hiring!).

What I want to say is that you have every right to be frustrated and stressed about the situation. I hope you take your moment to blow this whole thing off for a period of time. But when that moment passes, and for most of you I think it will, please know that no one (at least reasonable people) is expecting you to perform miracles.

So when the anxiety keeps you up late at night, you are definitely not alone.

My Lens as an eLearning Professional

As an eLearning professional, I’ve been reviewing hundreds of courses over the past week to check whether the course is ready to go live on March 23rd.

At this point, we are not looking for stellar courses. Quality Matters alignment is out the window. We are simply looking at whether students can access an updated schedule and can find the content that they need for the first week or so of class.

So let this be my first reassurance: If you’ve got an easy to find document/post where students can tell what they should do on which date, you are already ahead of the curve.

As for the rest of it, here are some snippets of advice:

On Getting Oriented

Consider prominently posting an introduction to the second half of the course on your LMS course page. Video is best because it establishes visual instructor presence, but even a nicely worded document can do. Reassure your students that you will get through this course together. Practice kindness with your students and ask them to be kind to you. Go over any FAQs that you want to make sure that all students know before you embark on this journey. Make what works for you. Providing this kind of introduction provides reassurance and stability to your students that they desperately crave right now.

On Teaching Synchronously

Please, please don’t feel that you have to generate all new content for every lesson. Don’t feel that you have to record all of the lectures that you would have given face-to-face. And if you’ve been given different advice from administrators, I implore you to do what is best for your students anyway. This is not the time to listen to bad advice.

Here’s the truth: Students do not want to watch you teach synchronously during the same hours that you had been spending together face-to-face. Their lives have been completely disrupted. Their kids are out of school. Maybe they lost their job or are working a new one. Maybe they have limited connectivity at home.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t teach your content. It means that you find accessible ways to do so. If you used to teach for 50 minutes on a topic, extract the key points and boil it down to 10-15 minutes, followed by a series of exercises, problems, or case studies, whatever works for your field. Make sure your students have access to the answers so they can assess themselves and track their understanding. Remember that your students can re-watch the videos. There is an incredible amount of repetition, re-clarification, and reiteration that happens in in-person teaching that is simply not necessary in online teaching. Say what needs to be said and move on. They can re-watch the videos and ask question in the forums that you provide. (And don’t be afraid to embed instructional videos that others have made. If the videos are on YouTube and allows for you to embed it on your course page, the content creator benefits from the additional views.)

My advice is: Offer an optional synchronous office hours time, maybe just 1 hour per week, where students can drop in and ask questions.

Be prepared: It’s likely that the ones who come won’t even want to talk about the class in the first session. They may just need someone to process the disruptions in their lives. This is how you build rapport, community, and more importantly TRUST. If your students trust you, they are more likely to stay engaged over the long haul and struggle through the challenges of learning in an era of disruption. You don’t have to be specially trained to do this. Just BE KIND and listen. Acknowledge what they are going through. If you feel like it, share how this crisis has affected your life.

I also encourage you, with the permission of your students, to record your office hours and share the recording with the class, to build that sense of community for your students who are not able to attend synchronously. Even simply watching an asynchronous recording of you talking with other students can go a long way toward helping all students feel connected to you in this time of uncertainty when everyone is so isolated.

On Organizing for Student-Centeredness

Give students a course schedule, an updated syllabus, or even a basic pinned announcement or post that is your students’ cornerstone for the course. Tell them what to do on a weekly basis so they can keep track. I recommend labeling modules by weeks or dates and organize content inside of those weeks. Students don’t want to go to 8 different modules to pull together all of their content for one week’s work. (Spoken by a teacher who has organized her class like this! Learn from my mistakes!)

Rest assured: No one is expecting you to do a stellar performance this term.

On Online Quizzes

If you’re going to administer a quiz online, please preview the quiz as a student and consider any tweaks that can make it less stressful for students. Do what works for your situation and remember that some of your students are likely to have spotty connectivity, which can make it stressful for them to do an online quiz between a certain time period, especially when it’s timed.

Final Thoughts

So if you just seriously can’t anymore, you are definitely not alone.

Keep your class simple and clear.

Do what you can.

Be kind.

We are all just trying to get through this.

On Not Getting the Job (A.K.A. Why It was Clearly for the Best, Part 1)

A few months ago, I got into my car after having a great series of interviews with a potential future employer. It was for a position related to instructional design, a field which I don’t have a degree in, but whose skillset is similar to my current job. With all the additional professional development and coursework that I’ve taken in integrating technology into the classroom, I’m more than qualified for the position.

The words mentioned to describe the company culture were exactly what I was looking for: creative, collaborative, candid, future-focused, problem-solving. All in the service to creating educational materials that are learner-focused.

The benefits were good: health insurance, PTO, sick days, tuition assistance, flexible hours. Written into the job description was the expectation that I would continue to learn and attend conferences about trends in educational technology.

The interviews–all four of them–were fantastic. The questions they asked me felt like softballs coming in slow motion. I knew my way backward and forward through topics like adult learning theories, learner-centered instruction, educational digital technologies, and transformative education. I quoted books I read. I mentioned real life examples. I made connections between different disciplines. I talked about my successes, my shortcomings, my research, and my goals.

So I felt good about the whole thing.

Why would they go through so many interviews with me if they weren’t serious about me?

Before I left, the director gave me a business card with her contact info. I turned it over in my hand and ran my fingers over the large quote:

Confidence is success remembered.

I felt good about the whole thing.

And yet.

There was that voice in the back of my mind… (I think we all have one)

Someone else is better than you. You don’t have the credentials they want to see. You’re too risky. If they wanted you, they would have offered you a job today. They didn’t even want to talk about start dates. 

But I was going to be positive. For once, I was going to believe that I could get this job based just on my resume and good interviewing skills. Even if I didn’t know anyone at this company, I knew that I was competent. And qualified.

So I needed to be confident.

Confidence is success remembered.

You got this, I told myself.

Isn’t that what everyone tells you these days? No matter what your chances are, no matter how bleak the outlook, there’s always someone out there in the Facebook Universe who cheerfully memes at you: You Got This!

Until, you don’t.

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Thank you for meeting with the team. Unfortunately, at this time, we have decided to go with another candidate.

Really?

Seriously?

Master’s degree. 13 years teaching experience in higher education. Frequent professional presenter. Strong communication and collaboration skills. Self-starter. Lifelong learner.

You’re going to pass on me? 

Seriously?

And then, from the back of my mind, the voice speaks up.

