Thursday, September 29, 2011

An Appetite for Destruction? No, Just Hungry for Knowing.

I have a mission. I must learn more about the outside world of education beyond high school. It is a quest, so that I can pass along detailed knowledge to my students hungry for news.
Tomorrow morning, I will go to Le Cordon Bleu in Dallas to sample culinary arts cuisine, mingle with tech school recruiters, who will probably be young and enthused or older and fanatical about their special places and what it can mean for students. I will be sincerely interested, if not on an equal level of enthusiasm, because this is an area of knowledge for me that is very superficial, that of two or four year career programs. It is a dirty and dangerous job, but someone has to do it, and I am willing to take one for the team, as I am thinking that there may be some cream cheese involved or possibly something made with foam, like Marcel from Top Chef fame.
I will state that I believe in continuing education for all educators. To attend workshops, study online, go to conferences or symposiums or forums with "breakout sessions" or SPECIAL guest speakers can quite often make a difference, impart wisdom, inspire and motivate beyond a rote inservice. There is so much beyond the classroom that can make for a better, well-rounded teacher or administrator or even counselor, by exposure, by contact with other viewpoints, innovations and visions. An appetite for
(An example of what I don't get to go to would be that Temple Grandin, of autisim fame and an HBO movie, is coming to Dallas, and I would love to see her speak, but there isn't time or money. I am jealous of those who can afford to go.)
This year, I have traveled to UTA to hear updates from a College Board rep, with all the bells and whistles. Nothing really new, but there was an oppotunity for me to travel into the heart of the UTA campus, stroll through the student center with its bowling alley and hoards of laptop tapping, unshaven and largely catatonic Mavericks. This made me feel refreshed and envious, all at once. UTA has had some phenomemnal building going on, with a beautiful, new engineering building that made me think that the campus had reached a different strata. There was a giant cinnamon roll with a Mountain Dew inside for me that made me feel like my heart was going to stop, but it kept me focused, as well.
Next week, I will get to go to Maggiano's in Dallas to eat and gain insight about Texas Tech and Houston, while mingling and eating afterward on the universities' dime. I have heard great things about the menu offered, but of course I can't be bought with noodles and sauce. It will take pesto to really win me over to the desired goal of the exemplary status of the Red Raiders and the Cougars. I think there will be a free bag and maybe an environmentally friendly sippy cup.
Later, there will be a trip to UNT on a Friday to gather new information about the ACT and the Eagles' new stadium and restaurant management program. The parking is a bit iffy, but there is great care taken to make you feel welcome once inside the green carpeted student center. There is a plethora of information available, and some free t-shirts, sometimes. I confirmed my impression that Denton would be an appropriate fit for Robert, the oldest son, two years ago, while on a junket there. There will be a three-course meal provided, perhaps, to bookend the muffins of the beginning.
Ofter trips have been made in recent years to Baylor and its law school, TCU for an update and a dorm tour, the regional service center for some fresh ideas, and I toured a local mental health facility that specializes in suicide intervention. There have been cookies, Subway, Campisi's catered, and a variety of bottled waters, some of which I am not sure were actual brands.
I think the common threat that I have discovered while pondering the value of getting outside my three and a half walls of my office is that food is offered as a positive connection with the nourishment of my brain with invaluable and generous portions of creamy and delicious and buttery knowledge. Or, something similar. Hard to think with your stomach growling and your mouth watering.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Coaching Myself to Be A Good Parent

