Telling the truth with The Breakfast Club

The seminal scene in The Breakfast Club occurs when the five students are sitting in a loose circle sharing the truths of their lives.

For the first time in the film, each character exhibits the courage to be vulnerable and truthful with their peers, with themselves. And for that, each character matures and becomes a better person.

There is no action. No car chases. No gun fights. Just five people telling the truth–which sometimes in real life, seems as fictional and improbable as a Hollywood movie.

Be well,

Jay

Nobody Cares and Other Truths I Learned During My Two Years of Writing

This week marks two years of showing up, sitting down and writing–everyday.

Some days I pumped out thousands of words. On others, I farted a few foul sentences and went about my day.

But such is the writing life.

When I first committed to writing, I held a secret position that green writers often hold– I wanted everyone to care about my writing as much as I did.

Whether it’s writing a book or losing 20 pounds we want people to acknowledge our efforts with a smile, a hug and the coveted big blue Facebook thumb.

When I launched my website I wanted people to stop what they were doing and care. I wanted people to read and be inspired. I wanted invitations to  guest speak at conferences and wanted strangers to approach me with a nervous smile, offer a compliment and ask for a picture.

Vanity? Absolutely.

But the novice is almost always too vain for their own good.

The novice falls in love with their own fiction. A love affair that, if it doesn’t end in divorce, will certainly pin them to a barstool or a therapist’s couch or sometimes both for quite a while.

Here’s What I’ve Learned

I’ve learned writers are architects.

We want people to slow down, take pictures, tell their friends and admire what we’ve built, brick by brick, word by word.

We want recognition for our ability to craft stories and mortar ideas that stretch into the sky and, if the timing is right, throw some cool shade across the world.

I’ve learned that every subject has already been written about by writers much more talented than myself.

I’ve learned that the novice would rather dream than work. The novice wants achieve maximum results for minimum effort.

Original artwork by Haley Armstrong

There are three phases of the writer: novice, intermediate and professional.

I’m not a professional. Stephen King and Annie Lamont are professionals. They can offer insight on how to gain access to the heavily guarded compound where the professionals work.

However, I’ve graduated from novice to intermediate. My finely matted diploma marred with failures, doubt, fear and marginal successes proves I’m now qualified to reflect on my education.

If you’re thinking of pursuing a writer’s life or striding into the gym later today,  here’s the hard truth– nobody cares.

This is not to demean or passively-aggressively guilt you into caring.

The novice writer thinks everybody cares. The intermediate writer writes as if nobody cares.

The novice writes for attention. The intermediate writes for herself.

The novice writer writes when she’s inspired. The intermediate writes until she’s inspired.

Though she does appreciate them, the intermediate doesn’t write for blue thumbs. She likes praise but knows how dangerous it is to weave definitions from the threads of praise.

The intermediate enjoys the strain of the workout. A gym rat. A library mouse.

The intermediate pumps out 3,000 crappy words just to find 500 good words.

The intermediate is busy learning about truth and doesn’t realize that by learning her own truths she’s helping others discover their own.

The intermediate knows that even though writing is a vanity project– meaningful, enduring writing is always about the reader and always laced humility, sincerity and vulnerability.

She knows that other writers are scratching out posts, articles and books faster than she can and she doesn’t care. When she was a novice she stewed with jealousy. She’s now genuinely happy for other people’s accomplishments, but remains focused on her own goals.

And the intermediate knows there are miles of untraveled truths that need visiting before she can even pull into the parking lot where the professionals work.

This post marks two years of writing everyday and publishing a piece at least once a week.

Tonight, I’ll celebrate with a cold beer and some Charles Dickens. And then, when the 14.9 ounces of self-adoration ends, I will quietly return to my computer write again–as if nobody cares.

Be well,

Jay

PS–Thank you to everyone who has made the journey with me over the years. Thank you to anyone who has shared my work, offered a line of support or gifted me a big blue Facebook thumb. Thank you for welcoming my writing into your life.

How To Get Men To Talk About Their Chronic Illness

The following post is part of the The January Project: Chronic Illness. A month long project where I research and write about chronic illness.  The information presented in this project is intended for educational purposes only.

I am not a doctor. I am a teacher and writer who, while being afflicted with two chronic illnesses, is trying to learn how to live a productive and peaceful life. 

