Monday, June 11, 2018

Attitude is Everything: When Work and Life Blend Together

After walking to the library during nap time with Jordan, I found I had a fair amount of downtime before the girls were up from a nap and fed. Josh often brings the car and whichever child is left at home to play at the library and drive me home. Sitting snuggled with my littlest, I picked up the book Your Best Year Ever by Michael Hyatt. The title caught my eye because this was my mom's mantra in her final year as principal of her school. This book was a positive and inspiring read filled with a few poignant nuggets of knowledge to jump start my annual summer recharge and reflection muscles moving as the themes centered around goal setting, gratitude, and a growth mindset.

The book begins by recounting the story of an accomplished runner, Heather Kampf, who made what seemed like the impossible possible. After falling flat on her face during a 600-meter dash, advancing from neck-in-neck with the first place runner, Kampf picked herself up and sprinted from the last place to first - crushing her competition in spite of a devastating setback. The message in this anecdote seems so clear - no matter how fast we are running or how close the finish line is, we can always pick ourselves up to find success. How impressive that this runner was able to mentally and physically recover so quickly to come back from such a drastic fall and what would seem like an inevitable failure. What a beautiful and tangible reminder that when all seems lost or hopeless, we can pick ourselves up and finish what we have set out to do.

This year I have been challenged to pick myself up a few times over and learned how interrelated my personal and professional lives are. My focus at the beginning of the year was to find work-life balance, but the more that I seek an answer to this equation, the more I realize that the answer is in embracing happiness in each moment and less about finding the perfect amount of minutes to dedicate to each part of my life. Often, my life cannot be divided into home-life and school-life; the people I love and the family I have created have entered into both aspects of my life and cannot be ascribed to just one part of my life.

Early in my career, I  was given a great deal of well-intentioned advice. I was warned about burnout and told that I need to draw clear boundaries in between my home life and my career. I was told that I was taking on too much too quickly with graduate degrees and extracurricular duties, and I was often told that these commitments could lead to adverse effects on my personal life. While I do run into the occasional bout of stomach flu as the result of lack of sleep or rest (At least once a year. It's awful), my tiredness is well-worth the messy and blurry lines between my school and personal homes. Meaning no disrespect, I have not listened to that piece of advice; it never made sense to me because working with young people is not a job. Teaching is a matter of the heart. I cannot leave my students and their stories at school.

Perhaps a better way of applying that advice is to protect who you are and do not allow one aspect of life take away from the joy of another aspect, especially family. This advice is applicable and essential for any career - know who you are, embrace it, and protect it. Now in my early 30s, I have a much better sense of my identity. I embrace my frenetic energy and see it as my greatest strength - and my weakness. While I can be guilty of moving too quickly, I am always moving forward. I attempt to wear my heart on my sleeve at all times, which makes me vulnerable but also allows me to empathize with others. I struggle, as we all do, to find balance in life, but I love the messiness of it all. Rarely do I have my computer open when my kids are awake. Once a month, during my Twitter chat, my kids know that Mama is working on the computer, and every once in a while, Mama has to grade papers. I still strongly believe in keeping the computer shut, except during the busiest of grading seasons (especially during the Junior I-Search). Then, I take out the Bluetooth keyboard that no longer works and allow Willa to cuddle up to me while we "work together." Sometimes I find her playing with it on her own, and when asked what she's doing, she giggles and shouts so proudly, "I working!" She's going to take over the world one day. 😊

While I naturally feel the need to be working on something academic or cleaning, my husband and my children force me to take time to play. The joy that I have gained from opening myself up to the creativity and lightness that comes from play, which is so beautifully described by Shonda Rhimes TED Talk, "My Year To Saying Yes To Everything." When our self-worth and happiness is related to embracing our faults as well as our strengths, our minds remain grateful for every opportunity (even our setbacks), and we allow ourselves to recognize the inspiration in each moment.

We are told that we can't have it all - especially as women. I disagree with that. What "it all" means is defined by the individual. For me, I want to embrace the idea that tomorrow or next year will be the best day or year ever. The best is always yet to come. Believing this mantra, striving to move forward and make every moment count will allow me to provide for my biological children, stretch and challenge my students and laugh at the chaos that ensues during busy grading periods, end of semester final summative assessments, future dance recitals, piano lessons, and maybe even soccer games (whatever my children hope to pursue). As one of my dear friends, Paige, who started out just as a school colleague and now is considered a bonus aunt to my children, our attitude determines everything. If we embrace happiness in each moment and recognize the blessings of each opportunity, we can experience contentment and joy, which to me, is all that matters.

