The Coach Learns a Lesson

“Whatever you do, we have to beat this team!”

Eight eager heads nod, mouth consent.  We all hate this coach.

Two of my girls are injured but have come along to support their teammates.  Our center, a tall blonde, new to basketball waits for the ball drop.  She easily catches the ball and dribbles towards the opponents net, seeing her peer pull into position as they’ve practiced so many times.

I played basketball in Grade nine, but that was so many moons ago that it is almost a completely different game now.  I volunteered as coach for the girls, otherwise they would not have the opportunity to play.  The game moves at such a fast pace, and I remember how intimidated I once felt out on the court.  I nod to Nicole to let her know she did the right the thing.  Lauren, shortest but fastest of my girls, takes the ball around her block and passes to Megan at the net.  Megan shoots and misses.

“Good job, Girls!”  I yell. “Keep trying!”

Ours is a small school with less then three hundred kids – mostly farming families – a tightly knit community.  Because of our size, our league includes private schools, this one a Christian academy. We’ve travelled a fair distance to get here, and I marvel that the girls still have energy at the end of the school day.

The coach for the opposing team is a bastard – I have no other way to describe him. He yells non-encouraging comments at his girls, and likes to cheat.  The first time I encountered him, I mentioned that I was uncertain in my role, so he took advantage and put his fouled out player back on the court.  When one of my team mentioned it to me and I called him on it, he sneered:

“It’s not my job to police the court.  You’re the one who has to call it.”

Unfair, I seethed.  This man is uncouth.

Although I only have eight players – six this day – my girls have heart.  They come out every morning and practice, and I often catch them in the gym at lunch hours.  I could not be more proud of them.  Seeing my lack of experience, one of the fathers has offered to run them through drills and guide me on the finer points.  I still have a lot to learn.

The bastard coach is screaming now, and I see that another of his players has roughhoused Amy.  Amy, also new to basketball, is hesitant despite her size, and I can see that she is being taken advantage of.  I call time out.

“Hold your ground, Amy,” I tell her.  “You are bigger than that girl.  She’ll back down when she sees you’re not willing to be intimidated. “

Her teammates pat her on the back and the game resumes, but this time Amy takes an elbow to the face and folds in pain.

The ref catches it and the fouls in our favour are adding up. The opposing coach is red in the face.  His player rushes off the court and I see her body shrink as she receives her chastisement.

These are just young girls, I think, this young woman no different than mine.  They are learning, growing, and developing confidence.  Or should be. This coach is missing the point. I can feel my anger building.

With just seconds to go to half-time, we have the ball, but just as Lauren readies to pass to her waiting teammate, she is kicked in the leg and crumples to the ground.  The foul is called, but this is one to many for my liking.  Something has to change or I will have no players left.

The buzzer announces a break in the paly and my girls huddle around. I can tell that their frustration matches mine.

“Grab a drink,” I tell them, “and come back.”

Despite my lack of expertise, these girls are winners.  Our streak has been going all season.  The dedication and willingness these girls show is remarkable, and it occurs to me that what is bringing them down right now is not the other coach or his too rough players, but my attitude.  Always eager to please, they are taking on my agenda, and my agenda is not a good example.

“Sit down girls, and rest,” I suggest when they return.  “I need to talk to you.”

I tell them that I have never met such a respectable group of students, that they demonstrate so much heart and courage that I am honoured to work with them.  I thank them for putting up with my lack of knowledge and remind them that we are all here to learn.  And then I tell them to have sympathy for the other team, that even though their coach is obnoxious, he is what he is, and it isn’t up to us to carry that burden.

“What we can do, however, “ I tell them “is set an example.  You are good at what you do.  You train hard and now is the time to demonstrate your skills.  Let’s get back out there and focus on what is important. Show them how you shine.”

And shine they do – determined faces breaking into grins as they look to me for approval after each successful play.  I am ecstatic, bursting, and when the end of game signal buzzes, we are victorious.

We will go on to win to the gold at the provincials – a triumph for these small town girls, who will ever remain gold in my heart.

(Note:  Names have been changed)

One Thing

Before ME/CFS, I was a Learning Support Teacher, overseeing a three-room Resource center for students with special needs. It was hectic, always demanding, and I loved it. Four years later, I still dream about teaching, which was the inspiration for today’s poem: “A Call To Teach”.  This post, originally penned in November of 2013, captures a day in the life of a teacher.

One Woman's Quest

Sipping my second cup of morning tea, I breathe in the solitude that nature dropped on my doorstep overnight:  great mounds of white, silently commanding the world to a halt.  The tea is extra sweet and warming when accompanied by the luxury of leisure time.

Shaking off the frayed edges of yesterday’s insanity, I contemplate a more relaxed day – some laundry that has needed tending to all week, a few hours of schoolwork, and maybe even an apple crumble.

