Last fall, when I was prepping my classroom for the return of students who had been learning from home for a year and a half, I had no idea what to expect, but I knew that job one was going to be building relationships and fostering trust. How would I do that? Well, first I wanted to create a space that was inviting, supplied, and intentional so that my students would know I was looking forward to them — that I had prepared for them.
I loaded my bookshelves with classics and young adult fiction in a variety of genres. I arranged my desks to allow social distance for Covid. I put up a few welcoming posters and organized an area in my room where students could go to “chill”. I stopped at Lowe’s and picked up a full-length mirror and mounted it on the wall right inside my classroom, hoping that students would stop by to check their outfits, their hair, their face, and that they might stay to chat.
That was really my goal — the chatting. After talking into an almost silent Zoom room for a whole school year, I was longing for conversation, for bonding, for what my school calls “life-altering relationships”.
In my years as a teacher, I have learned that one way to draw students in is to have what they need — band aids, school supplies, feminine hygiene products, deodorant, and an endless supply of snacks. All teachers know this, of course, but the continual purchase of such items can be costly, and though we are committed to our students, we also have our own bills to pay.
About the time I was getting ready to go back to school, I posted a blog about Critical Race Theory. At the end of that post, I typed a short note inviting my readers to partner with me in loving my students, and boy did you! Just a few weeks after that post, I wrote again about the amazing response I had from long time friends and new acquaintances.
You sent snacks, school supplies, feminine hygiene products, small prizes for my students to earn like chapstick, pop sockets, pens, stickers, hand sanitizers, lotions, and the like. You also sent cash that allowed me to purchase more than 100 composition books, gift cards, and weekly replenishments for my snack supply. Your generosity carried me all the way through February!! What a blessing!
And has it worked? Oh my, has it worked!
It took a little while, but I now have a steady stream of students in and out of my classroom all day every day — seniors that I teach and know, and more recently, underclassmen who dare to pop in and ask, “can I look in your mirror?” or “do you have anything to eat?”
I’ve said it all along, if you feed them, they will come, and boy, do they come.
They show up in the morning when the school-provided breakfast looks less than appetizing — a cold plain bagel and a condiment-sized packet of cream cheese sealed together in a plastic pouch and partnered with an 8oz box of juice.
They come mid-morning when they realize they didn’t get any kind of breakfast because they were running late.
Over lunch, when I’m catching my breath, trying to get a little planning or grading done, or checking email, they come again when they’ve been presented with what they call “prison food” — one of a handful of options that are prepared off-site, packaged, and set out in our gym/cafeteria.
They come after school, hoping to grab something before they climb on the bus.
“Do you have anything to eat Mrs. Rathje?”
I pull out a small basket I keep behind my desk. It usually has a variety of breakfast bars, granola bars, or pop tarts. They take what they want, and sometimes they stick around to chat, to share some news, or to just sit in a desk in a quiet space. When they leave, they usually throw “Thanks, Mrs. Rathje” over their shoulder.
They have let me know their preferences, of course. They’d prefer that I have a suitcase-size bin of Slim Jims at the ready along with a wheelbarrow full of Takis or Flaming Hot Cheetos. “Don’t you have any juice, Mrs. Rathje?” Sometimes, when they have earned a reward, I do bring juice and chips, but for my regular offerings, I try to provide something with a little nutritional value that I can purchase economically.
Since February, each Wednesday morning, the first period of the day is devoted to social-emotional learning. My small first period class spends time developing communication, building relationships, and learning vocabulary to match their emotions. It’s a big ask to get high school seniors to engage in this type of work at 8:15 on a weekday morning in the last few months of their high school careers, so I lure them in with bananas, clementines, apple juice, and some type of breakfast bar. They’ve been showing up, if a little late, eating the snacks I provide, and engaging with this curriculum — breaking into groups, learning each other’s names (surprisingly, some have changed schools so often they don’t know all of their classmates!), and sharing out with the whole class.
Also on Wednesdays, I open the Rathje Store. My students earn raffle tickets — one per completed assignment — and on Wednesdays they can use those tickets to purchase the items I have in my store. One ticket for one Slim Jim, three tickets for a chapstick, 5 tickets for a T-shirt or a knit hat. They can also choose to throw a ticket into the weekly drawing; the winner gets their choice of any available prize.
I also keep a substantial supply of candy that I use for a variety of purposes — to reward students who are not on their phones, to calm the cravings of a desperate teacher who shows up at my door (“Rathje, you got any chocolate?””), or to acknowledge a class that has been particularly on task.
I’ve also got bandaids, Motrin, a huge supply of feminine products that I’ve been using to fill a “take what you need” basket in the ladies’ room, and a tea kettle that’s always ready to pour out when someone is running low on caffeine.
Why do I go to all this trouble? Can’t kids just come to school and learn without all this stuff? Without the snacks, the prizes, the candy, the supplies?
They can, and they’ve had to, but who among us hasn’t found ourselves in a situation where we just needed a little something to eat, a little encouragement when the going is tough, a simple reward for doing the thing you were supposed to do anyway? Doesn’t it make a difference for us when someone thinks about our needs even before we know we have them?
I think it does; in fact, I see the evidence.
One young man comes to my room every single day at lunch after having escaped the lunch room undetected. He doesn’t like much of what is offered there, so he comes to see what I have. I think he hopes I’ll somehow have a slice of pizza or a couple of cheese burgers, but he surveys the items I offer, which don’t vary much from day to day, and grabs something, often suggesting what else I should have on hand. If I engage with him, he’ll stay and talk my whole prep period, but usually, I ask him a question or two then send him on his way. I know I’ll see him in class, and I know he’ll be back tomorrow., just like he knows that I will always be in my room, and I will always have something for him to eat.
It’s a small thing, but it’s not really, is it?
In my experience, an accumulation of small things ends up being a pretty big thing. If my goal was building relationships and fostering trust, I believe you have helped me achieve that this year.
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
when it is in your power to act.”Psalm 3:27
*If you know a teacher in your community, ask them what you can do to help them love their students.
**If you would like to partner with me in loving my Detroit charter school students, you can email me at email@example.com for my wish list, Venmo, and CashApp information.