A Light Shines in Charlottesville: an Ode to Joe

Let me tell you about one of my favorite humans, Joe Beard.

I’m unfortunately one of those teachers who has difficulty with work/life balance.  When other more healthy teachers jet off to gyms, happy hour plans, or children, I’m usually in my slippers slippin’ around my classroom hoping to make enough noise to keep the nocturnal mice away.  I’ve gotten much, much better than my first few years when I was known to leave school at the same time some people were leaving bars.  Once, a former division head described me as someone who “burns a candle at both ends.”  

Even though I’ve upped my social life and have reluctantly allowed some of my extracurricular school activities to be pried from my stone cold fists, I still have my occasional late nights.  And they aren’t awful thanks to the night security guard Joe Beard.

You see, after my 8th period students shuffle or sashay out of my classroom, Joe will usually pop his head in to see how my day was and if I was staying late.  If I was staying late, Joe would find ways to brighten my evening through frequent check ins, grabbing a seat in one of my big blue chairs, and telling jokes or making fun of me (with love of course).  He’d keep me company while I graded quizzes or made lesson plans.

Sometimes Joe doesn’t catch me before I leave my classroom to do my usual 15-25 minute “hallway roam,” where I aimlessly walk the hallways talking to kids or waving at teacher friends in their classrooms.  I’m a bit like one of those puppies who spins around and around before she finally feels comfortable and settles down.  On those days, I’d often find Joe outside my classroom upon my return scolding me for not locking my door and having students sneak in my room to hang out.  He was always worried about my valuables getting stolen, and he was always concerned with my safety and happiness.  He did the same for the students who sought respite in my classroom.

If we are lucky, we will all have a Joe in our lives, a person who goes out of his or her way to be a constant flicker of light on not just our thunderstorm days, but also on those days where the added sunshine makes our beautiful days even more technicolor.  And sometimes, if you are like me, you’ll take that light for granted, and you won’t realize how much energy you were getting from it until something snuffs out the light.

Joe suddenly passed away peacefully in his sleep on July 3rd, 2017.  I found out from a former student, and the clouds rolled in and scrubbed the sheen from my summer.  During his funeral, I sat next to one of my former students, and as life amateurs, neither of us had tissues.  After a while, we gave up trying to stop our mascara from making black diamond ski trails down our cheeks until finally someone rescued us with some toilet paper.  I spent the rest of the summer dreading returning to school as I’ve not felt ready to feel the emptiness of Joe’s absence.


Pictures of Joe from the cover of his memorial program.

I felt cloudy until this weekend when I prepared for students to start school on Tuesday. I started reflecting on the fact that Joe had given me an incredible gift.  And so, in his honor this year, my mantra will be to be more like Joe.  Instead of being that quasi-selfish “burning the candle at both ends” person, I want to be the light that brightens other people’s days.  I’d like to think that Joe would love that, that I’m honoring him in that way by checking on people after school, making them laugh, and reminding them each and every day that they are important, that they matter. For that is what Joe gave to me.  Because of him, I’ve never felt alone in a world that can be lonely.

So in this turbulent time where the heat of hate is radiating from marches in Charlottesville and around the country, I will make sure that love blazes brighter.  In this way, I’ll make sure that Joseph Kenneth Beard will shine on.

I hope you will do the same in honor of the Joe in your life as well. In the thick of these whitewashed storms funneling in, we will all need the light in the darkness.

Let’s all buckle down and get our flashlights out, as our lights aren’t going anywhere.  We will radiate love, respect, and empathy. Come what may, we must remember that Hope Dies Last.

To Joe.


What We Learn in High School–A Student Perspective



In my senior capstone, I have students bring in precious objects that symbolize their childhood, and we spend the afternoon sharing stories.

Every year, I assign a final senior essay that is an inquiry about what the graduating students learned in high school.  It’s an important reflection on their last four years of their lives, those years that are far too often a precarious bridge from childhood to adulthood.  As I page through the reflections filled with their lessons, joys, and sometimes regrets, it is always evident that the real learning isn’t from the academic content of reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Instead, it’s from lunch table conversations, a whisper from a teacher, an F in math.  It’s from being late to first period, sending silly snapchats in science, finding your best friend two seats in front of you in English, and from making (or missing) the honor roll or basketball team.


A hilarious page from a student’s graphic short story about how he went from getting in trouble in my class to totally kicking butt in it.