With this project I hope to increase awareness, offer comfort to those living with chronic illness and offer clarification to anyone who knows a person living with chronic illness.


When my wife comes home from work she vents.

If she doesn’t vent to me, she calls her best friend to vent. And when my wife’s best friend has had a rough day, she calls my wife to vent.

After a day of work my wife needs to talk about it. She needs to share her frustrations (and accomplishments) with me or her best friend. And after she vents she often says, “Sorry, I just had to vent.”

For my wife, sharing her emotions seems almost natural.

And I’ll admit, I’m a little jealous.

Three weeks into my research project on chronic illness and I’m hearing a lack of male voices on the subject. There are tons of blogs, articles and podcasts about living with chronic illness on the internet but most are voiced by women and geared toward women.

Even the articles I found about how men typically deal with chronic illnesses were written by women. Not to devalue those articles, it’s just strikingly clear that there’s a lack of male voices in the chronic illness discussion.

But why?

Men are just as susceptible to chronic illness, and in fact, chronic illnesses are more fatal for men than women.

According to the Harvard Medical Journal, Men die younger than women, and they are more burdened by illness during life. They fall ill at a younger age and have more chronic illnesses than women.

So why the silence?

I think it’s simple—men don’t feel comfortable talking about their weaknesses.

It’s not that we don’t want to talk about our illness, we do. I have had a lot of deep, personal conversations with male friends and male students about deeply serious things, including chronic illness.

The problem is we just don’t know how to voice our fears, frustrations and without looking weak.

We fear that having a real talk will be mistaken for venting. And venting is something that women do.

I wrote in A Vulnerable Man that when I was 15 years old I was called a fag by another boy because I wrote a story that impressed my 9th grade English teacher.

22 years later, as I tell you this, I can see my teacher smile and hear her say that I have a “strong writing voice” and that I should “keep writing.”

For the teenage, heterosexual male being seen as “gay” in the eyes of your male peers is the ultimate fear.

And if I’m being completely honest, at 37, it’s still a serious fear.

In this NSFW clip, comedian Bill Burr accurately ( and hilariously) describes why men are so foolishly terrified to look weak in front of other men and how a man’s emotional repression ultimately kills them.

 “What are you a fag” is the reason why guys dropped at 55 out of fucking nowhere.–Bill Burr

Young age men are trained by society and by other men to suppress their feelings. And for the man struggling with chronic illness this “training” becomes increasingly dangerous.

My plan when I began the January Project was to research the origin of chronic illness, the different types, possible preventions and latest research.

But something happened.

When I dove into the project I was shocked to find a lack of males voices talking about chronic illness.

So the focus of the January Project shifted from general research to writing about ways men with a chronic illness can accept vulnerability, overcome shame and find their voice again.

Like women, men need to share their struggles, their stories. Because repression leads stress and stress leads to physical and emotional weakness.

5 Constructive Things Men Can Do

Each of the things listed below helped me to accept and openly talk about my chronic illnesses. These strategies will not cure your illness, but they will help you take the first, crucial steps in achieving a less-stressful, more fulfilling life.

There was a time throughout my struggles with chronic illness that I thought each of these strategies were dumb–even writing.

At first they were uncomfortable and seemed futile. But the more I practiced them, the more I was able to accept my chronic illness, release stress and gain emotional strength. Training your emotional muscles is like training your physical muscles– if you want results, you must consistently go to the gym and lift weights.

Finding your voice is a life long process. It’s work. But if we never verbalize our emotions we will always be fragile and walk a tightrope of self-destruction.

1.Write

I don’t know where I would be without writing. Writing has been both a release and a source of strength for me. Writing has made my thoughts and feelings more tangible, more clear and easier for me to understand.

The purpose of writing is to not pen a novel. The quality of your writing doesn’t matter. It’s to have a dialogue with yourself–a private venting session to constructively release your emotions.

2. Make one small change

A chronic illness can leave you powerless. And when you’re powerless, sometimes you think you have to change everything to regain your masculine power. One way to regain your power is to make one small positive change. Committing to one small change will provide confidence to make bigger, future changes.

For example, a few weeks after I committed to taking daily all-natural vitamin supplements, I decided to change my carnivorous diet to a total plant-based diet. After weeks on a plant-based diet my body felt so good I was able to completely stop taking steroids, which I had taken for four years to alleviate my chronic pain.

