One Small Change: Meeting our Basic Needs as Educators

*disclaimer: this involves a promotional link*

Nutrition. Exercise. Sleep – Every being on the planet knows and understands the importance of these 3 little words. Who among us is the most deprived of these three? One word: teachers. Teachers run on almost no sleep; they depend on day-old donuts left over from whatever group had a meeting the day before; and outside of running to the bathroom and back in under 2 minutes (because you can’t turn your back on the ocean), getting actual exercise is simply a luxury. Teachers arrive to work long before the students, and, for most of us, that includes being to work, having the room set-up, picked-up and prepared, and the coffee poured, all before 7am. When the bell rings at 3, it just means that the “performance” aspect of our job is complete. Now begins the next job: replying to emails from staff, students, and parents; making copies and preparing materials for tomorrow’s lessons; organizing stacks of papers or looking back through assignments submitted on Google Classroom for assessment. Once the work has been assessed, it needs to be entered into the online gradebook, including feedback and comments to students about revisions, next steps, etc. Sometimes, this is also where parent or student communication needs to happen. By the time this is complete, we need to get ourselves home to be ‘present’ with our own families- make their dinners, attend their events, help with their homework, do the laundry, and make lunches so that we can do it all over again tomorrow. Oh, and there are still two sets of assignments that need to be assessed, too, because our work is never done.

But, wait, this is supposed to be about nutrition, exercise and sleep. Precisely the issue. As a teacher, it is nearly impossible to weave these ever-important factors into our day to day existence. However, here is the plot twist! Just about two years ago, I started making one simple change in my life. This change, as it turns out, was the key to turning over a new leaf and unlocking the path into those 3 simple words: nutrition, exercise and sleep!

The change, as it turns out, starts with nutrition. I started noticing that my friends who were the most positive, who had that ‘healthy glow’ and had what seemed like boundless energy, had one thing in common: nutrition! It was through my conversations with them that I learned that within nutrition, there are two camps: micronutrients and macronutrients. By changing (and by change, I mean by adding) my micronutrients, I was astounded by how easily the macronutrient change fell into place.

The micronutrient change that I made involved consuming 30 whole food fruits and vegetables, twice daily, in capsule form. This product is called Juice Plus. By simply taking the capsules twice daily, I noticed that my entire palette changed. I began craving more fruits and vegetables and whole food nutrition as part of my daily diet. The small change in the micronutrients rippled out to buying, prepping and consuming more vegetables in my daily diet than ever before! Sunday’s became Prep-Day! My husband and I set aside an hour to peel, slice and roast veggies for the week. Then, we both set out containers to make our lunches for the week with the veggies as the base. With the veggies that are left, we create our dinner menu for the week. From this small change, we started noticing more energy at the end of the day, so we joined a nearby gym. Suddenly, instead of sitting at home, dragging ourselves to bed, we were scheduling the few hours we have together at night around the classes offered at the gym.

You know what happened next? Our sleep improved! Why? Because we were actually physically tired instead of just drained. We were sleeping better because we were exercising. We were exercising because we were eating better, and we were eating better because we were taking our Juice Plus.

Then, our children noticed the change, and wanted to come with us to the gym. From here, our students started to notice that we seemed happier to show up in the morning. Yes, all the same responsibilities were still awaiting us: the early mornings are still early, but I somehow get out of bed easier. The papers are still there, but because I want to get to the gym, I find myself setting other boundaries to get the assessing done more efficiently. The emails still have to happen, and sometimes it happens on the way to and from the gym, or sometimes they can wait until the morning, when I am rolling out of bed at 515am.

Yes, the reality of education is what it is: hard, hard, hard work. However, with one small change, good things happen: nutrition, exercise and sleep.  And from one small change, there’s no telling how far the good will go!

mirror, mirror on the wall, who am i, after all?

“Who am I? Who Am I? Who am I?”

At 13, I would stare in the mirror, each day, and face this question.

“Who is this awkward-faced, skinny-bodied person staring back at me? Where did she come from? Who IS she??”

For answers, most of us would look to family, but, for me, their faces were not reflected in mine. My narrow nose was nothing like their wide noses; my freakishly small jaw was comical to their square jaws; my fair skin burned easily, while their dark skin seemed to simply absorb the sun like a sponge; my sometimes-frizzy blonde hair looked white in contrast to their dark, curly hair. No, merely looking at my family did nothing other than further confuse the matter. Recognizing my struggle, my mom always left herself open to answering whatever questions I had, whenever I had them.  So, I asked my mom, again, to read me “the description.”

Being adopted, I had generated my own creation story…Once upon a time there lived a boy and a girl, they must have loved each other….but their love couldn’t stop war, especially the longest war in our nation’s history- the Vietnam War.  Yes, my mind’s eye created a scene like those found in any Nicholas Sparks novel- a clandestine affair then him being called to war while she was left behind. I created my own history like the Greeks created their mythology, one character, and image at a time. The difference? My entire life’s story stemmed from a few sentences, whereas the Greeks had hundreds of years and possibly more information.

