A Letter to New Teachers (Confessions of a Troublemaker)

This post, written two years ago, remains one of the most popular posts on my blog and one that I still get comments on. I am happy to once again repost it as we start another school year. -Amber

Dear New Teachers,

Congratulations! You are about to become a member of one of the most verbally accoladed and financially minimized professions in history. Welcome to our fold.

In August of 2008 I was in your shoes, preparing for my first day of teaching at community college. I was nervous, naive, and excited. Having outlined my courses, I felt prepared. It turns out I was not even in the correct zip code for prepared. The past few years I have had what I generously call Growing Pains. Never did I intend to be a troublemaker; instead, I managed to stumble blindly into it, like some unfortunate girl at the core of a horror franchise. As a teacher at heart, there a few things I have learned I would like to share with you. These are not my normal diatribe against the system and the students, but four simple things that if taken to heart can hopefully make your new job remain your career.

 First, set up boundaries for yourself and others, both at school and at home. While the Hollywood view of education praises teachers who give themselves over entirely to their profession, this approach is not realistic in the long haul. It is admirable to want to give everything to your students; it is essential to keep something for yourself and your family. In the age of email and texting, students and even administration sometimes forget that teachers are not always “On Call.” The problem comes when there are no boundaries set for you and them. Yes, grading and responding to student questions can be done from home; it’s one of the perks of the job. However, you must teach yourself how to mentally (and often times physically) clock out. The email needing an immediate answer can wait until your office hours or conference period. The phone call can go to voice mail during dinner. As I recently told the committee in an interview for my new administrative position, my time has a price. Figure out how much your time is worth financially and emotionally, and then budget how it should be split between your work, your family, and yourself. You owe it to all three.

Next, realize you are a student, too. The moment you stop learning and growing as a teacher, quit. Every semester, every day, every class, I learn something new (often times merely patience). While I certainly don’t want to reinvent the wheel, I do want to move toward my better teacher-self. When you have a classroom observation, listen to the feedback. Read student comments looking for constructive criticism. Keep up with what’s happening in education and in your field of expertise. Most importantly, own and learn from your mistakes. Yes, you will make mistakes. Some on accident, some on purpose. You are a human being imparted with a difficult job. Of course you will make mistakes. It’s what you do with those mistakes that will define you.

My third bit of advice is compromise on anything but your integrity. No matter what you tell students, parents, administration, family, or even yourself, someone will ask you to compromise. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve said it, written it, or yelled it, they will want exceptions to your rules. Here’s the thing: some compromise isn’t a bad thing. Flexibility to a point shows willingness to adapt and grow. I compromise every day with someone because I have learned to pick my battles. That being said, I value my personal and professional integrity too much to ever compromise those. The way I view it, at the end of each semester I have to sign my name to the grade the student has received. I am saying that the grade accurately reflects the student’s performance to the best of my professional judgment. If the grade reflects something that wasn’t earned or a lack of standards on my part, I have compromised my integrity. Beyond that, the integrity of my courses is two-fold: I must challenge my students to work to their highest potential, even if they hate the work and me for it, and I must be willing to guide them on that path, no matter how frustrated or tired we all might become.

Finally, and this is sort of compilation of all the others, take care of yourself. Be smart in the way you do things. The world is full of wonderful students, some who just may not know it yet–you can help them. It is also full of students who will exploit you and/or the system rather than work. Don’t put yourself in the situation where that can happen because it can kill your career. Keep your boundaries firm, acknowledge and grow from your mistakes, and behave in a way that is befitting of the best of our profession. When the students say terrible things about you (and some will), don’t take it personally. Find friends who will commiserate or just listen. You are not alone in any of this.

I send you my deepest wishes of hope and gratitude as you embark on this path. It sucks, exhausts, challenges, rocks, transforms, consumes, and inspires.
Oh, before I forget, get a sense of humor if you don’t have one already. You’re going to need it.

Read, Write, Teach, and Be Merry,


A Little Less Conversation

From a 1968 Elvis movie Live a Little, Love a Little, this classic song has been on my mind this week. As I burrow through meetings, I think how much talking happens before we can get things going. While I understand the purpose, for someone who is more about the action, it is frustrating. At one point I ended up giving an impromptu speech about assessment, where I referenced this song title (and magic mushrooms). So for all of you who are just wondering, “What is the chase and how do I cut to it?” here is a little more Elvis for your Saturday. Enjoy the ridiculous 60s-ness of it all.

Read, Write, and Be Merry,


PS. The guy in the brown vest with the orange shirt basically doing a back bend at the 45 second mark is perhaps my new favorite thing.

