Author Archive | Brent Brubaker

Lessons Learned From the Classroom

Though it’s taken some time and too many complications to count, I can finally say with confidence that I’ve arrived at what I consider a teacher’s professional nirvana. To say this another way is to say I get it. Not part of it. Not even most of it. I get all of it and I have come to appreciate my life through the fortunate lens of the educator.

While many admire and respect what I contribute to society through teaching (considered “noble” by many), others believe there’s more to my life than a classroom. Perhaps the inspiration for these questions is my demeanor, the way I question life and reality, or find ways to put on a smile and bring people together. All of that is only quantifiable if we could create a way to measure attitude and perspective, but make no mistake- I love what I do because it’s all about the life of a teacher. It’s where the magic begins. And ends!

Justifying my role as a teacher to others who assume I should have aspirations beyond a classroom is sometimes taxing. Since when has enough been enough? I feel isolated by this question because it implies that even though what I am doing is seen as good and giving, there must be some ambition within me to become something more. Whether for financial gain or to become more “professional”, what is the motivation for anyone to ask this question? It’s somewhat demeaning and not acceptable. I don’t ask my postal carrier if she aspires to become the PostMaster General. Nor do I see fit to ask the line cook at my favorite restaurant if he wants to work at a Michelin starred restaurant. As if this “noble” profession of teaching needs justification! Let us do what we do in peace and allow our energies to be spent on classroom instruction or placing post in a box or dropping frozen fries into the fryer and not on developing a plan to instruct the inquisitive around us why world economics and democratic consumerism don’t necessarily relate to a profession that is a calling to too many.

I once heard that a teacher will begin to feel like they know what they are doing after three years. While I have repeated this idea, I don’t believe in its truth and wonder if other professions have similar time assumptions. There is joy in finally understanding teaching so fully that to retool and redesign lessons happens instantaneously. More profound is the need for collaboration to bridge ideas and branch expectations beyond what is common to our own lives.

Each year I have come to expect the world from my classroom and its’ learners, but it’s the classes themselves- the living and breathing network of thinking souls- that drive where they end up. I can’t imagine being a teacher bound by curriculum so strict that to stray from a lesson would lead to alienation to others in the department or district. At the same time I wonder how often those teachers do stray from their designed standards to teach what’s common, what’s human, those ideas that connect the mind with learning. It’s why each 4th quarter I begin to look ahead to the next school year and starting fresh with another group of world changers.

This profession of teaching is not an anomaly nor is it beyond the realm of the common. We are all learners which means that our interactions with this world become the fodder for everyone’s ability to educate and teach. My teaching experience gives me the insight for opportunities that I would have either overlooked when I started or was too uncomfortable to discuss. Earlier this school year riots erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown. As protests spread across the country I became enamored by the passion I saw in the faces of those seeking justice and equality. This is not a new concept, but each time we are faced with the painful reality that we aren’t as removed from the past as we thought then we each need to pay more attention to what we contribute to a solution. All of this learning isn’t about an us versus them (and when I hear anyone term others as “them” I cringe), it’s about us. Sometimes education needs to be simple.

Would I have the same impact on students and thinking as an administrator or district representative? It’s unclear. Very few of the dozens of administrators I’ve worked with possess the magic of connection. Meanwhile I sit in my classroom every day and interact with thinkers, observers, students who have a future filled with endless possibilities. My concern is not based on a state test or multiple choice exam. My concern is with seeing this world and all we interact with through a critical eye. It’s a human right to question. To think. To consider how our choices impact where things come from or where they are going. To find a space where we fit and connect. Because we do.

And there’s the beauty. Love where you’re at and make the impact you have on others positive and refreshing. I know the joy that comes with biting on crispy too-hot-to-eat-yet fries and from letters received from friends and family. These jobs and the humans that bring them to life are the heartbeat of our society. So next time smile when you walk to the mailbox for the surprise that might be awaiting you. Next time you’re out to dinner peer into the kitchen and give some thumbs-ups to the line cooks and dishwashers who are putting the pieces of a meal together exactly how you want it. Their impact on us reflects our impact on each other as we deliver respect as crisply and as quickly as we can.

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Reasons Need No Seasons

My mom is the most difficult person to shop for. When any holiday or birthday was on the horizon, her response was always the same because she didn’t want anything and if she did she would have already bought it herself anyway. This is all true, of course. Still, it was always for a birthday that I felt something should happen even though she treated it like any other day.

As I started my teaching career I realized that my students always wanted to know when my birthday was. Usually they found out when a poster was brought into my room on November 6th to wish me a happy day. It’s a topic I easily brushed aside in hopes that getting to work would free their minds of the mundane reality that is my birthday. Even as a youngster it was clear that it was another day that was rarely more special than any other day I woke up healthy for. Again, I blame my mother and Sandra Cisneros is the writer who put my feelings to text. The short story “Eleven” begins like this:

What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are—underneath the year that makes you eleven.

My birthday life made sense when I read this piece because it was like an onion that’s nothing more than layers or years of life. Each layer wraps around and encapsulates what’s inside by using it both as a frame and protector. Even the layers don’t know any better because they, like days, don’t distinguish themselves against opposition or through comparison. There’s a symmetry found in the addition and building up from the middle that occurs whether against or with our will.

Recently I’ve started celebrating my birthday by throwing myself a party. Instead of my guests bringing something for me, I provide most of the goods in the form of sour beer and stinky cheese and only ask for peripheral items like plates, napkins or waters. After throwing the first such party in 2009 it became apparent that this was the way I wanted people to celebrate me with them. Let’s get together and make memories.

