A Limit Exists

Please forgive morning voice if you choose to click the arrow above.

Eight years ago, I closed up my classroom, thinking I would never go back. I was sidelined due to chronic health issues, and I was headed for the couch. For six years — yes, years — I attended to my recovery, slowly crawling my way back, Then, in the wake of the George Floyd murder, I found the courage to believe I might still be able to make a difference in the lives of kids, and I started applying to high schools in Detroit.

When I took my current teaching position two years ago, it was an experiment. My husband and I, knowing how ill I had been, decided I should give it a full year to see how my body managed the stress. My heart was very willing to provide excellent instruction to historically underserved students, but we had no idea if my body could handle it.

For the first year, my body did just fine. We taught the entire year over Zoom, so the physical toll on my body was actually quite minimal. I would drive to the school in the morning, zoom with students for a little over an hour, stand and stretch, do another hour, go for a lunch time walk, teach one more class, then drive home. On alternating days, I had time for planning and grading. In the world of teaching, this load was light. Compared to other situations during Covid, where teachers had both live children in the classroom and students zooming in from home — my load was extremely light, and I knew it.

At the end of last school year, my husband and I remarked that my body had handled the transition and the new environment well, but it had not been a true test of whether or not I could handle full time teaching. We wouldn’t know that until I taught in-person classes with real, live students.

That is what I have been doing this year. I have driven to Detroit, met my students at my classroom door, and managed their learning, their emotions, their behaviors, their interruptions, their questions, and their concerns, along with my own inside an environment that is mostly consistent but that frequently has unexpected interruptions — a fight among students, a quick transition to virtual instruction, a building in need of repairs, or an immediate shifting of plans due to staffing issues. Much to my students’ dismay, I have taken only one day off this year because I have been healthy and energized, and my passion for bringing high quality education to my students has not waned.

I have written curriculum, contacted parents, attended meetings, collaborated with colleagues, and attended events. I have been stern, silly, serious, and — on occasion– sarcastic. I have fist-bumped, high-fived, hugged, and danced with my students, and for the most part, my body has come along for the ride.

I have been thrilled, in fact, by my stamina, and I have credited this phenomena to the years I have spent learning to care for my body, to the team that keeps me well, to the yoga I practice every morning and the walks I take with my buddy at lunch time, to my dietary choices, to my writing routine, and mostly to the grace of God. I have been riding the wave all year thinking, “Man, I was really ready! I am doing good in the classroom! I am not finding any limits to my ability to be effective here!”

But, friends, it turns out that, contrary to Cady Heron and the laws of math, the limit does indeed exist.

I mean, I knew it did, that’s why my husband and I don’t make excessive plans on the weekends but instead schedule lots of recovery time — time for rest, writing, reading — so that my body can repair. We don’t make a ton of plans – we don’t have a lot of people over, we go out with others only sparingly, and our idea of entertainment is streaming something from the comfort of our own couch. We do this because one thing we have learned since the beginning of this journey is that my body needs loads of rest.

I got plenty of rest all last year when we were teaching virtually. This year, too, since we moved back and forth between in person and virtual instruction at fairly regular intervals, my load was intermittently lightened. My body continued to be fine.

When we returned to school on May 2, after being at home for over a month and began the home stretch, I was operating under the false assumption that I would be able to manage the end of school and all the activities involved in the life of seniors and their teachers without any consequences. In fact, I was so confident that we also fit in dinners out with friends, a couple trips out of town, and a speaking engagement in addition to my teaching responsibilities which included leading a training session, attending prom, being present for a parent meeting, and helping with graduation.

And, as you might have guessed, I discovered that I do indeed have a limit.

What happens when I’ve crossed that limit? The warnings signs are subtle; I get a little snippy with a student, a coworker, or my spouse. I wake up feeling heat radiating beneath my skin, especially around my joints. A nagging pressure forms behind my left eye. I get a headache.