As the air turns much more crisp, and the days start to get shorter, I sometimes have vivid dreams late at night of coaching again, as I did for 15 years. I am in a gym, in a dugout, on a bus, and I am sometimes driving or playing with a dry erase board. I am dressed in a polo and shorts and a cap, or I am in a sweater vest with shiny shoes. Sometimes I have the feeling of being like Tom Landry, and I have channelled the wonderful-at-cursing coach from Bull Durham. I never get to finish a game, and there is more often than not no scoreboard. There is always a yelling crowd, and I can always feel piercing stares and burning eyes from parents, and this makes me itchy, and I make myself wake up. (I have that skill not often enough.)
Then, I go to a soccer game for one of the kids, and I set my chair up, get them squared away, and I proceed to stare at the back of a parent coaching from the opposite sidelines of the real coach. He is in anguish, yearning to run on the field. Another parent put an umbrella up, which inadvertently blocks the view of all others from about 20 percent of the field. There are equal amounts of imploring Juan and Tanner in Spanish and English to pass or run harder. It is passion, and then one of the boys has a ball kicked into his gut, and he goes down in pain. The response from the other team is to encourage their sons to run past and around the boy, now writhing on the ground, and it becomes something twisted.
And, I am taken back to nights of confrontation after wins by parents whose children didn't play "enough" outside of lockerrooms, in parking lots, getting on the bus. I can remember every moment of long, uncomfortable conferences, as playing time was hashed over, and childhood accomplishments were lauded as proof of my ignorance or lack of judgement. "T Ball Champion" of 1994 had a quest of being an Olympian, and I was in the way. Practice habits were discounted, reality of talent is an oblivious subject that inflames, and other children are doggedly drug in, despite repeated reminders, that privacy and respect must be maintained. I recall clearly screams from the stands, muttering in the workplace from teacher parents, a morning when a parent miffed at junior high playing time came to my home one early Saturday morning and scared Amy with a knock on the door. Crank phone calls, cold stares, Amy getting bumped while plregnant at a playoff game by a respected civil servant lady. My children heard things they didn't understand while playing in the grass, and my parents who patiently made sacrifices out in the cold heard condescension and criticism.
So, as I added my own children, I began to ease out of coaching to the position of counselor to spend more time with those I loved and was missing seeing grow, as I got weary and wounded to the point of exhaustion. A thought germinating was brought to life by a couple of parents who got a hold of  the ear of a weasel of an athletic director who liked to look at himself but not you in his office mirrors, and I was demoted my last year. My obsession was not enough, my desire too temperate, and I didn't like to play a political game and break bread and drink a few beers with John and Sam and Bob. It was really a blessing to be pushed the direction I was going a little more firmly, that of a parent in the stands. The hottest day on record that last game in May made the air that much sweeter on the charter bus.
And, so the question, becomes, what kind of parent am I now in the stands? I get anxious, angry, frustrated, excited, thrilled, exultant and morose. I cheer hustle, heart, gusto, and I concentrate on the demeanor and attention of my kids when their coach speaks. They get rebuked for not showing appropriate respect for teammates, for not being into games. We have quiet talks about what can be done different or better. I try to ask the most important question of all: did you have fun? 
After most games, I make sure that the chair is packed, that we have snacks, that we have what we need to head home, and I don't look back at the field or gym. On days or nights like that, what awaits me, if I am lucky, when I sleep is a deep and dreamless slumber.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Remembering 9-11 While Moving Forward.

10 years ago on September 11th, 2001, before it became 9-11, the day started out like any other first-of-the-year day for me, as the air was starting to become cooler in the mornings, and I was running a bit late.  Amy was home with baby Stephen, and I spent some time with her, as she was slumbering, as the result of being more than 6 months pregnant with the baby that was to become Annie. Time was sweet in the mornings before school in our little blue house.
I remember looking for a parking spot, listening to the radio, a few minutes late, when I heard that a plane had crashed into one of the WTC towers. Thinking surely it was an accident of some type, I hurried into my classroom and turned on the ancient TV that in one corner, and as things began to unravel, I realized that this was no accident, with the second plane hitting. Hurrying out into the hall to find someone to talk to about it, as I had first period off that year, I heard a lot of quiet and then the steady sounds of TVs on all over the building. A coach had rolled a TV out that was normally used for showing workout videos, and all around, you could start to hear the buzz. As I recall, there was an announcement and then a flurry of e-mails to keep things calm and on schedule, and that we attempted to do, as another plane crashed, and then another in the countryside in Pennsylvania. Amidst all this, Amy called me in a panicked voice, as the electricity had flashed off in Grandview. (Terrible coincidence, it turned out, as a transformer had quit.)
We went through our day on schedule, suspending real classwork in most cases, but following the bells, eating lunch, telling kids to get out of the halls, following routine. The day's specific moments after that first shock have largely faded from memory, as they have been replaced by other days, with tragedy or joy or mundane routine. Things returned to normal in the weeks after that in the school setting, while the world changed profoundly, and this made me wonder if that is what we should be doing: providing a calm in the storm, a steady and consistent wave of movement forward, a safe haven.  Should that moment have been more of about provocative learning? About connecting our lives to those who were going through horror in NYC, in DC, and on a lonely field outside Philadelphia?
Then, this past week, Jamie, who is my second grader, came home with an assignment to be a part of a mural that would honor the day and the victims, as she was to draw or get off the Internet pictures representing her thoughts on things. Now, as a 2nd grader, it hit me that she had no real clue about what happened then, and I was okay with that, but she wanted to do her best to help out, and we found pictures that showed one tower being hit by a plane, and then another picture with obviously wounded and suffering people helping each other through the ash and destruction. She wrote the word HEROES under that one.  As she got ready to get out of the car the next morning, with her poster contribution, she held it up, and she told me that there was an "evil man" and he planned things to hurt us. I reassured her that while this was so, that she was safe, and she hugged me and went into the building a little more serious than normal.
Yesterday morning, I was checking texts, as I was getting ready to head out the door, and there were two from another counselor and my boss about the very sudden, horrible death of one of students, a sweet-faced girl from what I could recall, (and I didn't have her as one of my students, but felt gut punched for this girl and her family and friends), from a unknown cause. We went into crisis mode, offering services to the dozens of students who came into our office or were in classrooms, and other counselors came to help, who had a connection to her, through her church or through a neighborhood connection.  We set a room aside, and we offered them some comfort or consolation, I hope, as there were tears and vulnerable stares of grief. During the time when announcements are made, there had been plans to have our "moment of silence" for 9-11 remembrance, but on this day, the decision was made to announce this sad loss, as we moved 9-11 to Monday. Tears flowed, and there was an air of somber weariness throughout the day.
And, I realized that we did what we had done on 9-11: we had continued living while carrying the grief with us, tucking it gently but firmly away, as it could not deter us from moving forward to what was ahead.

Friday, September 2, 2011

I Didn't Know The Job Was Dangerous When I Took It. I Would Do It Again.

As  the first two weeks have swiftly completed themselves, with a massive gathering called a pep rally to conclude it, and a Labor Day weekend ahead for some rest and grilling, I thought I would give a quick rundown of what a counselor might do. And, where I have come to where I am now.
When I reached a crossroads of my career a few years ago, as I had coached for 15 years, and we had just welcomed our 4th bundle of joy to the world, the choice I had to make was threefold: stay as a teacher, after a period of great activity and variety with what goes with coaching and teaching; go into administration, as many coaches have done before and trade coaching a game to watching students watch a game and not necessarily have more time to spend with my family; become a School Counselor and get an office and more of an 8 to 4 job (so I thought), with the duties that I thought would largely consist of doing schedules and listening to a few problems, here and there. Now, clearly you can see why I went the counseling pathway, as I viewed it much more favorably. And, I do believe that I have made the right choice, without question. But, little did I know, what would go into my average day and the adventures that were ahead of me, as I went through my classes at TAMU-Commerce.
Counseling classes in college consist of much theory, history, and then some practical listening skills honed, as I was assigned to work with other counselors, recording our efforts for posterity. (Those tapes WILL resurface when I run for President, I am sure.) I learned how to be still, focus on the person in front of me, interject appropriate comments, keep a supportive affect, and worked diligently to avoid "closed ended" questions. I was very fortunate to be hired during the time I was taking my classes, so I was able to put into practice my training on the listening part and  the sitting quietly in conversations with students, while others had to rely on sporadic exposure and balance their teaching jobs. I had to go from a very directive personality to a much more empathetic manner, and this I am still working on, on a daily basis.
Yet, there was a wide gap in my expectation and the reality of my job duties. I was very lucky to have a great set of mentors and veterans to work with, in a district that is considered to be one of the top in the state and an economically upscale place in Midlothian. From inside I discovered that there is a whole layer of life going on, and that perfection and women vacuuming in pearls was Beaver's world, not mine.
My job has included helping new students transition from their previous school, quite often in flight from a divorce or financial downturn. "Temporary residency" is a term in high demand at our school.  I have had two students die at the hand of drunk drivers, and I went to classrooms to tell the news, 7 times in one day, and offer support, and then attend the funerals. I drive by the roadside cross and graduation teddy bear of one everyday.
 More and more students need school supplies, and I work to get them what they need or communicate to teachers their plight.  There are students who have tried to harm themselves or others, and there have been painful phone calls to make, facilitating treatment outside  the school. Truancy and misbehavior and dropping out are daily occurrences, and my job is address, correct and prevent those, the best I can, or I try to help with the next move, when they leave us. Parents have set in my office and pleaded for help, or they have viciously verbally attacked teachers or their own student. In some cases, more and more, it seems, parents have simply walked away or abandoned their children, and more students "couch surf" than ever.
There is constant paperwork to complete, with schedule changes frantic and complex the first month of the year, and then again to start the second semester. Transcripts must be checked and re-checked, and graduation plans finalized, with my math skills called into use to determine the appropriate "plan." I have convinced several to hang in there for another semester or even an extra year to finish. I have lost several others. Testing begins in October with the PSAT and TAKS retests, picks up steam again in the 4th Six Weeks, and then culminates in May with AP and the new EOC exams, which I can't fathom how they are going to fit. This often involves sheer manual labor, with movement of tests boxes, counting of materials, packing and rolling giant carts. Test anxiety creeps up during testing with some students, and we also wrangle those teachers who aren't at their best during the mundane moments.
Special nights during the year include orientation for freshmen, graduation path/separation anxiety for seniors, and a College and Career Night with 80 plus schools. We go to classrooms to do guidance on testing, on credits, on planning, on goal setting, on the PSAT, PLAN test, and we play a GPA game. I have been in charge of the ASVAB, the military qualification test, for the last 4 years, and we give the ACT on certain Saturdays and the SAT on two others. Recently, we have had added two nights of football game supervision. We speak to the faculty on different required issues, such as bullying and dating violence. We also help them with follow-through on CPS reports. There are weekly meetings to attend as a staff.
Things come to a grinding halt, some days, and I have to crank the Pandora to keep my adrenaline up. So, where does this leave me, as I ponder the question of did I make the right choice?  My small, still voice tells me that I am chose the right thing, when I do the one thing I was really trained to do, listen.