If You’re Going to Ask Kids to Advocate for Themselves, Teach Them to Do It Right!

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So I have recently transitioned back into teaching middle school from high school. Not just any high school, but a night high school. I miss it because the kids there stole my heart, but the hours, and my soon-to-be-middle-school-aged daughter led up to the decision.

Culture shock, to be certain, but the most difficult adjustment was being addressed the way these middle schoolers have addressed me via email. As I say in my seminars, “Little screens make for big nerve”; it’s always easy to be brave behind a tiny screen. But each time I read a snotty-toned “You made a mistake and I’d appreciate it if you changed my grade” (Yes, this happened more than once and the semester isn’t over.), I was taken aback. Who, exactly, did they think they were addressing? I’m not their friend, not their parent, and certainly NOT some subservient being. It occurred to me that, in the name of “advocating for yourself”, these kids were never taught how to do so properly.

Fortunately, I have a few tips.

Let’s start with cutting down on the paragraph-long, rambling  explanation. That only leads to digging up every perceived slight. A simple, “May I come in and talk to you about my grade?” is more than sufficient.When it is convenient for the teacher, of course. (I can’t tell you how often a student will enter my room and stand there, waiting for me to stop class to deal with their problem immediately. Ironically, this happens very close to the end of the grading period. Every. Time.)

Advocating for one’s self does not include making accusations, nor does it include demands. A teacher -even in the age of the popular sport of teacher-bashing- still holds a place of authority, and addressing them with just a hint of reverence will get a student a lot farther than proclaiming that the teacher must drop everything and take care of this problem NOW. Remember that old adage, “You catch a lot more flies with honey than with vinegar”? It still holds true. If you’re a quantum physics type, the energy you put out is exactly what you’re going to get back.

The second point would be to spellcheck. Please. Especially when addressing a proud Grammar Policewoman like myself. It is very difficult to even WANT to help a student who is not practicing a grammar rule we discussed that very day in class.

Third, and finally, continue to use correct formatting when writing to a teacher. Yes, yes, email has become quite casual, usually dropping the initial formalities after the first note, but when a teacher’s weekly assignments include proper friendly letter format, at least demonstrate that some of that sunk in and don’t drop the salutations until Spring.

To be perfectly frank, I NEVER had this problem with my night high school kids. As rough as some of them were, they knew the teachers were there for them, modeling what depending on your own self looked like. They took these life-lessons to heart, and they were the most grateful students I have ever had. I see some glimmers of this in these middle grades, so I assure you not all hope is lost.

Communication is key, but written communication is the sticking point as people rarely do it well anymore. Avoid a future social faux pas between your child and their teacher, and teach them early on how to appropriately address an adult in their lives. Teach your children well. Isn’t that a song?

Pedestrians Really DO Have the Right of WAY!

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For what seems like the umpteenth time, I’ve nearly been run over while in the crosswalk, with the right of way, mind you, in my neighborhood. Unconscious drivers in their unspeakable hurry, have cut in front of me while I was walking, driven immediately behind me, or in one instance, nearly hit my daughter as apparently waiting for the pedestrian to be safely back up on the sidewalk was just too much to ask.

The law in Colorado states:  “Vehicles must yield the right-of-way to pedestrians within a crosswalk that are in the same half of the roadway as the vehicle or when a pedestrian is approaching closely enough from the opposite side of the roadway to be in a danger.” Leave it to a lawmaker to complicate the language enough to make most readers wonder what this means. It means, in plain English, that the car must stop when the pedestrian is about halfway across. This does not say “Go ahead and cut in front of them, or honk your horn as you pass ten feet behind them.” Yes, both of which have happened to me.

I’ve complained to the mayor about the lack of sensitivity on drivers’ parts in my own neighborhood, especially after one had to run off the road to avoid hitting the car in front of him that had actually stopped for my family. I am happy to report that there are changes in a particularly dangerous crosswalk underway as I write. The effectiveness of these changes will be indeed interesting to see.

A car is a 3500 pound chunk of hot metal, filled with flammable liquid, and capable of incredible speed. A pedestrian is at the driver’s mercy, certainly, but what if we drivers go back to doing everything we can to protect the pedestrians with these giant shields? A pedestrian no matter where they are in the crosswalk should have the right of way. That little green man means they get to cross!The least a driver can do is wait until the pedestrian gets to the median.

Look at these numbers: “In 2012, pedestrian deaths rose to their highest level since 2006, increasing by 6.4 percent from 2011 to a total of 4,743 pedestrian fatalities. Injuries rose by 10 percent during the same time period. Furthermore, pedestrian deaths now make up 14 percent of the total traffic deaths in the U.S., up from 11 percent in 2011.” Pedestrian Laws 50 State Summary This is taken from the National Conference of State Legislatures, and was updated in April of this year.

Distracted and hasty driving behaviors are surely partly to blame. Let’s make the roads even safer for those traveling by foot. This pedestrian, and many many more at least in my neighborhood, would love to know they can safely head out for a stroll any time they wish.

Cable Celibacy (Originally published 2007)

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My daughter stared blankly at the young woman.

“You know, the Cheetah Girls!” the teen enthused, doing a shimmy as if that would jog my three-year-old’s memory.

“Uhm, she really doesn’t,” I said, compelled to step in and explain. “My daughter is only three, and she lives in a cable-free home.”

“Oh!” the girl exclaimed. I could see that I might as well have just announced I was growing a third arm as she registered a home without cable. “Well, what about Radio Disney? The Cheetah Girls are played about every second song.”

“No, again. Sorry,” I said, and I meant it as her efforts were truly valiant as she tried to engage my preschooler.

My husband went through the Radio Disney goodie bag we were given on the way home from the Outlets at Castle Rock. “You would not believe what’s in here,” he said.

“I’m sure I don’t want to know,” I replied. “This is one of those moments when our $13 a month basic cable deal is perfect, isn’t it.”

I guess I should have said “almost cable-free”. Long before we had a child, my husband and I agreed basic cable was the way to go. We reasoned that it was better to pay for fifteen channels of nothing versus 500. But tell that to someone (the basic package is not really considered cable), and you get the same kind of reaction I got from the Radio Disney rep.

My daughter watches a few shows on public television, and videos, and that’s about it. One time she attended a child’s birthday party with a Dora the Explorer theme, and I had to try to explain who the backpack-toting cartoon was. Not that this is a bad thing. On the contrary, we can walk by toy aisles at the store without her clamoring for a character she recognizes.

The less TV, the better. For any age group. I’ve done plenty of research on this, even B.C., Before Child. Mostly, it was a means to explain some of the things happening in my eighth grade classrooms. Now I know the evidence of the research can help to explain a lot of people’s negative frames of mind.

I’m certain it was no different when I was a teen, but retrospectively, the stuff we watched was downright wholesome. I can recall when MTV actually showed music videos. I’m under the impression that they don’t any longer; that MTV is now one horridly rehearsed “reality show” after another. Have you ever tuned in to “Next”? It’s almost painful to watch the supposed “daters” stumble over their lines.

Sunday’s paper arrived with the front-page story “Time shrinks between tots and teens”. MSN versed the same information as “10 is the new 15”. Yikes. Kids are growing up faster and faster, this I know, but I can’t possibly be the only one who makes the connection between this fact and the influence of TV.

In 2001 I recorded a Frontline show called “Merchants of Cool”. It was about the “Cool hunters” (there really is such a job) who search malls and high schools for the latest trends, sell the information to the corporate world, and then the advertisers sell it right back to the teens to whom they market their products. Trends are perpetuated for far longer than the former average of five years as a result of this cycle.

Because I was so appalled by what I saw, I offered to stay after school and show it to students and their parents. Invitations went home with all 130 students, and by that night there were ten attendees. I watched one student shrink in his chair as his father grasped what was on the notorious Spring Break episodes of MTV. The parents had no idea this kind of stuff was what was being broadcasted. Since then, I have used this show for the purpose of helping kids to open their eyes, hopefully, to what is being marketed to them.

Which brings me back to the Cheetah Girls. Ironically, in the same Sunday paper, in the USA Weekend section, there they were. I’m pretty sure that like the Monkees, the “band” was born for the movie first. They were described as “A multi-ethnic quartet of New York City teens who juggle friendship with their quest for ‘international superstardom.'” Oh. Well, nothing like humility there, huh? Judging from the picture, humility isn’t a factor as two of them have their chests pushed out as far as physically possible.

Lou Pearlman of Trans Continental Records, famed for the Backstreet Boys, stated in the second movie (Good Grief, there was one before this one.), the Cheetah Girls make the issues they face a “girlfriend thing.” I can’t say I EVER saw one of my girlfriends stand like that, or even use the word “superstar” without laughing.

Obviously, I determined that my daughter wasn’t missing out on anything. The entire goodie bag and its contents went directly to the trash.

The reason we were at the mall in the first place was because they were participating a book drive for Reach Out and Read Colorado. Cable clearly has the upper hand on maintaining a captive audience; to my dismay, my family’s books were the only books in the collection bin.

2015 update: We do now have cable, but have quickly discovered that we purchased 900 channels of nothing. We are simply not as glued to the TV as most (I hardly understand the term “binge-watching”), and watching the same seven channels of the 900 is hardly worth it.

Got Customer Service? Get it Yourself! (Originally published 2007)

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Customer service is not dead. Taking its last gasping breaths, yes, but, as Monty Python would put it, “not quite dead.” I recently made an on-line purchase and discovered in the shipping confirmation that there was an address error. Naturally, the first live person I managed to contact assumed I had done something wrong when typing in my address. Probably – I’m not the most tech-savvy person. However, years ago no customer service person would dare suggest such a thing to a money-wielding shopper.

It used to be those in retail lived by the motto “The customer is always right.” Having been on the other side of the counter a few times, I know for a fact this isn’t true. Regardless, living by that rule made things much more pleasant.

Common courtesy and etiquette rules have mostly gone out the window when it comes to relations between customer and cashier. Or customer service representative, hospitality host, or whatever the politically correct term-du-jour may be.

I have witnessed my share of shoddy customer relations and know that it’s a direct reflection of our times. There’s a vicious cycle working over the counter of the cashier thinking the customer isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, and vice-versa. I’m sure it may have always been this way, since the first caveman passed a few shells over the boulder for some flint, but what’s apparent now is that there’s no hesitation in expressing these feelings on either part.

I recently got my engagement ring back from a jeweler repairing a chip in the stone. It took almost nine weeks. Repeated phone calls for a progress report went unanswered week after week, and when I did get someone, it was always someone else’s fault: the gem-cutter’s. I was as nice as could be for as long as could be, but this was my engagement ring here, not some bauble I wouldn’t miss for over two months.

When I finally got to pick up my ring, the apologies were mumbled and paltry. Absolutely no effort was made to keep me as a customer. Clearly, they couldn’t care less if I ever returned. I had become “That” customer and I knew it, but their lack of attentiveness forced me into that role.

Believe me, I am not so naive as to think there aren’t just some plain nasty, self-righteous consumers out there. I’ve seen them. But I do know that a lot of people truly miss good customer service. These are the people who will sometimes shop high-end stores they can’t really afford just to get that level of service.

It has become apparent that some in the retail business don’t even know how to offer good service. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve waited for items to be bagged while the employees are loudly discussing when their next break is, or what they did last night. I usually try to keep my head down and get out as fast as possible because a) I don’t like feeling like I’m inconveniencing anyone, and b) some of the things I’ve heard sound pretty close to illegal.