Here's to a memorable and awesome summer full of carting the kids around in the van (which I'm still too scared to drive), teaching a few summer courses, reading as many books as I can obtain, and living in the moment.
#LikeAGirl #GirlBoss

Friday, June 8, 2018

An Open Letter to My Mom's Staff (The Retiring PrinciMom)

Dear Riley Staff,

First and foremost, thank you for the lovely celebration honoring my mom. District 21, Cooper Middle School, and Riley Elementary have served as her home for over two decades. As this chapter in her life comes to a close, I am so grateful that you have been a part of her journey.

A career as an educator is often a thankless job. Hours are long, and it is nearly impossible to leave school work at school. As a principal, my mother's shoulders have been heavy with not only caring for students but also for her colleagues and staff - who are just as dear and precious to her as the students that fill your halls. In addition to advocating for kids, she has spent her hours advocating for her colleagues, filling empty supervision positions, scheduling specials, coordinating special services and programs, and fielding parent phone calls.

Carrie's gift as an educator and a mother has always been the ability to see the greater picture. When we cannot look beyond a given day, she has the innate ability to put the pieces together - to make even the most challenging experiences produce wonderful outcomes as she intuitively anticipates the effects of those outcomes. Because of her ability to vision cast and plan, I have seen Riley grow and change in her tenure as principal, and I have learned that even when life presents unforeseen obstacles, wonderful life lessons and experiences can be acquired as a result. Leadership is a heavy burden, especially for those like my mother, who lead with their hearts, but wearing one's heart on her sleeve also opens the heart up to a significant amount of love, which is why at our cores, we all became educators in the first place.

On early morning and busy afternoons, my phone has frequently buzzed. As the screen lights up with the name "MOM," I often can anticipate the conversation to follow. In some way, it will inevitably be about school, her staff, or the parent phone call that she faced about what happened on the playground again. My mom and I talk nearly every day - sometimes multiple times a day. In those conversations, a few themes have remained prominent in my mind. Not only does she talk about challenging parent phone calls or the youthful spats she had to solve at lunchtime, but she also talks about her staff - teachers she has hired, watched grow in their own careers, and people that she considers to be her school family. If you know only one fact about my mother, it is that family has and always will come first. As such, I have heard about your heartbreaks, struggles, and health issues. She has shared birth announcements, engagements, and new prospects. Just as we pack up our computers and papers to grade, she has packed your joys and heartbreaks carefully in her school bag and brought them home with her. For the last the 14 years, she has carried your feelings and thoughts closely to her. She has spent time reflecting and revising SIP days, meetings, and breakfast menus to best meet the needs of all those at Riley. And while she might not be skilled in the ways of Google, I'm sure we can all agree that she has perfected the chocolate chip cookie in such a way that it can heal any school ache or pain we might experience.

The legacy of an educator is often hard to define. How he or she touches the lives of students and colleagues alike is difficult to quantify, but our family was moved by the video messages that you assembled. Thank you for being a part of her story. Thank you for taking care of her in her home away from home. Thank you for eating all the experimental food that she has cooked for you over the years. Thank you for listening to her talk about her family - specifically her grandchildren. And thank you for sending her off with a splash!

Please note that you have made a significant and lasting impression on her life and mine as a result. I cannot express enough how integral Riley Elementary and the teachers and staff have been in making her years as an educator meaningful and memorable. The memories of your kindness and the sentiments that you have shared will be remembered and cherished by our family for years to come. Please visit Carrie as she turns in her school keys for a chef's hat at Anna's Fire soon. May you continue to pursue a love of learning and may your classrooms be full of eager and inquisitive young minds ready to learn for years to come.

With deep and sincere admiration and love,

Steph (McCulley) Sukow
A daughter, an educator, and a life-long learner

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Let The Life Lessons Commence

This past Saturday, on a moderately hazy morning, the class of 2018 walked across the football field signifying their entry into adulthood. Many of them will pursue higher education, some of them will join the armed forces, and all of them have hopes for a bright future. “Real life” or life beyond their parents' homes is just beginning. The past 17 to 18 years have passed quickly; time always does.

As a parent, I am amazed at how much my own children have grown and changed in the past three and a half years. Their lives are just beginning, too, in a different sense. Their personalities are still forming, their understanding of the world is vastly and rapidly expanding with each day, and they are actually taking first steps and experiencing milestones at every turn.

Seven months ago, Jordan decided to make his presence known. Reflecting with several of my students who were in the senior speech class that sent me off to the hospital, we were all in such disbelief over how fast those months passed and how quickly the school calendar disappeared.

