Recently, the high school administration in my county had a tree cut down from the middle of the parking lot. The asphalt around the base had started to ripple and crack as if a mini-earthquake was thrusting it toward the sky. It was determined to grow no matter what man used to hold it at bay.
Yesterday my students took their Reading SOL test. (Such an unfortunate acronym for the state Standards of Learning tests.) When I receive scores, there are always a few disappointments as well as some victories to celebrate.
As I dropped my daughter off at school this morning, I looked at the empty spot where the tree had been and realized it could have offered my students some valuable lessons on how to succeed on their tests.
1) A good foundation. That beautiful, large tree needed to have a strong root base to survive and thrive. Likewise, a student must have a strong foundation of skills and strategies to succeed in a testing situation. The roots of knowledge must spread out, reaching for more information to expand and strengthen the foundation.
2) Effort and determination. My students need determination like the tree pushing through its asphalt barrier. Before my students began testing, I assured them they all had the intelligence, skills, and strategies they needed to succeed. The only thing left, the only unknown at that point, was the effort they would put forth throughout their test. Some students take three or more hours to finish while some speed right through. Others start off strong and fade as time passes. To encourage their endurance throughout the test, I read the following quote by Frank A. Clark: “Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential.”
3) Stay focused. A tree never wavers from its goal to grow. Unlike humans, a tree doesn’t become distracted and veer from its objective. The day before our test, one student looked extremely angry as we reviewed. I asked her if she was mad at me for making her review. She assured me she wasn’t. Eventually, she revealed that drama had taken root in her mind. Girl drama runs rampant in middle school. Usually, I keep out of it unless a student requests my involvement, but on this day, I had to intervene. This student couldn’t afford to let someone else occupy space in her brain when she was facing three end-of-year tests over the next week. She had to focus on what was important to her and her future, not on the immediate issues brought forth by others.
4) Look upwards for guidance. The tree had grown so well because it relied on fuel from above. The sunshine provided nourishment for it all the way down to its strong root base. Students benefit as well when they look up and rely on God for guidance. I know many of my students do this. For the rest, I intercede with prayer, both for current success on their tests and for a bright future. Jeremiah 29:11 states: “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” Their futures are unknown to them, but I hope they have the determination to stay focused and follow God’s plans.
Do the tests in your life remind you of anything?
Seth Godin’s latest blog post – his blog is one of my favorites – focuses on finishing. I like to finish things. My fingertips tingle when I place a check mark in the little box next to an item on my to-do list. I consider myself closure-oriented, but as I read his blog, I realized there aren’t many areas of my life where I actually finish.
As I near the end of the school year, the anticipation of being done floats through the halls and permeates our classrooms. Even though we are buckled down reviewing for our standardized tests, expectancy buoys us up. For the students, June 15th means they are finished. The school year is done, kaput, complete. For me? No, not quite. I’ll spend two weeks of my summer at conferences for school and quite a bit of time planning and organizing to prepare for next year. Even though teachers have the summer off, it doesn’t mean they aren’t working. I’m never finished.
Another area of my life where I don’t finish is writing. Being “done” with a manuscript, post, article, or any other piece of writing doesn’t often happen because I’m constantly re-reading, editing, and hopefully improving the words I’ve chosen. Even after I’ve shared my words, I still obsess over them. I’m probably looking over this post as you read it, wondering if I can tweak it without anyone noticing. No, my writing never seems to be complete.
One thing I try – really, really try – to finish is laundry. I have so many friends who say their laundry is never-ending. How depressing. On the weekends, I attempt to empty all the baskets in one day. Sometimes it spills over into two, but when I’m done on Saturday or Sunday, I can say to myself, “Laundry is done for the week.” Does it always work? No. Sometimes a mid-week washing becomes necessary. For example, baseball uniforms (those frustrating white pants) have to be washed after every game. Sometimes a load gets thrown in on Wednesday or Thursday. Oh, well. I guess I never finish that chore either.
The most important, and definitely not complete, area of my life is my relationship with God. I have to continue working hard to improve and strengthen my prayer life, my focus, and my dedication. I have to study, worship, and fellowship, but I still don’t think I’ll ever finish. At least not while I’m on earth.
I’ve seen shirts and bumper stickers that proclaim, “Be patient with me. God isn’t finished with me yet.” If He’s willing to continue working to improve me, I should be willing as well. Life is a race, and when I finally do get done, I know He’ll meet me at the finish line.
What do you wish you could finish?
Rules rule. There are grammar rules, household rules, classroom rules, pool rules, gym rules, office rules, school rules, rules of engagement, rules of attraction, and so on.
My classroom rules are very straightforward:
- Show respect…for yourself, for other people, and for the school. This rule covers a lot. If you follow it, everything else will fall into place.
- Come prepared. It shows you respect yourself enough to care about your education.
- I promise I won’t dig through your locker or backpack so please stay out of my desk and cabinets.
- “I can’t” is not allowed. I won’t present anything in this class you’re unable to accomplish. It might take some hard work, but you CAN do it with some effort.
The students know my expectations from day one and usually meet them. Of course, there are exceptions to that rule. Some people just aren’t rule followers. They push the limits, test my patience, and demand their “rights” (which sometimes can be humorous coming from a young teen).
I consider myself a rule follower, but some people might call me a wimp. In the “ask permission or ask forgiveness” debate, I’m usually on the side of asking permission. I don’t have the streak of rebellion that allows me to break the boundaries.
But am I really a rule follower? If I’m honest, I have to admit my pride is what makes me a situational rule follower. That annoying trait makes me worry about what other people think, and that prompts me to do the right thing. But it’s not the best reason to be obedient.
For example, I don’t go 55 mph when it’s posted. I usually set CeeCee (cruise control…she’s my best friend when driving) a little faster. No one judges me, so I don’t obey. But a rule where someone might see my disobedience? I’d be embarrassed if my cell phone rang in a hospital where signs read Please Turn Off Cell Phones. Or if it rang in church? That could certainly start some gossip. But would it really matter? Could it be excused? Of course, but my pride makes me fear being judged.
Instead of worrying what other people think, I should be concerned about God. Do I follow His rules? Nope, not all the time. Does He judge me? The Bible says we will all be judged, so I better shift my focus. And if I succeed in following His rules, I can be honored when someone calls me a wimp for doing so.
When I was young, I treasured show and tell at school. What a thrilling experience to share a coveted item with my teacher and peers. And they didn’t just look at it; they also listened to me tell about its importance.
Yesterday in my classroom, a student raised his hand and asked about an item on a review sheet. I offered further explanation, and he immediately started answering the question verbally. Pointing to his paper, I said, “Show me on your paper. Don’t tell me.” From experience, I know if it comes out of a student’s mouth for my immediate approval, they’ll forget what they’ve said when they start to answer it on paper. I urge them to write it down first then if they want me to check it out, I’m happy to.
As soon as I said those words to my student, I had to smile to myself. In the writer’s world of critique groups and courses, the phrase “show, don’t tell” makes many participants cringe. Don’t tell your reader what your character feels. Show it through the actions, thoughts, and words. Sounds easy, right? It did until I really learned what “telling” is in writing. Talk about an eye-opening revelation. Most of what I’ve written needs major renovation.
Then, as my mind frequently does, I wondered how God views this issue I’m pondering. Yes, He surely wants me to show. In my daily walk, I should show my gratitude and my efforts to copy his Son’s perfect example of love. I should also show His light through my actions, thoughts, and words – hey, that’s just like one of my characters. The difference is my characters have to do, think, and say what I write. I bet God wishes he could “author” my character without all of the pesky human tendencies to disobey. Lucky for me, His patience is endless.
But God’s motto isn’t “show, don’t tell” because He also wants me to tell Him everything. Even though He already knows, I should pray to him about all aspects of my life, the significant and the minor. Telling in writing can insult the intelligence of the reader, but telling doesn’t insult His intelligence. He doesn’t think, “I already know that. Does she think I’m an idiot?” He’s delighted because I’ve taken the time to acknowledge Him and His part in my day. I’m glad there’s one area of my life where it’s okay to show and tell.
The teenagers in my class are devoted to their peers. At their age, friendships rule; parents and school take a backseat. I’m sure if my students ranked what is most important in their lives, friends would be #1 on most of the lists. When I was their age, I felt the same way.
