Saturday, September 22, 2012

Love in the Classroom

I feel the love,” one of my students proclaimed in the middle of class this week. His impulsive remark was made in reference to me, explaining that he was so touched by my willingness to take extra time to assist him (in securing an internship). He also said that I was a person that was genuinely committed to helping him succeed and passionate about what I was teaching. The student was quite sincere in his comment and it caught me off guard.  Never in my thirty plus years as an educator has a student used the word love to describe my approach to instruction. Love, what’s love got to do with it?  
During this final year in academia,  I find myself going through some sort of transformative learning process; I have (finally) given myself permission to be real (authentic) and challenge my own assumptions and other people's opinions about me.  Reflecting upon the perception I have about being a teacher, words like dedicated, competent, creative, and at best commanding come to mind. My perception of my teacher persona has been heavily influenced by feedback I have received and the evaluations I have been subjected to.

It would be fair to say I'm a competent instructor. On RateMyProfessors students ranked me (4.7 on a 5.0 scale) and considering the evaluations are totally anonymous (and often cruel), that's not bad. The rankings on my official (Palomar College) student apprasials that I am subjugated to every three years, give me an overall score between 3.7-3.8 on a 4.0 scale.  The evaluations are filled with positive comments about  “engaging students, effective communication, and good rapport.”  In all fairness, I have also received my share of criticism: slave driver, anal about attendance, and my favorite, "reminds me of the nuns at school."
Graduation day is the happiest day of the year. In 2013 I will graduate!

Over the years I have invested much time and considerable effort to expand my education and develop competencies as an educator. During four sabbatical leaves, I have examined the art and science of teaching, exploring various types of pedagogy. I flew to Canada to learn to become an Instructional Skills Workshop facilitator, I traveled to Australia to research distance education in the Outback. I completed professional certificates at local universities (instructional design, career counseling, and addiction studies). The knowledge and skills I gained were valuable but not essential to my strength as an educator.  

Upon deeper reflection, I see within me a new teaching persona emerging: a woman who is compassionate, provocative and uninhibited, willing to make mistakes, admit the limitations of her expertise, express herself without censure and put her whole heart into her work. A little more Madonna and less Mother Theresa. A teacher that cares deeply and personally for her students and relates to them as one person relates to another. To my former teacher image I say, please do not hold me back, it is time for me to soar. I am once and for all, a teacher who has found my voice and discovered my personal power. 
One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the learner.  Carl Jung 

Here is what I know: my gift as an educator lies in my ability to establish trust and a sense of community in the classroom, fostering meaningful relationships with my students. It is my responsibility to teach in a way that arouses positive feelings and develops self-efficacy. It is especially important to connect to those students that push my buttons and expose my blind spots (the quiet, the immature, the disruptive). It is generally the students who sit in the back of the room, disconnected from the group, absorbed in a digital world with their smart phone or laptop--these quiet, isolated students I search out most of all. 

From the start of my classes, I establish a step up/ step down rule. Asking the the close-mouthed students to "step up" and contribute to the discussion, while requesting others to "step down" if they have dominated the classroom air time. After a few weeks of modeling appropriate classroom communication, my goal is to create a safe learning environment where all students are lifted out of isolation and given permission and openly encouraged to express their individuality. 

Dr. Joyce Dyer, writer and teacher:

As an undergraduate I was one of those introverted students (sans the digital technology that didn't exist in the 1970's). Hibernating in the corner of the class, or the back of a large lecture hall, I felt invisible as other students engaged in discussions. It wasn't that I didn't have ideas to share, I just felt more comfortable as the listener. Truth be told, I was acutely insecure and not confident enough to raise my hand and share my thoughts. 

But I was fortunate to have a freshman English teacher at Kent State (Joyce Dyer) who was not afraid to form a connection to me, seek out my opinion and provide praise for the ideas I shared. It was her genuine kindness that allowed me to let go of my critical self-evaluation and express myself creatively with words. 

