Musings of a Southern Belle

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 02 2013

Let Your Kids Be Your Hope

my kids are awesome

my kids are awesomeFor all of you first year CMs who are having the worst month of your life right now, this post is for you. IT DOES GET BETTER. THERE IS HOPE. BELIEVE IN YOUR STUDENTS AND GIVE THEM A PLATFORM TO SPEAK THEIR MINDS. THEY WILL ASTOUND, INSPIRE AND MOTIVATE YOU. This time last year, I was literally crying myself to sleep every single night. I didn’t believe in myself, I was barely holding my head above water planning for four different classes alone, I didn’t have a community or felt like I belonged, and I was seriously depressed. My MTLD and principal created an action plan of improvements I had to make and I felt like I was failing in every way possible. My biggest hindrance was my mindset: I didn’t believe in myself as a teacher and I didn’t think I could actually affect change in my students’ lives. I thought I could give them love and show them that they are loved, but I didn’t realize my potential as a gatekeeper to opening them to a world of new possibilities. I was so focused on creating great lesson plans (or at least having some form of a lesson plan for all four preps) that I forgot what mattered most: my kids. My vision was hazy at best – most days it was nearly completely obscured with feelings of failure, being overwhelmed and focusing on all of the mundane things that I had to do that I wasn’t very good at. It’s never easy to fail at something, but having people who believe in you, like my amazing boyfriend, MTLD, principal, best friend and mother, can be that life-preserver you need if you will just let them in and admit your struggles. But most importantly, take the time to sit back and listen to your kids. Let them have a voice to express their feelings, their dreams, their aspirations and their fears. Let them show you things you had forgotten, let them teach you the lessons you failed to learn growing up, let them remind you that they are 100% completely worth believing in, sacrificing for and persevering for. You aren’t teaching to make good lesson plans or to make money. You are teaching to inspire your students to want to create transformational change in themselves, their communities and the generations that will follow. When you have a kid spray you in the face with Lysol, roll your chair down the hallway while screaming at the top of his lungs, or write profanity on your desk, don’t take it personally. Realize that those acts, along with the handwritten thank you notes, shouts of “I love you, Ms. Have a good weekend!” and the smile of a student when you are about to breakdown and cry right there in the middle of class are all part of the process. Transformational change is not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a while. It’s going to be messy. It’s going to involve a lot of sleeplessness. But at the end of the day, it WILL be worth it because you ARE helping to ensure that all students get an excellent education (even on those days when it doesn’t quite feel like it!). You are not alone in this movement – and it is a movement. It takes many voices uniting and advocating for those who don’t know how to advocate for themselves to break this horrible cycle of poverty, apathy and hopelessness. You may feel like you are currently in poverty and you may feel kind of apathetic and hopeless. It’s three weeks until Christmas break. You are not alone in that feeling, but I promise you that it will not always be this way. You CAN and WILL transform the lives of the students you teach. Your second year will be much easier.

-end sappy note to previous self-

So much has changed and improved in so many ways since I last blogged in March! It’s a new school year, I have new kids, new methodology (Kagan Cooperative Learning has literally transformed my classroom) and a new attitude, thanks to my amazing boyfriend who has made me realize the value and power in the work that I’m doing and the transformational change I truly can be a part in creating. My involvement in my community has gone from 0 to 100 and my ability to collaborate and appreciate viewpoints different from my own has increased dramatically and I have finally become a part of my community. One thing I realized at the end of last school year was that my kids were really invested in me, but they weren’t so invested in their community or their long-term outlooks for their lives. I’ve worked relentlessly this school year to teach my students how to be advocates for themselves, to take every opportunity to give themselves as many options as possible and to learn the values that will serve them well in adulthood (respect, responsibility, honesty, cooperation, perseverance, positivity and ownership). My vision is that my students leave my class able to speak, write, listen and speak well in any situation that is presented to them, while being excellent citizens who care about their communities. Instead of giving you anecdotes of how truly AMAZING my kids are, I am just going to show you. Below are several essays that my students have written about their future/the region’s future (in particular, why they want to attend a conference that is about our region’s development and growth) and their personal development. I’m also including one anecdotal email from a colleague that just astounded me – it proved that the hell I went through last year was not in vain! Last year, I would never have thought my kids were capable of saying these powerful things, but that was before I truly believed in them. Now, I realize that their voices can, should, will and deserve to be heard because they have some amazing things to say. Here are some examples:

This student learned more than I know now
Essay 1: I have never lived anywhere except southeastern Kentucky. I have watched my grandfather lose the job he worked for decades just a few years before his retirement because it moved to Ohio. He and my grandmother struggle to make ends meet on unemployment until he can sign up for social security because there is nowhere else for him to work. I have worried about myself and my little brother because, around here, if you do not have an education then you have nothing and our parents cannot afford to send us to college. My dad had to quit his job in Dayton, Ohio because he could not afford the commute and my mother has been very sick lately. If it had not been for my grandparents and my dad’s friend getting him a job, I do not know where we would be.
There are a lot of things in Appalachia that are wrong and need to be changed in order to better our quality of life and our economy. At the SOAR conference, we will be given the opportunity to speak with our government officials and tell them what is wrong. I like to think that I know how things work here. I know that if you are one of the lucky ones that graduate from high school, you either leave here and go to college or you stay and pray you find work. If you leave, you do not come back. You do not come back because there is nothing to come back to. Businesses do not open here because no one has any money to spend and no one has any money because they can not find a job. All of the factories and jobs here are leaving. It is all and endless cycle of jobs and opportunities going elsewhere and the people of southeastern Kentucky can do nothing but pray. That’s why I want to attend this conference. I want to do something and maybe that something is telling our leaders what needs to be done.
I believe that southeastern Kentucky can be self-sufficient and have a productive economy. Our people, given the opportunities necessary, could turn southeastern Kentucky into a center for economic growth. We only need the help of our government to open these doors for us. One thing that needs to be done, is taxes need to be lowered. I understand that these taxes go to paying for our schools, roads, etc. and these do not need to be changed. However, the taxes that go towards paying for Welfare need to be lowered substantially or eliminated completely. The main purpose of an economic welfare system is to assist citizens who are not able to support themselves or their families due to unemployment, underemployment, hardship, unskilled labor capacity, disability, or other similar reasons. When used honestly, Welfare is a wonderful program to help struggling Americans, but Welfare is not used honestly. Many people have made Welfare their only source of income and have made no move whatsoever to improve their economic situation. They are content to live on Welfare and let hardworking Americans pay for them. If the government would determine which recipients of Welfare were doing this and lower the amount they receive or cut them off completely, forcing them to search for another source of income, then taxpayers would have to pay less taxes to cover these people. By lowering taxes in southeastern Kentucky, businesses would be encouraged to open here and more jobs and opportunities would be available here.
Another thing that needs to be change in southeastern Kentucky is the educational system. With some changes and improvements, the education system here can produce some of the brightest and smartest students of our generation and, if the government could create opportunities for them here, they would come back after college. The main problem with the southeastern Kentucky education system is that we are not held to the same standard as the rest of Kentucky. County by county, city by city, no education system in Kentucky is equal. Students of southeastern Kentucky are given a lax, easy, minimalist education because we are not expected to go to college or to flourish in life. The students of northern and western Kentucky are given a rigorous education that prepares them and sets them up for success in college and their career. If you look at our scores on state and national tests, the gap is obvious. So I propose that every education system in Kentucky be equal. A student in Barbourville should learn the same content at the same time as a student of Lexington. If this is done and the playing field for college admission is leveled, then we will see an increase in the number of graduates from southeastern Kentucky who become financial independent. Myself and my fellow students are the future of Appalachia. We are the ones that will inherit the land and the economy when those before us are gone. I want to make sure that the Appalachia I inherit and hand down to the next generation is as great as it can be and I want to be educated enough to do it.
There are a lot of things that need to be changed in order for southeastern Kentucky to reach it’s full potential. With the help of our government and the voice of the population, we can fix these things and transform Kentucky into the kind of place it should be. The biggest thing that Kentuckians need is opportunity. If we are given a chance, I guarantee you we will take it. We will take the chances we are given and make Appalachia an economic giant. All we ask is that our government give us these opportunities.