All the essays leave some sort of impression.  I often get funny looks at the coffee shop as I sit in the corner and laugh aloud at funny lines, or sigh at the all too familiar feelings of social isolation and academic pressure.  And every so often, I stumble upon an essay that scuffs its wet shoes on my welcome mat, makes itself a cup of tea, and lingers a while on my couch.  This essay did just that.  In fact, I even had to get a little more metaphorical honey for the tea.  It represented the lessons and emotions of high school in such a genuine and raw way.  I immediately talked to Jada–the beautiful author of this peice–to see if I could publish it on this blog.  So here is what is learned in high school, the ugly and the beautiful, from her perspective (published with her permission).

I hope it makes itself at home for you that way it did for me.

by Jada

Telling your mother you want to kill yourself because of her is as earth shattering as the moment you took your first breath from the womb. I will soon find later that I allowed lies to slip through my teeth from anger. Pristine lungs that once filled with fresh air are nothing more than charred up lumps of coal from all the cigarettes I’ve smoked on the way home at 10:30 because I am trying to drown my sorrows in drugs that I don’t even understand.

“That’s just high school,” she says when I tell her I might commit tonight.

“Drama happens.”

Continue reading

On Reverse Culture Shock


Disclaimer: this is a personal website. All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.



Fulbright teacher alumni jumping for joy at last year’s orientation.  Photo cred: Stacey Tatera

In two days, I’ll kiss a plane.

As much as I love the opportunity to see stars from a different vantage point in the world, I’m terrified of flying to get there.  So, as superstitious and silly as it may be, I must kiss every plane I walk onto.  I’ve been caught once or twice by flight attendants who gaze at me with a mix between amusement and pity, and I’ve gotten ninja-quick with how fast I can kiss my hand and press it against the plane.  Sure, it’s a small, futile gesture, but it’s something that calms the panic building up in my ears.  And makes me feel oddly sunny to know that there are planes in the air right now that have my smooch-blessings on them.

I’m going to Washington D.C. to greet the newest batch of incredible Fulbright Teachers at their orientation.  It’s strange  to think that was me two summers ago, feeling mostly like I didn’t belong there, that they had chosen the wrong girl for the Fulbright.  I was unconfident in myself, and I spent more time studying my shoes than facing forward toward the transformative experience that was to come.  And now, two years later, I refuse to look down, and I find much gratitude in being able to embrace things head on.  


Presenting at the Fulbright orientation last year 

One of the most impactful sessions for me during the three and a half day orientation was on reverse culture shock.  I had never considered that when I returned from my trip that I’d feel anything other than happy and grateful.  But as the speaker Craig Storti, the author of The Art of Coming Home expressed, home has changed. And I have changed.  When I returned, I did struggle with adapting with feeling like I constantly wanted to talk about this life-changing-sound-the-trumpets-I-uncovered-the-best-me-and-I-want-to-conquer-the-world-now year, but never actually talking about it as I felt that no one would really understand it.  Luckily, the orientation helped me moved pretty seamlessly into my new kiwi culture, and it got me emotionally prepared for the occasionally turbulent transition back into US culture.  But what it didn’t prepare me for was how occasionally funny that transition could be.

When my family picked me up on Christmas Eve eve from the airport, we decided to stop into Buffalo Wild Wings because I was dying for some Asian Zing chicken.  Within a few moments, I turned to my brother Danny and exclaimed, “Why is everybody screaming?!”.  For the first week or so, I felt like everyone was talking at me in all CAPS, and I put earplugs in my Amazon wishlist (which coincidentally I realized I still had in there as of a few days ago, so I swapped it for back-to-school scratch n’ sniff stickers).  


My brothers and I reunited after my Fulbright experience. 

Continue reading

Shuffle Along, or How a Musical Can Teach Us to Remember and Treasure Black Art


Enjoying my summer in NYC for an NEH grant.

I have always been a closet fanatic of musicals.  I say “closet” as my bank account does not possess the sort of balance required to see the array of musicals I’d have to see in order to be considered a true connoisseur (I have never seen things like Cats or Phantom, for example).  But I do enter lotteries and try to score rush tickets, so I’ve gotten to see things from The Lion King to Rent to The Book of Mormon.  When alone in my apartment, if I’m not fervently listening to my latest audiobook (the current one being Jesmyn Ward’s The Men We Reaped), I’m singing along to Broadway showtunes.  Believe me, I’ve put on some pretty elaborate productions complete with Rockette kick lines while washing dishes and making my bed.  Idina Menzel would be proud.

I’m spending two weeks in the great New York City for a pretty amazing National Endowment of the Humanities seminar called “Freedom for One, Freedom for All? Abolition and Woman Suffrage 1830-1920.”  As history is cyclical, it is so fascinating to see how relevant the issues of voting rights, the right to love, and the disenfranchisement of people of color are still so stubbornly present in today’s culture.  It’s been an amazing seminar so far, but quite emotionally intense with a pretty hefty workload.  I’m still able to see some of New York, but on each train ride, you can find me frantically reading and annotating our readings to and from my daily adventure.


