Monday, January 6, 2014

Stomach Flu and Answered Prayers

Last night I went down with a nasty bout of stomach flu. Oh, how I hate to throw up.

Anyway, after a night of flu beating up on my body (and mostly winning) I felt pretty exhausted this morning. And, given the temperatures in the -20s, schools had all been closed for today due to the extreme cold, so he really only needed to get one out of the two cars started. Unfortunately, even that proved too much for our little old vehicles. Mark was unable to get either of our cars started to go to work this morning. . By 9:30, he had still not gotten either car started, and as I lay down to try to take a nap, I was feeling pretty low. I was worrying about 3 things in particular:

1) Would I have sufficiently recovered from my flu to return to school tomorrow, especially with it being the first day back after a long break?
2) Would we be able to get either car started tomorrow when we needed them both to be working?
3) How would we be able to purchase a new car if we needed one soon (given that we are still trying to recover financially from 4 months of unemployment for me and 3 months of unemployment for Mark)?

By this afternoon, God had neatly answered each of these prayers:

1) Schools are closed again tomorrow because of cold. I will be able to recover at home.
2) My dad drove down to our house with a portable battery that worked to start one of our cars (and which we will hopefully use to start the other car once the battery has recharged).
3) Mark was able to do some crazy maneuvering with our finances and squeak just over $2,000 out of our working budget for next month to throw into savings in case of a car emergency.

So, neat as that, God provided for each of my concerns. Case closed.

Falling in Love with First Graders: A Case of Love and Hair Loss (Part 2)

So, a few days ago I posted about how I love my students and I shared some stories about students I love. I also talked briefly about how I feel like I fail my students on a daily basis. This post is about the darker side of the last three months.

Mark and I moved into our new apartment about 2 weeks before I was needed for training at my school. It was just over this break that I realized that I think I'm still adjusting to life in St. Paul, Minnesota, compared to life in small-town, Iowa. I no longer walk to work; I brave the icy, steep streets between our apartment and the school. Every day I am confronted with at least 2 homeless men holding signs on exit ramps between home and school and the conflicted emotions seeing those men and doing nothing produce. Mark has created a white noise soundtrack that we play on repeat in our bedroom every night. I'm a light sleeper (even lighter when stressed) and early in the fall we had some trouble with neighbors playing music with a booming bass line late into the evening.

I spend hardly any time in our apartment, even though it's pretty nice (now that the noise issue has been dealt with). Our apartment would allow us to get a dog, but that poor thing. It would be alone in its kennel for at least 10 hours four days per week, if not more. Mark has firmly stated that we do not have the time or the energy for a dog right now. Even though he's right, I still cruise regularly because I know a pet would have a calming effect on me. (A cat would be the most calming, but there is no way Mark will let me get a cat. Poo.)

During these first three months of teaching, I have also been a student myself, taking two graduate classes at one of the local universities. This extra dose of craziness is required by the Minnesota Department of Education. Since we Teach For America teachers don't have our licenses yet, we have to be actively working toward them in order to teach full-time in public schools in Minnesota. This has meant that two evenings a week, besides the 10 hours at school and hour and a half of lesson planning at home, I spent an additional 4 hours in a classroom with other teachers. Though being with other first year teachers was deeply helpful to me, and though I learned a lot of great things in my courses, the additional time commitment and homework was hard on me.

I'm kind of an anxious person as a general rule. Mark can attest that even when we were dating I worried about things while he just shook his head at me, mystified. The stresses of teaching and graduate school has taken my anxiety to new heights (or lows, depending on how you look at it) since September. The anxiety tends to come in waves, and three debilitating waves have swept over me since starting teaching. Each time the waves of anxiety have climaxed with much crying, very little sleep, weight loss, hair loss, and a day off of teaching (usually with more crying and still very little sleep) to recover. Each time I felt like going back into the classroom would be like plunging into an icy black pit of despair and each time I questioned whether I could make myself keep going.

By the middle of December, when anxiety wave #3 hit, receded, and left a very insecure me in its wake, my TFA mentor, Emily, was concerned enough to alert some of the rest of the TFA staff. Mike, the TFA managing director, scheduled a meeting with me. I steeled myself for the meeting, expecting him to caution me against quitting and remind me of how detrimental that would be for my students. What he wanted to talk about, then, came as a complete surprise: anxiety. Based on some of his personal experiences, he had some great insights into dealing with anxiety.

His personal story, as well as his suggestions, gave me some renewed hope that maybe I wasn't a hopeless teacher and that maybe I could find ways to deal with the anxiety and keep teaching. Long story short, I overcame my feeble protests to seeing a doctor, met with a doctor over break, and was prescribed a depression medication that isn't actually used to treat depression but instead is used to treat insomnia. The solid nights of sleep since starting the medication have been so refreshing and have cut down on a lot of the anxiety. I'm also probably going to go see a therapist (although I'm not really sure when I'll have time) to try to come up with some coping mechanisms for anxiety.

In the meantime, though, I'm reading a book that Mike recommended called Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. Seligman. Kind of an ostentatious title, but so far I've learned a lot from this book. Seligman has spent over a decade doing research on pessimism and its link to depression and, later, optimism and its link to fending off depression. Maybe sometime I'll do a complete review of the book, but in the meantime, I'll just say that I've learned that some jobs require a more pessimistic mindset (because pessimists have proven to have more accurate and realistic views of the world) and some jobs require a more optimistic mindset. I have a decidedly pessimistic view of pretty much everything, and my job requires an optimistic mindset. Therefore, I need to develop an optimistic mindset. Seligman's book walks the reader through a few 'tools' for developing an optimistic mindset. I'm still reading, but so far the book has been super helpful, and I'm gradually becoming aware of the pessimistic messages I tell myself.

So, my goals for the next five months of teaching: 1) develop a more optimistic view of life and harness the pessimism for use in specific situations and 2) find more balance and take better care of myself. I basically stopped exercising from July on, even though that's a great stress reliever for me, and I all but stopped getting together with friends. I'm going to try to pick up both activities again, as well as warm baths, burning candles, and chamomile lavender tea. I'm going to have to schedule those things in, but it will be worth it. Maybe I'll even get around to blogging more!

So, I'm still a teacher, still struggling with some anxiety, but more ready to face the next phase of teaching. Here we go!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Falling in Love with First Graders: A Case of Love and Hair Loss (Part 1)

Blogging is fairly therapeutic for me. So, the fact that I haven't been blogging much over the last 2 months either suggests that I've been doing so well that I don't need therapy or that I simply haven't been taking care of myself. In this case, the latter is definitely true.

The first three months of teaching have gone by in a blur. I've experienced some successes as a teacher but more often I've felt like a failure (really, not too strong a word for how I've felt) and like I'm letting my students down in so many ways. My students are at vastly different levels, academically and socially. I have one student, A.H., who can read at a 4th grade level and got every single question on my math diagnostic test correct back in September. He's a really good kid, but I haven't been meeting his academic needs. Mostly he's bored, unless I let him read independently. He's one of the reasons I'm terribly happy I stocked my classroom library with books all the way up to a 6th grade reading level.

A.H. Sorry, not sure if I can post pictures of my students on my blog. The eye blocking is my attempt to be legal but also share my darlings.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have students who can still barely read a complete sentence, even a phonetic sentence with kindergarten-level high frequency words. And some of my students just didn't catch on to basic addition and subtraction our first time through it. Those are the kids I lay in bed at night worrying about.

I have two boys (three at the beginning of the year, but one was expelled...) who struggle with dealing with their anger in a constructive way. Interestingly, all three of them are the youngest child in their family and the only boy (in a Muslim home). From what I've heard from people who know their families, and from what I've observed, all three of them are spoiled at home. So, the behavior problems they have come more from spoiling than from abuse or neglect. At the beginning of the year, these three boys threw my class into chaos regularly. Daily. Hourly. Thinking back to that, I realize that they have come a long way in dealing with their anger, and I have come a long way in helping them. Yay for all of us.

A.A.-1 is probably one of my favorite students, despite his anger issues. He loves to learn and is often telling me random facts he knows about animals. ("Teacher, did you know sea cow and manatee are the same?") His anger is a lot more manageable too, which probably helps my opinion of him. When he gets angry (usually from not getting his way in something), he generally shuts down, crouches down by the table that he shares with 3 or 4 other students, and starts pulling on the table legs, making them exclaim angrily. Another time, when I didn't let him write with a pen on one of our assignments, he started ripping up his paper. I left him alone with his temper tantrum, and when I came back to him, he said, "Teacher, when I feel mad, I rip up one paper and then I feel better." He's learning, though, when he starts to feel angry, to ask to go sit in our Spot for Thought or go out and take one walking circuit in the halls with my aid. Those things usually calm him down.

A.A.-1. All my pictures in this blog post are from a field trip. I want to try to take more in-class pictures this semester.

A.A.-2 is my other 'angry child,' and he's been a more difficult case for me. Whereas A.A.-1 seems to get angry and then act without thinking, A.A.-2 is a little more thoughtful in how he creates havoc in the classroom. I find this a little harder to swallow. He's advanced in both reading and math, but unlike A.H., he doesn't passively resign himself to being bored in the classroom. (This is probably a good trait, if we can figure out a way to harness it and use it more productively.) In large group instruction time, if I don't acknowledge A.A.-2 about every 2 minutes, he starts to act up. And when he gets really angry, like really angry, he does things like throw chairs across the room, spit in my face or my aid's face, and emit a high-pitched wail that curdles the blood. He also is making progress toward handling his anger more effectively, but he had a relapse right before break and got suspended. Oh, A.A.-2....

A.A.-2, the little stinker. Doesn't he have an adorable smile?
Even though I feel like I'm failing a lot of my kids academically, I've fall in love with most of them. A.A.-3 (so many A names!) is one little girl who I just couldn't get along with at the beginning of the year. In the last month, though, she and I have wormed our way into each other's affections. She's a tough little girl and walks with a swagger. At the beginning of the year, when most of my little girls would give me hugs at the end of the day, A.A.-3 would cock her head and extend her hand for a high five. Now, most days, she gives me a quick, hard hug before swaggering onto her bus. She has a problem with hitting other students and saying unkind things, but she so badly wants to please. Often I hear from her, "Mrs. Fuhrman, look! I did this all by myself!" For such a rough little girl, she has incredibly neat handwriting and takes pride in it.

Z.M. is tiny and is incredibly concerned with what everyone else is doing, even when she really has no idea what she's supposed to be doing. Sometimes she rubs me the wrong way, with how worked up she can get over what everyone else is doing, even when it has no connection to her or to school. ("Teacher! Her has candy from her's pack-pack!") She's one student that I lay awake at night worrying about. She's one of my lowest in both math and reading. Frankly, she spends a lot of the time looking around the classroom in a daze.

Z.M and A.A.-3 at the museum. Love them!
OK. I promise I'm almost done telling about my students. Just a few more. M.A. is another student who occasionally has behavior problems but who I've grown to love over the past two months. Actually, I think most of his behavior problems in October stemmed from the fact that his glasses were broken and he wasn't able to get a new pair for about 3 weeks. He was downright contrary during those three weeks. I'm not surprised, though. Judging by how bug-eyed his glasses make him look, I'm sure he's quite near-sighted. He has this way of cocking his head to the side, staring at me out of those bug-eyes, and asking me in a squeaky voice, "Mrs. Fuhrman, why are you doing that?" "Mrs. Fuhrman, why are you taking your coat off?" "Mrs. Fuhrman, why are you wearing those shiny shoes?"

A.S. is one of the tiniest kids in my class. He's super well-behaved all the time and is usually one to set a really good example for the rest of the class. His handwriting is atrocious, and I'm pretty sure he should be writing with his left hand. He does everything else left-handed. But I can't get him to stick with his left hand. He just switches back to his right and holds the pencil in a claw-like grip. A.S. is also a good morale booster for me. Whenever I try to be funny or super engaging with my class, I can always count on him to have an ear-to-ear grin on his face, like I've just let him in on the funniest secret of his life. I honestly haven't gotten to know him very well, yet, though. He didn't say a word to me for the first two months of school, and even now he only speaks about 4 words at a time. I think he just doesn't talk much, but I want to try to get to know him better.

A.S. and M.A. on the bus. I wish you could see M.A.'s eyes! Adds so much to his character.
One final student I just want to mention. S.Y. is one of the most loving, happy, friendly children I have ever met. She genuinely wants to make other people happy. When I started a Kindness Heart board, she was practically jumping up and down at the end of the day, when there were 5 hearts up on the board. (Each heart had a student's name on it and represented a time that student had been kind during the day.) "Mrs. Fuhrman!" she said, "This is the best day of my life! Everyone in our class is so nice!" S.Y. is also one of the reasons that A.A.-1 began to deal with his anger in a more effective way. Somehow, despite the fact that A.A.-1 always says, "Teacher! I can't work with girls!" S.Y. managed to become friends with A.A.-1. Now, he loves to work with her and she has kind of become a mediator when he throws a temper tantrum and ends up in a turtle position on the ground. She will kneel down by him, whisper in his ear, put her arm around him, and in general, coax him back into classroom life. When I was telling my dad about her, he murmured to himself, "You are not far from the Kingdom, child." Honestly, those words brought tears to my eyes. S.Y. is one of the most Christlike children I've ever met.

S.Y. at the museum offering me 'something to eat.'
I had meant for this blog post to be about much more than the students that I teach, but this is now going to have to be a two-part post. Stay tuned for 'Falling in Love with First Graders: A Case of Love and Hair Loss Part 2", coming soon!