Teaching: Can We Be Thankful?

Struggling With Thankfulness

For a multitude of of reasons both personal and professional I have been struggling to find reasons to be thankful. I have felt at times betrayed and disrespected by administrators at my work while simultaneously feeling beloved by many of the educators, families, and students I now work with directly. I have felt overwhelmed by what has been asked of me and the number of teachers and families reaching out for support while simultaneously feeling inadequate in helping them and desperately wishing I could do more.

I see the news about elections and anger and people selfishly hoarding toilet paper again. I see family animosity and want to smack anyone who says “how are you” since it’s an unfair question. None of us are exactly well. I question whether the DOE has learned anything organizationally since March while simultaneously noticing the growth in so many individual educators and schools. I have seen leaders fail and others rise up to lead. And I see the long lines for food pantries I’ve occasionally served at stretching for blocks. And in the midst of itI question myself and then question so many structures and wonder if grace is needed or if anger is more right.

A series of questions about thankfulness beside a turkey

I hear newscasts and pundits now decrying New York City teachers as lazy and selfish since city leadership decided we were moving into full remote learning as cases rose. I hear them shouting about caring for the needs of our most vulnerable learns which I have directly spoken about long before. Let’s forget that we were the only major city in America that even attempted hybrid learning despite being the initial center of the pandemic. Let’s not e. Let’s even ignore the fact that most parents in the city have chosen and prefer remote learning in the midst of the pandemic. Let’s even ignore the fact that while schools were open, student attendance was limited by many factors including multiple positive cases in buildings or contact with COVID-positive people requiring quarantine. That is evidenced by the fact that my youngest son, who only had his second day of in-person has engaged during the first week of November. So though he was technically part of in-person learning, it had minimal impact. Let’s even ignore that we ha

We can ignore all of those factors and address solely the point about vulnerable students. That includes students with disabilities and students in poverty. I have long worked directly with those groups of students. As for the latter, NYC has 100,000+ homeless students. That’s a problem, but food services and family checks continue even when learning is remote. And, yes, it is in most cases, better to work with students with disabilities in person. But I have heard from no small number of parents that their child with a disability is making greater progress now. There have been selectively verbal students uttering their first words through remote learning platforms like Flipgrid. There has been more consistent parent interaction which has led to interventions being continued at home and thus being more effective. And many of the New York City School’s leaders in educational technology are in District 75, citywide special education. And that is evidences by how many of them are the lead staff developers at major city events.

Bitterness

I had a realization though. Happiness and gratitude are not synonyms and neither are bitterness and anger.

Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.

Maya Angelou

I think Maya Angelou is right about a great many things. We ought not hold onto bitterness about who has wronged us, because we are the only ones being damaged by it. The one who who hurt us sleeps well while grow sick pondering it. Anger though has a place. Anger can be righteous if appropriately place. If that anger fuels us to act in a way that benefits those close to us and the world at large, then we can allow that anger to burn away all that is wrong and instead build what is right. We must break free of the prison of bitterness and allow anger to come from a place of love-the love that knows the good that could be and seeks to make it so. That love frees us from bitterness.

And so I reflect on our nation’s earliest Thanksgiving. It was some happy shining get together where people from different cultures got together and sang Kumbaya. If anything, the closest corollary to now is that we’re allowing many native people to die from illness. Maybe the fact that several Wampanoag people already knew what to expect as many had travelled and already spoke English. So they knew some of what they were venturing into. I connect that to myself reaching out to families across many languages here in the city attempting to bridge divides.

Beyond that though it is a story of people with vast differences and distrust, not unlike now, who found some common thread for a moment. Yes, that moment was brief and would later lead to King Phillip’s War, one of the bloodiest sagas in our history. Let’s hope we don’t choose to repeat that. But instead of focusing on food and some false camaraderie, I think there is still an important point. The Wampanoag people still exist. Despite war, disease, famine, and countless other hardships they adapted and survived. They maintained what they must as a people and changed as the times have to remain many thousands strong now. Perhaps that tale of fortitude can be the real lesson.

And so I am reminded of something else Maya Angelou said. That we can only make an impact in the midst of something we love. No money need not be the goal, but do not let your anger abate if you are being cheated or unfairly compensated for your efforts. But do not allow that to be the sole focus of those efforts. When you excel at something long enough that your heart is attached to, it will be seen and recognized soon enough. That is how I have tried to live albeit imperfectly.

You can only become truly accomplished at something you love.
Don’t make money your goal.
Instead, pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you.

Maya Angelou

Thankfulness

fearless girl statue

There are so many things that I could feel bitter and downtrodden about right now, but I know that I am far better off than most. I too also get a first-hand view of so many wonderful people stepping into the gap to shout against the strong winds of sorrow, helplessness, and fear. And they compel me to want to stand with them.

So I am thankful to the city for continuing to offer so much even in times so hard. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade is somehow still happening. I can still visit historical places like Fraunces Tavern with my kids, and look for inspiration while standing beside the fearless girl statue. I am eternally thankful for those who are feeding others and healing so many right now. And in similar ways I am grateful for the teachers I am seeing daily pouring out their whole hearts into their work. I am tankful for the parents and students who are making every effort to connect and learn despite challenges that are financial, linguistic, or otherwise. I am thankful for the many Americans and others across the globe standing up in the face of hate, injustice, incompetence, and inequity and saying “let it be no more .”

Meetup

It was in that state that I helped lead our final #NYCSchoolsTech Meetup before the holiday. It made me realize how grateful I am for that rare community of intelligent and supportive professionals and their work every day. It also made me think about how individuals can make a difference, and among those wonderful individuals is, of course, Dolly Parton.

Yes, Dolly is an icon beloved by proud rednecks in Alabama, transgender performers in California, and musicians in rural sub-Saharan Africa. And Dolly has successfully helped in both education and in this pandemic helping her own home community in Tennessee learn to read and helping facilitate a vaccine.

If though you needed no other reason to regard the amazingness that is Dolly, know that the inspiration for this song is a universal song of longing and pleading with those in power in situations where you have no control. It is likely for that reason that Nelson Mandella requested the song Jolene play as he existed the prison that had so long housed him. That is also why it seemed the appropriate song to co-opt for the challenges of educators now. So while it is a bit over-dramatic and silly here in this version filmed by my 10 year-old son on a brief break from remote learning, it is also a sincere statement about how educators are committed to the calling of securing and enlightening future generations because their heart compels them to. You can find a fun copy of the lyrics on Buncee.

So amongst the array of feelings, games, and learning that happened last night I sang this song that I felt spoke to the teaching experience right now…

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