Saturday, December 28, 2013

Maybe Eventually…Thoughts on a New Year

While I may not be so enthusiastic about the holidays, I can get into New Year’s with the best of them.  It must have something to do with my love of countdowns.  Life just isn’t the same now that Dick Clark isn’t counting down that final minute each year.  I genuinely enjoy reflecting on the year that’s past and planning for the one that awaits.  (In truth, I’m mostly just glad there are about 360 days until I have to be ready for Christmas again.) And of course, there are the resolutions.  Every good fourth grade teacher makes her students write some goals for the upcoming year, which always gets me thinking about mine…

A lot of people have sworn off New Year’s resolutions, and I can respect that.  A new start isn’t always necessary, and when it is, it can come any day of the year- that I do believe.  But I’ve never been able to resist the added motivation of a fresh start that comes with a fresh year. Granted, last year, I decided that my New Year’s resolutions would instead be Martin Luther King Day resolutions because I was still just too worn out from the holidays to get it together by January 1st, but I did still set some new goals at least.  I think the delayed start may have enabled me to keep my new habits up until President’s Day instead of Valentine’s Day last year, but I’ve never once made it to March.

So why do I keep making these short-lived resolutions year after year?  This is a question I’ve been pondering lately and I’ve decided it’s because I’ve bought into the idea that so many women (and men) have- that I’m not (and will I ever be?) good enough.  I tell myself that if I were healthier, more organized, more physically fit, more spiritual, simply more TOGETHER…THEN, my life could truly begin.  I use the terms, “one day,” “if only” and “maybe eventually” way too much and I convince myself that God uses the same phrases when He looks down on my life, as He too shakes His head and wonders if I’ll ever begin to live up to what He had in mind for me. 

This year, as I assess where I am and where I’d like to be, some lessons that I learned just recently keep creeping into my mind and challenging this perception that I’ve always had.  This fall, I participated in a small group Bible study by Priscilla Shirer entitled Gideon and subtitled “Your weakness.  God’s strength.”  This Bible study was eye-opening and I’d venture to say even life-changing for me, as I’ve always had an issue with pride and wanting others to think I’m perfect (or at least darn near perfect).   The idea that God intentionally fashioned us with imperfections that are meant to draw attention to His strength was a concept that had somehow escaped me for thirty years’ worth of church attendance. 

The author of the study used the metaphor that our weakness is a specifically designed key that unlocks a door would otherwise remain closed, both to us and to others who would benefit from it being opened.  She also pointed out that even once we recognize that we have the key for a reason and it unlocks that door, the door will still remain closed if we choose not to open it.  Opening it reveals opportunities to know God, both for us and for those around us, in ways that we never would have experienced Him otherwise.  But as long as we hide our key away and keep the door sealed, we are limiting how much He can be glorified through our lives.

God used this study to speak to me about my own weaknesses and the ways He could use them if only I’d let go of my pride and turn the key in that door.  And now He’s using it to remind me that there are other doors just waiting to be opened NOW, not “one day,” “if only,” or “maybe eventually.”  It would be great to improve myself as I take on those new opportunities…to eat healthy, get myself organized, exercise more, get it together…and of course, to be more deeply rooted in Him.  However, He is always ready and willing to use me NOW if only I’ll let Him. 

God’s plans aren’t always what we have in mind.  This year, He has shown me just how much He can do with a life that I would have considered completely derailed more than once.  My challenge to myself, as well as to each of you, as we are faced with a brand new year, is to let God meet us where we are.  It doesn’t matter to Him that we think we need to lose a few pounds, clean out our closets, cut out soda, or even go to church, read our Bible and pray more first.  There are opportunities NOW all around us – not once we save up for that mission trip, once our family circumstances are different, or once we learn how to manage our time better.  I promise you that He wants to use each of us to share His love TODAY, just the way we are, because His power is made perfect in weakness.  He’s just waiting on us to open the door.  And maybe someone else is too.

