Transformation Ready

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Over the past week I’ve participated in quite a bit of professional development with the other members of my team. The main focus has been on the brain science behind trauma-informed instruction. We are using a book called Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain to learn the why behind some of the strategies we use in our school. A guiding principle in our community is that a large number of our students have experienced trauma or adverse childhood experiences (ACES). Our population is predominantly students of color who qualify for free or reduced breakfast and lunch and who live in the Detroit metropolitan area. Many have experienced racism, poverty, and various other traumas, but even if they hadn’t before 2020, they have certainly experienced trauma (loss of schooling, loss of family members, financial hardship, etc.) because of Covid. For that reason, our network of schools has adopted a whole suite of practices that fall under the umbrella of trauma-informed instruction.

We understood from this week’s training that the brain’s ability to think and process information can be interrupted if it feels the body is in physical or emotional danger or if it doesn’t feel a sense of belonging in a community. Brain science teaches us that the brain stem is continuously searching for danger; if danger is perceived, all of its energy goes to reducing the threat through actions many of us know as fight, flight, freeze or appease. So, before we can hope to build community or engage our students in learning, we must first create a space that is safe, predictable, and consistent.

Slide from Champion Education Network, Summer Summit

With that in mind, we have always emphasized common building norms and expectations such as teachers standing at our thresholds to greet students, having a strategically arranged classroom, and using consistent instructional practices such as Do Nows, Exit Tickets, and other practices of the No-Nonsense Nurturer model. This year, our school is being additionally intentional, using the first week of school to set culture and behavioral norms across all classrooms through common slide decks that the instructional coaches and I have prepared for use by ALL teachers. The first period that students are in the building, ALL teachers and students will review the same community guidelines — focused on ensuring our students that they are safe in our school. The second period that students are in the building, ALL teachers and students will review the same school-wide behavioral expectations — focused on ensuring our students that they are partners in keeping our school threat-free for all. Throughout the first week, teachers will ALL play community-building games and review classroom systems that they will use throughout the school year so that students, who are hopefully beginning to feel safe, can begin to feel engaged within their classrooms.

That’s the second function of the brain, the limbic system’s focus on finding relationships and belonging, also a prerequisite for learning. Our network, with the understanding that the highest functions of cognition cannot happen until students’ safety and belongingness needs are met, has initiated the school-wide adoption of a social-emotional learning curriculum that was piloted last year. This program, Character Strong will be used in every classroom every Wednesday morning. Its content focuses on self-awareness, goal-setting, and community building. The hope is that the more safe, the more connected, the more self-aware our students feel, the better they will be able to engage with rigorous curriculum.

And they do need curriculum! Our standardized test data from last year is not great — I’m not sure that anyone’s is post-Covid! This makes sense! The whole world was collectively in survival mode — our brain stems were at high alert!! It’s no wonder we suffered socially and academically — we were all collectively fighting, flighting, freezing, and appeasing ourselves into a tizzy! This is evidenced by the ways that we treated each other — not as the collective that we are, not as members belonging to each other, but as freaked out individuals trying to scratch our ways to survival.

But guys, it’s time to return to our right minds, and the only we can do that that is by taking actions that remind ourselves (and our brain stems) that we are safe, held, loved, supported and part of a community.

In my classroom, that looks like order and predictability. It looks like standing at my door each morning, greeting each student by name, smiling, and tracking their language (verbal and non-verbal) so that I can attend to any signs of distress and minimize any further triggers. It also looks like an orderly room — I have desks facing one direction; seats will be assigned, but those assignments are flexible based on student feedback. Everyone has adequate space, all can see the screen where I project the goals and content for the day and the white board where I display my students’ learning data so that they can track their progress. We track this progress as a whole class — where are we together? what do we need to do so that all of us can succeed together? We set goals together; we work together; we celebrate together. We are a community.

In my personal life, it looks like continuing my practices of healthy eating, regular exercise, and plenty of physical and mental self care and adding community practices such as a ride-share with a colleague, which will ease the driving burden for both of us and provide time for building relationship in our 25-minute drive each day. We will both have heavy loads at work, so we are intentionally building in support because we are caring for ourselves while caring for each other.

As we move through the fall, using these safety and community-building practices, we will increasingly become available for academic challenge. After learning about brain science and viewing our student data, I identified a couple areas of focus for this year. I will, with everyone, focus in those first two weeks to build safety and community so that I can increase the rigor of instruction and the independence and agency of my learners. I met with my instructional coach (everyone in our building has a coach!) who agreed with my goals and to thought-partnering, challenging, and supporting me as I work toward them. I am very excited about this partnership.

Some teachers I know go back to their classrooms two days before school starts. They arrange their rooms, they make a seating chart, they pull out supplies, and that is enough for them to feel ready. That is not me.

I need every minute of the past week and the coming week to fully shift my mind from the relaxation and freedom of summer to the intentionality and rigor of the school year. I need to remember the traumas my students have endured; I need to be mindful of how my attitude can make or break the culture of my classroom; I need to remember the importance of every moment of instruction and the potential impact it might have on the futures of my students.