Our two core texts for the institute.

Even though I’m trying desperately to save pennies, thanks to my new friend Laurie, I heard that the musical Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All that Followed was closing for good. The post-reconstruction era and the Harlem Renaissance are two of my favorite times in history to teach. Not to mention that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the Audra McDonald live.  And Tony winner Billy Porter.  And Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell.  And nominee Joshua Henry…  And well, you get the point.  The show is pretty much packed with some of the best talent on earth.

But tickets were sold out.  I refreshed the seatgeek app several times an hour hoping that someone would give up his ticket, and I put up on ad on Craigslist.  And then, on Saturday evening—the day before the show closing–some tickets suddenly popped up on the screen for the final show, and I typed in the numbers on my credit card faster than I could consider the price (I paid face value.  But still).  I would find out later that Audra McDonald called off and stated that she would not perform as the care of her baby comes first (did I mention that she tap dances, does incredible high kicks, and belts her esophagus out, all while in her second trimester?!), which is why so many people gave up their tickets.  I’m glad that I a) did not know this fact and b) was happy to see that Audra did in fact perform the show closing.   She is one phenomenal woman.  

FullSizeRender (48)

As seen outside the theater.  #truth

I’ve never even so much as gone to a movie by myself, so I was a little intrigued to go a large broadway show stag.  But I was fourth row center, so I figured that the performers will feel very much like my companions for the evening.  It was an amazing experience to be almost close enough that if a character was downstage, he or she could spit on me when they over-enunciated words.  It turns out that half of my row was solo, and so we found ourselves talking eagerly together in anticipation of the curtain opening.  

It was thrilling to be in the caffeine of the packed house.  And it really was packed, as people even stood and shifted their weight from foot to foot in their jagged line against the back wall of the theater.  The only seemingly empty seat in the house was the one to my left.  About two minutes before the opening note, an attractive man snuck into the seat next to me.  “You made it!” I exclaimed with such exuberance, I’m pretty sure that the people in our close vicinity thought that we were friends.

“I better have,” he said, wiping sweat off of his forehead.  “I called off in order to be here for this.”

“Oh?” I said.  “What show are you in?”

Motown the Musical,” he replied, looking a little embarrassed.

“What?! Cool! What role do you play?”  I was suddenly proud my solo seat family thought we were friends.

“Marvin Gaye.”

“That’s so awesome! That musical is on my list of musicals to see!”

The light went out a little bit in his eyes.  “You better go soon.  We close next week.”  

I had obviously struck a chord, and I stuttered a bit in my response.  “Oh man, that’s terrible.”

“Yeah,” he said, not making eye contact, “The social climate is changing.  It’s not one that’s as open for shows like us…”

He got cut off as the lights started to dim and people began cheering in anticipation at the start of the show.  I clapped and hollered too, but what he said stung and the irony was not lost on me.  Shows like us.  Shows featuring predominately Black casts?

Continue reading

What it’s Like to be a Teacher at the End of Summer Break

Picture of palm trees along the beach at sunset.


My first day of school is just a week away, so I’m experiencing my last fleeting hours of the Sunday that is August.  That is to say, that in teacher world, we consider June to feel like a Friday, July like a Saturday, and August very much like a Sunday where you can’t quite relax and enjoy yourself because that “case of the Mondays” feeling is scratching at your front door.  I get a lot of comments from non-teachers about how blissful it must be to have the summers off–and believe me it is blissful–but the week before school starts is filled with bizarre feelings and behaviors.  So, for those of you always wanting to know what it’s like to be a teacher at the end of summer break, you now have to wonder no more.

  1. The “back-to-school”nightmares is a real thing.

The time in which the first nightmare will shoot you straight up in bed varies.  For me, it’s usually early August, but I have gotten a random one at the end of June (separation anxiety maybe?).  The usual dream is some variation of showing up to school to do some routine “get the classroom back in order action”–in my case usually unshowered and especially unkempt–and I realize as I walk up to my classroom that there is a classroom of eager (and confused) freshmen waiting for their teacher to show up to class.  The first sensation when I realize that I mixed up the first day of school date is “PUKE!”   And then that feeling settles into that panicked feeling of, “do I run and pretend that I’m sick?” or “do I walk in late with absolutely nothing prepared looking like I’ve come from a week camping in the Outback?”

The strangest back-to-school nightmare I’ve had involved the way I greeted students on the first day.  There I was, wrapped from neck to toe in several layers of bubble wrap, chest bumping each student as he or she entered the classroom–all to the tune of the Space Jam theme song.