But He said to me, 
“My grace is sufficient for you, 
for My power is made perfect in weakness.”  
-2 Corinthians 12:9

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Hardest Question

Kids almost always speak what’s on their mind.  That’s one of the things I love about them.  It’s also one of the things that drives me craziest about them.  Especially when I’m asked the hardest question, the one I’ve yet to figure out how to answer, the one that inevitably comes more often than I’m prepared for (and seemingly more so this time of year):  “Mrs. Jones, don’t you want to have kids?”

I always smile, pat the unassuming, innocent fourth grader on the head or back, and say, “Of course, I’d love to have kids one day.”  They always smile and nod, satisfied with the answer, because in reality, they were just making sure I genuinely like them as much as I seem to.  They can’t imagine why someone who loves being with them as much as I obviously do wouldn’t want my own little person to come home to.  So, I assure them that I’d like nothing more, with a smile and a simple answer.  That’s the easiest and only way to explain it to a nine-year-old.  

But sometimes, I stop and consider how I’d answer if I could actually be honest.  If I could speak the truth when asked the hardest question, I’d reply with these words:  “I want to have a child the way most people want to win the lottery.”  At this point, it certainly feels like my odds are similar in both situations.  I can’t imagine it actually happening but if it did, I’d be thrilled beyond imagination.  I’d thank the Lord, thank my lucky stars, check and double check the facts to make sure it was true, and quite possibly hire a skywriter to announce the news.  Then, I’d start praying in earnest that I could handle such a tremendous and long-awaited blessing with grace, with poise, and with faithfulness to the God who gives perfect gifts. 

With that said, I don’t gamble much.  I’m just as content with what I already have in my possession as I am with the prospect of going double or nothing.  In the same way that I don’t buy a handful of lottery tickets each week, I haven’t put it all on the line for a chance at a child of our own the way many would expect someone in my situation to do.  I would never, ever judge a person for any risk they took in this area, because the reward is certainly worth the risk (considerably more so than is the case with the lottery).  But for me, there has been greater reward than I ever could have imagined in learning to be content here and now, without taking a risk at all.

Technically, the person who buys one lottery ticket has a fair chance to win just as much as the person who buys 1,000.  Especially if you believe, as I do, that there’s a higher power picking the numbers, and He knows best- every. single. time.  

“And without faith it is impossible to please God, 
because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists 
and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.”  
-Hebrews 11:6

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Twelve Days Before Christmas Break

This time of year, I’m regularly met with looks of pity from friends, family, and strangers on the street when they are met with the fact that I teach elementary school.  The mere thought of being trapped in a classroom with twenty-some hyped up, excited, antsy kids for six hours a day in December is enough to make an average person squirm.  For us teachers, it’s just another hazard of the profession that we take on with a smile (even if it’s fake at times).

As we face the last couple of weeks before Christmas break, it occurs to me that this has to be the longest 12 days of the entire school year.  Longer than those first 12 days when you haven’t quite mastered their names or their quirks, longer than those pin-drop quiet days of testing in May, and even longer than those 12 ninety degree days in June when the kids have become more like bickering siblings than studious classmates.  The only people who find that time absolutely crawls this time of year to an even greater degree than those kiddos who are counting down to Santa are their teachers, who are trying to contain them for twelve. more. days.

