My students knew I was depressed before my colleagues did

During our training, we were told that students are far more perceptive than we’d expect. Students can tell if you don’t care, students can tell if you’re fake, students can tell if you’re pretending to be someone you’re not. These are all true, but who knew they’d also sniff out my depression?

They didn’t exactly read it from my face, but there are plenty of other signs they could pick up.

I was in the hospital visiting a student who’s recovering from a traumatic injury (and overall near-death experience), when I decided to tell him about my history with depression. It thought it would be a good way to start a conversation about how we can commit to learn and grow from life’s tragedies.

But before I could elaborate, he cut me off: “Oh, I knew that. I saw that book you were reading.” He’s referring to The Catholic Guide to Depression (How many times have I referred to this book on my blog? You’d think I was getting paid to plug it…). I have a rather messy workspace in the classroom, and would leave my non-class-related things at random corners. Now I wonder how many students saw my little orange bottle of antidepressants.

On a separate occasion, I was letting my students know ahead of time that I wouldn’t be in school the following day. I didn’t expect anyone to bat an eyelid, but one of them began “badgering” me.

“Why?”
“I need to see my doctor tomorrow.”
“Oh, during the day? What’s wrong with you?”
“We can talk about this after class.”
“No, just whisper it to me.”

While his desk mate was paying no attention, I casually explained, “I will be seeing a therapist tomorrow. The first appointment has to be during the daytime. Don’t worry, I won’t have to miss school for this in the future.”

Of course, he wanted to know more, this time with a hushed voice and a look of concern in his eyes.

“Wait, so what’s wrong with you?”
“Just finish your work, and we can talk more after class, okay?”

The sweet boy just wouldn’t have it, so finally I whispered, probably against protocols of appropriacy, “I was diagnosed with depression. But don’t worry, it’s under control.” I did not expect him to whisper back, “Oh, I think I have that too.” But I’m thankful he did — otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to support him as comprehensively as I now can.

Sensing that there is much potential for this “secret” to be “used” for good in the classroom, I told another student. This particular student wasn’t struggling with anything particularly atypical of a high-schooler, but he struggled a lot with motivation. He found it hard to want to do anything that was difficult or unfamiliar, which you unfortunately encounter a lot in Math. I was getting a lot of “I don’t want to do this anymore” and “I’m calling my mom” from this boy.

One day, I sat him down and told him about how hard it was for me to go through college while depressed. I shared this not to guilt-trip or shame him, but to explain how things would have turned out much different had I lived according to the mantra of doing only things that are easy or comfortable. I also shared how my deepest regrets from my younger days are exactly that: forgoing many opportunities for growth simply because they weren’t within my comfort zone. “You know, that’s why I still can’t ride a bike today.” That drew a chuckle, but I knew I finally had him in a way that would last a longer than my previous ‘life lectures’. The message was clear: we won’t grow if we’re never uncomfortable.

I believe there is room for vulnerability (in appropriate doses and at appropriate times) in the classroom. It makes you more human, a concept many students find difficult to grasp.

And it helps establish genuine relationships. Some believe it’s better to keep things “professional”, but I doubt that’s universally applicable. These relationships, in turn, will help you teach. Not just classroom material, but lessons in life and virtue.

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A candid shot taken by my colleague

Related post: My students are helping me recover from depression, “It all started with tea.”

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The reason I loved English class is the reason my students hate it

I hope it doesn’t look like I’m on a teacher-bashing spree, because I have huge respect for teachers (who respect their students and their profession). But being “fresh” in the public education sector, I’ve been reflecting on my on-the-field observations and my own 12 years as a public-schooled, standardized-tested student. What’s on my mind today is how students learn their primary language, English.

My rather “extreme” personal experiences might be more indicative of the education system in Singapore, but I see clear parallels here in Chicago.

I loved English. Or more accurately, I loved English as a tested subject. Because I was great at it. Fresh off the proverbial boat in Singapore (the year was 1998), I was blessed to be able to pick up the English language quite naturally. Before I knew it, I was getting nothing less than an A and bagging the top prize for English each year. Thus began by tempestuous love affair with the language.

I graduated from a now-defunct primary (elementary school), and moved on to a reasonably reputable secondary school (grades 7-10). This school was reputable because it consistently produced high scorers in the O Levels, the national examination that served to rank all 10th-graders in the country to determine which junior colleges (grades 11-12) are within their reach. As you can imagine, what made a secondary school elite was its ability to prepare students to outsmart the system.

