A Caring Encounter

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It’s indoor recess. I am making the rounds, and uncharacteristically, having a fairly easy time of it. I head into each classroom, make some small chat and then move my way along to another room to do more of the same. I arrive in one room where a student sits at his desk, a scowl on his face. I crouch down beside him to chat.

“Go away,” he says forcefully.

Undeterred, I maintain a calm demeanor and persevere.

“I haven’t chatted with you for a while, how are things?” I ask, smiling hopefully.

“Go away,” he says again. “I don’t want to talk to you. LEAVE.”

I am a little taken aback, but still undeterred. I walk out of the room. Collecting my thoughts, I think of an idea, turn on my heels and then go back to him again. It is an idea that I hope connects.

Take two. I offer him an opportunity.


This time, I do.

In thinking of care, I am reminded that not all the ways I offer care will be accepted. In fact, I don’t always offer care that students may want right now…or even want later. Sometimes the best care you can give a student is to listen and learn. Not act, not do, not react, not offer. Just listen.

In listening that day, I realized that for the caring process to be completed, the student has to receive my care. Not return it: just receive it.

The best care I could give in the above scenario was to listen and give time for this student to return to a state of calm himself. Not pushing, not expecting. Not even offering judgement.

Just waiting.

Because waiting is a way to care when we don’t know what else to do.

Nel Noddings (2005) talks about care being reciprocal. That sounds like a mutual effort, in which I care for you and then you care back for me. But in caring relations, the reciprocal just simply means received. During caring encounters, Noddings (2005) describes the state of consciousness of the one-caring as characterized by attentive receptivity and a desire to respond in a way that furthers the cared-for’s purpose or requirement at hand. The cared-for’s consciousness is then characterized by reception, recognition and response. “The cared-for receives the caring and shows that it has been received” (Noddings, 2005, p. 16). Thus, the recognition that the one-caring gets in return from the one being cared-for is what completes the caring encounter, providing a completion of the encounter.

Care, according to Noddings (2005), is a relation, connection or encounter between two or more persons, with one person acting in the role of caregiver and the other (s) acting as the receivers of that care (p. 15). For this type of connection to be characterized as a caring one, the care given by the caregiver must be received by the cared-for; if this does not occur, the encounter cannot truly be called a caring relation.

Noddings (2005) continues:
When we care for others, we attend and respond as nearly as we can to expressed needs. When we have to refuse a request— because we lack the necessary resources, find the request unwise, or even evaluate it as morally wrong— we still try to support a caring relation. It can be very difficult, but our purpose is to connect with the other, to make both our lives ethically better— not to overcome, defeat, ostracize, or eliminate him (Noddings, 2005, p. xxv)

A request to ‘leave’ is an expressed need. So is the request to ‘go away’. I also perceived that this student needed time and patience from me as well. When I gave it, it was received.

And thus, a caring encounter had occured— regardless of the outcome.

A Better Question

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“Why should I care?” he says looking straight at me. Looking straight though me, as if trying to read my mind. “Why should I take the time to care…it seems like a lot of work. You’ve said as much yourself. Add to that, it’s pretty high risk.”

“Convince me,” he says, “Make the case as to why care is a worthwhile endeavor to embrace.”

I meet his gaze, and then fix my own eyes on the scene I observe through the second floor window, a landscape view found directly in my line of vision. I let my eyes wander even as my mind races to process such a loaded question.

Why care indeed?

Surely he has cared himself for someone. Has just as surely had someone care reciprocally for him too. Can he not then transfer what this care has meant to him, applying that same care as useful to another human being?

“Suppose,” I say to him, “Suppose you are living inside a bubble. It’s safe there inside that bubble. You are protected there, comfortable. There is no need to risk when you live in the bubble because everything is cushioned. There is nowhere to fall because falling is not an option. Failure is not an option. Discomfort is not an issue. You are completely protected, completely safe in your sterile little world.”

“You look around you and as far as the eye can see, all you can see are other bubbles. Each one a complete and self-serving little universe unto itself.”