In honor of this joyful stretch of time, I’ve compiled a list of things that every elementary teacher will either say or at least think over these glorious 12 days.  My prayer for us all is that most of these will remain thoughts and not become words, in the interest of holiday cheer. J

·        Yes, I know what a shelf elf is.  No, I do not want to hear about where you found yours this morning.  I’ve already heard the riveting details of six other shelf elves this morning.  And, no, I don’t remember what you said yours’ name is.
·        Another assembly? No problem.  Let me move the math test I really need to get in before Christmas break for the third time so we can watch another program that will get the kids extremely wound up. 
·        Is there any way to effectively clean up glitter?  Because I’m pretty sure it’s still going to be all over my guided reading table in March after that craft.
·        Could you possibly ask me again when our class party is going to be?  It’s the same day and time that it was the other hundred times you asked.  And yes, there will be food.
·        Yes, we still have homework.  I’m sorry but we can’t take a whole month off and still keep up with the pacing guide. 
·        Did your mom really let you wear that jewelry that jingles or that shirt that lights up to school today?  Because we weren’t distracted enough as it was.
·        Thank you for the coffee mug.  It’s just what I’ve always wanted.  (Not to sound ungrateful, but sometimes I have to wonder if anyone notices that I drink Mountain Dew every single morning- never coffee.  A can of Mountain Dew would have been perfect!)
·        If you teach K-3rd grade: Yes, we are going to watch Polar Express and wear our pajamas.  If you teach 4th-5th grade: No, we are not going to watch Polar Express and wear our pajamas.  You have the whole movie memorized because you’ve done that for the past four years.  Sorry, you’re big now. 
·        Can you PLEASE just sit down and calm down?  For five minutes even? 

But you know what?  For every time I’ll be counting to ten under my breath these couple of weeks, there will be another time that I’m counting my blessings.  Because despite the chaos and craziness, there is no more magical place to be than an elementary school in December.  Eyes are brighter, steps are lighter, and smiles come more easily than any other time of year.  I love those twenty-some antsy kids, I’m glad they’re excited, and I hope their Christmas will live up to all the hype.  And I’ll be extra grateful for them when their sleepy, calmer little selves drag in on January 6th... 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Be Thankful

As a new blogger, I’m feeling pressure to write a thankfulness post.  In fact, by Facebook standards, I’m already 27 days behind.  Neither my reluctance to write this post nor my 27 day silence stems from a lack of thankfulness but rather a lack of holiday enthusiasm.  This isn’t a newsflash to those of you who know me well, but those who don’t may find it surprising.  One would expect an outgoing, hospitable, generally happy elementary school teacher who loves God and her friends and family to also love the holidays.  But I don’t.  
The truth is that I teach fourth grade rather than a lower grade partly because it doesn’t require decorating the room seasonally or preparing construction paper crafts.  While my students are counting down until Christmas, I’m counting down until AFTER Christmas when my life can return to “normal.”  My life is busy during the other eleven months of the year, but during the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas it blows past busy right to bedlam.  Some would say that my lack of holiday enthusiasm is aggravated by a lack of my own children, and that is probably true to some extent, but I also don’t know how you folks with kids even survive the holiday season considering how it leaves me feeling.
Up until today, I’ve been in a little bit of denial that the next month is upon us.  I haven’t bought the first gift, ordered cards, or decorated my house.  As a matter of fact, I’m still debating whether or not to put up a Christmas tree this year.  I know that my state of blissful avoidance will come to an abrupt end tomorrow as soon as my sweet grandma puts the turkey on the table.  From then on, it will be full speed ahead until January.  I will attend every event, purchase all the right gifts, help plan the perfect parties and activities at church and at school, order and send the cards, and maybe even decorate my house.  Hopefully, I’ll manage to do most of it with a (genuine) smile on my face.  But today, I am thankful for one more day of normal before the bedlam sets in. 
Every year, I say that I’m going to be more enthusiastic about the holidays.  I’ve tried planning different activities with my class, at church, with friends and family… buying different decorations… trying new recipes… buying glitzy sweaters…  and one year I even tried listening to holiday music (yes, that’s rare for me).  I can’t say that any of it has worked particularly well and this year I’ve been feeling a little desperate for a new perspective.  Tonight, at our Thanksgiving service at church, I think I found it.  A gentleman whom I’m pretty sure was the oldest in the room had some particularly wise words for the congregation: he said oftentimes the things we are most thankful for are the ones we had to work the hardest to get, but that’s not the case with our salvation, with our relationship with Christ.  He reminded us that’s the most amazing gift, the most incredible blessing for which to be thankful, and the ONLY thing we must do to receive it is open our heart to Him.
So here is my hope and my prayer this Thanksgiving Eve: that I’ll remember for the next few weeks that this season isn’t about all those blessings that we work so hard to get and hold so tightly to.  As wonderful as those things are, they can’t compare to the one blessing that we didn’t have to work for at all because He was gracious enough to pay the price and offer it to us at no cost.  This gift is available to every single one of us thanks to His mercy.  We don’t even have to hold tightly (though we should) because He holds us tightly every single day of our lives and thereafter.  That’s the promise of our God and it’s more than enough to fill my heart with that enthusiasm I’ve been looking for if only I’ll keep my heart open to Him.  And I’m thankful.  My prayer for you this holiday season is that you’ll be the same.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

