It Never Gets Old

The new semester begins, and I enter the room to greet a fresh group of students.  The magnificent people sitting there fill me with wonder each and every time.  What a privilege to meet them!  What a sacred vocation to teach!

It never gets old.  They take out pen and paper and write.  It starts again–this beautiful journey–where I ask them to walk, and I find them dancing. 

I sit behind the desk, and I gather their stories into my heart.  At this time in history, on this very day, I enter their story, and they enter mine. 

What a blessing to say a task “never gets old.”  Do you feel that way about your work?  Why or why not?


Talking to Penn State Students about the Scandal

Campus feels heavy, quiet, and ashamed.

What a strange contrast to the beauty and warmth of this fall day in Happy Valley.  It’s as if an undercurrent of sadness and confusion carries us to our classrooms beneath the shadow of that grand football stadium.

For once, nobody cares about the big game on Saturday. 

I ask the freshman how they feel, and they say that they “don’t want this terrible news to be what our school is remembered for.”  College students from other schools tease them on Facebook and on twitter and make jokes about their great university.  Their hearts are broken for the children harmed.  They feel humiliated.  They feel deceived.

How will we move forward?  

Penn State students reply: “The actions of the few don’t reflect the character of us all.” 

My students tell me how hard it is to feel let down by adults.  How have you recovered from that kind of disillusionment?


What Our Elementary School Principal Calls Herself

Our elementary school principal manages extraordinary tasks like learning the first and last names of all 495 students in the school.

That’s nearly 500 students.  Last September, I wrote about observing her in action in the hallway.

Last week at Back-to-School night, she introduces herself, not as the principal, but as the Lead Learner.  She signs all her correspondence this way as well.  

The Lead Learner!

For some reason, I want to cry right then and there.  No wonder she’s been at this school for over 20 years and has the best reputation of any school principal I’ve ever known or heard of.  No wonder the students at this school love learning so much.  The leader of this school is a learner.  How could we not follow her with that attitude of curiosity, humility, and reverence for this sacred act of learning? 

I recall Parker Palmer’s quote, “We teach what we most need to learn.”  I want that truth to shape my teaching philosophy and the ways I interact with other instructors, my students, and the material I teach.

I’m not the teacher, I’m the Lead Learner.

I’ll think about this tonight at Neighborhood Fitness Group.  The children will learn to jump in and out of the double dutch ropes, and I will too.   I’ll try to get a picture of me in action (Lord, help me!). 

Living with flair means being the Lead Learner.  

Journal:  Did you have a teacher (or principal) that acted more like the Lead Learner?


What College Freshmen Said They’d Keep Forever

After our project on how advertisers persuade us to purchase a whole array of non-essential items, I ask my students to name one thing they’ll keep forever.

Baby blankets (some brought them to college)
Military dog tags
Jewelry given from parents or grandparents
Musical instruments

Not one student mentions anything related to trendy clothing or technology.  Nobody claims any attachment to their phones (we’re addicted, not attached!), their laptops, their purses, or their toys.

I realize that most things I’m tempted to purchase for my children have no lasting value.  What does?  Simple fabric objects of attachment, emblems of service to our nation, symbols of love passed down from generations before, musical instruments, and experiences captured on film.

If we pare down and trim off the excess of our lives, we’ll find what really matters.  As I raise my daughters in a world saturated with stuff, I might ask myself before I buy it, “Will they keep this forever?  What would this purchase symbolize?  Can it be an emblem? An experience?  A musical object?”

My students’ answers remind me of what I love and value.

Journal:  What do you own that you’ll keep forever?


Doing What You Love

Today I remember a conversation I had with my husband years ago.  We were talking about careers and our future.  We asked this question:  “What makes you feel most alive and most like yourself?”  His answer matched exactly with what he was already doing with his life.

Mine didn’t, but I was getting there.  I felt most alive and most me when I was teaching and writing.  So I reasoned that God made me for these things.  In His goodness and creativity, perhaps God made it so that when we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, it will feel like we’re fully alive, energized, and truly ourselves.   

