Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Mother-in-Law Clean

My mother-in-law is a very nice woman. She has been open and accepting of me for all my oddities from the very beginning. I have every reason to believe that she is happy that I and my daughter (from a previous marriage) joined her family, and added another granddaughter to the mix shortly thereafter.

This doesn't at all change the fact that I am in a mild panic because she is coming to visit tomorrow.

I think it's because she's a good housekeeper. I'm not.

Everyone has the level of clutter and mess they are willing to live with. Hers is very low. Mine, much higher.

We have several layers of "acceptably clean" depending on who's coming to dinner.

Just us four: If the table has too much on it, we eat dinner on TV trays together.

My sister and brother-in-law: We clear the diningroom table.

My own parents: I change all the bedding and make sure all seating is clear. Done.

A party: Every major surface is clear. I have located and made accessible the appropriate toys, games, etc. A lot of cooking happens.

My mother-in-law: I have never achieved a level of cleanliness for this that relieves all my stress. I think it would require starting over in a new house each time and not admitting the children or the dog.

So, why is that?

I imagine her coming into my house and suddenly I can see how cluttered and dusty we are.

I don't really think she judges me or us for this. She knows how ridiculously busy we (I) am--working full time, feeding everybody reasonably well every day, getting the tween and the preschooler to all the right locations, finding time for my own writing, and sometimes putting my feet up and watching an old movie. I also sleep more than she does.

Is it a kind of competition? That seems silly. But, just because something is silly doesn't mean I don't suffer over it. (Remind me to tell you about how jealous I get over my so-not-a-flirt husband sometime.) Maybe I really do feel like my house has to be as neat as hers if she's going to see it. It's unrealistic: we have a lot more stuff and a lot more day to day chaos. But since when have I limited my desires to what is realistic?

A kinder view: maybe I'm just being a kid. Maybe I need that gold star, that moment when she says (again), "Wow! The place looks great! You must be taking good care of my son and grandchildren. You're awesome!" It's actually pretty funny to imagine her making that speech as she walks through my door tomorrow afternoon.

Still, maybe it's good she comes to visit from time. It makes me strive for that impossible level "Mother-in-Law Clean." My house looks way better than it usually does.

It may even last a day or two after she leaves.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Had we but world enough, and time

I work in a very strange profession. I have a job that most people agree is important, yet is one of the lowest paying jobs a professional can have. Everyone has an opinion about how the job should be done: legislators, religious leaders, parents, people on the street. I can't think of another profession where people with no training or experience in your field think they can advise you on how best to do your job.

Unlike other professions, where a person builds in responsibility with experience and newbies are given time to develop skills on lower-level projects, mine is a profession where you get the full enchilada on day one. Either you survive, or you quit.

Yep you guessed it, I teach. Public school. Middle school.

Every year since I began, I have been asked to do more, with less money, and more importantly less time.

Time is the part that rankles me.

Every single day I produce six engaging, edifying lessons which both push the gifted students and provide support for the struggling students without losing the interest of students at any other level. Each lesson is supposed to help each child become a 21st century learner and foster literacy skills. I utilize a variety of ever-changing forms of technology and teach the children to do so as well. I am maintain contact with 130 families, informing each parent of whatever struggles and problems their child faces in my classroom. I maintain a website that details everything that is happening in my classroom and provides resources students and parents can use at home. I am also my own secretary--making all my own copies, creating my own documents, collating, stapling, and filing. I am my own housekeeper as well, cleaning tables, whiteboards, chairs, etc.

To accomplish all this, I get two "prep periods" a day. This is teacher talk for the time during the day when you do not have supervisory duty (no students in your room). My two prep periods are one hour and six minutes and thirty-three minutes in duration (if I count my lunch, too). However, I rarely get all ninety-nine minutes. There are meetings one to three times a week, too. I try to eat lunch most days.

Because I am utterly amazing, and because I can now pull from sixteen years of classroom experience, I manage to produce lessons that please me more often than not. But I am always always always behind on assessment--paper grading, providing meaningful feedback to the kiddos to help them grow. I am frustrated 100% of the time because of time--99 minutes a day is not enough to do the preparation work at the level it should be getting done at. No matter how efficient I become, the work will never fit in the work day.

When I look at the work days of friends who do not teach, I get very jealous. When one friend is asked to make a presentation (one presentation--I make six daily), she is relieved of her other duties for three days so she can prepare. When another friend was asked to use a new form of technology, he was sent to a week-long training session at company expense and given three day workshops as follow up quarterly for a year.

Gah! What I could do! The amazing things I could do, if my profession had respect for the time it takes to do it well.

Once I had a teaching job with adequate time. It was awesome! I taught for a summer program at Johns Hopkins' Center for Talented Youth. I taught one class of fifteen kids for two sessions a day. I had four hours a day to prep one lesson and do any assessment. Because it was a summer program, I didn't have to maintain a website or keep in contact with the kids' parents on a daily basis. For the first time in my teaching career, I felt like I was doing it justice. I wish teaching could always be like this.

