Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Value of a Teacher

I've been communicating with some of my former teachers on Facebook. And I've been hearing my eldest describe her current teachers in high school. And it has all got me thinking about just how good teachers can be . . and just how bad teachers can be.

Many of you know that I'm a fan of the idea of merit pay for teachers. I'm not sure how to accomplish it fairly and practically, but I agree with the principle: good teachers should be paid better than bad teachers. They should be paid according to their value to their students. But how do we determine that value?

My husband, the businessman, will tell you that the value of a product has nothing to do with the costs incurred to produce it, or the differences between it and similar products, or anything like that -- the real value of a product is whatever a consumer is willing to pay for it. A fancy decorative tea cozy may seem like an unnecessary frivolity that accomplishes nothing of worth in society, but if someone is willing to pay half a month's salary for it, then that is its value.

So, can we use the same principle to determine a teacher's value -- that is, what he/she should be paid? Stay with me here, and hear me out before you get all huffy -- I'm just exploring an idea . . .

I contend that the people in a school community who ultimately know best which teachers are good and which are bad are the parents. (Well, the attentive parents -- we all know there are some parents that know nothing really about what's going on in their kids' lives -- factor them out of this scenario.) Parents know when a school year ends which teachers their kids actually learned from and which they didn't. And parents are usually quite willing to share their assessment with other parents -- and such parents know very well which teachers they want their kids to get for certain classes.

What if . . and again, don't freak out yet . . what if we were to allow parents to pay extra for the teachers they want their children to have? If parents had some power to choose their child's teachers, they would be even more active in seeking out information about the prospects. And the teachers who have been most successful with the most students would have the best reputations and ultimately command the best salaries. We would KNOW which teachers are good, and they would get paid accordingly.

Now, I understand that this would also mean that the wealthiest children would get the best teachers -- I'm not suggesting this as a legitimate solution to the teacher pay question. I'm just exploring the question of how to determine how much a teacher should be paid. As much as my liberal friends like to rail against the free market system, it can be very useful, and I'm wondering if there's a way to make use of its principles here . . .

More to come later, I think.

On Self-Marketing and Genius

My youngest was writing a song last night for a band with her and two friends. No such band exists yet, but she had the idea for one last night and started writing music. Right now, she's typing up a script for a play that we wants to do with her neighborhood friends. Or maybe it's a movie. Again, nobody else knows the plans she has for them yet, but she's convinced it will be a big hit.

She's a lot like me. She gets all sorts of brilliant ideas. She plans them all out, imagining in her head just how they will all go, who will be involved, etc. Then, she's disappointed -- sometimes inconsolably -- when things don't go according to her vision. Like, our family has something else scheduled for the time she wants to rehearse . . . or we don't have supplies to build the set she was envisioning . . or some friend of hers has another idea of how it should work or isn't interested in participating at all.

As I said, she's a lot like me. I get fabulous ideas for plays . . or for unit lesson plans . . or for birthday parties . . . or whatever. It's taken me many years to get used to the idea that I have to have others on board with my ideas before I begin, rather than to just assume that they'll recognize the brilliance of my plans and gladly jump on the bandwagon with me.

Looking back, I think that was some of the frustration I had with teaching early on. I had great lesson plans. As I was planning, I could just envision how thrilled the students would be, how enthralled with my exciting presentations, how enlightened by the instruction. And then it never seemed to turn out that way. Such a let-down. Makes you want to give up sometimes.

One thing I learned about myself as a Creative Memories consultant is that I hate doing sales. I hate trying to convince someone that they want what I have to offer them, whether it's a photo-safe album, a script for a Christmas program, or a new way to teach grammar. I think that's why I have gravitated to positions where I am not casting a vision myself, but providing the means for another's vision to be accomplished. I need someone to recognize what I can do for them and come to me. Unfortunately, that doesn't often happen. I probably need to get over myself and learn to market.

In the meantime, I want to figure out how to keep nurturing this imagination and enthusiasm in my youngest while helping her learn how to sell an idea and how to accept the realities of life -- that genius such as ours is often unappreciated and unrecognized. And maybe I'll throw in a few lessons in humility while I'm at it. :)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

All Our Sins and Griefs to Bear

I teach my girls old hymns during our Bible lesson in homeschool. Just because I want them to know the old hymns -- there's a lot of good stuff in them. This morning, we will be singing my mother's favorite: "What A Friend We Have in Jesus". I used to get annoyed at this song. Too redundant. "Everything to God in prayer . . everything to God in prayer . . everything to . . ." But in recent years, I've had more need to take everything to God in prayer, and now I get it.

