31 January 2019

I'm a Teacher (For Four More Weeks) and I Take Pride in My Work, Just Don't Call Me "Great" Plus Some Advice

Disclaimer: the above teacher is not yours truly
My psychiatrist and I got into a long discussion yesterday that went nowhere. Or everywhere. I couldn’t tell which. It stemmed from the fact that I’m retiring in four weeks and I told him that I dread goodbye ceremonies in which my employers and co-workers heap with me praise for being such “a great teacher.” I’m not comfortable with it. I like being thanked for my services or have a student point out something in particular they liked about my class, but having an adjective thrown at me — no matter how laudatory, is useless. What does it mean if you are a “great” teacher? Okay it can mean you’ve got satisfied students, but not only does it not specify anything but it can make you complacent. I need to go out there and teach again tomorrow and I need to prepare and execute the best possible lesson plan that I can, thinking I’m “great” doesn’t help. Realizing I’m capable does. I've had a lot of students say things like "you were a great teacher." But I much prefer praise that begins: "I really liked the way that you...." Or, "I appreciate that you always..."

I have always taken great pride in my efforts as a teacher. I have also derived great satisfaction from the knowledge that I’ve impacted a lot of lives in positive ways through my teaching. This type of understanding can allow one to die a happy person. But as long as I’m still teaching I don’t need or want my ego fed.

Teaching is a humbling experience. You’ve got to perform to the best of your ability day after day. It’s a grind. I’ve loved doing it and found it wonderfully fulfilling. But I don’t need to hear the cheers as I’m doing it.

My philosophy as a teacher is to show up and do my best every damn time. Of course to do one’s best requires not merely effort, but imagination, innovation, professional growth, attention to detail and humor.

Actually maybe on the day I retire people can tell me how “great” I was and I won’t blanch, but I still think I’ll feel a little weird about it. It’s like in AA when you announce it’s your sobriety birthday and people applaud. I hate that. I don’t want applause for staying sober one day at a time. I didn’t do anything but follow the principles of the program.

I’ve gone through the whole “being great” thing. I used to think I was a great soccer player, a great journalist, a great writer. It didn’t help me a wit to think that way, it made me lazy, taking bows rather than trying to achieve actual greatness.

Yesterday when our “time was up” as psychiatrists like to say, I noted that our animated conversation had distracted me from my depression. The doctor wondered aloud if my attitude toward praise was a cause of my depression. This was a clear sign that I’d failed to explain myself. You’d think a teacher would have no problem explaining something. Maybe I’m not so great after all.

I close this with some advice I’m passing on to my current colleagues before I “hang ‘em up” on March 1.

Unsolicited advice from a veteran teacher.

Don’t talk too much. It’s far more important for students to talk, in fact it’s essential that they do. Most lessons lend themselves to student interaction through pair or group work. Young people in particular should only be exposed to a limited amount of lecture or teacher-centered instruction. Guided student interaction should not be just a break from the norm but an integral part of lessons.

Students want a teacher not a robot. You do not have to be the life of the party type but you should exhibit some signs of life. An occasional smile, a personal anecdote or a ready quip are advised. Don't sit behind a desk, you're not an accountant. Circulate, make eye contact, vary your voice. Don’t drone on in a robotic voice, try dramatic pauses, accents, stage whispers maybe even a bellow.

Call audibles. If students are getting bored you may need to switch activities sooner than you planned. Alternatively if students are enjoying something you may want to extend what you're doing. Sometimes lessons need to be modified while in progress. Know your audience. Read their faces, look for yawns, look for eyes wandering, note if you're getting a lot or no questions, note if students are puzzled or engaged. Classes take on different personalities and have different needs. Some are stronger academically, some are more sociable, some are quiet, some are full of the dull and lifeless and some are full of whirling dervishes. Some understand one concept but not the other. Pay attention to the different needs of each class and don’t be afraid to modify on the run.

A little TLC goes a long way. Give students encouragement and praise whenever possible, even if it's not totally sincere. You should be something of a cheerleader, rooting them on. Assuming you have a student for more than a couple of weeks, it’s good to get to know a little about her or him. Teaching is about establishing relationships, knowing what a person's strengths and weaknesses are and if they have specific needs. When writing summary comments on a student paper or giving them oral feedback I always employ PCP. Praise, criticism praise. Always leave them feeling good about themselves.

