Connected

Yesterday, Mary and I took a hike to Kitchen Creek Falls (near Buckman Springs), and enjoyed a nice view of the falls but decided not to climb all the way down because we had taken some wrong turns and were getting tired.  As we began to head back, we could see a young couple approaching.

“Hey, Mr. Waldron!” the young woman called out.  Yep.  Middle of nowhere.  Former student.

This happens pretty often. It’s a function of having taught in the same school for thirty six years and living in the same community.  It’s actually pretty nice.

Like, there were those years where after coaching AYSO soccer for 10 years so that I could spend more time with my daughter, my former players started showing up in my classroom, kids who I had coached when they were as young as 6, now appearing as teenaged students, and their parents, happy that “Coach Tom” was now their daughter’s English teacher.

There was the time that, when I was an acting vice-principal, I had to pretend to be stern with a 9th grade girl over a minor disciplinary incident.  She was dissolving into tears especially over the fact that I was going to have to call her mom.  I knew that the mom had high expectations for her girls because I had already had her two older sisters as students in my class.  One day I discovered the eldest, tucked away in a corner of the school in tears.  I sat with her for a while, and she told me about the constant pressure she felt from her mom, no matter how hard she tried or how well she did.  Years later, when I was looking for a referral to an acupuncturist, a friend recommended a woman who had a clinic nearby.  It turned out to be the mother of the three girls.  It took us a while to make the connection, but when her eldest daughter began to practice in the same clinic and take over some of her patients, my former student became my doctor and treats me weekly now.  She remembers our high school interactions and the support I offered.  I get invited to her children’s birthday parties.

At the end of 2008, I went through a rigorous, but exciting process, and was selected as one of five San Diego County Teachers of the Year.  I received many pretty certificates and collected a lot of pieces of engraved acrylic trophies, most of which I’ve discarded now.  But the nicest recognition happened when I walked into my local pub, and the man who had run my local hardware store for many years was sitting at the bar and when he noticed me got all excited.  “You got picked as a teacher of the year!” he said, reaching into his back pocket and pulling out a profile of me that had been written up in the local paper.  He’d been holding on to that clipping knowing he might run into me at the bar eventually.  As I settled in, he began going up and down the bar and showing all the regulars the article and pointing at me and pretty soon I had a group of guys coming up to shake my hand and offer their congratulations.  The band broke out their rendition of the CSN song “Teach Your Children.”  It was so spontaneous and heartfelt that I’m sure I did not stop smiling all evening.

So, when I look back at my work life I wonder sometimes about how limited it was, how many experiences I may have missed by not branching out a little more.  But I loved what I did, and I really value the connections that I have in my life as a result of the choice that I made.

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A Handshake A Day…A Classroom Practice That Changed Everything

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During my 36 years of teaching English at the high school level, I attended many, many “professional development” workshops. I will let you in on a secret. By and large, teachers are terrible learners.

We demonstrate every bad behavior that we spend all day chastising our students about. We don’t pay attention. We pass notes. We ignore directions. We grade papers instead of attending to the presenter. Smartphones have made us even more inattentive, since now we can check email, Facebook, or chat with our friends across the room via text messages.

It is not our fault altogether. The workshops frequently do not meet our most critical or pressing needs. They are often planned by administrators who have lost touch with the classroom. And especially bad are the district-sponsored sessions that are designed to indoctrinate teachers into THE NEXT BIG, IMPORTANT THING IN EDUCATION which they are convinced we must begin to implement immediately. Those of us who have been around feel a touch of cynicism about such roll-outs because we know it is likely to be just a couple of years before we are dragged back into the same room to hear about THE NEXT BIG, IMPORTANT THING IN EDUCATION which not only replaces its predecessor, but likely undoes all of the work we just completed implementing for the previous program.

However, one spring afternoon our staff gathered for a half-day workshop with a focus on the importance of boosting students’ self-esteem. This was some time ago when caring about students as individuals was considered as important as producing good test-takers.

The woman presenter was earnest and sincere and I’m sure she gave us a lot of good ideas and strategies, all of which I have now forgotten—all except for one. She told us that she stood at the door of her classroom at the beginning of every period and shook hands with every entering student, greeting every student, every day.

She claimed it was the single most influential thing she had ever done in terms of creating a warmer and more welcoming classroom environment. She claimed that once she began, her problems with discipline were greatly reduced, her students felt better about her and about themselves and most remarkably, that she could wait until the end of the day to record her attendance because she could actually remember who had attended that day.

“Hmmm,” I thought. This actually sounded like something.