“But where is the meaning,” I ask him. “Where is the joy, the pleasure, the pain, the knowing of anything else? Where is the living?”

We have but one shot at living this life. The opportunity to breathe and live and experience and understand and grow and know: this is our one human experience. We have no second chance at this, no do-overs.

Is life not worth breaking free from the confines of that feeble, fragile shell that hold us captive? Is it not meaningful to see beyond our shallow living and look past ourselves to the world of others that exist around us? Looking for care and understanding?

Is care not a form of hope?

And what of those who choose to remain inside. There will come a time when each, both those held captive as well as those who have been freed: each will require a helping hand, a word of care from another human being. We all need something. We cannot exist for the totality of our individual lives in complete isolation. And what then?

What then shall we require?

Will we not require from others, something more meaningful than indifference and distant contact? Something more substantial, in fact- sustaining? Can we not call that something CARE?

If then: we all will require care, how then can we not care now?
Convince me not to care: that is a better question.

Who will your character be?

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He is laying face-down on the floor, sprawled: his little arms crossed over top, one on top of the other. I am sitting about ten feet away, leaning forward, all the while trying to see the scene unfolding from my somewhat distant vantage point, at a bit of an angle. I pause, then plead, making the case for why he should join our community of learners on the gathering rug. We look over to where he is stationed, under the painting easel. He is immobile, for the moment. We all wait, anticipating his next move, but to no avail. He’s not coming over. Not now, anyway.

I can feel the frustration rising within me. Doesn’t he know, (she know, they know): this is school? This is what we do here? It’s the school thing.

What I feel in this moment is not uncommon. It is a familiar frustration to teachers that students do not buy into the ‘school thing’. This, the tension of our daily lived experience- to engage those who are seemingly un-engaged; inspiring students to move from where they are just a little further in their understanding, each and every day.

But we forget (and often): students are not that easily bought.

They don’t always like what we’re doing, don’t relish the work assignments we create. They don’t always love the daily plan and the structure and routine our school systems insist on maintaining. They don’t like asking for permission to speak, to use the washroom, to get a drink, to move from their desk, to sharpen their pencils and to close their books. They don’t relish being ‘told’, either. Nor do they adore math lessons, reading lessons, writing lessons- all of the time. Not to forget science and health and social studies and music. Maybe they do love art and physical education; but I bet they don’t always love that they can’t just sing what they want, play what they want, do what they want. Be who they want.

Sometimes kids do love exactly what we love: the school things. Loving the lessons, and the books, and the activities and projects. When that delightful joy occurs in our classes, we feel a secret- perhaps even open thrill- from the connection of watching a child’s mind merge with content and curriculum.

But when that does not happen: when our students don’t respond in the ways we are expecting or wanting- when it doesn’t quite work- we personify the lack of engagement, thinking that it might be something we’ve done. Or worse, something that they have done wrong, due to something they are missing, exhibiting, saying, or being.

Can we remember just one thing? We are not the only characters and players in our students’ stories? The chapters we are involved in, not the only plot in their unfolding life narrative? The setting we observe them in, perhaps not the setting they believe defines the true essence of their life? We as teachers are merely characters in our students’ stories (Lennie, 2015): school just another component of their emerging life account.

The key is to make our role a significant one.

Robin Williams, in the powerful movie Dead Poet’s Society, had this to say about contributing to the unfolding story called Life:

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

Teachers: we have this year to write a part for ourselves in a child’s life. To write a scene for ourselves in a student’s life. A young person, a teenager, a young adult. They all are making their story, each and every day we encounter them, sitting in front of us. Standing defiantly at the back of the room. Laying under the easel. This is their story. Our verse will be significant, for one reason or another. Significant for the grief it has caused or for the joy it has brought. True, we as teachers are but one character. It might seem a small role. But we are crucial in that we are those who can make a difference if we so choose, making the verse or role we write for ourselves as inspiring and uplifting as we choose to dream it to be.

The account of our students’ lives will go on and we may all contribute to their unfolding life narrative. I ask you: what role will you play?

What character are you in your students’ stories?