Of course they passed on you. You don’t have a degree in instructional design. Someone else did. And that one manager you talked to didn’t seem to really like what you said about resolving conflict. Didn’t you notice that? She made a face. You know she did. What did you say? What did you do wrong?

What did you do?

What did you say?

What is wrong with you?

If you were such a catch, they would have found a way to hire you.

It’s a huge company. They have tons of money. It’s not that you were qualified and they didn’t have the budget.

They. Just. Didn’t. Want. You.

You.

You were four years older than one of managers that interviewed you. Remember when she found out that you both graduated from Miami, but then apologized when she realized that it was four years after you did? You missed your window there. Everyone your age at that company is in management, and you don’t have management experience. That’s kind of what people mean when they say stuff like, “she wasn’t a good fit.” It’s a cover for reasons that shouldn’t be stated in a rationale for not hiring someone. Like she’s too young, too old, too educated, or not educated enough. (At least compared to who we currently have on staff.)

Shit. When was I supposed to become a manager? How? There were never any opportunities to become a manager at my current employer.

Shit. I should have left by now. When? When was I supposed to leave?

After I had the first baby? When I had a toddler? When I had the second baby? When I had two small kids?

I stayed because I needed something that I could handle while I was out of my mind being a parent to young kids.

I stayed because of the students. Even though I was underpaid by $30,000. Even as my autonomy shrank and shrank and shrank.

I stayed because I loved what I did. Because I believed that I was making a difference.

Shit.

Shit.

Shit.

This is what happens when you keep putting others before yourself.

Shit.

How can you feel so sad about losing something that, apparently, you never had?

Time passed.

I applied for and interviewed for other jobs.

In my search, I noticed just shortly after I was turned down from the job I wanted that they had re-posted almost the exact same position.

W. T. F.

What does that even mean? I wondered. Did the person quit already? Did they just not hire anyone and re-open the search?

So I did something I wouldn’t have done ten years ago. I emailed the same director that I had originally reached out to and told her I was going to re-apply. I truly thought, in my gut, that she had been impressed with me. But that maybe I was interviewing against some candidates that had degrees in instructional design.

She responded. She said that they did have another position open up, but they already had some “highly qualified candidates” for it. However, she would still like to “get to know me outside of an interview situation.”

That sounded promising. Maybe she did see my talent and creativity. Maybe she really was impressed with me. Maybe she had read some of my posts on LinkedIn that highlighted articles that I had just published. Maybe we could talk about how my particular area of expertise could help out her company. I came with some ideas. I didn’t over-plan. But I prepared some ideas.

After all… She wants to get to know me, I thought.

When I finally sat down with her weeks later, we started with some small talk and I mentioned that I was still interviewing for other jobs (which was true) and that I thought it was going well.

And then, her truth started coming out.

It turns out, she thought I didn’t interview well.

She thought that my training and education were lacking because I didn’t mention the word “objectives” when I answered her question about how I would design an online course.

Sitting here now, I recall that I talked about conducting a needs assessment and considering how learners would interact with content, with each other, and with their teacher, and how the course would progress from beginning to end, and how I would incorporate interactive and engaging content using learning apps to deepen knowledge connections.

But I didn’t mention the word “objectives.”

She wasn’t sure I knew what objectives were. She wasn’t sure that I actually knew how to design and implement a class.

What words can I use to describe how I felt in that moment?

Oh, yes.

Utterly shocked, comes to mind.

She thinks I’m not competent, I thought, my fingers digging into my coffee cup, my expression freezing on my face.

Wait, what?

SHE THINKS I’M NOT COMPETENT!?!?!

I clarified that yes, it’s possible I didn’t mention the word “objectives,” but that I thought that given the fact that I have a Master’s degree in teaching and that I’ve been teaching for 13 years, that I could assume she knew that I knew what objectives were. I told her that I chose to focus on the more interesting parts of the online class that would show where I really shine.

My mistake. Because, in her view, you cannot rely on a person who has been a teacher to know what objectives were.

Which is actually a pretty good representation of how American society sees teachers.

Thanks for that, America.

But fine. Point taken.

And then I understood the problem: I made assumptions. And she did not.

She interviewed for the lowest common denominator. And I thought I was having a conversation with a fellow professional in the field.

In her view, as a person who didn’t know me, I had to start from the basics.

My mistake.

I gripped my coffee cup and nodded continuously, being respectful. Because that is what you do when you are talking to someone in a powerful position who might be able to offer you a job someday. You don’t tell them that their measures of assessment are incredibly archaic, not to mention ineffective. And you don’t say, You know, I actually do know what objectives are! Because that seems incredibly inauthentic, and who would actually believe you now, after you had been told of your error?

She just wanted to share this information with me because as a woman, she has been feeling more empowered recently to help other women out who are in difficult positions. She was just like me, trying to break into another field, and she wished that someone would have told her what it was that kept her from getting a job.

So there it was: She was saving me.

This White, affluent, high-level corporate executive who had “made it” was sharing her wisdom with someone less fortunate. She drove 20 minutes from work to meet me at a coffee shop, during her busy Friday, to let me know that the reason I didn’t get the job wasn’t because I didn’t have a stellar resume.

It was because I didn’t say the words that she wanted to hear.

Completely, obliviously unaware that she was participating in the same esoteric practices that keep good potential employees from breaking into new career paths. The lack of self-awareness involved in the conversation was truly difficult to process.

Just wanted to let you know, she explained. Because I’d want someone to do the same for me.

Well, then.

To this day, that same job has been re-posted and re-posted several more times. What floors me about this whole process is how she doesn’t realize that I’m not the one who lost.

I have the skills, the knowledge, the creativity, the experience, and the drive that she should want in a candidate.

What kept me from getting the job was her strict adherence to the old-school interviewing techniques of not asking many follow-up questions. It was her reticence to engage with me as a colleague, and her assumptions that I couldn’t be trusted to know certain fundamental knowledge. It was her disregard for the meaning of what it means to have a Master’s degree.

In any case, I didn’t get the job.

And it was clearly for the best.

Why would I ever want to work for someone who saw me through those kind of eyes?

A Farewell to Teaching (for now)

It’s true.

After thirteen years of professional teaching, I’m leaving my career as a full-time ESL teacher in higher education to be an Instructional Media Designer for the eLearning Division at Sinclair Community College. I will be working mostly with faculty who are developing instructional media for their face-to-face classes, from concept to production. 

Fifteen years ago, I walked into the first class that I ever taught.

