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3 Ways Being a First-Year ACE Teacher is Like Running an Ultramarathon

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Even for an English teacher, metaphors can be difficult when trying to explain what it's like to be a first-year ACE teacher. But let's give it a shot:

Being a first-year ACE teacher is like running an ultramarathon in a superhero costume that doesn't quite fit yet.superheros

I've certainly never run what's called an "ultramarathon," but there's a legendary and dynamite teacher at Tampa Catholic named Mr. Matthews who runs them fairly regularly, and he's given me the run-down. An "ultramarathon" is a 100-mile race that usually takes around twenty-four hours to complete. It is with extreme humility that I even dare to compare my experience in ACE with his, but there are perhaps several interesting similarities:

1. There's not really any way to train for it.

Before Mr. Matthews ran his first ultramarathon, he said the farthest he'd run was around sixty miles. That's only a bit more than half the total distance. ACE was the same: two quick months of education classes, six weeks of mornings spent in a public summer school classroom, and off you go! There's a limit to how much you can prep for your first days as a teacher—at some point you just have to do it, armed only with a full heart, enthusiasm for your subject material, and a reliable support network.

2. It's a wild ride, with precious moments of runner's high and other (longer) moments of pure exhaustion.

It may be a cliché, but once you're in it, each day is truly an adventure. There are moments of pure ecstatic joy when you are channeling the very spirit of Steinbeck, and other moments of complete exhaustion when you might as well be trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.

Mile Three is an entirely different experience than Mile Fifty-Eight, and Mile Seventy-Nine brings with it a whole host of new joys and challenges. I can hardly remember my first day of teaching any more (though I do remember not being able to eat or sleep for a several days from nervous terror), but the view from February is an entirely different vista, with new fears, thrills, and burdens.

3. You may feel alone, but really, you're not.

As you can imagine, Mr. Matthews talked about the unique experience of being "alone with your thoughts" for 100 miles. But although physically alone, a runner apparently draws on all the people who wander into his or her mind's eye for strength and motivation.

This feeling comes in teaching, as well—sometimes I feel like it's just "little me," in a classroom in Florida, hundreds of miles away from anything or anyone familiar. But it's not. The greatest gift of ACE is community. Even though I met some of my community members mere months ago, I lean on them like family. They are, along with my students, reminders of God's presence, and I am never truly alone.

But what about that superhero costume I mentioned in the beginning? I said it didn't quite fit yet. It's too large—a first-year teacher has to grow into his or her role as "superhero." You're dressed, doing your best, and maybe you've fooled some people, but it's not really you yet.

Not that it's insincere in any way, it's just a little ramshackle, like when you look in the mirror some mornings, see yourself in "teacher clothes," and feel a bit ridiculous. But you're growing, and eventually the costume you wear will be an authentic representation of who and what you are in your classroom—an everyday hero.

In the end, neither an ultramarathon nor your first year as an ACE teacher is about winning. Massive challenges like these are instead about becoming your best self. While the finish line is always in sight at the end of a race, and the end of my first year of teaching is within grasp in June, it has never been about that. As Thomas Merton said, "There is no being Christian. There is only becoming Christian." What is true of living Christianity is equally true about first-year teaching.

To all my students: even though I am writing this on a dark bus on the way home from a lacrosse tournament, and you are singing "Livin' on a Prayer" at the top of your lungs and sounding mildly ridiculous, I run for you.

Interested in participating in this year's ACE Marathon in Denver on May 17th, 2015? Click here to register or pledge your support for the ACE runners!

To Be Seen, To Be Heard

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

"Mr. Wilde, I just left a note on your desk."

"Alright, is it something I can help you with now, or should I wait to read
it later?"

"It doesn't matter when, but promise me you'll read it."

Sensing something awry in his tone, I immediately retrieved his hastily scribbled words. Those words would bring my end-of-day routine to a screeching halt and irreversibly alter the way in which I understood my vocation as a first-year teacher.

From what little I knew about his circumstances at this point in the initial month of our relationship, this student had already earned a position among my nightly prayers' intentions. Many outside spectators would presume that this young man didn't have a care in the world. Gregarious and exuberant as they come, mere mention of the name of our school's star basketball player will bring a smile to the face of any staff member at our school.

But this warm-hearted student had learned to default to this powerfully convincing guise in concealment of freshly opened emotional wounds. Even as his grades steadily slipped and his academic focus deteriorated towards non-existence, he took on more extracurriculars to delay the inevitable—going home.

His parents' marriage was over. With legal rights to custody uncertain and hotly contested, his sense of security was in free-fall.

Just the day before, I had asked him to hang back past the dismissal bell. He sat in what seemed like numbness as I struggled to delicately phrase my concerns for his well-being. He listened, politely nodded, and avoided eye contact as I offered to simply sit back and listen should he ever ask. Mere seconds after his departure, I had already deemed my attempt a blundering failure.

But with the next day's note, the floodgates opened, and his note's desperate words remain etched into my memory.

"Please help me. I just keep bottling all this up, but I can't do it anymore. I'm scared. Please help."

My mind raced as my heart dropped and I stammered to dismiss my homeroom. It was my turn to sit and listen. Our conversation would break my heart, but I no longer felt helpless. Confounding as it was to comprehend, [tweetable]he had somehow chosen me, his newest teacher, with whom to be most vulnerably honest[/tweetable]—to admit to the pain he had not allowed himself to feel. For the first time in a long time, he felt safe, and he felt heard.

Through our innumerable check-ins since and in cooperation with my coworkers and his mother, he has gradually regained his footing. And after long months of frustrations, his renewed academic efforts have finally yielded fruit.

