Coronavirus Diary 34: Teacher [extra] Tired

Last Monday, we re-entered the building after three weeks of virtual instruction. Everyone was glad to be back; smiles and greetings filled the hallways. Students were wearing new outfits, finally able to show off the gifts they’d received for Christmas.

I started each class with a reset of expectations — phones down, masks on, track the teacher — and a preview of the syllabus for the semester. My students were mostly compliant, ready to do the work I had assigned, but they were struggling — to stay off their phones, to stay engaged, to stay awake, to stay quiet.

Me? I was struggling, too — struggling to hold them accountable, struggling to be creative with my calls to engagement, struggling to not get frustrated with a roomful of teenagers who were being so…..so….. teenager-y.

I made it through three one-hundred minute blocks and a lunch break that included getting one-mile’s worth of steps in the hallway with my walking buddy. I had more to do to prepare for the next day’s lessons, but I had no more gas in the tank. I left work promising myself that I would arrive early the next morning to flesh out my plans for the day. I had the big picture, I told myself, surely I could pull the details together before my 10am class. I’d done it many times before.

But when I arrived on Tuesday morning, I was distracted. Our daughter had just announced her engagement on social media, and all her friends and family were liking and commenting. I couldn’t look away. Not only that, weather forecasters were predicting 1-2 FEET of snow over the next 48 hours, and all the building was abuzz with the question that has excited teachers and students for decades — Will we have a snow day tomorrow?

All morning, teachers and students ran scenarios. Certainly we were equipped to go virtual during a snowstorm. Every teacher in the connected world has learned to “switch to remote learning” in a heartbeat. Probably our administrators would want us to do that, I reasoned, in light of all the instructional time we have “missed” over the last two years. That logic didn’t keep wishfulness at bay — the childlike desire for a snow day was strong. Teachers popped their heads in my doorway conspiratorially whispering “heard anything?” Others sent texts, “what do you think we are going to do?”

I couldn’t find my focus, but I haphazardly pulled together my teaching strategy for the class I would meet that day. I was kicking off Black History Month in my writing class by talking about Langston Hughes and the impact he had through his writing. I was trying to show my students the power of writing to make social change. We were going to look at some of Hughes’ poetry and a brief history of his life with the help of a John Green video and then share ways we have seen writing as a tool for social change. It was a good concept, but my haphazard planning made the lesson mediocre. The students, who were still struggling on day two to stay awake, engaged, and off their phones, were quasi-engaged. Somehow we muddled through, but the day will not go down in the books as one of Mrs. Rathje’s most impactful.

At the bell, my students left the room, tossing “do you think we’ll be here tomorrow” over their shoulders. I shrugged, then continued my distracted attempts at getting something — anything — done.

I was trying to settle on which was most important — planning for the next day, long-range planning for the next week, or grading assignments from the day before — when my principal called and asked me to come to her office. She wanted to introduce me to a new staff member. She praised me as being the master teacher who had experience. I would be a good resource, she said. I nodded and smiled, knowing how unproductive and lackluster my day had been so far. I told the new teacher that of course she could come observe me at any time and hit me with whatever questions she had.

I was wishing her well when my principal said, “Rathje, one more thing.”

“Yes?”

“We’re going to have snow days tomorrow, Thursday, and possibly Friday. Don’t tell the kids yet, but take all your stuff home with you in case we decide to go virtual on Friday.”

“Ok!”

Suddenly, I lit up. I was focused. I quick stepped back to my room, prioritized grading for the remainder of the day, and basked in the relief of knowing I would get a couple of days off.

A colleague texted, “Did you hear?”

I replied, “I was just going to text you. I am so glad we are getting a couple days off. I don’t think I realized how tired I am. Are you tired?”

“Oh my gosh!” came the answer, from a teacher over twenty years younger than me. “So tired! I’ve been struggling all day to get something — anything — done.”

“You have?” I said, “me, too! Maybe we’ve underestimated how much this year has taken out of us — the continual switching from in-person to virtual to in-person.”

“Exactly! I am exhausted. I am looking forward to doing nothing.”

And that, I determined, is what I would do for at least part of those two, possibly three, snow days.

I drove home, took the dog out, started dinner, then, coming to terms with what 1-2 FEET of snow might look like, I decided I’d better make a couple preemptive supply runs — the grocery story and the library. If I was going to have the luxury of two or three days at home, I was going to need food and books!

Just as I was pulling back into our driveway, rain started to fall. It rained all night and then the rain turned to snow. The snow continued for two straight days.

I spent those days as a hermit. Clad in sweats, a ponytail, and glasses, I stayed in bed finishing a book, then leisurely moved into yoga. I worked on lesson plans slowly and deliberately to avoid a replay of last week’s less than impressive performance then watched a silly miniseries on Netflix. I tidied the house, did some tax prep that had been taunting me, and sat for hours reading and crocheting. I got caught up — on housework, on school work, on rest.

I hardly spoke a word to anyone. That’s one of the ways I find rest. Our golden retriever, Chester, was never far from my side, and he, too, was content to rest, to stay quiet, to do nothing.

Then, on Thursday night, he needed to head outside. The snow had subsided a bit. One neighbor was out scraping the ice off a vehicle. His dog was wandering from house to house. The Yorkie and Chester chatted, remarking on the depth of the snow while I checked in on another neighbor who lives next door. I smiled at this little neighborhood gathering, acknowledging that perhaps I was finally ready to interact with other humans.

I had to acknowledge the depth of fatigue I had been dragging around with me. Are you feeling it, too? This pandemic has gone on much longer than any of us anticipated, and we are depleted, aren’t we? It took me a hard stop to realize it.

You might not have had the luxury that I have just had — five days to stay at home, to find space to think, to read a whole book, to lose track of time. If you are able to afford such a luxury, I highly recommend it. However, I would venture that most of you need to keep slogging away day after day after day, regardless of how weary you are.

If that’s you, let me just say, be kind to yourself. If your performance has moments of mediocre, if you lack motivation, if you find yourself clicking the ‘like’ button while you are on the clock, cut yourself some slack. We’ve all been through a lot. Many of us are running on fumes. It would be strange if we were all still at peak performance at the end of two years of this madness.