Learning is its own reward. What rewards should students get? Isn’t learning reward enough? If not isn’t a good grade or advancement to the next level a nice reward? That being said, rewards are proven to be far better in motivating students than punishments. Punishments should be swift, fair and used minimally and should never be in the form of “making them write.” Writing should be viewed as a rewarding experience, not as a punishment.

Tell them why. Teachers often fashion innovative lessons that challenge and inform students. But often students don’t understand the point of a lesson. Go ahead and tell them. In fact, sell them on the idea. If you can’t explain the value of an assignment, it’s likely because it has none. Justify the assignment to yourself, then to them. Nothing should be done just because it’s fun.

Would you like it? Create lessons and a classroom environment that you'd enjoy if you were taking the class. In fact, if you’re enjoying teaching a lesson its likely they’re enjoying learning it. Students feed off your enthusiasm and energy. Also they'll like you. Being liked by students is a big plus. If students like you they're going to be more open to what you have to say and more willing to do what you ask. Also remember you're dealing with two different dynamics: you and individuals and you and the class as a whole. The more students who you have on your side, the more likely you've got the whole group. That's key because groups are infinitely harder to manage than individuals.

Don’t drown students in paper. For one thing it’s bad for the environment and for another it can be a lazy way to teach. It’s easy to pile on the worksheets and readings to give yourself a break. My teaching philosophy is — whenever possible — offer a variety of teaching methods within one class. I like to — again, when possible — give students a mix of interactive, writing, listening, reading etc. Remember two things: 1) Variety is the spice of teaching and 2) Moderation in all things teaching.

Video, like all things, in moderation. I have heard too many aging educators (usually ones who are no longer teaching) complain about the use of videos. Several say that “students can watch TV at home.” Yes, well for that matter they can read and write at home too. However if you are showing them part of a movie or TV show or any other type of video, presumably it is something that they would not choose to watch at home and even if they did they would be doing so without the benefit of your introducing the relevance of it and clarifying and explaining and giving assignments around it. By not using video at all you are eliminating an important instructional tool. Of course many teachers overuse video. There’s got to be a demonstrable value to whatever you are showing.

Students are comforted by routines but shake it up. You start every class with a particular warm up or activity, you always do something at the end of class or every Wednesday you do this or every Friday you do that. I have a number of routines that I practice in every single class and students come to expect and enjoy them. Consistency and stability and a certain predictably is comforting. But you’ve also got to shake things up from time to time. Within the boundaries of the everyday activities mix in something different. The totally unexpected can be a refreshing break and in fact can invigorate your classroom. Make yourself and thus students step out of the comfort zone.

Test results sometimes reflect you. If I give a test and a few students fail while most do well, I have to assume those few students did not study or did not understand. I’ll work with them. But if a lot of students have trouble with a test, it’s on me. Clearly I either made it too difficult or did not prepare them well enough. Also if there’s a particular part of the test that a lot of students struggled with be sure to review that and keep it in mind the next time you give that test. Whenever “everyone” is struggling it's up to you to fix it.

Don’t not look back. A good teacher is reflective. If a lesson goes poorly do not blame the students, look in the mirror. You can’t fix how they react to a lesson but you can fix the lesson itself. Always ask yourself what you could have done differently, challenge yourself to improve. At the same time when a lesson goes well, give yourself a hearty pat on the back and learn from that too.

Have fun Teaching is challenging, at times difficult and occasionally enervating, but it’s also jolly good fun. If you’re not enjoying teaching, find a profession that you will like. Look at the bright side, it’ll probably pay more.

