Thrilled that my top picks (or #2 pick, in one case) in the major categories for the Hugo were awarded top honors yesterday. Especially thrilled that good writing came out on top, from a variety of perspectives and backgrounds and cultures.
Please go check out the year’s winners if you need some new books in your life. In some cases, I found all the nominees in one category to be good reads – I noted that in my reviews:
As an exercise to wrap up the training this week, I’m supposed to draft my personal mission statement / elevator speech explanation of why I mentor at WGU.
I’m an educator. It’s what I do. It’s what I am.
When I was a kid, I used to pretend sometimes that I was a teacher, and play-act teaching in front of a classroom. This happened alongside pretending to be a lot of other things, like a doctor or a missionary, so I never put much stock in it. In fact, once I got it in my head that I was going to be a missionary, I pretty much stopped looking at any other options.
But now, looking back at myself, it’s no surprise that eventually the teaching profession came and found me. Literally, that’s exactly what happened. An acquaintance in our area called us up one day and asked us to come talk with him. He was working at a tiny, new little school in the area and they were looking to start a high school. They needed teachers who would commit to at least 4 years, to put a stop to faculty turnover. And they wanted teachers who had a broad liberal arts background and a knack for education. Dennis felt that we had both, so he asked us to apply for teaching jobs. And we did.
The decade I spent teaching was the single most life-altering experience I’ve had. It changed me more than my religious conversion, more than meeting my husband and getting married, more than traveling to Europe when I was 22, more than losing both my parents by the time I turned 25.
Everything about my world changed when I became a teacher. My M.Ed. program at Covenant drove that change even harder, challenging everything I thought I understood theologically and practically and professionally in the realm of education.
My students rocked my world. I learned to laugh, cry, suffer, rejoice, and fear with and for them. I grew up during that decade. I gained a ton of confidence in myself and in my students. I loved them fiercely and unashamedly. I’m still proud of that.
Leaving the classroom was hard, but it was also right. I had to grow. I had to go away to see more of the world because the classroom had become too small. So these past four years in communications and higher education were needed and valuable. I sharpened a whole set of skills that would otherwise still be dormant. I needed to rub shoulders with new people. It was uncomfortable and scary, but it was necessary or I would never believe myself when I say now, I know that my life’s work lies in education.
For me, teaching is relational. You cannot claim to have succeeded with a student if you merely dumped information into their brains. Any computer can do that with a mere Google search. I’ve never bought into the idea that lecturing or assigning papers equals giving students a “good education.” Education should radically alter the learner and the teacher. Both stand side-by-side in the learning space, struggling to make meaning of this broken world.
When I say teaching is relational, I mean that education happens in the context of interpersonal interactions, both with peers and with the teacher. While it’s theoretically possible for someone to be entirely self-taught, those individuals are extremely rare. Humans crave companionship and community. We work better as a team than as individuals. Lone wolves get eaten.
So why am I a student mentor at WGU when that position radically redefines the role of a faculty member (in ways that make many uncomfortable)?
Because the learners who have the deepest needs are the learners who most benefit from personal, caring education. They benefit the most from education that happens within a relationship.
Not all students should adopt online education as their model. It doesn’t work for everybody. I’m not sold on the idea that WGU is the right choice for an 18 year old with little life experience. By definition, competency-based education requires that the learner bring some competencies to the table. And few teens have lived broadly enough to learn from The School of Hard Knocks.
But many adults have. The ones who started college but had to drop out, the ones who never saw themselves as smart enough to make it through a degree, the ones for whom school was a prison because the lessons put before them had little connection to the lives they lived. For these students – often underserved and haunted by the spectres of broken dreams and failure – an education grounded in a relationship may be the only way they escape the poverty and limited opportunities delegated to those who do not walk through an employer’s door with a diploma in hand.
WGU wants to make a difference in the lives of those students, and in those for whom graduate credentials would otherwise be out of reach. This is a mission I can put my weight behind, and the fact that WGU’s model grounds students’ learning in a mentor relationship seals the deal.
Teaching is relational. And that is why I mentor students at WGU.
I hate goodbyes. It’s better to say “see you next time,” because that leaves all kinds of hope shimmering in the sunlight.
It’s hard to leave something, somewhere – wherever you’ve found yourself for the last while, working and building and arguing and creating. But to everything there is a season, says the Preacher. And this is one of those times.
