Wednesday, February 20, 2013

From zero to hero

After the ultra lows of this past weekend, today I had a fabulous little "pick me up". I needed the encouragement so badly, and God knew that.

Today I received an email from an ex-pupil. I've removed the personal info, but essentially, this is what the email said:

I finally realized why everybody has made such a big deal about how different varsity is compared to school. They are two worlds apart! I thought matric was tough, until the real world gave me a wake up call.

Anyway, I'm sending you this email in order to personally thank you for the way you have taught me in my senior years, especially last year. 

Last year, I struggled to understand why you flew through work, why you didn't check homework, but trusted that we did it. I struggled to understand why you'd force us to do extra reading around the subject and why you put the onus on us to take down effective notes everyday in class. But most of all, I struggled to understand why you told us to give "100%" in every class. Even though I struggled to understand your teaching methods, I adapted accordingly in order to keep up. It has been the best decision I have made.

I realized recently that your teaching methods had prepared me for the real world. It has taught me self discipline, perseverance and resilience. It had taught me to work effectively on a daily basis in order to stay on track and cope with the work load and demands of varsity. The way you did things last year has taught me that lecturers really don't care about you, and that the onus is all on you!

So, thank you for doing what you did. I appreciate every little thing - besides subject related work- that you've taught me with your teaching methods. The values and skills it instilled in me has made varsity manageable and I am far more effective than I could imagine.

Not much tops that! Wow! There is something incredible about knowing I've made a difference to this life. It makes it all worth while - all the stress, and heart ache, blood, sweat and tears. Teaching is a vocation, not a job. I don't get paid enough for what I do, but the knowledge that I'm helping to build the future of this country, that I'm changing lives... that is some compensation. (I'd still love the cash ;) but this is good too!)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Days of yore

Yesterday I relived a favourite childhood activity. I dug in the beach for white mussels. For years, I've been unable to find them, but today we found 4 little ones. I'm hopeful that this signals a return in biodiversity to the beaches.

(I see that chameleons are returning to the city's gardens after years of absence, and flamingos have returned to the Black River. All round it seems that biodiversity is on the increase again. Yay!)

It makes me hanker for my childhood and things like sailing at Hout Bay or Fish Hoek every weekend.

Yet, those times are tinged in grief for me, because the best times of my childhood were also the worst, as my parents were fighting and eventually divorced.

The effects of a divorce are long lasting, particularly for the children involved. I genuinely don't think anyone understand unless they've been through it themselves. This morning, 27 years after my folks split up, the grief was raw again. It will never be over for me. The grief of having my parents stop loving each other, of having to share them with their new partners, and those partners' children, will always be there. 

This chasm, this heart break, can be papered over most of the time, but that's all it ever is - a pretense that I don't mind, that I am okay with it. 27 years later, and I'm still not okay with it. 27 years later, as a grown woman with children of my own, I still hate it.

But with the realisation that my family life will never be what I long for, I found myself realising that my family now is my husband and my kids. My extended family is my church community and friends, and Graeme's family. I'd love to say I no longer care about what my step-parents do or don't think/ feel/ say, but I do care. Deeply. 

I care because their decisions affect my parents, and that affects me. Their decisions put my parents in some very awkward situations, which I don't think is fair on them. I can see their pain at having to choose, sometimes, between me & my kids, and their partner.

But then, as I told my own daughter this evening: Life is not fair. The sooner she accepts that, the easier her life will be.

Family and relationships are so complex. Things are never as cut and dried as we'd like them to be. So now I am faced with a decision to make, in which I must weigh up a multitude of effects, and try to determine which set of effects will be the least damaging to my own heart, to my kids' hearts, to my parents' hearts, and find the decision and action that will create it. 

And of course, try not to let my emotions get the better of me while I'm trying to make that decision.

Things really were so much simpler when I was little! Right was right, and wrong was wrong, and things were always black and white, not shades of grey. But would I really want to go back to that time? I don't know. I didn't have an easy childhood, but before my folks got divorced, at least I didn't have that complication to deal with. At least that portion of my life was simpler to deal with.

And right now, I long for that simplicity again.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

If you get there before I do...

And this is why, even though I live 6000 miles away, I still listen to BBC Radio 2! Only on a station like this, that has been around for generations, would you get a story like this. Awesome! Thank God for the internet and the ability to still listen in to my favourite radio station.

So - to the point of this post - a woman calls in and tells a story about how when she was much younger she heard this song on the radio, and how it's influenced her life. The song is played, and I am in tears.

