Bird on a Bare Branch

Attempting to fling a frail song in my little corner of the world

On Being a Teacher December 18, 2009

Filed under: Teaching — Jen @ 12:55 am

I had the best teacher in second grade – Mrs. Andersen.  She had been teaching for over 20 years, so I thought she was really old at the time.  I realized a few years ago that she was probably only in her early to mid-40s!  What sticks out in my mind about Mrs. Andersen is that she was thoughtful and creative – two qualities that I still really value in people.  She was also encouraging.  She noticed what my gifts and strengths were and encouraged my growth.  She also made it clear that she really liked teaching and really liked us.  She used to tell us stories about when she was a little girl, and she encouraged us to use our own voices by writing in a journal every morning.  At the end of the year, she wrote superlatives for each student in the class.  She said I was most likely to become first female president of the United States.  I don’t remember what I learned that year academically, but those personal touches made a big impact on me and strongly influence how I teach.

Off and on throughout my childhood and teenage years I wanted to be a teacher, or at the very least work with children in some capacity.  Briefly I wanted to be a “baby doctor” and then a “rock and roll dancer” and then a mystery writer and then a journalist, and my dad tried to convince me for awhile that I’d make a good lawyer.  But I kept coming back to teaching.

Unlike my high school classmates who had no real vocational direction when applying to college, I knew that I wanted to go to a school that had a good elementary education program.  So I applied to a small no-name college in Oregon while my over-achieving classmates chided me:  “You can do so much better than that.  Why aren’t you applying to Princeton?”  But I knew what I wanted to do.

Until my first week in college.

I blame my change of direction on culture shock – returning to the US after living abroad for ten years – and on having been introduced to cross-cultural counseling the summer between high school and college at a re-entry program for missionary kids returning to the US to start college.  Two small but significant things happened my first week in college.  The first was that a horrible image flashed into my mind of me standing in front of an all-white suburban second-grade class wearing a denim jumper and chunky wooden jewelry.  I thought, “Heck no!  I’m not being an elementary school teacher!”  The second was in Psych 101 when I came across the term cross-cultural psychology. Up until then I was unaware that such a specific topic existed.  But at that moment, I knew that’s exactly what I was going to pursue.

Flash forward three years (after a transfer to the University of Michigan) to graduation with Psychology BA in hand and no clue what I was going to do with my life.  There were absolutely no regrets to studying psychology – I loved it!  But we all know it leaves a person unemployable without further qualifications.  I was working full-time as an assistant pre-school teacher at the Montessori school where I had worked part-time throughout college but knew that was not what I wanted to do long term.  I wanted to be overseas but of course had no real qualifications for anything.

I ended up homeschooling missionary kids in a remote village in Honduras.  Not my plan or pursuit at all.  After my second stint, I realized that I really enjoyed teaching and should probably consider getting proper qualifications.  However, I got sidetracked doing campus ministry for a year, which only confirmed that I wanted to teach younger children instead.

So I moved to Houston to become certified as an elementary school teacher.  This time I had a much different image in my mind as to what I could do with that.  My goal was to teach in the States for a couple years to gain some good experience, then teach at an international school, then move into educational development in some capacity.  I got hired to teach first grade in a low-income area with students who were way more street-smart than I but who barely knew their letters and numbers.  I loved it.  And unexpectedly stayed to teach first grade for three years.

But the itch to go overseas was always there.  Always.  I always planned to move on.  Teaching in Houston was only ever temporary.  I skipped the step of teaching in an international school and went straight into educational development – getting my MA in International Educational Development and then working on an anti-corruption program in Mozambique for two years.  And I was supposed to go back for more.  I was going back for at least one more year with Oasis and then stay on in Mozambique working on other projects or heading elsewhere in Africa.  Never was I going to come back to the States.  Never was I going to teach first grade again.

Yet here I am, about to start teaching first grade again.  About to be an elementary school teacher again…


Give Thanks in All Circumstances December 1, 2009

Filed under: Faith — Jen @ 2:40 am

Several months ago I read Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place for the first time.  It’s the true story of a Dutch woman and her family who provided asylum to Jews in their home during WWII.  Corrie and her sister, Betsie, and their father were arrested and sent to Nazi concentration camps.  What is remarkable about their story is the hope and joy they – especially Betsie – continued to have despite their suffering.  At one point they were sent to a dormitory meant to house 400 prisoners but which accommodated 1400 crammed onto straw-filled, flea-infested mattresses.  Bestsie’s response was to thank God, despite Corrie’s protests.  Corrie grudgingly began thanking God for various things but interrupted Betsie when Betsie thanked God for the fleas.  Betsie’s response was that God instructed them to give thanks in all circumstances, which included the fleas.

Corrie and Betsie continued to pray in that room, which was not only filled with fleas but with despair and anger.  They started a Bible study and worship time with their fellow prisoners using a small Bible they had smuggled into the camp, and the atmosphere among those 1400 prisoners began to change dramatically.  The wardens were particularly strict and violent at that camp, but for some reason the nightly worship was never interrupted because the wardens mysteriously never entered the dormitory.

Some time later Betsie announced to Corrie that she had discovered why the wardens never entered that room…because of the fleas!  There was reason to be thankful for the fleas after all!

I was reminded of this story on Thursday morning when we read the passage from 1 Thessalonians about giving thanks:  “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”  If Betsie Ten Boom could give thanks while she was living in hell on earth, how much more should I be giving thanks.  Even if I can’t go back to Mozambique.  Even if I’m not earning an income.  Even if I don’t have health insurance.  Even if I sometimes feel completely lost.  We love the call and response:  “God is good…” , “All the time!”, “All the time…”, “God is good!”  But we tend to say this when things are good, forgetting the “all the time” part.  All the time.  In all circumstances.

Everyone is very sympathetic when they hear that I can’t go back to Mozambique.  “What a huge disappointment,” they say.  Yes, it is.  But in the midst of the disappointment, or maybe because of the disappointment, I am thankful for many, many things.  (Believe me, this only comes from practice of being in previous situations of big disappointment.)  Here are the top ten things I’m thankful for (in no particular order):

1.  Friends who willingly let me stay with them and make me feel part of the family

2.  Family who make me feel part of the family 🙂

3.  A car to use until Christmas

4.  “Support surplus” so that I’m financially okay during this time of transition

5.  A job interview on Tuesday and other opportunities to pursue

6.  Caring friends around the country and world

7.  Good health

8.  Good food

9.  A comfortable bed

10.  Even if I lost any or all of the above, my God would still be with me.

I don’t think I would ever be able to give thanks in the Ten Booms’ circumstances.  In fact, I probably wouldn’t be able to give thanks in even less dire circumstances.  But I’d like to be able to.  I’d like to begin putting into practice giving thanks in all circumstances.