08 January 2019

My Short-Lived Meditation Journals are Here Published and They Include Various Other Musings

Author's note: I neither sit like this nor am I a woman
I mediated today for the first time in over a year. (This time I mean to stick to it.) Coming back to meditating after a long lay-off is similar to working out after a prolonged period of laziness. It’s difficult to get back into a rhythm. Now that I think of it, saying there is a rhythm to meditation is a bit weird, but I’m sticking with it nonetheless. So what happened this morning when I gamely tried to meditate was that my brain — such as it is — immediately started flying off in all directions. Measured breathing, mantras, focussing on an image, none of these deterred my wandering mind. It got so bad that instead of focusing on my breathing I found myself planning to write this. I started observing all the various topics my mind was intent on addressing. This is not mindfulness, it’s more like mind full of nonsense.

I know enough about meditation to realize that what I experienced was not unusual — particularly for someone who is, let’s say, out of shape. It wasn’t a negative experience at all. It was a start. Tomorrow will probably be a little better, though maybe worse. Certainly if I continue daily meditation I’ll stop thinking about basketball, work, models, sex, Netflix, traveling and sundry other topics within a short meditation. One can hope.

Day two of mediating went just barely better than its predecessor. Actually there was a part two to day one that went well. If it gets better all the time then eventually it will be good and someday excellent with nirvana just around the corner.

So I suppose I’ve something of a meditation journal going on here. Maybe I could include other important daily practices like stretching, working out, reading, work, chores and writing. A daily journal in which I write about writing. Takes care of itself. Here I am now writing, Words. Sometimes a phrase. Occasionally a full sentence with a beginning, middle and end. Some of the sentences, like the preceding, will include commas. I may have enough sentences put together on one topic to complete an entire paragraph. Like so.

Writing has been a strange part of my life. It courses through my veins, makes me happy, alive, expressive. But I struggle with it so. Laziness and depression fight against my desire, my need to write. That deadens me inside. Like impotence. Speaking of impotence, the best cure for that is a good fuck. Not funny? Well, it’s just as when Groucho Marx recommended plenty of sleep as a cure for insomnia.

Yes, Julius H. Marx. One of my heroes. Like many really funny people (and he was among the funniest ever) he was extremely intelligent. See too: Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, Christ Rock, Bill Hicks, David Letterman, Dick Cavett, Dave Chapelle and many more.

I’m funny and intelligent too but obviously not on a par with the aforementioned gentlemen. There’s a point. I only included men, though I did include three men of color and two Jews. Anytime you write or say a list of people you’ve got to be conscious of being inclusive. Making it a rainbow. This can be tough. It’s hard to compile a list of your favorite British kings, for example, without it coming out all white, Christian males. (I here add that I personally have never listed my favorite English kings. Not, for that matter have I impersonally made such a list. Personal is an interesting word. Sometimes on public transportation you are reminded to keep an eye on your personal belongings and not to forget them when you leave. This would suggest that any items related to work need not be looked after. If you’ve got a laptop from your job it’s not as important as your own personal umbrella.)

So where was I? Where have I been? What have I been doing? All important yet unanswerable questions. I’m struggling with being mindful while just doing and not thinking. I’m struggling with living in the moment while preparing for the future and not forgetting the lessons of the past. I’m struggling with what I’ve done and my perceptions of what I’ve done and how other people have reacted to what I’ve done and how I should interpret all this and whether it’s worth my time to interpret anything at all. Sometimes there’s mumbo jumbo and sometimes there’s deep insight.

I need to understand Dharma. Which means the four noble truths and the eightfold path. This seems a bit overwhelming but…. But. But. But. You’re never too old, it’s never too late. You have to find the path and that requires effort and that effort is being awake to it all. I start my awakening through meditation. I read. I write. I let go of my ego and take hold of my mantra and breath. Always. It’s all laid out for me.

I feel like I’ve come to the end of this writing. You’ve got to respect the part of your brain that says stop just as you do the part that tells you to carry on. Right now my brain is saying that I’ve exhausted the topic. For now. So I stop.

On day three of my return to meditation I listened to silence. It is pretty loud. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a total vacuum of noise, not in the natural world. I heard some sounds, of course. The first was my wife starting the car as she went to pick up oldest daughter from yoga. The sound of our car is very familiar and comforting to me. It can mean someone is home, or someone is leaving — perhaps to the store to buy food! Sometimes the sound is a harbinger that I’m about to have the dump to myself for a few blessed minutes — or hours.