Just yesterday, he strolled to the board, fighting back tears through an infectious smile.

"Mr. Wilde, can I say something to the class?"

Try as I might, I could never do justice to the words that followed. But even when he had given up, he explained, we had refused to give up on him.

Such are life's most precious lessons. Amidst the curriculum, beyond the content, what we learn in school is how to be human with one another. And [tweetable]if my students remember nothing else, let it be that they felt seen. That they were heard. That they are loved.[/tweetable]

Remember, Christ Was a Teenager Too

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

When I was first told that I would be given the opportunity to teach seventh grade students this year, my initial reaction was utter shock and dismay. I had known from the moment I applied to be an ACE Teacher that I never wanted to teach middle school, and I was content with my eleventh and twelfth graders last year.

Yet, a week before the first day of school, I had no choice but to accept that this year, I'd be teaching fifty-seven seventh grade students.

The first month of this school year seemed as if it was my first month of teaching—everI struggled with the transition between teaching eleventh grade English and teaching seventh grade literature. I couldn't remember my seventh graders' names because I saw them every other day. Giving directions consumed half of my class time—I never accounted for the number of questions young middle school students would ask. I felt a perpetual nervous feeling in my stomach as I prepared to teach my seventh graders.

But, somewhere between late August and early October, I fell in love with each and every one of them. While I had struggled all of last year to rid my eleventh graders of their jaded spirits, I suddenly found myself in front of fifty-seven eager, energized, and innocent seventh grade students.

Sure, Jose raised his hand in the middle of my lesson and said, "Ms. Ramos you don't have an earring!" and, after I grabbed my ear, responded "You have two!" Yes, Miguel only volunteered to read if he could do it in his Mickey Mouse voice. And, still, Robert told the other students to "shut up" when talking during my lesson. But, when I looked upon these moments with love, patience, and a few more hours of sleep, I had no choice but to smile.

In a new light, Christ made himself known to me through this particular group of students. Here are just a few of the many moments that I saw Christ in my 7th grade students:

  • When reading The Outsiders, my students asked me if I was ever bullied like Ponyboy was by the Socs. I felt comfortable sharing with them that the most studious student is not always the most popular person in the classroom. Immediately, Miguel raised his hand and I was naturally caught off guard when he asked me, "But, where are those students now, Ms. Ramos? You went to Notre Dame. You're here teaching us at Saint Joe. Can they say that?"

  • When interviewing a few of my 7th grade girls for a video for our school's Week of the Woman, they advised all of the high school girls not to forget who they were before all of the pressures of boys and school. They told them that they had the opportunities to do great things so they shouldn't waste those opportunities simply for the sake of boys.

  • A student realized that he had forgotten to answer the questions on the back of his homework sheet. He came up to me, tears already forming in his eyes. I told him everything would be okay, and he responded, "But, Ms. Ramos, I tried so hard. I try hard every time and my grades never show it. Now, it's going to be another bad grade." I asked him to trust me, and he has ever since.

  • When reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, I asked my students if they could relate to Bruno when he was forced to move from his home in Berlin. Many of my students raised their hand and shared their stories of when they were forced to leave their homes in Mexico because of all of the violence. So, every day without fail, my students pray for peace in Mexico. They ask that God protect their families and their homes that they left behind.

I so often associate Christ with his love and his painful sacrifice for all of us that I forget to revel in His moments of joy, playfulness, and youth. This year, I finally realized that Christ was once a young teenager as well. He was not born a fully grown man; He grew in stages. Once I could understand that, I was able to see Him in my seventh graders too.

Did You Hear That? A Day in the 4th Grade

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Did You Hear That? A Day in the 4th Grade

6:12 a.m. After dragging myself out of bed and showering, I silently take my seat at the kitchen table with my bowl of cereal and sliced banana to catch up on NPR. If she’s not there already, my housemate Mary joins me with her Greek yogurt and prayer card.

Every morning we sit in the same seats across from each other. We eat in silence, not saying a word—it’s too early for either of us to engage in conversation. Her presence is enough, though: a reminder that [tweetable]as challenging as my day may be, I have my housemates to support me when I get home.[/tweetable]

7:50 a.m. Sacred Heart begins each day with an assembly in the parish center/cafeteria. I head straight there from overseeing the car drop-off line, a job that gives me the unique opportunity to interact with students of all grades. What’s the best way to get a kindergartner to go straight into the school building from his vehicle without stopping, you ask? If you think of a strategy, let me know.

Assembly often includes special presentations, but always entails a daily reading and responsorial psalm, the Pledge of Allegiance (when was the last time you said it?), and our school mission statement. Finally, once each class is in a Spirit of Excellence line, Sister Mary Ann leads us in Sacred Heart’s core beliefs (complete with hand motions!).

If your browser does not support HTML5 audio, please download the clip.

8:45 a.m. By this time, the 4th Grade Explorers are well into their daily math lesson. This week we have been practicing our strategies for solving multi-digit multiplication problems (i.e. 37 x 64). Each math lesson usually includes direct instruction, individual practice, group work, and pair-shares.

In a classroom of 30 students, one-on-one attention can be tough; often it’s while students are practicing the content of the lesson—either individually or in groups—that I get a chance to meet with struggling students. I’ve found through pair-shares, though, that fellow students can be the best teachers, as can be heard from students working through the traditional method of multiplication.

If your browser does not support HTML5 audio, please download the clip.

9:15 a.m. We always begin religion class with some form of prayer, and usually students share special intentions they have before we begin. This practice not only gives students the opportunity to express themselves and voice their concerns, but it also provides me with a window into their lives outside of school.

