It’s important for teachers to love.

I worked on a research project in graduate school that involved me observing teachers in a couple of reading classes at a high school. I didn’t know anything about this place and I’d only met the teacher whose classroom I would be visiting a couple of times. The school was housed in an ominous building with numerous unmarked entrances, all locked except for a single red door in the back by the teachers’ parking lot. The inside was just as confusing. Staircases led to the main floors of one of four schools in the building. There were no signs to direct me where to go. I asked security guards and other adults for directions but they all pointed vaguely over their shoulders. Now I was lost and late and found myself in a dark corridor with nothing but lockers. A student seemed to have appeared from nowhere to usher me to the class that had already begun.

This dark building contrasted this one special room. It was bright as if the teacher had brought in extra fluorescent lights for the lesson. With all of this brightness, it was warmer too. The teacher, I still remember that her name was Annemarie, told me I could sit where I wanted and quickly turned her attention back to her students. Hers was a class for students with special needs so it was much smaller than the typical size with only about 15 quiet young people, all boys. But Annemarie was not quiet. She hustled around the room with loving urgency, squatting to speak to each student. I realized that the warmth wasn’t coming from any extra light. It was coming from her. After Annemarie spoke to each student, she offered them a high five. She praised them for trying and taking risks. Her smile was broad and radiant.

After only being in the room for a few minutes, I realized what this warmth really was: There was a lot of love in this classroom.

I sensed the kind of love that someone exudes when they mean to say: “I see you” and “we’re in this together, every minute and every day.” I wish I could tell you that it was in what she said or how she moved or what she wrote on the board. I wish I could tell you that because it would mean that a classroom that exudes love is replicable and teachable. But it was in the way she was. I felt the love I’m trying to describe again on the second day of school this year when I walked into a teacher’s room at East Side and she was doing the ordinary work of reviewing class rules and consequences. Again, it wasn’t so much in what she was saying or doing, but her presence and energy communicated love. There was nothing ordinary about that.

You could argue that it’s not necessary to account for love in classroom practice, and maybe to be considered good you don’t have to love your kids. But when I think about the teachers I have researched, taught, and coached, the ones who have been the most memorable—the ones that unequivocally had a positive impact on kids—I remember them because they loved their students and, more importantly, their students knew it.

Today in schools, we use language to describe whether or not teachers are good in ways that sound like they work in a factory: Are they effective or proficient? Did they think about the assessment in their instruction? What about the objective—is it measurable and actionable? While these features of classroom practice can be important, none of them do well to account for whether or not the teacher loves their students. The same goes for some lines of research that view schools as organizations with products that have efficient practices. We’re missing a lot in our understanding of good teaching when we steer away from the endeavor of love in our practice.

Cultivating love in our classrooms feels important now more than ever. This year I’m continually reminded of how differences in race, class, gender, sexual orientation and even learning style can mount walls of hate, particularly between those with power and those without. But throughout my career, I have witnessed how teachers like Annemarie, in just the way they are, can affirm who their students are by listening to them, by learning about their hopes, strengths, fears, and curiosities, and by seeing them for all of the amazing beings that they are. It’s worth it to love the students we teach. And what are we doing, really, if we don’t?

The past year. And Charlottesville.

My son Remy’s due date coincided with the 2016 election. During the months leading up to the election, I was confident that he would be born at the close of one historic presidency and on the brink of another.  The polls and the media steered us toward a singular narrative, that Hillary would win. But for good measure, I applied for absentee voting and cast my ballot through the mail two weeks prior as the baby kicked but wasn’t ready to be born. He was finally ready three days later after his due date, on November 7th. Though I was sure about Hillary I was unsure what his name would be, so I waited a day to tell the social worker what to put on his birth certificate. On that day, on Election day, I began to learn how to be a mom. At night, in a cramped and dim hospital room with buzzing fluorescent lights, I watched the tv as it told me the news that left me in total disbelief. I’d been sleeping on and off, waking when he woke, wanting mostly to ogle over this amazing new creature but also stunned at the results.