I won't spoil it for you, but let me give you a brief outline. It's the MOST beautiful love story. Beautiful. "Love, me" is a song about a conversation between a grandfather and his grandson describing the lifelong love between the grandparents, which overcame some pretty huge obstacles. For me, it is a complete contrast to many of the marriage relationships today - one that not only survives 50 odd years, but that is stronger at the end than at the beginning. Real love. And deep respect on both sides.

(Again, that is in complete contrast to the situation facing SA today with it's high rape count. Rape is not only about lack of respect for self, or for women, but is the complete antithesis of real love.)

So I share it with you, in the hopes that it will not only brighten your day, but give you hope for your own relationships - whether with your spouse (life partner), or with your family, or your friends.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Is violence natural?

What is natural? Death is natural. Killing for food is natural, right? What about the violence involved in that kill? Of course it is! If violence is natural, though, then why are we so shocked about the the rape, violence, and subsequent death, perpetrated against Anene Booysen? (Read to the end before you judge me!)

As a biology teacher, I'm often faced with having to explain to my kids how nature works - the natural order of things. I have to describe or explain the 'nature red in tooth and claw' idea. This inevitably leads to a discussion about ethics - e.g. Is it okay to hunt?

I have to accept that predators exist, and kill prey, and that a particular species only ever sees another species as food. That's just the way things are on earth, and have been since Adam and Eve were kicked out of Eden.

The Bible speaks about the lion and the lamb lying down together though. Some will argue that it's an analogy, a picture to show that in God's kingdom even enemies, even species that war with each other, can find peace. It's a promise that one day, when Jesus returns, we will enter a time of peace, when there will be no more war, no violence, no death, no suffering, no tears. But that's not natural. Natural means what we do instinctively, without thinking. And that kind of peace isn't natural. Right?

Although this video is old (from 2008), it shows a remarkable series of relationships, between unlikely animals. It's not unique, by any stretch of the imagination. Do a quick search online and you will quickly discover hundreds of videos, photographs, and stories, of unlikely friendships where species that would normally NEVER be found together, love, care and support for each other - going entirely against what is their "natural" instinct.

So maybe God was serious when he said that the lion and the lamb would lie down together - maybe they really will. Maybe it's not just allegorical.

When a leopard hunts, it only does so for food, not for sport, or trophies, or even to stockpile for the winter. While I still find it horrendous to watch, I can rationalise it to myself. When human beings turn on each other like this though ... violence for the sake of violence... I don't understand that and I can't rationalise it.

Yet, if violence is 'natural', then why are we so upset? I think the obvious answer is that violence is NOT natural. Violence, even between a predator and prey, is not natural. Animals killing each other is NOT what God intended, and I have come to believe that that is yet one more effect of the Fall, one more sinister and all-pervading effect of sin. If it were, then we would be able to watch animals killing each other without even the slightest twinge of a reaction (even in our inner most private thoughts where our rationalisations can't reach).

I long for the peace of two enemies coming together in love and mutual companionship, when all animals will live side by side in peace. I long for the day when the peace that existed in Eden returns to this world. I long for the day when we will truly love and care for others (and not just ourselves or our immediate family and friends).

Violence may be part of our nature NOW, but I don't believe that violence is natural. If it were, then we wouldn't be so outraged, nor would we feel so sickened, by the events this week. No, violence is not natural, which is why we have to fight it everywhere that we encounter it - starting with ourselves, and our children.

Teaching our kids that being angry is acceptable, but losing our temper is not, is, I believe, an important first step. We have to teach our kids (and remind ourselves) how to deal with anger and disappointment without resorting to violence - whether verbal or physical. We have to teach them how to respond to pain, without striking back.

Why? Because if violence were natural, then it wouldn't matter who I hit, or swore at, or how much I hurt others. But violence is not natural.

So I'm pleased that the nation is outraged by Anene's brutalisation and her death. I'm pleased that the nation has remembered its heart, and its spirit. I pray to God that her rapists do too, that they find redemption somehow, and somewhere, through this.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Not this year, she ain't!

I used to think I was a disciplinarian, that I had such great discipline in my class. And I do. I mean, my classes work, and pay attention, on the whole. I've realised though, that I'm not actually all that strict. I achieve what I do by making my lessons interesting, but I don't actually set the highest standards for my classes in terms of what I want them to achieve. Oh, I talk a good talk, but I've realised that anyone who watches me teach any class other than a top set will quickly realise that my expectations of mixed ability and bottom set groups is low, and that becomes a self-fulling prophecy.

