A Strengths-Based Approach

In education, we often talk about the importance of a "strengths-based" rather than a "deficit-based" approached. I'm in the habit of seeing my coworkers, my school, my students for what they're good at rather than what they're lacking.

My next project is to apply the same approach to myself. I've realized that part of why I hate my own lessons so much is because I feel like I'm staring down the barrel of what I think my lessons "should be". I should do a better job of reaching out to my English language learners. I should do a better job of varying modalities... of incorporating structured collaborative work, of checking for understanding, of assessing, of giving feedback, of opening with better hooks, of relating back to the objective, of doing hands-on activities... and on and on and on.

I know so well what I should be doing and what I'm not doing. Yet for whatever reason, I'm pretty blind to what I am doing.

Time to have some confidence and allow myself to feel proud of myself for... hmm, let's see here...

1) being a returning teacher and capitalizing on relationships made with students from the previous year
2) establishing daily AND weekly AND bi-weekly routines in my classes
3) making connections with students' parents so as to bring everyone on board in getting these kids to graduate
4) feeling more confident about my grading system and makeup system; establishing what seems to be clear, fair systems
5) having authority over my classes
6) not stressing out on Sunday evenings anymore (well, not as often)
7) having a rigorous curriculum that students 'show up' for; they sweat it out, try the work, and ask for help; they reflect on it being a difficult course but assess that the content is within their reach with enough support and practice
8) I've established built-in systems for self-assessment and reflection so that students focus on improving their skills and their study habits

There, eight things that I can boast about myself. That's pretty darn good.

Last adult reflection, I opened up to my coworkers about some stirring feelings of negativity towards myself. It started out by my offering to the group a piece of advice that was shared with me once upon a time. I told my coworkers that one of the things (among all the wonderful, positive things about our school) that makes me stay at our school is knowing that "wherever you go, there you are." One of my former coworkers said that to me as I left my old school. I think she was prodding me to do some self-searching post-quitting that job. When I remember her sharing those words with me clearly, I recall how I was expressing to her my worry that everything I had built for myself was right there in Berkeley; I was worried that if I left my life in Berkeley, that I'd never be able to build such a community for myself elsewhere. She pointed out to me that all the relationships I'd made, all that I'd achieved in Berkeley, I created for myself--and that I definitely could do that all over again wherever I ended up next.

When I remember that moment less clearly, I interpret her advice differently. Instead, I think: "wherever you try to escape... sorry sucker, you're still stuck with yourself. If you're unhappy with your environment wherever you try to go, what's the common denominator..? You." 

After I brought that up (only the "wherever you go, there you are" piece), my coworker asked me, "April, wherever you go, what to you think you bring?"

Huh. I was stumped. I had never thought of that phrase in such a positive light. I guessed I must have some strengths... but I had no idea what those strengths are. I've never articulated that to myself. Even as I tried to reflect on what my strengths were, I was stumped.

Because I was stumped, my coworker told me what strengths she sees in me and challenged me to ask 10 people who know me well and whose opinion I trust to ask them what they see as my strength and to write those things down. I had two weeks to do this.

Two weeks later, here's what I got:
1) My eagerness to learn. My openness with my students. My love for life--I bring a positive feeling to others when I walk in the room -K
2) I'm goal-oriented -N
3) I'm good at finding others' strengths -K
4) I'm good at planning for the future -M
5) I'm resilient, organized, caring, responsible, and resolute. -D
6) I give thoughtful advice and ask insightful questions -A
7) I'm good at challenging people out of their comfort zones to better themselves and I make it feel more like encouragements rather than a put downs -Z
8) I look at every new opportunity as an adventure and something to add to my list. I always reevaluate a situation to make the best possible outcome for next time. If something does not go as planned, I asses a new plan and add it as another story to add to my book. I encourage others to want the best. -N
9) I'm passionate and smart and I believe that social change is possible and I'm doing the work to get us there -B
10) I'm nurturing, encouraging, pragmatic, level-headed, adventurous. -E
11) (this one was very long and personal and brought me to tears. I'm going to let this one digest for a bit and maybe keep it private. Dear self, it was from A and it's in your email).

That turned out to be a fun assignment. I made it less uncomfortable for myself to ask people what they saw as my strength by offering an example of a strength I saw in them. That was fun to do, too.

I liked when people gave examples of why they saw my strength as what they said. It's cool to think that something I said or did was memorable for someone else. They also helped me see the times that my strengths really shone through; I guess I tend to zoom in and magnify times in my life that I don't feel strong--when I feel lost or disempowered--and completely forget times that I was in my element.

If you've never done an exercise like this, I recommend it. It seemed awkward, like I was fishing for compliments, at first... but then I realized that I don't feel uncomfortable about telling others' what I see as their strengths, so why would anyone feel uncomfortable telling me mine? Now, I'm glad that I have this list to refer back to when I'm feeling incompetent or what have you.

OK, that's enough for tonight.


Sing it to the Stars

Dynamite wind pipe
Sing it to the stars
Sing it to the people, to the aliens on Mars
Let it roll, let it rock, let it hale comet bopp
at the top
Of your lungs, on a mountain
in the middle of the night
It will carry, let it soar, let it stir up a fright
Let the whole wide world know
that your dynamite wind pipe's
About to explode


The Rosary

"I feel anxious. I feel embarrassed and ashamed. I feel guilty."
I hate myself.
"I see a tornado; it's coming; it's inescapable."

I glance down at the bracelet on my wrist. My personal rosary--one bead for each of my failures. I hold each bead one by one between my thumb and forefinger, pausing before moving on to the next.

"I see a large, calm lake. It's still. It's clear. In it, the clear sky and towering mountain reflects. I feel it in my head; I feel my muscles relax."

This anxiety is not me. It's a reaction. It's a reaction to a stressful situation. The stressful situation is the tornado in my mind. We do all we can to take care of ourselves, but suddenly, we're triggered. We can't help but react in the way that we do. We don't get to choose how or when a reaction comes up.

Don't forget the dozens of tiny stones in-between your trophy, dark red beads. The little triumphs; the big triumphs; the unnoticed victories; the everyday, good, albeit in no way remarkable. You know you're improving in almost every other aspect; a breakdown does not contradict that growth.

This was a bad day. You've had bad days. This won't be your last bad day... and that's OK. Because you'll bounce back. You always have. You're not judged for falling; you're lauded for coming back. You're OK.

You're OK.