This is the copy room two weeks before school started.  Everyone is already getting their copies made! (PS: that Jessica is not me.  I'm not quite that on top of my game).

This is the copy room two weeks before school started. Everyone is already getting their copies made! (PS: that Jessica is not me. I’m not quite that on top of my game).

Thus, most back-to-school nightmares highlight a) our anxiety of not being prepared enough for a new school year b) our worry that in the two months that we got to unkink the tension knots in our backs and be real people that we forgot how to teach, and c) that we will not make the critical good first impression on our students that we need to in order to have a successful school year.  Because the research states that most students make judgments on whether or not they will like a teacher and whether or not they feel they will be academically successful and socio-emotionally healthy in the class within the first few minutes of class.  And they are usually right in that first impression.  No pressure, huh?

So we care a lot about being prepared for that first day and that first impression.  I know I’m not alone in spending hours getting my classroom in working order, making copies well in advance, and starting to practice speaking grammatically correct and clean English again.

           2.  We go a bit nutty over school supplies.

This is a bit of an understatement.  There is a knowing look that teachers exchange between each other when we see other teachers at Office Max holding the same coupon clippings in their hands.

Teachers, as you probably already know, spend a lot of their own money on classroom decor, organizational supports, classroom sets of art supplies, and school supplies for low income students.  And we only get to write $250 of it off on our taxes.  So, we look for deals and free stuff wherever we can, because teachers never feel more broke at the start of the school year after they’ve bought all things needed get the classroom to its effective academic learning environment glory.

My strategy, because I’m especially broke right now, is to obsessively check freecycle.org, the free section of Craiglist, and my community swap and sell page on Facebook.  And there are occasional jackpots.  Just the other day, I answered a freecycle.org ad for 1,000 FREE PENS.  Yes, they have advertising on them, but hey, they work! Every teacher I’ve told about this find has gasped and cheered with me about my good fortune.

Picture of Jessica with pens

I’ve got pens for days!!

Writing utensils, when you teach high school at least, are a hot commodity.  I get asked probably 11.7 times a day for a pen.  And because I don’t want 2% of my paycheck to go to buying pens due to the low return rate of said pens, I get creative. In the past I’ve:

  • Had students give me a shoe in exchange for a pen.  But one time I had a student with feet so smelly I had to quickly give him his shoe back and change the policy to “some sort of valuable item” (i.e. their cell phone).
  • Spent hours attaching obnoxious fake flowers to the ends of pens and pencils, and “planted” them nicely in a pot, thinking it would cause students to garden each day when they returned the utensils to me on the way out.  But what I thought was obnoxious was “cool” to the high schoolers, and those puppies were stolen before I could even get through Of Mice and Men.
  • Attached stickers of Barbie and 90s boy bands to my pens and pencils thinking that again, the students would be dismayed at their utensil and want to swiftly return them.  But as in above, they started trading them like baseball cards.

I know that it’s good for executive functioning to help students remember to bring a utensil.  But I also don’t want to spend any of my precious class time arguing with the one student who forgets a utensil every single day. Because yes, there is always that one student.  Instead, I will provide that student with one of 1,000 pens I have in my classroom right now.  And yes, teacher friends, I am sharing if you need a hook up.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was climbing into tombs.  Now I'm excavating all of my classroom materials out of boxes.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was climbing into tombs. Now I’m excavating all of my classroom materials out of dusty boxes.

Continue reading

Teachers as Changemakers: The Sunshine of my Fulbright Research Project

Picture of flyer

The flyer for our presentation today.

Disclaimer: this is a personal website. All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

Today, I get ready for my first presentation about my Fulbright project.  I’ll present with Amy and Tricia at Victoria University of Wellington at 3:30.  As I prepare my notes and my smiles, I can’t help but have my thoughts tugged by the news of Michael Brown’s non-indictment yesterday.  As my mentor Rob posted on his Facebook wall, “It ain’t right Atticus, it just ain’t right,” from Harper Lee’s famous novel.  It isn’t right that Michael Brown was not even given the dignity of a trial, that we keep hearing language and belief systems that are symptoms of the sick cycle of oppression in the U.S.

But today, I am glad more than ever to be an educator.  I have the great privilege and responsibility to give hope, to make change, and to interrupt racist systems.  I am proud to be an educator, and I am proud to work with the young people who will be the change of the future.  And it just so happens that my project addresses implicit racism in education, as the focus is on eradicating the achievement gap/educational debt between students of color and white students.  This blog, therefore, will break down the components of my project, as well as what my daily life looks like.

The title of my project: Teachers as Changemakers: The Power of Reflection in Diminishing the Racial Predictability of Student Academic Achievement

The purpose of my project: to find ways to eliminate the racial predictability of student academic achievement.