The neatest part of this practice is when students pray for a peer’s intention days after the petition was originally voiced. While I never know what the intentions will include, the most common ones involve friends and family.

Bonus! 10 a.m. On Wednesdays we have our all-school masses, and by this time they are just about wrapping up. When you’re an ACE teacher, you often find yourself filling random roles within the school, despite a lack of qualifications.

For me this means conducting the choir, which translates into showing up to Mass on Wednesday with no prior knowledge of any of the music and moving my hands the best I can to the notes (Which hand do I use? Depends on which isn’t tired!). Fortunately, Mrs. Gibson is a stellar music teacher, and I just let my hands follow her lead on the piano. Apparently I’m a pretty good actor (as far as looking like I know how to conduct), but I’m quick to note that all the credit for the choir’s beautiful sounds actually goes to Mrs. Gibson, the musicians (some students, some staff), and the 3rd – 5th grade singers.

If your browser does not support HTML5 audio, please download the clip.

12:54 p.m. Recess. If there’s any part of the day during which a teacher has to be ready for anything, it’s now (i.e. What happens if a squirrel falls on one of your student’s heads?). I’ve discovered that real-life recess isn’t completely different from my favorite childhood cartoon, Recess.

While Sacred Heart may not have a middle school student named King Bob, my class’ recess does consist of various groups. You have the taggers, gymnasts, football players, drawers, swingers, and those I’ve affectionately dubbed “the imaginators.” I’ve even managed to get exclusive information on the imaginary world the four imaginators enter once recess begins.

If your browser does not support HTML5 audio, please download the clip.

2:16 p.m. Most of the afternoon is spent on Social Studies and science. This can be a tricky time of the day for a teacher: some students seem a bit lethargic after eating and exerting energy at recess, while others are amped from the food and fresh air. With the end of the day so near, this is also a very quick-paced time.

Yet, as always, instruction must go on! So I begin pulling out all of my ACE-certified teacher strategies: call-and-repeats (Scholars?!?!?), verbal attention grabbers (GASP! Look how cool this is…), bodily-kinesthetic movement (“I need every to get up, walk in a circle, and then sit down.”), and perhaps even some unexpected accents. Consequently, it is often at this time of the day that I am reminded [tweetable]I’ll pull out any stop to keep my students learning.[/tweetable] (My apologies for the singing…)

If your browser does not support HTML5 audio, please download the clip.

6:17 p.m. When I finally get home, I’m usually mentally exhausted and chances of getting any work finished before our 7 o’clock community dinner are slim. Fortunately, this is where community members (aka friends who have also spent the day managing and bestowing knowledge upon mobs of students) are quite beneficial in helping to blow off some steam.

For example: a given evening might include Kaleen preparing community dinner in the kitchen while Ealish reads nearby. Jordan, Alex, and I have just watched the end of the Bond movie Sky Fall. Rather than simply watch something else while we wait for dinner, we go into Bond mode ourselves: Alex and I with the community Nerf guns, Jordan with the inflatable parrot. The next twenty minutes include hardwood-floor slides, behind-the-couch dodges, and sneak-attacks that scare Ealish and almost take out Mary, who has just gotten back from her run.

I’d share sounds from this situation, but some things you just have to experience for yourself…

The Decision More Important Than Your Career

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Picture the five people you spend the most time with.

Maybe you made a deliberate choice to seek them out, maybe they're family, or maybe they've just become part of your daily life, almost by accident. Motivational speaker Jim Rohn famously said that "we become the 'average' of those five people." This is, of course, not a new idea: Ralph Waldo Emerson was on to the same thing when he said: "Show me a man's friends, and I will tell you who he is."


The people we choose to spend time with have a massive effect on our way of thinking, our choices, our values, and our self-esteem. For some of us, this news is comforting; for others, maybe it's more than a little scary.

But wherever you stand at the moment, massive turning points like the end of your college years and your first foray into the "real world" are a chance to make a very deliberate choice about who those "five people" will be.

During my senior year, a very wise person told a very lost me to stop looking for "a job," or even "a career." Instead, he advised that I focus on identifying truly great people —leaders, heroes, and game-changers, as well as more ordinary people with principles. Once I had done that, he advised that I then do whatever it took to be near them, to work with them, to let them make me better.

That was great advice. Here's why: you've probably heard that the US Department of Labor reported that 65% of current schoolchildren will have jobs that don't exist yet. That's how fast the world is changing. What this means is that your connections with people who are riding the wave of innovation will be far more important than any job experience or specialized skills. Apart from broad categories like "problem-solving" and "critical thinking," no one has any idea what skills will be important in twenty years.


So I chose ACE.

My "five people" now include three brave and talented housemates, the rest of the ACE 21 cohort (all similarly brave and talented), key members of the ACE faculty and pastoral team, my fellow teachers at Tampa Catholic, and last but certainly not least, 130 unpredictable, challenging, and deeply inspiring high-school students.

I chose this kind of life on purpose. I deliberately chose not to have a nine-to-five job because I'd rather pursue a 24/7 vocation. I wanted a life which, by design, surrounds me with the best people I could find—the everyday heroes, the hopeful pioneers imagining education anew, and young people who wrestle, every day, with a world that is challenging and confusing, but also ultimately full of truth and grace. Throughout my process of discernment, I cared less about what they were doing, and more about how they were doing it, because that had everything to do with who they were.

Brother John Paige, CSC, said that "the acquisition of knowledge and competence help build values, attitudes and behaviors that lead to the transformation of the person, who then becomes an agent for transformation in the world." Education, by nature, focuses on people, especially in Catholic schools.