I was 22 years old. A teaching assistant for the English department at Wright State University. No teaching experience. Just my Bachelor’s degree, as a testament to the fact that I, at least, knew how to write an essay. And presumably, could figure out how to teach someone who was four years younger than me how to write an essay.

I loved it.

Okay, not all of the time.

Not when I was providing feedback on the thirteenth paper in a stack of twenty-five. But overall, it was awesome.

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Graduation, Master’s Degree: June 2006

When I taught my first ESL class in the LEAP Intensive English Program at Wright State, it was even better. I was able to use my love for linguistics to inform my teaching practice. My work was not only rewarding, it was challenging. I found that I was constantly making connections between my Bachelor’s degree in linguistics with my teaching practice. My students genuinely appreciated me. They thanked me after classes and wanted to take pictures together. They actually visited me during office hours. They told me their concerns and their problems.

And I reached out to them. When my parents first moved to Texas (and later, Minnesota), I invited my students to Thanksgiving dinner in our small apartment, several years in a row. My husband and I cooked for them, and they also cooked for us. We talked about families and marriage, children and religion, stories and recipes. And we laughed a lot.

People who aren’t teachers hear over and over again how much a teacher changes the lives of their students.

But teachers know that this relationship is reciprocal.

Students change their teachers.

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2006: One of the first classes that I taught professionally

In 2006, when I first started teaching Saudi women, I quietly wondered if my female Saudi students might feel free enough to take off their hijabs if I were welcoming enough.

Through my monocultural worldview, this was how I saw hijabs: they were impediments, barriers, obstacles to overcome.

At that time, I saw difference as an obstacle. And the best way to deal with it was to pretend it didn’t exist and that everyone was the same. As long as I treated all my students in the exact same way, my teaching would be effective. After all, it’s really all about having the best informed instructional approach, right?

Thirteen years later, I can see now that acknowledging difference is the first step towards working to create an equitable classroom for all students.

I am able to see a hijab as a religious expression for my Muslim women, something that many of them wear out of a love for their faith and a symbol of their devotion to God. It’s neither an obstacle nor an ornament. For many of my Muslim women, it’s grafted into their religious expression.

It wasn’t one person who changed my perspective. It was an ongoing parade of different students, male and female, in and out of my classroom, term after term, year after year. Each of them, an individual thread, weaving together with hundreds of other threads, to create a great tapestry of what has become years of experience with intercultural communication.

When I stand back and look at the last thirteen years of my life…

I see that I am the one who has changed.

I understand now that we are all looking at the world through our own cultural lenses. They revealed to me the invisible threads of American culture, values, and worldview that hold together, and sometimes, entangle me.

And so I say, with so much more humility than I had when I first started teaching, THANK YOU.

Thank you, to my thousands of students.

From Saudi Arabia, China, Kuwait, Libya, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Oman, UAE, India, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Chad, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria, Gabon, Togo, Benin, Kenya, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Russia, Ukraine, Switzerland, France, Spain, Italy, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, and Panama.

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2009: Volunteer teaching for Miami Valley Literacy Council

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2012: Teaching high school students from Peru

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2012: English for Engineers, students working on a collaborative group project

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Circa 2013: One of the many Conversation Groups hosted by our program

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End-of-Term Party 2014

Thank you for changing me.

I know I was a serious teacher (who hated late homework), but it is my sincere hope that I left you with the feeling that you were valuable and important to me.

I hope you know that I think you are courageous.

What is courage, after all?

It is the ability to accept that life is full of moments of darkness: from failure, rejection, fear, grief, and uncertainty. And yet, to be courageous is to walk into the dark moments and say, “Even if I fail, even if I’m rejected or afraid or lose people that I love, and don’t know what comes next… I will try.”

Your journeys across oceans and time zones, carrying with you the wishes and dreams of the families that sent you inspired me every day.

You showed me courage, day after day.

I saw many of you in your most vulnerable moments, just days after your planes had landed and your feet first touched U.S. soil.

You were tired and disoriented–and we greeted you with English placement tests and two full days of “orientation.” (Sorry about that. It wasn’t my call.)

I hope I was kind to you.

I hope that when you were hurting, I was there for you.

I hope that if you weren’t passing my class, I was able to have a conversation with you to assure you that I knew you were working hard and that grades should never tell you whether or not you are worthy of love

I hope I made you think critically about something that you had never considered before.

I hope we laughed together.

I hope that when you go home and tell your family about “Americans,” you remember me.

And my favorite saying, “It’s bananas.”

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2019: My students giving poster presentations on our university’s alternate day of learning

It was not an easy decision to leave teaching, but considering the goals that I still want to accomplish in my professional life, it is time.

I’m also thankful for the support that the University of Dayton and UD Publishing have given me for my professional development over the years, all of which was inspired by the work that I do with my students. With their support, I was able to complete a graduate certificate in Technology-Enhanced Learning, which better prepared me for this future line of work. In addition, during my years at UD, I’ve presented on interdepartmental collaborations, intercultural communication, second language listening, learner-centered teaching, and digital technologies for language learning. I’m proud of the work that I’ve accomplished with the help of talented TESOL professionals, both those with whom I’ve collaborated, those who have mentored me, and those whom I have mentored. Although it was not required for my job and I often spent vacations and weekends researching and planning these presentations, I enjoyed these opportunities to grow and learn and keep my eyes open for what’s out on the horizon.

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I won’t say that “I hope I’ll come back to teaching.”

The truth is, I know I will. At some point.

I might come back to teach face-to-face classes, if it works with my plans. I might decide to teach fully on-line (which could be super cool, I think).

We’ll see.

But for right now, it’s time for this next step.

On Wonder: A Eulogy to My Physics Teacher, Mrs. Norma Howell

Norma,

I can still see you holding my three-week-old daughter in our living room, rocking in the glider. You offered to stay overnight at our place and help out with the night feedings on occasion, and we gladly took you up on the offer.

You cradled her in your arms, your gaze landing on her tiny face, your hands tracing her tiny hands. You said, “Oh… This is the best.”

“Really?” I asked, thinking of how unbelievably sleep-deprived I was. “The newborn part? Not when they were older?”

“Well…” You paused for a moment, before breaking into a wide grin, “Actually, it was all pretty awesome. But this… I just have such fond memories of my nursing my boys.”

I smiled. You rocked.

“But honestly,” you said. “I really loved it all. Every moment of it. I’d do it all over if I could.”

We talked for a time about your health, as you had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer several years earlier.

“I remember praying to God,” you said, “And I said, ‘Well, if this is my time, then it’s my time…'” Then you broke into that same wide grin, “I thought, ‘But, I sure hope it’s not!’ Turned out it wasn’t yet, and now I’m just grateful for every day I have here.”

