Posted in differences, education, mindset

Different perspectives on “easy”

Last year, some of my band classes did a month-long composition activity.

I asked students for written feedback: tell me if you liked the activity or not and why.

Two reports read the following:

“I liked it because it was easy.”

“I didn’t like it because it was too easy.”

Isn’t that funny?

First, that two people used the same adjective in opposite ways.

(I think this happens often.)

One of them: up for being challenged; the other: not so much.

But I also know, because I designed and oversaw the project, and because it was my class, that the student who thought it was too easy was also not terribly motivated. She could have done more than the bare minimum and made it more challenging for herself—and potentially ended up with a final project that she had more pride in.

(There were a lot of reasons tied up in why she didn’t challenge herself.)

Would she have done more work if it had been required? At what point would her feedback have said that she liked it (regardless of why)? Or that she didn’t like it because it was too hard?

I will be more explicit about the possibility of exceeding expectations in the introduction the next time we do the project.

For myself, I’m glad when things are easy when they’re things I don’t want to do in the first place. (Neither of those students is with me again this year, so odds are high on that one.)

I can’t think of an example of a creative assignment that I felt competent doing and did more than was expected, but I can’t think of many required creative assignments that I felt competent doing, either. Competence always came in concrete.

Too easy feels like busywork.

Easy feels like a relief unless the hope was to be challenged…but can still feel like busywork.

Challenging is either glorious or tedious, depending on the task, the emotional investment on the outcome, and the expectation going in.

Too challenging is just frustrating.

So many variables. It’s no wonder we have so many different experiences of the exact same thing.

Posted in differences, education, meandering, mental health, mindset, motivation, parenting, vulnerability

School, escapism, perfectionism

Growing up, the first day of school was always so exciting. I always had a new outfit. Often a new backpack or lunch box. I had friends at school. I got along well with most of my teachers, so that was never a worry for me. I wasn’t a wiggly kid and had no trouble sitting still in my seat. I was a quiet kid, so I didn’t get in trouble for talking.

Of course, those circumstances aren’t true for all kids. Both of the schools where I teach are uniform schools, so best case scenario is some new uniform components and maybe new shoes. Not everyone has friends at school, and not everyone gets along with their teachers. Lots of kids are wiggly (and kids should be—I don’t think it was inherently good that I wasn’t) and aren’t given ample opportunity not to be.

What I have in common with many of them is that school is an escape. Some kids get consistency of people, of schedule, of rules at school (but not at home). Some get praise at school (but not at home; this was me). Some get food at school (but not at home).

At school, I was the perfect student. At home, I was a scapegoat.

We talked recently in a training about how perfectionism is, for some people, a means of dealing with trauma. Relentless control. Paralyzing fear of failure. And, because school is constructed the way it is, the perfectionism is often praised. Seen as the ideal.

I was the perfect student. Dealing with trauma.

It took decades before I learned that perfectionism was a coping mechanism and shed some of it. (Sometimes it’s useful, and in high-stakes pursuits, like surgery, building medical devices, constructing airplanes and space shuttles, and so on, we should definitely keep perfectionism on hand in large quantity. Choosing perfection versus psychologically needing perfection. They’re different.)

I can make a slide presentation and choose the colors, style, font that are good enough instead of poring over the options for hours.

I can draw flashcards for my students and not need to redo the ones that aren’t to spec.

Letting go of some perfectionism has given me time and reduced stress.

I wonder, if a teacher knew that about me (or knew it about psychology and thus suspected it about me), would my path have been different? Would I have been able to learn how to be OK with mistakes in a place where being the ideal was my lifeblood?

I don’t know. But I’m glad I figured it out eventually anyway.

We’ve been in school less than a week and I’ve already told all of my classes at least once that we’re going to make mistakes here, and it’s OK, it’s expected, it will be often, and we need to be OK with making mistakes ourselves and with other people making mistakes.

Hopefully, someone who needs to hear that a little louder will take it to heart … even if it’s only in my classroom.

Posted in ebb & flow, education, motivation, parenting

Allowance, housework, and The Kid

We recently implemented a three-part economic system with The Kid.

Part 1: Allowance

He gets a weekly allowance. It’s not as a reward or payment for anything done. In our thinking, it’s a means of teaching money management, and it gives him some autonomy in a world where most of his decisions are made for him.

Each week from his allowance, he has to save $1 in the bank. That’s long-term savings for the future and is not available for anything any time soon. I keep his weekly dollars in a marked envelope; we don’t go to the bank weekly to deposit $1.