There were so many reasons NOT to try it. First of all, we were nearing the end of the year, with barely 6 weeks of school remaining. Introducing a new ritual, a new daily practice would be awkward, both for me and for them. My classroom had two entry doors, so I’d be unable to greet them coming in the door. I’d need to wait until they were seated and then circulate through the room killing more instructional time. Most of all though, the thought of it made me feel vulnerable. I imagined that the kids would think it strange, forced, artificial. I convinced myself several times to put it off to the beginning of the next year. After all, it would be so much easier to start off the year with a brand new group of kids who had no expectations, who would be less likely to see this new practice as being a weird departure from the norm.

But the idea gnawed at me all weekend. If it was really that good, if it really made that big a difference, why not take it on a test drive for 6 weeks and see if it really could have the kind of impact that the presenter had suggested?

I was nervous on Monday morning. The first period kids sat down at the bell, and I began circulating up and down the rows with my first official handshake of what would become a ritual that would endure throughout the rest of my career. Students were surprised, puzzled, skeptical, and amused as I went around greeting each kid briefly. Once I was done, I certainly had their attention because they all wanted to know what the heck that was all about. So, I told them the story of the workshop, of my decision to experiment with them until the end of the year. After we had given it a try, I told them, I’d let them tell me what they thought, whether it was something I should continue with or not.

Over the next couple of weeks, we all became used to the new ritual. I began to look forward to this way of beginning each class. I liked that I had a brief moment each day to acknowledge every student in my classes. If I had a concern with one of the kids, I could pause at his desk and consult with him for a moment. Likewise, the students discovered that this was a good time to stop me if they had a particular problem or question to which they wanted to alert me. I found myself giving impromptu handshake lessons when students would offer up what I called a “dead fish handshake”, letting their hand lie limply and passively in mine. I felt like I was performing a public service by preparing them for using the proper “business handshake” that they would need as they eventually made their way into college and job interviews.

As the year came to a close, I did not feel as though I had seen a huge transformation in the classroom atmosphere. I had, however, begun to feel a significant change in me. By spending that moment every day with every student, I began to be much more aware of the uniqueness of each kid. Especially important to me was that it gave me a chance to chat with and acknowledge those who were very quiet or shy. They couldn’t hide when I was standing over them with my hand outstretched and, over time, I think they appreciated the attention.

During finals I surveyed the class and asked them how they had felt about our little experiment. It had become so routine by then a lot of them shrugged their shoulders. “Fine” some of them mumbled. One brave soul raised his hand to comment, “What I noticed, Mr. Waldron, was that it was really hard to be mean to you when you took time to shake our hands every day.”

Well, that was enough of an endorsement for me. I continued shaking hands for the next 15+ years, every kid, every day. Through it, I discovered not only the importance of creating a non-threatening physical connection, but the importance of having unique classroom rituals. The handshake made our classroom special because no one else (that they knew of) was doing it. Howls would go up if I mistakenly tried to begin class without handshakes first. Returning student might not remember a single thing I had taught them about reading or writing, but everyone remembered our daily routine.

One student who wrote to me on the occasion of my retirement in 2012 summarized it nicely: “I remember your daily handshakes (or fistbumps if we were sick) like it was yesterday. Taking those few minutes out of your day to talk to each student really made a difference, especially during a time where every teenager is struggling to figure out who they are and where they fit in. It was nice to know that at least one teacher really cared enough to take those few seconds out of their day to treat each student like a real person, not just another face in a crowd.”

Just a few minutes a day. Such a simple thing. I’m so glad I was paying attention during that one afternoon workshop so many years ago.

“Just Dropped In to See What Condition My Condition Was In”

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Note:  Thanks to Kenny Rogers and the First Edition for the title (you have to go way back to know that one!)

 

Of course I’m depressed. I mean, who wouldn’t be. Ebola, climate change, Supreme Court decisions, police injustice, terrible things going on in Syria, Iraq, and Iran. There are days that I have to avoid the front section of the newspaper altogether. I withdraw to the sports section where I can be comforted by the complete meaninglessness of whether or not the Sixers will win more than one game this year, or court the anxiety of my Chargers trying to stagger, once again, into the playoffs, and ponder if the Padres are about to make yet another horrible trade.

On my worst days, I figure that anyone who is not depressed is just not paying attention.

And this is one aspect of me that drives my wife just a little crazy. After all, I don’t actually have Ebola. Like most Americans, I have little say over the direction of the country, and people much smarter than me have failed miserably to guide events in the Middle East. No one at the Padres or Chargers seems much interested in my advice as sound as it might be.

Instead, right at this very moment, I’m writing as I sit out on my deck, drinking a beer, and enjoying a lovely, San Diego sunset. I am in reasonably good health. I’m retired which means I don’t have to do anything on a given day, although I do enjoy substitute teaching occasionally, attending adult school classes, hiking, taking long walks, reading, writing, doing yoga, swimming, traveling, and gardening.