I’ve had one customer agent simply tilt a phone away from her mouth and glare at me while I waited for her to finish her personal call so I could ask a question. Rather than get into it with her, I took it up with her management. They needed to know that this was unacceptable, and she was more likely to listen to them than me. If we, as consumers, continue to put up with this type of behavior, nothing will ever change.

So the bright spot in this commentary is that I did have a good customer service experience recently. Back to the on-line purchase I made, I contacted a real person who made the corrections for me, catching the package before it ended up in a postal black hole. I thanked him profusely, telling him I had just about given up on customer service. He vowed to “single-handedly restore the concept”. He may very well have to. I hope his management took notice, and that a number of other folks out there are also listening.

Valentine Proposal? Wedding Advice and Etiquette Like You’ve NEVER Heard Before!

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Tomorrow is the big day! A day of love and chocolate, or a day some ruefully call “Single Awareness Day”. It’s a day where many couples decide to make it official and get engaged to be married, and that is what I’d prefer to concentrate on today.

I had a recent opportunity to interview with Holly Collins of Adventures in Dance of Littleton, CO, about this impending process of proposal and marriage. She keeps a video blog, and asked me in to discuss a few things couples should know before the big “W-Day” arrived. Even as I awaited the taping, a frantic bride-to-be called to get in some dance lessons before her wedding.

Collins sighed, “They think they can just come in and learn a few steps, and be good to go. It’s not like that – it takes weeks to really learn how to MOVE together.” I had to chuckle inside as I married long before putting on a rehearsed dance routine at the reception was the norm for couples and bridal parties.

To start, Collins asked me what mistake I see couples making. I responded that couples sweat the small stuff, things like chair covers as opposed to the person in them, and that this is not where the focus should be. I think I surprised her when I said the biggest mistake is NOT going to marriage counseling beforehand. The focus falls on the party as opposed to answering the questions about the marriage. You see a WEDDING and a MARRIAGE are two completely different things.

She asked what couples tend to forget when planning a wedding, to which I said EXPENSE! A destination wedding is wonderfully romantic, as taught to us by “reality” (I used that term loosely) shows, but why would you want to do that to a guest’s wallet? Or for that matter, why start off your relationship in debt that can be avoided? The logic seems to be to combine the wedding and the honeymoon, but there are myriad other expenses that do not get factored in here. If nothing else, ask yourself if you can really count on airline travel these days. Yeah, I thought not.

The next question was about wedding etiquette, to which I categorized etiquette for the bride and groom AND for guests. For the couple, send out your invites at the very least six weeks before the big day. A “save the date” card earlier in the year is even better if you want a good turnout. For the guests, get there on time! These things never start on time because they are waiting for YOU to get seated! Also, get in those RSVPs in a timely manner! Unexpected guests throw off what is already a very delicate balance. And for EVERYONE, leave your “baggage” at home. This isn’t about whom you do not enjoy spending time with; it’s about the couple’s nuptials.

Collins asked then how to keep everyone on his or her best behavior, and I boldly suggested NO OPEN BAR. With that much alcohol flowing, you are just asking for trouble. At my wedding, we simply had two bottles of wine on each table, and no one complained!

When asked for my best piece of advice for couples planning a wedding, I suggested again that the “go big or go home” mentality does not work here. Keep it simple is the best rule of thumb to keep expenses and stress in check.

The next question was what happened at my own wedding that I would suggest to couples, and my reply was to have a wedding planner. If not a professional, at least a friend to field any disasters. A friend stepped up to do just this at my wedding, and thank goodness! I did not find out until after we returned from our honeymoon that the catering truck had broken down on the freeway as it was headed for our reception!

The last topic we discussed was how to handle the stress of planning a wedding of any size. Be prepared for it. There is no such thing as a stress-free wedding, so know there will be some. Take steps to combat the stress, from exercising together, keeping communication lines open, and being able to delegate, delegate, delegate! Men like to problem solve, and brides? Take advantage of that and give them a task such as pricing florists. You will be glad you did.