If I notice these warning signs, take a little Motrin, put my feet up, attend to some self-care rituals, and sleep, I can avoid larger consequences. But when you think you are invincible, you aren’t really looking for warning signs. So, you just keep stepping, kicking the occasional butt, taking the occasional name, and then out of nowhere, you overreact to an inconvenience or a miscommunication.You start to cry in the middle of a song or while listening to a sermon. You sleep 10 hours and wake up feeling nauseous, like you’d better not move or you will surely throw up.

And it all comes back — remember that time when you had to leave your career because you kept stepping instead of heeding the warning signs and taking care of yourself? Remember all those months you sat on a couch watching Law and Order because you did not even have enough gas in the tank to meet a friend for lunch? You wanna go back there?

No. I certainly do not.

I was built to teach, and I love working in the environment I have found myself in. I do not want to go back.

So, what’s the answer?

I have just over one week left before my summer break starts — a summer break where I will rest, garden, travel, see family and friends, and do a little bit of school work before I head back next fall. I’ll have a slightly lighter teaching load next year, but I will have a student teacher, I’m participating in a fellowship, and I will be facilitating reading interventions for a small group of students.

Yes, it does indeed sound like a lot.

Is it over my limit?

I don’t think so — not if I remember that there is indeed a limit. Not if I remember to take care of myself. Not if I remember that this privilege can disappear if I am not diligent about maintaining boundaries, taking rest, and lifting up the things I cannot manage to the One who indeed has no limits.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

Matthew 11:28

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

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

Coronavirus Diary #21: Tales told in School

Click the arrow to listen, or read on.

Last Monday morning, I logged into my Zoom room around 8:25am — my senior English class starts at 8:30. I was checking my online grade book for attendance, cuing up my Google slideshow, and verifying that all my other visual aids were loaded and ready to go when my ‘doorbell’ rang and I noticed that Kelvin* was waiting to come in. I clicked the ‘admit’ button and watched my screen to see his window open.

“Good morning, Kelvin, how are you?” I said.

“I’m good,” he answered.

“Nice to see you.”

“Nice to see you, too.”

“Did you have a good weekend?” I asked, hoping that he would engage in conversation with me, trying to build relationship in this virtual space.

“Yeah, it was good. Do you have Ciara* in your class, too?”

“Yes — next hour.”

“She won’t be here today,” he said.

“Oh?” I answered, looking into the screen.

“Yeah, we had our baby this weekend, so she won’t be able to come to class.”

“You did? Congratulations!” I had known that Ciara was expecting, but I had not been aware that Kelvin was, too.

He held up his phone to his Chromebook camera so that I could barely make out a photo of a baby.

“Aw! So sweet! Are Ciara and the baby doing well?”

“Yeah, they’re doing good.”

“That’s great.” I said, and then the doorbell rang, I allowed the next student in, and we were on with the class — one young man, sitting in his bedroom, looking at a photo on his phone and me teaching the group how to present their research by creating a Google slide. Despite the fact that one student’s life changed forever over the weekend, we still have to move forward with the rest of the class.

If we were in a physical space, I’d have probably hunted down Kelvin later in the day — invited him to come have lunch in my room, given him one of the many gifts I have stockpiled for such an occasion, or just patted him on the back and encouraged him to take care of that baby. But we aren’t in a physical space — all I have are the moments that students choose to log in to my Zoom room. That’s it.

Me in my Zoom Room.

Ciara emailed me on Wednesday afternoon.

“I am sorry I have not been in class this week. I had my baby over the weekend, but I want to know what I missed so that I can get caught up.”

“Congratulations, Ciara! I hope you and the baby are doing well. If you are up to coming to class tomorrow morning, I can help you get caught up. Or, you could come to my office hours on Friday afternoon — whichever works better for you. Take care of yourself.”

“Thank you, I will do that.”

And the next morning, at 10:00am, she joined my class.

I’ve been watching Ciara all fall, ever since I called her mom during the first week of class to introduce myself, to let her know what our class would be focusing on, and to make note of the fact that Ciara wasn’t always turning her camera on when she joined the Zoom room. Her mom told me that Ciara was expecting and that she was working long hours at McDonald’s after school, so she often just woke up in the morning, turned on her laptop, and joined the Zoom room from bed. She didn’t want to take the time to get cleaned up, do her hair, and present herself for inspection.

I was stunned, of course. It was September, and although we weren’t yet in the third wave of the pandemic like we are now, the risk was still very real. And yet this young woman was going to work at a McDonald’s every day, seven months pregnant, so that she could earn some money to manage her very real impending responsibilities.

I’ve continued to watch Ciara, as she’s shown up to class, completed her assignments, and joined our virtual college visits every Wednesday. Not only does she join these visits, but she routinely asks college representatives if they offer family housing on their campuses because she is planning to bring her baby with her when she comes to college. This girl has a plan, and she impresses me.

And she’s not the only student who impresses me. My students live in Detroit, are surviving a pandemic, and are facing unprecedented stress and uncertainty, yet they keep showing up.

Some show up intermittently. I talked to a parent of one of my students last week. She’s concerned about her son. He has “changed ever since the pandemic started.” He wants to stay in his room. He doesn’t want to talk. He’s failing his classes.

He’s not alone. Many students — and, let’s be honest, adults — are struggling with depression. Many feel isolated — they are struggling financially, they have struggled with their health, they have lost loved ones, and nothing feels right. Why would they care about school at a time like this?

I asked the parent if she would mind if the school social worker reached out to her, and she answered, “I’m looking for any help I can get.” At my suggestion and her insistence, her son joined my office hours the next day. He and I worked through some assignments, restored his grade to passing, and got to know each other a little. Before he logged off, he said, “Thank you. I appreciate it.”

“It’s my pleasure,” I replied. He has no idea how pleased I am to bear witness to his journey and the journeys of all of my students.

Early this week, one of my students, Kyla*, asked if she could come to my office hours. She didn’t need help, she just wanted to be “in” my Zoom room while she did her work. She asked only a couple quick questions as she sat in my Zoom room for 90 minutes, working on her assignment and chatting with another student she convinced to join her.

On Thursday, Kyla logged into class and said, “Mrs. Rathje, I just want to let you know that we are having a family emergency, so if I need to leave, I will let you know in the chat.”

“Ok, thank you for letting me know. Are you ok?”

“Yes. I’m ok.”

“Alright, just keep me posted.”

“Ok, thank you.”

Near the end of the hour, she private chatted me that she had to go to the hospital to see her mother who sounded like she was in critical condition. I told her thank you for letting me know and that she could reach out if she needed to.

Then on Friday, the last day of school before a week-long break, she joined my office hours again, just to get some work done, like she did before. I chatted with her a bit, to see how she was doing, you know, making small talk.

And that is when I found out that since early in the week, this seventeen year old has been home alone with her two dogs. Her mom has been in intensive care, and she hasn’t been allowed to visit because she’s only 17 and we’re in the middle of a pandemic. She said she’s been taking care of the house and the dogs and that she put up the Christmas tree because Christmas means a lot to her mom and she wanted to do something nice for her.

These are my students — the kind of students who become parents on Saturday and then show up for school on Monday, the kind of kids who go out in the middle of a pandemic to make fast food because they need to earn money, the kind of kids who show up for help when it’s the last thing they want to do, the kind of kids who, while staying home alone because their only parent is in the hospital, find a way to have an adult in the room while they do their homework.

They are the future — these kids. They are building muscle and resiliency that will serve them for years to come, and they need us. They need us to show up five minutes early in a Zoom room, to hold after school office hours, to call their parents when things don’t seem right, and to respond to their emails and give them options for how to manage their responsibilities.

And that’s what I get to do every day — show up and do what I can to encourage these amazing students.

It is truly my pleasure to do so.

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

Proverbs 3:27

*All student names have been changed, of course.

Trying to be Kind

Always try to be kind to each other.

I Thessalonians 5:15

It’s really not hard — being kind.

It’s not.

For some of you, this is not a revelation. You’ve been being kind to others since your kindergarten teacher expected you to share and take turns: “First Johny gets to use the swing, then when he’s done, Susie can have a turn.”

Some of you said, “Oh, I get it!” and you went on to patiently stand in line at the drinking fountain, to raise your hand and speak only when the teacher called on you, to say “Please, may I borrow the stapler,” and “thank you for holding the door,” from that time forward.

You invited people to play kickball at recess, you put your arm around a friend who skinned her knee, you loaned a pencil to the boy who sat next to you, and brought an extra cookie in your lunch bag for a friend.

But some of us — some of us — lost our way.

Sure, we could wait for the swing, but when we got our turn, we stayed swinging a little too long. We didn’t care about those in line behind us and perhaps even found pleasure in making them wait. We blurted out our answers in class, talked over others, and pushed our way to the front of all the lines.

We had the answers, after all. We were strong, and we were right. We knew where we were going and what we were doing; why shouldn’t we lead? Why wouldn’t we speak? Why couldn’t we take charge?

It’s not that we were trying to be mean; we were just not trying to be kind.

We were doing what we knew how to do: answer the questions, get what we needed, take control of the situation.

But we weren’t always kind.

I, for one, confess to sometimes being downright mean. I’ve laughed at the expense of others and taken more than my fair share — of popcorn, of opportunity, of oxygen. I’ve been sarcastic, vindictive, and careless. I’ve shot off my mouth, sent daggers with my eyes, and literally shoved and swatted to get my own way.

When I could’ve — should’ve — been kind.

And when, after years of pushing through, overpowering, and taking more than my fair share, I was knocked down, benched, and sidelined, I sat there stunned, hurting, and unable to continue.

And what did I find? People who were kind. They showed up, called, sent flowers and food, listened, and cried with me.

And do you know what happened? I softened. I slowed. I began to discover myself being kind — finding space and time for others, sliding over, sharing my popcorn, shutting up, and listening.

It’s really not hard.

I find it quite interesting that the last two professional positions I’ve held have been with organizations that prioritize (even demand) kindness.

When I was hired by Lindamood-Bell, I was stunned by the celebratory and kind culture that I found myself working in. (I wrote about it here.) After having spent several months on the bench, luxuriating in the kindness of newly found friends, I found myself working in an environment where I was expected to practice kindness, positivity, and praise.

I’d lost my way through years of soldiering on, fighting my way through, doing what I knew how to do to make myself heard, get what I needed, and take control of the situation, and I was being given an opportunity to find my way back.

And I did find my way back. While working at Lindamood-Bell, my world crumbled apart. My family was in tatters, and I was lying amid the wreckage, wounded and weeping. I would drag myself out of bed, shower and dress, and autopilot my way into work, to find my colleagues cheering and supporting, offering gifts of tea and chocolate, extending a tissue for my tears, and rallying behind me as I healed. They modeled kindness for me and provided the space — and the expectation — for me to share that kindness to my students and coworkers. They helped me find my way back.

And now — now! — I find myself with Equity Education whose entire mission is to extend kindness to those who have been overlooked and marginalized. They do that by using a model called the No-nonsense Nurturer (NNN), which “empowers teachers to establish a positive classroom culture in which all students are set up to succeed.” Before I even entered the classroom, I received hours and hours of training in this framework which was then modeled throughout two solid weeks of collaborative professional development.

The NNN framework sets clear expectations and provides supports for students (and their teachers) to meet those expectations. It provides reinforcement for those who meet the expectations and firm but kind redirection for those who don’t. NNN is not focused on a few students getting what they need and rising to the top; no — its aim is to get 100% of students in every class meeting expectations that will lead to their academic — and later professional — success. It’s not for the few who would talk over the others and push and claw their way to the top. No, it’s for all. And any strategy that is focused on the achievement, the success, the well-being of all, is going to require kindness, patience, and encouragement.

Those who struggle won’t “step up their game” if they are brow-beaten and humiliated, but they will get off the bench and get back in the game when they are shown kindness — when others come beside them, encourage them, provide them tea and chocolate, tissue for their tears, and the practical and emotional support they need to take another swing.

When I was knocked down, no one shook their finger at me and told me that if I’d just tried harder I wouldn’t have ended up in that difficult situation. No one told me it was my own fault or judged me for landing on the couch, doubled over and in distress.

No, they extended kindness.

On Friday, I was in a Zoom Room with two freshmen. One shows up on time every single day with her work done and her questions ready. The other is late every time, has a young cousin raucously playing in the same room, has adults yelling in the background, and often needs me to repeat directions, support his work, and allow him extra time. I could take a hard line approach — I could say, “You’re late! Why isn’t your assignment done? Can’t you find a quieter room to work in? Come on, you need to catch up!” But wouldn’t it be just as easy to say, “I’m so glad you are here. Show me what you have. What do you need? How can I support you?”

Which way do you picture will yield the best results?

See? It’s not hard.

This lesson doesn’t need to stay in the classroom, does it? All around us are people waiting in line, crying on couches, and struggling to find the space to learn and to grow. It’s pretty easy to step aside, to let someone in, to offer a hand, to lend an ear, to encourage, to cheer… to be kind.

You want to go back to the classroom? Now?

I keep hearing this question (even if it’s sometimes left unsaid): Why would I leave a perfectly decent job to go back to the classroom? why now — in the middle of a pandemic?

It’s a great question, and the most honest answer I have is that, if it weren’t for the pandemic, I don’t know if I would be going back to the classroom.

After two and a half years at Lindamood-Bell, I was finally learning all the ropes, and I had finally been granted the opportunity to work with the Lindamood-Bell for Schools program in its partnership with the Fort Smith, Arkansas schools. I’d been learning to use Zoom to join a teacher and her class to provide instructional coaching and in-the-moment changes to instructional plans, and I was loving this collaboration. It was reasonable to expect that if I stayed with the company I would be able to do more of this kind of work, and I was excited about that. Also, I had a solid caseload of students (and their families) who I’d been working with for a couple of years — designing and implementing instruction and even collaborating with the schools these students attended. I was finding a way to use my years of experience and to continue to grow.

The pay was fine, the work was challenging, and my body, which had rebelled in my former life as teacher, administrator, mother, wife, and denier of emotions, seemed to be able to manage the pace and the stress.

I really had no serious intention of pursuing anything different.

And then, in mid-March, it became apparent that we were going to take all of our equipment and materials home and we were going to work remotely until further notice. This was actually fine, too. In fact, Lindamood-Bell, I felt, did a great job of getting us all home, digitizing all of our resources, and providing (ahead of any mandates) additional sick time and vacation time. I probably could’ve continued to work with students remotely — from my home office — indefinitely.

Like everyone, I shifted my lifestyle — wore more comfortable clothing (which I lovingly refer to as my Covid uniform), went for more walks, cooked more meals to eat at home, and watched more television including the daily news reports.

I (like most quarantined humans) watched George Floyd die, and it looked too much like watching Michael Brown dying. I saw Ahmaud Arbery get gunned down, and he looked like people I know. I saw Rayshard Brooks shift from a man who’d fallen asleep in his car, to a man aware that his life was in jeopardy, to a dead man through the lens of someone’s cell phone, and I was horrified by the world we are living in — where in the space of a few weeks we repeatedly bore witness to the senseless killing of black men — black men who didn’t have to die.

Night after night my husband and I watched news reports and protests; every day I saw friends, former students, and my own children, posting on social media and reminding me that this is not new. Senseless deaths, not to mention broad and systemic mistreatment, of people of color happen every day in the United States, and they’ve been happening since the first slaves were dragged off boats onto the shores of this sweet land of liberty and beaten if they did not do the work that their white masters demanded they do.

In many ways, a white police officer kneeling on the neck of a black man, smiling toward the camera, is just one more slave owner demanding that the black man do what he says or pay the price and be punished within the gaze of all the other slaves so that they will know their place and learn to comply.

In this climate I was sitting in my home office every day, meeting with students, doing interventions that enable them to read, chatting with their parents about how they are coping during a pandemic with all the kids at home, trying to get their own work done, and wondering when things will go back to normal.

And I knew that I didn’t want things to go back to normal — not if normal means that some kids get safe schools with excellent resources that set them up for success while other kids (for not fault of their own) get substandard materials, ill-prepared teachers, and less access to a quality education, while white folks who commit crimes often get the benefit of the doubt and minimum sentences and black folks who commit crimes often end up dead or incarcerated far longer than is necessary or humane.

The disparity between schools that are predominantly white and those that are predominantly black is not a new revelation to me — I’ve been aware of these inequities since long before I taught for one measly semester in the St. Louis, Missouri public schools, but somehow being quarantined during Covid, working every day with students who have been given every resource, and then being barraged by data about the inequities (a substantially higher incidence of Covid and deaths related to Covid among people of color, the number of underfunded and understaffed schools in urban centers like Detroit), along with a resurgence of activism, especially among young people including my own children, my coworkers, and many former students, created an atmosphere in which I saw the opportunity I had to step in.

Meanwhile, many teachers are feeling the need to leave the profession because of Covid — they feel they are unsafe in the classroom, that their communities are asking them to risk too much, that they can’t afford to put their loved ones in danger — and I don’t blame them. These are valid concerns. And if you’ve been in the classroom for years or decades and you are already tired, and you feel unappreciated because you are underpaid, under-resourced, and under-valued by your administration, your students’ parents, and your community, then being asked to go into a crowded space for up to eight hours a day, five days a week in the middle of a pandemic just might be the last straw.

So why — why? — would I willingly put my name in the hat?

Because as dark as everything seems right now, I hold onto hope that this just might be the time for major change. Covid-19 might be providing us an opportunity to see — really see — racism, societal inequities, broken systems, and unjust practices. Because we’ve had to shut so many things down, we might be able to see different ways of doing things — ways to incorporate working from home, digital platforms, and content-sharing so that every American kid can have access to all the content and resources that are available in all the best districts. We can begin to imagine scenarios in which one highly qualified teacher in New York City, for example, provides a webinar on the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, which students across the country and around the world can stream at a time that works best for them, submit a reflection to a digital discussion board, and then work collaboratively with other students from different neighborhoods, states, and even countries, to create a YouTube video to link to the original webinar for sharing with countless other students. Imagine how that experience might connect students to one another and impact their view of the world, themselves, and each other!

How might we re-shape education so that the neighborhood you live in, the color of your skin, and your parents’ income doesn’t determine your access to high quality content and educational experiences? Is Covid-19 providing us the space and the perspective to do this?

I think it might be!

Now, do I think I am going to single-handedly change the American educational system. You know I’m gonna try, but realistically, systems that are as established as our school system (or our prisons, or our government) don’t change quickly. In fact, if they have any hope of changing, they need the investment of participants whose voices are unafraid to offer new ideas, to challenge long-held beliefs, and to believe that things can be better.

And I believe they can.

So that’s why I want to go back to the classroom right now in the middle of a global pandemic.

If not now, then when? If not me, then who?

The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.

Psalm 103:6

Note: If you’d like to support my classroom and the work that I will do this year either in that classroom or from my home office, I am currently collecting composition books (one per student to start), highlighters (a set of three — yellow, pink, blue for each student), index cards for vocabulary work, and other classroom supplies. As soon as I get my school-issued email address, I will be posting a link for those who would like to support from a distance. Thank you so much for following me on my journey in this next chapter.

Facing Change

I don’t want to brag or make it seem like I’m an expert on change, but here are the facts:

Before I graduated high school, I had lived in six homes (ok, I only remember four of them). During and after college, I lived in nine locations (counting separate dorms). Since we’ve been married, we’ve had eleven homes. You might call me a moving expert, because I was Marie Kondo-ing way before Marie Kondo was a thing.

I’ve gone to two elementary schools, one middle school, one high school, two colleges for undergrad (transferring after freshman year), and have taken graduate courses at three universities.

Not counting babysitting, I’ve held at least 25, yes twenty-five, jobs in my life, and I’m sure I’m overlooking some gig-work like that one summer that my stepfather got me an “opportunity” handing out samples in the deli of the grocery store that he managed.

