I wrote and posted this piece just about a year ago, when the death toll from Covid-19 in the US was merely 200,000; now we are closing in on 700,00. A year ago we were waiting on a vaccine, anticipating an election, and hoping for financial assistance from the government. Now, we’ve got a different […]What World Are We Living In?, A Re-visit — Next Chapter
It was 6 o’clock in the morning, my husband was out of town, and I was in the bathroom toweling off from a shower. I heard a disturbance in the hallway, an unfamiliar sound that I knew had something to do with our 13 year old golden retriever. I heard what I thought was a slipping, a scrambling for traction, a fall, and then silence.
I stepped from the bathroom into our hallway, onto the admittedly ultra-smooth engineered wood flooring, to see Chester standing, quivering, just inside the office door, claws safely secured in the plush carpeting. His eyes met mine as if to say, “Mom! Where were you? Didn’t you see what just happened?”
I looked him over, and urged him to come see me, but he wouldn’t step off the carpet. In fact, when I tried to guide him off, I saw that he was very unsteady on his feet. He could barely stand, let alone walk.
I got dressed and went to the basement where I found a couple hallway runners we had brought over from the other house. They weren’t exactly the decor I was looking for in this house, but they might just help Chester get his footing so that he could get to his water dish and outside one more time before I had to leave for work.
I made a path from the office to the kitchen where the aging rolled linoleum floor provides a little more traction. I guided/supported Chester to the kitchen and out the door where he stumbled and careened to the backyard.
This whole time my brain was in panicky problem-solving mode. Was his hip broken? Golden retrievers have all kinds of hip problems. If it was broken, wouldn’t he be crying? He was quiet, but unsteady. Maybe his hip was displaced. That might explain why he was careening — he really couldn’t walk a straight line.
What could I do? It was the second week of classes. We were (are!) still short-staffed and didn’t have a sub to cover me if I stayed home to take him to the vet. I decided I would have to put him in his crate where he sleeps whenever we leave the house, contact the caregiver who stops by during the day and let her know to take special care today, and phone the vet as soon as they opened.
Driving to work, I was stressed. Because of caring for Chester, I was running later than usual, and he was on my mind. What might the vet say? I imagined worst-case scenarios where I would have to call a family Face-time conference to make a tough decision at the end of a long work day. In all our minds, we know the day will come eventually. We’ve had thirteen amazing years with this nearly perfect pup. We know he can’t live forever, but guys, look at him!
The vet said I could bring him in at 5, and Chester’s caregiver said she would report back as soon as she was with him. I had done what I could. Now I had to compartmentalize my concern about Chester and attend to the three sections of seniors who would be coming to my class over the next several hours.
I taught the first two classes then checked my phone. Our caregiver had just arrived at the house. She acknowledged that Chester was wobbly and that she had to support him while he ate and drank. My heart sank. Surely this is serious; surely the vet will have nothing but bad news for me.
I thanked her for taking such good care of him, and regrouped before my final class stepped into my room.
When that block was over, I packed up my things and hurried to my car. I sped home, changed my clothes, put down some blankets in the back of our vehicle, and carried Chester to the car.
We got to the vet’s office, just a couple miles from our house, and I carried Chester in.
“Hi, this is Chester,” I said. “I’m sorry, I’m so worried that I forgot to bring his collar and leash.”
“Ok,” the receptionist said, “as soon as we have a room ready, we’ll get you in.”
I sat down on a bench with Chester on my lap. The fact that he just sat there, letting me hold him, added to my panic. He is typically very active at the vet — he sniffs and paces and checks out all the other animals — but on this day, he rested quietly on my lap as I worriedly held his lanky body.
When another dog walked in, he couldn’t be bothered even to look over at it.
Gloom descended on me. Why now? Our daughter, who hasn’t see Chester is almost two years, had finally gotten permission to take a few vacation days and fly home. She actually purchased her flight on this very day. Certainly Chester would be ok, and she would be able to see him. Right?
After several minutes of waiting under the weight of my sweet doggo, we were moved into an examination room. I was texting with my husband, giving him the blow-by-blow report.
Our once very fit pup, who in the days when he ran several miles each day with us weighed in at 54 pounds, was now just 44. Gasp. In June he had been 46.
My emotions were right at the top of my throat when the vet, a woman I had never met before, came in. She knelt next to Chester, examining him thoroughly, listening to his heart, feeling the muscles in his legs, and gingerly massaging his hips.
I braced myself for her to say something like, “We are going to need to get an x-ray,” or “His hip is displaced and at this age, it is unlikely we will be able to relocate it,” or “Is there anyone you can call?”