The concept of “good words” was again and again drilled in us. What made a word “good”? This nebulous concept was never explicitly defined, but what I understood was that these were the big and/or unusual words that would earn us little check marks in our essays. And the more check marks there are on our manuscripts, the more impressed the grader will be, and the more likely they are to bestow a high grade.

Writing became, to me, an exercise in showing off my vocabulary. Preparing for the English essay exam meant poring over the thesaurus. Don’t write “beautiful butterflies” if you can say “beauteous butterflies”, or “blue skies” when there’s the superior “azure blue”! No one told me that, and I don’t think anyone meant to. I internalized it myself.

Don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against big words. As we get older, we experience more and feel more, and we’d need words with more nuance and precision to articulate thoughts with greater accuracy. But at the middle school age, did I really need to be saying “I was surrounded by gargantuan trees” and “the math problem obfuscated me”? And what good comes out of “my mother harangued me with a barrage of errands” apart from chuckles for the grader?

You'd think this was a parody flashcard.
You’d think this was a parody flashcard…

I wrote like that, blogged like that, and was proud of it. My peers would validate my false grasp of the English language by telling me how “good” my English was. Once, a classmate introduced me to his father this way: “Pa, this is Karen. Her English is very good.” That’s how common and widespread this (mis)understanding of language was.

In 10th grade, I was once ill-prepared for a big, end-of-year essay-writing exam. So I had “no choice” but to write a “simple” and “plain” essay about why homemade gifts will always be superior to store-bought gifts. My grader thought it was “lovely”, and made copies for the entire class. I was honest-to-God mortified. I didn’t want that essay to be read by everyone! There weren’t enough “good words” in there! Not an accurate representation of my language ability! I was forced to believe that this particular grader had unusually and patronizingly low standards for writing.

A few years later, I left Singapore to go to college at The University of Chicago. At some point, I found myself in a Creative Writing class with a bunch of snobbish/well-meaning (I can’t decide) English majors. One of the critiques was particularly brutal. “It’s clear that you’ve read a lot,” she wrote, “but it’s also clear that English is not your first language.” Ouch. For so many years I was confident that apart from my accent, I exhibited no other tell-tale sign of English being a second language. Thus began the deconstruction of everything I thought I knew about having a good grasp of a language.

What I learned a little late (but better late than never): a language is a tool of communication, it’s not a subject matter in and of itself (unless we’re talking about linguistics). It’s not about the “quality” of the words you use (as if there were even any objective measure of the relative superiority of words…), but the quality of your message. It is our thoughts and our ideas that are valuable, not the words we use. The words we use, therefore, should convey our message, not obscure it. 

I currently teach Math. But I don’t have a single student who likes their English class, and it makes me wonder why. I loved it because I happened to be an obnoxious little linguaphile. The way English classes are (often) run would surely turn off any kid who isn’t one.

If I were to venture into teaching English in the future, I’d be sure to tell my students every day that the true value of writing lies in their ideas. And their ideas are so valuable that the words they pick to communicate them have no business stealing the spotlight. And maybe, just maybe, if they also come to see how valuable their ideas and opinions are, they’d be willing to put in some effort to pick up the vocabulary and grammar skills that would help them better convey them.

Does any of this resonate with your own experiences? Do you have other comments or thoughts on how the English language should be thought? I would love to hear from your experiences!

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Please don’t be a teacher if you’re not going to love your job

At the beginning of the academic year, I noticed a few high school freshmen  getting confused between simplifying algebraic expressions and solving algebraic equations. It took just 15 minutes to get to the root of the problem: they don’t understand the concept of the equal sign. You know, our ubiquitous and seemingly benign friend: “=”. And then I saw the same problem in some sophomores, and then even a junior.

My first instinct was to wonder if they had a learning disability of some sort that’s hindered them from grasping basic mathematical concepts all these years. But then I see that they read just fine, write just fine, count just fine…so what’s the problem here?

Well, I’m inclined to think that if a teenager enters high school not understanding the equal sign, some certified “teachers” out there have been doing them a big — no — monumental disservice (and continuing to do so for many other kids).

They say it takes a village to raise a child. If parents/guardians are the village chief, teachers rank a close second on the hierarchy of influence, considering how much time kids spend in school. The average American child spends 1,260 hours in school per year (let that sink in…). Teachers simply cannot afford to not care about their job.