My principal says — and she’s dead serious — “We are saving lives here, team.” We are the potential last educational stop for many of our students. What we do and how we act can change or solidify the trajectory of our students’ futures. Our practices, our climate, our culture might just create the safe space in which our students can try to trust, begin to believe, and turn toward a life of transformation — one for themselves, but also one that impacts everyone they touch.

And isn’t that the most powerful thing we can give one another — the space, the safety, the confidence, the support, and the encouragement to be transformed?

I am looking forward to transforming right along with my students — what a privilege I have been given!

be transformed by the renewing of your mind

Romans 12:2

Getting Ready

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This morning at church, a friend, smiling, asked if I was ready to go back to school yet.

I’m getting closer.

Since last week’s post, I have taken one trip to my school to drop off more supplies including 100 composition books and a variety of incentive prizes I gathered over the summer. While I was there, I picked up a new laptop and logged in for the first time, made sure all my stuff loaded, and turned on my projector to see if it’s going to cooperate this year.

I took two short trips for fun — one to see my mom and help her sort through some closets and memories and another to share a meal with long time friends.

I’ve been working on three deadlines– three deliverables that are all due by or before today — one for my policy fellowship, one for my role as master teacher, and one for my role as reading interventionist.

I’ve attended four zoom meetings — one with a large group of district leaders to discuss changes for the coming year, one with our building’s leadership team to sort out deadlines and responsibilities for the next two weeks of professional development and back to school activities, one with a colleague to get into the specifics of those responsibilities, and one with two administrators to sort out the details for the student teaching supervision that I have agreed to.

I’ve ordered five items online — contact paper for attaching labels to student desks, stickers for students to decorate their composition books, two pairs of shoes, and three tubes of lipstick.

I’ve crocheted six headbands to put in my prize boxes.

I’ve received generous donations from seven friends — snacks, prizes, feminine supplies, gift cards, and the like.

Each day holds a detail or responsibility that reminds me I’m getting closer, but I am still not picturing student faces. I got close last week when I was pushing desks around in my classroom. I could almost see them as I slid tables and chairs, reconfiguring the space to meet this year’s needs.

The bells were already ringing on schedule, and more staff bodies were moving through the building, but no teens yet.

I read the freshman roster this morning and attempted to select those who would participate in my reading class — glancing at names, but relying on data points to make my selections. I thought soon these names will represent bodies, faces, lives that might be impacted by this intervention, but not yet.

In a few hours, I’ll compose a letter to their parents, informing them that their child has been selected for a special program, that their attendance is crucial, that the potential impact is great.

Then, I will construct a Google slide show explaining the grading system and the policies regarding plagiarism and technology use at my school. In a couple of weeks, the teachers in my building will use this slide deck with all of our students to help get everyone acclimated back to academic life and the expectations that come with it.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back in the building, pushing around more tables, trying to envision bodies in seats. I won’t be alone. I suspect other teachers will be preparing their rooms, too.

On Wednesday, we will meet en masse to discuss culturally responsive teaching, to meet with our instructional coaches, and to look at the scope and sequence for the year. We’ll continue for six more days, preparing lessons, practicing for emergencies, meeting with coaches, putting last touches on our rooms.

Finally, we’ll have a three-day weekend.

And then — then — I’ll be standing at my threshold, grinning and welcoming. By then I should be ready.

And, if I’m not, no worries — the minute I lock eyes with the first student, my teacher heart will engage and I will be all-in for nine months. Just like I was transformed during my pregnancies, limiting caffeine, getting extra sleep, transforming my wardrobe, taking prenatal vitamins, and seeing the doctor monthly to ensure the healthy development of the children we had hoped for, I will be transformed. I will arise at 5am each day, caffeinate myself, and arrive at school wearing sensible shoes and comfortable clothing, toting a compact lunch of almonds, fruit, and some kind of bar. I will move throughout my day with my students on my mind, continuously adapting to their needs. I will shorten (or lengthen) a lessen, add (or remove) a funny anecdote, phone parents to brag (or show concern), and walk through the lunch room to track down some kid to give him the item he forgot, a good talking to, or a fist-bump depending on what he needs the most.

I will have my lunch interrupted by students who need something to eat and my prep time disturbed to respond to “Mrs. Rathje, you got a charger?” And by some miracle, I won’t be irritated. I’m not in this next chapter. I’ll look up and ask “What’s your name? Where are you supposed to be? Everything going ok for you today?” I might get an “I’m good” or a “Thank you” or an “I’ll bring it back,” but over time, I’ll likely get someone at my door who asks “Can I talk to you?” and I will push aside my laptop, roll my chair from behind my desk, and take whatever time we need because I’ll be ready.

By then, my students won’t be just on my mind all day, they will have inched their way into my heart. It happens year after year. I sometimes wonder if I’ll be able to fit any more kids in there, but I always can. My own children take up the largest rooms, of course, but my students live right among them.

Yesterday, we walked into a restaurant with some members of our family. We were waiting to be seated when I noticed standing at the host’s stand, a former student who was working there. “Jamie, is that you?” He looked up at me, questioningly.

“It’s me, Kristin.”

Instantly, we were hugging. He grabbed on tight — the way family does. While we were in the restaurant, he and I checked in with each other a couple of times — sharing updates, smiling, laughing. We’ve got a life-long bond with one another. That’s what happens when you spend time learning together.

And that’s why I know I’ll be ready — I’m getting closer and closer each day.

Act justly…love mercy…walk humbly

Micah 6:8

Not Quite Ready

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I walked into my school this past week. I had some supplies to drop off, and I was in the area, so I popped in.

The place was almost empty, but our custodial crew was there, greeting me with smiles and hugs, the work they’d done all summer evident all around us. The floors gleamed; the walls were freshly painted; and every desk was neatly in place.

As I rolled a supply-laden cart into my classroom, I remained somewhat detached. Although this is where I’ll spend over 40 hours a week starting just a couple weeks from now, the reality of the work — the students and their futures — is still just a little out of view. My heart is not quite ready for the responsibility. It’s not quite ready to hold kids accountable, to inspire, to motivate, to redirect, to teach.

Not yet.

I mean, I’ve written my syllabus. My big-picture plans for the first few weeks are charted out. I have slide decks. I’ve purchased motivators, and I’ve loaded up my Google calendar with deadlines and commitments. I like to be organized well ahead of time, but I’m just not quite ready to stand and deliver content, motherly advice, snacks, admonitions, answers to distracting questions, and continuous positive narration to inspire appropriate student behavior.

I’m just not ready.

Fact is, this big-talking, butt-kicking, name-taking master teacher has just a little more than a teensy bit of anxiety. It’s not suffocating, but it’s humming a little chorus in my mind, especially in the quiet of the night, what if, how about, can you really, have you considered, and the like. I swat it away. I read a book about organized crime in Harlem in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. I play a little Words with Friends, and I try to pretend that I don’t hear. But the chorus is catchy, and I find myself humming along mindlessly throughout the day.

I am not special. I think most teachers have a little anxiety before going back to school. I’m usually able to mask it with bravado — it’s a long-honed skill. Some of us also manage it through busy-ness, like organizing a classroom or preparing detailed plans, but probably, the best thing to do is to name it, as I did — again — yesterday with my therapist. Saying it out loud normalizes it, I guess. My therapist says, “You’re in a very demanding giving profession, and in the past, the demands have caused damage. It makes sense that you would be anxious.”

Oh. Yeah. That’s true, isn’t it? I have incurred some personal damages from this profession, haven’t it? Bravado and busy-ness were band-aids for my anxiety, not balms. They concealed it; they didn’t heal it.

What has been my balm? Quiet, rest, writing, and talking through my emotions. So, I return. I lean in. I announce that I am not quite ready.

I need a few more days of mindlessly weeding a garden while listening to a podcast. I need a few more mornings lazily journaling while sitting in the sun. I need a few more uninterrupted strong cups of tea, maybe one more jigsaw puzzle, a trip or two to see my mom, and just one more mani/pedi without looking at my watch.

And then, maybe then, I’ll be ready for the 5 am alarm, the 30 minute drive in rush hour traffic, the mass of students moving down the hallway, and the continuous grumble of adolescent complaint. I’ll be ready to stand over-enthusiastically (but genuinely) at my doorway, greeting my new seniors (and a few unsuspecting freshmen — God love them.)

They (and I ) have no idea what this school year holds — whether we’ll be able to be in person the whole year, whether Covid or a building issue will send us home, whether we’ll like each other, whether we’ll learn anything at all. And they (like me) might be experiencing a little anxiety. They might not have the 56 years of experience that I have that have taught me how to name it, how to care for myself, and how to create space, so they may need some extra compassion, understanding, and patience from me if they act out, check out, or lash out.

And I’ll have it. I almost always do, now that I have learned to have compassion, understanding, and patience for myself. I will be able to assure them that they belong, that they are safe, that they are loved, and that we have much that we can learn together.

Because here’s the thing — I have yet to meet a group of students I didn’t eventually fall in love with. I have yet to see a school year (and I think this might be the 23rd? — correction 20th in the classroom) where I didn’t learn right along with my students — about the curriculum, sure, but also about myself, about education, about the human experience.

And, part of what I’ve learned about the human experience is that I am not alone — none of us are! While I have been less than ready to look toward the school year, several of you have reached out in the last few weeks with offers of school supplies, snacks, prizes, and cash to support my classroom. I can’t tell you what an encouragement it has been to have you answering before I’ve even gotten around to asking. It has reminded me and my anxiety that we’ll be ok. When I am finally ready to head back to my classroom this year, I will carry your encouragement with me.

It won’t be long.

In just a few days, my adrenaline will kick in — I’ll be zooming around my classroom, arranging desks, making signs, double-checking supplies, and detailing lessons — but not yet. Right now I’m going to lean into another cup of tea, pop one more bowl of popcorn, and binge one more show on Netflix. The school year will be here soon enough.

…in quietness and trust is your strength…”

Isaiah 30:15

If you are able, reach out to a teacher (or school administrator) you know and ask how you can be an encouragement. You’ll be amazed at the impact such an offer might have.