If I Knew Then

After my first year teaching, I quit.  I still remember calling my friend Heather and telling her I had turned in my resignation letter at school that day.  “You just started!” was her immediate reply.  I HAD just started.  And I had already quit.
Brent says I cried every day that school year because I wanted to quit.  Then, I cried every day because I did quit.  “Just like a woman,” he joked.  The same way he joked two years later when I returned to the classroom and he continually told people that I work “every other year.”  Finally, seven SOLID years into my teaching career, I think I’ve dispelled that rumor.  While I hope to survive long enough to retire, I have no plans to quit ever again.
With that said, I wouldn’t take back that letter of resignation even if I could.  Quitting taught me more than pushing through ever would have.  So, to every first year teacher out there who is secretly wishing they could quit, here’s a little dose of “if I knew then what I know now…”

Teaching isn’t a job; it’s a calling.  If you’re meant to teach, you can run, but you can’t hide.  During my year “off,” I pursued other avenues but decided to substitute teach in the meantime.  By Christmas break, I found myself wishing the class I taught could be mine.  And they were first graders…not even my strong suit!  I had to give them back to their real teacher after six weeks, but I knew at that point I had to have my own class again.  It was like a hole in my heart that couldn’t be filled any other way.

No one may tell you you’re doing a good job, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t.  I had always made good grades and was used to positive feedback on a regular basis. This made me feel like no feedback = negative feedback.  Administrators and your fellow teachers are busy- some of the busiest people on the planet in my opinion.  They may not have time to give you a pat on the back, but that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve one.  Keep on keeping on, and remember- now you’re giving the grades, not receiving them.

It’s never going to be perfect.  It doesn’t matter if you work 6 hours, 12 hours, or 18 hours a day, there will always be things that must go undone.  It doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect.  What does matter is that your heart is in what you’re doing and when you’re with your students, you’re all there.  That’s what they’ll remember and that’s how they’ll learn most- from a teacher who cares, not from one who is perfect (because that teacher doesn’t exist anyway).

It’s important to find a colleague that you trust and talk to them.  This one may take some time, but you’ll know who it is when you find them.  Look outside the box; it may not be someone on your grade level.  Most of the good advice that you’ll need won’t involve planning or curriculum anyway.  The circumstances that will most often leave you at a loss will be how to handle a parent, a behavior problem, or a situation with a colleague or administrator.  When it comes to these things, finding someone to confide in who has more experience but whose values line up with yours can make all the difference.

Teaching is a lifestyle, but you still need to have a life.  One of the reasons I quit was because I felt like I was missing out on too much of the rest of my life.  I didn’t think I could do a good job in my classroom and still have a life outside of school.  That’s simply not true and I needed a change in perspective, not a change in career.  “You’ll learn to work smarter, not harder,” a colleague told me once my first year teaching.  It’s true, and the time you’ll save once you get that figured out WILL enable you to still have a life outside of school.  Until then, sometimes you’ll just have to work less.  Don’t bring home a whole rolling cart of files every night.  Be realistic, prioritize, and set short-term goals.  And set aside time for you, no matter what.  It’s never going to be perfect anyway, remember?