As a seasoned teacher, I can walk into a class, navigate the unexpected, and feel confident in the curriculum that I have created. While I am always adapting, rereading, relearning, and adjusting, it is a relief to have confidence in the classroom even when my mind is preoccupied. This year, life has taught me, however, that no matter how comfortable I feel, I will still be tested and challenged in new and unexpected ways.

For a majority of this school year, I have not felt like myself. I have struggled emotionally and at home, which has left me drained and some days heartbroken. While I believe I have done an okay job continuing with my daily tasks, my heart was heavy, and my mind often raced to the worst case scenario for Jordan and our family. Luckily, and perhaps unluckily, my nervous and anxious energy defaults into a smile and a need to accomplish tasks. My frenetic energy is calmed by moving, doing, reading, and grading. I am an optimist at my core, but there have been times this year that completing even the most mundane and routine daily activities were a struggle - especially during the winter months when Jordan's diagnosis was still fresh. As time has passed, these feelings of heaviness have been slowly lifted as new understanding and knowledge has allowed me to quell my fears.

Josh and I do not believe God chooses for His people to suffer or struggle. Those aspects of our world exist because our world is fallible; suffering is inevitable because we live in an imperfect world. Our faith, however, reminds us that no matter what path is placed before us, we can choose to be joyful. We can elect to navigate the rockiest of roads in ways that lead to fulfillment and meaning. On occasion, we have to force ourselves to choose happiness while other days, the days where giggles and art projects fill the house, the navigation of life's path seems a lot easier. Those carefree days are the days that make life so sweet and will make those tougher days less bleak.

About a week ago, Jordan had his monthly C.F. doctor appointment, which will now be every two months because he is doing so well, and our doctor celebrated and congratulated us for keeping Jordan happy and healthy (and strong enough to rip the paper off the doctor’s table). As a parent, keeping an infant happy and healthy is a victory no matter the circumstances. What we have come to realize about C.F. is that while he will experience complications that can be life-threatening, he will also live a more normal life than we ever expected. Yes, this disease is chronic, serious, and awful, but many other things in this world can be described in that manner. It has been a difficult journey to accept that C.F. is a part of our lives, but I have made peace with this diagnosis. All three of my children are beautifully made, loved, and will serve a purpose in this world. This is what my faith has taught me to believe.

Jordan at his seven month CF checkup
The TERROR (and Tearer) of Doctors' Paper

We will inevitably occupy hospital rooms and attend many doctor appointments in my household, but we are committed to laughing through those experiences. Will there come a day when the road gets rocky? Of course. Those days will come for us all. Will I still worry, cry, and experience anxiety? Of course, I'm a mom, but I will not allow these emotions to consume me.

This year, I have truly been schooled by life. I now more than ever understand that life is unpredictable. Each unexpected experience can grow and shape us into better people, and while that growing process is not without pain, there is beauty in imperfection. I have also learned that empathy is a life-giving tool. Not only do we as educators need to show empathy to our students and to each other, but we also need to learn to accept empathy from others. Walking with others, showing vulnerability, and embracing our emotions, even when we feel like they expose our weaknesses, are key to growing together. This year, I have had my grit and resilience skills sharpened. I have been challenged in more ways than one to be a better educator, mother, and person; and while I am glad to be closing the door on the 2017-18 school year, I am grateful for what this year has asked me to face.

As commencement celebrations continue to appear and fill our social media feeds and calendars, I am overjoyed with the milestones and successes that I witness my students current and past experience. I am proud of the young men and women they are becoming. As their parents must feel for them, I feel for my own children - hopeful, in awe of what has already passed, and excited about a future of possibilities. 

Each milestone is a blessing. With the closure of one chapter, a new one remains unwritten.

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Friday, May 11, 2018

Motivation Check

Morning Crew End of the Year Celebration

The weather has finally shifted in an upward trend, and after a long and arduous winter, the sun is shining and for much longer than before. With the increase in temperature comes an inverse level of student motivation (and teacher motivation for that matter, too). We are all fatigued, and the idea of soaking in some sun has our minds drifting away.  How do we motivate our students to stay engaged in the classroom? What instructional practices and activities can help students recognize the value in our content and curriculum even in these final days? These are questions I have been repeatedly asking myself while planning and adjusting plans to complete required tasks, reinforce critical skills, and make each moment matter in the classroom before the semester's end.

As a teacher, what I want most for my students is to have an opportunity to practice what they have learned this year and apply content knowledge in meaningful and memorable ways. Since school will soon be out for the summer, I hope that they can take skills with them that will aid in further acquisitions of knowledge in their daily lives and even in the coming school year. I find myself repeatedly asking my colleagues, using my best Jamie Escalate voice, "How do I reach these kids?"