I’m starting to believe that when we find that thing we were made for, it won’t feel like drudgery.  Maybe it won’t feel like work.  

Psychologist Greg Hocott was once asked how he could manage his difficult counseling practice.  He writes, “I think the answer is found in doing what God created us to do. We are all endowed with specific talents and gifts, and as long as we live within them, ‘work’ seems less difficult.”

Maybe this explains why blogging never feels like work.  Maybe this explains why I can’t wait for the new semester to start.  I’ll tell my students that I love teaching and writing so much that I would do it for free.  That’s a good thing, I’ll tell them, because I practically am doing it for free.  Nobody teaches for the money!

Living with flair means finding ways to do what we love.  It means being brave enough to pursue those paths. 

Journal:  Do you love your work so much you would do it for free?


A Turning Point Statement

During the summer of 1994, a friend told me she thought I had the spiritual gift of encouragement.  She posted a little note by my bed.  It said, “You are an encourager.”  I remember exactly what it looked like–the handwriting, the color–and how it felt to have someone name something like that about me.  My friend saw what I couldn’t see. 

That single comment shaped the next 15 years of my life.  I wasn’t just an average girl; I was a hope giver, a courage finder, and an inspiration provider.  I wasn’t just a nobody.  God wanted to use me to point others towards a beautiful future. 

It took someone naming it to help me see it. 

I had a student who told me that of all my weeks and weeks of teaching, the most memorable thing from my class was a single comment I wrote on one of his many essays.

In the margin of his paper, I wrote:  “You sound like a great teacher right here.”   He was overwhelmed that I named that in him, and he later wrote about his dreams for graduate school to become a teacher.  As my husband and I discussed these turning point comments, he told me he remembered the exact words of a Scout leader who pointed out some unique gifts he saw in my husband.   Those were turning point words. 

Today, as I guide students through their memoir drafts, I realize that I’m not naming what I see enough.  I wonder what I need to name in my children, in my friends, and in my students.  I see this in you.  Maybe God will use it to shape a life.  Maybe those words will be a turning point for someone today.

Journal:  Did someone speak “turning point words” to you when you were younger?  Can you speak a “turning point word” to someone in your life today? 


A Very Important Person

Today in my class, we discuss dignity.

What gives a person worth?  Why do we esteem other people (and ourselves)?  It is because of what they accomplish or because they have inherent value?

These questions matter.  Our answers determine how we view others and ourselves.  We tend to make ourselves into commodities; we believe that what we produce and what services we provide make us valuable, worthwhile people.

When I think about unconditional love, I’m challenged to radically love others regardless of their contribution.  I think that’s the way God loves us.

Dignity relates to the word “dignitary” or very important person.   I remember watching American Idol last week and hearing Jennifer Lopez talk about a contestant.  She said that when she watched him sing, she knew she was “watching somebody very important.”

What if I felt that way about everybody I met today?  What if I felt that way when I looked in the mirror?

You are somebody very important.   It’s true in light of God’s truth.  Not for market value or contribution.  Not for appearance, affluence, or achievement.  Not for anything other than who we are as declared by God. 

It’s freeing and humbling.  We don’t need to prove our worth.  It’s already in there.

Journal:  Do I feel like a very important person?


Next Time, Try This

I’m sitting next to a stack of essays, coffee in one hand, pen in the other.  As I read, I celebrate great writing with enthusiastic comments in the margin.  Bravo!  Genius!  Fantastic!

I circle mistakes; usually I find semicolons used improperly, weak verbs, or sentence patterns with no variation.  Immediately, I find myself writing, “Next time, try this,” as I scribble out a plan for their writing improvement.

I realize how discouraging a bad grade feels.  The only thing that soothes sometimes is that plan for “next time.”  These strategies for development keep our focus on growth, not setbacks.

I remember a parenting book that taught me to correct a child’s behavior and say “next time” right away.  “Next time, don’t jump on the furniture,” or “next time, don’t spread the peas all over the kitchen wall.”