When I chose ACE, I didn't know that I wanted to be a teacher. I knew I wanted to be an ACE teacher. I sought out the greatest people I could find, and found them in ACE.

My only advice to people making the same decision now is this: Be deliberate. Ask questions about who you will be working with and working for before worrying about what it is you will be doing. The people you surround yourself with are the people you will become.

Seeing Christ in Others: How Three Relationships Taught Me More About Jesus

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

At times, it can be difficult to remember to find Christ in our daily lives—struggles arise, stress mounts, and it's easy to start to forget how blessed we really are. Most recently, I found myself struggling to make it to Thanksgiving break. Having gone so long without being home, I yearned to be near my family. But, it was the many faces of Christ that helped me to endure this test of time.


The week before break, Melissa, the chairperson of my school's English department, unexpectedly told me she would be my Brownsville mom. During our free time at the Encounter retreat we were leading, we managed to fit in meaningful conversations about family, friends, and relationships. She listened with an open heart, and we realized just how much we had in common. It was through her presence that I saw Christ's understanding and patience.

During that same retreat, I had the opportunity to get to know Manuel, the Spanish teacher at SJA. He shared his pride for his daughter and her accomplishments, speaking highly of her dedication and perseverance. He reminded me of my dad simply by his humor and kind heart. A few hours after Melissa offered to be my Brownsville mom, Manuel also spontaneously volunteered to "adopt" me as his daughter.

Two teachers and friends had offered to take me in as their own. While I had never shared with them my homesickness, both had somehow been drawn to call me family, take me under their wing, and make me feel at home. In Manuel, I found Christ's pride and happiness.

After the retreat, I was reinvigorated by the wonderful experience but still faced a few more days of work. As I rushed to finish last minute assignments and grade my students' performance assessments, I ran into Tony, the head of the our school's campus ministries. He took one look at me and absolutely understood what needed to be said.

He talked me through my list of things to do. Tony put everything into perspective by emphasizing the value of living in the moment and only doing what actually could be done. In Tony, I found Christ's peace and friendship.

In the span of one week, Christ revealed himself through these three individuals. He made his presence known by showering me with the understanding, patience, pride, happiness, peace, and friendship I needed in order to make it to Thanksgiving break.

But, on a much larger scale, Christ has presented himself in all of my Brownsville community. They have taken me in as their own and have made me feel at home. Knowing my need for a place to belong, Christ made a home for me in Brownsville, granting me an absolutely wonderful second family.

A Tiny Gesture, A Giant Result

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

"I don't need any help, Mr. Wilde."

Stepping back to recover from the blunt delivery of this declaration, the surrounding silence soon allowed the ramifications of my student's frank response to crystalize in dizzying clarity. Her moment had arrived. Pencils sharpened, desks cleared, deep breaths in, and back out, the test was out. For weeks now, years really, she had been preparing for today. It was now or never.

* * *

Allow me to expand upon my surprise. Here was a student my coworkers had warned me to show added care. She has been wounded by years of let downs and set backs, they assured me, though she masks it well in feigned indifference. For as long as she can remember, test scores have told her she is too slow. Her circle of friends snicker in chorus each time she answers yet another question incorrectly. And her home life would break your heart.

For months now, I had strived to get through to her, an eighth grader still counting basic addition on her fingers. Making an intentional point to try to differentiate my instruction to her needs, I would not hesitate to offer words of affirmation, check in for added clarification, and go out of my way to give reminders regarding upcoming assessments.

Still no single day's interaction could come anywhere close to predictable. With her life's endless list of variables, one fleeting moment of misunderstanding could readily transform her from a beaming, carefree adolescent, to a defiant, disengaged occupier of a seat. Just two weeks prior, she turned in a quiz without having even written her name. No plea for a retake, no reaction when I assured her I would allow one—numbness.

It was not until the following day that I guardedly noticed a faint shift; a flickering spark just smoldering, begging for a breath of life. She returned to my class with unprecedented focus. No more constant questions just fishing to be handed the answer, no more excuses for having neglected to complete yet another assignment; she was determined. And as the days before our unit test dwindled to a close, the fruits of her newly concerted efforts had come to maturation.

Her classmates exchanged quick glances of disbelief as she earned the top score in our final review activity and she proudly proclaimed she had spent the weekend studying. She had something to prove and as I distributed the test, the tension was palpable.

* * *

Minutes ticked away, and her exasperated sighs increased in frequency. Her frantic rustling of papers made her ever more panicked stress bitingly known. Passing quietly past her desk, I whispered to just let me know if there was anything I could do to help.

"I don't need any help, Mr. Wilde."

She knew the steps forwards and backwards, recognized her most commonly made mistakes; she had put in all the practice, but still, she found herself not measuring up. Never enough. A final, defeated sigh signaled her complete surrender and with her test still unfinished, the clock still ticking, she set her head between her crossed arms in crippling frustration.

As her classmates obliviously continued their calculations, time slowed to a stop. The decision that lay before me was simple, but the effect anything but certain. Deep breathe in, and out. It was a chance worth taking. So I strolled over to my desk and picked up a Post-it pad. How best to say it?

Scribbling down the decided combination of simplicity and support, I whisked back by to place it on her desk, with her still none the wiser. Pause. As she read the note, her eyes peeked open, locking immediately upon the foreign note. And after a moment's hesitation, and a look of disbelief, she reached back for her pencil.

All tests were in, the class bell tolled, and my students gathered their things. From the front of the room, I watched with a now-warming heart as my student carefully secured the simple Post-it note on the inside cover of her binder. And without timidity, she spoke up before the friends she knew all too well might snicker.

