How to Stop Trying So Hard

She came into my room when the lunch bell rang, looking up at me with hopeless, confused eyes before she broke down crying, repeating,

“I’m stupid. This is stupid. Why am I crying? I don’t cry.”

I gave her a hug, sat her down in one of my desks, and asked her what was going on. Her significant other broke up with her last period over a text, she said, and now she didn’t know why she was crying.

As I probed to get some details, I learned she just started dating this person a month ago and all seemed fine last night. And then this. But more than being upset about the broken relationship, she seemed more upset over letting herself feel. She was angry at herself for crying, for breaking down and for letting hurt crack through her hardness to places she tries to hide by distracting herself with relationships and grades and accomplishments- places that confront her worth.

I had two other students come to me that Friday, crying and frustrated because they couldn’t meet their own high standards or the standards they felt the world calling them to meet. They were frustrated because they felt their worth dwindling after not being able to check every box on their expectation list. I hugged them and reminded them that their worth is not in what they do or who they’re attached to or what they can or cannot accomplish.

It’s incredibly humbling to give this advice when it’s the very thing I’ve been struggling with the past several months.

I thought second year teaching would be easier- that was my expectation. But as my expectations have been shattered in the hardest ways, I’ve found myself stuck in the whirlwind of a longer commute and practices and games and makeup games and three preps and creating a new curriculum and grading and planning a wedding and learning about marriage and trying to invest and invest and invest to learn that I can’t.

I can’t. I cannot invest in everything, I cannot take on everything. Not on my own. And as the weeks have flown by and I’ve accomplished a majority of the things on my checklist, I still feel behind. I still analyze and overanalyze every conversation that could have been more others-focused, I want to fix every problem people have had with me, I want to be more productive with my minutes and I simply want to feel like I’m doing a good job in my classroom and conversations and relationships and alone time.

And when I take a step back, I find myself taking good things, holy things even, like the desires to invest and be compassionate and love others and slow down, and twisting them into my control, deceiving myself that I’m the one in charge of making all of these desires gone wrong, go right.

When I find some quiet, when I finally surrender to not being in control and when I sink into my bed early on a Friday night with a candle crackling next to me and a week of mistakes and ramblings and papers piled up, I’m reminded to seek first my God.

Because when all I keep doing is seeking my own desires to change and to fix and to control, the Lord says to stop and to seek Him instead.

In Him I will find my rest and my worth. I will find grace and love and meaning and space. I will find the strength to stop kicking myself for every mistake I make and every unchecked obligation on my list and instead, I’ll be restored in the Lord’s grace and hope and deep, unchanging, unending love. In this place, I’ll find the strength to slow down and to rest and to consider others before myself, the very things I’ve been trying to do on my own because I know they are the best ways.

When those girls walked into my room that Friday weeks ago, I saw myself in their mess because I’m there too. I wanted to talk about why they were struggling so deeply with their emotions and their unmet expectations and their mistakes. I knew where they were at and since I couldn’t specifically tell them about Jesus and grace and rest because public school, I want to take the time here to remind you dear reader, about the Lord and seeking him first, because I bet you’ve stood in those girls’ places too.

So friends, we can desire good things. We can want to be productive and loving and compassionate and whole, but we can’t do these things on our own because we will twist them into stress and dissatisfaction and frustration. The Lord calls us to seek Him first, that in Him we will find our worth, we will find our desires fully met because he is enough and in him, we are enough too. The reminder you and I need is to seek Christ, even before our desires, because in him, we’ll find the very things we’re trying to do on our own.

Embracing the Mess

I wanted this year to be neat.

I remember sitting on the porch of the Brick House last year, imagining my first year in the “real world,” wanting it to be nice and tidy, with a perfectly organized and filled planner, a neat desk, and categorized binders stuffed with lesson plans.

I wanted this “neatness” to be my path towards success, because if I could somehow categorize everything into tidy little boxes in my head, I would somehow be fulfilled and an effective and liked first-year teacher. If I could anticipate the mishaps and prepare for each day way in advance, I could lessen my stress level and maybe, just maybe, skip over some of the hardships.

If I’ve learned anything from my first year of teaching so far, I’ve learned that it’s the messiest thing I’ve ever gotten myself into. My weeks are filled with bantering with my students and watching my soccer girls play with intense focus on the field and participate in ridiculous antics off the field. They’re filled with running to the copy room between periods to make extras because I misplaced the pile somewhere and long planning sessions after practice complete with ranting and storytelling. They’re filled with eating out way too often and being home for an hour most days before crashing my head on my pillow, hard, only to realize that I have no idea how I’m going to teach that lesson the next day.

