Monday, August 8, 2016

Sweet Dreams and School Nightmares

Did you ever have a dream that, when you woke up, you wondered where the heck that came from? I often have dreams that I can’t interpret, and that’s okay with me. My subconscious is working stuff out and filing away experiences and just straight-out doing weird shit while I sleep, and I’m content to let it do its thing. However, at this time of the year, I can pinpoint the exact source of my dreams. No interpretation is necessary. Welcome to the beginning of a new school year.

My first back-to-school dreams started when I transitioned from the small elementary school to the enormous junior high school. You might find these anxiety nightmares familiar as well. These are the dreams where I can’t open my locker and I’m totally late for class. Since I was so shy back then, being brought to the attention of others was a real fear. This lingers in my subconscious dream world, so that when I finally get to class, I can feel the sting of condemning eyes as I slink into the last open seat, which is, of course, in the front row by the teacher’s desk. The door, which I had forgotten to shut, closes itself with a loud bang. My humiliation is complete when I’m called out in front of the class for not bringing my textbook, which is still in that bleeping locker. After all these years, I’m still relieved when I wake up and realize I was dreaming.

In high school, my subconscious added more details to this basic nightmare scenario. Somehow, I have lost my only copy of my class schedule even after we were warned not to do this, so I have no idea where I’m supposed to be or when I’m supposed to be there. And since the high school building is even larger than the junior high was, the my-locker’s-on-the-other-side-of-the-building-and-I-don’t-have-enough-time-to-get-my-textbook nightmare works its way in there, too. It was at this point that I also started having the dreams where I’m taking a test and I don’t know any of the answers, and, quite frankly, I’m not at all sure that I’ve spelled my name correctly at the top.

College dropped another layer of anxiety into my back-to-school dreams. I now cannot find the building my class is held in or I have to take a final in a class I never attended. I have lost my math textbook, and there is no way I can afford to buy another one to replace it. I’m failing a class and will never, ever, be able to find a job if I don’t somehow manage to pass it. I am sorry to report that this education anxiety never actually leaves us – ever – and so we go on having these dreams occasionally even when our diplomas have yellowed and become brittle and frayed along the edges.

It was when I became a teacher, though, that my back-to-school nightmares reached epic proportions. It takes no interpretive skills whatsoever to understand that dream where I’m in a classroom, standing in front of thirty seventh graders who simply will not sit down and be quiet. The thought that my boss might decide to observe me during this free-for-all ratchets up the stress. Knowing that my reputation and perhaps my pay is going to be determined by how well I can communicate with, relate to, and teach these students to pass a standardized test is the final nail in my teacher-dream coffin. I wake up shaking from these dreams despite the fact that I no longer teach public school.

Actually, as a teacher educator, these nightmares serve a purpose for me now. They are powerful, personal reminders of the anxieties faced by the teacher candidates who are in my classes. Not only have these students worked their way through the worries that public school students experience, but they are simultaneously experiencing the normal anxieties of college students as well as the anxiety-ridden jobs of underappreciated public school teachers. I have not forgotten what that feels like, and I suspect that I’m a better teacher because of that.

I bid you sweet dreams, my friends. Welcome back to school.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Personal Space

When you take a class, go to church, or attend a business meeting, do you tend to sit in the same seat every time? As a teacher/student, I’ve noticed that my students and I do exactly that. Wherever we choose to sit in the first class, we gravitate toward sitting in that same seat for the remainder of the semester. When we enter the classroom, church, or conference room to find someone else sitting in our seat, our psyches experience a mini moment of crisis.

I believe that one reason for this phenomenon is that we feel more comfortable when we have a place we can call our own, even if that place is one chair in a class we only attend once a week. That desk, that seat, becomes an extension of our personal space. Within that larger space of the classroom, we psychologically carve out a small spot that we unconsciously think of as “ours.”

I am a Ph. D. student and I pay for my education by working as a graduate assistant. In other words, I teach undergraduates who want to be middle grades teachers and UGA pays me in tuition and pocket money. One of the perks of my job as a graduate assistant last school year was that I was allotted one of three desks in a former broom closet that I shared with two other GAs. I spent many, many hours at that desk and, this may sound silly, but I grew to love my little corner desk in my little office. Since I commute to UGA an hour in each direction, I felt relieved knowing that I had one tiny desk in one tiny room on the huge UGA campus that was always available for me.