3. Listen to motivational speeches

Because I was so afraid to talk about my illness, no one knew how much I was suffering. I wanted to talk but, maybe it was a lack of courage or maturity, I just couldn’t.

I found that listening to motivational speeches everyday helped me to build strength and courage that one day inspired me to talk.  My favorite speakers are Tony Robbins, Brene’ Brown and Les Brown.

4. Learn something new

Learning new things is cardio for your brain. Watching a documentary, reading a book or learning a new skill are simple ways to gain strength and confidence.

In fact, living with a chronic illness requires you to have a growth mindset, which basically means to increase your intelligence by dedicating yourself to learning about new ideas and perspectives. Intellectually growing makes you feel strong and helps you manicure a resolve to overcome future setbacks.

5. Tell one person that you’re scared

Bestselling author Lewis Howes explains, “anyone who has experience trauma in the past and hasn’t ever discussed it with anyone will allow the trauma to grow in negative way until you begin to tell your story.”

Even when I was enduring CAT Scans, blood tests, biopsies and MRIs it was still hard to admit to my wife that I was scared.

Men will endure and suffer to avoid admitting that they’re afraid. But admitting fear takes real courage and is an important step in the healing process. Though the stoic, unwavering man is glorified in our society, it’s important to remember that he is nothing but a work of fiction.

Men– living with a chronic illness is hard. It will emasculate you. It will break your spirit. Don’t let it. Hold on. Have patience. And never be afraid to tell your story.

Women– understand that men need you. Though we may not say it, your presence gives us strength. Be frugal with your questions. The last thing a suffering man needs is to be assaulted with questions. Stay patient, refrain from judgments and one day, when we’re ready, we will share our story with you.

Be well,

Jay


Related Original Writings on Chronic Illness:

What You Need To Know About Men Who Have A Chronic Illness And The Shame They Feel (Published on January 5, 2018)

I Celebrated My Worst Day (Published on September 8, 2017)

20 Things My Chronic Illness Has Taught Me (Published on June 16, 2016)

 

 

The Strength in Weakness- Student Voices (Guest Post)

Vulnerable and powerful, The Strength in Weakness is an unflinching personal narrative written by one of my female students about her dangerous attempts to achieve the physical perfection. 

In the age of social media, the social pressures to conform to conventional notions of beauty are dangerously high for teenagers, especially for females. 

The Strength in Weakness captures the physical and emotional pain that girls often endure to as they desperately try to satisfy society’s unrealistic demands of beauty. 


Meet the Writer

Sydney Flyge is 12th grade student at Robbinsville High School (New Jersey) and plans on attending Clemson University or the University of Washington in the fall of 2018.

Sydney intends to double major in psychology and Nutritional Science in hopes of, one day, being able to help people overcome obstacles pertaining to nutrition and mental health, as someone once helped her. 


Pat, pat, pat, pat

The sound of footsteps hitting the pavement matched the beat of the music infiltrating my ears. A dull ache enveloped my quadriceps and calf muscles. The ache slowly spread like a drop of food coloring on a paper towel, across my stomach, up my back, eventually reaching my deltoids and biceps.

Pat, pat, pat, pat.

The aching intensified.

My muscles screaming

I did not enjoy the struggle of my run.

The slow, thumping drum beats in my temples matched those of my heart, decelerating with every passing step. I realized that the dull ache of starvation in all of my muscles meant that I could feel them breaking down. The outer edges of my vision blackened each time my foot made contact with asphalt. Trapped, surrounded by trees in a cornfield on the middle school’s property in the dead of summer, I thought about dying.

And I remember realizing that no one would find me there.

I accelerated with the intention of making it only as far as the Pond Road Middle School parking lot. A place where my mom, or an ambulance, could easily pick me up.

I dug deep to overcome the shallow breaths depriving my starving muscles and organs of oxygen, I made it the half mile it took to get back to the parking lot.

I was lucky.

Surprised at my own accomplishment upon reaching the access road between the middle school and high school, I heard a familiar voice in the back of my head. She said: You just made it a half mile, what’s the one and a half more it takes to get home? If you quit now you’re weak. If you call your mom, she will get upset. You do not want to make her upset do you? And then she will tell your dad. And when he gets home he’ll shovel that fattening protein powder into a blender bottle and ask you to drink it in front of him. Do you know how many calories are in that protein powder? Don’t be weak.