Care and Consumer Relations

Recently, a friend ordered some flooring from Home Depot. When the product that had been promised and then reserved for my friend was found to be in short supply, one of the employees for the depot offered to drive out of province so as to get the additional flooring and then bring it back to the store, so as to make the order fit the demand.

That’s good service from a good business.

But when a company’s services dismally fail to meet their client’s expectations, you’ve got to wonder how they can continue to stand by empty promises built upon reputable company slogans that strive for excellence. Slogans such as these:

Make Every Customer Feel Valued” and “Act with Integrity” and “Drive For Excellence“.

If I told you this was directly from Air Canada’s website, would you have known it was this particular airline provider making the claim to match the three previous descriptors?

I know I would not have known.

But I do like to keep an open mind, so it was with expectant hopefulness that I booked a return ticket for a recent speaking engagement in Ohio, U.S.A, doing so through Air Canada. We had some air miles from Air Canada’s incentive rewards program to use up, so I decided to go this route and book my ticket.

{I am now left to wonder if air miles flights are synonymous to ‘bottom of the barrel’ tickets, because that is how I feel I have been treated. But I digress.}

I booked my tickets online and arrived for my 5:30 a.m. flight with enough time to make it through the line and toward the queue forming to board the airplane. I had one checked bag which I had watched the attendant make a ticket stub for and then affix to the bag. As I watched the bag ascend slowly up the conveyor belt, little did I know then that I would not see that bag again. I still don’t have it in my possession even as I write this complaint letter… two and a half weeks later.

I arrived in Toronto on schedule. But unbeknownst to me, my bag was still in Charlottetown. I was unaware of this inconvenience until I reached a certain stage in the Connecting Flights queue (a stage in the flight process where one is unable to proceed without having observed that their checked bag made an appearance that it had been traced, as observed on the super-sized screens affixed overhead).

I was stalled while I searched for an attendant who, when approached, then whipped out a hand-held device that confirmed to me for the very first time that day (but not the last) that indeed my bag was missing in action. He assured me that I would find it and these things happen all the time. (Cue the eye-roll).

I was then directed to go speak to a man at the other end of this very large room, all while customers filed passed me towards their awaiting flights. While I, meanwhile, stood anxiously waiting, whilst a very bored baggage claims officer asked me quite disinterestedly about my lost luggage.

Making Every Customer Feel Valued?” I’m not so sure.

Meanwhile, I was now late for my connecting flight. I waited at the very end of a long line so as to queue for Customs. I then again waited at the end of another long line inside Customs as I waited to speak to an officer. And it was only as I tried to fix a buckle on my shoe that I heard my name being called on an overhead intercom that it was the last call for me to make my flight.

I sprinted for what must have been 2 kilometers. I swear.

When I finally arrived for my connecting flight, breathless and heavily panting (read: fresh as a daisy), the airline hostess at the desk actually radioed out to the plane for them to cancel the flight sequence so that (this very sweaty, tired and frustrated woman)… ‘er, so that I could board the plane.

I still knew I had no bags. But I had made the flight with zero seconds to spare. It was Ohio or bust.

When I eventually arrived at my destination, I exited the plane and after a series of wrong turns, I went to the Baggage Claims office and again filed my missing luggage. I gave them descriptors and contact information, and in return, I was given the hopeful prospect that my luggage would be on the next flight.

That’s what she said.

It was not on that flight. (Nor on the next flight, nor the next one, nor the next one, nor the next one).

So began my fruitless journey in trying to locate my luggage. I started by first calling Air Canada’s 1-800 number, oh, about a billion times. To no avail. Each time I called, I was told that my bag was on the “next flight”. It was not, of course, nor would it seemingly ever be. As the days ticked by without luggage, I was begrudgingly given a $ 100 dollar clothing allowance (after I got my Husband involved in the fiasco), and for good reason. I had no clothing other than what I was wearing, that day I left, plus one skirt. My second day presenting at the conference with the same outfit would have shut the show down.

Of course, that money I was promised has also yet to appear.