Some things just take time.  College classes, student teaching, those books you read and those blogs you follow couldn’t have possibly prepared you adequately for this.  It all helps and I’m not saying any of it was a waste of time, but no one can possibly imagine how overwhelming your first year teaching feels unless they’ve been there.  Take it a day at a time, an hour at a time, and minute-by-minute when necessary.  Keep smiling and keep trying, and before you know it you’ll have survived to see Day 180.  And soon, you’ll be patting a first year teacher on the back and promising them they’ll make it, as you think to yourself, “Thank God it’s not me anymore.”

It’s worth it.  There isn’t another job in the world I’d rather have and if you can see past the pile of papers that need to be graded, phone calls that need to be returned, bulletin boards that need to be updated, lessons that need to be planned, and e-mails that need to be read…if you can see past all that to those little faces, looking at you to fill their days with happiness, learning, and fun, you’ll see that it’s worth it too. There is no job more fulfilling, more honorable, or more important.  And you’ll be glad you didn’t quit.  I promise.

I know how it felt when I gave up teaching so I’d never consider giving it up again.  I’ve never regretted that year “off” yet, although I’m thinking that might change one day when I’m looking at 29 years of service completed.  When I’m wishing I could retire and head for the beach permanently, I’ll re-read this post and remind myself I didn’t know then what I know now.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The World Is A Book

My sister has a favorite quote:  “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” -St. Augustine 
When I was younger, I was more into reading than traveling.  I would’ve thought Donnay would have been the one to live out this quote more than me.  That changed when I married Brent.  He travels for work and if he isn’t “gold status” on his frequent flyer miles, he gets a little antsy.  He is proof that travel is addictive, and he didn’t waste any time getting me hooked too.  Now if I don’t have a trip on the calendar, I get a little antsy.  And while trips that we plan ahead for and anxiously await are the norm, Brent and I have also been known to put together some last minute travel from time-to-time. 
This was the case several weeks ago when we had some airline vouchers that we needed to use unexpectedly.  It was late summer and we didn’t have time to squeeze in another trip before I had to go back to school, so we started brainstorming destinations in our time zone that we could knock out over a long weekend this fall.  Brent mentioned that he’d never been to Niagara Falls and I agreed that sounded good; seemed like a logical bucket list item to me.  In this somewhat arbitrary fashion, we settled on Niagara Falls, thinking it would be something to see at least, even if we would bring down the average tourist age in the area by at least a decade or two.
I’ve used one line more than any other in describing this trip when people asked: it exceeded my expectations.  It truly did, in every way.  If you’ve never thought about going, add it to your bucket list.  I think I was more awestruck than I was at the Grand Canyon, and of course, that’s saying A LOT.  And there was so much to do!  We weren’t bored for a second and I could have spent a whole week there (never would have thought that)!  To top it all off, we were blessed in that our friends Jeff and Janice were able to join us on our trip. 
Since I was taken by such surprise, I’ve made a list of things I didn’t know about Niagara Falls and never would have known had I not “read that page.”

1.      You can get SO close to the Falls.  I always thought the Maid of the Mist was as close as you could get, but Table Rock offered even closer viewing with opportunities to actually go and look out behind the falls and a restaurant overlooking the most impressive spot.  You literally could’ve reached out and touched them if you had the nerve, which Brent apparently does.  Notice him standing on the fence in the photo below (rolling my eyes).


2.      Whitewater Walk is just as breathtaking as the Falls.  This attraction is a little off the beaten path and didn’t even sound all that interesting to me in the brochure but it was amazing.  It is a boardwalk that takes you RIGHT beside the Niagara River past the Falls, which consists of Class 6 rapids deemed impassable.  It took all their self-control for Brent and Jeff not to hop in a barrel and give it a whirl.  Thank God that’s illegal!