My passion is to teach for justice. Students of color have been disenfranchised at my high school in the US, resulting in an achievement gap in which 61% of white students meet college readiness standards, while only 14% of Black students do. My goal is to find ways to diminish the racial predictability that currently exists in test scores, discipline data, G.P.As, and college graduation rates.

Students with donuts

Some of my amazing students on a surprise donut day.

I can no longer tolerate a culture that perpetuates the status quo, that teaches Black students that being academic is a “white” thing.  I have some amazing colleagues who are doing amazing things in their classrooms.  I have a division head who gets it.  I have been totally blessed to have Chala, the assistant principal, visit, teach, and mentor in my classroom 2-3 times a week for the last three years, giving me feedback, ideas, and inspirations.  Teachers are ready to make change.  And teachers can make change.  I know this because they already do in so many ways that often go unnoticed.

So, I’m no longer interested in deficit thinking.  In the media, we teachers constantly get blamed for the lack of student academic progress.  We are seen as lazy and greedy.  We know there are profound gaps in student academic achievement and socioemotional needs.  But I believe that’s the easy way to think.  It’s easy to blame, it’s easy to hang the ugly picture out on your washing line for all to see.  It’s easy to reaffirm pre-existing beliefs and expectations about our students of color.

But you know what’s not easy to do?  Turn around and face the problem.

It’s not easy to work together to find solutions.  To look at all of the positive things that are happening and share those ideas like we do Thanksgiving recipes.  Sure, there is no recipe that will fit all palates and some ingredients will need to be modified to fit the individual, but there are certain key ingredients–love, hope, high expectations, strong student-teacher relationships–that all recipes need to work.  But how do we knead, nurture, and allow these concepts to grow in such a current harsh climate for teachers?

Well, that’s my project.

Continue reading

Thanksgiving on Cuba Street

A Gratitude Journal

My carpool picks me up at 7:10 a.m. each morning at the top of Cuba Street.  If I can convince myself to crawl out of my warm bed and into the frigid air of my apartment before six a.m., I can make the 6:30 a.m. bus that will take me to the bottom of Cuba Street, and then it’s just a quick 10-minute jaunt to the top.  If I wake up after 6 a.m., I will miss the bus, and then I must run/jog/shuffle/skip the two miles to my meeting point. (School starts at 9 a.m. here, but I have a hike to get to my placement).

Even though I get exercise if I don’t catch the bus, I love making it because I get to stop for coffee.  Now 98% of coffee shops open after 7 a.m., which means I’m mostly out of luck because there is a coffee shop desert around my carpool pick up point.  However, Roberto at Palomino coffee on Cuba Street opens up just a little bit early so that I can get my coffee and still make it to my pick up point on time.  He’s pretty much the greatest man alive, and I look forward to stopping there on the mornings that I can.

Jessie with free cookie

My day is so much better because I got a free cookie. Thanks Roberto!

Today, I missed the bus by 47 seconds.  I had a loooong day yesterday that didn’t get me home until 10:45 p.m., and I knew I would be just as late tonight.  Even though it was 7:08 and I was huffing and sweating, I still decided to stop in to get a cup of coffee from Roberto. He inquired after my tardiness, and I gave him a brief synopsis of my past and future 24 hours, stressing that I really needed a cup of his coffee.  As he handed me my dreamboat-in-a-cup Flat White, he added a decadent chocolate cookie to the top of my coffee cup before handing it to me.  “For you,” he said in his Cuban accent, “to help with your day.”

It’s a few hours later, and I feel like I wish I could unplug after my iPad got completely wiped, and I lost– thankfully not all–of my research over the last month (I know, cue lecture about backing up files).  As I was about to sob into the D, O, and H keys on my keyboard, I noticed the cookie sticking out of my backpack.  It made me stop and remember that even though this is a tough loss, I am able to reflect, rethink, and rewrite.  Roberto’s gesture was a reminder to me that there is heartbreakingly beautiful kindness in the world. And for that I am grateful.

Note of gratitude

Someone at school put my name in the gratitude/commandments drawing, and I won! Thank you random stranger, now I get to draw an awesome prize on Monday!


It is super cool being “from the future,” as I am 18 hours ahead of Chicago, but it makes communication difficult.  There is a small window of time right before I go to bed or right when I wake up that I can catch people in the States to talk to them.  I can’t talk during my day because I have to have wifi to Skype or Facetime, and I don’t get home from school in time to talk to people before they tuck in for the night.  So during the weekdays, I feel pretty isolated from my friends and family in the U.S., and I suck every last bit of comfort from the imessages and Whatsapp texts I get during the day.  It’s weird to think that most of my communication with home is through short conversations sprinkled throughout my cupcakes of days.