Norma and Felicity

Norma and Felicity: October 2013

After the initial shock that you had recently passed wore off, I combed over my memories of you. Things you had said to me first as a student, and then later as a kind of occasional life mentor. And I arrived at a common refrain:

I’m sorry I couldn’t see what you were trying to show me.

I remember all those times when I was your student and I was working through physics problems. Rather than teaching the laws of physics deductively without fully understanding their application, you used a clever, inductive reasoning approach to help students discover the laws for themselves.

I didn’t realize how clever of a method it was. I just knew it was making me think. A lot. And because I didn’t trust my own logic and judgment, it made me nervous.

When I’d come to you with a set of questions or completed problems, ready for you to approve so I could move on to the next module, I remember thinking…

I hope I got the answers right.

I hope I don’t look stupid in front of you.

I hope I don’t let you down.

I remember you gently asking me to consider, once again, what was the difference between acceleration and velocity.

You knew how to talk to a fragile overachiever like me. You didn’t tell me I was wrong. You just asked me to “tighten up” my understanding.

You were also merciful to the class as a whole. I remember a time when our entire class failed a quiz. You stood at the room, your right hand clutching the frayed edges of notebook paper, and you said somberly, “Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news is…everyone failed.”

A brief moment passed to let that information sink in.

“The good news,” you continued cheerfully, “is that you can take a second quiz to replace that awful grade!”

For you, there was never failure. There were just more opportunities to try again.

For you, it was never about arriving at a destination.

It was always about the journey.

***

I wish I could have seen it that way. I wish you could have brainwashed me completely into seeing the world as full of wonder and possibilities.

It makes me sad to admit it, but I held myself back in your class.

I wish I could have let go of my fear of getting a bad grade in order to really embrace the deeper mysteries that this universe holds.

But I was young and insecure. I defined myself by what I achieved. And if I didn’t achieve, who was I? What did I have to define myself?

And so, I wouldn’t allow myself to imagine a future in which I was uncertain of whether or not I would succeed. I wouldn’t take the risk of pursuing a career in science or math. Because I was convinced that eventually, people would realize that I was an impostor. It would all catch up with me and I would fail.

So instead, I would carve out a path on which I wouldn’t fail.

Because, after all, what was worse than failing?

I was young. I was insecure.

***

After high school, I stayed in touched with you because your son married my good friend, Linda. I saw you over the years at get-togethers at your house or Linda’s house, and each time, you were the same: smiling, laughing, joyful.

You still peppered your speech with intonation and emphasis that made a lot of what you were saying into either Great News! or A Good Joke!

You were always interested in what I had to say, no matter what I talked about. You were that way with everyone, I think, and it’s why people loved you. You cared about what people said. You didn’t just listen–you heard people. Maybe this was because you found joy, real joy, in the happiness of others.

This is partly what made you such a great teacher: You were able to see me as a whole, complicated, unique person, someone more than just the scared-of-math-and-science teenage girl sitting on the left side of your class from August 1999 to May 2000.

But your willingness to being authentic with me also helped me see you as a whole, complicated, unique person.

Reciprocity like that is rare. And it is powerful.

***

Last night, I had a dream. It was one of those recurring dreams that you feel like you’ve had hundreds of times before (and it’s a mystery to you why you’ve always forgotten about it in your waking life).

I was walking a perfectly paved path, high in the most beautiful, lush mountains I’ve ever seen. But it wasn’t cold. Even the highest peaks had no snow. As I walked that path, I was completely free of any responsibility that I’ve ever had. I was so untethered, I felt like I was floating.

I was so, so full of joy.

And the music. If I knew how to compose music, I could have written out all of the notes when I woke up this morning. But that memory is fading.

What stays with me from this dream is my certainty that I was coming back.

I had been there before. Many times.

And I was home among something beautiful and wild that had missed me as much as I had missed it. And my joy was coming from the realization that I had been away for so long on a journey that had taken me everywhere but here. That everything I needed to do and everything that people needed from me was completely finished.

But it was the journey that made my coming home so joyful. For how can you be as joyful to see something that you never left?

It was all those moments spent with my own students, from countries far and wide, who first awakened my own curiosity in other ways of seeing the world. The same ones who helped me open my mind to the fact that (shockingly) there were so many ways of seeing and living in the same world.

It was all the times I thought well, this well definitely be the thing that breaks me… and then it wasn’t.

It was all the happiness, the stories, the hugs, the missed chances, the blatant mistakes, the fights, the kisses, the stress, the doubts, and all the uncertainty of the journey…

That made coming home so joyful.

***

What happens when we die?

I used to be so certain of the answer to that.

I used to be so well-educated on all things spiritual, particularly in my senior year of high school. I had answers, and those answers were supported by carefully selected Bible verses.

But I’m being a lot more honest with myself these days.

And I’m willing to say, I don’t know.

What happens when we die? 

During my morning runs this week, I thought about this over and over again.

If we are more than body, what happens to us? Where do we go? Do we travel to some higher dimension that we can’t possibly imagine with our three-dimensional brain? Will I return to this heaven in the mountains, some strange place that calls to me for reasons I don’t understand? Do we review our lives in retrospect, weighing everything we’ve done? Do we wait between worlds until we feel ready to move on? Are we re-united with the ones we’ve lost? Or do we lose all sense of self and join a larger, higher consciousness? And what would that even be like?

I thought a lot as I ran.

And then clarity hit me.

I was finally doing the thing that you were trying to teach me.

I was wondering.

I was in wonder.

I was allowing myself to not have the answers. To allow myself to live in the space of uncertainty. And I was doing it without thinking of myself as a failure.

Isn’t that what you were trying to teach us the whole time?

To wonder? To think?

To allow yourself to not have the answers, but by God, to think about it.

Sometimes, clarity hits you in odd ways.

Sometimes, it comes to you as you think about a loved one passing.

Sometimes, it seems almost supernatural.

Because when I slowed to a walk during one of my morning runs, I looked over at the sign for the apartment complex down the street. Lots of things around here are named “Normandy.” Normandy United Methodist Church. Normandy Elementary. Normandy Ridge Road.

But in that moment, the sign of the apartment complex was partially covered.

And all I saw was,

Norma.

It was my honor to have met you in life. I hope we meet again, if that’s what happens when we die.

If you see my dad (You can’t miss him. He’s about 6′ 3″, mostly bald, and he’ll be wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt, tucked into his swim trunks, which he calls his wrestling todds), please tell him that I’d give anything to listen to one of his annoying political rants, even if it meant hearing the words Make America Great Again hundreds of times–as long as he makes me his Famous Thresherman’s Breakfast when he’s done.

With gratitude,

Sharon

PoP # 12: Preschool Graduation Humor

When you pay $$,$$$ for 4.5 years of full-time, year-round infant/toddler/preschool daycare, you’re damn right we get a tassel.

felicity-graduation.jpg

There goes your college fund, Kid. Love you. Hope you had fun.

Just kidding.

We never had plans for a college fund. That’s why your mom teaches at a university.

For the win. Again.

America: Your Thoughts and Prayers Aren’t Enough (I Swear in This Post)

Every time there’s a mass shooting in this country…

Process those words and what they really mean…

Every time there’s a mass shooting in this country…

Every time

Every time

Every time

It’s the same ol’ shit.

We’re horrified. We wonder why. We blame this and that. No, it’s not that. It’s really this.

We talk about a breakdown in decency and culture and family.

We watch the cell phone videos of the carnage until we’re numb to it.

Until it doesn’t feel like reality anymore.

We honor the victims and the heroes who saved lives. News websites post pictures of strong men holding crying women.

We change our Facebook profile pictures to some snazzy cover that announces that “our prayers are with ________.”

A few of us call our representatives and insist on changing gun laws.

But it’s not as many people as those who shout louder,

“DON’T YOU TAKE MY GUNS FROM ME!”

Gun stocks soar.

(Just in time. Because they have been dropping since Trump was elected.)

Then we shrug and shake our heads and say,

“Man, that was tragic. Some people are just crazy. But look how people are responding. The victims were so brave. First responders are our heroes. So tragic. Some people are just crazy. Guess there’s nothing you can do about it. Hope it doesn’t happen here.”

This same ol’ shit will happen again.

And again.

And again.

And we’ll keep reacting the same way again.

And again.

And again.

Sandy Hook happened. And we still couldn’t get out shit together.

Who’s the crazy one?

***

I’m so tired of trying to explain to my international students why we have mass shootings in the United States.

They think it’s crazy.

(It IS crazy).

Why do Americans need guns? They want to know. Do they just love guns? Why do they love guns?  Why don’t you change your laws? I read that most Americans want to change gun laws. Is that true? It’s illegal to own a gun in my country. Do you think there will be a shooting here?

I wish I could say no.

But schools and universities are favorite places to open fire.

Sorry, but I don’t want to be part of a tragic story. I don’t want to be a hero teacher who throws herself in front of her students to protect them (unsuccessfully, of course) from an assailant, armed to the teeth with guns that can mow down hundreds.

I have two kids. I want to go home to them at the end of the day.

So no.

If you’re a politician who says, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims…”

That is not fucking enough.

 

Do your job and pass legislation to stop this shit from happening anymore.

Unkind comments on this post will be immediately deleted.

I’m not in the mood.

I Heart Daycare (and some ramblings about feminism)

Some women tear up as they leave their children at daycare for the first time.

I practically skip inside.

Grin from ear to ear.

I. LOVE. DAYCARE.

Last Monday was Henry’s first day of daycare. Another daycare mom saw me taking him inside and asked if it was his first day. After I nodded, she jumped out of her van and gave me the biggest hug and said, “Isn’t it great!”

“YESSS!!!” I yelled.

“With the first one, you’re bawling about it and then the second, you’re just like ‘have fun!'”

She gets it.

It’s true. The first time we started daycare was much more involved and made me a little nervous. We spent about 20 minutes going through the list of critical bits of information that the infant teacher needed to know to feed, change, and soothe our baby to sleep.

She likes to be rocked to sleep while being held sideways. Like this. And try to put her down 90 minutes after she wakes up. We haven’t started solids yet. How do you heat the bottle for her? She likes it just lukewarm. Not too warm. If she starts crying and she’s not tired, she might be wet. Sometimes. Just check. You’re going to check every hour or so, right? Okay. She’s really pretty easy to take care of. 

But after two days, I’m pretty sure we thought daycare was a Gift from God. (Thank you, Ms. Cathy!)

It was like, Wait… We just drop the baby off at 7:00 a.m. and we don’t have to be back until 6:00 p.m. at the latest????

Game on.

Here’s some money.

Here’s lots of money.

I love you. Here’s some cookies.

Do you like Panera? I got you a gift card. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Thank you so much. You’re wonderful.

daycare

Daycare pretty much taught our daughter about hand-washing, drinking from a cup, and sitting in a chair for meals. They helped us potty train her. They taught her how to sit in a circle for storytime, how to cut with scissors, how to hold a crayon, and how to fingerpaint. They provided an atmosphere full of dress-up clothes, kid’s kitchens, and books, books, books. (We didn’t have to buy any of it! And I’m not responsible for cleaning up the toys!) They taught her how to walk in a line and take turns. They showed her that a room can be stunningly decorated with the artwork of little hands.

And oh so important… They introduced her to the concept of sharing.

They used the classroom to teach rules. They modeled politeness and respect for others. They reinforced the lesson that actions have consequences.

This does not make me sad.

It doesn’t make me feel like I’m not doing my job as a mother.

I don’t regret sending my kids to daycare.

I wholeheartedly embrace it. I even embrace it to the tune of half of my salary.

***

On the surface, it’s easy to see why some moms love daycare as much as I do. It gives women a break from the role of being a mother.

This is huge.

Mothers in particular are constantly carrying around a mental list of things to do that just grows longer and heavier with each child.

Daycare allows them to put some of that down.

And pick something else up.

But my love of daycare goes beyond that.

Daycare, I believe, is an expression of feminism.

For those of you who are completely turned off by the term “feminism”, stay with me for a minute. Because that word gets a bad wrap in some circles. Feminism doesn’t mean “man-hating” or “female victimization.” (I do not blame men individually for the culture and structure of our society. I blame patriarchy.)

Feminism is about sharing power. It’s about making sure that everyone has a voice. It’s about making sure that when important decisions are made about policy (both in government and business), the people who are making those decisions don’t all come from the same background (White. Male. Native-born. Able-bodied. English-speaking.).

Millienials are the first generation to kind of get feminism. Not all of them do, but from my anecdotal observations, it seems like some of the assumptions that we had about gender and power are finally not assumptions anymore.

One of our former teenage babysitters told us that when she was catcalled in the school hallway, she turned around, went up to the guy, and told him in very clear terms,

“You don’t treat me that way!”

Baller.

***

When I was growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, we were taught in school to imagine our futures. What would we like to be when we grew up? Doctors, astronauts, teachers? Athletes? Superheroes? Dinosaurs? Robots? We were encouraged to let our imaginations run wild.

Like many women in their 30s, I truly do not ever remember an adult — teacher, parent, or family friend — telling me that I couldn’t do whatever I wanted to do. No one told me that I was expected to get married and have kids right away. (Although my grandmother did ask me when I turned 18 if I was interested in any good boys…)

I was like many of my female friends. In high school, we all worked hard and earned good grades.

We went to college.

We got good grades there, too.

Maybe we went to graduate school.

And we got good grades there, too.

We followed the rules. We were doing fine.

We got jobs. We didn’t negotiate salary (because that’s not what good girls do, even though they should, we just couldn’t imagine drawing a line in the sand. That’s not who we are.)

And then we had children.

And everyone looked at us and said, “Are you going to stay home or return to work?”

No one asked our partners if they were going to stay home.

And there you have it.

The message is clear. It’s your baby.

It doesn’t provide any economic benefit to this company. It’s even costing us productivity. Make up your mind. Do you want to work here or not? Six weeks is a lot of time for you to be gone. You don’t want to make that kid dependent on you anyway, do you?

What happened?

What about all the things that I could be now that I’m an adult?

Was it all just empty promises, fueled by good intentions and a dream of equality?

Because, I’m here to tell you, access to affordable (!!!) quality daycare is critical for keeping women’s voices at the table. (Side note: The United States was a hair’s breadth away from free universal preschool for all in the 1970s. Here’s what happened to that awesome, bipartisan bill.)

The tide is turning, though.

Almost all of the dads that I know assume as much responsibility for their kids’ lives as their mothers do. When they take care of their kids, they’re not “babysitting.”

I mean… duh.

They’re being dads.

When they take their kids to the grocery store, it’s not some miraculous event that comes around only once every few years.

My husband knows how to swaddle a baby better than I do. He was the one who made the baby food and showed me how to make smooth formula without all the clumps. He can change a diaper in the dark and he’s even yelled at me for making too much noise while he’s trying to put the baby to sleep.

Ah…

Hope springs eternal.

What I Know About Muslims

prayer

 

If you’ve never talked to a Muslim, I write this for you. Maybe you’d like to know more about what Muslims are like, but you’ve just never had the chance to talk to one.

Maybe you are a little afraid of Muslims.

Maybe you’re a lot afraid.

Wherever you are in your familiarity with Islam, I write this for you.

Not many Americans have had the opportunity to know and interact with as many Muslims as I have. And so, I consider it both my duty and my gift to share what I know and what I have seen.

***

I first started teaching university international students in 2006, which was one year after King Abdullah II of Saudi Arabia allocated a boatload of money for Saudi citizens–both men and women–to study abroad. Indeed, for the past ten years, I have taught hundreds of Saudi citizens, not to mention students from Kuwait, UAE, and Libya. Nearly all of my students from these countries were Muslim, though it’s important to mention that not all of them were.

Before I started teaching Muslim students, my knowledge of the Middle East and Islam was relegated to what I had read in the news of my post-9/11 world. I was a sophomore in college when September 11th happened and it awoke in me a new desire to understand the Middle East and Islam.

Why do they hate us? I remember thinking. Why do they want to hurt us?

Most of what I pieced together included a bunch of disjointed ideas about the Middle East, gathered from the news.

  • Many of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi Arabian.
  • The United States wanted to have a presence in the Middle East to get oil.
  • Women in the Middle East were oppressed, couldn’t drive, and were forced to wear veils.
  • Jihad meant “holy war” and it was required of all Muslims.
  • Criminals could be beheaded.

This fragmented understanding of Islam and the Middle East is what I took into my classroom at the beginning of my career.

Just as all Christians cannot be described in generalized terms, neither can Muslims. They have their Five Pillars of Islam. But referring to their Pillars of Islam didn’t show me their humanity in the same way that teaching them did.

Allow me to share some stories with you.

***

Zeanab

My first Saudi woman was named Zeanab. She was all smiles. Smiling. All the time. That is how I remember her. She was married to another student, Ali. They were newlyweds. Zeanab believed in destiny and God’s presence in her life. She told me that she had a dream of her husband before they met.

Zeanab was sharp and studious. She always, always, always did her homework. She talked in class. Frequently. She enjoyed working with other students. I loved having her in class.

I remember that another teacher had asked Zeanab if she had helped her husband with his essay. The teacher felt that Ali’s essay did not resemble his usual work and suspected that Zeanab had, probably unknowingly, committed academic dishonesty.

I remember that Zeanab came to me, in tears, at the beginning of one of my classes. She told me,

“I swear to you now that I am not helping Ali with his homework. But if you believe that I am, I will take the zero.”

I remember that.

***

Abdullah

Abdullah was like a lot of my young, 20-year-old Saudi men: single, humorous, and a bit clueless about general life skills, not to mention study skills. He lived with some cousins and friends, other young men just like him. They congregated outside of the building and smoked together during breaks. He was constantly coming to class late and not doing his homework. He fell further and further behind. His test grades were poor. He started acting out in class, and it was driving me nuts.

I scheduled a midterm conference with him, totally expecting him to be either defensive of his actions or combative. I was ready for chauvinism. I was ready to level this guy.

But when he walked through my door and sat down, I changed my mind. Instead of bringing the pain, I asked him what was going on in his life.

He stared at his shoes. He was silent.

“What’s going on, Abdullah?” I softened my voice. “Why aren’t you getting to class on time?”

Silence.

“Is something wrong?”

He looked away, but quietly said,

“This is the first time I live without my mother.”

With his profile facing me, I could see the tears. He pinched his eyes.

In that moment, I was ashamed at myself for assuming that he was just another tough guy who couldn’t stand having an American woman teaching him. Here was a boy trying to be a man, uprooted from his culture, and handed an armload of responsibilities that he never had before. It was like watching a novice swimmer trying to dog-paddle across a lake–with anchors attached to his feet.

***

Asma

Asma joined my class in 2008-2009. She and her husband came from Libya, just several years before the 2011 revolution and toppling of Gaddafi’s regime. They had a little boy, I think around 2-3 years old at the time. While she worked to finish her English language studies so she could start a Ph.D. in pharmacology, her husband stayed with their son at home.

And then she got pregnant.

We talked with her about how the pregnancy would impact her studies. She was determined to finish, but her due date was about one month before she would complete her English study.

It didn’t stop her.