I’ve walked into plenty of new situations, and I’ve learned a few things along the way.

First, I always come with the gusto: This is gonna be great! Imagine all the possibilities! Won’t it be fun? I am at that point a glass-hall-full-and-expecting-more kind of girl. I come on full speed and give it my all. (Exhibit A: I’ve already organized and alphabetized my newly-forming classroom library, and I’m not even in my classroom yet.)

Because I come in with so much enthusiasm, I have been known to overlook critical details, such as, I don’t know, the fact that the people in my life are also feeling the shift of change and they might not be as enthusiastic as I am. My daughter recently reminded me that when we uprooted our family and moved to St. Louis, my husband and I full of gusto and optimism, our children were reeling with grief, anger, and fear. They were not thrilled to be clinging tightly to the flying capes of their superhero parents. They just wanted us to stop and hold them, which I will graciously remind myself that we did from time to time, but we were, I’m afraid, quick to resume our flight — to conquer our mission and save the day.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that I quickly adapt to culture and expectations. In a new setting, I will likely watch quietly for a few days or weeks, until I see how “we do things around here,” but once I have the lay of the land, I bring myself to that situation in the truest way that I can. I remember the faculty retreat where I met my coworkers at Lutheran North. We were at a camp about an hour away from the school, all in shorts and tennis shoes. We gathered for the morning in a conference room to “talk business,” but after lunch we made our way to a challenge course complete with a zip line. Since it was my first day or two with this community, I was in that ‘quietly watching’ phase of entry, so when my team (people I’d never met before!) needed to lift me over a chest-high obstacle, I let them, and when they asked me if I would like to climb a rock wall and do the zip line, activities which I would under normal circumstances politely (or not so politely) decline, I said ok, I would do it. I was trying to go with the flow and figure out the culture, so I went out of my comfort zone and wouldn’t you know, I climbed that wall and zipped that line, and I felt great! These early successes, and others like them, gave me confidence to take some other chances with that group that would soon become family. I thrived at Lutheran North, where I became a leader, and my team embraced me in my truest form which is always honest (sometimes to a fault), often loud, and frequently emotional.

I came into my experience at Lindamood-Bell much more quietly. Illness had sucked the confidence out of me, and the intentionally positive and congratulatory environment of the company culture seemed, although very welcoming, quite foreign. The first two weeks I sat in a room with a coworker (who was my first on-the-job bonus kid) learning the programs, quietly taking notes, and reluctantly participating in role plays. The job was very scripted to start, and I was thankful! Because I was still visibly struggling with autoimmune disease, my gusto was suppressed; I was happy to have clear expectations and structure. I wouldn’t have to lead in this position, well, not at first…not until I was much stronger.

Yes, I come in with gusto, I quietly learn the culture, and then I am who I am.

At Lutheran North, my students called me Momma Ratch. Two of my own children were students at the school, and though while they were in my class, they were students first and treated as such, they were also my children, who rode in my vehicle, dropped by my classroom for a snack, needed to be driven home when they were ill or forgot their running shoes, and invited their classmates to our home. My students who were not my children, saw me in my role as teacher and my role as mother. They came to understand that I was imperfect in both roles, but that I continued to show up and try. They could come to my room with difficulty or to share celebration. They could borrow a few dollars or raid my stash of feminine supplies without asking. I had a stockpile of notebooks, folders, pens, and books in my room that I collected each year when students cleaned out their lockers. Anyone in the school knew they could come get what they needed no questions asked. I had firm and high academic and behavioral expectations, but I also learned what I could let go, what I could negotiate, and what really didn’t matter much at all.