The snow continues to fall outside my window, softly, without a sign of letting up and I rise from my last sip and stretch, lingering to revel in the majestic beauty of the landscape before me.

Yesterday, everything was chaos, or so it seemed.  The wind was howling and a cold sleet constantly beat against the windows, and indoors, the students were restless, hyper, inattentive, and I was short on…

View original post 315 more words

The domino effect.

The inspiration for today’s post comes from Dr. Andrea Dinardo who I follow fervently.

In my second year of teaching I was assigned to a behavioural class, which was composed of nineteen students, ages sixteen to nineteen.  Recognizing early on that this class would need a special approach, I developed something I called:  Mrs. K’s Challenge.

Mrs. K’s Challenge was an idea that I would present to my students, have them implement for a certain amount of time, and then journal about.    I hoped that by trying new things, the students would gain more confidence, as most of them lacked self-esteem.

One challenge was to make a small change to their daily routine, such as to wake up ten minutes earlier each day, or to make a point of talking to someone new each day, or anything else that they thought might make a difference.

The results of this challenge were more than I could have expected.  Several students woke up earlier and reported having time for breakfast, which seemed to help their day run more smoothly.

One student said he decided to eat lunch with a different person everyday and had made a new friend.

The most striking story came from a young man I will call Shea.  Shea was an ESL student (English as a Second Language) who had emigrated from Southeast Asia.  He was a large boy: solid with a neck like a bull.  He liked to wear tank tops which showcased his muscles, and touted heavy gold chains and menacing tattoos.  Shea had the countenance of a storm about to unfurl.  He seldom spoke above a growl and I had never seen him smile.

When I asked the class if anyone would like to share what they did to change things up, to my delight, Shea raised his hand.

“I decided to smile at everybody that passed in me halls,” he declared proudly.  “And you know what?  People actually started talking to me.”

Turns out Shea’s intimidating persona was just a cover.

A smile is a powerful thing!

Thriving Under Pressure

IMG_1419

Smile like you’re changing the world. Because you are. 🌸

We often think of changing of the world as some great big, grand gesture. Performed on stage with millions of people watching. When in fact it’s just you and me (and 7 billion others). Smiling, connecting, caring, and loving. Every moment. Every encounter. We are the dominos.

View original post

Dreaming Of Work

I dream that I am teaching again, have two classes:  a grade 9 Math first thing in the morning and a senior History last period.  I am late, so someone else has to start the Math class, and when I do arrive, I am unprepared and uncertain that I can proceed.  Last class is more club-like than a classroom and I struggle to be heard until another teacher comes to help.  Nothing is working and I have to admit that it is all beyond me.

One of the functions of dreams is to aid in processing prevalent life issues.  Since illness struck in 2014, I have not been able to work: a situation that haunts me relentlessly.  I truly believed that teaching was my life’s calling. th-1

I go over and over in my head, how I could make it work.  Teaching only one or two classes is a solution I always land on, but the dream reminds me that I would have no control over my schedule, nor what I taught.  Having two classes at either end of the school day would solve nothing in terms of managing energy.  As the dream reminds me, I could be asked to teach anything (and have) whether it’s in my area of expertise, or not.  (Math and History are definitely not what an English/French teacher would choose.)

The crucial message in the dream, though, is that I would arrive late and unprepared – two things I’d never do when I was well.  Mornings, I am reminded, are my worst time of day now, as battling the fatigue and lethargy in my body is a constant challenge.  Even at the end of my teaching days, I would fall asleep at the wheel on the way to work – part of why I conceded to go off in the first place.  That has not changed, in fact; I no longer drive.

I also would not have the energy to prepare for classes that I once had.  In the past, I would spend hours each day putting together lessons for the days ahead, trying to be organized enough to handle any situation that might present itself.   I just don’t have the stamina necessary to do that right now, as the dream gently points out.th-3

Before I was diagnosed with ME/CFS, I struggled each day with being able to get enough air to project to a classroom.  Standing and sitting became a struggle.  I would sweat, and the harder I tried to pull myself together, I felt on the verge of passing out.  I now know this is characteristic of the disease, and as much as I’d like to think I could overcome the other challenges of teaching, the reality is, my body is just not capable.

Disability is so much more than just a physical challenge.  It is about loss of livelihood.  It is about losing a sense of self, purpose, and conceding to a path no one would choose for themselves.  It is mentally coming to terms with the fact that how you once defined yourself is no longer relevant, and that going back is not an option, no matter how much your soul yearns for it.

At the end of the dream, I surrender to the fact that I have a long way to go before I can teach again.  Maybe, I’ll never get there.