In my morning writing and grammar classes, she was like a tiger feasting on a fresh pile of meat. She would devour everything that I said. While other students struggled to stay awake, she would take mountains of notes. She asked questions. She wrote my answers to her questions in her notebook. She reviewed her tests and asked about her mistakes. Then, she tried to learn from those mistakes.

But she was also putting her body under intense stress.

She went into labor early. I can’t remember how early she gave birth, but her daughter was born just under six pounds. Tiny. But perfectly healthy.

She missed Thursday and Friday classes.

She was back in class on Monday.

She finished our program on time and started her Ph.D. program.

There are few students in the past ten years that I can remember being as driven as Asma. But what made her truly unique was that she always, always, always asked how everyone else was before she talked about herself. She would periodically bring in Libyan snacks and sweets to share with the whole class, including a carafe of Arabic coffee.

She did not complain. She would privately talk to me about the stress that she was experiencing, but she never outsourced her frustration to external factors.

She always saw herself as the one who had control over her life.

***

Hathim

Hathim was in my Fall 2011 class. He was a brilliant student. He was one of the few students in my career who asked me to explain the past perfect tense to him–and then immediately got it. And immediately used it correctly in his writing. Hathim was preparing to enter the Master’s program in electrical engineering.

One day, Hathim was talking excitedly to another student in Arabic before we got started.

“What’s going on?” I asked him.

“You know what King Abdullah just did?”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“He’s going to allow women to vote in local elections soon.”

His eyes shone.

***

Fahad

My father passed away on a Thursday night in June 2014. I found out the following Friday morning. We drove to Minnesota over Father’s Day weekend to attend the funeral. I was gone from class for a whole week.

When I checked my email after returning home, I saw email after email from students, most of them from my Muslim students. All expressing their condolences.

Then Fahad came to my office.

“Teacher, we just wanted you to know that we are so sorry about your father. Be patient, Teacher. God is with you.”

***

Here is what I want to say about Muslims:

When I was in my early 20s, I used to think that Islam somehow convinced its followers to hate Americans and Christianity.

But after just a few interactions with my Muslim students, I knew that could not be the whole story.

I could not simplify terrorism’s origins to strictly religion. My students followed a different religion, but I could still see myself in them. I could see their humanity. Their vulnerability. Their generosity. Their love. If they followed a religion that necessarily espoused hatred, how could their hearts be so tender to someone like me?

It just didn’t make sense.

The jihadist terrorists that we so often hear about in the news are sacrificing themselves for a distorted, extreme version of Islam–but the people who are nurturing and training those terrorists are doing so for much more complex political and economic reasons. Islam doesn’t teach Muslims to be terrorists and jihad doesn’t call all Muslims to strap on suicide vests.

Islam is being used as a tool of terrorism, but the roots of terrorism are economic and political.

But blaming the whole religion of Islam is much easier to explain.

It’s more convenient.

Even though it’s completely misinformed. Even though it’s devoid of context. Even though it’s devoid of humanity.

So when I hear that the idea of establishing a registry of Muslims in America is being floated as an idea that the Trump administration is considering, I smell opportunism ready to reap the harvest of fear.

I can see plenty of Americans–many who have never personally interacted with someone who is Muslim–nodding their heads along with the idea.

Jihadists terrorists need to be stopped! Look what they did to Paris and Brussels! We’re next! Find out who’s here and vet them! Give them tests! Find out who supports Shari’a law! We’ve got to know what they believe and what their values are! They’re anti-American! They’re the next Trojan horse!

To those Americans, I offer you not only my stories of teaching my Muslim students, but also my stories of learning from them what the heart of Islam is.

It’s their intense love and devotion to their family. They cannot understand how Americans could support the idea of nursing homes.

It’s their generosity and hospitality. I cannot tell you how many plates of dates I have been offered and how many cups of Arabic coffee have been poured for me.

It’s their devotion to their faith. To witness all of your Muslim students, faithfully fasting every day in the month of Ramadan. To hear them fall collectively to their knees during Jummah, their Friday prayer. To see them stop in the middle of the day to pray.

These are values and behaviors that I have witnessed over and over again across a range of students from many countries over ten years. To be sure, there is a great range across all of those I have known. Some are more conservative and some are more progressive. Some are a little more hesitant about participating in American culture and others throw themselves headfirst into the American life. Some were amazing students whom I enjoyed teaching every day and others were a pain in the neck and teaching them was a struggle.

But even across the wide range of my experiences, I could see the values and behaviors that were shared among all of them.

I am humbled by my Muslim students.

Because in the beginning, they were more accepting of my religion than I was of theirs.

Excuse me while…

I hyperventilate.

As my personal, career, and writing lives all collide in massive, continuous explosions for the next three weeks.

Round one of quizzes/tests/assessments.

Midterm grades.

Midterm conferences.

Oh yeah, and keep teaching.

Coordinating, coordinating, coordinating.

Presenting to university faculty. Presenting at a conference.

Meet and plan class with the practicum student. She needs to start teaching in two weeks!

Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop (and all the lesson planning for subs so I can attend said workshop).

TESOL 2016 Convention (and all the lesson planning for subs so I can attend said convention).

Flights. Hotels. Taxis and mass transit. Receipts, receipts, expense report within the week please!

You’ve been selected to be observed by one of the reviewers for our accreditation! They’ll need a lesson plan. Can you submit it before you leave for TESOL? 

Don’t forget your performance review is coming up! Everything needs to be updated. Tell us everything that you did in the past year to develop yourself. And you need new goals for next year. Got to keep growing! 

Church get-togethers.

That one kid’s birthday party.

Can you get the groceries before you come home on Friday? I guess after that dinner you’re going to?

More diapers. Oh my God, enough with the diapers already! Sit on the potty every time! I know you’re doing it at school!

Post-Its hanging from the sides of my computer monitor. Post-Its hanging from the bottom of other Post-Its.

I’m surrounded by Post-Its.

IMG_20160331_072135

It’s a kind of nightmare–all these reminders of things to not forget.

I realize in a few weeks, I’ll be fine. I’ll be thankful to have had all of these opportunities. I’ll feel like, What was the big deal anyway?

But right now, hyperventilating.

Okay. Now, I’m done.

Onward.

Talking about the hard stuff: Teacher as agent of social change

**Disclaimer: This post is quite off-topic compared to my usual posts about motherhood, but, hey, I happen to think a lot about other things, too.

Every now and then, some topic comes up in my advanced speaking and listening class that causes me to put on my social-justice-superhero cape and tackle an issue head-on. Sometimes, the topic is the death penalty. Sometimes, it’s death with dignity.