In other words, from the outside, it would seem that I have no good reason to be depressed. I have no good reason to be anxious.

And yet, I do get anxious. I still slip into depressive periods. I start to see every setback as a personal failure. The car breaks down and in my mind, it spirals into a catastrophe. I make a simple mistake on a project and I curse myself as an “idiot.” I get disoriented in an airport, and I start to panic. How come everyone else knows where they are going? I am a sponge for other people’s sadness and for the troubles I see in the world. I get a headache, I worry about brain tumors.

I’ve been seeing a therapist for depression and anxiety for over ten years now. I was encouraged to seek out help because I kept slipping into depressive episodes as I became overwhelmed with work (an almost constant condition for a teacher), and because I noticed how I increasingly reacted to everything and everyone negatively, sarcastically. I resisted for quite a few years, but now I take medication to even out the highs and the lows. The sessions were frequent at the beginning. Now, I go in every couple of months, just to check in, just to make sure that I’m still moving in a positive direction.

It’s not something that I share lightly, but also something I’m not afraid to share especially with my former students who from time to time have in the past, and still today, seek me out in times of distress.

I came to know early on in my teaching experience, just now little I knew about the lives of my students as I interacted with them for my 54 minutes per day. If I saw a kid obviously in distress, I would take him aside and offer support and give him a chance to talk. Some students welcomed the attention. An equal number resented the intrusion.

Others were in pain so close to the surface, that the slightest interaction was enough to cause them to open up. One girl came in after school, ostensibly to talk about a problem with writing, and promptly dissolved into tears. What she really needed was to talk to someone about her mother who was creating chaos in her life. I once teased a young woman about the baseball cap she was wearing, whereupon she burst into tears. I took her aside and we spent the next two hours (and a good chunk of the following year) talking about the very painful break-up she was experiencing with her first boyfriend.

Just last week, helping a former student finish her college essays, we ended up talking about the pressure she was feeling from her parents, how she often felt isolated, how she felt guilty about moments of enjoyment, about how she felt somehow she didn’t deserve to be happy.

All three of these students were young, vibrant, bright, engaged young women. They were all high achievers who expected much of themselves. All three had a very hard time seeing beyond their present crisis or beyond their present way of thinking about it.

Somewhere in my conversations with all of them, I brought up my experience with therapy, with having to seek out some support, with how I came to realize that I needed professional help. Invariably, my students are surprised by this because the impression I give to my students when I am in front of a classroom, is that I am a positive, happy, high-energy person. They come to assume that I am like that all the time. What they didn’t know was that persona would pretty much collapse after 6th period on any given day.

Like these three young women, before therapy, I didn’t have strategies to cope with outside forces that I couldn’t control. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t quickly bounce back from the debilitating pain of loss. I often felt like a fraud and was incapable of accepting a compliment gracefully.

The most startling part of entering therapy was discovering how normal I was. I still remember in the first few sessions, as I started to describe the thoughts that plagued me, as I unburdened myself of all of the stuff I had been carrying around with me for so long, how utterly unimpressed my therapist was. “Yeah.” he responded. “You have a number of what we call “cognitive distortions” which is just a fancy way of saying that over time, you’ve come to distort the way you look at yourself and the world around you. You’re not an idiot, every setback is not a crisis, lots of people get lost in airports, and you probably don’t have a brain tumor.”

Then he handed me a list of “Common Cognitive Distortions”. There were 15 of them. They had neat little labels. The situations I had described fit nicely into 5 or 6 of the categories and I could see hints of how I perceived the world in 4 or 5 more.

I felt a little deflated. I thought I had really serious issues and here they were all boiled down into nice little boxes, all described on a single sheet of paper. I wasn’t anguished after all; I was mundane.

That last sentence is an example of a cognitive distortion. I just can’t remember which one right now.

Of course, my concerns and the pain I felt were real. The work it took to begin to recognize and respond to years of perceiving myself negatively was hard, and I have had to learn some lessons over and over again. The ruts in my ways of thinking are deep and even now, I fall back into them. That’s why the check-ups continue to this day.

I certainly do not share all of this with my students who are in distress. What I mostly do is listen to their concerns, share similar experiences that I have had, and most especially make sure there is help and support available to them. If I feel they might need the help of a professional, I try to demystify that experience for them. It’s amazing how comforted they seem to feel to know that a trusted adult has also struggled, has sought out professional help, is still working on personal issues that are not always all that different from their own.

If anything, I try to help them to feel normal again, to feel mundane—but in a good way.