Essay 2: We humans can agree that life is hard. We are perfect examples of imperfection. People make mistakes, feelings get damaged, relationships get broken and we find it hard to forgive. Because of this, the future generations, or us teens, particularly in the Appalachia Mountains, want their futures and present lives to be as easy as possible. Our society pushes life to be like a bed of roses, not a life persevering through when difficult obstacles approach. Our goals are no longer trying to make this world a better place, rather ours goals for now and for our future are to avoid challenges, avert pain, and to be accountable for as little as many responsibilities as possible. I know life is hard, but if we take the easy way out it will result in not learning valuable life lessons that are critical in developing our character. Most importantly the problems our communities face will never get fixed, if anything they will worsen. So, there is only one solution to our problems and that is… do hard things, despite how hard life is.
Attending this conference would allow me to the opportunity to spread the idea of doing hard things to fix Appalachia’s problems. I also would get to hear the opinions of experienced problem-solvers and some of the nation’s leaders. Aside from my own ideas I could take their ideas back to my own Appalachian town and put them into action. Being one of the few people living in Barbourville, Kentucky not originally from there, I understand the local culture but also realize there are other approaches to living. While I understand our community’s problems clearly, I know life here could be improved. Attending this conference should help me to better relate the ideas that I have for making progress in Appalachia to specific area needing improvement.
The decision of Tru Seal Technologies, Inc. to leave Knox County, raised many questions for me personally when many people close to me were struggling to continue their lives in Southeastern Kentucky. What caused Tru Seal Technologies, Inc. to leave? Could the move have been prevented? What opportunities for job seekers can be created? All of these questions may be difficult to answer and require detailed analysis, but ultimately we have to take the known facts to creatively find productive employment for those searching for jobs in the region.
My role to affect change in the specific Tru Seal Technologies, Inc. situation may be limited in persuading them not to leave, but undoubtedly the future will bring a new set of challenges that will require their own solutions. Making the most of any opportunity, such as the SOAR Conference, will be critical to sharpening my own questioning and problem solving capabilities because someday my circle of influence will expand. When that moment arrives with its own challenges, I and others of my generation must be prepared to enthusiastically face those opportunities because we are confident in our own abilities to ask the right questions and advance the best solutions. We will be equipped to reinvest in Southern and Eastern Kentucky because of our own well-developed math and science skills.
One day I will no longer attend high school, have the excuse of young age to save me from the consequences of my mistakes, eat disgusting cafeteria school food, or have the freedom of not paying for my own clothes, food or utility bills. Instead I will have greater responsibilities other than watching over my younger siblings and taking out the trash. I will be responsible for making sure the next generation will have a better life than what I had. Knowing they will be able to resist against low expectations and do hard things to make the generation’s world even better. I am or we are the future of America. America’s future remains in the hands today’s youth. If we do not attend conferences like SOAR we will without a shadow of a doubt not be prepared to take on future conflicts and will not know how to do hard things. To include young voices at similar conferences will perfect our communication skills, give us a better understanding of real life adult problems that we will soon face, and improve our leadership skills that we will undoubtedly need since the destiny of Southeastern Kentucky and the United States are in the hands of adolescents.
I envision southeastern Kentucky as eagerly taking on the challenge of doing hard things and no longer being satisfied by meeting just the minimum expectations. That way poverty will vanish and people will enthusiastically engage in life. They will no longer rely on the government, genuinely try to get a good education and find a job. People will accept responsibility for turning their communities into areas of productivity and contribute to the well being of America and their families. Of course none of this is possible if we do not willingly work to try and achieve the harder task.
The key to the long-term sustainability of Southern and Eastern Kentucky is creating and maintaining worthwhile employment. Facing the uncertain future of the coal industry our area’s workforce must be prepared to adapt to changing job requirements. The United States Department of Labor says that fifteen of the twenty fastest growing occupations require science and math training. In a February 18, 2013 Detroit Free Press article William Bennett said the United States will need one million more college graduates in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics)-related fields than previously thought. He also added that if United States students could match the math and science performance of Canadian students the United States would increase national revenue by $1trillion. The good news for the residents of our area is that there will be opportunity for employment if they are trained for these jobs. With the ability to work online or from home workers may not be needed to relocate to meet the requirements of these careers. Employment through these means may be one more immediate solution to the economic issues of the Appalachian economy. These jobs are not dependent to company’s to move major facilities to our area but rely solely on the ability of a trained workforce that is willing to search online for these employment opportunities.
More specifically, employers are seeking workers who possess science and math skills because these tools give their employees the ability to adapt to the unexpected, be curious, and create workable solutions. In science, we are expected to ask questions and observe from many perspectives. Math teaches us to use these observations to understand the problem, analyze what we know, and devise a plan to arrive at a solution. We can answer those questions we are curious about by using a variety of tools, such as modeling, breaking down larger problems, or working backwards. Also, both math and science emphasize the importance of being persistent through the scientific or problem solving method until a workable solution is achieved. Ultimately, workers with these capabilities are equipped to adapt to most any specific task, which in turn makes them valuable to their employers.
Finally, I would be completely ecstatic to be given this incredible opportunity to attend the SOAR Conference. I will use the skills I obtain to do my part to take on the hard work of actively shaping the future of Appalachia.