Each week from his allowance, he has to donate $1. We talked about some of the places he could give money (also not typically in $1 increments, but those dollars can be saved and donated in larger pools). He has chosen to keep his dollar in the car to give to panhandlers. Maybe not what I would have chosen, but his dollar, his choice.

The remaining dollars are his to do with as he pleases. Right now, he’s saving for a LEGO kit. (Those savings don’t go in the bank—they stay separate from long-term savings.)

Part 2: Jobs to do because you live in a house

He has jobs (chores by a less negative title) he has to do regularly just because he is part of a household. All three of us have work around the house we have to do. Many of those tasks are specifically delegated; some are “whoever gets to it.”

Right now, he is responsible to clear his dishes from the table and, if the dishwasher is dirty, rinse and put his dishes in. He needs to sweep the area under his seat after each meal as needed. He sorts his dirty clothes and folds or hangs and puts away his clean laundry. He empties or helps empty the dishwasher if he’s around when it needs to be done, and for dinner, he needs to either help with preparation, set the table, or clear the table.

Part 3: Jobs for extra money

He also has the opportunity to do extra work around the house for pay. Most jobs pay $1, though a few pay more (and a few are broken into smaller $1 pieces).

Each of these jobs is written at the top of a notecard, and the rest of the card details how to do the job. This way he can make sure he’s done all of it before asking one of us to check it.

The cards are hung on a board with a clothespin and are divided in two piles: “available” and “not available right now.” So when a job is done—regardless who completed it—it gets moved to the not available side until it comes around again.

There are things that need to get done that aren’t on any of these lists. The rule is that he helps with other tasks as requested. We will tell him ahead of time if it’s a paid job or not. No need to ask—it will be laid out.

He also can’t complete paid jobs if his “because I live here” jobs aren’t done.

The whole thing hasn’t been in place for all that long, but it’s working well so far. He can do extra work when he wants to, choose work he’d rather do (or money he’d rather make—the best-paying are often the least desirable) and I don’t need to nag.

We’ll see how long it takes for him to earn what he needs to buy his Saturn V…

Posted in education, know better do better, mental health, mindset, parenting

Shaming isn’t useful

A few years ago, I bought a course by Brené Brown through Udemy. The course is no longer available for purchase, but I still have access to it and go through part or all of it from time to time.

At one point, she said (paraphrased), “85% of adults interviewed remember something so shaming from school that it forever changed how they thought of themselves as learners.”

That’s a lot of power. “Forever changed how they thought of themselves as learners.”


I know more people than I’d like who were explicitly told by their music or choir teacher that they can’t sing. My mom was told to stand in her spot and lip sync.

That horrifies me.

People discouraged from taking certain classes or career paths, regardless of content or grade level. (I know stories kindergarten through grad school.)

(There are just as many stories of people who were totally lifted up, inspired, or saved by teachers as well. And there’s a difference between “these are skills you need to work on and it’s going to be a lot of work” and “you’re not good at this and shouldn’t bother.” The second is both mean and pedagogically lazy.)

Of course, it’s not just teachers. Parents use shame all the time. There are awful (and, unfortunately, widely celebrated) videos of parents publicly shaming their children.

Culturally, shame is a national pastime.

The thing is: shaming is not an effective means of punishment. It doesn’t work—not the way we do it. And it’s strongly connected to addiction. (Coincidence that we have an enormous addiction problem in this country?)

My therapist told me once that we’re the only animals who shame their offspring and don’t follow up with love. The shame becomes internalized. We learn that this failure is who we are instead of something we did.

Unless you’re feeling secure in what that love follow-up ought to look like, bypass shame as an intentional attempted motivational technique.

What people feel shame about varies; different people feel shameful about different things. Your family of origin is typically where those seeds are planted, though as we just learned, school can do it as well, or really anywhere/anyone influential in childhood. So something that doesn’t seem shaming to you could feel very shameful to someone else. (There are oodles of cultural examples of this, no? Ask people if they change by their locker at the gym…)

As teachers, as parents, as people in a civilized place—skip the intentional shaming. We’ll all be better for it.


Posted in ebb & flow, education, parenting


A year ago, I was just beginning my extended school year as the result of a six-day teacher walkout in Arizona.

Those days (the walkout; not so much the make-up days) were overflowing with so much emotion. Anger. Sadness. Worry. Emotions I can’t name. For example, being one of tens of thousands of people marching through Phoenix, nearly all in red T-shirts, in plenty hot weather. (Last May was not as kind as this May was.) I can’t name that emotion, but it was powerful.