What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear . . .

That phrase jumped out at me this morning. I've always been grateful for Jesus' willingness to bear my griefs, even when I can't quite figure out how to give them up to him completely. But he also bears our sins. I knew that. Theoretically. But now I'm really pondering that phenomenon.

I'm well aware of my sins. And I'm well aware that there are sins in my life I'm probably not aware of. I have a hard time bearing all my sins sometimes. I see the effects they have on my life, on my family, on my ministries, on my witness. Sometimes the burden of guilt over how I fail can be overwhelming. The fact that Jesus wants to take the burden of my sins -- just like the burden of my griefs -- is cause for great praise.

But the thing is, he doesn't just bear my sins. "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins. And not just for ours, but for the sins of the whole world." (James 2) The sins of the whole world. Again, I always knew that intellectually, but the reality of that doesn't always sink in. I know how heavy the burden of my own sin is. But everyone has that burden -- and many people don't have any respite in the fact that Jesus offers to take that burden, which only increases the burden's weight. Yet Jesus bore the sins of the whole world. Every person who has ever lived on the planet, their burden of sin was born by Jesus on the cross.

Wow. That takes a big God to bear up under that. A mighty God. A powerfully loving God. A remarkably merciful God. Wow.

Oh, what peace we often forfeit,
Oh, what needless pain we bear.

What a privilege to be friends with a God like that.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Woman's Tears

For a lot of women, a lot of the time, crying is a lot like sweating.

I don't remember where I heard that analogy, but it rings true for me. Sometimes when I (and other women I know) cry, it's not because I'm upset. And they aren't necessarily tears of joy, either. It's just a kind of physical release. Like sweating when you exercise, it's an outward sign of some good, healthy work happening on the inside.

But not everyone understands that, even among the female population. Whenever we see someone cry, our first thought is that something is wrong with them. If you are a compassionate type, you'll probably go up and put your arm around them and ask if they're okay, in that sing-songy sweet voice we use in such situations -- we may even call them "honey", or some such endearing, motherly term, because it just feels right to act like a mama right then. And when they protest that they are fine, we assume they just need more coaxing to let it all out and feel better, so we hug them some more and call them "sweetie" or "sister" or something else, hoping to project ourselves as a safe repository for all the deep secrets and emotions that are troubling them.

And this brings me to last weekend. I spent Thursday, Friday and Saturday in St. Louis with my two sisters attending a Joyce Meyer women's conference. A conference I really enjoyed, more than I thought I might. I've read some of Meyer's books and appreciated a lot of her teaching as very valuable, but I've always had some misgivings about her, and I wasn't sure how I would like a weekend full of her. But it turned out to be a great conference.

Yet, the crying issue came up. The women at this conference leaned toward the charismatic Christian tradition and were very vocal and demonstrative, particularly during the "praise and worship" (read: music). Didn't bother me . . . in fact, I found myself at times feeling the urge to raise my hands as I sang as well. But I didn't. Why, do you ask?

Because I knew that if I did, I would start crying. Sweat-type crying. Just an emotional release that probably would have been good for me at the time. But I was with my sisters (who are not used to me crying) and one sister's two friends (who didn't really know me at all), and I didn't want to start the hugging/mothering/oh-honey-just-let-it-all-out cycle. Mainly, it would have disrupted the good worship that was going on -- they would have been worried about what was wrong with me, I would have been frustrated at not being able to convince them nothing was wrong, the women around us would have been distracted by wondering if something serious was going down here that they should be praying about . . . you know.

Need to figure out a brief, simple answer to give to that question, "Are you okay?" Something that frees the inquirer and myself both to just let me do some healthy crying when the occasion calls for it.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Doctor Number Six

So, the latest sleep doctor is recommending I find a psychiatrist to try some anti-depressant meds. Even though I don't feel depressed (actually, I've been feeling more content with life lately than I have in a long time), I have a history of depression, and there may still be enough of a chemical imbalance there to disrupt my "sleep architecture".