Engagement comes from being active participants and drivers of their own learning. Students are creative and have inspiring ideas to share if they have the opportunity (and motivation) to connect with the content that has been presented to them. Through careful planning and a great deal of experimenting with what works best with kids ready to run out the door, here are a few successful (and unsuccessful) learning activities my students have enjoyed:

Public Speaking Opportunities

This year, I have had one of my most challenging groups of students - not behavior wise but regarding their motivation. Utilizing class time and completing assigned work has been a bit of an uphill battle, but in spite of their work ethics, they are kind and have an aptitude for self-reflection. Instead of assigning a formal reflection paper, I crafted a Life Lessons speech, which asked them to not only reflect on what they learned about themselves academically but also what legacy they would like to leave on their peers by sharing three life lessons acquired from the research and writing experience that they have now completed. This assignment has by far been the best experience I have had this year and the highest quality product from this group as a whole. I am inspired, motivated, and proud of their work. They excited for an academic break and certainly eager to talk about what they have learned.

While countless students dread public speaking, when they have the right guidelines and the prompts on which to share their stories, the results can be remarkable. Emphasizing the use of stories, encouraging students to bring in pictures and visual aids bursting with images as opposed to words, and providing them with examples lead to reliable results. We all have a story to tell.

Collaborative Group Work 

In addition to public speaking, the second most sought-after skill employers in any field expect potential employees to possess is collaboration. Being able to work with others, problem-solve, compromise, and create a cohesive product are critical attributes for a student in the 21st century to present. Group work also creates a more enjoyable learning experience and passes the time faster than one realizes.

The greatest obstacle that I find with group work is productivity. To help students visualize their productivity level and motivate them to engage more meaningfully with one another, I have created task charts that I project on the board, allowing each group knows what has been completed and what still needs to be done. These task charts also serve as a visual reminder for me to conference with groups, guide student learning as needed, and hold students accountable. Throughout the current group project my sophomores are completing, students are asked to self-evaluate themselves as individuals and members of groups. These self-evaluations completed via Google Forms has provided me with information on which to conference and has encouraged student-teacher dialogue as well as student-student dialogue. When students are communicating and holding each other accountable for their quality of work, strong results will follow.


With only one week left in the semester, I have found that I have run out of time. This school year, my district shifted the calendar forward so that we could end the first semester before Christmas. This schedule has been wonderful, but it has made the end of the school year even more hectic than it normally is. As a result, the time has slipped quickly away. To spur students to engage in more self-directed reading, I wanted to squeeze in one more unit but now lack the time to have students complete a book talk presentation. How do I bolster excitement among students to discuss their books, share reading success stories with their peers, and keep them engaged?

To encourage students to demonstrate their gained knowledge after reading an independent book, I am experimenting with podcasting. By asking students guiding questions, which encourage them to demonstrate their summarizing, inferring, and connecting skills, I am having students create podcasts about their books. These podcasts will be posted for everyone in the class to access via Google Classroom. Once students have shared their work, they will be required to listen to several of their classmates' podcasts, learn about other books, and discuss reading that they enjoyed doing! I am hoping that this exercise will further interest in reading independently and inspire a few students to pick up a book this summer as they sit by swimming pools. Being shared digitally will also consume less class time and has provided students with a different medium on which to demonstrate communication skills. I am eager to hear their work!

Soundtrap and Vocaroo are great and simple tools to use for Podcasting!


Reread and revise! These are tasks we ask our students to complete every time they write an essay (or an email for that matter). Do they willingly revise? Typically not. Engaging students in revision has been a crusade of mine this year. I have tried a variety of different methods and have still not found the activity that produces the level of engagement that I hope to see in my students. What has helped is crafting a detailed revision form that requires students to record the number and type of comments that I provide. By asking students to read my comments and respond to them has increased the number of revised papers that are resubmitted to me. Unfortunately, global revision is still not an activity that I would say my students are completing because they are motivated to do so, but I have seen progress.

One of my colleagues has stopped marking comma splices and started incorporating questioning in her comments. She requires students to respond to her questions and identify their own mistakes. I love this idea. My goal is to find ways for students to truly want to revise their work. While I have noticed positive results and heard students admit to how much revision has helped them with the I-Search project they complete in Junior English, I will still look for creative ways to inspire intrinsic motivation about revisions next year.