I also heard an airplane. I like the sound of airplanes, assuming it’s not some massive jumbo jet flying ten feet above my domicile. The problem was that it got me thinking of air travel. So I focused on my breathing. Focusing on breathing is not the most fascinating thing one can do but then again this is meditation, not a trip to an exotic isle. So as you can see I’m still struggling (what the hell, it’s only been three days). But I shall persist.

Earlier I missed a train by seconds that would have gotten me home 15 minutes earlier. After my initial stifling of expletives I decided to focus — in a very Zen sort of way — on the feeling of frustration. To detach myself from the feeling and just examine it. This actually worked pretty well.

Later I was walking home from the subway station down quiet dark streets enjoying my solitude, then a young couple fell in step behind me. They were chattering away. This broke my reverie. I crossed the street. Later they crossed the street and were behind me again. So I crossed for a second time. They turned down the street I was going to turn down so I took an alternate route. The nerve of some people not knowing I like a nice quiet walk home minus people yakking at each other.

I’m reading Moby Dick. All I’ll say is that it’s a whale of a book. No, I’ll say more. I can’t understand why some people have such trouble with it. It really flows along for me. This is my second time with it. Maybe I’ll discuss it more at a later date. Wouldn’t that be exciting?

Just finished meditating and I did it right here at work. All I needed was an empty classroom. Again the results were mixed. I focused on my breathing, then on the sound of clock, I tried to feel the lightness in my body then the heaviness. I tried counting. I tried my social security number (seriously dude, what were you thinking?). I tried a mantra of “no thoughts, no thoughts, no thoughts.” I thought about every thing under the sun but what was most notable was that again I thought about what I would write after meditating. This is a clear signal that I should cease and desist these meditation journals. Maybe when I finally have meditation “success” I’ll try again. Meanwhile I’m going to try to find a drawing board to go back to. Which is to say that I’ll be reading about meditation again so that I might better practice it. Better. There’s no way I could do worse unless I started screaming and listening to heavy metal at full blast.

All that being said I feel better after meditating than I did before. More relaxed and happy. I’m hoping meditation will help mitigate my depression. Nothing much else has worked aside from running. Certainly meds have not magically cured me. Meds do allow me to sleep and have warded off panic attacks and keep my acid reflux in check but seem to have done nothing over the years for my depression. I think I’ll have better luck with meditating. I’m also looking into practicing other Buddhist principles in my life. You’ll perhaps hear more from me on that topic. I was going to write “you’ll perhaps hear more from me on that topic in the future” but I realized that “in the future” was redundant. You can’t exactly hear anything new in the past. Although if the scientific community can sort out the whole time travel business, who knows?

I here close my “meditation journals” with this quote from the Buddha: “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” I’m working on it.

01 January 2019

My Top Ten Films of 2018

1. First Reformed (Schrader)
2. Roma (Cuaron)
3. Burning Chang-dong Lee)
4. Shoplifters (Koreeda)
5. You Were Never Really Here (Ramsay)
6. The Favourite (Lannthimos)
7. Blackkklansman (Lee)
8. A Star is Born (Cooper)
9. Blindspotting (Estrada)
10. Wildlife (Dano)

Honorable Mention: Widows (McQueen);  Eighth Grade (Burnham);  Disobedience (Leilo);  Ben is Back (P. Hedges);  Sorry to Bother You (Riley);  A Ciambra (Carpignano)

Best Actor: Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born).  Runners Up - Ethan Hawke (First Reformed), Lucas Hedges (Ben is Back), Ah-in Yoo (Burning) Ed Oxenbould (Wildlife).

Best Actress: Carey Mulligan (Wildlife).  Runners Up - Charlize Theron (Tully), Glenn Close (The Wife), Lady Gaga (A Star is Born), Julia Roberts (Ben is Back).

Best Supporting Actor: Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Runners Up  - Sam Elliott (A Star is Born), Rafael Casal (Blindspotting), Steven Yeun (Burning).

Best Supporting Actress: Amanda Seyfried (First Reformed). Runners Up - Emma Stone (The Favourite), Rachael Weisz (The Favourite), Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk).