Remember when you had to line up in elementary school? Toys had a particular box to go in and coats had to be hung on a specific rack? The world was black and white,  right or wrong. Do this. Do that. Follow the rules or get punished. Students were praised for doing what the teacher said. “What a good little girl you are!” I remember hearing time and time again in reference to the pretty girl in white with the Winnie-the-Pooh backpack.


I’ve noticed an interesting dynamic over the last twenty years of teaching–teachers are treated by administrators the same way elementary students are treated by their teachers. They take attendance at meetings. They select teachers-of-the-month. They give out perfect attendance awards. They expect us to do this, do that, without question. If we do question their authority, we are labeled trouble-makers and called into the principal’s office. It doesn’t matter if the objection is valid. We are simply expected to follow their rules without question.

Years ago, I was reprimanded for having the bus drop off my students at the strip-mall across the street from the high school because we were running late and had missed lunch. I was written up–yes, a formal reprimand in my file–for placing my students “in danger” and “encouraging them to skip class.” It seemed so ironic when I saw how our special education students walked to the store and back again to learn how to navigate the real world. My seventeen year old AP students, class valedictorian included, were not considered capable of grabbing a bite to eat and then using the crosswalk to return to school under my supervision. It was explained to me that we had a closed campus, and (by letting them cross the street during school hours) I had violated a rule of safety. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to teach at an open-campus school where students were allowed to go home for lunch. How did they possibly keep them all alive?

Things seem to be getting worse. Teachers are being forced to switch from classes they love to teach to classes assigned by principals, without discussion, and without regard to experience or areas of expertise. We are being told what essays to assign. We are being told where to stand and where to sit, where to hang up our jackets… Okay. There’s a little hyperbole in that, but also truth to the decreasing  freedoms due to top-down mandates. I’ve heard it’s worse at other schools where every lesson is scripted. Oh, wait! Isn’t that exactly how our new online-based textbooks are designed to be used? Open the web page…press play… I guess I should be thankful that my job is becoming easier.

We have officially ushered in the era of collaboration, which is quickly becoming a synonym for conformity. Do it this way, or else. I don’t know what the “or else” is exactly, but teachers are already feeling ostracized for their desire to remain individuals.

It is also clear that that common sense is being replaced by edicts. State standards and data are being used as tools of manipulation. Given, there are circumstances where data are extremely useful, and standards have an important role in designing and executing curriculum. But what if you teach in a school where students already perform at the top of all other schools in your district?  Could it be you are actually doing something right? Unfortunately, the argument “you can always do better” is becoming a slogan comparable to Orwellian doublespeak.

Because teachers are, by nature, service-centered individuals, they are being taken advantage of by administrators. Many teachers are afraid to make waves and voice their displeasure for fear of retaliation.  And what good would it do anyway? I recently tried to voice my concern when I was told I had to switch from teaching Honors World Literature (which I’ve taught for eight years) to English Literature (which I taught for one semester fifteen years ago). It’s my belief that my request for a summer meeting was denied and pushed to the Thursday before school started so they could argue how scheduling changes at that point would be “operationally difficult.” Their letter used those exact words and also made it very clear that if I didn’t accept their changes, I would have to take time off and use sick-leave until another meeting could be scheduled–no indication how long that would have taken.

In most careers, twenty years of experience would place you at the peak of your profession. For teachers, however, twenty years of experience means you have not yet learned how to do your job well. They call it professional growth. I call it days away from students and wasted money on substitute teachers. I call it something I could learn on my own from a couple good articles in an hour. I call it ignoring four years of undergraduate school, a master’s degree, doctoral degree, and twenty years of teaching experience. My bad!

I’m not sure what will become of the teaching profession or how these changes will actually impact student learning. I do know it’s time for me to seriously consider finding a job at a private school or in another profession altogether.

I need to ponder that a little longer. For now, I have to go and get back in line.

I know how you feel. I’ve been there. Frustration. Hopelessness. Never-ending aching pain that robs you of life’s essence itself. Endless doctor appointments. People confused by your daily ups and down. No one understands. No matter what you do, nothing ever changes.