I am always amazed at the candor with which students will share their self-assessments. Teens are unapologetically honest with their assessments - especially of themselves. With the correct prompt that encourages true reflection of self, students are willing to divulge their sentiments on a course, the content, and their own efforts, which in itself can be the greatest lesson they will learn all semester. Metacognitive thinking, assessing their grit and perseverance when given challenging tasks, and identifying what skills they have truly acquired are important aspects of the learning process and can provide students with time to truly consider how much they have (or in few cases have not) grown academically, personally, and in their pursuit of their own self-understanding. High school is a turbulent time of change and growth (let's be honest, adulthood is, too). I love encouraging my students to write reflections at the end of the year. Having students submit their reflections to websites like add a wonderful layer as their reflections will revisit them on designated days and in the moments that they need to self-reflect again (such as the first day of their senior year of high school). I am excited to read the final products that my students will pose to themselves and me at the end of this school year, which is shocking only a week and a half away.

Senior Speech Captains! Time has flown.

I am in awe of how fast the time has flown by this year. Since becoming a mother, the time has hit the accelerate button all too much. Each moment is precious with family, friends, and with students. What I have come to learn from these last few weeks is that while it can be exhausting keeping students in their seats and maintaining some semblance of learning, students will surprise us with how much they have learned and the willingness with which they will speak their minds if given the opportunity and tangible tasks that motivate them to keep the pens and their ideas flowing.

Time certainly is flying!

Thursday, April 26, 2018

So you want to be an instructional coach? Now what?

Two days before the IHSA State Competition, which happens to be the most exhausting point of the school year for me, a posting crept into my email for an instructional coach in my district. This position, which was created unexpectedly, did not have an official description attached. I had two days to apply, and interviews would be the following week. Good luck! Without a concrete description, I was hesitant to apply. Like my students, I rely on boundaries and guidelines (maybe even some sort of rubric) to guide my academic choices. This role, however it would manifest, would certainly push me outside of my comfort zone, encourage me to collaborate in new ways, and challenge me to create connections outside of my small and simple world in D15 (my classroom number). 

I  am fortunate to work in a sincerely remarkable building with teachers who work each day tirelessly to provide quality instruction to our students. The staff as a whole is exceptionally student-focused and prioritizes relationships with students first, which in turn, leads to substantial academic results. In spite of countless successes, this building like so many other well-run organizations could continue to progress further. As author James Collins states in his novel on organizational leadership, Good to Great, “Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline.” Even the extraordinary can be stretched and made stronger. To become even better, we must actively choose to rethink the possibilities and expand experiences for our students, and it is with these sentiments that I begin to formulate my understanding of the role.

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Integrating any change – whether it be changes related to the district or building policies, technology tools (such as a functional update from Google to a creation of a new tech tool), or minor changes in student culture and climate – comes with resistance or misconceptions. As creatures of habit, we need to allow ourselves time to process and understand what change means. As the semester begins next year, I do believe that my initial obstacle will be to establish clear communication regarding what my role is and indeed what it is not. Being a tech-curious person naturally, my desire to inquire and glean an understanding of new concepts in technology, implications for my students and methodologies to use have led me to be viewed as a tech-forward person. But I will hold true to the idea that “technology” is not my strength. I have a Master’s Degree in Communication, I have coached high school speech for over a decade and have helped students earn some trophies to show for it. I value face-to-face communication dearly. I also highly value a detailed handwritten Thank You card and love having a full and boisterous classroom – even when my class is not in session. My relationships with my students come before instruction – and certainly come before using a flashy or “fun” tech tool.

In reflection with my division leader today, I concluded that success in this role is not my ability to demonstrate a certain level of proficiency with instructional technology but rather my choice to challenge myself to think outside of the metaphorical box and my willingness to fail forward. As learners, we cannot reach our full potential if we do not stumble and make mistakes along the way. I am not afraid to implement a new tool or technique that I discover even if it means appearing foolish in front of my students. I am not afraid to admit that “I simply don’t know” an answer, and when I do not know – I am stubborn enough to find the solution to how a tool works or how I can best use a strategy to achieve the desired learning result or achieve an objective.

We live in a society in which we are taught that it is not acceptable to fail. Our students feel this pressure and have attempted to process those emotions far too often this year with my students. When they experience anxiety caused by attempting to fail, they cannot reach their full potential. I ask myself, how can we stretch our students and ourselves further? How can we encourage them to wonder? How do we cultivate a love of learning that leads to life-long discovery? How do we encourage them to inquire, experiment, create, and share? How do we foster these feelings? By embracing a growth mindset and accepting our need to be mentored and coached.

So as I embark on a year of failing big, a mantra I have ingrained in my Speech Team students, what exactly is my role? How do I interpret my new half-time TOSA title?