But instead she said, “I think he has probably strained his muscles in this fall. I don’t believe anything is broken. I’d like to give him an additional medicine for pain, have him rest for a few days, and see how he does.”
“Really?” I practically cried. “I love that plan! That’s amazing!”
“Yes,” she said, “If he doesn’t improve in a few days, then we can do an x-ray.”
Relief washed over me. I hugged and kissed sweet Chester, gladly paid for his medicine, and drove him home.
Over the last several days, he has improved bit by bit. Yesterday I was putting on my walking shoes and he got that excited “can I come, too” look in his eyes. “You wanna come?” I asked. He looked me in the eye and did a little foot stomping routine.
“Ok, Buddy, but you’re not going far.”
I put on his collar and leash, and he happily walked down our street. At first he was sniffing and walking a straight line, even prancing a little bit, but before long, he looked up at me and started slowing, so I turned him around and headed back to the house. He’d made it about a quarter mile — not bad for a guy who couldn’t really walk down the hallway a few days earlier.
Last night, he labored to crawl up onto the futon to lie next to me as I watched TV. I put my hand on him and drank it in.
Tomorrow is not promised, so I treasure today.
For from His fullness, we have all received grace upon graceJohn 1:16
I arrived at school Tuesday morning early — well before my 7:50am required arrival time — and the parking lot was already full. Like me, the rest of the staff wanted a jump on the day. They were scurrying around their rooms putting on finishing touches, in the teachers’ lounge making copies, and stationed in the gym to receive any new students planning to register on the first day of school.
Our rosters had been set since the previous week, and teachers had been charged with creating seating charts that would allow for easy Covid tracking should a positive case be identified. I was in my room numbering my desks to correspond with my chart.
The halls were quiet. Unlike other schools where I have taught, this school holds all students in the gym until a bell releases them to their classrooms. Then, students start walking down the hallways, searching for their rooms, while teachers stand positioned at their doorways, greeting students one by one, and allowing them to enter.
It’s all intentional — a way to bring order. A way to establish rhythms. People who have experienced trauma do better when they know what to expect. Routine is very important to the way we do everything in our school.
Once the second bell rings, and all students are in my classroom. I give them a direction to follow — grab a pencil and follow the directions on the screen, for example — while I take attendance. As I begin to mark attendance, I look up and note those who are following my directions, “Jamar is writing his name on his paper. Devon is reading the directions on the screen.” This affirms those who are following through and reminds those who are unclear on the directions of what they are supposed to be doing. When I have finished taking attendance, I walk around the room, confirming that all students are completed, and I give them a class point saying, “One hundred percent of you grabbed a pencil and followed the directions on the screen — that’s a class point.”
On the first day of class, one senior said, “Why are we still getting class points? We are seniors! This is stupid.”
“I’m glad you asked,” I said. “For some of you, the class points may seem stupid. I get it. However, I just want to acknowledge that we have all just been through a lot. For the past 18 months, we’ve been at home, sitting in our beds, logging in to Zoom rooms, or not,”
Some chuckles can be heard around the room.
“…some of you may feel a little uncomfortable being here today,” I continued, “because Covid is still real, and we are sitting fairly close to each other, and there are going to be, when everyone is here, twenty-eight bodies in this class,”
Groans and grumblings replace the chuckles.
“…so even though the points seem dumb, I want to in some way acknowledge that you are here — that you showed up — that you are choosing to opt in to this school year. So, I’m going to give class points. Roll your eyes if you must, but the class with the most points each week will get some kind of prize on Wednesday. It might be a piece of candy, some small prize, listening to music while you work on your assignment, or something else that you all choose. It might be stupid, but that’s what we’re going to do.”
I looked around the room and saw a few blank stares and a few heads nodding. I hadn’t planned it, but I ended up giving the same speech almost every block that day. Before the end of the week, students were watching the tally on the board, telling me, “Shouldn’t we have gotten a class point for that?” and finally, the last hour on Friday, “Hey, don’t give our point to first block! We’re sixth block!”
I think they are on board with the stupid class points.
In fact, they seem to be on board with most everything we are doing. We have had 100% engagement in every activity, every go-around, every assignment. When I told them to write on a sticky note a way in which they committed to respecting others in the class and to stand up and stick it somewhere on the walls of our classroom, they did. When I said to write for five minutes in their journal about the communities they belong to, they did. When I had them complete an online grammar and writing diagnostic which took them close to half an hour, they did it, and, rather than grumbling about how stupid it was, they confessed their feelings of inadequacy and their need to develop their skills.