The most frustrating part of all this was that I called Air Canada the night before I knew I had to return home, and I told the airline baggage claim personnel on the other end of that phone line that I would no longer be looking for my luggage to be delivered. I asked them to please return the suitcase home to PEI. That is: if it was ever located.

Wouldn’t you know it. After flying out of Ohio myself on a Saturday morning at 6:00ish, my bag finally arrived at my destination a few hours later. Three days later than I was ensured it would arrive. Three days too late. And, joy oh bliss: it arrived in the rain, waiting for ‘who knows who’ to pick it up off the back doorstep of my hostesses’ porch.

She found it about seven hours later.

Well, I know I could not do have found it. I was now en route to P.E.I.

“Act with Integrity?” You could have done so much more, Air Canada.

The past two weeks have been an exercise in frustration, a game of endless phone tag, a waiting game of wondering if I have been forgotten. I have already colored my grey hairs once. Found two new ones cropping up this morning: Air Canada now also owes me a free hair coloring.

And also over the past weeks, I have been in (limited) contact with representatives of Air Canada residing on P.E.I., but no one has seriously and conscientiously been following up on my file. Every time I call the local number, I am met with the following response, “Oh, I have been off for a few days. I am surprised that this file is still open.”

Really? Shouldn’t you all know it is open if YOU ARE THE ONES FOLLOWING UP ON IT.

Drive For Excellence?” I think not.

I have, to date: invested about 20 hours into calling, writing and filing claims. Spent money on phone calls and postage. I owe someone a six dollar parking ticket fine (wink, wink). And all this being a modest estimate of my time and the headaches that have incurred.

I am not looking for the moon here. I just want my suitcase back in one piece.

Is that too much to ask, Air Canada?

For the Bitter and the Sweet

Coffee on the veranda

I pick up my scorched oven mitts off the damp, October ground, leaving flakes of charred material and black soot on the earth to mark the spot. There since midnight, they are a testament to the previous night’s disaster. Bright red cloth contrasting with charcoal black. Stationary, since I threw them out the door, onto the step and then again onto the grass where I proceeded to hose them down until the flames subsided—all after they had caught on fire from the heat emitted from my oven burner. And this: because I had brushed the knob of the burner (ever so gently) as I reached into the cupboard for a bowl. Having sat back down at my computer to type, I was oblivious to the smolder, until smoke began to curl around the cupboard, up toward the ceiling: alerting me to the calamity.

If I had only:
Not wanted a cookie.
Not reached for the bowl.
Not brushed the knob.
Not left the oven mitts on the burner.

If I had only.

Life is wrought with “if onlys”.

This week has been a series of unfortunate events, a series of “if onlys”…or so it seems. There is always something to complicate the day. Be that arriving late for appointments, forgetting appointments, or scheduling too many appointments. Be that day-to-day complications like not enough sleep, sickness and low energy. Be that bigger-than-everyday complications like additional work meetings, late night projects, lost luggage, health concerns, and worries that go deeper than surface level. Add to the list, if you will: parenting issues, relationship issues, marriage issues. Life.

There is just always something.

How can we say thanks when life is just not what we want it to be? How can we say thanks when things are just not how we wish they were? How can we say thanks when we don’t FEEL particularly thankful for everything we’ve been given? Giving thanks for both the little things on our ever filling plate…along with the bigger things that make our lives chaotic and stressful?

Is it even possible?

I wake up in the morning to the smell of the charred remains of the previous day. Add to this, the cheesecake boiled over in the oven last night so I now realize that I have the pleasure of a pre-breakfast, ‘make-work’ project. I can now officially confirm that I will be late for church. And on the very day that I have to lead the singing.

I can feel the resentment rising within. Give thanks for this?

How easily I forget that gratitude is a state of the heart. A choice of the soul embracing life in its fullness, both the bitter and the sweet. Joel Osteen: “One of the main reasons that we lose our enthusiasm in life is because we become ungrateful..we let what was once a miracle become common to us. We get so accustomed to his goodness it becomes a routine..”

Life is hard. Of a truth: it is not easy. But it is always a miracle, a gift to have the opportunity to live.