While you are at it, have some grace for those around you, too — for the people who are running behind on deadlines, who never seem to respond to texts, who haven’t reached out to check in for months. They are wiped out, too. Chances are they are doing the best that they can, or they too tired to even do that any more.

The latest numbers give me hope (again) that we are moving into a different reality, but until then, I pray you find some rest, some space, and some peace..

Be kind to one another [and yourself], tenderhearted, forgiving one another [and yourself].”

Ephesians 4:32

Coronavirus Diary #33: Back to School…Again

Since January 6, I have been teaching from the comfort of our home office, wearing yoga pants and T-shirts, 13 year old Chester the golden retriever at my feet. Monday we return to the school building. This is Return to the Building #4, and if I’m going to be honest, I’m losing enthusiasm for all the back and forth.

I don’t disagree with any of the moves to remote or in-person learning that my school has made. In fact, when many schools last year were providing both in-person and remote learning in stereo, my school was strictly virtual, which at that period of the Covid-19 pandemic seemed prudent. Our school serves mostly low income families of color who reside in Detroit, one of the hardest hit communities and populations. Staying remote for the 2020-2021 school year protected not only our staff, but our students. In fact, most of our families were thankful to be remote during that period; most of our staff was, too.

However, our physical safety came at a cost. Many of our students (and students across the nation) suffered academically, emotionally, and socially during that first year and a half of the pandemic, whether they were in school or remote. Some would argue that large swaths of the population aged 18 and under (and many above that age) have suffered a trauma or even PTSD as a result of the pandemic, depending on the individual hardships they faced in terms of finances, food supply, family illness, and death. Being remote for the whole year meant that while our students were struggling through this very difficult time, we had limited access to them and a limited ability to provide supports such as social work, academic accommodations, food, and all the structure that students experience while in the physical school building.

Return #1 Last fall, when we determined to start the year fully in-person, our staff was fully on board. Of course we wanted our students back. We had access to vaccinations, we would all be wearing masks, and we would be taking all other CDC recommended precautions. Please, we said, bring the students back! And, back they came. Of course, they returned as though they’d been learning from home for a year and a half. Some came in loud and unruly. Some came in timidly, avoiding eye contact. Some came in carrying a palpable anxiety that sometimes gushed out in exclamations like, “I can’t be sitting so close to all these people!” We, nevertheless, stayed the course, providing structure, academics, and a return to routine. Day by day, week by week, we could see the students settling in, getting comfortable, returning to more typical teenaged behavior, beginning to engage in classroom activities, beginning to trust that we were “getting back to normal”.

Alas, in October, several staff tested positive — too many staff to cover with substitutes — so we had to move to remote learning for two weeks. We loaded our cars with ancillary screens and materials and changed into sweatpants and baseball caps. We logged into zoom rooms, were greeted by black boxes labelled with student names, and began screen sharing, communicating through the chat feature, and trying to incentivize attendance and participation.

Return #2 When the coast was clear, we lugged all our stuff back to the building and once again greeted our students. It had been a short break, one in which many students opted for a full vacation from academia. At this return, we jumped right back in, and students had to choose whether they were going to make up missed work, or just join the program already in progress. They settled in fairly quickly, but we continued to have a revolving door of students and staff coming and going due to Covid exposure or sickness. Nevertheless, we managed to pull off a Homecoming dance and a spirit week before we were once again sent home in early December.

It’s all become a blur, to tell you the truth. My students were writing college essays, I know that, and I was simultaneously keeping all my teacher plates spinning while also managing a gazillion family December birthdays and preparing for Christmas. To be honest, it was a blessing to be at home — to sleep a half an hour longer in the morning, to not have to drive, to receive packages when they were delivered, and to spend my days with Chester at my feet. Again, many students opted to start their Christmas vacation early, but some logged in each day and completed their assignments on time. All of us were pleased to take a two-week break for the holiday.

Return #3 Around Christmas the Omicron variant of Covid was spreading widely. By New Year’s Day, the buzz among educators was will we go back or not? Detroit Public Schools announced that they would delay their start for a couple of days to assess the situation and prepare a plan. Ann Arbor also delayed and then made a virtual start. It seemed prudent to proceed with caution since the case numbers were growing quickly, however, our leadership made the decision to start in person. Our students, like all students, do best when they are in the building. We had already been virtual for most of December; we really wanted to see if we could make in-person learning work.

We started on Monday with a professional development day. Tuesday was quite cold when we teachers took our stations at our doors, ready to go. Students arrived, but attendance was low. It wasn’t really a surprise. Many of our families had expressed concern about returning given the rise in cases and chose to keep their students at home. We came to school on Wednesday and Thursday, too, and then the decision was made, due to low in-person attendance and a high number of teachers who were calling off due to exposure, positive cases, or their own children needing to learn from home — we would return to virtual instruction that first Friday in January.

Cue the carrying of screens and materials to our cars.

We’ve been virtual for the remainder of January. We finished the first semester in the Zoom Room. Thanks to our incredible attendance team, our overall attendance in this virtual space was high — I’d say over 75% which is remarkable in our context. Engagement, of course, was everywhere across the spectrum. A few students showed up, turned on their cameras, and even unmuted to participate. Others joined faithfully off screen, contributed via the chat, and completed all of their assignments. Some attended sporadically. Some merely logged in and went back to sleep. Some never joined at all.

On Friday, I taught my last class of the semester, finalized my grades, and clicked submit. I loaded my laptop into a bag, prepared new seating charts for semester 2, tidied my home desk from three weeks’ worth of debris, and started wrapping my mind around heading back into the building.

Return #4 I have mixed emotions. I am happy I will get to see my students — the ones who faithfully logged on throughout January and the ones who I haven’t heard a peep out of since December. I’m encouraged that I will get to be with my colleagues — sitting at home alone in front of a screen for three weeks isn’t my idea of community. I am excited for the opportunity we have to finish the school year in person — Please, God, let it be so.

Also, I am tired. I am tired of the transitions. I am tired of the uncertainty. I am tired of re-setting expectations for my students every time we come back to the building — Stow your phones, put your mask over your nose and mouth, bring your laptop charged and ready to go, show up, opt in, work hard, and finish strong.

And, after a month (plus most of December) with our aging Chester, who has recently been on the decline, I am apprehensive about putting him in his crate, walking away, counting on his walker to visit midday, and only seeing him again in the late afternoon.

But overall, I am determined. I am determined, with all my complex emotions, to get up at 5 o’clock tomorrow morning, to prepare for my day, to put on professional clothing, to comb my hair, to warm up my vehicle, to drive twenty-eight miles, to lug my gear back into my classroom, to plug in all my devices, to project my Google slides on the screen, to play a little music, to stand at my door, and to welcome my students back.

I’m guessing they have complicated emotions, too. I’m not sure what they are, but perhaps we’ll start tomorrow with a little space to come together, to share, and to sit in the complexity together.

Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you

Psalm 55:22

An Emotional Legacy

I don’t know about you, but I grew up not knowing how to manage or speak about my emotions.

It’s no one’s fault really.

My parents grew up without much permission to feel their emotions, much less talk about them. It was a symptom of the times, I guess. Their parents, my grandparents, had been born circa World War I and had come of age during the Depression. Their lives were marked by national trauma, but certainly they were not given the space to express their feelings, let alone get therapy or any kind of professional support.

In fact, their parents, my great grandparents, or their parents before them, had experienced trauma of their own, having immigrated from Germany, some by way of Russia, to the US. Imagine what that must’ve been like — traveling by ship across the ocean, not knowing what you would find on the other side! My grandparents were raised by folks who had what it took to take huge risks but who likely didn’t put words to their feelings — the courage they must’ve had, the fear, the excitement, and the exhilaration. And they didn’t likely have the time or wherewithal to explore the devastation they experienced once they were settling and growing their families during the uncertainty of World War I and the Depression, so my grandparents learned from their parents how to survive, how to do without, how to make do; they did not learn how to explore their emotions. They likely tucked them deep inside.

They carried residual trauma and latent emotions into their marriages where they had baby after baby and worked their keisters off to provide house and home and a better life than they had had. They put a meal on the table and clothes on their children’s backs, and for that, those children ought to be grateful. End of story.

My parents, the ones who ought to be grateful, were born circa World War II, another national trauma. My grandmother, my mom’s mom, once showed me the ration books she had kept that allowed her just so much coffee, sugar, and stockings while she was raising small children, wearing a dress and heels, mind you, and keeping her house just so. Having stuffed her own childhood traumas deep inside, she was ill-equipped to provide much empathy or compassion to her own children. Her husband, one of eleven children raised by sugar beet farmers, became a successful salesman who brought home the bacon and often last-minute dinner guests. Little Grandma, as we called her, was responsible for being always ready with a picture-perfect house, an exquisite meal, and well-behaved children. If those children had feelings, they’d better check them at the door. My mother tells stories of high expectations and little tolerance for not rising to meet them.

My dad was one of six children. His father worked for the same company my maternal grandfather worked for. My grandmother stayed home, making homemade lye soap, and attending to the needs of all those open mouths and hands. She, too, had lived through her own childhood traumas, though she never spoke of them. Her clinical depression was so severe that she had endured shock treatments. When I knew her, she was mostly silent, mostly bedridden, with a quiet smile covering God only knows what buried emotions. My dad was the youngest of those six. He tells stories of playing in the neighborhood, of having a paper route, of going off to the Marines, but not too much about his interactions with his parents or siblings. He has been, most of my life, successful, content, and optimistic. I’ve seen little evidence of negative emotions or hurt.

Nevertheless, I suspect that my mom and dad, raised by parents with few emotional tools, endured their own childhood traumas, although they wouldn’t call them that, and likely would deny even now that anything they experienced was “all that bad.”

They married young, of course, and had a houseful of kids. They worked hard to provide for their needs as their parents had done for them and to create a home and family. Alas, generations of trauma were coming home to roost. Ill-equipped to process their latent emotions along with the growing demands of four small children, they managed in their own ways and ultimately divorced.

I was in elementary school when they split, and life as I perceived it — nuclear family, ranch-style house down the street from my school, neighbors I’d know all my life — was disassembled. This was, of course, the largest disruption of my life. We didn’t really talk about it as a family, at least not in my memory. No one knew how. How could they?

Here’s the thing though, whether we talk about it or not, trauma has an impact. We have emotional and physical responses whether we can articulate them or not. I can’t speak for my siblings, but I know I felt all kinds of things. I was stunned with disbelief. I remember telling a classmate “My parents will never get a divorce” just weeks before I found out that they were, in fact, divorcing. I had to figure out what my new reality meant. I remember a conversation with my older sister where I told her that I didn’t have a dad any more. She assured me that I would “always have a dad.”

I had all kinds of feelings for years and years. I could flip from extremely happy to extremely angry in seconds. I could spend whole days brooding. I cried easily, laughed loudly, loved fiercely, and got devastatingly hurt, but I didn’t know what to do with all those emotions.

The message I got from my family and friends was that I needed to quiet down, quit crying so much, and get over it, but no matter how hard I tried, those feelings weren’t going anywhere.

I tried a few coping strategies — drinking, anorexia, and academic overachievement — but those only temporarily numbed the feelings which I would eventually have to take out, examine, and process many years later.

Unfortunately for my children, some of that unpacking is happening now, after they are gone living their lives, trying to find words and expression for their own emotions and their own childhood traumas.

I’m sure I’m not alone — growing up with limited emotional vocabulary to process myriad emotional experiences — but it doesn’t have to be this way. We can, in the midst of our own international crisis find the language and the space to loosen up generations of tamped-down trauma, drag it out into the open, examine it carefully, and give it — finally — some language.

Why would we want to do this? Why would we want to dredge up old hurts, expose old wounds, and revisit decades-old losses? Because in seeing, in speaking, in acknowledging the devastation, there is healing, connection, restoration, and hope.