My students are NOT invited to these gatherings, of course! Nor do they know of their existence (until they read this… oh the shock). A few years ago I learned of an organization that builds wells and/or filters and provides communities with clean drinking water. This organization forced me to rethink how I viewed my birthday and gave me a way to invite them into my sense of giving.

Charity: Water operates under a simple principle that asks individuals to give up the money they would receive on a birthday and donate it to a community in need. If you are turning 11, you ask for donations of $11 from your family and friends and set a goal. Simple, right?

Not until 2013 did I decide to make the push to donate my 41st birthday. I decided to ask for 10 donations to make a goal of $410. Having fundraiser before, this was not enough so I doubled it up and set my sights on $820. I challenged my five classes to raise some money and received support from family and friends alike. I even made cakes and cookies to sell in support. All said and done- $511 dollars was raised to help build water filters in Indonesia.

This year I vowed to do better. For my 42nd I came up with the same formula and was fortunate to see that Keurig Green Mountain offered funds to match this year’s donations until their $740,000 was equaled. Before I knew it I not only sold more cake and cookies than I had planned, my grand total surpassed my expectations at $1288. Not only did I enjoy the idea of my birthday, I found my students feeling good contributing to my fundraising. It became a season of giving, because it’s what every season should be.

So why give something like my birthday to an organization like Charity: Water? I grew up with a mother who gave me everything she had to see that I had what I wanted when I got home from school. In my younger years I wanted Superman shoes. My memory sees me pitching the ubiquitous fit only to see my mom find the money to take me to the store to get them. If I was craving cake, there was a slice. Cookies? They were ready when I got home from school with cold milk on the side. I felt like Santa after sliding down yet another chimney at times. And that’s the connection: I give to others because it is what I saw and continue to see my mother do and it is what brings me the greatest joy. She is a giver and often gives too much because it’s what brings her joy and happiness. Now I see her helping her younger sister and her nephews, hems my grandma’s clothes and shaves her corns- even helps with makeup before a Thanksgiving feast. It’s giving at its greatest and not because she has to, it’s because she want to and is happier because of it.

So this is, in a blog, the story of my life. I give to others what I can because I have the ability and access to. Like any nonprofit, the awareness of what can be done is known only when others can see an impact. After I started my 41st birthday campaign I watched a Charity: Water documentary from 2012 about Rachel Beckwith. More than anything it confirms that we give to others because we can and that is the most beautiful gift of all. In the thought of Zach Sobiech, “What makes you happy is seeing someone smile because you put it there” and that is what giving should be whether you see it or not – in any season – for any reason.

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Our Stories Matter

It was a simple statement that didn’t need to be said. Some things are that way. So the after school moment of cleaning up an empty classroom was quietly interrupted with pink hair and youthful seriousness. I paused the music and made eye contact when she said, “I just want to thank you for talking about suicide with us. Nobody else does and it means a lot.”

She left as nonchalantly as she walked in. Quiet. Calm. Collected. A walk tinged with a life that very few will know the struggle of. An understanding that others are also experiencing the same struggles and together there is a fighting chance of surviving.

Innocently is how it all started. At Invisible Children’s “Fourth Estate” conference in the summer of 2013, many non-profit speakers and break-out sessions spread the word about helping others in a variety of life needs. They included Saving Innocence, The Giving Keys, Charity Water (which I love!), International Justice Mission and many others. One particular presenter, fresh off a sabbatical, struck a chord within me. That was how I really began to understand Jamie Tworkowski and his movement “To Write Love On Her Arms”.

According to their mission, “To Write Love on Her Arms is a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. TWLOHA exists to encourage, inform, inspire, and also to invest directly into treatment and recovery.”

And I don’t know why it was this year or this time, but when I saw the campaign from TWLOHA for Suicide Prevention Week, I felt compelled to get involved and bought a “kit” complete with wristband, shirt, and posters proclaiming, “No one else can play your part.” And maybe that was the calling, this phrase reminding me of my fortune. My struggles. My ability to work every day with youth who inspire me to be a better person. My appreciation of how difficult others can make our lives by the simple way they look at us, or judge us, or accept us. My knowledge of how intimately affected one can be in the face of mounting pressures, both real and imagined.

Suicide Prevention Week 2014 lasted the first full week of September with Wednesday, September 10 as Suicide Prevention Day. I made many “No one else can play your part” posters and more “No one else can play my part because…” fill in the blank posters for my students. Leading up to the week, I posted the papers and shared with each of my classes that we are here together for a reason and I am thankful they were given the schedule with my name in the slot for their teacher. On September 10, I shared Jamie Tworkowski’s message about life being significant and it ended with my personal message of reaching out to others when we know they need it. Let the suffering souls know that you notice them. That you are there. That you care. That together we can make a difference. And we did.

Now I see my students walk in with binders proclaiming “No one else can play your part.” They’ve written on posters what their part of life contributes to the lives of others. And more than that, I’ve seen those who didn’t think this type of awareness matter see on the faces of their peers that it does. The pain is real. The need is real. The stories are real.

So how do you fill in the answer on a page emblazoned with “No one else can play my part because…”? Mine stated, “…words make me feel alive.” And they do. Always. Because they become the stories. They become understanding. Inspiration. Peace. Bonding. Love. It’s through words that my meaning-making exists and finds sustenance. Mental food. Soul water. When the look between two who know says more than any words could.

This is more than a message, it’s a challenge. Tread lightly with what you say knowing the story of the listener is likely unknown. Stray from judgment. Stray from silence, understanding that our stories are real. They need to be shared. They matter.


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