Let me stop you right there. There is hope. I am proof of that.

Believe me, the answer’s not pretty. The recovery does’t happen over night. But I guarantee you there is a way to fight back and live a normal life.

Bob Marley said, “You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.” He understood that every single one of us goes through this process at some time in our life. Most people learn what it’s like to live with chronic pain in their final act- pain leads to diagnosed disease leads to more pain that ends in a last breath. They find out too late what you already know, that life is precious and much too short. How lucky are we that we to learn this truth now so that we can live life to the fullest?

Every recovering sufferer has a pivotal moment in the depth of their fall where they start to climb out of the darkest. For me, this happened when I learn of my step-father’s passing. Pancreatic cancer is a vicious assassin that strikes quickly and without mercy. Now I am driving to drive to Northern California to be with my mother and, with the help of my sisters, figure out a thousand details.

It’s worse than I could have imagined. She has her own health problems to contend with, and it becomes clear that she isn’t able to take care of herself in her current condition.

I am overwhelmed. I am in pain and fighting chronic fatigue and headaches and nerve pain stabbing me with a thousand needles from within. But I have to dig deep and find the strength to be strong for her. I have no other choice but to suck it up and get through this.

It becomes clear that I need to bring my mother home with me, so we pack up what we can and head south. Half way through the nine hour drive, I receive for the second time in a week the phone call no one wants to receive. My half-brother from Oklahoma died that morning. Are you kidding? Really, God? Isn’t it enough that you’ve already stretched me to my breaking point? But I don’t break. The strange thing is the news only strengthens my resolve. I will grieve later. For now, I have no choice but to be strong.

How could I know this decision would be the turning point in my life?

“I never saw a wild thing feeling sorry for itself…,” D.H. Lawrence writes in his celebrated poem. How true his words ring in my heart. I spent years feeling sorry for myself, lost in a maze of negativity that sent me spiraling ever downward. Now that I have to be strong for someone else, I feel empowered. Something inside is coming back to life. I realize and accepted a single fact that ended up being the key to my freedom.

Ready for it?

Here it is in three parts. 1) I am sick. 2) I will always be sick. 3) Being sick is better than being dead.

The realization washes over me like a Protestant baptism.

I live in pain every day of my life. Sometime I crash. That’s okay. I make the most of the time that is given to me. I exercise. I eat right. I reduce stress and anxiety as much as possible.

What I want you to understand is how much control you have over your mind and how much control your mind has over your body.  Realize that pain is subject to the moment. I rarely remember how my pain felt yesterday. I only know how the pain feels now. I’ll deal with tomorrow’s pain later.

It’s not easy. I still stumble. I still fall. When attacked by a virus or exhausted from bout of insomnia,  I fall back into the habit of negative thinking. That’s when I practice positive self-talk. “You can make it…It can’t hurt any worse than this….Pain is a part of being alive.”

I’m over a year into my recovery. I’ve lost fifty pounds. I’ve been able to start coaching again. In short, I’ve been able to start living again.

It’s three in the morning and I’m sitting on the edge of my bed trying to talk myself out of going to the Emergency Room. I’ve been twice in the last two months. Shortness of breath. Pain in the chest radiating down the left arm and even down my leg to my pinky toe. My body aches like I have a hundred degree fever. I’m sweating. Am I having a panic attack? I don’t think so. I’ve seen others suffer through panic attacks and this isn’t like those uncontrollable episodes. It has to be my heart, but the EKG’s were negative before.

For two years I’ve battled headaches, numbness, tingling, dizziness, chronic fatigue and flu like symptoms. They don’t come and go like other seasonal colds. They start in the morning about ten a.m. and gradually worsen until I can do little but go home and collapse, exhausted on the couch. But I don’t give in. I can’t. I have to get up and go to volleyball practice. As a coach, I have responsibilities.

My memory begins to fail me. My brightest students know something is wrong with me. It takes a minute to find the answer when they ask a question. I know the answer. It’s in there, in the fog somewhere, but I can’t seem to recall the information. And names are becoming harder and harder to remember.