How do I know? I’ve been on this journey for a while now, and I have found myself coming into wholeness, of being able to feel deeply from a whole menu of emotions — joy, sadness, anger, happiness, sorrow, disappointment, and the like. I’ve been learning Emotions 101 in my fifties, and then recently, a friend suggested I read Brene’ Brown’s Atlas of the Heart, and only two chapters in, I know I’m moving into an advanced course. I’m pulling experiences out of my rucksack again and I’m seeing more complexity, finding deeper understanding, and moving through another wave of grief and recovery.

It’s hard. I’ve been triggered this past couple of weeks. I’ve had some painful flashbacks. I’ve connected some dots that I hadn’t even noticed before. I’ve found myself aching.

But, look, generations have not had the ability to look at individual or collective pain — they’ve not been able to fully grieve. They’ve merely shoved their hurts aside and ‘gotten on’. And we’re the worse for it, aren’t we?

Isn’t it time we tried a different way? Can’t we imagine a richer life for those who come along after us? Wouldn’t it be lovely to start a new legacy?

He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”

Psalm 147:3

Challenging Routines

Click the arrow to listen.

It’s a quiet, cold Sunday morning, and I’m sitting here in our office that is filled with natural light. I’ve brewed a strong cup of tea, and I’m ready to write.

I have had the rhythm for several months now of coming to my blog on Saturday or Sunday morning with an idea — some notes from my morning pages or an idea that’s been floating around in my mind all week long, but today I have nothing.

To be honest, I’m kind of in a covid-fatigue slump.

One day runs into another.

I spend up to 5 hours a day in a zoom room.

To fight utter lethargy, I force myself to go out for a midday walk, no matter how cold it is — and it has been cold. You should see me, I layer pants over leggings, long sleeves over short sleeves, pop a stocking cap on my head, and top it all with a robin’s egg blue parka and some winter walking boots. I put my earbuds in and listen to a podcast while I walk the 1.25 miles down the walking path to the corner and back.

Other highlights of my day include a bowl of oatmeal in the morning, a load or two of laundry some time during the day, some ongoing games of Words With Friends, and some kind of television in the evening.

I check the mail once or twice, and usually what I find is some promotional mail from a casino addressed to the former owner of the house, the weekly grocery fliers, and some kind of bill or statement.

I do yoga and write every morning and listen to my daily Bible reading on the YouVersion app followed by The New York Times The Daily Podcast almost without fail.

Day after day after day looks pretty much the same, and I must not be alone in this because last Sunday our pastor, Gabe Kasper, started a sermon series, Rule of Life , which is an examination of the current rhythms we live in and a challenge to interrogate the impact of those rhythms and perhaps switch them up a little.

Pastor Gabe cited Justin Whitmel Earley, the author of The Common Rule, who said, “We have a common problem. By ignoring the ways habits shape us, we’ve assimilated to a hidden rule of life: The American rule of life. This rigorous program of habits forms us in all the anxiety, depression, consumerism, injustice, and vanity that are so typical in the contemporary American life.”

Well, if that didn’t just stop me in my tracks. What habits have we all formed? What do we do in a typical day? What consumes our time? And how is that activity, that behavior, that habit, that rhythm shaping us?

Now I love a daily rhythm. When our children were little, I actually had a daily schedule. We had a wake up time (you will not get out of your bed before this alarm goes off at 6am), a ‘school’ time (where this teacher/mom provided intentional lessons on letters, numbers, colors, etc.), a play time (“No guys, we can’t play in the back yard at 6am. We will go out at 9), and a break time (everyone to your own spaces — we all need some time alone). Of course once they were in school, that schedule pretty much dictated our days, as work does for me now, but even when I don’t have to be anywhere, it is a rare day that I don’t have some kind of time map laid out and a list of things I want to accomplish, including the morning rhythm that gets me started every day.

But Pastor Gabe wasn’t asking me to examine my to-do list or my wellness routine, he was asking me to consider the ways I fill my time in the spaces around that schedule. How much time do I spend on my phone — yes, I do know that number because the phone tells me every week. How much time do I spend mindlessly watching Netflix or Peacock or AppleTV every night? He was also asking me to check my intentionality. How much time do I spend reaching out to friends and family members? How much time to I spend talking with my husband? How much time do I spend in prayer?

These are good questions — especially two years into Covid when most of us have binged every show on TV, we’ve become overly attached to social media, and — let’s be honest — we’re eating our meals on the couch wearing yoga pants, sweats, or pajamas. We’ve lost whole days, weeks, and months.

Time has become a very ambiguous concept — When did that happen? I don’t know, some time during Covid.

So, this sermon series is tapping me on the shoulder, saying, Hey, I know it’s been a rough go, but I think you’ve got the capacity to switch a couple things up, and you know, I think I’m ready.

Last week’s encouragement was relatively easy. Pastor Gabe asked us to consider adding a few pieces to our routines:

The first piece is daily prayer. This might seem like a no-brainer, but a habit of prayer has been a little squishy for me. I do pray. I find that my morning writing is often a prayer, or it makes its way to prayer. I also am starting to build a habit of praying when I first start to wake in the morning and before I fall asleep at night, but for all the order and structure in my life, prayer is one place that has remained more ad libbed. I’m considering that rule of my life right now as part of this congregational journey.

The second piece is weekly worship. My husband and I already have this as a rule because we love worship. It is a time of peace and healing for us — a time of community and belonging. Since the beginning of Covid, we have at times chosen to worship virtually, and we are thankful to have that option.

The third piece is monthly fasting. Now, since the idea of fasting may produce some anxiety, let me say as a former anorexic, that fasting does not need to be from food. It can be, but since this re-set for me is more about how I spend my time, I am considering a couple options — 24 hours without technology or maybe just social media or possibly 24 hours without my phone. It’ll be a challenge, so I haven’t put anything on the calendar yet, but I am thinking about it. (And now I’ve put it in print, so the likelihood that it will happen just went up a notch.)

Considering change, especially to rhythms that have sustained (or at least distracted) us during a time of crisis, is not easy. It takes intentionality. It takes a desire and a commitment to take a new way even when muscle memory wants to take the familiar route. But what might be the benefits? What might be the pay off? What might we notice if we change a few steps in our daily routine?

This morning, in the second sermon in the series, Pastor Marcus Lane said that following the Rule of Life is not a prerequisite to get to God but an opportunity to be transformed by His grace.

That’s what me might gain, friends, a greater experience of the grace of God and His transformational power.

What might be changed? What might we experience? How powerful is the grace of God?

In my experience it can turn mourning to joy, pain to healing, and despair to hope. It really can.

I might be willing to make a few changes for that. How about you?

discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily training is just slightly beneficial, but godliness is beneficial for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.

I Timothy 4:7-8

Coronavirus Diary #32: We’re Still Here

When I wrote that first Coronavirus Diary in March of 2020, I could’ve never imagined that almost two years later I’d be on the thirty-second installment, yet here we are.

We are tired of it. We are discouraged. We are ready for this mess to be over, but we clearly have a ways to go.

My last coronavirus diary was in September when we were headed back to school, mask-clad yet hopeful that we were returning to some semblance of ‘normal’. My students filed in, grumbling but happy to be together. We re-learned classroom rules — expectations for coexisting in the same space such as arriving on time, sitting in assigned seats, putting our phones away, wearing a mask. When the inevitable happened and someone caught COVID, we followed the CDC’s guidelines for contact tracing and quarantining. Students took turns isolating at home where they could access assignments through Google classroom, if they were so inclined, and then returning to the classroom after two weeks’ time. At the end of October, a high number of staff cases sent us home for two weeks. We returned in mid November, regrouped, and carried on until early December when, once again, we headed home due to a staffing shortage.

Being in the building is better of course. I have had more students in attendance, more students completing assignments, more students dropping in for snacks, more students walking by for a fist bump first thing in the morning.

The school year was beginning to feel a little like ‘normal’. In fact, even with the interruptions for virtual instruction, I got so much into the groove that I began to believe we were truly on our way out of the pandemic — that I had no more coronavirus diaries to write, nothing more to say on the topic. Yet, here we are two years after the first cases were reported, seeing the daily case numbers surge and watching the death count ticker slowly tick-ticking away. Last Friday, we moved back to remote instruction, hunkering down once again in our homes, where we will stay until the end of January.

Over 835,000 Americans have died because of Covid, and this current Omicron surge has us averaging over 600,000 new cases a day. And while word on the street is that Omicron is less severe than previous strains of the virus, it is wildly more contagious — whole school districts are remote, hospitals are at capacity, and the interruption to daily life cannot be ignored.

Guidance on how to behave during this latest wave is confusing, to say the least, but the essentials remain the same:

Source: click here

Some of us read those guidelines and readily do our part; others, for a variety of reasons, have chosen not to get vaccinated, have resisted wearing masks, and have for all intents and purposes returned to life as we once knew it, in those pre-pandemic days.

Is it time for that? Right now? When we are in the middle of a surge of cases?

Don’t our actions, whichever ones we choose, have an impact on not only ourselves, but also on others in our community?

Haven’t we seen the impact of this pandemic and our divided response?

Not only has the virus lingered, but we have, it seems, hunkered down in camps, continuing to point fingers at one another, calling one another names, and blaming one another for the situation that we find ourselves in.

Has that approach been helping? It doesn’t seem to be, neither does pointing blame at governmental leaders, previous or present, who can’t seem to get on the same page either.

We find ourself fussing and fuming at each other, sinking further and further into anger, depression, and hopelessness.

But friends, we are not a people without hope. We have merely momentarily put our hope in the wrong things.

Our hope is not in our personal rights, our own self-righteousness, our rule-following, or our resistance to rules. Our hope is not in the CDC, and it’s not in the Republican or Democratic party. It’s not in Biden or Trump. It’s not in a face mask or a vaccine or a booster.

No, our hope is in God, the Creator of heaven and earth.

Could He not, in the blink of an eye, eradicate Covid from the face of the earth?

He could.

Could He not do this without a vaccine or masks or social distancing?

He could.

Could He also use a pandemic to bring us back to Him?

He could.

Will we let Him?

What would that look like?

Would a return to God look like name-calling, blaming, and judging?

I’m guessing not.

I’ve been struggling with this. In fact, this very blog started out as a rant against those who would not be vaccinated, those who would not wear a mask, those who, in my opinion, seem to be carelessly walking around spreading the virus. I feel angry sometimes because I am trying to do what is right for the sake of my family, my community, and our country, and I feel that not everyone else is doing the same. I blame them. I call them names. I judge them.

“Can’t you see,” I yell, “we are in the middle of a pandemic! And you are only making it worse!”

And what impact does all my yelling, blaming, and judging have? I end up angrier, more discouraged, and feeling like there is no hope.

But, friends, we are not a people without hope.

We are not.

So, I am going to try, really I am, to turn my gaze away from those I’d like to blame and move it toward the One who is able to make all things new.

I am going to stop pointing fingers, calling names, and shouting accusations, and I am going to instead lift my hands to the One who can put an end to the pandemic, can put an end to the divisions, can soften our hearts, and can restore our hope.

He’s managed plagues and famines and wars and all manner of evil that people have inflicted on one another. This pandemic is not too much for Him.

It’s only taken me two years [and 32 coronavirus diaries] to come to this realization; I’m sorry to those of you who got there before me.

Don’t get me wrong — I’d still like ya’all to get vaccinated, wear a mask, and stay away from crowds at least until this latest surge is over, but if you don’t, I’m going to try not to make any assumptions about you. I am going to do my best to love you.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15:13

The Wonder of Why

Each November my husband and I create a Google doc — a list of all the gifts we’d like to purchase in December. We’ve found this necessary because we have seven (yes, 7!) December birthdays in our immediate family. And all the birthday celebrating we do in December culminates, as you may know, in Christmas! For years we have spent Thanksgiving to New Year’s in a whirlwind of activity — purchasing, preparing, sending, and celebrating.

We can get so busy, so caught up in the details of all the festivities, that we can forget the why — the reason we celebrate.

We don’t often lose sight of why we celebrate the birthdays of our loved ones because they are (even if virtually) physically present in our lives, and even in the most difficult of years, we are thankful for that.

However, even with all the garland and bows and carols and gifts, or perhaps because of them, we can lose the wonder of why we are celebrating Christmas.