My legs carried me the last mile and a half home. 8 miles. I had to eat a tangerine prior to entering the shower, to avoid collapsing.

35 calories.

In the moments between the tangerine and passing a mirror en route to the shower, my emaciated frame was covered by a thin, yet visible, layer of fat.

Frail shaking fingers grazed the skin under my belly button. My abdominal muscles, although toned and hollow, felt squishy. Suddenly I could no longer see the grooves in between every rib, my predominant collar bone vanished, my thighs thickened and my face swelled.

35 calories.

Exiting the shower, I dried myself and labored to my bedroom. Dressed in underwear and a fitted tank top, I stood gaping at my reflection. Contemplating the image before me for what could have been hours, I studied every crevice, every limb, from every angle.

I uncapped a black expo marker and began marking up my reflection. I circled my thighs, my obliques, my neck, the backs of my arms. My problem areas. With imperfections to remove, I needed to fake my usual ailments to escape dinner.

“I feel nauseous.”

“Well maybe you need to put something in your tummy?” My mom returned hopelessly.

“That would make it worse,” I started, “I think I’ll just go to bed early.”

“Okay” She agreed with silent protest.

Once upstairs and safely on the other side of my bedroom door, I turned the lock and approached my closet. Pushing aside heavy jackets to reveal the weights I had hidden on the shelves behind them. The bruises lining my spine from muscling through a thousands of sit-ups.

I stopped after I burned 35.

I had worked off the tangerine.

But then her voice echoed in the back of my mind. You could keep going. No one would know. Don’t be weak.

I continued.

My luck lasted for months. Allowing me to push and push without any potentially lethal consequences.

Pat, pat, pat pat.

Then, one day my luck ran out.

Pat, pat, pa—.

And that was the luckiest thing that ever could have happened to me.

For months my mind forced my body to run itself into the ground.

And it took years to repair the damage.

But you will have to wait to hear the rest of the story.

My mom is calling me to dinner.

What You Need To Know About Men Who Have A Chronic Illness And The Shame They Feel  

The following post is part of the The January Project: Chronic Illness. A month long project where I research and write about chronic illness.  The information presented in this project is intended for educational purposes only. My hope is to increase awareness to help those living with chronic illness and to offer clarification to anyone who knows a person living with chronic illness.


They were tough. They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing–these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. They carried their reputations.

— Tim O’Brien The Things They Carried

No one prepared me for the shame that came with a chronic illness diagnosis.

In the initial doctor appointments, after I was diagnosed with cerebellar atrophy, I was offered pamphlets on healthy eating, effective communicating with your spouse and the importance on scheduling and keeping doctor appointments.

But no doctor leveled their eyes into mine and explained that along with the physical ailments of my illness I was going to feel shame. Heavy coats of shame that weigh me down, make it hard to move, hard to breath.

No doctor warned me about the shame I feel every time my children ask me to ride bikes with them or my friends invite me to play basketball or the light bulb burns out in the hallway and I have to ask my wife to climb a ladder and to change it.

Somehow the male ego has skirted 200,000 years of evolution.

Both ancient and modern males fear weakness and dread failure. They crave strength and victory. They pride themselves on being a provider and protector.

Modern men avoid doctors appointments and hospitals and undersell pain (except when we have the flu). We don’t admit when something is wrong or even acknowledge something that may be perceived as weak. When something bothers us we often emotionally recoil. We become distant.

Men we would rather be labeled a loner then a loser.

Because men define themselves by their ability to do impressive things. Things that require strength and stamina. We are independent, prideful forces who find and polish important hunks of our identity from our ability to do physical things: run, jump, climb, protect, carry and build.

So when we are suddenly dependent, when we lose our physical abilities, our capacity to do impressive things– we lose ourselves.

For 33 years I defined myself by the games I played. I was an athlete.

Here I am with a close shave (and a broken arm) playing against Arcadia University (October, 1999).

As a child and through my teen years I played soccer, baseball and basketball. In college I played varsity soccer. Throughout my 20s and into my 30s I coached high school soccer and played third base on a competitive softball team.

Then I got sick.

I was unceremoniously forced into retirement.