The air in our lungs.
The roof over our head.
The clothes that cover.
The shoes that fit.
The water we drink.
The food we intake.
For the everyday, commonplace miracles of life.  For both the bitter and the sweet.
We are eternally grateful.

This thanksgiving I offer gratitude for the miracles. Everyday and otherwise. They are what cause me to remember how much I have.

And impress on me how much I must be grateful.

Teach Like the School is on Fire

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We are standing there chatting while I hold half a banana in one hand, a piece of sweet bread in the other. I pour a glass of water for myself. As I eat, she casually mentions that she has not yet made it to the gym this school year, her membership standing by idle. I laugh and mention the late night hours I have been keeping, preventing me from winding down at the end of the day: 11:30 p.m. last night (still finding myself at the school), 11:00 p.m. tonight. Same situation. When I left this evening (is almost midnight still considered evening?), the principal’s lights were still on in his office, the glow of his computer screen viewed from the road.

I ask you: what is wrong with these scenarios?

She and I look anxiously at the four binders, two Literacy resources, three or four curriculum documents, folders and who knows what else that we have brought along with us to this meeting- all papers and supplements to our classroom teaching materials that we are expected to follow for two of four or five components of our busy, varied day inside primary classrooms. And she looks on the verge of a panic attack. “I’m not complaining,” she says, “But this is no way to live. Is this what it is going to be, what it’s come to?”

I try to balance everything I have in my possession (the small mountain I am holding with two hands), using my core muscles to offset the weight. I glance from her to the two specialists leading our session. Wondering along with them if this is really what the new reality is going to be. Burnout and exhaustion are on the tip of our tongues.

But then I am hit with a thought. My mind goes back to the five fire drills we have practised over the course of the last five weeks, carried out at a small rural school in the country. I think about the fact that in the moments prior to the drill, all that seems to be important is the lesson I am teaching, the book I am reading, the writing I am directing or the craft I am explaining. What seems so important is what I am doing in those moments before the bell sounds for us to shift gears.

But when that alarm rings and the expectation is that we drop everything and vacate the building, that’s what we do. We leave. We drop everything and exit. There is not one thought given to, “Well, I’ll just finish up this lesson first…”, nor momentary consideration given to “But first, I need to finish this book.”

What in the world? Of course not. No. We drop everything. Because all that matters is the children.

Sometimes as teachers I feel we forget that we have priorities. There are some things more important than others. Curriculum is necessary, but if the house is on fire, that document is not coming with me. Outcomes are necessary but if the room is under threat, I will not give them a moment’s notice. Lesson plans are useful, but if a child’s life is at risk, that carefully laid-out plan for my day would be the last thing on my mind.

They are useful, necessary and beneficial. But they are not my number one concern.

The children are.

Can we ever remember this useful fact: if the school was on fire (the house was on fire), what would really matter? I mean, what would we take with us? Perhaps those things which we could prioritize as important are what we really need to remember are the most necessary for our attention and awareness.

It’s about the kids, not the documents.
It’s about the kids, not the lesson plan.
It’s about the kids, not the curriculum.
It’s about the kids.

Thankfully, the school has not ever been on fire in my time. I would hope and pray it never would be. But sometimes, it is prudent to think: if there ever was an emergency, what would really matter? And on those things of which I have prioritized, I must set my sites and attention.

There is much to be said for good teaching. Many people might think it has to do with how much you know, how much you do. But I choose a different path, follow other voices. And those voices tell me this:

“You don’t teach by knowing, you teach by loving.”— Glennon Melton

And might I add…you don’t teach best by sending yourself into panic attacks because you feel you must read every document that applies to your classroom situation. You don’t teach best by burning yourself out. You don’t teach best by denying yourself pleasure. You don’t teach best by staying at the schoolhouse until past 11:00 p.m. on a regular basis.

We teach best by loving: loving God, loving ourselves, loving our families, loving our students, loving people and in loving and taking pleasure in our work and living. We can know a lot of things, but if we are not loving and teaching as if our world depended on that one pillar, then all the knowledge in the world will never really matter.