When I heard their insecurities, I felt compassion.
“Guys, let’s not be too hard on ourselves here. This is just a diagnostic — a tool to tell us where we are. Remember, we have been away from each other for a year and a half! We have not been focusing on grammar and writing. This diagnostic is going to tell us where we need to start so that we can build these skills.”
I was impressed with their ability to honestly look at their scores and to identify the areas where they were proficient and the areas where they were struggling. They verbalized it, too. “I need to work on verb tenses.” or “I need to practice building compound sentences.”
As they finished the diagnostic, I walked around the room, handing out little white raffle tickets I picked up at Office Depot. Every time they complete an assignment, they receive a “Rathje Ticket”. Once a week, I will open the Rathje Store and they can use their tickets to purchase items that I have been stockpiling. One ticket will get them a pen, a lanyard, a trial-sized bottle of hand sanitizer, or a travel pack of tissue. Three tickets can get them a fabric mask, a small bottle of lotion, a snack bar, or a box of tic tacs. Five tickets might get them a collapsible water bottle, a college t-shirt, a pair of sunglasses, or a flash drive. The prizes will vary because most of this loot has been donated or scavenged from somewhere. I don’t have an unlimited budget for such inventory, but I do have a lot of great friends.
The students have been stacking up tickets all week — they’ve gotten tickets for completing assignments, for downloading apps, for logging into websites — and they are trying to find ways of keeping them until the store opens.
“Mrs. Rathje, do you have something for me to keep my tickets in? I don’t want to lose them.”
And they are looking forward to the store opening.
“Mrs. Rathje, I have five tickets. Can I buy something from the store?”
You might be wondering if this is a waste of time, money, and resources. Shouldn’t high school seniors just be able to do whatever you tell them to do? Isn’t the learning reward enough for the hard work they put in?
Your experience might lead you to think so. You might’ve been able to show up to school every day, follow directions, do all your assignments, and be successful without really thinking about it. Your experience, however, may not be the same as the experience my students are having.
I don’t know all of their stories yet, but I do know that during this first week of school, the highest attendance I had in any class was 65%. I know that many students don’t have the resources for school supplies, lunch, or clothing that they want to be seen in. I know that all of these kids have just been made to learn from home for a year and a half. I know they are unfamiliar with being at the school by 8am, with following a bell schedule, with sitting at a desk, with putting a pencil to paper. I know that just showing up each day is, right now, a very heavy lift.
So until it’s not, every kid who does the work of showing up is going to get something tangible — a point on the board, a ticket in her hand — for doing so. I am going to do my best to stay stocked on prizes that are appealing and to stay prepared with activities that are meaningful, relevant, and engaging.
“Everything we do in this classroom,” I tell my students every day, “is to prepare you for whatever you have planned next. I will do my best to prepare and show up for you. I am expecting you to show up and get all that you can so that you will be ready.”
This is not going to be an easy year. We’ve got a lot of work to do under difficult circumstances — making up for missed instructional time, wearing masks, avoiding Covid infections, and having limited resources. My students and I are going to need to celebrate each tiny step along the way.
I don’t know, maybe they will learn enough this year that the learning itself will be a reward, but until we get there, we’re going to need some cheering along the way.
So, wherever you are, start cheering, because we’re making a comeback, baby. Just watch us and see!
Encourage one another and build one another up.1 Thessalonians 5:11
My phone rang while I was watching TV last Sunday night. It was the director of HR from my school. I’d been in back-to-school professional development meetings the previous week, and she was informing me that I had had close contact with someone who had tested positive for Covid-19. I’d need to get a negative test before I reported for more meetings the next morning.
The students weren’t even back yet. Certainly this didn’t bode well.
Monday morning I got up and drove to a nearby CVS where I purchased two self-administered tests. I climbed back in my vehicle, cracked open a swab, and did what we’ve all learned to do over the last many months. I prepped my sample, set a timer on my phone, and started driving in the general direction of my school. If it was positive, I’d return home; if it was negative, I’d continue on to school.
I was slightly worried, because although I’m vaccinated, so was the person who tested positive. If I had Covid-19, I’d have to stay home for 10 days, and I would miss the first day of school. I didn’t even want to entertain that possibility.
Our students haven’t been in school since March of 2020. The last thing I want them to find on the first day of school is a substitute teacher because I’m out due to Covid.
As I waited for the fifteen minutes to tick away, I consoled myself. Kristin, you weren’t within 3 feet of anyone for over 15 minutes, but then I remembered that I had been in a coaching meeting with my mentor where we had sat desk-to-desk, masked of course, for thirty minutes. It was possible, if she was the positive case, that I had truly been exposed.