I was patient now.

A weak and wounded patient.

Normalizing: A Crucial Step.

Research has shown that “normalizing” is a crucial step for anyone, especially prideful males, living with a chronic illness.

Normalizing means a willingness to adapt to a new life of chronic illness. It’s having the integrity to be more resourceful and find or invent ways to minimize the impact the chronic illness has on daily life. It also requires letting go of the past, letting go of dreams and aspirations  and placing a greater value on the present.

However, when a patient refuses to normalize their illness by hiding their limitations, a patient may cause additional physical damage as well as deepen their shame.

When ill people normalize symptom control and regimen, they increase their capacities and maintain normal health.

Theoretically, normalizing is a logical step for a chronically ill patient — refusing to let a chronic illness control your life, forge your identity.

I learned that normalizing can take years of accepting before conceding. For me, normalizing meant my chronic illness had won. It meant I was a loser.


A side note: The difference between shame & guilt

When I began this research, I was interchanging shame and guilt.

Though shame and guilt are close cousins, there is a distinct difference between the two.

According to Dr. Brene’ Brown:

Shame is a focus on self. Guilt is focused on behavior. Shame is “I’m bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad.”

With some digging men can admit guilt. But shame is much deeper. Shame is buried. Shame needs an excavator.

Men are not immune to shame.

We often just hide it better than women.


I still wrestle with shame.

It’s been five years since my initial diagnosis and I am still trying to  normalize.

And I know I shouldn’t be ashamed of my illness but some days I am.

I am a husband and a father. The leader. The patriarch. I am suppose to be physically strong. My family expects me to be strong. You expect me to be strong.

But some days I’m not.

Let me be clear– this was a really hard piece for me to write.

I’m prideful. I’m concerned about my reputation. I’m worried about what you will say about me when I’m not around and if it will be awkward the next time we see each other.

And yet I know if I do not announce my shame I will continue to struggle to normalizing my chronic illness.

I want you to know I have never talked to anyone before about shame.

Ever.

Shame has never been a hot subject between hands at a poker game or between bench press sets at the gym.

(In fact while writing this, I kept thinking about what the guys in my fantasy football league would think and say. How much ribbing I would take at the post season banquet.)

It’s much easier for men to silently struggle with shame.

So we do. We build facades, we deploy smokescreens. We lie to you. We lie to ourselves. And we do the thing we’ve been trained to scorn the harshest–we hide.

According to Dr. Brene’ Brown, shame is highly attributed to addiction, depression, violence, and suicide.

I personally know men, seemingly strong men, who have fallen victim to all of those dangerous behaviors.

And I know if I didn’t create Write on Fight on and share my story with you, I would have fallen victim myself.


Here are some resources if you want to learn more about shame…

I highly recommend watching Dr. Brene’ Brown’s Ted Talk “Listening to Shame”. The 20 minute talk offers tremendous insight on how damaging shame can be. I personally enjoyed the last 5 minutes where Dr. Brown  discussed how shame affects each gender differently. Also, this video  provided me some much needed motivation when I was afraid to write this piece.

The Handbook of Social Studies in Health and Medicine– It’s a bit technical but provided interesting research on experiencing chronic illness. You can find many excerpts of the book on “Google Scholar.” I found Kathy Charmaz’s Experiencing Chronic Illness (2.6) really helpful with my research. 

Shame is Why We Fight— Published on thegoodmanproject.com, this article explores how and why male shame is often the root of tension in a marriage, and if not addressed, can quickly deteriorate a marriage.


Related Original Writings on Masculinity, Shame and Chronic Illness:

The Scary Work of Redefining Yourself (Originally published on November 3rd, 2017)

The Day I Learned I Could No Longer Jump ( or Learning to Fly) (Originally published on October 26, 2016)

A Vulnerable Man 


Asking Good Questions: Why Teachers Should Listen to the Tim Ferriss Show

I always thought I was going be a 9th grade teacher. At that age…14, 15… there seems to be a lot of important forks in the road.–Tim Ferriss from Podcast #255 How to Turn Failure into Success 

Tim Ferriss is an entrepreneur, writer, angel investor and podcaster extraordinaire. A human dynamo with a child-like curiously and Stoic self-discipline, Tim has built himself into a multi-media giant.

