This week has been a tough one at the Arneson household, as our eldest Lab, M.E., passed away after 13 1/2 love-filled years. I won't lie. The first few weeks, even months (okay, if I'm totally honest, it might have been the first two years) were really rough. M.E. was a nervous pup---unpredictable, didn't warm to new people, and had to carry around a toy in her mouth like a pacifier. Well, now, you can see the toy-carrying behavior never changed. This picture was taken this year.
After our first Lab, K.C., passed away in 2008, I wrote a book called "Letting Go of K.C." that talked about how much Dave and I learned about co-parenting such a great Labrador Retriever.
M.E. will likely not get a book written in her honor, but I thought it appropriate to talk about the lessons she has taught me and how they relate to education and life, in general.
Non-verbal language is still language: M.E. may or may not have pottied on the floor once or twice, out of nervous anxiety about some unknown entity (I say she stared at walls and saw things in them. Dave says, "Don't talk about M.E. like that".) The nice part about that behavior, if there was one, is that M.E. would come in the room and tell on herself. How do we know that? She would come sit right by us, with a toy in her mouth, whine like a baby, and look in the general direction of the "mess". We just had to be smart enough to read her cues. It is the same thing with people we love and with whom we work. I have watched parents in IEP meetings, or teachers in grade level meetings, get frustrated and, if someone didn't recognize the look of frustration, the meeting could have gone downhill quicker than a bobsled on a snowy mountain. We need to communicate, not only verbally but non-verbally, as well. I talk to my graduate classes whom I teach to listen attentively to one another. That includes what is said and what is "read".
Everyone needs to feel needed: While M.E. was slow to warm up to strangers, it was not that way with fetching the newspaper. We had only to open the front door, and she would run like the wind to the newspaper at the end of the driveway, pick it up, and run back in to the house. Proud as a peacock, I might add. Why? She had a purpose.
I have often talked about moving to Florida and visiting an Episcopal church (just to visit, mind you), and the priest came up after the service, introduced himself, and said, "One of the parishioners said you had a beautiful voice. Would you like to join us for choir practice this Wednesday night at 6:30?" Simple as that, I was needed. A word of caution: by week 3, I had become a youth group leader, as well, as "one of the parishioners said you were a middle school counselor. We need a middle school youth group leader. Could you help us out?" My point? If people feel needed, I believe our schools are like this. Staff members need to feel needed. They need to feel a sense of belonging that, sometimes, comes only by believing they can rise to the challenge of taking care of a task.
One of my dearest staff members (EVER!) wasn't positive she could tackle a task I asked of her...until she did it and was amazed at the results. Her confidence rose and she began taking on new responsibilities and volunteering for so much more than we ever bargained for.
Our students are exactly the same way, right? If Anthony is tardy every single morning, and we say to Anthony, "Hey, you are so good with computers. I am wondering if I could get you to come in a few minutes early each day to help me turn on and troubleshoot the computers in this area?", I am betting some pretty good dough Anthony begins to at least try to get to school each day (if, and only if, you have built a relationship with him).
When we are loved, we are at peace: Dave and I have made a deal. No matter what...we want to be there when our dogs pass over the Rainbow Bridge. We know fully well that might not always happen, but when we took M.E. in to the vet (her back end would no longer allow her to walk anymore) to put her to sleep, we both held her, stroked her caramel-coat fur, prayed with her, and kissed her liver-nose while the vet did what he needed to do. Our typically hyperactive Lab gazed into our eyes with her chocolate-brown eyes and was at total peace.
In our workplaces, we will encounter people who will freak out. It will sometimes be about feeling overwhelmed with all the demands of teaching (the test materials are incorrectly printed, we have a lockdown and one of my students just left for the restroom, etc.). Other times, the tension might be due to other, outside issues (divorce, death of a loved one, etc.). The most calming factor we can provide is care, concern, and love. I am not suggesting we either pet one another or have a vet prepare an injection, but instead I mean to say that we should not be afraid to show love to those with whom we work.
Losing a loved one is tough business. But I am forever grateful for the time we had with M.E. and the lessons she shared with us throughout her quirky existence.
Just for today, perhaps we can look at what our pets are trying to tell us and teach us.
People come and go in our lives. That is a fact of nature. Specially, if we work in various places, our paths will likely cross with many different people, some with whom we will have an instant connection; some with whom we will never have a connection. Some people are those we simply know for a day. Some people might be folks with whom we work for a year or two and then move along. I don't know about you, but I love meeting new friends and I adore seeing old friends.
I have had the privilege of being blessed with a host of friends---from grade school to high school to college, and beyond. I just re-connected with my best friend, Trish, from grade school. As much as people say social media can be all-consuming, I have appreciated so much the re-connections from across my life. And who doesn't want to know what recipes your first boyfriend is now collecting or what your friend of a friend of a friend had for dinner last night?? ;) Seriously, I love it all. And I don't need to be best friends with everyone on Facebook, but I do need best friends. Of that I am certain. You know the kind of friends who are the people who I call when I find out you have a diagnosis of cancer. These are some of the same people who call me if they go through a divorce or when parents begin to pass away. Friends like these come running, either by phone or in person, to be there. Kelly, Denise and Robin are some of those soul sisters for me, but I have many more.
This weekend I had the privilege of spending time with Robin, the first real friend I made at Trinity University. Not only do we crack each other up, but she also happens to be the best friend a person could ever ask for. Robin lives in Nebraska. I live in Arizona. But we made the time to get together in Denver, Colorado for the weekend, and, as always, the laughter began within minutes. The really cool part of this trip, however, was getting to know her two daughters even better. It is such a treat to get to know the offspring of someone you know so intimately. The only caveat is we have to be the tiniest bit careful about telling old stories. Need I say more?