My desk at school is a disaster most of the time, with random piles everywhere while my filing cabinet sits mostly empty behind my computer. I have Expo markers littering random places in the room because I always set them down when I get distracted and I didn’t open my planner for the first nine weeks. My binders, intended to be filled with curriculum plans and unit ideas, sit empty and dusty while the materials to what I have taught are a disheveled mess in file folders stacked on my back table.

What I’m realizing is that this mess isn’t as scary as I expected it to be. I’m learning that it’s ok to leave my desk unorganized after a long day, that the Lord somehow gives me the capability to improvise when lessons completely flop, and that He’s using the chaos of first-year teaching to force me to be present.

I love that the chaos of first-year teaching is forcing me to be present.

This chaos is taking up some of the space my critical voice typically inhabits and I’m learning to make quick decisions without over analyzing—a pretty impressive feat in my book. I’m learning that being an effective teacher has less to do with being organized and more to do with being present in each messy, unexpected moment I get with my students, drawing strength from the Lord who loves them a whole lot more than I ever could.

Most importantly, I’m learning that I can, indeed, trust the Lord to provide for each moment I’m not expecting or assume I can’t handle. I’m learning if I keep leaning into to this messy season filled with new things and unfamiliar obligations, I’m giving Him the space He needs to work, free from my need to keep things neat.

If you’re finding yourself in some unfamiliar spaces, seek the Lord in the midst of every moment there. Embrace the unorganized chaos and accept His grace for not having everything together. Remember that your ability to be effective where you’re at is dependent on the Lord, not your ability to anticipate and attempt to minimize the struggles ahead.

New Spaces and Tidy Boxes

I’ve spent most of this summer in preparation. Buying apartment necessities for the space I haven’t moved into, signing tons and tons of papers for a job I haven’t started, and creating documents and lists of lesson plans for students I haven’t met.

I find myself with categorized lists, writing everything I need to get and every task I need to accomplish down on paper, on tidy lines in hand-made boxes on the page where I can control them. Somehow, I thought, if I have everything planned ahead of time, I’ll prove myself to be a successful post-grad that has it all together.

But in the midst of all the planning, I find myself wanting to stuff next year into these tidy little boxes. All of my lesson ideas in one box, the perfect way I anticipate relating to others in another box. I want to compartmentalize and prepare for how I’m going to eat perfectly, run all the time, find the perfect community, and be the best teacher every student loves.

To compensate for trying to make all of these uncontrollable things perfect, I’ve been obsessed with trying to create the textbook classroom right now. I’ve spent hours on Pinterest, weighing different organization strategies and attendance methods, creating and then deleting documents because they’re not good enough. I’ve scrolled through hundreds of pictures of classrooms, writing down how mine needs to look in order to create the best possible atmosphere for learning. I’ve worried about forgetting something and have tried to anticipate ever scenario that might arise in that space next year.

In the midst of a freak-out, I was in the car with my mom when she made me stop rambling and told me that nothing has to be perfect the first day.

Nothing has to be perfect the first day.

I don’t have to have every decoration up in my classroom, every bookshelf perfectly organized, or every picture on my desk in adorable frames. All I need to start is some space, some desks, and some students.

And regarding next year, I don’t have to have all the right answers to all the questions, the cutest teaching wardrobe, or the ideal community. That stuff happens along the way.

So, if your transitioning too, it’s ok if your classroom, apartment, or workspace isn’t perfect the day you move in.

It’s ok if you don’t have everything you think you need.

It’s ok to give yourself grace if you don’t have everything figured out—you’re not supposed to.

Here’s a reminder, for you and for me: it’s ok if you’re not completely ready for what’s next. In fact, it’s probably best that you aren’t, because we most clearly recognize God’s work in the process of figuring everything out as we go while we learn to rely on Him.

If you’re like me, stop trying to stuff your life into tidy boxes and plan everything ahead of time. Give yourself some grace, show up the first day, and get started.

Rediscovering the Basics

My new placement for student teaching is in a middle school. This has definitely been a change of pace in a more energetic, need-to-be-engaged-all-the-time kind of way. Middle school students are in such a unique stage of development and they are all at different places in that process, making the classroom setting with 28 of them a little chaotic. They’re awkward and unsure and there’s so much tension while they’re just beginning to grow up and get a taste of independence.

Being on the teacher side of things in this place has been an interesting experience. I forgot how much of the basics we learned in middle school, not only academically but also socially. We needed the constant reminders to stay quiet when the teacher paused and to calm down when we forgot a pencil or a paper in our locker because it wasn’t the end of the world.