Each of his massively successful books Tools of Titans, The 4-Hour Chef, The 4-Hour Body, The 4-Hour Work Week scored long runs on The New York Times Bestseller List.

The Tim Ferriss Show started as an experiment in 2014. However, it’s now one of the top podcasts on iTunes, collecting over 150 million downloads to date. Tim’s purpose is to “deconstruct would class performers” attempting to learn the habits and philosophies of ultra successful people including Arnold Schwarzengger, Jamie Foxx, Seth Godin and Brene Brown.

Amazingly, despite it’s success, the podcast remains a low-budget, lightly-edited production. An undecorated classroom, if you will.

How does Tim do it? What’s his secret sauce?

Tim Ferriss, like an effective teacher, asks his guests really good questions.

The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.– Tim Ferriss

Tim constructs questions that reveal the deep truths and stories of his guests. By designing, then asking well-crafted questions–the answers are authentic and rich and make for great entertainment.

For teachers, it’s imperative to understand that if you want your students to elicit meaningful responses, you have to craft meaningful questions.

When classroom questions lack quality, student responses will lack quality.

Often, the educational wheel is clogged with buzz words and en vogue practices. Progression is great but curiosity coupled with crafting and asking good, meaningful questions is the ancient foundation on which education was built.

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.–Socrates

The Open Question Effect

Asking “closed questions” or questions with finite response are good to assess comprehension and retention.

Who was the first President of the United Sates?

“Open questions” or questions with infinite response are necessary to increase engagement, encourage discussion and inspire critical thinking.

What do you think George Washington was feeling when he was nominated to be the first President of the United States?

Open questions requires students to work. To answer an open question, you may have to mine through your own contradictions to find the most honest answer. It’s from this mining where genuine and meaningful answers are discovered.

Maybe George Washington was excited at the prospect but, I have to think, he was overwhelmed, and possibly discourage, by being the first president of a new nation. 

Tim demonstrates how open questions spark honest and rich conversation. Most of his published podcast run for well over an hour. However, his unedited conversations, like two old friends just talking, last for hours. (A recent conversation with ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen lasted 3 hours.) It’s the flexibility of these open questions that propel these marathon conversations.

Listening

It’s near impossible to fake interest.

And students know when teachers are or are not interested in their ideas. When students feel this interest, they’re more willing to share themselves, become healthy risk takers and subsequently, develop into more creative and critical thinkers.

The art of listening is the most fundamental way to honor any relationship.

Tim Ferriss models that to be a good interviewer, you must be an active listener. Though many of his questions are scripted, many are not. Many questions, follow-up and clarifying questions, are spawned from the rhythms of the conversations.

As a teacher, like a good interviewer, you must invest yourself into your classroom conversation. You must listen in order to ask follow-up and clarifying questions.  By actively listening to students, teachers build and strengthen the student-teacher relationship. And even if you have 30 students in your class, if you actively listen to them, give their voice ample attention, the learning experience becomes a personal one for each student.

Vulnerability

A great interview materializes when the interviewer is willing to be expose their own vulnerabilities.

Tim Ferriss is unafraid to share with his guest (and millions of listeners) his own failures, limitations and struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. This vulnerability builds a trust with his guest (and his audience) and encourages all listeners to share their own personal struggles.

For teachers, it’s imperative that you present your vulnerability as a strength. A classroom that embraces vulnerability, fosters risk taking and supports authentic student-teacher discussions.

Our vulnerability, our imperfections, establish trust with students and creates  a positive classroom culture.

Give vulnerability a shot. Give discomfort its due. Because I think he or she who is willing to be the most uncomfortable is not only the bravest, but rises the fastest.– Tim Ferriss

Call to Action

Listening to podcasts on your commute to and from school is great way to boost creativity and cultivate new ideas.

The Tim Ferriss Show exemplifies the power of good questions. Tim demonstrates how well-crafted questions along with actively listening inspire people to share more of themselves.

In terms of education, student success often hinges on a teachers ability to construct and ask meaningful questions that encourage reflection and critical thinking– two essential practices for student growth.