Why is it that most of the country — much of the world — stops what they are doing every year for at least a full day if not a full week or more? Why is it that retailers organize months’ worth of marketing, staging, and purchasing toward December? Why is it assumed that we will gather with family and friends, exchange gifts, and transform our homes for a month out of every year?

What could it be that aligns us all in a common activity, a common momentum, a common — dare I say — purpose?

It couldn’t be — could it? — the ages old myth-like tale of a woman, some angels, a donkey, a stable, and an infant? Is that story, which has been told and retold in various forms for generations, the why that propels us all toward a seemingly united series of activities — where we dress in red, light our trees, purchase stamps by the roll, bake dozens of sweets, and wrap our carefully chosen gifts in the wee hours of the night?

Is it possible that a centuries old story, one that some of us believe and some of us don’t, has the power to draw our eyes, dictate our spending, and determine our social calendars for weeks at a time. Does that seem odd, especially right now when we have trouble agreeing on most everything? We can’t get on the same page about climate change, gun violence, or even a global pandemic, but we all seem to be willing to purchase an ugly sweater and wear it on a prescribed day.

We give lavishly during this season — to our friends, our coworkers, our families, and even those we do not know. We are generous, we spread good cheer, we even dare to hold on to hope. All of us!

Why?

Is it because a baby was born over two centuries ago?

How could one baby born in a manger change anything?

It makes no sense at all.

Omnipotent, omniscient, eternal God distills Himself into infant form, becomes human, and lives among us? How can one life — one perfect sinless life — atone for all the harm we have inflicted on one another?

It’s simple: He’s the answer to our why.

He’s the only One.

He’s the only One who can heal the sick with His touch, calm the sea with His breath, and save us all with His life.

He’s the only One who is with us in the busyness, in the shopping, in the decorating, in the frantic checking off of tasks. He’s with us — God with us — even when we have lost our recognition of the why.

He, my friends, the baby, Jesus, is the why.

The whole earth rejoices — stars appear, angels sing, kings trek across the land — at His birth. And we long, we groan, we wait for His return.

Because until His return, we will lose sight of the why again and again — we will turn to ourselves and strive to create a perfect Christmas, a perfect experience for our families, a perfect celebration of love.

We will get a glimpse, because He — Jesus — is God with us, but we will not yet fully see the joy, the unity, the peace that He will bring.

Yet, even now, from His fullness — the beautiful fullness embodied in that infant — we have all received grace upon grace. Grace for when we overlook him, for when we get caught up in task completion, for when we have forgotten, or for when we have refused to believe that He is indeed God with us — Emmanuel.

How do we adequately pause — rush to the manger, bow down, and acknowledge the one who makes all things new? We start now, in this moment, putting down our list, lifting our eyes, and adoring the infant born in a manger long ago.

We, like the shepherds, bend our knees. We, like the angels, declare His glory. We, like the kings, bring Him our finest gifts. We, like Mary, ponder this miracle in our hearts.

The God of the universe put on flesh — in the form of an infant — to be with us.

That is our why — that is the reason we celebrate Christmas.

O Come Let Us Adore Him.

Open Wound, an allegory*

Stressed Woman At Home Headache Pain Female Portrait. Beautiful Girl Close  Up Face And Head With Hands Sitting Alone Sad. Drawn With One Line Royalty  Free Cliparts, Vectors, And Stock Illustration. Image
Source
Click arrow to listen.

*allegory, a symbolic fictional narrative that conveys a meaning not explicitly set forth in the narrative

Her wound was open. She sat, sobbing.

It wasn’t the first time. Although it had scabbed over time and again since the injury was first sustained, it could be torn open with the slightest impact, even now, decades later.

She’d been a child when the initial blow had been dealt and her still-young flesh had first been split open. The pain had been stunning — it had shoved her back, and she had sat, a child, weeping on the floor, holding her chest, trying to stop the hemorrhaging.

After she had tired from much sobbing and flailing about, it had subsided — the pain, the bleeding — receding to a dull but ever present ache.

Since then, she had carried it around with her, this bruised and tender flesh,

It was the kind of injury that never fully heals, the experts had said. Even when sustained during the growing years, the body — the heart — could not regenerate enough cells to fully heal the damage that had been done.

The injury would remain, opening up from time to time. Then, new cells would form to stop the bleeding, to cover over the gaping wound. She’d use caution, covering the tender area with a protective layer, shielding it from subsequent blows, learning to avoid danger, developing a keen defensive awareness.

She’d be so careful, so vigilant, that she could even believe the spirit-altering injury might actually be healing. The pain would subside, and she would become hopeful that she would never again shed tears, never again ache, never again sob with the pain or even the memory of the pain.

But then, from out of nowhere — but often from somewhere familiar — a pointed blade would find its way through her armor, past layers of clothing, beneath the dressings, to pierce the flesh. Just like that, the wound would be torn open and she would crumble again, down, down, down, weeping, sobbing, holding her heart, and begging for the pain to stop,

In the early years, not long after the wound had first been dealt, she would, in pain, lash out — swinging and flailing at those closest, begging them to join her in the misery. Over the years, however, she learned this strategy was ineffective — it did not diminish her own hurt, but rather multiplied it. Instead of joining her in her pain, the others turned away, kept their distance, isolating her, piling guilt and regret on top of pain, and leaving those she loved with their own wounds to tend.

Later, as she aged, when certainly, she thought, this decades-old injury had to be fully healed, she could still be brought low by a stray arrow, an unintended blow that nevertheless grazed the tender flesh, re-opening the wound.

It was open now. The middle-aged heart had been hit, and it was laid bare.

Seeping.

Throbbing.

Reminding her of the many years of pain, many years of tears, many years of swallowing feelings past a tightened aching throat.

She lay supine, futilely wiping away an unstoppable deluge of tears, fighting against the years of pain — still not wanting to feel it — still not wanting to admit I’m hit! I’m hurt! I’m bleeding! I’m suffering!

Those standing over her, observing her as she lie bleeding, sobbing, say her wound, her perpetually open wound, informs her compassion, gives her language to comfort others with the comfort she herself has received, but that is little consolation when the tenuous flesh has been recently sliced, when the blood is dripping on the floor, when she is doubled over, trying desperately to silence her own cries.