Not crazy about that idea. I've been on anti-depressants before. I remember my psychiatrist describing the whole process -- sometimes these meds work, sometimes others do, we don't know exactly how or why they work in each different person, so we just play around until we find an effective treatment. It made me think of something my friend Vickie said once: "You know, doctors used to drill holes in people's heads. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn't. They never knew why it did or didn't work, so they just kept drilling holes in people's heads." As much as I believe that there are really people who have a chemical imbalance that needs to be corrected with anti-depressant meds, I'm not comfortable with the idea of their playing around with my brain chemistry to see if that's the problem.

I've always wondered, too, how people survived in past centuries before such medications existed. I'm sure many people were just depressed all the time. But I have a hypothesis. I think they were better able to handle a dysthymic state of mind because they didn't have such high expectations of life. They weren't conditioned by society to believe that they should constantly feel fulfilled and joyful and peppy and all. Life is hard, and they knew and accepted that. They probably appreciated the happy times all the more because they saw them as a blessing when they came, rather than feeling cursed when they were absent.

All to say . . . I'm not sure what to do about this recommendation from my latest sleep doctor. A couple other friends have recommended their favorite alternative medicine man. If they have an answer for me, I think I'd prefer that to more meds. On the other hand, their answers may not be as easy as more meds -- and part of being sleep-deprived is being lazy. And I don't want to spend a lot of time and money pursuing possible remedies that are just wacky. *SIGH* What to do . . what to do . .

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Oh, To Be a Cow . . .

I was sitting upstairs this morning looking out of my window and saw the herd of cows grazing in the field behind my house. A bit off in the distance. Lazily chomping away at their grass on a cool, drizzly morning. A handful of calves were born to the herd this year, and I watched one of them trotting over to its mother and then stop to feed by her.

And suddenly, I wanted to be a cow.

Seriously. To have nothing to do all day but wander around a lovely green field, eating tasty green grass. No schedules to meet. No people to chase down by phone, text, email, facebook, whatever. No deadlines. No stressful decisions that will inevitably leave somebody unhappy. No guilt trips about needs going unmet, about relationships being neglected, about chores left undone. No worries about national and global peace and prosperity. No fuss about clothes and hair and makeup and weight gain.

Just walk and chew. And repeat.

If I believed that man evolved from lower life forms, I would have to wonder at the wisdom of his doing so.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Storms of the Brain . . .

Pastor's finishing up a series on wisdom in October with a message about "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Psalm 111 and Proverbs 9). I'm thinking that's a topic we should be able to work up a good drama for.

I think of our Sunday morning dramas as kind of a surgery prep for the congregation. The pastor has a message from God to deliver, and there's a place in each person's heart and mind where that Word needs to be applied, where it can serve its healing or sanctifying function. The drama can lead each person to that place -- "cut them open" and lay bare the wound or diseased spot that needs the application of God's truth. Sorry for the graphic imagery, but it works for me . . and this is my brainstorming session.

So, if the take-away this particular Sunday is that they need to look for wisdom first in their reverance for God, what in Joe Sunnybrook's life might stand in the way of their doing that? A misunderstanding of what "the fear of the Lord" means? Perhaps. But I think that may be a lot of what Pastor is addressing, and so we don't want to be repetitive. The drama isn't a sermon in itself. We don't want to steal his thunder.

Maybe it's that we are conditioned by the world to look for wisdom elsewhere. Like where? Hmmm. Knowledge . . information . . we are bombarded with bits and pieces of information all day long . . soundbites from the news . . . twitter updates . . . endlessly forwarded emails . . . we hear something and feel enlightened by the knowledge, but before that enlightenment has a chance to take root and make a difference in our lives, it is displaced by another witty comment . . . yet we somehow feel wiser . . . hmmmm.

Where else? Experience . . gray hair is said to be a sign of wisdom because the longer one lives, the more experiences one has had to learn from . . . but while experience gives the opportunity to grow wiser, it doesn't guarantee wisdom . . . how often do we do the same stupid things over and over again.

Where else? Advice from others? Yes, but we don't really want to knock that -- it's Biblical to seek wise counsel. But maybe it shouldn't be where we start . . the beginning of wisdom. Where else? How about "listening to your heart"? One of my personal pet peeves . . all this talk about the answer being right there inside you, just listen to your heart . . . the Bible says, "The heart is deceitful above all things" (Jeremiah 17) . . . my "heart" can say different things to me depending on how well I slept, what I ate for breakfast, who I've been hanging out with lately . . . whenever I hear some well-intentioned inspirational guru encouraging people to "look within" for all the answers in life, I wonder how many human beings they are very well acquainted with.

