A Fine Balance (a post I almost titled: “I can’t” and other lies we tell ourselves)

I originally wrote this last Sunday and published it briefly before taking it down out of respect for Joe Bower. This post is intended as a tribute to an educator who profoundly influenced my teaching and blogging in spite of only knowing him online. I suppose it speaks to the power of social media that I felt I knew him so well inspite of having only really met him in person once and I’m sure he wouldn’t remember me. I so clearly remember thinking “Well, that’s all well and good for Joe, but I can’t do what he does.” 

I spent the day meditating on “I can’t”.

His work and writing inspires me.

Tracy

The original post follows:

Sunday, January 3, 2016

I was seeking inspiration this morning as I head back to the classroom Monday and imagine that I’m not alone. I love my work. Reading and writing about teaching and learning is interesting and exciting. Working in the classroom is fun and rewarding. But we’re in a place where the hill gets steep; report cards are due in a week, we are in the thick of projects, I’m well slept right now but school starts in the morning, back to a masters degree, back to the track, back to being mom, packing lunches and helping with homework.

Sound familiar? 

Forgive me if I get philosophical, I’m coming back to my thesis: inspiration.

I went online today to get my dose of inspiration from like-minded educators on their last days of winter break and instead I learned the sad news of @joe_bower’s passing.

It’s left me rattled. Not because we were close; he’s someone I follow on Twitter, whose blog I read, who I only had the opportunity to meet face-to-face once but he influenced my thinking on teaching and assessment over the past while. His constant reminder that students are at the centre of what we do and that a conversation is always more valuable than a grade made a difference in the way I provide students with feedback.

I fell into a rut lately, thinking of myself in terms of “just”. Just a mom. Just a classroom teacher. Just a student. I can’t make a difference.

This post is not intended to turn a loss for a family, for students and for the many colleagues he influenced into something about me. Instead, I want to say to Joe that he made a difference in the life of someone he didn’t even know. In that way, his work as an educator and a writer extended beyond the work he did day-to-day with students and colleagues. The entire day has been spent reflecting on “I can’t”.

Running started for me from a place of profound loss many years ago; I spent three weeks unable to move, so lost, so dead in spirit, I forgot how to breathe. I did the only thing I knew to get out of bed: I put on my running shoes. The only place it seemed I could remember to breathe was in my running shoes, and for thirty minutes or an hour it became the pain I could control. I was just a middle-of-the-pack athlete. I still am. But running and triathlon made “I can’t” go away.

Three years ago, I met my coach when I decided I needed to do the impossible: Ironman. I needed to control the tornado. And six weeks after we met, she assigned a 1500m time trial. “Look,” I said, “You don’t know me that well… I can’t swim 1500m all in a row.”

“Ok,” she said, “just try it.”

And I did.

“I can’t.” And I knew in my heart that it was true. I couldn’t.

Yet I did.

Somehow I learned a thousand lessons from running and applied them to my life and my teaching. “I can’t” became a starting point instead of an end point. But I applied the principle unequally.

I met Joe at EdCampYYC only long enough to thank him for his discussion on ungrading assessment. It was a wonderful, inspiring conversation but, “That’s fine for him,” I thought, “He’s in a different place in his a career than I am. He can do that kind of thing… I can’t.” And yet… He challenged me to reconsider the objectivity of a grade book. My grade book has gotten considerably thinner but feedback to students has become considerably richer thanks to Joe.

“He can do it… But I can’t.”

But wait… I don’t really believe that’s true. Just a mom, just a blogger, just a classroom teacher, but I can make a difference. I went looking for inspiration and found it in an unlikely place. Someone I hardly knew made a profound difference in my practice over the past years and the best I can do is continue what he inspired.

What is it that every student needs? An advocate. Someone who, every morning, greets them with a smile and the unfailing belief that even though it’s not easy to do, that they can and will achieve the goals they set. That someone will see the potential even when it’s hard for them to see it. Our students need to know that even when in their hearts they know they can’t that we know they can.

I have written, deleted, rewritten, and rewritten this post because I’m having a hard time putting it into words. I do not wear my heart on my sleeve easily, but I feel that as a tribute to someone who took on so impossible a task as Joe Bower, this is not a bad way to do it. 

My condolences to his family and friends. I am so glad I got to know Joe and his ideas through Twitter and through his blog.

I can’t becomes, yes, actually I can.

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