Nevertheless she hears.

She admits they are right.

Her pain does give her compassion for others.

She sighs in resignation, then does what she has always done.

She rises.

She sits up, dabbing at the now-congealing blood,

taking a sip of cool water,

applying fresh dressings,

washing her face,

combing her hair.

Then, as she examines herself in the mirror, she hears a still small voice, “Do not be afraid; do not discouraged, for I am with you wherever you go.”

“I know,” she says, nodding, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye, “I know.”

And she, carrying the open wound with her, steps back into the land of the living.

Time for Refreshing

Chester and I relishing the end of a restful week.
Click the arrow to listen.

A thick blanket of wet snow covers our yard, our driveway, and the playground across the street. It’s almost 7:30 am, but the heavy winter clouds overhead are allowing just a soft gray glow to light the neighborhood. It’s a quiet ending to a quiet week.

In the months leading up to our Thanksgiving break, my husband and I had imagined all kinds of scenarios — flying someplace warm to sit in the sun for a few days, driving across the border to Canada to “flee the country” for the day or even a few hours, dining out, going to a movie, or possibly visiting with family. We scrolled through flight options, investigated Airbnbs, read restaurant menus, and discussed possibilities. We really wanted to get away. I had had a busy fall, but his had been even more taxing. We knew we needed a break and possibly even an escape.

For weeks we ran scenarios and dreamed dreams, but it seems each time we got close to a plan, we ran into a difficulty. Flight costs had skyrocketed, all of our usual caregivers for our aging golden retriever were unavailable, and I had to attend a virtual professional development on Monday and Tuesday, so the escape to a sunnier climate was off the table.

Still, a day trip to Windsor seemed doable, so my husband scouted out some restaurants and began to plan our day, but then we realized we’d need a negative Covid test 72 hours prior to our visit. That wouldn’t be a problem, but then, as we started to investigate a little further, we noticed from the New York Times Covid Map that Michigan was one of the hottest spots in the nation. Would it really be responsible to head across the border, especially since both of us spend our days in a petri dish surrounded by teens and young adults? What might we carry with us?

As we were coming to terms with our reality, my brother reached out. He was hosting Thanksgiving at his house, and he was inviting us to join. My mother and stepfather would be there along with my other brother and his family. That sounded lovely. We were not able to do Thanksgiving or Christmas with family last year. The idea of driving “over the river and through the woods” to enjoy a feast surrounded by loved ones sounded amazing. However, it wasn’t long into our discussion of this possibility when we realized that that, too, would be irresponsible. My mother, although fully vaccinated, has chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), and while she is in remission, her health is still quite compromised. We are fully vaccinated, and even boosted, but we still didn’t feel like it would be wise with the current spike in cases to gather and bring any traces of virus we might be carrying into her midst.

So, it was around last weekend when we determined that we should probably just stay home, roast our own turkey, binge on some Netflix and football, and get some rest. It was disappointing at first, but, as you might have guessed, it turns out it was just what we needed.

On Monday and Tuesday, I had a couple faculty meetings, and then I was afforded the time I needed to write detailed lesson plans for when I return tomorrow. Often that work is squeezed into my prep period or in the before or after school time, so having hours to imagine how my lesson might play out, to design an instructional activity, and to create a detailed rubric was luxuriant.

Between meetings on Monday, I popped a turkey into the oven, then at the end of the work day I threw together a couple of sides, and we welcomed a couple dear friends who already navigate within our work and social bubbles to share it with us. Then, because I didn’t think to send leftovers home with our guests, we ate turkey for the rest of the week — first in the form of reheated leftovers and then in bowl after bowl of yummy soup.

With days at our disposal, and nowhere to be, we were able to manage a car repair, sewing machine servicing, some quick dashes to pick up birthday and Christmas gifts, and a long walk in a county park nearby. We lost track of time, ate when we got hungry, and napped when we felt tired. Every once in a while, I would default to my schedule-checking mindset, “What nights next week do we have plans? Am I all set for teaching on Monday? What do I need to take with me?” and then I would remember that it wasn’t even the weekend yet. I could keep relaxing.

I crocheted, and I mended. We put up and decorated our little Christmas tree. We zoomed and Facetimed with family, and we did a lot of sitting around. I finished one book and started another, and we completed three jigsaw puzzles!

And still we had more time. Time to do yoga, to write, and time to just rest, sipping tea, and gazing out the window into the snowy day. This is what we needed — not a flight to sunny spot, not a run for the border, just some quiet, uncommitted time. We are thankful to have had it because tomorrow we will suit up, grab our bags, and head back into our work.

We are breathing fresh air, our bodies are restored, and we are ready to greet our students and colleagues.

Buckle up, kids, here I come!

I will refresh the weary and satisfy the faint.

Jeremiah 31:25

Teacher Tired

Click the arrow to listen to me read this post.

It was a long first quarter.

We started school on September 7 and went straight through without a break. Outside of a week and a half of virtual instruction due to a high number of Covid cases, we were in the building with our students, following Covid protocols, managing the movements of a few hundred teenagers who are struggling to re-acclimate to the structures of school, and — oh, yeah — trying to provide high quality instruction.

Then, this past week was extra busy.

Monday, I drove home after school to log on to a short informational meeting about a Social-Emotional Learning pilot program we are starting next week. Would I be willing to be a participating instructor? Tuesday, I left school early so that I could be home for an online training from 3:30-5:00. Then, Wednesday, when we see all of our classes on a shortened schedule of seven forty-minute periods, we stayed late for in-person parent-teacher conferences. The school provided pizza and salad at 2pm, then we stationed ourselves at tables in the gym, and met with parents to discuss their students’ progress.

I had arrived at school at 7:30am; I left the building at 6:15 pm.

Thursday, I was up at 5 to do my morning routine, wanting to be in the right headspace before I taught three 100-minute blocks. I arrived at school at my usual 7:30 and was making last-minute preparations in my classroom when I saw my principal at my classroom door.