You can imagine, therefore, how meaningful mail has been to me.  I haven’t given out my mailing address to anyone but my parents, and they sent me a wonderful welcome care package the first week I arrived.  I realized quickly that one has to sell one’s car just to be able to pay to ship a package in New Zealand, so I didn’t send on my mailing address to anyone else.

Package from Joy

The AMAZING package from Joy.

But somehow, mail has found a way.  Our close (and oldest) family friends Kate and Michael sent me a lovely card.  And the biggest hug to a soul is that my lovely friend and fellow book club member Joy sent THE most incredible care package ever.   I had written a blog post about how miserably cold I’d been in Wellington, and she secretly Facebook messaged my mom asking for my address.  She sent me a giant package that has kept me literally and figuratively warm for two weeks now: a blanket, gloves, hand warmers, Nutella, fancy chocolate, and stuff for Halloween and Thanksgiving–the two holidays I will miss while I’m here.  I would win a Pulitzer if I was able to able to adequately express how grateful I feel.  I guess it makes sense that Joy would bring me so much joy.  (PS: Joy, check your mailbox in 6-8 days!)

Continue reading

A Tale of Two Airports

A cultural comparison in the second person

Domestic flight at Chicago O’hare airport, USA

Jessie at the caveYou arrive at the airport 1.5 – 2 hours before your flight. If you are lucky enough that you don’t need to check any bags, you  go directly to the eticket booth, print out your boarding pass and head to the security lines. You’ve passed GO, collect $200.

If the machines aren’t working or you have to check a bag, you will stand in a long, slow line.  Once at the front, you will still use computer monitors to check your bag, and an airline representative may or may not help you print your boarding pass. They will weigh your bags, put them on the conveyer belt, and you head to the security lines.

After waiting in a long line for security, you will get stopped by a gate attendant.  He or she will check your driver’s license or passport by scanning it under a blue-green light.  They will look at you and down at your picture a few times to verify that it is, in fact, your mug on the license.  Finally, they will scribble something that looks like a drawing of a balloon animal on your boarding pass and give it back to you. You’ll get bonus points if you can get a smile out of them.

After waiting in yet another line, you reach the actual security checkpoint.  You remove your shoes and hope that your feet don’t smell like cheese and that you remembered to put on socks without holes in them.  You put these shoes into a plastic tub, and you remove your belt and coat and add them to it. You pull out your laptop and/or Ipad and put it in a separate tub.  You remove your liquids, which all have to be less than 3.4 ounces and stored in a plastic bag.  They get their own little plastic tub home as well.  Finally, you add your carry-on bag and personal item(s) to the conveyer belt.  You make one last check that you don’t have anything hiding in your pockets.

You wait until your belongings get onto the conveyor belt, then you wait in line again to get scanned for metals/flammables/weapons of mass destruction/metal screws in hips.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get a metal detector.  If you’re unlucky, you’ll strike an epic dance pose by throwing your hands up in a tube that takes a 360-degree image of your body.  Everyone will know that you got your belly button pierced when you were a teenager.

At this stage, you might make it through fairly easily.  But you can be stopped for a variety of reasons.  This time, because it was so early in the morning, you decided to throw your hair up in a bun in an attempt to look semi-presentable.  Now the TSA attendant is squeezing and poking said bun because you had forgotten you put bobby pins in it.  People huff behind you because they are sick of standing in line.  You might also be stopped because you had accidentally put one of a plethora of airline-inappropriate things in your carry-on.  They will open and salad toss everything you spent hours packing carefully because you packed gel deodorant.

Beautiful spring flowers

Beautiful spring flowers

Continue reading

7 Things I Learned the Hard Way in Wellington

Disclaimer: this is a personal website. All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

I’ve been given the most amazing experience I could ever have dreamed.  And it has been wonderful.  But as with any transition to a new culture, it isn’t always easy.  There are hiccups, embarrassing moments, and cultural misunderstandings. I’ve definitely cried into a jar of Nutella. But that’s all a part of the journey.  I won’t grow if I don’t encounter obstacles.

The following are the seven things that I’ve learned the hard way in the first month of living in Wellington, New Zealand. Some are small, some are big.  Some might be funny, others more serious.  But all will contribute to my growth.  I can’t wait to walk away from this experience a more confident, mature, and culturally competent woman when I step on that plane back to my homeland.

  1. Snapper cards

Bus rides took me a bit to figure out. You use a bus card (called a Snapper card) to tap against a machine when you get on and then you tap off it when you exit (they call it tag on/tag off).  You then get charged by how long you ride, similar to the zoning on the London Tube station.