Well, maybe they can afford to. But kids can’t afford to have their teachers conducting half-assed lessons. Parents can’t afford to have their kids be exposed to an awful role model every day. And our society can’t afford the results of classrooms operating like this:

A 1910 prediction of what 21st century classrooms would look like. We don't have that technology, but this depiction isn't too far from the truth...
A 1910 prediction of what 21st century classrooms would look like. We don’t have that technology, but this isn’t too far from reality. This is lazy, homogenized education.

As a teacher, you cannot afford to not like your job. There are plenty of other jobs where you can excel without being particularly fond of your duties. That’s because Excel sheets/Powerpoint slides aren’t going to be ruined because you whipped them up in an hour when you were supposed to do it in three. You can always print a new set if you spilled coffee all over whatever it is people carry in those leather-bound folders, and your clients will never have to know it happened. But children and teenagers are human beings, for goodness’ sake. You leave permanent imprints in their minds, their characters, their ideals, values, aspirations, their whole lives.

For every dedicated and engaged teacher out there, there are going to be a few who are “bad” just because they’re not particularly gifted at teaching, or because they are overburdened by a bureaucratic and unsupportive system. That’s unfortunate, and should definitely be fixed, but the scarier question is this: for every teacher who does a good and thorough job, how many are lazy, entitled, and uncaring? I don’t think there are official statistics for this, and I’d be too afraid to find out the answer anyway.

I had a 7th grade History teacher who napped at her desk while we copied notes off the screen. 13-year-old me decided I hated history and never took another history class. Then there was an 11th-grade Economics teacher who would roll her eyes at our questions, which made me determined never to ask another question in class. But I was lucky that the number of good teachers I had outweighed the number of bad ones, so I turned out quite okay overall.

I hope all teachers love their job. What does loving your job mean in the context of teaching? I don’t mean you have to feel like sunshine and rainbows all the time, because it’s obviously hard work with many ups and downs. I don’t (yet) have much experience in the education sector, but I believe loving your job quite simply comes down to:

1. Recognizing the responsibility and privilege you have to be able to do life with your students.

2. Recognizing the value of every young person your serve on a daily basis.

And of course, acting upon those recognitions.

If I can have my way and if future circumstances allow it, I’m homeschooling my kids. And if I can’t I pray and hope they never end up with teachers who let them get away with not understanding the equal sign.

Let’s support the Mott family

Omari Mott Get Well Fund

Imagine my shock when one of my students told me that his table partner had been shot in the face. “I’m not lying, everyone’s talking about it,” he insisted. I had to wait till the end of the last period to give said student’s mom a call. “Mrs. Mott, I heard from a few students that something happened to Omari over the weekend, so I just wanted to check in to find out if everything is okay,” I said with as much nonchalance as I was able to feign. If it was all a false rumor, I didn’t want to offend her unnecessarily. If it was true, I imagined the worst had happened and I didn’t want to say anything that might aggravate matters.

It turned out to be true. But truly by the grace of God, the bullet had missed all vital organs, and was lodged mere centimeters from his spine. Omari was going to need some facial reconstruction because his jaw had been shattered, but he isn’t paralyzed, and suffered neither brain damage nor loss of vision. Most importantly, he’s alive.

The surgery was successful, and Omari’s going to look good as new in approximately 6 weeks, but the road to recovery is going to be very challenging. For 6 weeks, he will have his jaws wired shut and screwed together, which means no talking and no food or drinks. It also means being fed intravenously, and having a tracheostomy tube inserted into his windpipe to facilitate breathing.

IMG_0190 It’s been heartbreaking to see my most amiable, free-spirited, curious, and creative student in such a state. Imagine what it must be like for his parents. I once showed up after work at 4 PM, and his mom hadn’t eaten anything all day. Amidst all the physical and emotional exhaustion, their love for their son has been most evident. Over the last two weeks, Shelby and Zimberland have been by his side almost 24/7, which is important because Omari wouldn’t be able to call for help should something happen while he was unattended, and have not been able to work since the shooting happened.

In another wonderful bundle of answered prayers, Omari is now eligible to be transferred to a transitional care facility (that typically only admits those aged 18 and above) with 24/7 care, and even an extra bed that would allow his parents to get better rest. The change in environment is going to be welcome change for his emotional and psychological well-being. And there, Shelby and Zimberland would also receive proper instruction on how to attend for Omari when he’s eventually discharged to recover at home.