Only a handful of years older than I was at the time, Ms. Dyer was a powerful role model: bright, articulate and filled with passion and curiosity. After losing track of Joyce for 40 years, I recently reconnected with her via Facebook...and I was honored to tell Dr. Dyer that she made a profound difference in my life and career.

How incredible that after four decades the impact of Joyce's kindness (authenticity) remains crisp in my soul. To this day, I remember the books we read in her class and our writing assignments; looking back, I "felt the love" in her classroom. 

Moving towards the end of my long academic journey, I have become a witness to myself as an educator. I have evolved from being a capable instructor to dare I say a loving and caring teacher. The adventure has taken a long time. Emotional habits that undermined my effectiveness had to be owned: the tendency to want to please others, to be passive aggressive rather than assertive and the compulsion to take control and fix things. So, the next time my students experience love in my classroom, I will pat myself on the back and with a sense of pride say to myself, "YES"
I expect to pass through life but once. If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again. William Penn

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Home Alone

Ten days ago my husband (Dan) left. He packed up his 1984 VW Rabbit Pick Up truck with camping gear, strapped down his matching red kayak and headed north. Paddling with killer whales (orcas) was his intention; there was no specific timeline for his return. 

After closing Carlsbad Paddle Sports, and retiring a year ago, Dan has been somewhat of a homebody, navigating between his backyard garden and our local beaches. This summer he flew to Colorado to pick up a vintage VW he purchased, and during the solo drive back to San Diego was when I'm guessing the wanderlust struck. 

With a strong impulse to explore beyond the safe and familiar, Dan drove his vintage Bug to Vancouver, camping out and kayaking along the way. Through phone call updates, I imagine Dan's aquatic expedition; it is so satisfying to hear the exuberance as he details his paddling experiences. While in Chuckanut Bay (Washington's inland marine waters) he started out on a tranquil paddle but found himself caught in sudden, strong southwesterly winds and bumpy whitecap seas -- he was blown several miles down stream and had to hitch a ride back to his vehicle. Excitement!

This morning Dan reported that he was camping out in a picturesque fishing village of Lund, British Columbia, north of Vancouver. An area he described as a beautiful wilderness retreat: forested islands with white shell-crushed beaches and abundant sea life: sea lions, seals, sea stars of different colors...Dan particularly loves the cute and curious otters. Lund, is the doorstep to Desolation Sound, Dan's next stop and the last spot on the world's  longest roadway, Highway 101. The Sound is a popular destination for kayakers because of its spectacular fjords, mountains and wildlife.  Perhaps Dan's next call will report a cetacean sighting. Oh, I am envious!

While my husband is roaming around the Pacific Northwest, my teaching gig requires that I stay home. Next year,  I will not be controlled by school bells in September, and will be free to travel to my heart's content. 

But for now, I am appreciating another kind of freedom: the privilege of having total privacy and personal space. Being home alone is a special treat as I am usually the one off traveling, spending about 3 mo. a year living out of a suitcase. But for the first time in awhile, I am the one at home; the solitude allows me to reflect on the experience.

Aloneness gets me back in touch with the independent version of my married self; the woman who is completely in charge of her life, schedule and doesn’t have to be entangled in anyone else’s needs. It is liberating to do whatever I choose without the fear of judgment. Of course, Dan might not directly say something about my personal habits but nonverbal cues reveal his distaste. Being home alone I am able to.. do my 3 am Facebook posts, eat ½ of a watermelon for dinner or spend endless hours on the computer in my PJ’s…without a worry. While watching the evening news (I prefer BBC and he our local channel), I will multi-task.  It is unnerving to my husband that I  read the paper, check  email and do my nails while watching TV. 

And on the subject of TV, being home alone gives me total control of Dan's most coveted household item, the remote. During this time alone there is no TV power play (we are a one television household.) Unlike Dan, who likes to graze channel to channel, I sit down on the coach, decide on a program and watch it (while multi-tasking of course). 