It's not, though. So, why teach?

At its worst moments, it's like . . . spitting into the wind, herding cats, banging your head against a wall, hammering on cold iron, whistling in the dark, fiddling while Rome burns, tiptoeing through a minefield blindfolded, trying to make a silk purse from a sow's ear.

Why teach? Because, at its best moments, it's like . . .touching the future, bridging the abyss, grounding live wires, opening doors, awakening sleeping giants, lighting the lamp that illuminates the world.

Really if you are a teacher, there's nothing else you could do. It's the only thing that feels right.

But I'll continue to wish for more time. I know, I know. If wishes were horses . . .

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The days are long, but the years are short

So, I'm reading The Happiness Project right now. I don't want to write a book review right now, but I will say that the book surprised me pleasantly. I've gotten much more from it than I expected.

What I do want to write about is one line from the book, my title: the days are long, but the years are short. During this time of my life when I'm feeling like time goes so incredibly quickly, I read this line and immediately wrote it down as a Great Truth. Yes! That's it, exactly!

T and I are always having conversations about something that just happened, then realizing that whatever it was actually happened months or even years ago. A few months ago, we had our fifth wedding anniversary. Five years? How the heck did that happen? I'm sure it was just last week that we were trying to decide if we should date.

So, what's making the days so long, but the years short? In short: kids. When T and I deciding to join forces in the good fight, we already had one kid from my first marriage, M. Plus, I have somewhere between 120 and 150 kids each semester. Then there was N, our younger girl. Our hurricane.

My mother told me, when I spoke of having a second child, "You should know, Samantha. Two children is not double the work. It is exponentially more work." I nodded sagely, but, of course, I didn't understand. It's one of those things you can't understand until you've experienced it firsthand, like being in love.

She was right you know. Two children is definitely way more than double the work. But it is also way more than double the wonder, double the joy, double the love. It's fast, furious, crazy, stressful and wonderful.

My legs hurt after a long day of teaching today. My girls told me to put my feet up, made me a cup of hibiscus tea (because it's pink), and then made me the middle of a cuddle sandwich that lasted the better part of an hour. Now that's the way to end a long day.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Why Everyone Should Have a Meal Plan

So, I've found my little key to calmness in this chaos we call family life: meal plans.

Like every family, we struggle to balance everyone's needs and wants. Mom wants to go to a reading on Thursday, so Dad will have to handle the playdate transportation. Big Sis needs a trip to the library for a school project, so Little Sis will have to be patient and quiet in the "big kid" section.

We're really really really organized about this. We got gmail accounts for all of us (the littlest got one within days of being born) and shared all the calendars, so we can color code everyone's commitments. That helps--at least we can get a clear picture of what kind of chaos we're in for in a given week.

But the key is the meal plan.

It makes me feel a little like Donna Reed or maybe June Cleaver to say it, but you've got to have a meal plan. Having the week's menu planned out in advance saves time, energy and calories. It relieves stress. Plus, everyone gets to eat!

Each weekend, my husband and I shut ourselves away from the children for an hour or so and sit down for the planning meeting. We examine each day and talk through all the commitments, deciding what needs to be cut and what gets prioritized. Part of this is figuring out how to get everyone fed. Who will prepare what and when? Will we get to eat all together? Then the meal plan becomes a grocery list and someone goes shopping.

The planning meeting is a vital part of the weekend for me. It's our guaranteed time to touch base. Making these decisions together is bonding time. I think it's something T started doing for me, because I'm a real plan-ahead girl. Whatever it is, I want to know at least a week in advance. But now, he values the time, too. In taking care of the girls' needs, it can be hard to finish whole sentences and both of us really value this chance to set priorities together, even if it's just one week at a time.

Sometimes, I think it's the only thing that keeps my head above water: I know what's for dinner.

So, any given day, I get home from school, probably exhausted, definitely brain dead. If I had to decide on what to prepare at a moment like that, we would eat a lot of takeout pizza. But luckily, we've already planned it out.

I pull out my iPhone and look at today in the calendar: spaghetti and meatballs, Betsy and garlic bread. (Betsy is a family word for a very simple salad: lettuce, carrots and cucumber. It's named after a friend.) I put the girls on tasks. Big sister can fill a pot with water and put it on to boil. Little sister can get the garlic bread out of the freezer and get Mommy a cookie sheet. I start chopping vegetables. Someone microwaves the meatballs and sauce. And vĂ³ila, dinner. It's simple, but not bad for Wednesday night after soccer practice.

By the time Raleigh and the traffic in between lets us have Daddy back, we are ready to eat, at the table or on TV trays while we watch The Avengers cartoon series together.

I lean back and sigh. Yep, we made it through again. Dinner is served.