Now, I live half way across the country from where I went to middle school, or junior high as we older folks used to call it. Facebook and other social networks have allowed me to stay in touch with a lot of my schoolmates. I’m grateful for that, but as adults, our friendships can be hidden in the shadow of spouses, children, jobs, and other responsibilities. Being a true friend takes time and effort, and it’s hard to find either of those in a busy daily routine. But it’s necessary to slice out time for those relationships, especially if you find one you can’t live without. I am blessed to have one friend who is a Friend with a capital F.
This week has been tough for my friend and her family. I have heard her cry, laugh through the tears, give uplifting testimonies to others, and keep going through it all. She’s an awesome person, a child of the King, which of course makes her a Princess. But she’s so much more than that to so many people. To me, she is the following (although the list is actually endless):
1. She is my spiritual inspiration and Biblical reference.
2. She holds me up when I’m ready to fall.
3. She needs me for direction. Not really. She knows what direction she’s going in life, but she definitely needs me for directions. Even with a GPS, this girl can get lost.
4. She accepts all my moods…my silliness, anger, anxiousness, uncertainty, and occasional craziness.
5. When I’m planning something stupid, she stops me.
6. She is a co-volunteer at 3:00 a.m. even when she insists I’m an idiot for volunteering.
7. She’s the leader. I’m the manager. She is the public speaker, people-person. I’m the worker bee, logistics organizer. We make a good team.
8. When we don’t get a chance to chat, my day feels incomplete.
The picture above shows us on a day when we 1) got lost, 2) laughed until we cried, 3) proved to her husband we are dangerous together, and 4) realized sometimes a story is better than an experience. Yes, those are Chick-fil-A cow hats on our heads.
What is my friendship worth? I pray it’s valuable to her because hers is priceless, something that could never be replaced if lost. I thank God for the precious gift He’s given me in her.
Thanks, LA, for all you add to my life. No telling where I’d be without you.
Tell someone today what their friendship means to you.
Today, I know how my students feel when I tell them they need to brainstorm ideas for a writing assignment. Some of them wail, “I can’t decide what to write about!” I tell them to simply pick one and begin writing, but it’s not always easy.
I have worked on three different blog posts today. None of them seem “right” yet. If I had been given an assignment of what to write, I would start without having to make the choice of topic. That’s how most of my students prefer it. Give them a prompt, and they’ll churn out the required number of paragraphs or pages and call it a day.
But this blog isn’t an assignment. It’s my own views captured by keystrokes. But random thoughts disrupt my work today, so I’m going to purge them from my brain so I can concentrate.
1. My son reminds me of the silver ball inside of a pinball machine. Yesterday, he went from riding the lawn mower, to riding his bike, to driving a remote control car, to hitting golf balls, and then he started all over again. Ping. Ping. Ping.
2. Sometimes great people make very poor decisions, but that doesn’t have to change my view of them. They are still really great people.
3. When I frequently have the same thoughts and ideas as someone else, I feel like they are someone who can be relied upon.
4. Anticipating something good can help you through something tough. Just ask any teacher or student facing end-of-year testing while thinking about summer vacation. Or ask any Christian living life on earth while expecting Heaven for eternity.
5. Living far away from family might sound adventurous and exciting when you’re young. As you get older, it might turn out to be your biggest regret.
6. Being told what you have to do has the tendency to make you hate it even if you would’ve jumped at the chance had it been an offer instead of an order.
7. Do you capitalize Heaven and Hell? I don’t like giving hell that much importance.
8. When you don’t follow the rules, you rarely receive the rewards for doing so.
9. If your favorite thing to eat is something your grandma makes, learn the recipe from her.
10. When your brain won’t allow you to sleep, get up and write down your thoughts. The same process works when your brain won’t let you blog…
How do you focus your ideas?
On Sunday we’ll go to church then gather at my mother-in-law’s house for Mother’s Day dinner. But Mum won’t be there. I’m in Virginia, and my mom lives in Missouri. Too many miles separate us. While always pleasant, Mother’s Day hasn’t been perfect for years.
Mother’s Day provides an opportunity to give gifts, but nothing could repay my mom for everything she’s given me in my life. The list is endless, but here are a few of her gifts to me:
1. Inspiration My mom is a cancer survivor. Her battle motivated me to take better care of myself and proved what I had always known…she’s a winner. My mom is the oldest of seven kids. For a while when I was young, she was a single mom with two daughters, working as a real estate agent, taking care of us. And some of her younger siblings lived with us too. My mom is kind and caring. When I find myself in tough situations, all I have to do is think about how she would handle it and I’m moved to do the right thing. My mom is my inspiration as I try to be the best mom I can be.
2. Unconditional love While I was growing up, I did my fair share of rebelling, being self-centered, and not being thankful for all I had. But Mum loved me through it all. No matter what. What a great example of pure love she provides.
3. Support and encouragement I’ve traveled a road with many twists, hills and valleys, and bumpy spots. My decisions – both bad and good – have led to the person I am today. Mum has gently encouraged and even pushed me along my way, supporting me though all my accomplishments and all my failures. She’s my own personal cheerleader. Even from long distance, I hear her voice louder than any other.
4. Uncontrollable tears Some people wouldn’t see this as a gift. When we’re watching television and a particularly touching commercial comes on, Mark knows I’ll need a tissue. He rolls his eyes and hands one over. Reading books? The tears flow. Movies? Here they come. School plays, award ceremonies, or band performances? Watch out, the dam is breaking. But every time I’m unable to control the overflow, it reminds me I’m my mother’s daughter. And that makes me smile through my tears.
5. The recipe for chocolate éclairs Mark loves chocolate éclairs. Actually, he yearns for them. For his birthday, there is no cake. He wants éclairs, and I’m not allowed to invite his family to celebrate with us because he refuses to share. Mum taught me the recipe when we made them for Fred while I was growing up. My sister and I were told we could each have one. Fred ate the rest. I do believe these particular cream-filled, chocolate-drenched delights might be evil since they breed such selfishness. Deliciously, decadently evil.
6. An excellent example Mum focuses on other people all the time. Family, friends, neighbors, colleagues. All have been the recipient of a card, a visit, a tasty treat, or a bunch of her beloved flowers. I doubt my mom ever walks through a grocery or department store without an item triggering her desire to give. I pray someday to give as freely and selflessly as my mom does, but I’m not quite there yet.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mum. I love you. I miss you.
From your sunshine
Sometimes an item or idea pops up in a variety of different places in a short period of time. It might take a while, but eventually I acknowledge it. Is God trying to tell me something? Maybe I better pay attention. (I’m sure He smiles when this happens. And rolls His eyes and thinks Finally. How hard-headed can she be?)
Within the last couple of weeks, arrows keep appearing. I’ve seen or heard about arrows in a Sunday message, in a Boy Scout ceremony, and in my classroom (Why The Hunger Games Should Be Taught in School). I decided to do some research – and pray, of course – to figure out what message God might have for me with all these arrows flying around since I’m not quick enough to duck out of the way.
I started with the Boy Scouts. Colton had a “crossover” ceremony last week and the part for the older boys involved the Arrow of Light. The BSA website describes the Arrow of Light as the highest rank in Cub Scouting. Earning this rank prepares a Webelos Scout to become a Boy Scout.
I read the information, but it didn’t really resonate with me. Colton just moved from Wolf Scout to Bear Scout, so he has quite a while before he’ll be earning the Arrow of Light. I didn’t think my lesson could be found here.
My next step: The Hunger Games. My students are engaged. Class time flies by. It’s a great unit, but I don’t think Katniss’s gift of archery really pertains to me unless I’m ignoring a personal gift or ability, but this line of thinking didn’t seem right either, so I moved on.
The Sunday message was based on Psalm 127:1-5. Verse 4 states, “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, So are the children of one’s youth.” Pastor Tag’s message “Arrows from Heaven” offered advice on the direction we should be leading our families because our children are such precious gifts from God. As a warrior cares for and uses his arrows, parents should prepare, point, protect, and propel their children.
Okay, this definitely has more to do with my life than the other arrows. I’m always looking for ways to readjust my aim with my kids, to get this mom thing down pat. But the message made me think of shooting your arrows (children) away once they’ve reached the end of high school and are ready to move onward and upward. Autumn is a sophomore. I don’t want to focus on the ache of loneliness I’ll experience when she leaves me after high school. Surely that’s not the intended meaning of all these arrows. (Yes, I’m fully aware I might be in denial about this one…)
I decided to do a little more Bible research. Jackpot! I think I finally found the reason for the arrows pointing every which way.
“They sharpen their tongues like swords and aim their words like deadly arrows.” Psalms 64:3
“Like a club or a sword or a sharp arrow is the man who gives false testimony against his neighbor.” Proverbs 25:18
Words can be barbed and harmful especially when they aren’t truthful. Obviously as an 8th grade teacher, I deal with a lot of drama and heartache caused by gossip. And like arrows, rumors can’t be taken back once you shoot them toward the target. I often tell my students you can tell more about a person by what he or she says about others than you can by what others say about them.
The Bible says the path to heaven is straight and narrow. The cliché ‘straight as an arrow’ came about from people mispronouncing that biblical reference. When people veer from the straight and narrow path, they gossip. It’s human nature. Sliding into a habit of focusing on other people comes easily, especially with a willing collaborator. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” She’s right. We need to aim our words in a different direction than at fellow human beings because we have been commanded to love one another.
Whew, I finally figured out the meaning of the arrows. But then another one flies through my living room. Colton is watching Looney Tunes. Foghorn Leghorn floats up, up, and away, and his cute little nephew shoots an arrow into the hot air balloon to save him. Foghorn slams back to the ground, unscathed of course, as only cartoon characters can. Another message, perhaps? Maybe one about staying grounded? Possibly, but that will have to wait for another day.
Where are your arrows pointing?
As often happens, a Sunday message has continued to wiggle around my mind, tickling my thoughts, and refusing to let go. Our pastor, Tag Kilgore, recently shared an inspiring message about priority living. Since then my brain has spun with all aspects of my life. Wife, mother, teacher, writer, friend, team and department leader at school, youth leader at church, youth council secretary, church librarian, and director of the nursery to name a few. Yes, I wear a variety of hats.
Some days those hats all fit perfectly, but at other times my head lacks in size. Needless to say, I’m often overwhelmed. Based on Pastor Tag’s advice, I’ve been asking myself the following questions:
- Do I need to rethink my priorities?
- Do I feel responsible for each one of them?
- Do I receive rewards from them?
- Could I relinquish them without loss or guilt?
After some reflection (that’s for you, Lee Anne), I admit I could surrender some of these roles. It’s a struggle because I feel as if I’m letting others down if I give up a responsibility or say no to an opportunity, but if I’m going to be true to my priorities, it’s something I must do.
One thing I’ve learned is I can’t allow someone else’s urgent to become my priority. When I take my focus off what’s important to me to solve or address their issue, I’m not living according to my priority list. Not that I’m against helping others. I’m all for it and hope I set a good example for my children by serving others often. But I have to ensure helping others doesn’t veer me off my own path. Instead of listening to the urgency in someone else’s words, I need to listen to my heart.
In my classroom, the priority is for students to improve their reading and writing skills and become prepared for their academic future at the high school level. Unfortunately, that’s my priority. For a lot of my 8th graders, friends, sports, cellphones, music, parents, home life, and sadly for some, avoiding neglect and abuse take precedence over English.
If I stand in front of my class and demand they learn, it doesn’t change what they view as important. I have to help reshape their mindset so they relate what we do on a daily basis to their future. It’s a difficult task to accomplish in ninety minutes a day, five days a week. Some of them simply aren’t mature enough to get it yet.
But what about my own mindset? Do my actions always reflect what is of greatest importance? How often do I take God my list of needs, or I beg Him to fix something? But He knows whether it’s only my urgency making me plead. Philippians 2:12 reminds me He is working in me to fulfill His purpose, not my own. Often when prayers are unanswered or the answer is no, it forces me to reshape my mindset and adjust my priorities to align with God’s plan. It’s difficult for me to do this for some of my students, but He has no problem doing it for me.
What’s your priority? Do you need to reshape your mindset?