Today I had to remove all my items from my tiny little office, pack them up, and take them home (it all fit in one small box.) I’m finding that the loss of this personal space is traumatic in a way I would not have expected. For me, giving up my office is more than the inconvenience of having to carry all of my teaching supplies, books, coat, and computer everywhere I go. It’s more than losing a place to store stuff and having a flat surface and a quiet space in which to work. The fact is, there’s a psychological disconnect, that moment of crisis, involved when we lose a space we called our own.

Starting next week, I will share a small room containing about six workstations with the approximately 25 GAs in my department. There will be a set of cubby shelves, like the ones in yoga studios where you store your shoes, for the temporary storage of stuff while we teach or meet with a student. There will be a small “lounge” for us to use to collaborate or to eat a quick meal. If the workstations are occupied when I arrive at school, I will have to leave my department to find someplace else to work.

I acknowledge that this is not the biggest problem in the world. It is an inconvenience and nothing more. As a matter of fact, we were told in a very nice e-mail that GAs make the world go ‘round and that we are vital to the continued successful operation of the department. We should confidently work with students, with faculty, and with other GAs knowing that we are highly valued.

Maybe as I get used to the new arrangements, it won’t be so bad. I know where the local Starbucks is, and I may make it my new home. I won’t be available to confer with my students, faculty advisors, and other grad students without making prior arrangements, but that is something that all of us will have to deal with. Right now I feel disconnected, disengaged from my job, my studies, and my commitment to finish my Ph. D. at UGA. At this huge institution, I feel like there is no space for me. Too bad I’m not part of the highly-valued football program, eh?

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Art or Love?

So what would you do if someone handed you a lump of potter’s clay and told you to be creative. Keep your answers clean, people. I’m being serious here. What would you do?

 Maybe some of you would create lovely coffee mugs, figurines, or bowls. You would work the clay, loving the squishiness of it between your fingers, and you would see possibilities forming in your mind. Your talented hands would shape the clay, make love to it, transform it into a thing of beauty. Your mind would be full of ideas like “What would this lump of clay look like if I smoothed it here, added more clay there, attached a handle, made a checkerboard pattern, or painted it blue?”

You might decide to make a gift for someone you love. Your fingers would leave imprints on the clay to tacitly remind your loved one that you’re there with them, even when you’re miles away. They would be comforted by thoughts of you, remembering your agile hands molding the clay, feeling the love and time you put into the work, making the gift a perfect reflection of how you feel about them.

My talents do not lie in the “making-a-work-of-art-out-of-clay” realm. When handed a lump of clay, I inevitably will make something that my mother would have proudly put on her shelf of “special treasures” had I brought it home from kindergarten. My mother, who is still my biggest cheerleader, would swallow a grin and place my latest effort, brought home from a doctoral seminar, right next to the other one, which, bless her heart, she still has. Anyone looking at them would be hard pressed to identify which piece I made in kindergarten and which piece I made in the doc seminar.

Luckily for my mom, I made my latest clay work into a water bowl for my dog, Wreck. As long as the darn thing holds water, he’ll love it. I painted it blue and yellow, because I know that those are the only two colors dogs can see well. I wrote his name on it, lest anyone else should try to drink out of it and upset him. This water bowl is undoubtedly a work of love, if not a work of art.

It’s humbling to accept that there are some things that I'm just not going to do perfectly. But it’s empowering to realize that I can try my best and that someone, in this case my dog, will know that I love him enough to make this imperfect, lumpy clay gift for him with my own two hands. Maybe it is more about the love and less about the clay art than I thought. I like that.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Office Politics Issue: Please Help Me!

So my question of the day is this: Is there anyone out there who can actually navigate through the turbulence of daily office political maneuvering and come out at the end of the day without having had to resort to using a barf bag, crying copious snot-producing tears, devouring a 2 pound sack of Hershey’s, drinking an entire bottle of Bacardi sans Coke Zero (because you’re out), or dramatically quitting the stupid job in a huff. Note that these options are not exclusive; I have personally used several of these tension-reducing strategies simultaneously after a particularly bad day.