Why are lifelong friends so critical? I truly believe they become touchstones for us. Denise, my best friend from high school,said that to me last year after her mom passed away. She said having a touchdown of an old friend is necessary in times of grief because these people give us something real to hold onto even when we are feeling like things are slipping away. These are the friends who, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, asked if they could donate abdominal fat to fill in new parts. Just what I needed at the time---people I knew would cry with me and laugh with me.
I speak in front of large groups for a living. I enjoy it so very much. I love talking with people about good teaching and making connections with people around the world about education. However, I am the first to admit making personal connections with individuals is what keeps me going. Even in a group of 100 people, it is that individual connection to individual people who make a day of professional development so much more meaningful.
I am teaching an educational law class to 7 really great students in Tucson right now. I told them, during our first class, I believe they will learn quite a bit about educational law in the next several weeks we have together. However, I believe the connections and the relationships that we make during that class will last far longer than the knowledge about particular court cases.
It is for that reason I say those individual connections are what fill me up. After the weekend with Robin and her daughters, sharing a hotel room among four women, I can't explain how full my heart feels. Relationships matter. Don't let anybody tell you any differently. What makes the difference? Being able to laugh together, share new stories and reminisce about old stories, simply feel comfortable in the time we have. To me, the comparison is like a warm blanket on a cold day. That relationship feels so cozy and welcoming.
With whom do you have that cozy relationship? To whom do you turn for the biggest belly laughs in the world? Who do you pick up the phone and call when your world feels like it's falling apart?
I hope and pray you have people, at least one someone, to whom you can turn. If you do, I would encourage you to reach out and call or email them today. Tell them how much you love them!
Happy Communicating and thanks for such a great weekend, Robin!!
Dave and I have been fostering rescued dogs through Desert Labrador Retriever Rescue for the past year or so. It works something like this: someone rescues a Lab from not great situations and calls us to see if we can foster. When we say "yes", we get the dog for a few days or a few weeks, depending on their medical needs, then we put them up for adoption. The adoption process is a bit daunting---I think you can adopt a child from Nairobi with less paperwork. Not really. I am extremely grateful for the process, as it helps us ensure we are finding people who are willing to go the extra mile for pups who have not had a great life so far. These are dogs who have been breeder mommies, never having a chance to run and play but rather staying in a kennel to breed more pups. These are dogs who have been found near Mexico in the middle of the desert, and whose mouths have, in some cases, been pinned shut by cactus and in danger of starving. And...these are puppies who just need to have someone love them until they find their forever home. We get a chance to keep them for a while, and our three Labs check them out (literally). I will admit that M.E., our oldest Lab, has gotten to be a bit like a crotchety grandma who is ready to snap or growl any time a new dog comes in our house.
Cue Kirby's entrance to our home. Four yellow Lab puppies were found down by Mexico. They were still with their mom but they were in a yard without a fence, which translates to highway traffic danger and coyote/bobcat danger. The rescue folks were terribly afraid the pups wouldn't last one more day without being eaten or hit by a car. We brought Kirby home when he was six weeks old, and we couldn't quit commenting on how tiny he was.
In the last few weeks, he has become a part of the pack. Every one of our girls has warmed up to Kirby (even old Grandma), but one in particular has formed a true bond with him. L.N. is our middle Lab. She is stubborn and strong-willed and she won't hesitate to let someone know if she isn't happy with their behavior. From the second or third day Kirby was here, L.N. began playing with him, taking her paw and pushing him onto the ground, letting him crawl all over her, and watching out for him when he got growled at by Grandma.
I started thinking about how grateful I am that Kirby has this sister guardian in his court and how much I wish every new teacher could have the support in their school that Kirby has in our family. Now, I have to be honest: I have seen such mentor programs and teacher induction pieces in districts in places across the country but I think they are few and far between. And they don't always serve the purpose that is needed.
What would a mentoring program look like that made new teachers feel welcome and want to stay?
1. Someone to teach you the ropes. It is the culture of our house that we do not tinkle on the carpet. Kirby made a few blunders early on, but now he seems to get the hang of it that the norm is we tee-tee outside. Same deal with coming to a new school. We need someone to show us the ropes---where is the copy machine? Where is the closest Starbucks? How do we submit lesson plans?
2. Someone who will help you when you are scared. I hate to say it is cute, but I find it absolutely adorable when Kirby tries to get old Grandma to play and she nips at him. He runs over to L.N. and lays down beside her (or between her legs, like this picture shows). He knows she will take care of him. We need the same thing when we are new at our teaching job. If someone can just calm my fears when a parent writes me a mean note, I know I will be okay.
3. Someone to laugh, joke, and play with. Dave and I have begun saying we don't need to go to any movies or out for any other entertainment as we now have....Kirbyvision! He and L.N. are so cute when they roll around on the carpet together. They never go too far in their playing. We need that same sense of fun in our workplace. The elementary school at which I was a principal for seven years (and a guidance counselor for 7 years before that) had that sense of fun in the workplace. Lance would text the latest funny joke to several folks, we had a couple of different book clubs and a Bunko group going on each month, and we could put together a potluck like no one has ever seen.
I know wherever Kirby ends up, he will make a fine friend to any family, in major part because of the love and encouragement he has gotten from his foster family. I wish the same thing for every new teacher (and seasoned teacher, for that matter).