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Why is it that only when we travel, our hearts truly open?
And we are at our most open and tender, alive and willing to connect?
Why is our faith in humanity fully restored when we venture into an unfamiliar world?
When we are a little more vulnerable, a little more awake, a little more in awe of our surroundings?
A little shy, a little bold, all at once?
And why is it that we so easily forget how much is beautiful exactly where we are?
When we are just walking an ordinary simply daily path?
How is it our that our hearts close over a little each day when we feel safe and secure, and we don’t even notice it until we don’t send that extra message, we don’t reach out, we don’t laugh louder, we don’t hug closer, we don’t try a little harder for the silly-crazy because…we don’t have time? Or the inclination?
Help me notice, oh, help me notice. I want my heart to be regularly shaken up, cracked open, flooded, and constantly discovering the world.
I want my heart to be alive.
I have the most amazing kiddie in one of my Year 7 Music classes. Unruly hair, arms flying, brain the same, he is the epitome of a teenage boy. But he absolutely loves to learn and is totally, blissfully unaware of his hunger for knowledge, asks questions like he breathes, and is universally loved by all, even the grudging admirers. He is the kid that achieves a merit or top of the class without even realising that it’s a thing.
“Oh, I did THAT?!” Pause. “Oh, that’s kind of cool, isn’t it?” Pause. “I’m so hungry! Can we go now?!”
That’s his brain trajectory. He is defined by nothing, except that exact moment in time.
The thing about this kid is that he is so absolutely HIMSELF and AUTHENTIC that there is simply no room to BE anything else. He loves learning, so he does it. He has an idea, so he shares it. He is utterly, completely imperfect and downright annoying sometimes. His current project with me is realising he’s one of MANY in my class, and realising that he’s got limited one-on-one time with me. But his awareness is simply astounding as well; this is how one of our recent conversations went:
Me: “Sir Year 7! S E R I OU S L Y! You are one of MANY! Are you this noisy at home?! What happens when you need to share the air time?”
Sir Year 7: “I’m so sorry Ms Kwok. I honestly forget. See, there’s only one of me at home, so I suppose being in a class is something I need to learn. I’ll let Mum + Dad know that I need to practise it. I just get so excited by what we’re doing.”
OH MY GOODNESS, WHAT YEAR 7 SAYS THAT?!
So in our final week of school, we had International Languages + Cultures Day, where we had a casual day on the last day of school where we were encouraged to wear our national cultural dress. This kid is Greek, and his full cultural dress is ABSOLUTELY SENSATIONAL. The white flowing robes, the tasselled shoes, the hat, all FAB-U-LOUS. He proudly showed me a picture of what he was planning on wearing on the final day, and I told him how MUCH I was looking forward to seeing him in his national dress.
And then he said: “Ms Kwok, I’m a little nervous about it. I mean, I’m so proud of my heritage, but our national dress is over-the-top. We Greeks don’t do anything by halves. My parents are totally up for me wearing my gear on Friday, but even though I’m proud, I’m nervous about what the rest of my class + the rest of the school might think. I might get laughed at. I’m prepared for that, but I’m also sort of not looking forward to it as well.”
Me, internally: Kid, you are amazing. No one would DARE laugh at you because you would just totally OWN IT. You could wear a potato sack and people would think that you were just rocking your heritage. You have this authenticity and realness, this humanness, imperfectness, and silliness, that makes you undeniably YOU. You NEED to do this to help give permission to other kids to be them as well.
But my favourite bit? That he was poignantly, sensitively nervous about it. He was SENSIBLE to the world around him, and AWARE of the challenges, even though he was so committed to being totally himself.
Me, in words: “You will totally rock it. It might feel weird and nerve-wracking to do it, but you should be proud of our heritage. You’re going to give many other kids permission to be themselves as well, through you being a little bit courageous.”
Sir Year 7: “A bit like you do each day, hey Ms Kwok? We always look forward to you rocking the colours.”
OH. MY. GOODNESS.
And I realised something amazing: We each of us are looking for the “similar” around us, even if we think we’re not. We can’t help it if we have any measure of humanity and vulnerability. We are looking for other people who look exactly like us in the frontline. Those who are being the forerunners, so that we have permission to be the forerunners behind them. Isn’t it amazing that we are constantly look for the like, even though we think we are committed to being brave?
And I realised also how much my students notice about the playful example I am setting with my colourful outfits each day. It gives them permission to also rock their individuality.
The most poignant realisation? Sir Year 7 had just put into words what I instinctively think on a daily basis. Sure, I can step into the arena and be different. I THINK I’m good with that. But REALLY truly, I am looking out of my peripheral vision for another “like”, someone who is just like me.
Yet if I flipped that, what if who I was and the example I was setting became one BIG-GIANT-FLASHING-NEON-LIVE-WALKING-PERMISSION-SLIP for others to do the same? How much JOY do I get from those like Sir Year 7 who are so honestly themselves, yet so humbly nervous about sharing themselves, that I just WANT them to ROCK their personalities?