Never There: Telephonophobia

The fear of making or taking telephone calls is rather uncreatively called telephonophobia. Yes, it’s a real thing. My entire life I have hated–and I mean HATED–talking on the phone. It causes me stress, anxiety, and generally leaves me in a cold sweat. I was not that teenage girl on the phone for hours. At one point I had to tell a good friend to just get to the point when he called because I could only stand so much. It isn’t one of those things I have grown out of. The day I got rid of my landline I might have welled up with tears of relief. Texting and email are the best things that have ever happened to me.

Some of my friends accept my aversion to the telephone and understand that if they call, someone better be dead or dying. Others get huffy when they know I am sitting, staring at the ringing phone, waiting for it to go to voice mail (I rarely even turn on the ringer for my phone). And then there are those who make it a goal to get me on the phone, repeatedly calling, trying to break me down, or even resorting to tricking me. Maybe I should be flattered that my conversation is in such demand.

Here’s the thing–I hate how limiting the phone is. You can’t do anything but that. You are stuck in a conversation with no visual clues to how the person is reacting or when they will speak. It is torture. When life necessitates that I make a phone call, it is a struggle for me. Let’s look at how that process breaks down from my perspective.

Step One: Realize need to make phone call. Mentally list all other possible methods of contact.

Step Two: Come to terms that must make phone call. Curse the death of the telegraph and pony express.

Step Three: Try to think if there is anyway to have someone else make phone call.

Step Four: Curse all other people on earth for not being willing to make phone call.

Step Five: Question if really need to make call. Maybe can change jobs/not educate children. Have five second fantasy about smashing telephones like the fax machine in Office Space.

Step Six: Think about taking Valium prior to making call. Realize would have to call doctor to make appointment to get Valium. Hate life.

Step Seven: Hold phone in hand. Feel blood pressure skyrocket. Wonder if am too young to have heart attack.

Step Eight: Decide it is like a band-aid. Dial quickly before changing mind. Feel heart racing in fingertips with every ring.

Step Nine: Use all willpower not to hang up when person answers. Vomit out all words at once as brain screams “Make it stop!!!”

Step Ten: Hang up phone. Fall in heap on floor. Consider calling in sick the next day, but realize another phone call might end life. Curse Alexander Graham Bell for creating such a diabolical torture device.

From Ploughshares: Retelling Tales

Happy Friday! This week on Ploughshares I talked about how I approached rewriting an Arthurian tale for my thesis. Please enjoy “Retelling Tales: A Writer’s Guide.”

Read, Write, and Be Merry,


The Littlest Reviewer

My daughter Liliana completed her first movie review this week. Thanks to the spirit and humor of  the editors at Cinefilles, Lili made her debut as a MiniFille reviewing Planes: Fire and Rescue. I was proud of her because she treated it professionally. She practiced reviewing movies in advance, paid attention during the actual movie, was thoughtful about several elements of the movie, and made her deadline. Check it out here:

Planes: Fire and Rescue

Feeling like a pretty proud mom,


Regional Stripper Wear

A couple of months ago, I was sitting in an Austin burger joint with some ladies, enjoying a house-made veggie burger when someone mentioned an urban shoe-myth: that somewhere in Austin exists a sex shoppe catering to professional waitresses and strippers by creating comfortable, tip-worthy shoes. My ears perked up. Comfy yet insanely high heels? Could such a thing exist? I still don’t know.

My friend Katie and I did attempt to investigate, but came up with nothing. What we did discover was an anomaly that I have still not sorted out. In the middle of the “dancer” ie. stripper costumes, there was a wall of neon knee socks in various patterns. Something about that struck me as odd–neon stripper socks? Is that a thing? And how does that even work in the stripper world?

The next Monday as I sat giving a final exam with my colleague Jenee, I told her of the neon stripper socks. She shared my confusion and added more questions. (We also discussed a sexy pilot costume I saw for women–is that really a fantasy?) We could not decide if neon stripper socks were local to Austin, or even to particular club due to how many options were available. Further research was necessary.

A few weeks later I found myself in a lingerie store in Las Vegas killing time while my kids and parents napped. There, once again, were the neon knee socks. Although they weren’t as obviously for strippers, the idea was still present, this sort of Jem meets Britney Spears accessory.

Earlier this week Jenee’s boyfriend received a message from his brother, joking that he was in a sex shoppe. Her immediate response, because she is amazing, was to ask him to check for neon stripper socks. Sadly he wasn’t really in a sex shoppe, but it got us thinking.

There needs to be research conducted on regional stripper wear. Austin and Vegas both have the neon stripper socks, but what about other parts of the country? Other big cities? Or even small towns?