The first time I rode the bus, I  happened to sit behind a college-aged student who was explaining to her parents that you had to tag off or you would get a fine.  Oh. I thought.  I would never have thought to do that.

Picture of Snapper card and Garbage bags

Here are pictures of my two frenemies: my red Snapper card and yellow garbage bags.

But even with her helpful advice, I just can’t seem to get into the habit of tagging off. Once, when my flatmate Tricia and I were riding to the Karori campus, I slipped my Snapper card into my wallet and stuffed it in my coat pocket. When we got to our stop, I hopped off without even thinking about my Snapper card.  I looked back to see what was taking Tricia so long, and my eyes bugged out of my head when I saw her taking the time to tag off.  In panic, I fumbled my hand into my pocket in an attempt to retrieve my Snapper card, but by the time my fingertips felt the red plastic, the bus was happily pulling away.

A few days later when I rode the bus again for the first time since my mistake, the tag on/tag off machine shouted for all to hear, “Penalty applied.”  So not only did I get the full cash fare fine for not tagging off, but I also had everyone in the whole bus hear my transgression.  If kiwis had judging eyes, I’m sure I would have felt them on me as I walked down the bus aisle to an open seat. Now, whenever Tricia or I forget to tag off, we will call the next bus ride experience the “walk of shame.”  As in, “oh man, I really hope there aren’t many people on this bus because I have to do a walk of shame today.”

I’ve now taken to holding my Snapper card in my hand within my line of vision so that I do not forget to tag off.  However, last week, there was a spout of warm sunshine that sparkled out of nowhere. I felt like an audience member on an “Oprah’s Favorite Things” show. Soon, I found myself stripping off my winter coat, feeling pleasantly and unusually warm. As I daydreamed out the window at the beautiful hills rolling outside, I suddenly snapped to reality in the tranquil bus and realized we had reached my stop.

Jumping up, I went to tap my Snapper card against the machine and realized that I had somehow wrapped my scarf around the hand that held it.  In panic, I tried to use my semi-free hand to untwist the scarf free, but my effort was made difficult by the fact I was juggling my lunch box and laptop case.  It seemed that the harder I tried, the more I couldn’t get my hand free.  A couple of people in the back of the bus started giggling at my obvious frustration that I couldn’t find my hand.  Finally, I waved at the bus driver to go to the next stop so I could calm myself enough to figure out how to free my hand.  He shook his head at me, letting me know he would wait.  I took a deep breath, figured out that I had somehow created a knot around my hand in my panic, unknotted and wrestled it lose, tagged my card, and walked out into the now, suddenly misting Wellington air.  Man.

Lesson I learned: get the mini Snapper card that you can attach to your key chain.  And laugh at yourself when your hand gets eaten by a piece of cloth.

  1. Mold

Mold is now my greatest enemy.  My mouth fills with venom whenever I think of it.

When I first arrived, I lived with or Axford fellow Ben before he moved on to travel the world.  Those first couple of days before he left, I noticed that he always had the curtains open and would even go so far as open the windows.  Who is this guy? I would think to myself as I shuddered in the winter wind. He must be Wolverine.

After he left, I shut the windows and closed the curtains to try to keep the fleeting summer rays trapped inside each room.  But one day when I set my laptop back down and opened my bedroom door, I was slammed in the face with a putrid smell.  Mold!

Sailboats in the rain

Even though the weather is sometimes cold and windy, Wellingtonians will still brave the weather to sail. Amazing!

I opened the curtains to see that there were tiny black spots dancing along the edges of two of the curtains. I clutched my chest thinking that I was surely dying of a black lung.  I did what many people do of my generation: I jumped online and googled the harmful side effects of mold on the human body. After reading about the various neurological and respiratory diseases that can come from mold, I had to leave my apartment to gulp the fresh Cook Strait air.

Later that day, I met up with my new friend Max, and I very dramatically told him about my mold infestation.  Now, I know I was being melodramatic–I mean, I understand that having a few spots of mold on a curtain does not equal a spore takeover–but I had assumed that I’d get more than a “meh” from Max. But that is really all I got–a noncommittal, so-what-“meh.”  Apparently, mold is just a “thing” in New Zealand.  Because it is so cold and damp here and most don’t heat or insulate their houses (and many houses in the valley are in the shade), mold is just kinda an everyday problem here.

Max taught me that I have to open my curtains each day to let the sunlight in and that I should crack the windows during the day and shut them at night.  So that “strange behavior” I noted when I first arrived is actually quite normal behavior in New Zealand.  In fact, there are whole documents that give you tips on how to prevent mold.  And when you talk about mold with New Zealanders, they’ll just look at you blankly like, “so what?”  It’s just part of life here.