I’m losing friends. They don’t understand why I’m withdrawing. I don’t understand it either. I’m battling depression while doctors pass me around from one to another. I’m taking every test possible. I’m on my fifteenth different medication. This one is fun. It causes dreams so vivid they seem brushed with flowing rivers of florescent ink. I throw the pills away when the audio hallucinations begin.

Another medication. A manic phase and three thousand dollars spent on new bedroom furniture.

I suspect my coworkers think I’m faking, except for those I eat lunch with every day. My boss is definitely skeptical.

Thank God for my students. They make me laugh. They give me a reason to get up in the morning. Sometimes I want to stay in bed and wither away, but I get up for them.

Lupis. Negative. Multiple Sclerosis. Negative. MRI, Cat Scan, painful metal tube stuffed down my throat and into my stomach-all negative. They tell me it’s in my head and refer me to a psychiatrist.

More medications and horrible side-effects.

Writing is becoming difficult. Twenty minutes a day is all I can manage. But this is Stanford University, and I am almost done with my novel revisions. I can make it! It’s a flexible online program, after all, and I can work in the morning before I go to school.

Doctors discover I have Hemochromatosis. My body isn’t eliminating iron. I have sixteen times the normal limit. My blood is sludge. The treatment? Give a pint of blood every week for eight weeks until I’m anemic and lifeless. The pain continues.

A sleep study. Sleep Apnea. Is there any wonder? I’ve gained over eighty pounds.

They send me to the pain clinic where I see others just like me, and worse. One woman looks so miserable that my eyes moisten at the sight of her. Is that what I look like?

They call it Fibromyalgia. The symptoms include nerve pain, muscle pain, chronic fatigue, memory and mood problems. It all fits, but nothing is specific. I have a diagnosis of symptoms, but no root cause to treat.

The doctor gives me a permanent handicapped placard. It has come to this. I can hardly walk across the room without wanting to fall over.

Thank God for Linda. My dear friend, Linda! She is in my writing program and personally knows the best neurologist in San Diego. Would you believe this doctor actually calls me at home and spends an hour going over my history and symptoms? The next week I’m on my way to his office.

He repeats a test, ironically one of the first tests I ever had done.

That’s it!

The root cause of all my pain is a slipped disk and spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the nerve channels in the spine. My nerves are being pinched. Over time, exacerbated by contributing conditions, my fight-or-flight response has short-circuited. The resulting pain echoes through my nervous system and into my muscles, even my bones. The resulting Fibromyalgia pain is my body’s way of warning me that something is very, very wrong.

Unfortunately, there is no definitive cure. A cortisone shot helps alleviate the swelling in the spine. But it took years to get into this state. It might takes years to get out of it again, if ever. Still. It’s a very important first step in the right direction.

Yes. I went to the emergency room and an x-ray revealed a severe sinus infection. A week later, I was scheduled for surgery. But that’s another part of this story that unfortunately never ends.

(After five impossible years of learning to cope with chronic pain, Dr. Burnham is determined to live, teach, coach, and thrive in Southern California.)

I believe when we stand before our maker at the final judgement, He will ask us one simple question: With the time that I gave you, did you make life harder or better for those around you?

“God is not unjust. He will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.” Hebrews 6:10

Think about your favorite teacher for a moment. Why did this person have such a big impact on you?

Talking with one of my former students, who is now in graduate school and working on her secondary teaching credential, she told me how a professor recently asked her this very question. I told her that one of my favorite professors had asked me this question in teacher school, too.

We both had the same answer. It’s probably the same answer you came up with. Our favorite teachers connected with us on very personal levels. They didn’t just feed us information but helped us relate what we learned to our own lives in unexpected ways.

It sounds simple, right? Not really. Consider for a moment the many different personalities that walk this Earth. Even one the most popular personality tests, the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory, needs sixteen different personalities types to represent our differences. Add to those sixteen personality types different socioeconomic factors, cultural differences, gender differences, family dynamics, age gaps, traumatic experiences, chemical influences (something as simple as caffeine to behavior altering prescription drugs), and you have students who are as different as January snowflakes.