"Thank you Mr. Wilde, for the note."

The next day's returned score would send her rushing into the hallway glowing with the joy of showing other teachers just what she had accomplished. The best score she had ever earned on a math test, second highest in her class. News would spread and with it congratulations. And as she greeted her mother at dismissal, "math" would be among the first words out of her mouth.

* * * 

She never said it in quite so many words, but we all tell ourselves the same lie at times. Indeed, we have been conditioned to recite it. Proudly, we proclaim that we are independent, self-sufficient. That no problem is too burdensome, no disappointment too defeating, no help needed. But one single moment's grace can expose the outright absurdity of this seasoned self-assurance. More practice problems, more friend requests, more hours of even the most heartfelt work can only go so far towards the realization of who we were made to be. No, to become that, we all need help; for we must believe the sometimes unbelievable. That we are worthy. Seen. Heard. Believed in. Beloved.

If I teach them nothing else, let it be this:

We believe in a God who believes in us. Who loves to call us His Beloved. Fashioned then in his image, let us never cease in striving to love as He loves us. Let us believe, just as proudly, in the worth of our sisters and brothers.

Even when they fall, lash out in pain,
and shield their faces for fear of ridicule;
day in and out, let us take the risk to tell them,
to show them—

You matter. More than you believe.


post it



When Passing Notes Is a Good Thing

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Education is a wildfire.

And a single educator is but a flickering of this timeless flare, hoping to shed some light where there is darkness.

I've come to see myself not as some unerring fountain of knowledge, but an active participant in a dynamic process. I stand not alone, but on the shoulders of those who came before me; those courageous educators who kept the light of knowledge burning, and passed the torch of inspiration.

Like any flame, I, too, require fuel, a life-giving breath of oxygen.

And it is here that I find myself just as much a student as I am a first-year teacher. My students, this community, and God who keep my soul alight. It is their joyful curiosity, their tried endurance, and their boundless love that lead me through each day.

Take for example:

Another school day comes to its close and I find myself spent. The sum of every mental note, committed appointment, and striving self-reflection coalesce in a spinning slurry of to-dos. But it is just then that a fifth grader enters with a shy smile and turns my world back upright. With a simple note of honest gratitude, she has made my world stand still. And in a flash of light and love, my self-doubting pales.student letter 1

If teaching has taught me anything, it is that my students have much to teach me. And as their reciprocated student, I can always use the review.

These sixty-two bright, burning coals remind me who I am and who we are together. Even when the class ceiling leaks, the projector bulb is kaput, and I have deemed my lesson plan a painfully flawed attempt at improvement, their stretching smiles and accepting laughter join my own to radiate God's love anew.

In innocently reminding me of my imperfections, from in-quiz typos to the belt I forgot to wear, they help me focus on what matters most.

And all the more they demonstrate, if only subtly, their depth of appreciation for my efforts, indeed my presence in their lives. From the student who chooses to confide in me the turmoil stemming for his parents' bitter divorce to the chorus of elation proclaiming my arrival at soccer, I will forever remain a student of their beautiful humanity. Each day, they remind me that I belong here, that this is part of His plan, and that I am enough.

All the communicated knowledge in the world cannot amount to true education, if one's heart and soul remain unchanged. More than my assessments, more than our outcomes, if anything, it is my character these students will remember. Those quiet moments of enacted humility, courageous honesty, and enduring care. The shared fires of inspiration and motivation hold the promise to brighten our world. First year teachers remain but single tongues of flame, but with the warmth of God's love enveloping us, we might just set the world ablaze.

And so I return to a quote now seared into the fiber of my teaching. I behold each of my students anew, as precious lanterns of untold potential. They stand not as empty minds to be filled with information, but smoldering tinder, just waiting to ignite. I pause, thanking God for the privilege to let my life's vocation reach them, wondering with a smile just how far their lights shall shine.

15-Hour Work Days I'd Never Pass Up

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

From an outside perspective, the life of a first-year teacher might well seem predictable—regimented even. Let me assure you—it is anything but that.


True, the skeleton of one's day follows a now-hardwired schedule, but the magic of teaching transpires between the class bell's tolls. Hours of dedicated preparation and masterfully enacted lesson plans seem perfect formulas to yield tangible student success, but it is in the simple, unplanned moments that I know God works alongside and within me. To fully appreciate this, I believe one must experience it; so please, walk with me through today—one unlike any other.

5:32 AM: My still weary eyes open, lamenting that my cold has most certainly set in. The temptation manifest in my symptoms nags—just hit snooze, roll back over, you need to rest. But sixty-one faces swiftly
surface to the forefront of my subconscious. They need me even more. There is cake to be eaten today! A universe to be unlocked. God's love to be shared.

6:25 AM: As I greet the crisp fall air outside, it is quite apparent that auto-pilot has only semi-successfully led me through my morning routine. Community coffee brewed, tie tied, breakfast downed (despite this morning's protesting stomach), and the door to our humble convent locked tight on my way out. A thirty-minute commute awaits me on my way to Richmond, a time of reflection and clarity I have come to cherish dearly. And it is here that my day turns.


7:45 AM: My classroom now lies in wait for the students who will brighten it. Practice sheets, returned assessments, and reminders home sit organized and prepared to streamline the day's instruction. I triple-check that today's technology is bug-free, offering a silent prayer that cough drops might soothe my already failing voice. I head downstairs to the gathering point of our school's gymnasium and in an instant, the familiar flood of questions flows. I reassure anxious fifth graders that one late assignment will not destroy their grade, confirm with my seventh graders the exact location of this evening's soccer scrimmage, and share in the barely containable excitement of my sixth graders' home-baked models of the cell. As our school stands to recite our pledge and morning offering, I breathe in the goodness of this place, the hope of the community, and exhale any exhaustion that might oppose it.


3:45 PM: For the first time since 7:45 AM, I sit in silence. My students love to point out that I never sit down, and my legs have long since joined in the aching of my throat. Today has brought a blur of beautiful progress, bitter frustration, and an ever-burning desire for tomorrow's continued improvement. Together, my students and I have comprehended the expansiveness of our observable universe, connected chemistry to the geological formation of caverns, laughed over lunch, decoded algebra, and enjoyed the reward of cellular baking. And just as I sit to plan still further ahead, my mentor teacher swings by unannounced with Ricola cough-drops and reassurance. She invites me to consider anew the work of this day, and find God there. She leaves me with this thought, but my wavering mind is already made. Tired can wait, I have a soccer scrimmage to attend.

will58:13 PM: The game is over and the All Saints Knights have narrowly prevailed. Twenty-two grinning faces gleefully acknowledged my presence at the pitch. Casual sideline conversations with parents followed with the revelations that several students I struggle to keep on task have proudly proclaimed my class to be their most engaging. After high-fives and congratulations, the commute home offers a chance to call home and unwind. And the instant I enter the door, my community members sit to intentionally ask me about my day.

Fifteen hours have passed since my head left the pillow. Yet somehow, head-cold and all, I am wide-awake with the week to come. Today was no piece of cake (though I did help myself to two), but it was unlike any other. Authentic teaching will never amount to a stilted routine of standards-based curriculum. For it is inseparably infused with the joy of simple, shared humanity and the overflowing love of Christ. Today was just one day in the life of one first year teacher, but God knows the work of a single day can set hearts on fire.

Slowly and All at Once

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Community pictures are an ACE standard. They're taken in the middle of the summer, uploaded onto the ACE website weeks after, and, sometime at the beginning of the school year, they make their way home to their respective communities, where they will hang on the wall for years to come. So with much thought and creativity, ACE communities find a location on campus, choose a community pose, smile, and say cheese. Then, they wait.

After scrolling through Pinterest family poses and taking screen shots of the ones we liked the most, ACE Brownsville decided on the "jumping in the air, half smiling, half screaming, not sure what to do with my arms" pose. If all else failed, we could always count on the "sorority" pose. We must have taken the picture four or five times. Each time, we climbed up the step and jumped off, hoping that someone's face wouldn't be hidden by the sunlight or that we would all be in the air at the same time. Not entirely convinced that we got it right, we took a picture in our "sorority" pose just in case. Then, we waited.


The picture on the top is the photo ACE uploaded to its website. It is the picture that is now framed and hanging on our wall. For years to come, ACE Brownsville communities will look at our picture and know that there was love in our home. And, it is true; there is love in our home. But, the picture on the bottom will forever be my ACE Brownsville community; it captures the nuances of our ACE Brownsville personalities and the transformative nature of living in community.

In this picture, you see Sarah with her arms wide open, ready to take you just as she found you. She made her way into your life with God's love and wisdom because only He knew that she's exactly what you needed in order to feel and know that every bit of you is divinely made and eternally loved.

Next to Sarah is Brett. While his arms are cautiously in the air, carefully avoiding bumping into mine, his face just radiates energy and positivity. When you need it most, his positive energy brings you back to life. He reminds you that you are alive and that that is reason enough to rejoice.

Next to me is Brian. With one quick glance, you see his legs are kicked back in a playful manner and his face is staying true to his calm and cool composure. In stressful moments, he brings perspective, reminding you that you are indeed a human being and subject to mistakes.

Amanda is up next to Brian. Immediately, you notice the excitement on her face. When you come to her with crazy and complicated ideas for school projects, it is her excitement that reassures you, reminding you that there are other people out there who have crazy and complicated ideas too.

Gabriel hovers in the air with a full blown karate chop. He is a wonder to witness in action. Few others can contain such dynamic character, yet he does it quite gracefully. You have no choice but to simply watch and learn.

On the right, you see Liz. One look at her and your soul is reinvigorated. Her passion for life is a testament to living life fully. She truly lives to love and loves to live. She gives and asks for nothing in return. And, in your heart, you know that you will forever be a better person for having known her.

Living in community transforms you slowly and all at once. It is a transformation that no picture will ever be able to capture, but my ACE Brownsville community photo comes pretty close.

The Difference a Year Makes: Pushing Forward with Confidence

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The first ACE summer prepares ACErs to be first-year teachers extraordinarily well. Unfortunately, though, there are aspects of being in a classroom for which no teaching program, no matter how qualified, can prepare you. What do you do when Sandra begins throwing up smack in the middle of standardized testing? How do you mourn with the class when Miss Suzy, a beloved faculty member, returns to God? What do you do when a plump, old, white-robed Father Niccolo unexpectedly bursts into your classroom to teach Italian Christmas carols? How do you best express your gratitude and love when all of your students remember your birthday?


There will always be moments like these, whether you have taught for two or 30 years. Indeed, they continue to happen every day for me as a second-year teacher. Such moments no longer feel as daunting or disruptive, though. I can roll with the punches and still actively engage my students in a darn good lesson. The difference between this year and last? My store of confidence, which gradually built up throughout my first year of teaching.

Yet with great (and I use this term loosely) confidence comes great responsibility. While many of the initially daunting tasks of the first year are no longer challenging, new challenges have stepped in to take their place. More so than my ACE academic supervisors, my principal, or my mentor teacher, I am holding myself to higher standards. And I believe this to be true for each of my fellow ACErs. Differentiation, unit planning, after-school activities, one-on-one time with students, parent correspondence . . . regardless of the area, we want to exceed the accomplishments we made last year. We want to make a bigger difference.