Every so often when the  “Who Am I” questions became too much to bear, I would ask mom to read the descriptions of my birth parents. The description was included among the papers that had been given to my parents at the time of my adoption from Michigan Child and Family Services. The papers were lovingly kept in a special box. We had two identical, fireproof boxes: one held all the information that parents kept for themselves and one held all the information about me. Each time I asked questions, mom would find MY box, carefully lower it to the counter, unlock it, and remove the papers. I remember this treasured ritual the way most children remember Christmas morning. The pages that held the sacred description had the adoption agency logo at the top.

My mom would flip through the pages until she found the one that held the same paragraph she had read countless times before. Patiently, she would read it, again. In her best, upbeat voice she  would say:

“Birth mom is of small build with brown hair and blue eyes. She stands a little over 5 feet and is of medium build.”

“Mom, what’s ‘medium build?” I remember asking.

Every single time my mom read those sentences, I  would try to commit them to memory. But each reading felt like my first time hearing it. I would get lost trying to build a visual out of those over-generalized, non-specific descriptions, like trying to put together furniture from IKEA. Searching the crevices of my mind, I would try to construct a vision of “brown hair and medium build.” Desperately trying to find the answer to “Who Am I” among those words. Those ordinary words held the key to my existence and yet, no matter how hard I tried, how many times I listened,  I couldn’t “see” them, and I still didn’t “see” me… Once again, I couldn’t find myself in those sentences.

While my mom always remained upbeat in her reading of the description and shuffling of papers, I sighed. When would these words ever result in a definite picture? When would these words become a reflection of me? When would I get to look at someone and have someone like me looking back?  When would I feel like I knew who I am and why I am? My answer: avoidance. Avoiding the mirror provided the easiest solution to handling these unending, impossible questions.

I just wish people would understand how much they take for granted when they are born to biological parents. My cousins are forever talking about their “family traits” including their wide noses and Dutch traditions, while my narrow nose and I just smile and laugh it off, trying to dodge the next mirror reflection.

There’s that sigh again. “Who Am I?” I guess I will determine that on my own, in my own time. Until next time, mirror, until next time.

Epilogue: This piece was written a few years ago when I was reflecting on what I felt at 13. Until a week ago, I would say that this was an accurate take on my life and identity.

However, last week, while I was home on a snow day, I was checking my email. While I had sent in a 23 and Me kit over a year ago, I was only hoping to find information on my ethnicity. For example, how Irish am I? In my email search, I noticed a message from the 23 and Me company saying that I had a first cousin match. The match had sent me a message. After a few conversations and by the end of the day, I was in tears, holding the first ever picture of my biological father. For the first time, I saw my face looking back at me. There are no words to describe how that feels.

A new chapter begins.

the power of a caring teacher

“All kids need is a little help, a little hope, and someone who believes in them,” said Magic Johnson at a press conference once that I happened to see. Immediately, I thought, “That’s it! That’s the combination we, as educators, should follow.” If one quote can summarize my life’s philosophy, this is it.

For 25 years now, I have been teaching. “What do you teach” is the logical next question. The answer is more complicated than you might think. Technically, I teach courses in American Literature and a variety of other electives. But, in reality, I teach care: how to care, how caring changes us, what happens when there isn’t care, how caring impacts our learning, our experiences, our education and our future. So while “care” isn’t a subject area, it’s the underlying current of everything that I teach. More importantly, I hope it’s what is learned.

For 15 of my 25 years in education, I taught in the district where my own children now attend. Basically, I cared for the children of those who are now teaching my own children. Nearly all of those who are teaching my children were either new teachers when I was there or had children in my classes. In some way, shape or form, my children’s teachers are connected to our lives. All that being said, our oldest son (technically my step-son) is the living example of what it means to experience high school in the absence of a caring teacher.

Leaving middle school, our son had two life ambitions: teach music & math and build/fix things in between time. He was a straight A student; learning came easy to him- as he is a quick study, driven, motivated. Through his freshmen year, school remained okay. But, things happened: he was “cut” from soccer, he was ‘dismissed’ by teachers, and his experience in band became one of frustration, rather than affirmation. We felt helpless, as educators and parents, to “fix” this experience for him. Everything in us wanted his high school experience to be better. We took a deep breath and hoped the next year it would be better. It was worse.

His sophomore year was littered with being sent to the office for misbehavior, frustration that he wasn’t getting along with his teachers, feeling singled out. In “teen speak” we heard him saying that no one cared. We rallied. We reached out to teachers, one by one, via emails and conferences; we changed his schedule; we tried explaining things from our point of view, as educators; we encouraged him get through the day so that he could pursue his new hobbies and interests: hunting, fishing, fixing. In each communication with teachers and administrators, we returned to our refrain: he doesn’t think anyone cares, he doesn’t feel cared about. We started asking ourselves does anyone realize that this talented, wonderful, smart, funny, hard-working kid doesn’t feel validated in this school- the school he visited as a toddler when his dad worked there -the same school he used to brag to his friends that his dad and step mom worked in? As parents, we kept saying, if this is how we feel just trying to communicate, how must he feel having to exist, day in and day out, in this same space?