It really works.   It’s like a little mantra that reminds us we are all on a journey of growing, of getting it right eventually.  “Next time” invites me to rise up to a challenge, and it keeps me from the despair of failure.

I think of that with my overeating, my fits of dark emotions, my bad choices with my time, my harsh words.  Next time, I’ll change something.  Next time, I’ll grow a little bit more into the woman I want to be.  And the beauty of the “next time” expression is that it starts immediately.  I don’t have to wait till tomorrow or next year. 

When I get it wrong, I think of an immediate plan for development.  We’re moving forward, don’t look back.  Start fresh!  It’s next time right now. 

There’s always another chance to grow.  I want to be as gentle with myself as I am with my children or my students.  If I fail today, I remember that next time, I can try this. 

Journal:  If I’ve already messed up today, how can “next time” help me?


My Top Ten Name Game Questions

If I were to write a book called, “How to Teach with Flair,” I’d have an entire chapter on the power of name games.  Before I teach any class, I have to know these folks, and they have to know me.  The foundation of teaching–that base of solid rock supporting the whole framework–is community.  We have to know each other, and then, we transfer information in that beautiful and mysterious moment called teaching.

And yes, we all have to know first and last names.  Knowing names changes something. 

When you know each other, barriers drop, the mind opens, and we recognize the dignity and contribution of every person in the room.  I can’t imagine teaching without this foundation in place.  

It’s the same for Sunday school classes, neighborhood groups, business seminars, book clubs, family dinners, or any other gathering.  When we connect with one another, something marvelous stirs and rises within us.

Here are my Top 10 Name Game questions with some of the best or most common answers I’ve received in ten years of teaching.  So, say your name and:  

1.  What were you known for in school?  (embracing mediocrity)
2.  What accomplishment to date are you most proud of? (beating cancer)
3.  What was the last thing you googled? (the snowy owl)
4.  What’s something you consider yourself addicted to? (the Food Network)
5.  What’s a movie you think everyone should see?  What’s a movie you think nobody should see? (Life is Beautiful / Hancock)
6.  In a group of 3 people, find the most bizarre thing you have in common. (All obsessed with the cartoon, “Thundercats” and knowing lots of Thundercats trivia)
7.  What’s a song or youtube video you like to listen to or watch over and over again? (Hit Me Baby One More Time / Crazy Cats)
8.  What was your favorite childhood toy? (a tree)
9.  What is your favorite home-cooked meal? (homemade mac-n-cheese)
10.  What is your favorite way to procrastinate?  (Facebook)

I love name games because they connect us.  Tomorrow, I’m asking students to tell me their favorite quotation.  I’ll learn more about them in that moment than you can imagine.

Living with flair means I play name games when I’m in a group.  It might be silly, but it creates serious connection. 

Journal:  What’s another great get-to-know-you type of question I can ask a group?


A Great Verb for a Mission Statement

Today, I ask students to tell me what they will devote themselves to in their future careers.  In two sentences, they tell me 1) what they want to contribute to their field and 2) a few professional goals.

As we read aloud our statements, I’m suddenly aware of how self-focused and self-promoting such an assignment might become.  We listen to independent dreams and glorious self-actualization.  We build private kingdoms with our names on the highest building.

But one woman announces that her primary professional goal is collaboration.

Collaborate means to work together towards a common goal.  It’s a great verb to think about for a career and a life.  While many of us forge ahead with solitary tasks and private ambitions, we forget the power and importance of collaboration.   My student recognizes her dependence on other people and other organizations to reach mutually beneficial goals.

I start to wonder with whom I might collaborate in my life.   Is my personal goal really a communal one?  Is my self-focused personal dream really a much larger project involving a system so much bigger than myself?   How much more efficient might we become if we collaborate?

That verb challenges me to think about myself as a collaborator and not a solitary agent pushing my own agenda.  I know I’d often rather work alone, but surely there is strength, vision, and synergy when I collaborate.

Journal:  Sometimes I think I’m too busy trying to make a name for myself to consider the value of collaboration towards shared goals.  What people or groups might I collaborate with in my parenting, teaching, writing, and ministry goals?