This last essay came about from a mentoring conversation, not as a teacher or TFAer, but as a Christian who went to church with a bright young girl who was seeking guidance. Transformational change can and should go beyond the classroom. Kindness, love, tolerance and the belief in the dignity of all humans surpasses anything I could teach in a class, but are things I hope I show through my actions every day. Essay 3: A situation in which I have faced an ethical question is an existential crisis I experienced my freshman year, and part of my sophomore year as well. At the time I was reading an autobiography by C.S. Lewis titled Surprised by Joy. In the book, Lewis describes his atheism, the enjoyment of intellectual stimulation as well as other ways he found joy without the guilt of Christianity and immediately I agreed greatly with his view of the universe than the latter of Christianity. However, I later realized that in my pursuit of reason and my loss of faith, I desired knowledge and thus power which made me egotistical.
As time progressed, I became friends with atheists and hoped to be intellectually stimulated. Being raised in a predominantly Christian family, questioning a belief is considered heresy and is treated with the utmost contempt. After being around people who enunciate the word ‘atheist’ in the same way Malfoy would show disgust when pronouncing ‘mudblood,’ you begin to realize that any statement that presides more strongly in science and reason than in religion is one that you should avoid bringing up in their company. During this time I often turned to friends for discussions over topics that I couldn’t find inside my surrounding spectrum of religious people.
Over the following months, I began to renounce my religious beliefs and remain silent around my family. As I became more focused on logic and science, ridiculing faith, I discussed the topic at school with close friends; word got around that I was an atheist. One of my brothers found out and he confronted me about it. I confirmed his suspicions and continued on with my studies as always. Several distant relatives and friends began badgering me about it and over that time I lost bonds with those whom I once considered close. Previously, I had moderate anxiety issues, but this questioning and loss of friends made me paranoid, I had no idea how they would respond and I was having anxiety attacks regularly.
Eventually I found friends and teachers who helped me to adjust to the conflict of ideologies and were supportive throughout all of my experiences where friends gave up and slammed books on tables in exasperation, or relatives gave simple repetitive answers like “have faith “. A concept that I could not grasp because I wanted to be able to reason through faith. One teacher in particular-Ms.-was always willing to help me get the opportunities I needed and advise me along the way. At one point, we were conversing and she mentioned the quote “success is not about what you accomplish, but about what you inspire others to do” and she suggested several theological books. Over time, I began to realize that faith is not fully encompassed in reason. As well as that I can have faith as well as support scientific processes, and believe mostly in kindness. I began to perceive that my view as a narcissistic elitist based on intelligence was absolutely degrading to the people I associated with because ultimately, people are people and deserve to be treated as such . Regardless of any traits they may have, or not have.
No matter where I go in life, I will go with the knowledge that my success personally is temporal and will never be a legacy measured by means of sole accomplishment. But rather, the impact I have on others and the lasting impact of kindness I can inspire in the world is an outcome that I would much rather have attributed to me than any form of success by disillusioned superiority. My faith in humanity was restored and I can remain at peace in life knowing that my purpose is found in kindness and loving other people.

Let your kids inspire you every day.

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