You can’t be in the frontline looking sideways.
You need to be in the frontline looking forward. Front and centre. Because you might be someone else’s permission slip on life while you are walking around being a little bit nervous, but a whole lot more courageous.
I have recently become interested in money. I am in my 30s, and I have FINALLY decided to delve into the adulting that is required to actually be interested in investing, credit cards, long-term goals, and generally making my money work harder and smarter. Making it sweat a little on my behalf.
Now, let me preface this by saying that I’ve ALWAYS been good with money. As a first generation Chinese-Vietnamese Australian, we could live off a shoe-string. We could stretch rice and mung beans for days, and make damn tasty meals at that. And I have ALWAYS been a prodigious saver. The first thing I ever bought was my beautiful grand piano, which was $9000.00, at age 20. The next was my home, at age 24. Every dollar had value. I saw how hard both of my parents worked, and how careful they were with money, but also how much they appreciated it, and that has inspired my own money savviness.
However, I’ve never been remotely INTERESTED in money. It was just the thing that bought you things. If I wanted something, no matter how big or pricey, I saved my arse off and then bought it. I have NEVER been in debt. I have never had bad credit. I have no idea what it feels like to not have a small amount squirrelled away for a rainy day. I always have “padding”. And most days, “padding” for the “padding”. Laugh all you like, it’s genetic, just like my inability not to get drunk off smelling a glass of wine.
To put that all into perspective, I got my first credit card at age 33. And you know what for?! So that I could get the bonus on Qantas points. I had to figure out how to spend more in order to get the bonus. I remember my rather comical foray into point accumulation when I had cycled all regular bills through the card, bought all the necessary groceries and items I needed, then stood there and thought, “Okay, now what? I have to spend another $500 before the end of the month!”
The thing is, I have always WANTED to be curious and interested about money. I bought financial magazines when I was in my teens + early 20s thinking that if I bought the books, I’d magically be inspired to BE money savvy. Part of all of that was the fact that I was lucky to be first generation and living in Australia, and as a young female, had access to all the education in the world. I should be good at money. And moreover, I should be fascinated by and interested in money simply because of my good fortune to be able to interact with it so positively.
NUP. NADDA. ZERO INTEREST.
Somehow, over the past few months, I have become incredibly, healthily, utterly interested. Not in the “I-Will-Become-A-Millionaire-By-Selling-A-Red-Paperclip” sort of interested, but in a way that has allowed me to make interested, informed, healthy money choices to make my dollar go further. Part of this has been inspired by my planning of my big overseas trip to the US + Canada later this year, where I have challenged myself on numerous counts not to take the first offer on anything; flights, hotels, accommodation, transport…all of it.
It’s been enticingly, weirdly satisfying and informative.
Now, here’s where the inspiration behind the inspiration comes into play:
It took me UNTIL NOW to even begin to be interested. I didn’t suck, in fact I was rather excellent at my money handling right up until this point. Requirement, logic and necessity did NOT provide ANY of the necessary incentive to MAKE me interested in the way that I am now.
Pure curiosity and self-motivation. A healthy appreciation of my skills and a sense of positive learning and discovery.
Now how many times have you thought about that in terms of TEACHING?!
There are a hundred and one ways to get a student to jump through the educational hoops. Coercing, bribery, templates, roadmaps, fear of exams, shaming, all in various volumes and degrees, all nicely put into a learning plan and emailed to students and parents. All rubric-ed up, bento-boxed, and delivered with an institutional stamp. And a school logo.
But the ONLY way to get really healthy, authentic learning that is self-motivated is through inspiring that self-motivation through healthy modelling.
You never know when it’s going to “catch”. Mine “caught” in delayed reaction TWENTY-ONE YEARS AFTER THE FACT! That’s so utterly delayed it’s laughable.
But it’s healthy, inspired, and self-motivated.
And shouldn’t that be the ONLY type of learning that we pedal as teachers?
My first teaching mentor gave me this. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE it!
She was larger than life, beloved, and a force to be reckoned with. I wanted to imbue some of her spirit. And now, 15 years late, I hope I have done her proud.
I have absolutely let her down in the “watch this space” category in the LITERAL BIOLOGICAL sense, but I hope that she’s watched my ACTUAL teaching trajectory and been a little bit proud.
I tackled the study today and was dreading the 3 large tubs full of cards, notes, and letters as they’d been untouched since…I moved into my home!
It turned into the most extraordinary, nostalgic, and humbling walk down memory lane. There were note of thanks + encouragement from my mentors from when I was 18 years old, so utterly GREEN, and just starting out at Festival of Music. Played my first concert at 19, more programs + notes. The 10 years I was at Brighton, WOW. That was traversing a whole decade of teaching + all the years which have formed me as a teacher. Young Adelaide Voices, Gondie Voices, and the Con High. The very top layer of the final box, my first 3 years at Pulteney Grammar.