I want to share with you two pieces I wrote during the walkout.

Of course, I am a teacher, so I have that angle.

I’m also a mom, and I want The Kid to have good public schools to attend.

I also live in a society where it benefits the majority of us for the majority of us to be educated. Not all college-educated, but all with basic reading, math, and critical thinking skills.

It’s easier for people in power to control an uneducated populace.

On a more local level, we want businesses to make their homes here, because it benefits us economically. But they’re not going to do that if we can’t provide a good work force…

So. Support your local public schools. Not happy with how they’re being run? Go to board meetings. Find out where you can get information. Read. Talk. Learn. Speak up. Vote.

Throwing money blindly at a problem doesn’t solve it, but neither does taking money away.

With that, here were my thoughts prior to leaving the house on the first and fourth days of the walkout. The first day included a march. (From Chase Field to the Capitol, if you’re familiar with Phoenix.) I have not edited them.

But I did make note in the second one about the band. We got the instrumentalists together. We got music to play—either music in the public domain or music that had the copyright donated—and we played and played and played. We contributed to the atmosphere. Helped keep energy up. Were wildly popular.

It’s not often that the band kids are the popular kids.


I’ve read some beautiful narrations about all that’s going down today, many of them by people who don’t share much of their interior life on Facebook.

On the other hand, I, who am usually overflowing with narrations, don’t have any coherent paragraphs about all this.

I have stood in a pack of tens of thousands of people, full of nervous energy.

But today, we are not running a 10k.

Today, we are finding the energy, after a 10-year marathon, to stand up and say ENOUGH.

You can call us names. You can make up your own truths. You can pretend that public education doesn’t matter. We are not delicate flowers who wilt under nastiness.

People, we teach junior high.

I will never understand how people demonize teachers, and then send their kids to be in our care all day every day.

How people complain about having their kids home over breaks but have no empathy for those of us who have dozens of them at once.

Today, together with tens of thousands of my colleagues, in Phoenix spring weather (read: 100 degrees), I will walk. I will chant. I will sing. I will play. I will talk. I will stand as tall as my little body stands.

There is a small handful of things that I have this conviction about. Creating and maintaining a flourishing public school system is one of them.

See you in Phoenix.

(And it turns out, I did have a few words.)


I have so many thoughts. They don’t all flow. Hang on for the ride…

I’m getting ready for my 4th day at the Arizona Capitol, protesting that our government isn’t properly funding education.

We’ve been writing, calling, voting (though not enough of us…) for a decade. There have been lawsuits that the government LOST and still, here we are.

And still here we are, demonized by so many for being selfish and greedy. People whose opinions we have to just let roll, because they don’t understand us at all, and they don’t want to.

People who don’t understand and will have a conversation? Will ask questions and listen to answers? THOSE are the people we need to talk to. Not the people who already agree. Not the people for whom we have never done any right. The people who are trying to learn. We are teachers.

In the classroom, we’re responsible for everyone’s learning. Right now, we’re not. Teach the teachable. Let the others go.

Years ago (2008? 2009?), I sat in a faculty meeting where my colleagues and I were asked to vote on whether everyone should take a 3% pay cut, or if instead they should cut band, art, and library. Not only were they asking about whether I and my fellow special area teachers should be employed, but they were asking if these subjects were more valuable to students than our salaries.

We (collectively) voted to take a pay cut. Greedy, selfish teachers.

The whole situation is surreal. Why is education political? How is it that we’re so divided on creating an educated population? (I know a lot of the why behind that. It’s just so … crazy that we’ve gotten to this point. That money and greed—real greed, not “greedy teacher” greed—has brought us here.)

And then…AND THEN… to say that the only way we can fund education is to cut funding to other programs … to pit the “have less”es against each other. As if there’s NO POSSIBLE OTHER WAY. (And we’re not the have-nots, because ultimately, this all still falls under “first world problems” … but if we let it continue unchecked, that’s not going to stay the case…)

I walk around at the Capitol. I talk to people. I play with the band. And I think … I’m supposed to be teaching right now. Yet here I am, because the people in charge of taking care of us are not doing their job. They’re actively hurting us.

Playing with the band …

There are a lot of posts going around by non-music people about how amazing the band is, how much energy we bring to the event and to the people in it.

This is (part of) why we have music education. Not because music makes you smarter. Not to raise test scores. Not as a feather in one’s cap for college applications.

Music for music’s sake.

With that, the Camelbak is full, snacks are packed, the red shirt is on, and I’m headed back to Phoenix. Hope to see you there.