Brothers and sisters, I ask that you join me in praying for the beautiful Mott family, as well as assisting them financially during this difficult time. You can contribute any amount securely through the Omari Mott Get Well Fund set up by his father. Our contributions will help to subsidize the costs of transitional care and rehabilitation. There, you’ll also find a personal message from Shelby and and Zimberland Mott, two incredible, tireless, and selfless parents.

It’s already a tremendous blessing to be able to teach a wonderful young man like Omari; to see him fighting strong and remaining in good spirits (smiling and giving thumbs-ups) has been truly inspiring. And through this ordeal, God has also granted me the honor of getting to know his amazing parents, who truly embody Christ’s self-giving love.

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Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

Related posts: “It all started with tea.”, My students are helping me recover from depression

My students are helping me recover from depression

This isn’t something I’ve mentioned on this blog, but I’ve been teaching at a disadvantaged high school on the South Side of Chicago for the last 2 months. It is a job I have fallen in love with. I have also fallen in love with the kids that scared me on my first day at work.

Back in Singapore, I went to schools where the authority of teachers was largely unquestioned, and where the worst that happened to students was failing a class. Going into this job, I knew this would be a whole other world, but it still shocked when I met students who refused to talk to me, who threatened to punch or choke their teachers, as well as those who shared about familial, social, emotional, and psychological problems so deep they left me feeling helpless.

Not to mention I was severely depressed at the time. With a hopelessly pessimistic worldview and a non-existent self-esteem, how was I to navigate these classrooms and hallways? Even my doctor was worried — she recommended that I looked for a different job with a “happy and positive” environment. I did not heed her advice. And by the grace of God, this job that scared me shitless ended up playing a huge role in buoying me toward recovery.

Depression, by its very nature, sucks the sufferer into a kind of chronic and delusional self-absorption. My work forced me to not think of myself, instead focusing on the teenagers that came through the classroom doors each period, and that gradually pushed me out of the cocoon I had spun around myself. In retrospect, all this makes sense in light of the fact that we were created by God to be other-centered, not self-centered. And indeed I have experienced much healing through being pouring myself out for others. “Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure– pressed down, shaken together, and running over. ” (Luke 6:38)

I don’t know if my students will ever find this. Maybe I’ll tell them about this blog somewhere down the line. In any case, they’ve been helping me far more than they realize, and the following words are begging to be written.

D.L., you are no longer my student, but you were the first one to get me excited about my job. Your willingness to learn drew me out of my shell. Your enthusiasm and excitability encouraged me to get creative in my teaching methods and re-activated a part of my brain I had long left unused.

C.S., you are one of the most genuine and sincere young men I know. Your sanguine spirit and goofiness inspire me to learn to laugh at myself and my predicaments.

L.L., I wish you would believe me when I tell you that you brighten up my day each time you walk through those doors. And I’m most definitely not coddling you when I tell you that you are incredibly bright and gifted, and that an IEP doesn’t mean otherwise. You ask questions that no other student asks me, notice things nobody else does. With you I have had the deepest and most profound conversations one could ever have with a fifteen-year-old boy. You show me every day that teaching is so much more than imparting academic knowledge.

R.H., I hope you will forgive me for the times I have lost my patience with you. You remain wonderfully compassionate and gentle toward others in spite of the setbacks and grievances you have experienced. You inspire me to continue to grow in humility and generosity.

M.M., I already told you that I see so much of myself in you. Thank you for taking my long lectures on life seriously. You show me that my failures and regrets can be used for the benefit of others. Your growing willingness to receive constructive criticism, and the way you struggle to fight old habits, inspire me to fight my inner demons.

J.F., teaching you brings me great joy. You’re that one kid no teacher could possibly get mad at — you’re polite, respectful, teachable, and yet you have no idea you are all of those things.

O.M., your curiosity and “strange” questions keep me learning and growing alongside you. And I look at you on that hospital bed and I see a living testimony of God’s divine love and protection. Fight on, soldier. I’m fighting right next to you.

I am crying as I type this because I love you all so much and I am praying that you will all be able to look beyond your immediate circumstances and see how precious and important you are — to me and especially to the God who created you and continues to mold you.

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