The layer that took my breath away was 2013, when I left Brighton to work in Sydney for a year. The notes of gratitude + thanks were numerous, overwhelmingly beautiful, funny, touching, and largely unprocessed by me. I had to pack up to move cities, so those notes + cards got packed up almost immediately.
Re-reading them now is just EXTRAORDINARY. And look at some of the detail and artwork.
I am so lucky.
I love this.
We did a professional development as a whole staff recently where we were asked to name, in a sentence, what sparks our passion as people. Not as teachers, but as people. And found myself saying immediately, without thought or preparation:
“If ‘excellent’ is the highest pinnacle, like the North Star, or the top of a mountain, then I am determined to find a way to get there with my students without shame. I will not hold any of their personal attributes or actions against their inherent value, or allow that to colour their pathway to achieving excellence. But I WANT excellence. That’s unmistakable. It’s in the blood. I just think that you can do it joyfully, with a love of learning the whole way. It can be honest, gritty, no-frills, and monotonous, but it will not cut or hurt them personally.”
So my spark of passion in one sentence is this:
I want to bring the students under my direction to their best selves in an envelope of joy and worthiness.
I’m an example in my words, in how I am as a person, in how I recover, in how I deal with stress, in the challenges I choose to accept, in how I love and care for myself and the people important to me, and even in how I interact with the people I do not like or respect.
You can get to “excellent” by squeezing it out of a kid, by threatening them, by coercing them, by holding academic barriers over them, by comparing them to others, by pitting them against your own self-worth, by unwittingly emotionally cornering them into doing what you want. You know what? It all produces the same result of excellent. How twisted is that?! I hate that. But there it is. I will actually get you the result that you want. I’ve seen it happen.
But THAT version of excellent, forged from a foundation of shame – and that IS what it all is, shame packaged in various forms – doesn’t eff-ing fly. It doesn’t stick, it’s not life-long. And students will fight it the way their bodies fight disease; instinctively.
And why would you want to connect that with excellence and their self-worth?
Teachers, check your words + intent carefully. I have to on a daily basis.
And find another way.
I will find the only other way to “excellent” that doesn’t involve shame, even if I have to find the goddamn scenic route that takes twice as long.
Because that’s my spark.
I don’t want to admit it, but generally, I like things to look nice. Ordered. Pretty.
But actually, there are many times in my life where this sense of order + “perfectness” impacts on the pure messy joy that I can experience.
It doesn’t affect me negatively, I still have the same outcome, but I lose just a tiny bit of joy and sparkle, curiosity and unexpected learning.
Interestingly, I am very good at supporting “good learning chaos” in the classroom. I have faith in my ability to drive that. But for me? Somehow the idea of routine equals maximum production. When did I become such a machine?!
For example, last year I had a favourite mug. Nothing wrong with that, except that I have 18 other gorgeous, brightly patterned, colourful, all-shapes-and-sizes mugs waiting to be used. The problem was I was all for not creating any additional work and securing a predictable outcome. And you could trace it back to my plunger-coffee brewing skills!
On the surface, I was a creature of habit. Flip that, and I was playing it safe. In my cup usage. Which no doubt meant in some other aspects of my world.
So this year, after cleaning for Chinese New Year, I started using every single other mug I owned, no matter how awkward to use, how it put my milk + coffee proportions out of whack, no matter how hard to balance, no matter how quickly my coffee cooled down. I put up with the inconvenience and lack of predictability for the sake of a new experience.
This all seems totally ridiculous when you think, “It’s ONLY A FRICKIN’ MUG!”
But it becomes a very big deal when you apply that sense of daring and risk and change to what I do in the classroom, what I read, who I talk to, the conversations I’m willing to engage in, what movies I watch, and how I approach life.
Am I willing to be a teacher different to what I’ve done in the past? I’m an effective teacher…but I wonder what else I can do? I win the day through connection + building a strong rapport with my students. What about pushing harder on grit + excellence?
When I am tired or overwhelmed by school, I go back to old familiar books, movies, and tv show because they don’t cost me anything emotionally. I don’t have to pay close attention. What if I traded one hour of mindless “re-whatever-ing” for 15 minutes of pushing out of my comfort zone?
I have cooked the same dozen or so healthy meals and lunches for school for the past year. Not because I don’t love cooking with a passion, but because – and GET THIS – I don’t want the extra wash-up and unpredictability of time use when I try new recipes! Oh my goodness. Cracking open the recipe books now. What is a kitchen for but to create joyful mess and experience new tastes + cuisines?
I solve problems by being perceptive, articulating my side, and then peace-making. One project I know myself to be engaging in this year is “warrior training”; staying with a problem and leaning into a difficult conversation more readily than walking the other way. It will be more uncomfortable and unpredictable, but I just wonder what it would be like to stay present and create authentic ripples, rather than not. I want to get better at close-range combat, well, here’s my chance.
So that “regular mug”?
For the sake of pushing up against bento-boxed perfect for all-over-the-table imperfect + present.