Fifteen years later, people are still telling us ours was “the best wedding ever”, and I still smile.

Teaching is Man’s Work

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I had an epiphany today: teaching is man’s work. While historically a woman’s profession, it occurred to me that sometimes I am lacking the “strength” it takes to get myself in and out of the classroom on a daily basis. These days with education reform  – face it; it’s privatization – requiring teachers to spend more time proving to people with no clue about education what wonderful educators we are, it’s no mystery why caffeine is my best friend. My “strength” comes in brown liquid form, but some days there isn’t enough coffee on the planet.

Once upon a long while ago, only single women were allowed teaching jobs, and they certainly couldn’t be dating. (There were some male teachers then.) Now that I reflect on it, the women then were single, living at home, helping with family chores, and they were also expected to care for the schoolhouse. I think those women had the right idea. Could you imagine throwing a husband and a child (or five) to take care of on top of making your own pens, grading papers, sweeping the floors, going to staff meetings, stoking the schoolhouse fire, having parent meetings, monitoring for drug abuse, checking to see if a student had food for over the weekend, going to IEP/504 meetings, lesson planning, supervising dances, proving to some ridiculous computer screen that you are a good teacher, attending sporting events, practicing for armed-intruder lock-out drills, and making sure your goals matched some inane guidelines created by people without ANY experience in education?

A man, married or single, has a LOT more freedom to take care of all this stuff as, more or less traditionally, it is the female who cares for the offspring, the laundry, the house. That nurturing spirit is what drives women into the profession. In fact, the number of women in the profession outweighs the number of men three times over. According to the Institute of Education Sciences, in 2008 the number of female teachers was at 76% while male teachers occupied only 24%. Still, even in 2014, nationwide most female teachers start at a paltry $35,000 a year. Interestingly, men who are expected to be the “breadwinners” will often choose another low-paying profession before going into the classroom because of the notion that teaching is “women’s work”. “Sissy stuff”. “Nurturing.” “Motherly.” “Matronly.” Uhm… HARDLY.

I say, let more men do what I do. I need a man’s strength to not break down in tears as I listen to the horrific stories I hear about my students’ home life. I need a man’s ability to remain composed when I witness a child speak disrespectfully to their own parent, or to calmly take a child to the counselor when they arrive at school covered in bruises or reeking of cigarette (or marijuana) smoke. I need a man’s stoic stance when I can tell a child is starving herself to embody society’s expectations. A male is able to “put himself first” on many occasions in the workplace, and on those days when I have heard enough about what happens beyond my control, I need to adopt that attitude before my head explodes. I need a man’s willpower to avoid throttling people that clearly do not have a student’s best interests at heart.

Oh, wait. I have all these things – I count myself fortunate to have the uncommon sense to know when to call upon them, and when a softer touch is required. This is the quiet strength all teachers possess as they take more abuse than any other profession in America. If you ask me, it takes as much courage to pick on a teacher as it does to kick puppies. (Shame on you, Time Magazine. And by the way, the saying is “Don’t let one rotten apple spoil the whole bunch.”)

So many people LACKING the aforementioned qualities feel they can bulldoze and belittle our profession, break a system that wasn’t broken to begin with, for what amounts to their personal gains. Male or female, it takes the lion-hearted to teach, and the lions are beginning to roar.

A Spoonful of Sugar Makes the Diagnosis Go Down…

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The doctor came in and announced in front of the entire family, including numerous small children, that the patient had about six months to live. That patient was my uncle, who did die of lung cancer, but I have, since that moment, had a complete and utter distaste for that medical organization, and this was almost 30 years ago.