Yes, the worst possible outcome happened. Donald Trump became our president. It didn’t seem real, it couldn’t be real. When I recounted this story to friends and family later, I told them that it must have felt unreal because I was still feeling the effects of the morphine from surgery. But no, they told me. All this felt surreal to them, too. This would be one of those times in your life when you remembered where you were when you heard the news. So I turned off the TV. I disabled all the notifications from my news apps and I shut down my laptop. In the coming weeks, I would even let my weekend newspaper delivery pile up in the vestibule of my apartment building. And then I tried to sleep as Remy slept. I took my maternity leave in the fullest sense, not just from work but from the world.

I became a mom, and for the first time in a long time, news of the world didn’t matter anymore. I was learning to hold Remy’s head up and to change a diaper without ruining the changing table. I watched him obsessively throughout the day, and I felt my heart expand when he opened his eyes for the first time. I fumbled through feeding him without experiencing pain. My heart and mind and elbows and toes, truly all of me, were too busy falling in love with my son to track the immediate aftermath of the election.

When I reluctantly returned to work, I reluctantly enabled my news notifications and reluctantly picked up the weekend paper from my vestibule. I reasoned, “I’m going back out there, into the world, and I need to return to being informed.”

But it was hard, so hard. I cared a little less about everything else, I believed, because I cared so much for my son. It was probably also because the events were so dizzying that they felt that they came from a dystopian storyline. For a while, it felt okay to retreat from that reality. So for these past nine months, I would check my news feed, shake my head, but then turn to give a bath or a hug.

But week after week, Donald Trump, and the fearmongering that ushered him to power, kept happening. The events are too numerous to keep track, but I’m sure some of them are seared onto your mind in the same way they are seared into mine. With each new event, it seemed that the world kept tipping, tipping, tipping toward hatred. And now, Charlottesville.

It’s been nine months since I had Remy and only now am I beginning to feel like it isn’t enough to keep retreating. By retreating, I made a choice to care for my son over asserting my voice, to complain passively in my own corner of the world. But now, Charlottesville. With these events, I can see clearly that we’re living in times when not one of us can afford to stay silent. I can’t stand by and watch our moral fabric unravel while others who feel emboldened by today’s hateful rhetoric speak loudly and collectively for their causes.

I can also see that caring for my son and asserting my voice are not exclusive. I want him to be shrouded by so much love, respect, and dignity—first from me but also from the world—that he has no choice but to return all of that back out into the world. For that matter, that’s how I hope to extend myself in my all interactions, big and small. It’s not enough for me to confer with young folks about their reading life without asking them how their choices and habits are shaping their consciousness as readers and as people in the world. When I give teachers feedback or coach them in planning lessons, I must also ask, how do these activities–and the way that you communicate these activities– engage kids critically and with love?

I don’t know what reengaging with my voice will always look like and sound like, but I know that I’m ready to try. After all, what choice do I have? The events in Charlottesville reminded me that fighting back with love is necessary and really the only way forward.

On writing every day.

“I don’t care when you do it, so long as you do it. Every day.” Walter Mosley

You’ll find at least ten beautiful journals across the bookshelves in my apartment. I’d say one of them is almost full, three or four are about half full, and the rest are empty. I received some of them as gifts from thoughtful people who assumed that I was a person who loved to write. I must have been fooling them all because I’ve never been a person who aches to write. I kept some of these journals when I was younger but always in fits and starts… going strong for 3 months or so and then an abrupt stop, or a petering out across the 4th month only to return again in a new book to commemorate a new start. So I signed myself to see myself as someone who has come to appreciate much more reading someone’s ideas, characters, and made up worlds than stringing the words and ideas together myself.

About 10 years ago, I heard Luis Moll, an educational researcher, speak to a group of young scholars about the daily grind to success in academia. He described to us the path to tenure that a younger colleague was forging: He woke up at 4 am each morning to give himself time in his quiet household to write for an hour or two before the rest of his family woke up. That was the only time when he could find an abundance of uninterrupted time.

My eyes practically popped out of my head when I heard this method of masochism. I lost hold of the parts of me that enjoyed writing when I was in graduate school, where your currency is a paper written in an authoritative, “expert” voice that is not your own. At first, I was excited to put my ideas on paper and was hopeful that my professors would be excited to read them, but it felt like, more often than not, I missed the mark. Comments in the margin sounded like, “did you really address the issue?” or “how does the idea you raise on page 1 relate to the one you raise on page 3?” I wasn’t keeping any kind of journal and any joy that I had for writing felt like it was becoming more and more elusive. So the idea to wake up in the middle of the night to write sounded miserable and ridiculous to me.