But academically, a lot of the basics are taught and reiterated in middle school, especially in the English classroom. Students are first taught how to write a thesis statement, how to set up a five-paragraph essay, how to cite textual evidence with their answers, and how to write formally in a word document. Without these skills, it’s difficult for students to succeed in other classes at higher levels. They must be mastered in order for the student to move on.

While teaching, I’ve had to relearn the basics in order to teach my students. This is harder than I anticipated because I’ve realized through this process how much I have forgotten. I’ve been cranking out papers almost weekly in college, but often forget what a predicate is. I’ve been writing thesis statements since middle school but sometimes have to go back and learn exactly what one is and why exactly we need to use them.

By rediscovering the basics and especially the purposes of the basic components of writing and reading, I’ve been able to improve my own writing and reading abilities. This, in turn, allows me to transfer that knowledge more effectively to my students.

I’ve found the necessity of remembering the basics not only in my teaching experience, but even more so in my faith.

Throughout my life, I’ve been to hundreds of church services and participated in hundreds of communion services. I’ve heard the basics of the gospel and of grace and of Jesus’ love over and over and over. But as I’ve wrestled in my faith recently, as I’ve been trying so hard to make everything perfect and purposeful, I’ve found peace and fulfillment in being reminded of and truly dwelling in the basic components of the life I choose to live.

I’m being reminded that we are so, incredibly loved.

That Jesus died for us.

That His mercies are new every morning.

That Jesus is strong enough to carry our burdens.

That we weren’t created to save anyone.

That we were created to love and to forgive.

That pride destroys.

That God wants us back, all the time.

But most importantly, that our God is big and perfect and glorious and good.

I feel like we make Christianity so complicated. And I don’t want to diminish the depth of it, but I feel that by becoming so incredibly engrossed in rules and trying to do it “right” we forget about the basic principles we are called to live in.

Right now, in these moments, my faith looks like remembering the basics because as a human, I often forget them in the complexities I create in my mind.

Right now, my faith looks like getting up every morning, opening my Bible while I’m half asleep in my dimly lit dining room, and relearning that I am loved by a really good God, that His mercies are new every morning, and that this life isn’t about me.

These rediscoveries are changing the way I live and how I see the world. I’m slowly unlearning the concept of constantly having to do and to prove and to try so hard to be enough and to be worthy because I’m finding in these truths that to simply be is enough.

God is good and the Gospel is simple, but we need to start remembering why we’re choosing to live this way and dwell in the basic truths God promises because they are enough.

Photo Credit: Kayleigh Sisson

Invest in Borrowed Spaces

My time student teaching at my first school ends next week and as I prepare for yet another transition, I’m thinking about how deeply these eight weeks have impacted me. I’m thinking about my kids and how much of an impression they’ve left on me, how I’ve learned from them, and the privilege I’ve had to be able to step into their lives for limited moments and teach them some things I’ve become passionate about myself—the process of analyzing and crafting the written word.

In my reflections, I’ve had to step back and remind myself that this classroom isn’t mine, that these students aren’t mine. I simply borrowed them from my cooperating teacher for these nine weeks. And as hard as this is to grasp, especially in the depth of my time full time teaching, I’m learning to be ok with this, to come to terms that these students were only meant to be mine for a bracketed amount of time.

I’ve spent a majority of my hours with these people, these 157 freshman, during the past 63 days. I’ve seen them transform from skittish and quiet the first few weeks to boisterous and overly chatty as they’ve adapted to their new space in high school. It’s strange to think that I will just walk away next Friday after having invested so much of my time and my efforts and myself into working with them.

But through this process, through my short time with these people who have taken up so much of my time and heart and mind, I’ve learned that it’s ok to invest deeply in borrowed spaces.

In fact, I’ve learned that it’s actually necessary to invest deeply in them, because if we spend time counting down the days until they are over we forgo experiencing the love and acceptance and life that burst within the boundaries of those times.

I think back to two other significant borrowed spaces I’ve experienced in the past few years: Montana and Ethiopia. I spent three months in one place, one month in the other. I knew the beginnings and ends to these experiences before I left, and I think my perception of the limited time I would be spending there hindered me from delving in as deeply as I knew I was capable of doing.

I let time dictate the value I found in these places rather than letting the reality of my presence dictate the value these places have in my heart. I let the idea of a limited time and a borrowed space constrain my ability to passionately and wholeheartedly experience those moments in those beautiful places.

I feared the connections and loss of connections and I feared what I was leaving behind when I traveled to those places. I became homesick for the comfortable, for what I knew. And although I think a deep love of home is beautiful, I let the overwhelming longing for what I left behind hinder my willingness to find home in these new places.