1. My goal is to celebrate greatness. 

As mentioned, I consider myself so fortunate to bear witness to greatness every day that I walk down the halls at CG. Yesterday, my daughter was spelling her name because she attends the preschool lab here and was taught her letters. Our Family and Consumer Science department does fantastic work! Students just returned from New York, where they competed in a national business competition. Students are taking pictures of acute angles in the hallway so that they can identify the real-life application of geometry. The list of remarkable projects and activities students talk about is incredible. These lessons stem from great teachers doing great work in our classrooms. My goal is to investigate and learn how to tap into showcasing how we can encourage and share what we do well with one another beyond a fun tweet using the district or school hashtag.

2. My goal is to help teachers stretch themselves and meet/achieve goals. 

As the end of the year comes, evaluation season is upon us. One of my duties will be to help teachers to put their instructional goals into action throughout the school year – whatever they might be. Whether that be talking through ideas and lessons with them, providing resources, problem-solving, observing, modeling, or a combination of all those techniques, my job will be to provide teachers with resources that will help them grow. We can all always be reaching and improving our crafts. Our students are continually changing, society is evolving, and our goals can help us to progress our crafts beyond what we previously thought imaginable.

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3. My goal is to continue to search for what is new. 

As individuals evolve, so does the world. Trends in education can often be frustrating. Fads matriculate quickly, and as time is one of the most precious commodities we have, teachers often don’t want to invest their time in topics that will trickle away quicker than they came. As such, my job will be to learn how to sift through the fodder and find what strategies, trends, lesson ideas, curriculum, and tools can be beneficial in delivering various content to students. Saving teachers time, energy, and providing them with information succinctly can make change a little more palatable, can make embracing new ideas engaging again – instead of a SIP day dread.

4. My goal is to support departments, groups, and individuals as needed. 

The need for professional development arises every school year. Different departments and areas of study will have questions, concerns, or needs, and as such, I want to be prepared to be a tool that can be used to help fill in gaps as they arise. In years past, I have collaborated with departments for literacy coaching, helped with tech tools, and shared different writing strategies. I want to continue to be that resource and support. I look forward to working with disciplines that differ from my own, too. Branching out into other worlds, particularly in the STEM field, could provide teachers with a fresh perspective and will certainly teach me a new skill or two!

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5. My goal is to empathize, provide positivity, be emotional support, be a cheerleader, etc.

I strive to be a positive person. Naturally, I smile when I am joyful, content, nervous, frustrated, etc. You name the emotion, and I am most likely smiling. My job will involve cheering others on and encourage them to meet new goals. Whether it be working with a younger teacher experiencing frustration or a seasoned teacher looking for an ear to listen to an idea, I am eager to be a sounding board. I am a resource here to listen first and provide empathy as needed. Teachers are more often relational beings who seek to connect with others. On a professional level (and personal), I can give the teachers an empathetic and understanding ear, a critical eye, a curious lens, and of course, an encouraging smile.

As for the rest of my position, what is exciting is that there are still plenty of unknowns. Tasks will present themselves and challenges will arise. What I am most eager for is embracing the gray – embracing the ever-adapting definition of this position and the “other duties as assigned” category that will surely be filled with unforeseen and intriguing challenges ahead.

My goal is to continue being me and to continue to reach for greatness. I am a creator. I am an innovator (or at least I pretend to be one on various social media platforms). And I am not afraid to fail.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Social and Emotional Learning and A Little Bit of Empathy

This year, I was fortunate enough to participate in a cohort of teachers from my community that focused on Trauma Training and Social and Emotional Learning. Taught by the NEA, this six-week course provided information on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), building resilience, and restorative practices among other topics. While I have always considered myself to be empathetic and relational with students, this experience has opened my eyes and challenged me to rethink my interactions with students - especially students who seem to be exhibiting stress, struggling with social and emotional issues, and/or are not completing tasks as assigned. In a world with infinite pressures, the obstacles and backstories that students face before entering the hallways of the high school in which I teach are often unknown, and their effects remain unseen.

All trauma is relative to the person experiencing said trauma. Every student and every person will struggle at times, which may lead him or her to carry out choices that may not add up. For example, a student may have a parent who is sick at home and feels overwhelmed with anxiety for said parent or has to take on more responsibilities to keep life functioning at home. Unfortunately, there are too many struggles in this world. Young people are learning to navigate the situations presented to them, while trying to attend classes, complete homework, participate in the school community, work toward pursue post-secondary educations, and determine the roles in society that they will obtain when they officially leave high school. With numerous demands pulling them in countless directions, of course, their level of stress and anxiety are high. Their pressures can seem insurmountable, which can cause students to shut down and leave them uncertain with how to cope. 