3.      When they say your hotel is “Fallsview,” it isn’t a stretch.  We could hear the rush of water 24/7 (in a soothing way, not an annoying way) and would’ve had a perfect view of the Friday night fireworks (a weekly event) if the fog hadn’t been too thick that night.  And it turns out you can see the “Canadian side” and the “American side” simultaneously.  I will admit I never had a handle on how that worked until I saw it with my own eyes, but it was quite the sight to behold.

4.      The nightlife is actually quite happening.  We were right across the street from Fallsview Casino, which rivaled those we’ve visited in Vegas.  The dining options were endless and while we’re well past “clubbing” age, I’m sure we could’ve found one if we’d gotten the urge to twerk.

5.    Niagara wine country is overwhelming, in a good way.  On our last day, we headed to nearby Niagara-on-the-Lake and quickly realized it was more than could be explored in just one day (there are 27 wineries in this one town)!  Highlights of the day included Jeff’s first glimpse of a Great Lake and mine and Janice’s first taste of “ice wine,” produced by grapes that were frozen on the vine.  I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted anything sweeter or more delightful, but at $90 a bottle, Brent discouraged me from choosing this as a souvenir. 

6.    There is a place “up north” where country boys can survive.  For three out of four of us, this was our first trip to Canada.  The people were friendly, the landscape was gorgeous, and I think Brent and Jeff felt right at home- country twangs, unruly facial hair, and all.  The only disappointing thing about Canada is that they serve too much root beer and not enough Mountain Dew!  Not a bad place to visit, eh? 

 I rarely visit a place that doesn’t leave me more amazed at how great our God is.  Niagara Falls was no exception except for the fact that its beauty, extravagance, and power exceeded my expectations.  There is so much of God’s glory showcased in this world that’s hard to imagine without experiencing it.  I feel so thankful to have been blessed with such an experience alongside three of my favorite people.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Only Let Us Live

I've always been a countdown person.  How many days until summer?  How many months until graduation?  How many weeks until I get married?  I faithfully kept up with answers to questions like this for the first twenty-some years of my life, always waiting on the next big event.  As a teacher, it’s been so tempting to live my life from quarter to quarter and school year to school year, always waiting on this part to be over and the next part to begin. 
Until one countdown, perhaps the most important countdown in life, didn't pan out…the one where I counted down until Brent and I would start our family.  We decided on a month and I patiently waited, counting off my last birthday before I got pregnant, our last big trip before kids, the last school year I wouldn't be balancing my own child with twenty-some children at school.  However, soon I realized that this countdown was in God’s control, not mine.  As the months ticked by, it became evident that I very well may have been counting down to nothing.  And that’s exactly what it felt like: a big, black hole of nothing that threatened to swallow me alive if I didn't change my perspective (and fast).
I wish I could say that I am a fast learner, but this change in perspective has taken years (and a lot of help from God and those He’s placed in my life) to fully develop.  Now, more than four years past when this countdown was supposed to be over, I realize that it’s not about a countdown at all.  Nothing is.  For those first twenty-something years of my life, I had it all wrong.  Life isn't about that next big event or what happens next.  It’s about today and what’s happening now.
I believe Philippians 3:16 says it best: “Only let us live up to what we have already attained.”  Not what we might attain one day- what we have already attained!  We already have all we need in Christ Jesus.  We already are who He intended us to be.  Today.  Not maybe one day.  Now.
So I’m done with countdowns.  Who I may or may not be one day, what I may or may not have eventually, where I could possibly be weeks, months, years from now…none of that is a guarantee.  What matters is who He says I am today…first and foremost a follower of Him, but so many other things as well…a wife, a teacher, a friend...  That’s what this blog is about: being the best I can be today, for Him and for whomever He places in my path. 
I pray it will inspire someone to do the same...