Life Learnings: 2009

This year has been a particularly tumultuous one for me. I've gone through a lot of change and a lot of stress. As a result, I've learned a few lessons that I think I'll be holding on to for a little while.

Ironically, I've found that many of these life lessons are things I've "known" for years. I've heard more experienced people say them over and over again, and it's not that I thought they were lying, but I hadn't yet had the experience myself, so I wasn't able to internalize their true value. Now that I know what they mean, they're much more meaningful, and hopefully I'll be able to act upon them.

Anyway, I thought I'd share the biggest ones as a way of recording my development. It'll be interesting to look back at this in a year or two and see what I was thinking at the end of 2009.

In doing so, I'm going to veer a little from my attempt to keep this blog solely about education for this one post, and briefly allow it to discuss my personal life, but only vaguely.

None of these things are novel, or in any way particular to my life. I'm sure people have been learning these very same lessons for thousands of years. All I'm really doing here is documenting the age at which I happened to stumble upon them.

So, without further ado, here are the Reflective Educator's Life Learnings of 2009:

1) Change is the only thing that is constant, and that's a good thing.

Experiencing loss as a result of change, although often intensely painful, provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the things that really matter in life. I really came to terms with this when I moved to DC. I moved out of an environment that I really loved. I'd built a lot of great relationships, really enjoyed the surroundings, and loved my job. When I left, I was really sad, but I was also really alive. It made me see how important every little aspect of my life was, and how much I valued those things. If I hadn't left, I would never have had to deal with that reality. I would have continued taking a lot of things for granted, and would not have come to appreciate the little things that made life worth living. In a very tough way, this was an invigorating experience.

2) Sometimes, love is simply not enough.

I used to think love, if strong/real enough, could conquer all. I now know that for a lot of people, in a lot of different contexts, this is simply not true.

3) More good teachers are driven out of the profession by incompetent administrators than by anything else.

Now - I can't say that I have any numbers to verify this, and if you did studies, you may find out that this statement may not be entirely accurate, but I have a ton of anecdotal evidence from former teachers, current teachers, and a few other sources that suggests that a lack of good leadership is what hurts the teaching profession more than anything.

I used to believe that when most people complained about their bosses it was because they probably didn't like to work very hard and that's what their bosses were expecting. I believed there were probably a few bad apples amongst bosses, but for the most part, it was probably the complainers' shortcomings that were bothering them.

I now believe that a large percentage of people in managerial positions, ESPECIALLY IN EDUCATION, truly do deserve to be complained about. Far too many of them jumped into those positions because they were seeking prestige, more money, and power rather than for a sincere desire to help their employees do better work. We have a serious and alarming lack of quality people in leadership positions. I understand now, more than ever, why so many universities around the country are increasingly devoting capital to leadership studies.

4) EVERYTHING is political.

I began to see this back in April and May when I watched the entire HBO series, The Wire, in something like two weeks. I learned more from that television series than I ever did in my entire political science minor in college. If you haven't seen it, YOU MUST WATCH IT. I took that knowledge to DCPS, and realized how amazingly accurate it is. The real world of power relationships is all about playing games and using tact intelligently. You must be sly; you must be two steps ahead of your opponents; and you must not give up.

Now I need to learn to use this knowledge as ethically as I possibly can to effect change to the greatest degree possible.

5) It's the abuse of power, political posturing, and the incompetence of adults in DCPS that make it a broken system far more than any of the disadvantaged children/families it serves.

I don't think I really need to clarify this one. Just watch the news.

6) Honesty is NOT always the best policy.

This kind of goes with statement four. Honesty is a tool that must be used skillfully. There are times when it should not be used it all, and there are times when one must be totally honest.

Prior to this year, I held on to this boy-scout belief that honesty was ALWAYS the best policy. I saw it as a mark of integrity: the only character trait that I think really means anything in this life. And to some degree, I still hope that maybe I'm wrong and that honesty is always best. But through conversations with close friends, colleagues, and even students, I've changed my mind. I must stop being so honest. It can often be destructive if it's applied inappropriately.

7) The establishment of deliberate and intelligent routines/habits allows you to be a more highly functioning individual.

Prior to this year, I always associated the idea of routine with old/dull people, people who were so lame that doing the same thing over and over again made them content. I associated it with a lack of spontaneity and passion.

I've since learned that establishing smart routines can really allow us to accomplish a lot more than we otherwise might be able to. I've seen this in two aspects of my life: health and teaching.

It took me forever to figure out how to eat the right amount fiber, sugar, proteins, fats, vitamins, the right kinds of carbohydrates, AND on top of all that exercise in an efficient manner that both kept me healthy AND fit into my busy schedule. I learned that deliberately creating a number of habits and implementing them with baby steps is what allowed me to make drastic changes in my fitness level. The same goes for teaching.

Any teacher will tell you that the profession already requires too much work before you ever even add in the part where you actually stand in front of the classroom and facilitate a group of undisciplined teenagers. You have to figure out your systems for grading, planning, grading, discipline, grading, parent communication, grading, student feedback, grading, and the list goes on...... The only way that a person can come even remotely close to fulfilling all of the unrealistic expectations imposed on the classroom teacher is by developing a set of routines/habits that are practiced every day. This is especially true when you spend your day in a room full of what often seem like the thirty most unorganized people you'd ever met.

When your habits and routines happen without you even thinking about them, it allows you to focus your mental energy on other more complex tasks and still maintain a sense of order. You can accomplish more and be more proactive about other obstacles in life. This has been one of the most important things I've learned this year.

8) Life is worth living.

I've always believed this, I just thought it would be a nice way to end the list.

Happy new year!


  1. So true, especially the part about administrators. Most of my special ed administrators are former teachers, yet it's like the cross over to the darkside. I remember one telling me to do something that that was so crazy, I mean there was no way that I could work into my day what she was saying to do. So, I said, "I Can't do that" and she smiled and replied, "I didn't ask you if you could." But since she was central office, I figured I wouldn't see her again anyway, so I just didn't do it, and all was fine.

  2. Horribly out of control students who don't behave, who make teaching and learning impossible and administrators who don't back teachers force many of us out of the profession. I have generally been blassed with decent, though mildly ineffective administrators who've left me alone.
    But have any of you noticed that a certain unnamed administrator has a lot in common with our chancellor? Both prefer brand new, college grads and TFA types, to be rotated out every year or two and replaced with new hires just like them, preferably from out of state who don't know much inside dirt. Both Rhee and this administrator have a fondness for the same staffing model: preference for non-ed school grads, no career or veteran teachers need apply, no one who may stay for more than three years.

  3. I taught mostly poor children for 42 years and felt blessed to have such a wonderful job. However, during most of those years, I was much appreciated by administrators, colleagues, parents, students and the greater community. Sadly the climate for teachers has changed radically because of the recession. Administrators and politicians realize that they can replace expensive veterans with less expensive neophytes, who can be pushed out in a few years, thereby making room for more cheap labor.

    By teaching in D.C. you are inadvertently contributing to a situation that will ultimately hurt children because once this recession is over, few highly qualified people will elect to teach there. My advice is to get out immediately. If you have private resources, ask for a medical leave, for which you probably qualify. If you are financially unable to do this, get applications out immediately so you'll have something better for next year. Only apply to districts that treat teachers well. Consider graduate school or college teaching.

    Good luck. As another poster said, make sure you put your own health and safety first. We all have a basic right to that.


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