While some people might frown on this type of discussion about strippers (I have already been judged for being in a sex shoppe looking for shoes), I find the aesthetics and associations with sexuality in our conflicted country fascinating. Our Puritan roots tend to make us incongruous regarding sexuality.

So should anyone be in a lingerie store or sex shoppe and come across a display of neon knee high socks, please let us know!  Or even better, if you have seen these types of socks in action, we have so many questions for you. We need data. Also, if you know of the actual place to find the mythical comfy sexy shoes, that is also a crucial piece of information.

Read, Write, and Be Merry,


Valentina’s Cocina: Andalusian Rice Cream

Summer makes me crave Spanish food. Maybe it’s because I equate the heat with living in Madrid, huddled in my tiny kitchen making food for friends. Although I am not a fan of rice pudding normally, I love this version that hails from Andalusia. It can be a bit tricky to master the timing, but is totally worth it once you do.


1/4 of a cup of short-grain rice (you can use brown, but up the milk)

5 3/4 cups of milk (6 if using brown rice)

1 vanilla bean, split

1 cup of sugar

6 egg yolks

ground cinnamon

2 lemons

1 cup heavy cream


1. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Rinse the rice and add to the water. Cook 5 minutes, then drain.

2. Heat two cups of the milk in a pan. Do not bring to boil. Add rice, half of the vanilla bean, and 1/3 cup of sugar. Bring to gentle boil and simmer for 25 minutes or until the rice has expanded and the mixture has thickened.

3. Cream together the remaining sugar with the egg yolks. Heat the rest of the milk and pour it into the egg/sugar mixture along with the rest of the vanilla bean. Cook over low heat, stirring until the mixture forms a custard that coats the back of the spoon. Remove the vanilla bean.

4. Stir the rice into the custard. Add a pinch of cinnamon and allow to stand until cool.

5. Using a hand mixture, whip the heavy cream and fold it into the cooled rice.

6. Cut six discs from the lemon peel and blanch them in boiling water for 2 minutes. Refresh under cold running water. Push into the lemon peel into the rice at regular intervals. Chill for several hours or overnight.

7. To serve, dust with cinnamon. Depending on what it in season, top it with some fresh fruit.

Read, Write, and Be Merry,



From Ploughshares: The Literati Ladies Who Lunch

Happy Fourth! Yesterday Ploughshares featured by article on presenting to book groups and other community organizations:

“Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunch”

And in honor of the holiday, this American girl leaves you with some Tom Petty.

It’s About Time: Falsettos and a Wedding

June is national Pride Month. For those who don’t know, June was designated as Pride Month in honor of the 1969 Manhattan Stonewall riots. As a supporter of PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), I am thrilled to have several opportunities to celebrate love equality.

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to view a local production of Falsettos, the brilliant musical by William Finn and James Lapine. Even if I hadn’t known the director and several of the cast members, I would have rushed to see this thoughtful, heartbreaking musical performed. The story friendship, family, and love, it is a testament to the transformative social relevance of theatre, even without elaborate sets and costumes. This production was particularly fantastic is its use of performance in the round and recreation of the Keith Herring artwork from the original production.

I first saw the show’s second act, Falsettoland, when I was in high school and the national community theatre performance festival was at the community theatre where I was a member of the youth performance troupe. Two different groups performed it that year; I recall some of the adults being shocked at the subject matter, in particular the gorgeous balled “What More Can I Say?” sung by central character Marvin while in bed with his lover, Whizzer. Thinking back, I realize how lucky we all were not only to see two interpretation of the show (one of which went on to win the festival), but to experience a play we might not have seen otherwise.

This coming weekend I am honored to be joining two friends in New Mexico, where they can legally marry, as they make a commitment to each other. As momentous as this is, I am not attending as some sort of political statement. Rather, I feel so fortunate to be invited to share this part of their lives. I only wish that we lived in a country where two people wanting to marry each other was not seen as a political statement, it was seen as what it should be–an act of love.

So as pride month wraps, I share my pride at experiencing the Mark 10 Theatricals performance of Falsettos and knowing some of the brilliant and brave people involved. I share my pride for my friends as they take this next step. Thanks to all of you for letting me into your lives.

From the original Broadway cast, I leave you with the finale of Falsettos (and a shout out to my friend Matt for his chill-inducing take on this gorgeous song).


Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays
Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays

From Cinefilles: Father’s Day Feature

Last weekend in honor of Father’s Day, Cinefilles featured a series of posts on Father’s Day, specifically movies the Filles watch with their fathers. Find my contribution here:

“Our Red Hair and Our Love of Jaws”

Read, Write, and Be Merry,