No matter how much you try, there will always be students that are difficult for you to relate to. It’s not your fault. It’s not their fault. It’s just the reality of being us.

Don’t fret. The master teacher accepts that it is impossible to reach all students and has faith that there are teachers out there for those others. But I have realized over twenty years of teaching high school English and AP Psychology that there are five magical traits that seem universal to every personality type. Even the most alien kid sitting in your class will respond to these five Master Teacher traits.

  1. Be Real: Students are perceptive. They can tell when you are fake. They are masters at being fake themselves, as they try on as many hats as they can in hopes of discovering who they are. Their radar will scream warnings if you are not honest with them.  But if you can be real, if you can expose to them your inner strengths and your flaws, how you care for them in spite of your differences, they will love you for your honesty and realness.
  2. Be Forgiving: Students make mistakes every day. They will talk when they are supposed to be quiet. They will check their Snapchat in the middle of a test. They will make paper airplanes and fly them across the room behind your back. That’s okay. Be firm. Tell them its wrong. And then laugh with them. They will respect you, and if you are consistent with your rules and punishments, they will quickly learn what they can get away with and what they can’t really get away with.
  3. Be Accepting: Remember how hard it was to be a teen? Now add some elements we never had to contend with, like constant technological distractions, potential public shaming that begins with the click of a button, a general lack of parental support, daily news of violence that occur inside our schools, and you have some very confused kids. They are as awkward on the inside as they look on the outside. They are a tumultuous bundle of emotions and thoughts. And they are perfectly normal, in spite of all these challenges. Love them for all their weirdness, because, somehow, in spite of all the ways we adults keep screwing up their world, they keep finding ways to evolve into some pretty cool young adults.
  4. Be Caring: Your students are going to forget most everything you say, but they will never forget that moment when you looked through them with obvious compassion and asked them what was wrong. They won’t want to tell you. Don’t expect them to tell you. Actually, hope they don’t tell you because there is very little you can do to help them. But it doesn’t matter. The fact that you care is what they will remember.
  5. Be Knowledgeable: It goes without saying that the Master Teacher is an expert in their subject matter. But a Master Teacher is also knowledgeable about the world. They have a way of bridging time and space and bringing the world into their classroom. This means that you need to read, you need to travel, you need to fill your life with as many varying experiences as you possibly can. Some of your students will have been blessed with some amazing experiences themselves. Learn from them. Ask them to share. Let their cultural differences and varying experiences be windows into other parts of the world and other realities. Your curiosity will open them up and connect you to their world. Then, the next time you have students with similar backgrounds, you will floor them with your understanding and knowledge.

Becoming a Master Teacher takes time and experience, but I guarantee you these five  traits are fundamental components that will help you connect with your students in the most rewarding ways.

Good luck and teach on!


After five impossible years of learning to cope with chronic pain, Dr. Burnham is determined to live, teach, coach, and thrive in Southern California.

I passed a student today at lunch just as he threw his juice box on the ground. I said as he turned and saw me seeing him, “The trash is right there.” He immediately apologized, picked up the juice box and threw it away.

Why did he change his mind in my presence? Why didn’t he pick it up in the first place? What would his parents say?

You would be amazed as to the amount of trash students leave behind at my school. I’ve seen staircases covered in trash. I’ve walked through hallways filled with empty cartons. I deal with it in my own classroom on a daily basis. There is always something left behind under the desks. Yes, I’ve addressed it. But they do it anyway because they have to be caught in the act to care.

Lazy! Lazy! Lazy! My school is filled with trashy students! And it’s our fault.

We baby our students way too much. We pay janitors to pick up their trash when lunch is over. The more trash they leave, the more we pick up after them. Why doesn’t someone stand up to these kids (and their coddling parents) and hold them accountable for their actions?

A couple of my students were talking today about the mile they had to run in P.E. Nice! Exercise is great. How about having the walk a quarter of a mile and pick up all the trash they can? Why not make give them the choice to work of some of their detentions?

Students know the difference between right and wrong. When pressed, most of them make the best decision, just like this young man did today.

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