Redirecting my focus with students this year, I now stop and question what has caused them to act in the ways they are acting and assess their coping skills. Acknowledging and validating their feelings - no matter what they are experiencing - is a priority for me. When students feel validated, they are far more open to having conversations about their situations (and about the work that needs to be completed in class). After students feel supported, we can begin to discuss grit and build resilience, time-management, and other executive functioning skills. We all need to develop and continue to develop these skills in our lives. Promoting social and emotional skills is essential. When students understand how to face their obstacles, they will learn to problem-solve, critically think, and apply critical literacy skills to their lives. In addition, they will learn how to navigate the adult world and how to work toward making their dreams and goals realities. What I want most for my students mirrors what I want for my own children. I want my students to recognize their strengths, discover their passions, and pursue goals. As they work toward individual goals, I hope they learn to work hard and exhibit kindness to everyone they met. While I know this is idealistic, I do believe that emphasizing life skills, demonstrating empathy, and focusing on being the best teacher I can for my students can make a small but tangible difference. I do my part in hopes that maybe they will believe in themselves, known that someone cares, and want to work fervently for the destinations that will bring them joy. Happiness and contentment are attainable, and amazing occurrences can happen.

I have been humbled by the love and support shown for sharing our experience with cystic fibrosis and Jordan's condition. I have been grappling with the meaning behind his diagnosis and what this means for our lives. Every doctor's appointment has been incredibly positive. The research that I continue to read (in small doses because my heart can only process so much in a given sitting) continues to provide me with reasons to hope. The CF Foundation is committed to finding a cure for CF. As a mom of a child with CF, I will be more than content with therapies and medicine that will allow Jordan to live a full life. We can work through this disorder together. While I am not a doctor, what I can glean from the research is that if the CF Foundation finds a cure for CF by cracking the genetic code, this research could mean hope for countless other people who suffer from genetic disorders. Could life become better for thousands of families? I hope for that.

I am a person of faith, and I do not believe that God wants his people to suffer. My heart is heavy for all people who face illness, poverty, depression, abuse, war, and every other hardship this world holds. There are innumerable obstacles placed before us in a given lifetime. What I do believe, however, is that we can choose to accept these challenges to create a more beautiful world in which to live. 

Today's sermon profoundly pointed out the beauty in our wounds - in the heartbreaks and aches that we have faced. Our scars, both physical and emotional, have shaped us into the people we are. They can be used to teach us and bring us closer together. My pastor used the analogy of Kintsugi, a Japanese art form in which artists take shattered pottery, reconstructs the pottery and fills the cracks and crevasses with gold dust - taking what was once broken and making it more marvelous than before. Whether it be my students and their struggles or my own struggles, perhaps this is what life is truly about. From our brokenness, we can work to fill in the cracks together. We can choose to give our lives meaning and beauty by filling it with empathy and love.

kintsugi Japanes art broken pottery

No matter what life has in store for us, I continue to believe there are blessings in the imperfections.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Team Jordan

Josh and I dreamed of having a family together since we were still teenagers ourselves. Each of us having only one sibling, to whom we are so fortunate to be close, we knew that ideally, we would have three children - fulfilling Josh’s lifelong dream of following the 90s Chicago Bulls franchise model by creating our own three-peat.  There is no greater gift a parent can give their children than a sibling. So why not have all three as closely together as possible? After years of struggling to become pregnant and dreaming of becoming parents, once Harper came, Willa easily followed 13 months later. In October this past year, the hopes of having a family of five so close in age finally came to fruition.

Jordan’s pregnancy was the exact opposite of Willa’s. Everything seemed so effortless with Willa that we thought Jordan’s pregnancy would follow suit. Unfortunately, six months of morning sickness, three cases of the stomach flu, and an incredibly painful vein condition made this pregnancy grueling and certainly solidified what we already knew – he would be the last chapter in the Sukow Sibling story.

Jordan’s birth was supposed to mark the end of our health concerns. Because of a variety of complications with his placement and my iron count, extra tests and appointments were made that all indicated how healthy and strong he appeared. Like Willa, Jordan was born a few weeks early, quickly – so quickly, in fact, I was escorted out of the school building by my remarkably kind and compassionate school nurse before the end of the school day. He was born two hours later at 3:33 PM. Passing all of his initial tests with flying colors, we were released from the hospital 27 hours after he was born – sent home to begin our lives with our family complete.

Approximately two weeks later, on Halloween just before Trick-Or-Treating was scheduled to begin and my mother to arrive, I received a somewhat frantic phone call from my children’s doctor stating that Jordan had failed his newborn screening test. The results indicated that he had cystic fibrosis, a disease we had heard about but did not fully understand. No one in my family has had any health complication, sans cancer well into their 80s. Besides anemia and scoliosis, both seemingly minor health issues that plague petite white females, I had no reason to be concerned about my health or the health of my children.