I ponder this question: Is it a requirement of marriage that you have to share all your stuff? While I totally embrace sharing my thoughts and feelings with my husband, and don't care if he uses my car or most other possessions, to parcel my computer (which tops my most important household item list) is a different story. My desktop represents my world, my digital kingdom, packed with contacts, files and thousands of photos. For Dan's birthday I bought him an iPad, which I secretly hoped would serve as his personal computer. The widescreen and spacious keyboard of my computer make it much more preferable to his touch pad. He likes to check his email and watch (in my opinion) some rather bizarre YouTubes on my big screen.  For the past ten days, I've appreciated having my computer untouched and seeing no dicey websites cached in my web browser.

Every parting is a form of death,
as every reunion is a type of heaven. ~Tryon Edwards
During the time Dan is away, I will delight in my eccentric habits, governing the keyboard and remote and spend way too much time in my pajamas. Short-term solitude is a welcomed break; time alone to write and work, think and rest without being disturbed. 

This temporary separation gives me important insight and time to question: What do I miss most about Dan? Why do I  miss him? What can I learn from missing him? 

Soon, I will start to feel an emptiness around the house and miss the life we share.  Missing Dan will be a powerful reminder of the important role he plays in my life.  It's one of the intangible measurements that shows me what's in my heart.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Fundraising Phobia

Hands down, the one thing I really don’t like to do is ask people for money. Asking people to donate some of their hard earned cash ranks up there with painting ceilings and going to the dentist, in terms of my least preferred activities. Although I am dedicated to the cause and believe the charity work our group does is incredible, I hate asking for money. Yet, for the past seven years, asking people to financially support a cause I believe in is exactly what I’ve been doing.  It would be even be fair to say, I am the core of our charity group’s fundraising efforts. Year after year, I send out appeal letters and emails, create newsletters about our projects and special events, deposit checks, oversee online donations and write hundreds of thank you letters.  

September starts a new fundraising season and once again it’s time for me to ask people to open their hearts and wallets to support our cause; in the next 90 days, my intention is to solicit financial gifts from our global network and collectively raise 300,000 Thai Baht. The amount sounds more impressive than the equivalent in US dollars. To accomplish this goal, I must navigate around my fears and be willing to directly ask people to join in and help.

People give to charitable causes for all kinds of different reasons, but there is one thing that nearly all donors have in common… they were asked. Someone has to do the asking and put them selves “out there.” As a deep-rooted introvert, I enjoy peace and quiet and have mastered a high power of concentration by shutting out the external world. Putting myself out there as a fundraiser, being bold and gregarious at parties and social events, challenges the very fiber of my being. While it is not my natural preference, I have become a social networker; I have compelled myself to attend power lunches, make proposals at rotary club meetings and host various fundraising events. There is a saying, “fake it till you make it.” This catchphrase has become my mantra; for short periods of time I transform into a social butterfly, knowing I will retreat to my inner world and recharge afterwards. In the months ahead, I will meet with prospective donors and do my best to spark feelings of empathy and compassion for our cause.

During the fundraising season, everyone in my circle of influence is a potential donor, an altruistic partner. But I have rules: I don’t do the arm twist, the guilt trip or “If you give to mine, I’ll give to yours.” My approach is to tell people how their money will be used (90% of each donation goes directly to benefit children). It is critical to engage emotions. Sharing heartfelt success stories while showing pictures is often quite effective. Without arousing people on a feeling level, it’s hard for them to part with their bucks. I find the more sincere I am when asking for donations, the higher the chance is of people participating. However skillful I may have become at asking, it is never a pleasant process.

A stack of solicitation cards is piled on my desk, waiting for me to write a few personal words inside each one, before mailing them off. The front of the brightly colored card, illustrated with beautiful photos of children reads, Thank you for your Partnership, inside there is an appeal for financial support (we use words like tax deductible donation, gift, contribution—but it all really means we are asking people for money). These letters will be mailed to previous donors; my hope is that most will at least open the letter and skim the message. 

