In 1989 I began my professional teaching career in a small second-story classroom near the corner of Seven Mile and Van Dyke in Detroit, Michigan. I had nine students in a self-contained classroom. Each of my students had been diagnosed with a learning disability, attention deficit disorder, or some other ‘problem’ that prohibited his or her success in the ‘regular’ classroom.
So why did they get me? God only knows. I was fresh from college with only a semester of student teaching under my belt — student teaching in a high school classroom in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Although I had worked for eight months in a group home with behaviorally ‘disordered’ girls, I had little to no experience with students who had these kinds of learning challenges. I had no special education certification. None. I had one course in college called ‘The Exceptional Child’. What did I think I was doing?
Ah, to be young and invincible.
That year in that small classroom with those kids — Larry, Larry, Braun, Andrea, Charmaigne, Andrew, Maia, Chris, and Robert — began to shape my heart and create the cheerleader/coach within me that would get in the corner of many kids who believed they couldn’t do it, were doomed for failure, and didn’t measure up. I was so determined not to fail at this first job, and none of them were going to fail either. Not one.
I’m not going to lie, it was a chaotic year. I had to learn how to respectfully disagree with my principal. (Yeah, that was an ugly lesson.) I had to acknowledge that I had no clue what I was doing. (First privately, then for all the world.) And I had to find my allies. (Two male coworkers who found great joy in pranking me and getting me to laugh at them, and ultimately at myself.)
I have no idea if I taught those kids anything that had to do with the curriculum. I am not even one hundred percent sure that I knew what the curriculum was! But do you know that I piled all of them into a 15-passenger van and drove them from Detroit to Ann Arbor, participated in chapel at my alma mater, checked out the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, then went out to lunch at Pizza Hut with our Book-It Rewards? I paid no attention to time, so we got caught in rush hour traffic on the way back to school and I returned them to their parents far later than our anticipated arrival time. I don’t remember any parents being upset at our tardiness. In my memory, they all matter-of-factly retrieved their kids and thanked me for taking them on the field trip.
That classroom was the germ-infested petri dish that fostered the growth of Rathe-isms such as “what they say says more about them than it does about you,” “anybody can change,” and “see what had happened was.” Each of those Rathje-isms, my students will tell you, has a sermon attached to it that gets recited year after year after year.
It’s 2015. Last week I was tutoring a high school freshman who is scared to death to take her first round of semester exams. She kept saying, “I’m not good at __________.” I was transported back in time to my little classroom in Detroit where I started coaching students to say, “I’m getting better at ___________.” I looked across the desk in the basement of a home in Dexter, Michigan and said to the little freshman, all 95 pounds of her, “We’re going to change that phrase. You’re going to start saying ‘I’m getting better at _____________.”
I loved that class in Detroit. They taught me so much. I’ve been sharing their lessons ever since.
“…he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”