Below you will find 7 of Tim’s best questions. See if you can borrow, shape and scale any of them to fit your classroom and content. Theses questions may serve as interesting writing prompts or discussion starters:

  1. Who or what is your darkest teacher?
  2. What’s one thing that you do that people think is crazy and why do you do it?”
  3. If you could relive one moment in your life, which would you choose and why?
  4. Who is the first person that you think of when you hear “success”? Why?
  5. If you could have a giant billboard with one message on it, to inspire thousands  of people, what would it say?
  6. What have you changed your mind about in the last few years and why?
  7. How has a failure set you up for future success?

Since you’re here…check out The Write on Fight on Teachers Spotlight. A monthly interview with an awesome educator who is actively shaping and inspiring young minds.

This month’s interview is with history teacher and blogger Julie Boulton.        

I love to bring stories to light that might have been forgotten otherwise.”– Julie  Boulton 

 

 

 

Teaching Students the Power of Vulnerability

This week’s post was inspired by Teacher Appreciation Week.


It takes more courage and less time to admit you don’t have the answer then to pretend you do.

For most aspiring teachers, writing a Philosophy of Education is not only a requirement, but a pedagogical rite of passage.

I remember, 15 years ago, in the swarms of early May, littering my philosophy with the theories of Skinner, Maslow and Erickson and thinking (albeit foolishly) I had arrived as a teacher. I thought that because I could regurgitated theories and infuse chic educational language into my philosophy I was bound for classroom success.

But 15 years later, 3 high schools later, and thousands of students later here’s what I have learned:

Underneath all the best practices and strategies and theories and high-stakes testing and educational bureaucracy remains one critical component for successful teaching: Vulnerability.

A few years ago…

…at Back to School Night, a parent approached me, shook my hand and said, “I don’t know how you do it.”

I smiled, “Well, teaching is tough but I enjoy it.”

She shook her head, leaned in and whispered, ” No. Deal with teenagers. They’re scary. I can’t wait until mine graduates.”

When I first started teaching…

…I was afraid to show weakness in the classroom.

I thought not knowing the answer to a grammatical question or the definition of some ornate word like sophistry would trigger not only the quick death of my teaching career but a storm of teenage mockery.

So I fashioned an authoritative front–polished shoes and a tightly knotted tie.

I deflect questions I didn’t know the answers to with responses like, “I’ll answer that later.” And would either not answer the question or conduct some stealth research and pass off the answer like I knew all along to fortify my position as the all-knowing teacher.

Why?

Because teenagers, like Back to School lady said, “are scary.”

However, little did I know, the all-knowing, impenetrable  teacher was uninspiring, unreliable and further forging the many falsities that narrate the realistic fiction novel known as High School.

Fortunately, something happened.

11 years into my teaching career, I was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder– Sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disorder that can, if not monitored, be fatal.

In my first few visits, the doctors told me it didn’t look good. They told me to get my affairs in order.

I was a 33 years old,  a husband, a father of 3. I was suppose to be a rock. Strong. Brave. And here I was standing feebly at the most vulnerable intersection of my life.

Enter Vulnerability

Struggling with the diagnosis, I returned to the classroom. I had to. I had to go back to what I knew, to the stability of the school day.

I think it was the sudden awareness of my own mortality that made me realize it was okay and even acceptable, to tell my students I didn’t have all the answers. That much of life and literature is and always will be a mystery. And that the mark of a good teacher is having a willingness to learn alongside of their students.

Since my diagnosis, I constantly reinforce to my students that life, like high school, comes to an end. And with the gift of time it’s our job, our responsibility, to question and think and explore and share our stories and have courage to blast beyond the limits of rudimentary theories.

One the first day of school this past September, I introduced myself to new batch of students by telling them how I once stood 30 feet away from my literary hero, Tim O’ Brien and how I lacked the simple courage to introduce myself to him. How I missed an opportunity of a lifetime.

I wanted them to know that vulnerability is the essential root of the thinker and learner.

I wanted my new students to know that– before the syllabus was handed out– they weren’t being taught by an educational cyborg. That my wounds are both fresh and real. And how the seminal teenage belief that vulnerability is a weakness is completely and utterly false.

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With education changing at a blistering pace, technology and quantified data research now dominates best practices.

And I do believe classroom education should be pillared with research, poignant questioning and differentiated instruction.

But underneath all the pedagogical verbiage, education has and always will be powered by human connection.

An electric connection that jolts you to know vulnerability is both a strength and an essential pillar of learning.

Be well,

Jay