As with most teachers, I guess, I focussed on certain things, and left other things undone, unnoticed, or deliberately ignored. (Others, like chewing gum, I spot a mile away. Don't bother coming near me with gum in your mouth - I will see it, and you will be punished.) Because of the nature of teenagers, this ultimately led to difficulties later in the year, as the kids pushed boundaries to find out how elastic they were, and I got increasingly tired of battling the same fires.

While I recognise what is possible for me given my personality type, level of involvement at school and at home, something had to change. Why? Because I have a class of kids who have been specially placed in my class purely on the basis that they are underperforming. This year, I have taken upon myself, as subject head, the responsibility for sorting these kids out. Huge task. (I speak as someone who was an underperformer at school, and thus as one who has been at the receiving end of many programmes to attempt to make me perform.) Maybe impossible. Yet, I have to try. Thus, in this one class I have made an agreement with myself that I will sweat the small stuff. The talk I talk must match the walk I walk. They must achieve 50% or more, because I say so, because they are capable of it, because it's good for them. To do so though, means that I have to sweat the small stuff with this group. I simply have to set the standard and refuse to deviate.

Some in this class have been taught by me before. They were expecting me to be the same as last year. They were under the misapprehension that I would be laid back, and not really care about the small stuff. And they were WRONG.

I have been keeping tight records on the small stuff - textbooks not covered, books not brought to class, stationery missing, homework not done, late to class, assignments not handed in on time - and I have been emailing home. With this class, I am prepared to take the 2 mins out of the lesson to stop the class and email the offending child's parents. Right there. In front of the class. And I have been following up. I have already issued 2 DTs, and I don't usually give DT's. (The debate about the worth of DT is something to be had at another time. Suffice to say that for me, in this moment, with this class, DT works.)

The result? My students from last year commented today that "You mean business this year" (or words to that effect). You bet your bottom Rand I do. This year, if you fail, it will not be because I did not do my utmost to help you. It will be because you failed to meet the minimum expectations and because your parents failed to help you meet those expectations. It will be because you lied to yourself, to me, to your parents.

In this class, you will arrive on time, bring your books to class, do your homework, bring your stationery, listen attentively, ask questions, engage with the work, hand in assignments on time, and generally get off your lazy backside. I am no longer accepting your half-hearted efforts as meeting the minimum standard. You will bring your best effort to my class, because you deserve it and I deserve it. That's "all" there is to it.

(Of course, I'm simply going to avoid asking the all-important question of whether I can go against the grain of my own habitual teaching practices and sustain this for the full academic year... It's one class. I can do this. Right?)

Sunday, February 03, 2013

What's it feel like to be a hamster?

Two weeks into school, and already it feels like I'm a hamster on a wheel, running and running and running, but getting nowhere. This is NOT the way life is meant to be. I've already got sick - a cold and laryngitis. Looking ahead, life continues to be busy right through to June. Something has to change. I can't have another year like last year.

If you've read my previous posts, you'll be aware that I have two new year's resolutions - firstly, to get 7 hours of sleep a night, and secondly, to lose weight (both to avoid developing diabetes and to just feel better about myself) by changing my diet and exercising more.

To be honest, my determination to stick to them is being tested to the limit. I have so much work to do that it's tempting to give up on exercise and stay up late to have enough time to finish everything. As my stress levels rise, my desire to comfort eat and to eat easy-to-cook meals (that contain wheat or sugar) rise too.

I'm proud of myself though - I've lost 3kgs already in about 3 weeks. Only 7 more to go to reach my goal. I know the closer to my goal I get, the more difficult it will be to lose them. I can't give up now. If there's nothing I can do about the busy-ness of my life, then I have to protect both my diet and my rest (exercise) time, or I will burn out.

I'm learning an important lesson here. While I'm exercising, I'm tempted to give up, or not to push too hard. Yet, I'm learning how to focus on small goals - the next tree, or light pole, or street corner, or bench - to keep running and not to give up just yet. I've learnt that I can run further than I thought I could, if I focus on small goals.

In this season of hamster living, I need to focus on the small things. To stick to my plan, I can't focus on the end goal. I need to focus on the next small step. What is that step? It's a day and a week at a time.

TONIGHT: I will get 7 hours sleep.
TOMORROW: I will eat heathily. I will try to walk my 10 000 steps, I will drink lots of water and I will NOT, I repeat: I will NOT feel guilty if the work cannot be completed in the hours that God has given for work to be done.