One piece of good advice that I routinely ignore is to stop checking my office email at 5PM, so I can legitimately put off until tomorrow whatever it is that I’m not going to want to deal with and therefore have a good night’s sleep. Current time here in Georgia: 2:36 AM. Status: Wide awake, worried, angry, hurt, and slightly nauseated from the number of Hershey’s Special Dark “Fun” bars I have consumed. Let me just say that the empty wrappers cover a radius of 2 feet around my desk chair, which can be considered the center of the circle. If you’re an ambitious sort, feel free to calculate the area of the circle covered by chocolate foil.

But I digress. It’s 2:47AM now and I want to figure out a workable strategy or two for dealing with the issue my close colleague brought to my attention at 9:05 PM. It seems that I said something on Thursday (we had a long holiday and today is Tuesday) which offended him so deeply that he no longer wishes to work with me. A simple “I’m sorry” will not mend this, an excuse such as “I was having a bad day” will not mend this, and, quite frankly, I am coming to the conclusion that I cannot fix my mistake this time.

That said, it’s 3:17 AM and I’m beginning to wonder if I’m concentrating on the wrong thing. Perhaps what I should really be considering is not HOW to fix the problem; it’s whether or not I really WANT to fix it at all. Is it worth the time and the emotionally exhausting measures that I have had to resort to in the past when dealing with this colleague? I am weary of measuring my every word in order to avoid giving offense and then finding out that I have still chosen the wrong ones anyway.

It is possible for me to arrange my schedule so that I no longer work directly with my affronted colleague. Of course, I will have to notify my boss of the change in schedule. Maybe she’ll be a peach and not ask too many questions. How likely is that? Yeah, that’s what I think, too. My brain begins to churn out things I can tell her that won’t make me look imbecilic. 3:29 AM  Sure wish I could pull a Scarlett O’Hara, tell myself that “tomorrow is another day,” and just go the heck to sleep.

I think I’ll go try some yoga breathing techniques while reminding myself that I have complete control over how I choose to react to nasty situations like this. I’m sure that’ll do the trick. Sigh. 3:44 AM

I’m pretty sure this won’t be the last time I offend a colleague, so tried and true strategies that you have used for dealing with these situations would be extremely helpful. I’ll start a list and post them on the fridge. Please. Help. Me.

Creative Commons Photo "Starling Fight Club" by Angela N.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

My Scientific Banana-Philosophy Research

I have recently noticed that people’s basic philosophy of life can be understood by observing the bananas they choose to put in their carts at the grocery store. No, I haven’t “gone bananas,” thank you very much. Jeez, stop punning around and read carefully. This is an important and serious topic. The results of my (unofficial) research indicate that there is a direct correlation between the color of the bananas people choose to buy and their perspectives on life.

People who buy bunches of very green bananas are highly optimistic. They believe that they won’t be dying any time soon; stepping out in front of a bus on the way home from the store is not going to happen to these people. They are confident they will be around to watch those bananas ripen and to eat those golden yellow bananas in a leisurely, relaxed manner. Life is long, man; ripe bananas are worth waiting for.

Then there are the people who buy bunches of bright yellow bananas. They have a carpe diem philosophy. They’re all about not bothering to wait for green bananas to ripen when they can buy them ripe and eat them right away. Life is short, man; don’t deny yourself the joy of eating a perfectly ripe banana today.

Finally, there are the people who buy bananas that are yellow with a couple of brown spots already mottling their skins. These people are highly pessimistic. For heaven’s sake, within hours, those bananas will be rotten! These people must actually doubt that they will make it home from the store at all. Life is fleeting, man; eat your bananas now!

So what does your banana purchase say about you? You just may be surprised by the answer!

Photo courtesy of Sharon Mollerus via Creative Commons: Flickr

Thursday, July 17, 2014

I am NOT a Hoarder!

For quite some time now, Chris has been waging a war on “stuff.” He is a minimalist, and the rule at our house is that when we buy something new, we have to throw away or donate two of something old. No problem when it comes to clothing or shoes. Old clothing and shoes wear out or no longer fit, so getting rid of these items is an easy decision. For me, that’s pretty much the sum total of what I find easy to dispose of.

I’m not a hoarder – famous last words – in the sense that my mummified body will eventually be found crushed under boxes of old newspapers and empty cartons of kitty litter and Chinese take-out. I don’t like clutter in my living space. I don’t like to dust knick knacks, whats-its, doo-dads, or chachkies. I do have a small collection of porcelain figures that my mom and I brought back from China and I love them, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world if they broke or I had to sell them. I have photos of them, and even looking at the photo makes me smile and remember my trips to China.