All I recall of his junior year is trying to survive it so that he could enroll in the Tech Center for his senior year. We thought if he could just make it through this one year, there would be a light at the end of the tunnel. One cold Sunday, he sat all of us down at the table and told us: As far as I can see, college is all just reading and writing, and those are the two things I least like doing. I don’t want to go to college. There it was. The boy that had so loved education that he wanted to teach was now counting the minutes to never connecting with education, again.

Here’s the thing- we KNOW that college is not for everyone. We’re totally supportive of his choice, or anyone’s choice, to enter the trades. We’re proud of all that he accomplishes-in and out of school, each and every day. However, way deep in our hearts we wonder: did he really choose the trades because that is truly what he wants in life, or was he pushed away so clearly by those in education that he felt this was the only way “out” from a world that clearly didn’t accept him? This question haunts us as he is about to complete the final semester of school.

Just in the time that I have spent writing this, he, single handedly, managed to repair his 16 year-old sister’s car after she put it in the way of a fire hydrant just a few days after getting her license. After a week of phone calls to the repair shop, our son finally said, “Dad, I’ve got this.” He went to a junk yard, found all the parts needed, brought them home, brought home the broken car and repaired it. All in less than 48 hours. For his sister- does he even like her? Yet look at what happens in an environment where he feels cared about and validated? He completes the task, takes initiative, meets the standard, drops the mic and heads off to go fishing. Love him. As I see his eyes sparkle in the satisfaction of a job well done, I know that he has the help and hope he needs. If only one other adult in his school day had believed in him….just a little…just once.

see jane age

Ahh, getting old. It happens as quickly and silently as anything else. You turn around one day, and while turning, your hip hurts, you catch glimpse of the crow’s feet around your eyes and your knees buckle. It all hit me last weekend. My husband and I were out walking on a rare, sunny Sunday. We had climbed some stairs near the state park where we live. After much huffing and puffing (despite a year’s worth of work at the gym), we made it to the top! Here, between breathes, we were able to sputter out: view- is- worth- the – climb, before doubling over to slow our breathing. We took a few moments to enjoy the view and snap a few selfies for due diligence.

Still enjoying the incredible sunshine and watery views, we started our descent. Ascending the stairs was an adorable family: a mom with toddler, and a dad with a baby in a backpack-carrier-thingy. Immediately, my husband and I broke into our, “awww, what a cute family” exchange. The dad and my husband exchanged looks, just as my husband cajoled, “I’d offer to help you but I’m afraid those days have passed for us…” That’s when it hit me. They probably looked at us and thought, “awww, look at the active grandparents.” That’s right. We’re officially old enough to be grandparents. We aren’t (yet), but this where we are, knocking down the door of grandparenthood.

That’s the reality that we need to accept that I didn’t see coming, until that second….Just like that, all in a day’s walk, I went from feeling mid-30’s to being received as “grandparenty.” In a blink, we move on to the next phase of life and it left me wondering: did I even stop to enjoy the phase I was in? how did I not even realize my age until now? how does it go so fast and how are we so helpless to enjoy what we have when we’re in it?

Aging has hit me all at once, but maybe that’s the lesson- that I see it now and CAN start enjoying each and every step in this next climb before reaching the top. Now that I see it, I can fully embrace it, and gracefully ascend, huffing and puffing, to the next phase of life.

choose jane choose

Decisions. They’re paralyzing. In the course of a day, there’s no end to the decisions that are made: what to wear, how to do my hair; what to make for dinner; do the kids have rides to practice, what am I doing with my life- you get the idea.

It seems that, in looking back, I have spent countless hours agonizing over decisions. I spent over a year once trying to find ‘just the right’ coffee pot. yes, coffee pot. Luckily, my friend was moving to a new home where her current pot wouldn’t fit, so she offered it to me. I’m happy to report that I am still using that same coffee pot, the one I didn’t have to choose. It chose me!

Since May, I have been taking a course in Mindfulness Fundamentals. What has been learned from the course is far more than what I anticipated. If anything, I have learned to stop. Be still. Listen. Feel. Think. Then, if still necessary, proceed.  This works with anything from what to wear to where to work. Wait. Does this mean that all decisions can be as providential as the coffee pot? What if it does. What does that mean about the power that I have given decisions? Does it mean that all this time my decisions have been “reactions” rather than “pathways to progress?” Probably. And all that time wasted. Don’t even get me started.

Decisions don’t have to be debilitating. They can come from a place of peace and love. They can be freeing. Decisions can allow us to “live the life unexpected in common hours.” Decisions can help us dig deep. Consider how our physical, emotional and spiritual selves are responding while considering the decision. It’s time to rethink how I think, and it’s time to let go. Life is too short to be paralyzed by a brain pathway. It’s time to be faithful to the stirrings of my heart, the feelings in my ‘gut’ and the calm, rational mind that can prevail.

see jane go:the journey begins

Thanks for joining me, Jane! This will be where I attempt to share my adventures as a parent, teacher, yogi and nutrition enthusiast. My roles in life include being a wife, mother, madrasta, adoption& autism advocate and so much more. My challenges include trying to achieve balance, maintain drive and deal with chronic exhaustion. Here we go! See jane, well….jane!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton