‘Seeking to understand’ in action

If only humans had it this easy when it comes to understanding each other

If only humans had it this easy when it comes to understanding each other

A norm that I aspire to, however difficult it can be at times is this one:

Seek to understand before being understood.

I just read a story about an administrator who practices this norm.

From Karen S. about a Kindergarten student in trouble in Talking Him Off the Ledge at Talkworthy:

“In a few minutes, he got the idea that I wasn’t there to make his day more miserable but that I was genuinely trying to understand him.”

She described the encounter between herself and the child as magical. I felt the magic as I read her words. Karen is a true leader. Go read the whole story. It’s a story worth listening to, sharing, and believing.

“We are responsible not only for the stories we tell and the stories we listen to, but for the stories we choose to believe.” ~Thomas King

I demand achievement!

Yesterday afternoon was gorgeous – a perfect afternoon for a shopping spree in Montreal, which I hadn’t done in a long while. It’s as if I were a tourist in my own city, since I no longer live in Montreal but lived there for so long.

In the very first store I visited (after stopping in at the Korean grocery on Ste Catherine street for kim bap to eat as I strolled in the sun) I couldn’t help but purchase this bag. I was going to get it even after only seeing this side:


and then I turned it around – priceless! – I ran to the cashier.


I feel like this is all I write about.

Sure, I demand achievement from my students. But they are always reminding me to ‘get a grip’. How do we balance high standards for achievement with getting a grip, with staying real?

When it comes down to it, if I only demanded achievement from my students I wouldn’t get it. Some might try to give it, those ones who are lucky enough to know how to get it through traditional means. But what about those who have other needs that must be met first, before they can even fathom academic achievement?

The teacher on the bag demands achievement – from who? Her students? Herself? Her school? In order for authentic achievement to happen on any level it ideally needs to happen on all of them. We need to listen to each other’s stories, really listen, to develop a relationship with each other that makes us want to achieve together. In that way we can expect achievement, expect success, happiness, accountability, change, love.

Really, I feel like this is all I write about. All I talk about. We can’t expect achievement (academic, social, professional development…) if that is all we demand. Real achievement is collaborative, it is relative, it is caring.

I almost didn’t post this because I feel it is all I write about, that it is the same old story. But then I remembered that there is a reason for stories. The stories we tell and listen to and choose to believe are the ones that tie us together and keep us alive.

So I’ll keep telling this story. I think it’s a good one to tell.


Sept. 28: After I wrote this post I decided to create a blog for the Contemporary World Issues class. I’ve now re-posted this and my students are commenting over there: cwi.tracyrosen.com

Our Contemporary World Issues class has been talking about the concept of interdependence for the past week or so. We’ve done some individual exploration on David Suzuki’s website, we’ve had some classroom and small group conversations on the subject as well.

I’ve taken some of our words and phrases and put them together in the presentation below. When you read them, think about them – what do they really mean?

I’ve also added someone else’s words on the topic. Do they add to your ideas? Do they make things clearer/more complicated?

Though this post is directed towards my Grade 11 Contemporary World Issues class, I hope that others will comment as well.

I can not change what I tolerate

This morning I yelled. But big. At my dogs, at my cat, at my house, at my students.


I adopted a cat (Betty) a few weeks ago because of the mice. Not into mice. But my big dog (Toby) stalks her and my little dog (Jacob) alternates between ignoring her, stealing her toys, and barking his head off at her. Things have broken (teapots, my pepper plant, wine glasses…) as Toby chases her into the kitchen. This morning I set myself up in a spot in the sunshine to do some coursework and, after a few forgot my coffee, pen, post-its, battery is dead need the charger, trips back into the house I finally settled in to do my readings for this week’s class discussion. Then Toby darts into the house and I hear a crash. I’m guessing that Betty, thinking it was safe (dog-free) ventured out of her hiding spot on the top shelf of my kitchen cabinets and into the house. Toby must have heard this, at which point he chased her back up on top of the fridge, where her food bowl was, which she hit and it crashed onto my ceramic countertop, hitting the coffeemaker, and so I was left with coffee soaked cat food all over the place. Then of course Jacob came in to eat it so I yelled at him, Don’t even think it, but he did, and I threw a towel at him, so he jumped away right into the dog bowl full of water, spilling it everywhere, including on a vacuum cleaner which is impossible to dry with all of its parts and wires.

So that is when I yelled at the dogs, cat, house, my life. One of the things I yelled was, All I do is clean up what is left after you creeps (ok, the actual word was different but I prefer not to repeat it here) destroy my house and I do the same thing at work. Everything’s a mess! Everywhere!

The other day Jacob tore apart a down comforter in my bedroom. Take a moment. Imagine the scene.

Yesterday I only taught 2 periods and managed to get myself all worked up over the blatant disrespect I witnessed in some of my students. Students feeling they could just sit themselves down at any computer and use it – including teacher computers – without permission. Students taking things from my desk or from the top of a pile of my books on a table in the hallway. Not even just to look at or to borrow. Taking. Students leaving newspapers, plastic wrappers, napkins, broken pens, wherever they last were. Students having their own conversations while other students/teachers are addressing the group. Then continuing even after the class is stopped to get silence for the speakers. I have other students also complaining about this, that they can’t focus in class because of a chatty climate of disrespect. I walked into my classroom after lunch and just about lost it when a student was sitting at my desk, checking her email on my computer while behind her I saw written on my white board a student’s name with a few different phone numbers and the caption – Man whore, call after 12.

I am exhausted. I was supposed to go to a New Year’s dinner with my family last night but instead I stayed home. I went to bed at 7:30. I was so tired I could not imagine driving. I didn’t think it was safe.

What is tiring me out is that I am acting reactively. Responding reactively to these annoying day-to-day activities requires way more brain power, brain power that should be conserved for more important activities, than if I approach my life proactively. Instead of yelling at my students, my dogs, my house when something goes wrong, I need to prepare for things to go right. If I tolerate the disrespect, if I tolerate the canine craziness in my house then I certainly can’t change it.

So what can this look like?

At school. I’m starting over on Monday. As if it were day one. Since a third of our students are returning students I assumed that the climate of respect that we worked towards last year would continue. It is mainly those students however that are acting as if my classroom was their private gaming hall. I love that my students are comfortable with me but they are too comfortable. They need reminding and the new students need more structure than I provided them based on my initial assumptions. I need to set them up to succeed, not to get into trouble. At the same time it saves me from turning into a crazy teacher. By exploding once in a while and not changing systems, it shows that I tolerate the behaviour for a while, until I get angry, and then I tolerate it again until the next time. I can’t change my environment if I tolerate what is going on in it.

At home. I need to keep my house tidy. Some things broke because they were on the counter instead of away in a cupboard. But mainly I need to crate Jacob when I am not at home. I don’t like crating dogs, I prefer to teach them where to be and how to be. But that’s not working so much with Jacob. By allowing him to roam the house even after he eats the comforter, poops in the living room, destroys a kleenex box I am tolerating the destruction. And when I don’t want to be interupted I need to tie the dogs up so they can’t dash into the house all goofy-like to chase poor Betty.

In myself. I get frustrated at myself for being so tired and not having the time to do what I want, for having a messy house, for not being able to find that brown blazer I want to wear 5 minutes after I was supposed to leave the house in the morning… I’m hoping that some of the changes I make at home and school will help in this area as well. At least, I’ll start on those two areas and see.

You’re in control you know. It’s your life and it’s up to you to make it what you want it to be. Tolerate nothing. You are in control. This is your life, not a dress rehearsal. – Jim Donovan

Phew. Needed to get that out there.
Enjoy your day. And now that I have cleaned up the coffee flavoured Chicken Soup for the Kitten Lovers Soul and broken glass from my kitchen floor, wiped up the water from all over the dining room, and tied the dogs to trees in the yard, I am ready to get my reading done. Just in case you are interested, it’s on the reliability of oral histories for my course called first nations peoples.

****note added just after posting….****
As I returned to my spot in the sun outside I noticed that, though I could hear Jacob yip, I couldn’t see him. He is now stuck under my deck. He managed to get under it and get his leash wound around something under there. I need to take apart part of the deck to rescue him. Looks like I won’t be getting to my reading this morning.

6 lessons from the first week of school

What a week. I’m sure we all say the same after the first week back with students in September! I had a few 14 hour days last week and this is really the first time my head feels clear enough to reflect on my first week with new students and a new organizational structure at Directions Alternative School. I decided to frame this post with the lessons I learned.

Lesson 1: Though it was fun (ish) don’t plan a huge, physical field trip for the first day of school.
I say ish because, though it was fun meeting the new students and seeing them interact outside of the classroom, I am a big baby with heights and for some reason agreed to the plan during our pre-schoolyear meeting to spend the day zip-lining at Morin Heights. Yes, I had to be rescued part of the way. I should have known from my panic-ridden chair lift ride up the mountain that perhaps I don’t need to make my way through an obstacle course while attached to a wire by 2 clips some 50 odd feet from the ground.

We left for the trip at about 8:30 am and returned around 5:30. We then had to meet to separate our students into leadership groups and talk about the following few days of classes. Though a beautiful sunny day in the country, it had been both physically and mentally exhausting. It left me with very little energy for the ensuing 3 days of classes. Great trip for a Friday or the day before a holiday, not for the first day of school!

Lesson 2: Confident kids don’t make fun of others

By watching the group dynamics both in my classes and out of them, during lunch or other break times, I am noticing more and more that the students who are the most self-assured do not make fun of others. The students who aren’t do. The lesson in that is for me (us) to create conditions that promote the growth of self-assurance, confidence in my classroom, our schools.

Lesson 3: Change is hard
I’m sure that zip-lining was not the only cause for exhaustion this week. New students, new head teacher, new schedules. There have never been schedules in our program before. We always planned things on what was needed at the time. We also always had the same students all day and this year we are subject-specific teachers rather than core teachers. A lot of change at once. It is tiring to get used to. Much more so for some of the returning students. I had one student write, in his welcome day essay, Yesterday was probably the best thing about this whole year. Other ones have made similar noises. The lesson from this is that change is hard and I (we) need to remember that change is even more difficult for students in need (emotionally, academically, socially) and to give them the time and space to adapt.

Lesson 4: I love spending time with my students
When I woke up yesterday morning I thought WHY did I offer an art field trip to my students for the first Saturday of the school year? What, am I crazy? We met in Montreal (they live in Chateauguay, I live in Ontario, an hour away) at 1 and had a great day. We made our way to the Meeting Of Styles outdoor painting site at 1825 Cabot (Les Papiers M.P.C), spent some time there, took loads of photos, then walked around my old neighbourhood in St. Henri and visited a few art galleries. Before going home we stopped by the graffiti site again and I am so glad I did! I spotted someone I know writing high up on a wall, called out to him, and may have found the perfect guest teacher for art class :) His writing name is Fluke. I was so excited about it and all the girls who came with me could say about it is – does he have a girlfriend? (He’s a cutie.) All told, we spent 4 1/2 hours walking and looking at art, save for about 30 minutes for lunch. A great day. The lesson here, I plan things because I think they are good ideas. Don’t give up on the plan because you’re tired. In fact, the day energized me in a way that would not have been possible had I stayed at home. I love spending time with my students.

I’m planning on asking the 3 students who came with me to create a post at our art class blog, with images and commentary on the day. I’ll let you know when it is done. For now, here is a picture from the day. If you are a friend of mine on facebook you can see a few others at MOS art trip 2009.

MOS MTL 09, Saturday afternoon

MOS MTL 09, Saturday afternoon. Yes, there ARE female writers!

Lesson 5: Life doesn’t stop because it is the first week of school
I was eating corn the other night and my top left front tooth shifted position. I managed to move it somewhat back into place but couldn’t quite close my jaw properly. It’s a crown. I went to my dentist and turns out I bent the post and managed to crack off some of the existing tooth structure. He repaired as much as he could as a short-term solution so I can finally close my mouth BUT I will be needing an implant. Front tooth. Ugh. Surgery, time, money. What a time for it to happen, eh? Lesson learned here is that life does not stop because I am busy. Managing all of the different elements in my life is important so that surprises like this don’t throw me way off track. It helps to have a wonderful dentist who agreed to stay late to see me so that I wouldn’t have to take time off of work during my first week.

Lesson 6: The more I learn, the more I need to learn.
Last January I withdrew from the PhD program I had started the previous January. I was a slave to two schools. What a horrible way to live something I love – teaching. So it was important for me to stop. However, I miss learning. I really do. I miss that feeling of excitement as I see things connect, as I feel my new learning integrate with the old, creating new knowledge. I feel it throughout my pores. So I decided to go back to school but in a way that makes more sense for me right now. I am starting with one online course at Seneca College (Toronto) and am working my way toward an Intercultural Relations Certificate. Here is the description from Seneca College:

Globalization brings the peoples of the world closer together. However, discrimination and other forms of intolerance continue to cause problems. In our increasingly multicultural society these issues can lead to exclusion and inequality, often along racial and ethnic lines.

This on-line program is a direct response to learning needs identified by a broad range of representatives from human services and justice agencies who recognize that racial inequity and negative stereotyping are significant social problems. In this six course certificate in Intercultural Relations, learners will examine diversity issues in a social context, explore critical differences in cross-cultural communication and identify the sources, causes, forms and manifestations of these issues in our society.

I chose this program because I find myself working more and more with students who live these realities, in particular my Native students though certainly not only them, and I find myself witness to some adults in the school system – who are meant to care for them – who continue the negative stereotyping and enable the inequities that exist. The more I see and the more I learn, I want to learn more. The lesson here is to learn from my heart. This online Certificate course at a small college is more in line with what my heart needs than the PhD course at the well-known university I decided to leave 9 months ago.

So, here are some of the lessons I learned this week. What about you?