It was a bit odd, starting my second year at Sacred Heart. Unlike last year, I was no longer the fresh new face on the faculty, the mysterious young male teacher joining the ranks of the seasoned female elementary teachers. The students are generally less intrigued by my existence (although perhaps this is something for which to be thankful). I am no longer finding new (well, new to me) supplies on the shelves of my classroom. Ultimately, the excitement inherent in entering a completely new experience, a new community of people, has worn off.

This does not mean all excitement is gone, however; it's certainly safe to say that teaching is a vocation that will never lack excitement. And the oddness that came with no longer feeling new stemmed from a gradually built sense of ownership and belonging. What was novel last year is now familiar; what I viewed with curiosity and wonder I now view with endearment. I am settled.

Every morning I oversee the car line as students are dropped off at school, a job I began at the beginning of last year. This year, though, the kindergartners no longer walk past me as quickly as possible. The seventh and eighth graders look me in the eye (I think it's safe to say they may even think I'm "cool"). My former students bring up concepts learned last year, despite rubbing sleep out of their eyes (side note: I can say I have former students!). And I am confident not only in my ability to teach but also in my desire to work even harder to make each of these students' lives better.

Letter to My New Students

Tuesday, September 30, 2014 by Every once in a while, stop and think about what truly inspires you, and make sure you find Christ there.

To my new students:

Christ is the reason edited2 editedAt Tampa Catholic High School, they say "sports is king," but it just so happens that they're wrong, and I'll prove it to you. Walk into our gym, and take a look around. Amidst state championship pennants and varsity rosters, you'll find a banner that tells you everything you need to know. It reads:

"Be it known to all who enter here, that Christ is the reason for this school. He is the model for our faculty and the inspiration of our students."

There it is, in black and white. At Tampa Catholic, sports aren't king at all—Christ is.

But what does that mean? The answer is in those 29 words. They make several important promises to you. They promise that this school is rooted in something much deeper than academic excellence. They promise that our faculty share a single vision for their role as teacher. Finally, they promise that Christ has the power to inspire you. At your age, the power to inspire is like magic. You are the future—imagine if that future is inspired by Christ.

That word "inspire" is a great one. If you break it down to its Latin roots, it means "to breathe life into." So many things will breathe life into your high school experience: simple practical jokes executed in the quick five minute passing periods between classes, all the hours you spend serving your wider Tampa community, what is sure to be a whole host of extracurricular activities, and of course, the knowledge that lies buried in the pages of your textbooks, waiting to be wrestled with.

Every once in a while, though, stop and think about what truly inspires you, and make sure you find Christ there.

TFriday Night Lightshat's not always easy. Let me try to help. Check out this photo:

This is what the first football game of the season looks like: the treasured tradition of "Friday Night Lights," where parents and younger siblings, faculty, our principal and deans, football players, cheerleaders, and devoted fans all gather together under the Crusader banner.

They gather under something else, too. Something bigger. Take a look at that gorgeous Florida sky. What you're seeing is what's called "the pink moment"—that fleeting moment when the sky lights up with an ethereal burst of spectacular pink.

Maybe I'm crazy, but I like to think that's Christ, breathing life into TC Football. At the very least, though, that sky is a good reminder that there are things much more important than field goals and touchdowns at stake here. There is a backdrop which frames all that we do in and outside of the classroom: "Christ is the reason for this school."

Come to TC willing to live like Christ, to be inspired by his example, and you will find a home here.

Trust Now, and Teach

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

One year ago, I ought to have asked for little more. With the advent of my senior year, I had just welcomed my younger brother to Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, as a freshman and fellow Zag. Surrounded by a network of inspiring mentors and incomparably supportive friendships, the opportunities of the coming months might well have felt boundless.

Yet amidst the anxious excitement of orientation and joyous, post-summer reunions, I found myself continuously exhausted by the seemingly circular process of vocational discernment and re-evaluation. Paralyzed by the uncertain state of my post-graduate ambitions, my prayer life had effectively withered to the frustrated recitation of my deepest desire—to know, indeed to foresee, God's will for my future.

RestlessI chided myself to focus on the present and sought to mask my trepidations. For given the gravity of my present predicament, the tried and true mantra to "let go and let God" suddenly seemed fanciful, if not downright foolish. After all, a mere handful of decisions were about to largely determine a trajectory that might well last a lifetime.

In hindsight, it borders on the unbelievable, but if I am being perfectly honest with myself, the catharsis that emboldened me to follow through and apply wholeheartedly to the Alliance for Catholic Education came exactly two years after I first heard of this program's existence. Dizzying as it is to fully appreciate, I had never genuinely considered a vocation in education before partaking in a spiritual formation retreat through Gonzaga's University Ministry at the onset of my sophomore year. The bus ride back to campus would be the first time that I admitted to anyone, including myself, the desire to inspire others through intentional, holistic education. Countless phone calls home and late-night conversations with friends would soon lead me to this very website. Until one year ago, ACE's invitation was one I couldn't be certain I was worthy of accepting. Its confluence of spiritual development, intentional, communal living, and professional teaching that strives to serve under-resourced students, families, and schools felt too ideal to be realistically attainable. Acknowledging that I would accept ACE in a heartbeat, I could not bring myself to fully believe that ACE would accept me back. And so, I bided my time, collected second opinions, and explored alternatives, all the while anticipating some hidden snag.