So I packed up my things today, looked around one more time, gave some hugs. Walked out of my (former) office, bit back some tears, already missing the tall ceiling, not missing the steamy 80 degrees on the thermostat in the summer because our AC can’t keep up, missing the witty conversation I won’t be a part of tomorrow morning, not missing the mundane tasks of office life.
It’s hard to leave people. Really, that’s what always gets me. Places can be beautiful or fun or memorable or breathtaking or functional or inspiring and all that … but People. People are what make this world tick, yannow? And the four of us had some amazing moments.
Seriously. We were a comedy machine. Just turn the spigot a quarter turn — give us a funny word, an odd last name, an obscure movie reference, a quote from Monty Python, a raised eyebrow, a ridiculous request from some office across campus — and we were off to the Comedy Races.
There’s that time the guys quoted like whole sections of The Holy Grail, so much that we could theme our Student Appreciation Day around the crazy Brits. (See photo, above.)
There were the snatches of ideas for improv sketches that we knew we’d never actually do, but it was fun to imagine doing them…..
– “What if email spam filters became sentient, and actually explained why you were getting that email about penis enhancement but the expense reports from downstairs were always MIA?”
– “What is the waiting room like outside Hell? Are there snacks? A coffee machine? Decent chairs?”
– And does Heaven have an Orientation session where God or some angel answers all the questions they’ve collected for the past 10,000 years, so they don’t have to answer them individually? “For a presentation on the Noaic Flood, head to Room A at 3pm. For evil and war, a panel discussion will take place in Room B at 5pm. To locate the socks missing from your dryer, see the Steward on Aisle 10.”
– “What if we created a newsletter for campus but called it “Ill-Health Times?” (This was after the sudden rush of “good health” updates from HR on “Wellness Wednesdays.”)
– “Why isn’t there Yelp for drug dealers?” “Maybe there is but we don’t know anything about it.”
– “What about the Rituals Help Desk, where upset pagans call to complain that they’ve sacrificed the chicken and smeared the blood in a precise 8 foot circle, but no demon ever showed up?”
We kicked around endless ideas for mind games, cackling with glee when we were able to end a sentence perfectly as soon as the boss crossed the threshold and paused, wondering if we’d stopped talking on his account. (Honestly, Cliff, almost never. I promise.) And I had other great partners in crime: Tobe & I ran experiments to see how many “dapper” comments we could toss toward Cliff before he’d react visibly. She and her team had whole books of codewords they’d use in text or snapchat to refer to particular coworkers.
And sometimes I’d laugh so hard the whole hallway would hear me, because I do that occasionally, and it’s stupidly loud and probably annoying to half the planet. …But to the other half of the planet, since they all heard me too, I hope you smiled. Laughter is good for your spirit. You should have laugh-cries at least once a month week. Does wonders for your outlook.
It’s hard to leave a job you’ve worked at for, say, 4 years. I finally know what I’m doing. Heaven knows it took a solid year for me to even begin to feel like I had a handle on things. Impostor Syndrome – it’s a thing. Leaving the classroom for a new field made me very insecure. I didn’t know business culture, didn’t know the marketing lingo, didn’t know the work I was supposed to be doing. I watched, observed, studied every word and gesture so I could claw my way out of the feeling that I didn’t belong there. ….Those were unsettling times.
That, and fighting off waves of fear that I’d made a mistake by leaving teaching, the one job I felt called to do, even if it seemed like I had good reasons. And regret – because it’s a visceral gut-punch not to be with your students who have come to campus for a tour. I know that leaving my classroom in 2012 was the right move because I was bored. But I had to come to know that in my bones, in my head, in my gut, in my hands, in my heart.
This was good. Change was good. I needed to grow. I needed to realize that I should have been actually planning for a career this whole time, but who knew? Nearly every married woman in my address book has dropped out of work or left their original ambitions to be a mother. Few have gone back after their kids grew up. How was I to know in my 20s that I would not also trade work for parenting? (And in the world where I grew up, there is no higher sacrifice than that a woman lay down her life’s work for her children.) (Leaves the rest of us in a pickle, doesn’t it?)
So I’ve learned some things.
One, I’m a good designer and creative director, but I still talk too much in every meeting. (Working on it!) I leap too quickly to solutions and skip some of the discovery steps to good design thinking and problem solving… but I’m working on that too. It was great to have such creative thinkers working alongside me. Creativity cannot exist in a vacuum. It thrives within collaboration.