This term, it was rape.

First, some background: I teach English to international students in an intensive English program. In other words, I’m teaching adults who want to earn a college degree… but don’t have strong enough English skills to do so yet.

Our students primarily come from two countries, but, trust me, we have all kinds of students. The motivated. The goofballs. The hapless wanderers. The spoiled rich kids. The budding scholars. The “I-here-for-vacation-only-Teacher”s. The lost. The dreamers. The future politicians. The victims of their own self-doubt.

We have them all.

Some days, I leave my job feeling like nothing that I do makes a difference. Some days, I feel that my students don’t care about anything besides this grand illusion that they can just extract the essence of this “academic knowledge” from the university and then infuse themselves with all of it, like a patient hooked up to an IV. (And, hey, there are days when I totally wish that I could simply transfuse all of them with a healthy dose of phonics).

It’s hard for my students to understand that all knowledge is culturally situated. No knowledge is pure of the context and culture in which it is taught, so they can’t simply absorb academic knowledge at an American university without absorbing pieces of American culture along with it.

Hell, it was hard for me to understand this when I was their age (and I was struggling with these ideas in my native language). In my freshmen English class in college, I struggled particularly with an excerpt of Paolo Freire’s Pedadgogy of the Oppressed, for two main reasons:

1) I couldn’t understand the excerpt because–even though I had been an Honors English student in high school–my reading ability wasn’t developed enough to easily parse out academic English

2) I had no personal experience to understand Freire’s “banking concept” of education.

With the help of some in-class discussions, I finally understood Freire’s “banking concept” of education.

Yes! I get it!

But why did he write about this? Everyone knows that this is how people learn. You listen to your teacher, memorize, and repeat.

Well, maybe not in English, but for math and science, that makes perfect sense.

Oh… wait. Freire thought the banking concept was bullshit?

Oops.

And even though I eventually understood that Freire was decrying the widespread belief in the banking concept of education, I still couldn’t quite understand what he meant about critical pedagogy or transformative social justice. What did any of that mean? How did empowering citizens to transform society have anything to do with getting an education?

Wasn’t an education just learning how to do your future job? Wasn’t that why we were all studying in college? To become teachers and doctors and lawyers and business people? That was why were studying, wasn’t it?

Wasn’t it?

This is where I got stuck. And I think this is where my students get stuck, too.

***

As a teacher, now reflecting back on Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I not only understand Freire’s argument to move education into the realm of social justice, but I also understand how limiting the definition of “education” to “technical skills for a job” keeps a population from making societal change.

It keeps us believing in the American dream, that if we just work hard enough, all of our dreams will come true. Even worse, it keeps us believing that the poor, the uneducated, and the imprisoned are in those positions for the sole reason that they chose to be. That they have earned their lot in life solely because of their lack of enterprise and effort. In this extreme sense of individualism, no other factors are strong enough to influence a person’s life as much as his/her individual ability and effort.

I believe that teachers are especially situated in society to confront these myths.

***

At the same time, I am an agent of this very narrow view of education.

I deliver language lessons.

For the purpose of increasing my student’s English language proficiency.

For the purpose of them preparing for jobs.

My job description does not include any language about the necessity of teaching for social change. Although my particular university does boast about its Marianist values–one of which is social justice–my primary job is to deliver instruction that helps my students improve their English, and (hopefully!) develop their ability to be independent learners.

***

And yet, I found myself in a classroom of international students with a teachable moment ripe in the air. One student had just said that he thought boys and girls should be taught together until they are 10 years old.

Why? Because it would decrease the instances of rape.

I did a double-take. “Did you say rape?”

He nodded.

“So this is a problem in your country?”

He nodded.

I thought for a moment. “How does putting girls and boys together in the same class decrease the number of rapes?”

He shook his head for a moment, as if processing the idea. As if figuring out how to phrase something that was so obvious that it didn’t usually require words.

“It’s just, maybe it happens more when there are a lot of girls together in one room. When there are boys and girls together, I think the rape will be less.”

Oh boy.

This is the moment that language teachers dream of–that moment to engage. That moment when language takes it rightful place as a conveyor of ideas, not this monolithic body of knowledge that my students need to acquire before they can actually communicate.

This is the moment when my students move beyond the in my country, we do this, and in my opinion, it’s very important because...

This is the moment when I have a choice–to confront age-old, culturally embedded stereotypes about gender and violence–or to move on in the language lesson because of my fear of the emotions that the discussion would summon forth.

I chose to engage. Carefully. But to engage nonetheless.

“What causes rape?” I asked.

Silence.

“Anyone?”

Silence.

“Is rape going to happen if a lot of girls or women are gathered in one place and a man is teaching them?” I asked.

Slience, and then a quiet, “…maybe.”

“Okay. Here’s a question: Why do people rape?”

Silence.

“Why do you think people rape?” I repeated.

“…maybe because the woman is dress very… not nice. Maybe too sexy.”

I didn’t laugh or roll my eyes. I just shook my head. “Nope.”

Someone else spoke. “Maybe because she walk alone at night.”

“Nope,” I said.

“But I know a story, Teacher,” one student said. “One woman, she walk alone at night, and this happened to her. It terrible.”

“I agree. It is terrible. But it’s also not her fault.”

Silence.

“Listen, rape is not the woman’s fault.” (I used “woman” because for this group of students, the concept of a woman raping a man is totally impossible–but that’s another topic).

At this point, I could see the fierce agreement in the eyes of my female students.

“People rape because they want power or control over someone else. It’s not because a woman is too sexy. Rape isn’t about sex. It’s about power and control. And rape happens over and over and over again… Why?”

Silence.

“Because we don’t talk about it,” I said. “Because rape is so shameful that we’d rather go to our graves not talking about it then to invite that shame onto our families.”

At this point, the heaviness in the room was palpable.

“Isn’t that right?” I asked.

Around the room, heads nodded. Even those of my male students.

“Rape happens because of power and shame,” I stated emphatically. “And unless we start talking about it, it’s going to continue to happen. Can you imagine if this happened to your daughter? Your sister? Can you imagine how you would feel if you couldn’t do anything about it because you didn’t want people to know about the rape? Can you imagine this?”

And at this point I could see on their faces that they could imagine this horrible reality–because some of them had lived it.

One of my students softly said, “It’s happen in schools sometimes, but also it’s happen a lot in families. Like between cousins.”

Heads nodded.

***

Some days, I leave work feeling like nothing I can do makes a difference.

Some days, I leave work feeling like this is the only thing that I can do that makes a difference.

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