Let’s teach as if the school was on fire, placing our sites and aspirations on the people whom we love and care for. They are what really matters most to us when all is said and done.

To Tell My Story

Our life story—varied and diverse as sand grains on a wide-open sea shore. As vastly distinct as one individual crystalline snowflake. As precious as a ring made from the purest 24-karat gold. As valued and prized as a sparkling diamond to a gem-cutter. Our stories are so treasured and cherished to the Father. And in His eyes, our stories are worth telling. Are worth being shared one with another. Story after story after story.

Do we believe this truth?
“My Story”
If I told you my story
You would hear Hope that wouldn’t let go
And if I told you my story
You would hear Love that never gave up
And if I told you my story
You would hear Life, but it wasn’t mine
— Mike Weaver

Sometimes we err in thinking that no one else could relate to the stories we might tell. These stories, we believe, are too rough, too complicated, too messy and chaotic. We err in thinking sometimes that these stories might be, on the opposite end of the spectrum— too simple, too plain. Nothing fancy. Just boring day-to-day. Or perhaps, we’ve come to think that our story is too full of details that no one would ever understand. They are too exhaustive and too fraught with connections that would derail our lives if those stories ever were told.

What is holding us back from telling our story?

Rachael Freed says, “From a legacy perspective, we tell our stories for ourselves and as a gift to future generations. How does telling our stories benefit us? We need to know and express our own stories. Difficulties arise not because we have a story, perhaps a very sad or painful story, but because we become attached to our stories and make them an essential part of our very selves.”

In sharing our stories, we come to realize, that while unique: we are not alone. While our stories are peculiar and particular to our own situation, they have connection to those around us. Not to take anything away from the uniqueness of the life they represent, but to add dimension and depth to our living because we share it with one another.

Solomon, the wisest human to ever live said in Ecclesiastes, “…there is no new thing under the sun.” No new story, just new people experiencing the stories from different vantage points and seeing with different perspectives. And yet: Jeremiah the prophet was told, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” The life that lives that story- each story that ever HAS been told and that ever WILL be told, is completely and wholly precious. Each life: unique, sacred and set apart for some greater purpose.

What life have you been given to live?
And are you living that life? Are you sharing your story?

If I should speak then let it be
Of the grace that is greater than all my sin
Of when justice was served and where mercy wins
Of the kindness of Jesus that draws me in
Oh to tell you my story is to tell of Him

Oh to tell you my story is to tell of Him
Oh to tell you my story is to tell of Him

I am rushing through an enormous airport; rushing, because I realize that I have precious little time to make connecting flights and then to get through customs. Rushing so as to arrive intact and certified, where I need to be.

I am “that kind of rushing”.

I do not know yet that they have lost my luggage, that it was left behind. Do not know yet that they will be initiating the flight sequence before I arrive at the Gate. I don’t yet know that the loudspeaker will be calling my name as I buckle my shoes in Customs, in a distant part of a vast airport, don’t know that they will be stating that this is my last call to report for a flight I might not make. I don’t yet know that I will have to run for what will feel like miles with bags banging the sides of my legs. I don’t know what it will feel like to have all eyes on me as I am the final passenger to board a small plane headed for a place I have never before visited.

I don’t know all this yet.

But here is what I know.

I know that when I left the plane that brought me from PEI to Toronto, the first person I saw was a man named Gerard Gaudet. And he is husband to a woman named Corrie Gaudet. And Corrie is a woman who encourages me like no other, a woman who builds me up in spirit and in hope. And she, dear Corrie, has told me that she will be praying for me on this trip. That she will pray for me as I am traveling. Her, and many many others. So, when I see Gerard, I remember this, and it is a comfort.

It is a hope.

And perhaps that little physical reminder of ‘God With Us’ is what it took me to get from one end of the airport to the other, I do not know. Might never know.

But this I know for sure: to tell my stories is to share my hope. To tell my stories is to share my faith in life, in love and in living. Yes, to tell my story is to tell of Him.

This is my story, this is my song
Praising my Savior all the day long