It’s at Erskine that I learned how much I love creative directing, even more than designing. It’s like getting to hold the wheel of a powerful machine, one that can produce amazing wonders like museum exhibits:
Two, teamwork is hard to achieve but still vitally important. Working in a silo is bad. Also, team “culture” is everything. As the dude said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” He’s right.
Three, if I can ever spend my days as the literary bartender/barista in the 21st century version of a Parisian intellectual salon, I will know that I’ve hit the career lottery. I want to talk to people about what they want to do, and then help them make their ideas better. That’s it, really.
Fourth, you need to go do the work that will bring you joy and deep satisfaction. But sometimes employment doesn’t fill that deep hole. Yet you can still find joy in the moment, in the people around you, in a sense of accomplishment. And when you cannot do that any longer, when you’ve explored to the very edges of the day’s work and there are no worlds left to conquer, it’s probably time to find a new challenge.
Fifth, seize every opportunity to get to know people, to find those kindred souls tucked in other parts of the organization, the people who understand that laughter is medicine and kindness is golden and friends are really hard to find once you’re an adult, and hold on to those people. Because they’re priceless. Go “do life” with them.
I’m going to miss many things about my work at this little college in Due West. It’s a special place that’s impossible to understand until you’ve walked a mile in its shoes. Wouldn’t trade the last four years for anything….
And that’s why I cried most of my drive home. S’Ok, though. Something new is coming.
Sometimes all the crappy stuff kind of hits at once. I’ve noticed this. Life has a rhythm; sometimes the drummer setting the beat is Sorrow or Calamity or Hardship.
My train of thinking today has been all over the place. It started actually with feeling all the things rather than thinking them. Sometimes I have to feel my way through from beginning to end, let my emotions catch up to my head. That’s always a weird out-of-body experience, as if my brain and my gut are about a quarter turn out of step. Like trying to watch a 3D movie but without the little glasses to bring everything into focus.
Two things happened yesterday that left me feeling the drumbeat of loss pretty hard.
The first was the passing of a friend, the mother of one of our former students. Her laughter was pure light; her smile could set planets afire. She was merry, tough, beautiful, hilarious, unashamed, unafraid, badass, witty, and loving. Their family hosted gatherings at their roomy log cabin house for groups of our students since we taught their son.
And cancer removed her light from this world yesterday. Fuck cancer. I knew it was coming, had heard that hospice was involved, know how this story always ends, but it still stings. And what I feel is nothing compared to the loss felt by her children, her husband, her siblings, her close friends.
Second, I’m struggling here not to accuse the Universe of just plain aggravation and cussedness. As a friend commented, “Sometimes you have to decide whether you’re going to cash in your ‘Calvinist chips'” – i.e., whether all that talk about trusting God to order the pathway of life is just talk when the pathway doesn’t seem very orderly.
I know in my head that sometimes the path is complicated. Or sometimes you have to fight for your calling, to take hold of opportunities, especially at work. But what I’m feeling today is the sense of disappointment that comes from proposing an idea (at work) and then losing the opportunity to implement it. I know it could work out anyway; what looks like The World’s Worst Timing may be a providential boon. But my mood is out of sorts. I wanted things done “my way” and instead I feel like a living, breathing example of Irony.
And I could add a third event – the recent pileup of people in our life who need help, real help, in ways we cannot provide. Homelessness. Lack of income. Underemployment. Poor or nonexistent health care. Little access to good jobs. No path out of poverty. They come to us because the other support networks are non-existent or have broken down. And there’s little support to be had. Either you’re born into a family that takes care of you when you’re down, or you end up living in your car and trying to subsist on french fries. And I’m supposed to do something about this?
This is why I’m writing – not so you can join me in feeling bad that the world sucks, but joining me in recognizing that it’s a lot easier to sit here and feel bad about the world feeling bad than to do anything meaningful about it.
Truth is, I like my life to be comfortable and neat. I want decisions to be clear, categories orderly, people neatly classified, questions answered. I don’t want someone calling me because they need to crash on my couch right when I’m going through a job transition.
I don’t want to face the fact that the choices I make with my salary, whether I buy myself a Starbucks or give that money to someone I actuallyknow who needs it more than I do, are moral choices. They reveal what I value more than the words I use to describe what I think I value.
What –and who– I love is revealed by what I do, and I didn’t want that lesson hammered into my skull today along with everything else I’m struggling to feel my way through.