But in the past eight weeks I’ve experienced the joy and energy gained from fully investing in this temporary thing. I know when I walk out those doors next Friday I will mourn the loss of my time with the students who became mine for a while, but I’ll also be able to carry them with me, store them deep in my heart and dwell in the lessons I learned from them.

From my time in this borrowed classroom I’ll be able to expand how I work with my future students, finding a little more sympathy for where they come from, a little more patience for their needs, a little more understanding when they forget.

I’m learning to value these limited experiences, even the ones I knew I didn’t fully invest in because of fear and constraints. In these reflections I’m discovering my deep love for these places, both in the physical spaces of the dry mountain air and hospitable cultures and through the beautiful people who caused me to expand my worldview and learn how to love a little more deeply. I value the time I spent in these places, carrying with me the moments that molded me to where I sit today.

You’ll find yourself in borrowed spaces from time to time. Please invest in them, giving Jesus your fears and not allowing time to constrain you from the beautiful reality of being present and making yourself at home. Be affected from those you encounter and take over the physical space, unpack your belongings and settle in. You belong there for those moments, as short as they may be, to teach and love, to learn and to be loved.

Picture Credit to my lovely housemate Kayleigh Sisson.

Breaking the Habit of Condemnation

This semester I am temporarily in charge of a 9th grade English classroom through my student teaching experience. It’s been such a joy spending everyday with my students I am continually building relationships with. My supervising teacher has given me full responsibility over the classroom, which along with its challenges, has been an incredible learning and growing opportunity.

I spend my days with 157 freshman. Crazy? Yes, but also a complete blast. I’ve loved getting to know their individual personalities and passions. It’s incredible what students are capable of when you give them opportunities to unlock their potential.

But through these opportunities through discussions and free-writes and an interactive classroom is room for chaos. My students are still learning to filter what they say and in that process comes the need for me to step in and point out what is appropriate and inappropriate to voice in a classroom for the benefit of the group.

During one of my class periods in the middle of the day a girl with a wild and exuberant personality was getting a little too excited during the lesson, speaking out frequently at inappropriate times. After several warnings, she was sent in the hall to take a break. During a lapse in the lesson, I went out to talk to her.

I found her sitting on the ground outside of the classroom, her back against the wall and her arms around her knees. She slumped her head towards the ground, defeated.

I asked her what was going on and before I had a chance to finish my words she propelled into a long narrative explaining how she was trying so hard to stop talking so much in her classes but it was hard in this one because her friends were in there. She told me that she had shut down in every other class, she had reached her goal in those classes with those teachers but she kept failing at it in our class.

I watched her condemn herself, beating herself up because she had failed at her goal of shutting down. I watched her with a heavy heart, relating to her because I had been in that place too, the place of consistent self-condemnation after doing something wrong.

I thank the Lord for giving me the words to say next because in the moments that followed I was able to speak life into her. I affirmed her incredible, animated personality because it brought life to the class and to see her shut down would be tragic.

I told her never to diminish who she was. Instead, we were going to pick up the pieces and work together to refine what she said aloud; we were going to work towards her goal of filtering her words while still encouraging her to pursue her extraverted and passionate self. She lifted her head up and nodded at me as I reached out my hand and helped her up. She walked back in the class with her head held high.

I think back to my student sitting on the ground, outwardly condemning herself because she had gotten a little off track. I thought about how many times I had found myself in her place, beating myself down when I messed up, when I was a little too excited or fired up or awkward. When I said something I shouldn’t have or knowingly missed the mark.

I thought about the words I tell myself in those moments, the words of condemnation that create so much shame, so much embarrassment to the point where I shut down. I become the girl in the hall, curling up to repress who I am and what I love because I had been a little too much or too little in that moment.

Living in a society where perfection is desired, we become numb to the self-condemnation. It struck me how often we tear ourselves down inside, how we try to convince ourselves to drastically change who we are because of one small mishap.

In these moments we forget about grace, about how we are sinners who serve a great God with an overabundant amount of love. We forget about our relationship with a God who desires to walk alongside of us in the refining process, pouring out his mercy in every step.

So here’s to the process of learning how to receive gracious words from a really good Father and to repeating those words until we believe them. Here’s to the process of learning to be kind to ourselves as we are to others, to receive the hand of mercy helping us up. We must break the habit of self-condemnation or we will constantly find ourselves curled up on the floor. We will become less passionate, less effective, less focused. The world needs us to stay passionate and loving, to stay focused on relationships and work and conversations that matter.

So here’s to taking the merciful hand helping us up from our repressed state on the ground, lifting our heads high, and walking back into the room knowing we have a chance to try again.