It is a statistical reality that many of our beautiful cards will end up in the recycling bin, along with the other charity solicitation letters that came that week. Research shows that you have to make five asks per gift. That’s a lot of no’s and a lot of marketing postage down the drain. But every no is part of a conversation and every conversation can mean a relationship. I always see a benefit in asking no matter what if a donation is made or not. One benefit of soliciting for donations over the years is that I’ve developed slightly thicker skin. Although I’m not as easily hurt by insult or rejection, I still do not feel comfortable being in that vulnerable position.  

Fundraising is clearly not one of my preferred tasks but the result of asking other people to support a cause, has connected me to an awe-inspiring network. Through my humanitarian work in SE Asia, and the fundraising that goes along with it, I have become a part of a special group of global volunteers, guardian angels that share a vision for a better future for the abandoned children we support. These folks come from all corners of the globe (US, Australia, Europe, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand)...some are affluent professionals,  and some are village teachers and school directors from the third world. It is such an honor to be a part of this amazing group of generous, kind souls committed to making the world a better place. 

Writing the last paragraph has motivated me to push beyond my fundraising phobia for the moment, and get back to the stack of solicitation letters calling for my attention.

As this post is about me, details about the charity I am involved with were intentionally vague.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Six Days in Ohio

Aug 29 - Sept. 4, 2012

Check out  Bruce Springsteen's Youngstown

After teaching my evening class, catching a few hours of shut eye, I board a plane for the cross country journey “home.” Passing through the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac, I am catapulted into a different world when I arrived in Youngstown, Ohio the heart of the Rust Belt. This is the third trip I have made to my hometown this summer. 

Previous visits were narrowly focused on the medical needs of my 83 year old mother (whose poor health is a result of obesity, severe arthritis, chronic high blood and dementia). In June, I spent six agonizing days at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital navigating Mom through two heart surgeries.  As the eldest of her five children, I have taken the lead in advocating for mom's health and wellness; twice a year taking her to one of the best health care institutions in the US for testing (Cleveland Clinic). Her physical and mental decline is well documented and it is clear mom requires 24/7 care. One of my siblings recently moved to live with and take care of mom, a blessing and Godsend. My mother has lived in two places during her lifetime, her parent’s house and the red brick sanctuary on Hazelwood Ave.  To displace mom from her kingdom, into even the most exclusive form of nursing facility, would shatter her spirit.

When I see mom she greets me with a warm hug and sweet smile. She didn't remember the last time I was home, and thought it was a long time ago. Old age and vascular dementia have degenerated Mom's brain chemistry, evaporating her short term memory. She no longer is able to keep track of taking her medications or manage her checkbook (pills and bills). She remembers little of what happened in the recent past and forgets what day it is, although some early life events (like the first day of school and the name of her childhood dog) remain in tact. Everyday tasks of getting dressed and eating are not a problem; progressively I observe that mom is distant and disinterested in much of life. Her comfort zone is her home and shuffling between her rocking chairs and bed.

Mom’s daily life has become an exacting routine, get up and dressed, go for a short walk with the walker (see photo), eat breakfast, and take a cocktail of medications. The rest of her time is filled with naps, TV, going through mail, more naps and sitting on the front porch. 

A few activities break this monotonous schedule:  A home health aide comes on Tuesday, senior bingo on Wednesday, and a shopping trip to Wal-Mart (mom loves to drive the electric cart around the huge store). On Saturday, mom drives her 1996 Buick (which has logged less than 50,000 miles),  a few blocks to her sister (Ann’s) house for her hair appointment. Getting her hair done on Saturday morning is a tradition that has spanned many decades. Amazingly, my aunt has been a hair stylist for the past 69 years (not a typo, Ann dropped out of high school and became a cosmetologist at age 16 and still works 3 days a week as she approaches her 86th birthday). On Sunday mornings, mom drives herself to church a mile up the road. Driving short distances is the last of mom’s independent adventures

Time at home is precious and I savor every day of my six day visit as a gift. Mom lives in the here and now; she doesn’t remember the past and does not seem to have desires or goals for the future. Everything important is happening today (right NOW). Being with mom requires mindfulness and patience. The moments I will cherish from this visit: sitting with mom on her front porch, sharing a peach with her at the Canfield Fair, and seeing her face light up when I stroke her arm and tell her how wonderful it is to be with her.