However, not being a hoarder in the true sense of the term does not mean that I am a minimalist. Open my closets at your own risk. And whatever you do, “…don’t look in the basement.” There’s a reason that was the tag line for the 1973 horror movie The Forgotten. To repurpose another cliché, “Who knows what evil lurks…?” Okay, so maybe I’m employing a wee bit of hyperbole. I must mention, however, that the lights in the basement work on a random basis and that it’s really dark when the lights won’t come on, which adds to the horror motif. You can rest assured that the intermittent lighting isn’t caused by a ghost, though, because Chris doesn’t want me to bring home any more pets.

Now that I don’t teach middle school, there is an entire classroom in the spacious finished basement, minus chairs and desks. Need clipboards for 30 students? I have them. Looking for a Venn diagram template with three or even four circles? I have it. Need a wooden snake you can use as a hands-on tool when you teach “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi?” You can borrow (keep) mine. I have boxes of grammar worksheets, literary analysis graphic organizers, and maps of Asia. I have boxes of lesson plans you could use to teach 7th graders or adapt to teach anyone. Oh, and let’s not forget the boxes of posters and class sets of novels. I could go back into the 7th grade classroom tomorrow, and not even have to buy a stapler or paper clips.

The classroom in the basement is directly adjacent to the “apartment.” Packed so tightly no one can actually walk across the room, there is a bed, dresser, desk, sofa, coffee tables, and armchairs to completely furnish an apartment. There are also dishes, glasses, pots and pans, Tupperware, silverware, and decorative cookie cutters in large, unmarked boxes.

It doesn’t matter that I no longer teach middle school, and that my son (who owns the furnishings) shows no signs of wanting to move out; I am hesitant to get rid of this “stuff.” Why? It’ll be useful someday. Right? Won’t it? I won’t want to have to buy new supplies if I go back into teaching, and I may need those furnishings when my sons put me in a senior home in the future. I just can’t seem to get past the idea that I may actually NEED this stuff in order to minimalize it. Now wait: that’s the definition of hoarding, isn’t it? Well, darn.

Link to photo: 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Tutors: The Future of Education

I've been depressed lately concerning the fact that I'm no longer "a real teacher." I'm "only a tutor." (boo hoo, sigh, pout) Now don't get me wrong; I believe that tutoring helps students and helping students is my goal. Chris Scullion has gotten tired of listening to me whine, though, and has written this blog post to help me understand the future of education as he sees it. I've got to say, I feel a lot happier now. I'm a TUTOR! Vicki

“I for one welcome our new computer overlords.” Ken Jennings had it right when he lost to IBM’s Watson on Jeopardy. Computers and robots are taking over various tasks previously and currently handled by people.  By some estimates, 80% of all welds today are done by robots. When was the last time you visited a human bank teller?  You can even check out at the grocery store or hardware store using a computer instead of a human cashier.  You should be able to figure out your chosen career’s longevity by watching for signs of computer automation.

What about teaching?  Vicki (the owner of this blog) is a teacher.  Or rather, she has been a teacher and likely will be again.  Right now, she’s a tutor.  She recently gave a workshop at the University of Georgia on the use of video in the classroom.  She has an article published on classroom “flipping,” where students watch video lectures at home on the computer and do what we would call “homework” in the classroom under the watchful eye of a human teacher.

And then there are MOOCs -- Massively Open Online Courses.  Here, a major university will present a recorded series of lectures on a specific subject, with homework and tests graded by humans. Each one-hour lecture can reach thousands of students over many semesters.

My contention is that this future vision of education leads to one inevitable conclusion… the future of teaching lies with tutors.  A computerized course, or a records lecture, or a MOOC means that the “teacher” or professor may not be available to the student for extra help or clarification.  But the tutors are always there.  They’ve been there throughout history, and they will become ever more important as our “computer overlords” take over the repetitive grunt work currently performed by the high-priced PhDs on the university payroll.

Link to original photo: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2536578/Supercomputer-beat-Jeopardy-champ-Ken-Jennings-gets-1B-investment-cloud-service-help-ANYTHING.html