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...