Gone are the days of the sympathetic bedside manner of the graceful country doctor. LONG gone. In its place are giant healthcare factories, some just a traffic lane short of a “drive-thru” window. Take a number, unless your bleeding is messing up the floor. I was actually told once, in the middle of an obstetrics exam, that I could dress and go down to the pharmacy, buy the device, come back upstairs, and they would place it. I felt like I was in a Pep Boys auto parts store, and Manny, Moe, and Jack were wearing white coats.

Recently I developed an unusual redness in my left eye, but didn’t think too much about it. Seasonal allergies, or a “cold in my eye” as I had heard once was possible. I awoke one morning to an extremely inflamed conjunctiva (the while part) and fear drove me to the Urgent Care while on vacation. The doctor there guessed a bacterial infection, gave me, and it seems everyone in the exam beds around me, an oral steroid. I’m not kidding – the kid on my left was hacking; steroid. The guy on my right had a rash; steriod. I was also given a prescription for some eye drops, and sent on my way.

A day later the inflammation was back, along with pain. Another optometrist visit decided that I was having a rather common reaction to the preservative IN almost every eye drop known to man! I was given another prescription for, you guessed it, a steroid drop. (I should be HUGE right now.) Yet the next morning I noticed on the box that that same preservative was in even this drop! The excruciating pain had convinced me there was something actually in my eye, though a second visit to the same doctor revealed still nothing. “Give it some time,” was the suggestion.

Well, my father, who had just been treated for sarcoidosis- a body response to foreign particles in the tissue- in the eye, went behind my back and made an appointment with his specialist. What I heard there was about the last thing I was expecting: possible benign tumor. In my eye?! The tear duct, actually, but he wouldn’t know unless he cut my eye open and we biopsied it. Fortunately, my trip was coming to an end, so the plan was to follow up with my eye doctor back in Colorado, and just continue to deal with one extremely red eye with the steroid drops.

Upon my return, my home-doctor studied the eye, and then leaned back in his chair in what I can only describe as “the lawyer pose” (Fingers laced on top of and behind the head) I had seen my dad do so often when things didn’t look good and he was devising a plan. He suggested another specialist and a biopsy. He called while I was at work from his personal cell phone later that night, asking me to call him the minute I got the message. Let me tell you, if that doesn’t scare you, nothing will. Although he assured me he wasn’t calling to scare me, his haste spoke volumes.

The sixth visit in less than two weeks, another pupil dilation, and the specialist leaned back in his chair and said he just didn’t “feel” this was something that needed to be biopsied yet. I was both relieved and exasperated as if this doesn’t work, then we start all over again?

So this is an exceedingly long story to get to this: how did we get from “infection” to “tumor” in a span of three days? Is this just to cover all possibilities so there isn’t a lawsuit? And if so, this isn’t the way to practice medicine when a patient’s mind is the most important thing in the entire healing process. And most patients will jump to the most terrible conclusions on their own, thank you very much. Those who do their Internet research are probably a doctor’s nightmare as absolute worst-case scenarios turn up every time. But to needlessly scare patients to cover your own behind CAN’T be doing anyone any good, mentally or physically.

I know that doctors in some institutions are practically timed with patients these days. Three or four minutes per patient, gotta go, bye. Like a quickie hair-cut, if one goes over their time limit, there is a whole new pricing put into place. I also know that doctors are less likely to misdiagnose a patient they know a little better. And a patient who actually knows and likes their doctor is more likely to follow care directives. A study was done where doctor were given a sheet on a patient to interpret their symptoms and provide diagnosis. When the simple act of placing a patient’s picture along with their sheet was put into place, the number of misdiagnosis declined. Ultimately, isn’t that what healthcare (not the Big Drug business) should entail? Healthier patients? Less time in the hospitals? Less paperwork to submit to insurance companies?

Let’s put the human back into healthcare. Heck, let’s start calling it HUMAN care instead. If a doctor had simply asked me first, “What conclusions have you already jumped to?” and then assuaged my fears, a whole lot of heartache could have been avoided. “Medicine is not an exact science,” someone once said. Ain’t that the truth.