But surely since we were both wearing masks and both of us are vaccinated, our risk is very low. And that is what I held onto until the timer went off and I saw that I was indeed negative.
Phew! Thank you, God!
I have a feeling this won’t be the last time this year that I will have to swab and sit. My classroom is set up with 27 desks, and for most of the day, every desk will be full. Each 100 minute period, around 27 seniors will roll into my room, find their assigned seats, and hopefully engage in learning until the dismissal bell rings.
Typically during such a long class (we’re on a block schedule), I would move students into groups, have them working at the board or somehow getting out of their seats to break up that long time period and move around the room.
Things have to look a little different in the times of Covid. Each room must have assigned seats and a seating chart printed out and kept in a plastic pocket near the door. If a student or a teacher tests positive for Covid, all students who have been within 3 feet of that student for fifteen minutes or longer will be considered ‘close contacts’. If those within close contact are not vaccinated, they will then quarantine for 10 days, receiving their lessons asynchronously via Google classroom. For this reason, we want to limit the number of close contacts each student has.
Can my students move around the room? Yes, but I need to keep that movement to a minimum. Can they work in small groups? Yes, if I keep those small groups within their already-established close contacts or if the small groups last less than 15 minutes. Can I rearrange my seating chart? Yes, but only at the start of the week because for Covid we trace close contacts two days prior to the onset of symptoms or the positive test, so re-sets need to happen over the weekend.
Are you confused yet? Exactly.
And we’re only, so far, talking about the seating chart!
All students and teachers must wear masks at all times inside the building, except for when they are eating. Breakfast will be served in first hour classrooms, fifteen minutes before class starts. Lunch is served in the lunch room, half of the 300-member student body at a time.
Windows will be open as much as possible, and rooms will be equipped with air filtration systems. All rooms are well-stocked with hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes and will be treated each night with a Clorox Total 360 electrostatic sprayer. Custodians will routinely and endlessly disinfect doorknobs, bathrooms, and other high-traffic areas.
But guys, Covid or not, we are going back to school!
Thursday, all staff started work a little later than usual because we were hosting our Back to School night from 3:30-6:30. As I was driving in to work, I wondered how many of our students would show up to get their schedules, to pick up their school-issued Chromebooks, and to sign up for their bus routes. After 18 months at home, how many would opt in to an in-person learning experience? We had no way of knowing.
However, when I arrived at school at 10am, the place was already buzzing with activity. Teachers were arriving to participate in active shooter training, the trainers were setting up in a classroom, a couple of new teachers were being oriented to their new surroundings, and….and we had parents and students touring the building, filling out registration forms, and preparing to be at school!
After a very weird year — arriving to a silent building each morning, walking to my classroom, and signing into my zoom room — this felt very back-to-school normal. Could it be?
I dared not hope that this buzz could sustain itself throughout the day and into the Back-to-School night. So, I leaned in to our training — active shooter, fire drill, and round three of Covid protocols. I put finishing touches on my classroom, and I printed and copied day one paperwork for my students — boldly making enough copies for everyone on my roster. If I print them, they will come.
As it got closer to 3:00, I ate the lunch I packed, cracked open a can of green tea to re-caffeinate, and started heading to the gym with my colleague to get our assigned roles before the students started showing up. We peeked in the principal’s office on our way. She said, “Please get all the teachers to the gym right now; parents are already arriving!” What? It was only 3:00. We weren’t supposed to start until 3:30!
My colleague and I split up and went down separate hallways to round up teachers, and when we got to the gym, we found clusters of people moving about, trying to get what they needed. We scrambled to each take a station and begin assisting parents.
Our principal directed families to please step back outside the gym, form a line, and wait their turn — we would get to everyone. And for the next three hours, families stood in lines, shuffled forward, got what they came for, and chatted with teachers and administrators.
Yes, everyone wore a mask. Yes, it was difficult to hear one another. Yes, it was a struggle to identify students who claimed they had been in my class last year, but guys, that gym stayed buzzing until after 6pm.
Is it going to be a challenging year? Of course! Are we going to have students and teachers who test positive for Covid or have to quarantine due to exposure? Undoubtedly! Will we be exhausted by protocols on top of instruction on top of adapting to ever-changing circumstances? Without question.
However, the activity in that crowded gym told me that we — teachers, students, and parents — are ready to give in-person instruction a try. So take that, Covid. We are going back to school!
Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”Joshua 1:9