The first domino had long since fallen, but it took two years for my educational epiphany to reach the point of maturation. Yet another retreat, centered around vocational discernment and contemplative action, would afford me the opportunity to name my predicament as a restlessness of heart. To authentically understand that in a world of sneak-peaks and pre-determined paths, faith itself would lose all meaning. To appreciate that the reason there was no simple answer, was because God had left the decision my own to make. To recognize that the only hidden snag there had ever been was my own disbelief. The second domino fell.

One year ago, I was restless, paralyzed by the expansive possibilities of my own uncertain future. Today, I am still restless, but empowered with the 61 uncharted futures of my vibrant, talented students. I believe that God and I chose the ministry of teaching together, and I believe that I will be restless until I rest in Him. I now also see that this restlessness is fuel. An inexhaustible reservoir of the passion needed to change hearts, to captivate imaginations, and to challenge my students to invest in their boundless potential.

"Everything is Beautiful and Nothing Hurts"

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

My first year of teaching felt like a whirlwind of students' faces, lesson planning, assignments, deadlines, meetings, smiles, grimaces, tears, and, most of all, hope.

I arrived in Brownsville, Texas feeling very much at home within the ever present Mexican culture, though I still wondered how I would create a home with my students. I would, after all, spend most of my time with the overwhelming 110 students I was chosen to teach. If I was going to endure the challenges of my first year, I would not only have to survive my students, I would have to thrive amongst them.

Garcia, Hernandez, Ramirez, Cantu—all names that I could pronounce quite easily without a slip of the tongue. Just a week later and I already had their names memorized and their faces forever engrained in my heart. I now needed to create one space for all of us, a place for the people that inhabited those names on the roster sheets, the personalities that occupied the seats in my classroom, the yearning and palpitating hearts that filled the silence as their owners awaited direction.

My greatest fear was that a year would pass without making any connection between me and my students.

I spent the majority of the first quarter lecturing my students, not on the content, but on life lessons—"If you don't read, you will never get better." "You can't get away with these kinds of things in college." "You need to think about your future and how your actions will affect it"—all to no avail. I was convinced that my students were a representation of my work as a teacher. If they failed in any facet of their life, I would have let them down. I trudged along the second quarter, giving reading check quizzes, creating interactive and unorthodox learning activities, and spending late nights commenting on every submitted assignment.

There seemed to be very little progress academically; students were still choosing not to read, waiting until the last minute to do homework assignments, and indifferent to all things English class.

It took months of soldiering on with my head down before I finally looked up and I saw beauty in what I had perceived to be absolute chaos. My students were still my students, but I was different. They had changed me with their uncontrollable laughter during vocabulary games, frustration while reading Gatsby's unraveling in The Great Gatsby, hope when learning of Holden Caulfield's rebellious spirit, and accomplishment when their ideas actually came through in their writing. My students were finally my home, not because of their academic progress, but because we all grew together as one community. We lived through each day, acknowledging each other's humanness and allowing it to flourish at its own pace.

Coming into my second year, I look back and am reminded of the transformative words found in Slaughterhouse-Five: "everything was beautiful and nothing hurts." I begin this year with my head held high, trusting myself as a teacher, leader, friend, and human being. My goal is not to create a home with my new students; it is to open the doors to my existing home, allowing them to fill it with all of their uniqueness and knowing that they will be welcome in my heart always.

Shaken and Transformed: The Meaning of the M.Ed.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014 by Communications Intern and ACE 19 member Ashley Logsdon reflects on the meaning of her M.Ed. degree


According to my diploma, I became a Master of Education on Saturday, May 17, 2014. I hardly noticed. I spent May 17 as I have spent most Saturdays for the past two years: rising early for a run, grading papers, creating lesson plans, writing tests, responding to parent emails, and perhaps remembering to do household chores. In my life as a teacher, there was nothing particularly special about May 17.

At a beautiful ceremony on July 12, 2014, I actually received my diploma, and, once again, the experience was shockingly anticlimactic. Although it is nice to know that I have “so well merited as to be proclaimed publicly and solemnly a Master of Education,” this piece of parchment somehow does not quite capture the fullness of the ACE experience. But if the ACE Teaching Fellows program is not just about the advertised M.Ed., then what was all of that work for?

I found my answer not on the diploma, but in the people and events leading up to ACE’s commencement ceremony. On Friday, Joe Augustinsky spoke to our ACE 19 cohort and explained the ACE experience in terms of physics: just as the molecules in a mirror “shake up” the light they receive and reflect back new beams, ACE transforms its teachers such that they shed a new sort of light for the world. The life of an ACE teacher is truly “shaken up” in every possible way. ACErs live hundreds of miles from home, build a community out of strangers, embrace an unfamiliar culture, embark on a new profession, and learn to cope with the countless responsibilities of a Catholic schoolteacher.

Why would we sign up for such a crazy adventure? For me, this willingness to be “shaken” has to do with Jesus’ proclamation that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). The distance and unfamiliarity, the hours spent writing lesson plans and grading papers, and the formidable challenges of first-year teaching are all ways that we lay down our lives and allow ourselves to be “shaken.” But why? We do this, Jesus says, for our friends – our students, communities, and the Catholic schools that we serve.

By offering my own life up to be “shaken,” I found love in countless ways: in the wonder of my students, the hugs of my colleagues, and the laughter of my community members. When ACE 19 gathered for our Commencement Retreat, we rejoiced in the friendships we had formed over the past two years of sharing in the “shakenness.” As I have witnessed the great love of my students, colleagues, community, and cohort, I hope that I, too, have learned how to love.

This is what we celebrated on July 12: giving up our lives to be “shaken” so that we can reflect a greater love in return. The M.Ed. is just a bonus.

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