“Rathje, let me talk to you for a minute,” she said, as she pulled two other colleagues from across the hall to join us. “I just want to let you know,” she said, “that tomorrow we will be virtual. Be sure to take everything you need with you tonight. We won’t be back in the building until after Thanksgiving.”

“That’s amazing!” I blurted, and I kind of surprised myself. I have so loved being back with the students. We have learned more together in one quarter of in-person instruction than we learned in the whole of last year. I know every face and every name. I’m familiar with personalities, quirks, strengths, and challenges. I can anticipate which class is going to be a challenge to keep awake and which class is going to be a challenge to keep in their seats, on-task, and engaged.

If I love it so much, why was I so happy to be going virtual for the last day before the break? Because I was exhausted.

I’m not the only one. Teachers across the country are wiped out. We knew this year would be challenging, but we could not have know what all would be entailed. We knew that we would be re-acclimating students to schedules, to classrooms, to mask-wearing, and to seven-hour school days, but I’m not sure we fully pictured the volatility of emotions we would see in a school full of teenagers who have lived through the multiple traumas of a pandemic — how quick these kids would be to lash out, to cry, to completely check out. We knew in-person teaching, talking through a mask for the full day, would be a different kind of tired, but I, for one, never imagined that we would be short-staffed for the entire first quarter. Could I have guessed that my prep periods would sometimes be used to cover the class of another teacher? that we would fully employ not one but two building substitutes? that other schools would be cold-calling teachers on our staff, enticing them away with signing bonuses, higher pay, and grass that is much, much greener than ours?

Not even a little bit.

And though we started the year hoping and praying that Covid was winding down, officials are now saying that Michigan is in the “fourth surge” of the pandemic that “could last 4-5 months” (Fox 2 Detroit).

Teaching under these circumstances is stressful, and we are tired, folks. Teachers are tired.

So tired, in fact, that Detroit Public Schools have determined to be virtual every Friday in the month of December.

In a special announcement on the district’s website, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the decision was made “after listening and reflecting on the concerns of school-based leaders, teachers, support staff, students, and families regarding the need for mental health relief, rising COVID cases, and time to more thoroughly clean schools.” CBS Detroit.

School leaders are getting creative in order to hear the concerns of teachers and respond so that they can hang on to the ones that they still have. Our school, for example, announced before the school year began that they were issuing retention bonuses to all returning staff — the longer you’ve been on staff, the higher the bonus. Then, last week, they announced a mid-year pay bump for all staff, paid out in two installments over the coming months. Additionally, to discourage absenteeism, our school leaders offered a raffle wherein each teacher receives an entry for each day they attend and those with perfect attendance receive 25 bonus entries. Next week during our two professional development days, three names will be drawn, and winners will receive $100, $40, or $25. To build collegiality and team spirit, our building principal initiated a team-based contest — daily challenges encourage teacher teams to complete tasks, take photos, and share them in our group chat, earning points toward a team prize.

Do teachers need all of this? Yes, we need every bit of it.

Teaching is not easy. For each 100-minute block with my students, I spend at least that much time in intellectual preparation, thinking about behavioral strategies to increase engagement and decrease undesirable behaviors, procuring incentives, meeting with other staff, attending professional development, and myriad other tasks. That’s in a normal year.

This year, we’ve had the added stress of Covid. In the beginning of the year, some students needed daily assurance that it was indeed safe to sit next to peers, masked, for an entire class period, and that we were doing everything we could to stop the spread. Other students (and some staff) needed constant reminders to keep their mask over their nose and mouth throughout the school day. All teachers have had to keep seating charts to enable contact-tracing when students test positive, which has happened continuously since school started. Then, when students are quarantining, teachers have the added load of making sure all assignments are posted online and that students who return to school having done no school work at all get caught back up. And perhaps the most stressful for me have been the almost daily group chats informing staff how many teachers, behaviorists, or administrators will be out for the day, because any time a team is down one man, the rest of the team has a larger load to carry, and sometimes we’ve been down four, or five or six staff members on a single day.

It’s been stressful, to be sure, but let me reiterate that I love my job. I seriously do. I believe that most teachers who are still showing up, still standing, still delivering instruction to their students, and still opening their doors before school or during lunch so that students can drop in desperately love their students. They drive home thinking about how a lesson went well or how it tanked. They lie awake at night creating new strategies for content delivery. They write long blog posts sharing what’s going on so that others will care about their kids, too.

And while certainly the public is aware that teachers have a hard job and that teachers are essential to our communities and society as a whole, it seems that rather than offering support, encouragement, or suggestions that might lighten the load, public discussion about education often misses the point. Before this school year started the public was up in arms about the alleged insidious introduction of Critical Race Theory into the curriculum and whether or not schools had the right to issue mask mandates. These discussions and the enflamed and politically-charged emotion around them did nothing to improve the actual day-to-day experience of teachers, let alone students. The problems in eduction aren’t that easy to solve.

Problems in education are complex and often grow out of inadequate funding, inequitable resources, and societal systems that need to be restructured because they are outdated, ineffective, and designed for an economy, a culture, that no longer exists. Nevertheless, teachers continue to show up to buildings in need of repair, to use materials that are out of date, and to give what they have for children that they care about. And we need them to.

We’ve been moving toward a teacher shortage for years, and Covid has exacerbated the problem. The teachers who are left in classrooms want to be there, but they won’t stay unless they are given what they need — community support, parental cooperation, adequate pay, and the kind of respite that comes from a Friday of virtual learning, a week off at Thanksgiving, and two more at Christmas. Teachers need us to acknowledge that the load is heavier than anyone thought, that continuing to teach and learn in the wake of widespread trauma is taxing, and that we don’t know what in the world we would do if every last teacher woke up tomorrow morning and said, “That’s it. I can’t do this any more.”

I’m not anywhere near that breaking point. I’m still glowing with joy over the fact that I get to be back in the classroom. However, countless teachers are standing on the edge, wondering how many more times they can show up for our kids. If you know teacher, even if he or she seems to be doing just fine, grab them a cup of coffee, a bottle of wine, or a dinner out. Let them know you appreciate the work they are doing. You just might get them through to Christmas.

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due when it is in your power to act.

Proverbs 3:27