But I’d heard other authors, not just researchers, swore by the same routine of finding a daily time to write each day. They didn’t just carve out days to write here and there. Rather, they cultivated their writing muscles every 24 hours. Hearing this process, writing books or articles or whatever didn’t seem like some magical process anymore. Rather, it felt like an attainable endeavor. But however attainable it was, it still felt like too much of a laborious commitment. I already committed to a lot each day—some form of exercise, flossing, washing dishes, and making my bed (besides working all week!)—that I wasn’t going to add another thing that felt like a chore. So I wasn’t writing. I was reading and teaching and thinking and talking.

That mostly felt fine, but there was still a part of me that also felt like I had ideas that could be worth sharing with even more people.

A few years ago, I went to listen to StaceyAnn Chin interview Walter Mosley in a cozy room upstairs at the Strand Bookstore in Union Square. Walter Mosley is the kind of writer that we can learn a lot from. I love his flawed but noble characters, the simple construction of some of his sentences that wrecked my heart when I least expected them to. He started his career in his late 30s and has been prolific ever since with close to 50 books across his career. Around the time when I saw him, I’d had ideas for writing a book based on the work from my dissertation, but I struggled a lot with committing to it. I wanted it to be big and good but the words weren’t coming to the page in big and good ways. So I found that frustrating, and I avoided the project. After the talk, I joined the line to get the book signed. I asked him about his writing own process and he responded. “You’ve got to write every day. I do an hour, in the morning.” His response was as cool as his Easy Rawlins character. I asked him more about this, if the morning was the best time for a writer. He told me, “I don’t care when you do it, so long as you do it. Every day.” Though I’d read a lot about the power of daily writing, my interaction with Mosley was the first time that I’d met someone who actually carried it out.

“I could do this,” I said to myself. I just needed to commit the time to write every day. I started strong for a little while, but then I petered out. One hour seemed too long. Too hard. So I resigned myself to quitting daily writing, and only wrote when I had to. If the practice hadn’t stuck after so many valiant-turned-limp-hearted tries, I figured that it wasn’t meant to be. It just wasn’t in my bones.

Two years later, I’ve come back around to Mosley’s idea, like an itch that needed scratching. I have ideas that I want to share and the pages won’t write themselves. But now I have a 9-month old, a full-time, all-consuming job, and I still aim to floss, make my bed, and exercise every day. So this is probably the worst possible time to engage in a daily writing practice.

But… maybe, it’s the best time.

When I lamented to my dear friend Sherry about my desire to make progress in my writing, she suggested starting out with just 15 minutes a day. It sounded reasonable in theory, but after coming home from work, playing with and putting baby to sleep, eating dinner and cleaning up, where would 15 minutes come from? Diana, another friend who also writes, suggested just 5 minutes a day. I recalled another friend Pia who coached me in beginning to meditate and she scoffed at programs suggesting one start with 10 minutes. “Remember, it’s a practice. So you’ll fail some days, but you just keep trying. Just start at one minute each day, and grow it from there.” So I said to myself, “I can do 5 minutes. Every day.”

It’s not the tenacious professor’s early morning activity, and it’s not even Walter Mosley’s hour at any time during the day. But it’s my 5 minutes and I’ve been doing it my way all summer long. There are times when I don’t want to write, when I feel like I have nothing to say or when I’d rather be taking a nap or reading. And there are days when I don’t make it, but I don’t get hung up on it. And most of the time I do make it, and those 5 minutes grow into 30, just like it’s doing right now.

Working in small chunks that may potentially have big impact has made me think more about the teaching of writing. As an educator, I have believed in the power of writing as a process, just like I believe in the power of daily reading as the most potent activity in which one can engage to become a better teacher of reading. I’ve practiced the latter for much of my career but not much the former. Doing the work that I want young people to do has made me better at teaching into it. I understand more about how I engage with reading in ways that I can communicate to young people. I become more empathic to the minute and grand challenges they may face, and I remember that progress is not linear and longitudinal but sometimes slow and haphazard. Of all the things that I can attribute to any success I’ve had with being a teacher of reading, it’s my own engagement with the practice. But I simply haven’t done the same with writing. So now I’m trying to do that.

I’ll let you know how it goes.