Maybe, hopefully, in the letting go, I will find renewed purpose.th-1.jpg

 

Churry

Cognitive functioning is currently down a notch.  (I know I’ve complained of this before, but bear with me – I think it merits understanding.)easy-lentil-curry-3-560x840

I found a recipe for Easy Lentil Curry on the blog:  Simple VeganSince I love curries and lentils, I decided “easy” must mean it is doable even for me.  Part of ME/CFS is a compromised working memory and executive functioning, two terms I had been very familiar with prior to becoming ill, in my role as Special Education teacher.  Knowing what I do about learning disabilities, I applied the same steps I would recommend to students.

  1.  Scan the material.    Before I committed to the recipe, I scanned the document for amount of effort required, such as chopping, since this is physically difficult for me.
    When I determined that it appeared to be within my range of capability, I scanned for ingredients.  One thing stood out:  chili was called for, and I knew I was out.  I sent my husband on a mission.
  2. Ready resources.  I gathered all the required ingredients and set them out on the counter, along with measuring devices and cooking utensils.  By now, I had the requisite chili.
  3. Read the recipe.  Before tackling the cooking, I made sure to read through the recipe start to finish.  Knowing how my mind works (or more appropriately, doesn’t work), I read the recipe over several times for a period of three or four days before actually tackling it.

Go time!  I picked a day when I had no other plans, and felt fairly well rested.  Before started I perused the recipe again and noted that the author suggested soaking the rice and lentils ahead of time.  I couldn’t remember having read this part before, but decided to follow instructions, so; I measured out a cup of each and put them in a colander to soak, while I chopped the onion and garlic.

Working memory is the part of the brain that holds information received and carries it through to application.  This part is always a little tricky for me.  To minimize failure I try to read one step at a time.  The first step read:

Cook the rice and lentils according to package directions.

(Inject stunned silence here.) th-2-1

I had just mixed the rice and lentils to soak.

I checked the packages.  They both needed different cooking times.

Frustrating, yes, but I wasn’t about to give up.  I’d been dreaming about this dish for days.

I tossed the first batch, measured out more, and prepared as per directions, deciding to walk away and have a rest while they cooked.

Determined, I started again, chopping the onion and garlic, and opting to add ground ginger, as two vegetable preps are my limit.

I added one ingredient at a time, referencing back to amounts indicated to ensure I didn’t miss anything.  Each item used I moved to a different part of the counter to indicate my progress.  A teaspoon of this, two teaspoons of that and that and that, and voila, my curry was complete…

Except that the curry spice sat alone on the counter, unused.

What?  How had I missed that?

I read back over the recipe.  It clearly stated two teaspoons of curry powder.  Two teaspoons cumin, two teaspoons turmeric, and two teaspoons curry.  And chili, right?

No chili.

Somehow, every time I read curry, my mind substituted chili.  I’d even sent my husband out to fetch some.  WTF?

I wanted to cry.

Instead, I added the curry and let it simmer.  What else was there to do?

This is how the learning disabled mind operates:  it will lock onto a concept – correct or incorrect – and not let it go.  From the very first time I scanned the recipe and mistook curry for chili, my mind inserted chili into the ingredients list.  If I had not made a visual checklist for myself by lining up the ingredients before hand, I would never have discovered my mistake; I was that certain of myself.

In cooking, such mistakes are maddening, but not devastating.  Instead of lentil curry, I’d made lentil churry; it was still edible.th-1

Imagine though, how debasing it must be for students whose minds, like mine, just don’t process information at the same pace, or in the same way, as the rest of the class.  Ever since I’ve contracted this disease, I think of those students.  I think of how, if I had to pass a test by completing this recipe, I’d be screwed.  I’d done everything right:  scanned the material up front, gathered all the necessary resources, and studied before application time came around.  Still I failed.

Educators put measures in place to help support special needs students, but is it enough?

As I bungle through each day, fighting with my own mental issues, I have to wonder.

Educational Walls

I have this recurring dream that I am teaching a class, composed of adults and adolescents, which is spread out over three rooms.  Try as I might to build community through ice breaking activities, it is physically impossible to reach all the students at one time.

I am reminded of how it feels to teach grade 12 English at Summer School – twenty-two days in which to cover a semester’s worth of curriculum in a classroom populated by adult learners, or kids who have failed their regular class, or students wanting to get ahead – a nightmare worthy of repetitive dream processing.

The dream is actually a good analogy for the challenges facing teachers today.  While courses are divided into academic, applied, and essential (in some instances) we are expected to gear each lesson to different learning styles.  Recently, there has been talk of de-streaming again: lumping all students together regardless of aptitude.  th

My first teaching assignment was a grade 7/8 split class.  While it was permissible to combine some lessons, math definitely needed to be taught separately.  So my job was to figure out how to keep the 8’s occupied while I was teaching the 7’s and vice versa.  At the same time, I had to be able to switch at the sign of a hand from one grade level to another in order to answer questions.  That may sound easy enough, except that I am a language and literature major – math having been abandoned after high school.

Are you beginning to sense the dilemma here?