The good news is that I won’t die of a black lung while in New Zealand.  After talking with our landlord, we discovered that the mold on the curtains already existed.  We are lucky in that we are located in a place that gets sun all day long (when it’s sunny), so we rarely even think about the mold anymore.  The place where we actually do have a heater–although it took me a week to discover it–is in the bathroom, so we don’t have to worry about the moisture there.

Even so, Tricia and I have been super paranoid about mold. If there is anything slightly dark on anything, we will shriek “mold” and shake our fists to the sky.  Most of the time, it’s just a crumb or a sequin.  But just today, Tricia washed her water bottle and left it out to dry in the morning. By the time we arrived  home to cook dinner, our most hated enemy had found its way inside because grey clouds had blanketed the sky.  Curses!

Lesson I learned: Read about a country’s climate before arriving in said country.

Continue reading

Paperback, Here I Come!

I’m surprised at how heartsick I’ve felt while reading my colleagues’ back-to-school statuses on Facebook. My identity as an educator has a significant impact on my way of thinking and being. So it’s strange that it is September and I’m not lesson planning and high fiving students as they enter my classroom.

You can imagine then how excited I am to get into New Zealand classrooms, especially since I will get to see how things are taught in a new cultural context.

Poster of Jessica for her classroom

One of the posters I had made for my classroom. Maybe there will be a day with less late work!

In the spirit of my love of teaching and learning, I’d like to tell you about a book project I’m happy to be a part of. A friend and colleague, Aaron Poldner, the youngest-ever Golden Apple teaching award winner in the state of Illinois, published a book called How Would You Handle It?: Questions For Teachers To Ask ThemselvesThe book asks introspective teachers to examine their pedagogies and teaching philosophies to see how their beliefs impact their practice.  

As a follow-up to this book, Aaron polled teachers on how they would answer the questions, and I got to be one of the teachers. Look out for How We Handle It: Hundreds of Answers from Classroom Teachers on Amazon.com within the month!

I’d thought I’d give you some insight of who I am as a teacher.  Below are some of my contributions to the project. Hope you enjoy!

How are you going to take care of your physical and mental health while you teach, especially during the first few years? How often do you go to the doctor? Do you exercise regularly? Do you have a healthy diet? Would you ever consider therapy or psychiatric care? How do you plan on finding a balance between all of your needs and activities?

Picture of a card and cookies given by students

Gifts given by students after I had suffered illness and loss.

Towards the end of second day in my first year of teaching, I passed out in the women’s restroom. It was the last period of the day, and it was my prep period (thank goodness). I woke up on the bathroom floor, and army-crawled down the empty hallway and into an administrator’s office (the hall monitor never once noticed a grown woman in a dress slithering down the hall on her belly). Flipping over onto my back, I moaned to the secretary that I needed help. Two hours later, I was standing in a hospital emergency room clad in a see-through hospital gown with SpongeBob Squarepants underwear holding a cup of my own urine. The school’s superintendent arrived while I was in this precarious position to see if I was okay. To say I was embarrassed is an understatement.

My first three years went on like this. I made two more trips to the ER for walking pneumonia and extreme vertigo. I suffered from migraines and exhaustion. But, I never rested or slowed down. Finally, I took a good long look at my plate: I was teaching full time, coaching an additional twenty hours a week, taking an improv class at Second City, and starting a master’s degree at Northwestern. To make matters worse, I lived across the street from the school, so I would often get home from coaching track at 6:30 p.m., I’d take a nap and eat dinner (which often consisted of hot pockets or a jar of peanut butter), and then I would go back to school to lesson plan and grade until two or three in the morning.

My first few years of teaching were already incredibly, incredibly hard, and my extra commitments added to its difficulty. After looking at my plate, I made some crucial changes. First, I moved a twenty-minute drive away from school so that I wouldn’t be tempted to walk back to school in the wee hours of the morning. Second, I quit coaching track. I LOVED coaching, but I needed more balance in my life. Third, I joined a gym and started exercising four times a week. Fourth, I strategized ways to become more efficient in my grading and planning, so I could have more time to hang out with friends and enjoy some downtime.

Now, in my seventh year of teaching, I still sometimes struggle with balance, but I am a very, very happy teacher. I finished my master’s degree in literature, and now have time to read books for pleasure. I never take any work related to school home, and I make sure to be really efficient while I’m in my classroom. I always make it to my favorite dance class on Thursday nights, I rarely have to pull out a frozen meal, and I drink coffee for pleasure and not out of necessity. I might not get essays back within twenty-four hours, but I also haven’t seen the inside of an emergency room in four years (knock on wood).

Continue reading