So, maybe three characters . . each with a different idea of where wisdom begins . . knowledge . . . experience . . the inner self (is there a better word for that?) . . . in conversation with each other? No, that might feel contrived -- and it would take too much time to set up a situation in which such a conversation would happen. Monologuing . . talking to the audience . . each in their own situation, no interaction with each other . . but perhaps with some of their lines overlapping, to show the similarity of their follies? Ooo, yeah, I like that . . .

You're all dying to see this, aren't you? :)


Sioux City is a pretty cool town, really -- especially for its size. I mean, there's some really neat stuff that happens here.

Ever since we moved to Siouxland, we've been hearing about ArtSplash. We didn't quite get what it was exactly -- an arts festival, yes, but we weren't sure how appealing it would be to our family. But the JAM Action Squad at our church was doing a kids craft there, and our eldest volunteered to help out. So, our lazy inertia came to an end yesterday afternoon.

This is a very nice event, folks! Takes place down by the river -- a lovely spot in itself. They have rows and rows of artists (over a hundred, Keith and I estimated) with their works on display for sale or just for perusal. And some really good art! Now that we know about this, I think we may come prepared next year to look for some items for our home.

Then there's a main stage set up with live performances happening all afternoon. On Saturday, they had a "TalentSplash" competition -- kind of a "Siouxland's Got Talent" thing. We just heard the winner perform yesterday afternoon, but next year, maybe I'll have to come watch the preliminaries.

There's another small stage area -- the "Children's Loft" -- that has performances going on geared toward kids. We got there when a woman (the pastor's wife from the Orthodox Church I wrote about before) was leading everyone in some kind of dance/exercise based on traditional Indian and Bollywood moves. Our youngest joined in right away -- it was a lot of fun! There was a magician there, too, that she loved. Gave me some ideas for the drama team for next year . . .

Near the Children's Loft were several tables of craft projects (offered by various local groups, like Sunnybrook's JAM Action Squad) that kids could make and take home. Or they could get their face painted, their hair color-sprayed, their arms tattoo'd . . you know, that kind of thing.

And then, the obligatory food vendors with all the wonderful, greasy food that you only allow yourself to eat at such events because if you ate that way all the time, you wouldn't live past the age of thirty.

And the weather was glorious! Sunny, a little cool, a slight breeze blowing most of the time. Just a lovely afternoon. One of these days, maybe we'll learn that we don't often regret it when we get our lazy butts up and do things!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Great Social Experiment

My youngest and I came to some conclusions last night.

For bedtime reading, we're finishing up the American Girl Julie series, the girl from 1974. I'll put aside my angst at having my own childhood period set up as an historical era for my children to read about. In this last book, Julie has a deaf friend who is being cruelly teased by some girls in school. Eastin's having a hard time reading this, because it hurts her how mean the girls are.

And she's relating it a lot to her year in public school last year. How mean kids can be. How everyone blows their top about something or other. How "everyone has something wrong with them" -- everyone has their own faults and frailties. Yet kids are still so mean to each other. She finds it very distressing.

Kids don't act that way in small groups, it seems. We talked about how, for some reason, school seems brings out that behavior. Being grouped en masse with a random set of children who happen to have been born within a year of your birthday. Starting from the tender age of 5 or 6, when kids are . . well . . immature. Selfish. Socially inept and inexperienced. Who expects otherwise from a 5-year-old? Thrown into a pool of piranhas to sink or swim, find an identity, fill a rank in the social order, or get swallowed alive. By the end of Leslie's first grade year in public school, I was very conscience of the social experiment we had been performing with her -- very conscience of it and very uncomfortable with it.

During our homeschooling years, I was very careful about my girls' social interactions. I paid attention to the kind of influence my kids were having on others, and they on my kids. I didn't keep them away from "bad influences", but limited their amount of exposure and always was present to mediate. We talked about these kids and what might be happening in their hearts and minds and lives to make them want to act that way. We prayed for them. We tried to train our girls to be salt and light.

Like so many parents, I would have done the same thing if they'd been in public school, too. I just couldn't have done it as effectively.

I've often heard it given as an objection to homeschooling that homeschooled students don't learn how to deal socially with kids who are different than they are. I find that argument very amusing. As if public school kids are so much more advanced in these skills.

Eastin's conclusion last night: "I like homeschooling better." My conclusion: ditto.