Of course, I took to Google to answer all of my questions about cystic fibrosis only to find that CF was a life-threatening disorder that historically caused infants to be labeled a failure to thrive and lead to extremely early deaths. Not knowing where to look and what information to trust, I spent the next 72 hours crying and staring at my seemingly perfect newborn son, fearing that someday too soon, I would be saying goodbye to this tiny human who I already loved so deeply.

As we all know - Don’t EVER Google medical information.

The past five months have been a whirlwind of medical appointments, tracking every ounce of food ingested by Jordan, and learning about cystic fibrosis. Since that initial Google search, I am so happy to say that everything I now know provides me with so much hope (and the calibrations on my Google searches related to CF are much more accurate and positive). Upon his initial diagnosis, the amazing specialist that Jordan frequents once a month reassured us that the internet has not caught up with the advancements that have occurred with this disorder. We can expect Jordan’s life to be full and relatively normal – with the caveat that we will have to work to keep him healthy.

CF primarily affects Jordan’s pancreas and lungs, which prevents him from producing enzymes that break down his food naturally and lead to mucus building in his lungs. From day 15 of his life for the foreseeable future, Jordan must consume medicine that allows him to absorb nutrients from his food – but will allow him to thrive. Thankfully, Jordan is in the 70-80% for length each time he is measured. He has fluctuated weight-wise, staying closer to the 33% range. Tall and thin –  a description that is similar to my father, who Jordan seems to resemble the greatest at this point in his especially young life. He is unbelievably strong, impressing doctors with his stats, and charming every person he meets.

My reoccurring fear and anxiety center around the thought that Jordan will struggle. He will struggle to breathe; he will be in pain every time he digests his food. The unknown is the most frightening part of this disorder or actually, any aspect of parenting. I must admit, I have cried more in the last five months than I have ever cried, and I’m a sensitive soul – so that’s saying quite a bit. Again, I return to the notion that once he was born, life was supposed to become easier. He’s an infant, I am the parent, and if anyone should experience pain, it should be me. Discovering this recessive disorder in our family lineage was shocking and certainly was one of the phone calls that no one expects, and every parent dreads receiving. 

Today, I am so blessed to have a doctor and specialist team who are relentlessly positive, who view Jordan as part of their extended family, and who continue to fight for a cure – or at least medicine that could potentially counteract the gene mutations that prevent his body from functioning normally. Ironically enough, while only 35,000 people live with CF in the United States, my division leader and friend’s son also has cystic fibrosis. Sitting just two desks away, I am blessed with the incredible ally and support system as a mom with a CF kid, and even better, Jordan has a superhero named AJ in his life who he can look up to and who can help guide him on this journey. While I do not wish this disorder or any ailment on anyone, as a mom, I could not be more grateful for this support system to help us understand and fight cystic fibrosis together.

The more I learn about CF, the more encouraged I am that Jordan’s life will be a full and joyful one. The science behind curing CF is on the brink of exciting discoveries. Josh asked our doctor at one of our recent appointments how all of this new information and treatments have been made possible. What has surprised us about this disorder is the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation itself. This organization is absolutely incredible in how well organized they are and how progressive they have been regarding finding a cure. The members of the foundation are fighting for a cure for every gene mutation that causes CF; they are advocating for every person who suffers from this disorder. Their fight is now our fight, too. This year, we are joining Team AJ (now Team AJD) to learn more about CF, how we can fight for a cure, and how we can help make AJ’s, Jordan’s, and anyone who has CF’s lives better.

I am still learning and realizing that there is a great deal that I do not understand about cystic fibrosis. What I do know is that my five-month-old son is the most smiley and strongest baby that I have ever met. His joyful nature has given me so much to hope for and provided so much comfort in one of the most uncertain few months of my life. He will live a meaningful life, and he will have quite a platform on which to launch his public speaking career. Watch out for the special occasion speech to hit the speech team circuit in 2033 entitled “Life with CF,” “C is for Charming,” or “Putting the FUN into CF.” Josh tried to convince me to approve “F… CF,” but as the head coach in this duo pair, I put the kibosh on that fairly quickly. Needless to say, we’re still working on the title. Nevertheless, we are ready to go full force on fighting this disorder, and so blessed to have a team of people to help us understand, process, and travel with on this imperfect but beautiful journey.

I am grateful that I get to hold this stinker, love him, and share him with my family and friends. My world is better because he is in it. I am now ready to fight to make his world better, too. 

Tweets by @Steph_SMac