One evening during my visit, I listen as my mom and aunt sit on the porch and chat. The conversation is mostly gossip about their relatives, who is sick, died or went into a nursing home (a fate worse than death).  Out of the blue  mom states, "I guess our time is coming, we’ll be next to go."  My aunt agrees with her and nonchalantly comments that she wonders what will happen to all her stuff.  They laugh and move on to another recycled topic. My mother has prepared for her passing, funeral clothes are labeled and clearly visible in her closet, a cemetery gravestone has been prepared and waits, and all funeral home arrangements are paid in full.  Mom asked me to write her obituary a few months ago. It was a relief that she quickly forgot that request and hasn’t reminded me since.

Tomorrow I will get up at the crack of dawn and head out to the Pittsburgh Airport. If all my flights are on time, I will return to San Diego with time to race up the highway for my evening class. For six days my beach/teach life has been on pause; a timeout to reconnect with my hometown and my dear mother.

There is a great comfort in having my mother still in the world, having a generation between me and death. Selfishly, I want my mother to live for a long time and supply the unconditional love that I have always known. My mother helped me find my place in the world. She watched and waited as I left home (at 17), went to college and moved west, traveled the world.  Over all the years, she wrote me hundreds of letters and later emails, never forgetting a birthday or anniversary. Mom has been the one stable force in my life that (I now realize) has allowed me to soar. No matter what I did (and my adolescence was marked by drama and rebellion) Mom always kept her heart and home open to me. What a blessing to go through my life with Mom’s persistent loving guidance. My retirement in 2013 is partly due to a desire to spend more time with Mom. I just hope she doesn’t (make her passing) and beat me to the finish line.

Youngstown, Ohio is a shabby steel city in Northeastern Ohio halfway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland. I grew up in a blue collar family during the tail end of Y-town's industrial boom.  My father, like his father before him,  worked at US Steel. As a Pipefitter, Dad earned a decent wage but he paid the ultimate price for his employment. The asbestos fibers he inhaled while replacing pipes, caused an inflammation of his lung tissue and led to a deadly form of cancer (mesothelioma); he died 12 years ago.
My hometown is a rough place with a bad reputation. I grew up on the better side of town (West Side) but that did not protect me from Youngstown’s evils: intense racial tension, high murder rate, easy to score drugs and rampant corruption (to date: the imprisonment of a congressman, sheriff, prosecutor, county commissioner and a couple judges).  Mafia car bombings known as the Youngstown tune-up were featured on 60 Minutes.   
Once an important manufacturer of steel, Youngstown has tried unsuccessfully to reinvent itself.  I left Youngstown in the late 1970's, just before the steel industry collapsed and the smoke stacks (arms of God as they are referred to in Springteen's song) were demolished. Y-town wasn’t the right environment for me. After surviving some tough times in high school, I worked my way through Kent State, discovering options for my future. With degrees in hand, I packed my Chevy and headed west to pursue sunny skies, salt water and a white collar career in higher education. I was the first in my family to leave the rust belt; my younger brother joined me, later my sisters.  
Youngstown is a city in decay; public schools are dangerous and many neighborhoods crime infested. Every 4th house on my mother’s street is abandoned and boarded up or For Sale. The house across the street is inhabited by a flock of birds and the one next to it, by drug dealers. In 2011, Youngstown had the highest concentrated poverty rate among core cities in the United States, giving it the distinction of America's poorest city.