How does a teacher respond to the many different needs of her students, breaking down the walls of differences, so that everyone is included and thriving?    I don’t think I can honestly ever say that it worked to my satisfaction.  Bent on reaching each student, and ensuring success for all, I always felt like I was falling short.  Obviously, I was effective enough to be continually employed, but that is not my point.  I really feel, as I do in the dream, that I am not getting through to everyone.  th-1

So, what are the three rooms as depicted in my dream?  In the dream, I am teaching English, and the exercise I am attempting to do, is one which allows the students to experience for themselves how easily we change the meaning of a sentence by altering a word.  It doesn’t work, naturally, because of the walls separating the individual rooms:  a) not everyone can hear what is going on; b) not everyone can see the board from where they are; and c) I cannot monitor student reaction.  (All normal classrooms concern, by the way, even when we are in the same room.)

Most of my teaching career has centered around working with students with learning disabilities, which ironically enough, I now struggle with myself, as this illness affects my cognitive functioning.  How that manifests itself for me, is that I am not able to multi-task effectively.  For example, I cannot possibly conger the concentration needed to write this blog if there are distractions around me – no matter how innocent they might be.  I need to be in a separate room, where it is quiet.  (One room defined.)  This is true for many students, especially those with ADHD.th-2

I am also not able to process information in a timely fashion, which means that if someone throws me an idea or question for which I have no immediate context, then I need time to think it through.  I might get stuck on their tone of voice, or something I was thinking about (unrelated) before they presented their information, or even a word that my brain feels compelled to play with. Time to process, could be a separate room.

Thirdly, I have difficulty accessing stored information and articulating responses: it comes out haltingly, or as unfinished words or sentences, like a car sputtering or backfiring.  Well-meaning others often jump in with suggestions to help me along, but that only frustrates me further.  Patience is needed to enable me to express myself.  I am not stupid as my speech might sometimes suggest, I just have to work harder than others to express myself.  I need space to think through what I want to say and then formulate what and how I want to respond.

None of these rooms actually exist in a normal class, thus the need for them becomes walls.  A typical classroom is noisy, fast-paced, and demanding.

Imagine how that must feel as a child with a learning disability, not to mention what it does to their self-esteem when others laugh at their inability to stay on task, or grasp new concepts immediately, or fail to respond to questions coherently.

I am not currently not working in an instructive role, but I think about my students often, and obviously still cannot shake how deeply I believe we are failing many of them.  th-3

I don’t have answers at the moment, but as Dr. Phil says, we can’t change what we don’t acknowledge.  I am willing to acknowledge the inefficiencies, and start to ask the right questions.

Is it just me, or is anyone feeling the same way?

A Reflection on Need for Reform in Education

Having been absent from the school system for the better part of two years has not fueled a complacency about education; it has given me a lot of time to reflect on my experiences.

As indicated before, my passion in teaching was with special needs student, and I spend many days thinking about one or another teenager and how we might have served their needs more appropriately.

Adolescence is a crucial period in the development of a citizen of the future: which is how I approached my work:  How could I best help prepare this child for the life that awaited him/her?
th-1I came into teaching at a time when building self-esteem was the all important goal, which really translated into:  let’s give children an inflated sense of self, build their reliance on external signals, and teach them to doubt their ability to overcome adversity, giving them a false sense of protection and entitlement moving forward.  Sorry if that is harsh, however; as a parent who raised my children on the principle that I was responsible for helping them finding their wings and ability to fly (i.e., be responsible and accountable), I shuddered frequently over the disservice we did to many students.
thWhile I do not have answers, I do believe that we need to enter into a serious dialogue that addresses current issues.  At the point in which I fell ill, the trend was swaying towards a recognition that resiliency is the best thing we can foster in students, and there was a movement towards looking at ways to change the instructional format and expectations for assessment, in order to define “success” in a way that defined more personal outcome than an assimilist attitude of mass conformity.

Forty years ago, I was invited to participate in a panel composed of educators, parents, and former students of the high school I had attended.  The question they put to their alumni was whether or not we felt that our experience at the secondary level had helped prepare us for life beyond.  The resounding response was “no”.   This was before the age of technology changed the landscape of the post-secondary world.  Success today requires adaptability, versatility, and a willingness to engage in life long learning.  Are these the skills our high school students are pocketing during their high school years?

I know I am ranting into the wind here, but the haunted memory of so many children, who lives touched mine, lingers with me, especially how inadequately their needs were met.

This post is dedicated to all those students who spark was extinguished by bureaucracy, failed initiatives, and a system whose mandates often have more to do with keeping “bums in seats” than actually making a difference.

Ken Robinson’s take (although focused on the U.S. system) speaks much more eloquently about the matter:  (If you haven’t time to watch the whole talk – please skip to the last two minutes – this is the part that brought tears to my eyes.)