At Lindamood-Bell, my coworkers called me Momma K. This probably started because I am the age of the mothers of all of my coworkers. They are almost all in their twenties (the age of my children), and though I didn’t always feel like it, particularly in the beginning, I think they have valued my experience, my perspective, my age. Often, it was me who was asking them for support, for encouragement, for understanding, as I navigated some of the most difficult years of my life. They were mostly oblivious to the grief that I was carrying, but it seeped out in moments of unprofessionalism. I would snap in a moment of frustration or glare at a coworker who told me something I didn’t want to hear. Yet, they, too, accepted me for who I am, and even celebrated me. In fact, the culture of Lindamood-Bell, the clapping, the parties, the dancing and balloons, reminded me of the importance of celebration, of noticing small victories and big ones even (and especially) in the midst of grief and transition. My coworkers dress up in wigs and hot dog costumes on a Wednesday just to make learning more fun. They hide pictures of Guy Fieri inside a closet to surprise you and make you laugh. They help kids set a trap of plastic spiders to scare you when you walk into a room. They cry because you are leaving, but send you off with books for your new classroom, a gluten-free cookie for the road, and a bottle of Malbec for your next celebration.

As I’m gathering my gusto to walk into Detroit Leadership Academy I want to be mindful of those around me who in the midst of Covid-19 and all its uncertainties might not be feeling as enthusiastic as I am; I want to be sure I stop and attend to the needs of others instead of just powering through. I know I’ll take the confidence and flexibility I found at Lutheran North and the kindness and celebration I learned at Lindamood-Bell. I’ll walk in quietly, even though I’ve already stocked my closet with teacher wear and powerful shoes. This is a brand new culture, and I want to see how “we do things around here” before I find the expression of myself that will work best for these kids, these coworkers, this school, this season.

As in every other change I’ve navigated over my fifty-plus years, I know I am going to learn at DLA — I don’t know what yet, but if the lessons I learn are even half as impactful as the lessons I’ve learned at Lutheran North and Lindamood-Bell, I know I’ll be changed forever.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

Joshua 1:9

Note: If you are in or near Ann Arbor and have surplus school supplies: notebooks, pens, folders, index cards, feminine supplies, etc. I would be happy to take them off your hands and put them in my new classroom so that students can come and take what they need no questions asked.

The Choice: Changing Course, pt. 5

For the past two weeks, I’ve been chronicling my decision to leave the position I’ve held for the past two and a half years to go back to the classroom — a move I thought I wouldn’t be able to make again. For the back story, you can read the following posts: Prepared for What’s Next, But Wait There’s More, Ready, and Getting Here.

Let’s see, where did we leave off — oh yes, the decision.

How do you make a decision that will potentially alter the course of your life? When presented with one option that is familiar, safe, and consistent, and two others that, while being exactly what you’ve been asking for, represent the unknown.

First, you pray. And for me, that means writing. I’ve filled a spiral notebook during this process that started sometime after Memorial Day with that conversation with my husband in the kitchen, which prompted applications, which turned into phone calls, which turned into interviews, which turned into offers. As I page through my notebook, I see lists of questions for interviewers (would you describe the culture of the school? what curriculum do you use?), I see brainstorming for how education might be restructured post-Covid (what if we shifted the schedule entirely? more broadly utilized technology? forever adjusted class size?), I see feelings about diving into something new (it’ll be amazing, I’m terrified, what if I can’t manage? what if I thrive?), and I see my processing of everything else I was managing throughout that process — my current students and their needs, a temporary health issue that flared up (of course) in the midst of the added stress, and plans to connect with family and friends. Within all the lines I wrote is a groaning, a pleading: Lord, I lift it up to you. What would you have me do? Will you guide my steps? Will you keep me from taking on too much? Will you show me the right fit? Will you provide for my current students if/when I choose to leave? Will you show me how to balance my love for my family and friends with my love for teaching? Will you show me how to give my best without giving my all?

And as I wrote and prayed, I continued through the process.

The first phone call came quickly — perhaps a day or two after I submitted the first round of applications. I had plugged in my headphones and headed out on my lunchtime walk when my phone began to ring. I looked — it was a Detroit area code. My heart sped up. The questions came — did I know this was an inner city, low income school? Did I feel comfortable teaching in such an environment? What were my salary requirements? In other words, was I sure I wanted an interview? Yes, I was sure.

In the next day or two, I had a preliminary video chat with that school, let’s call it School #1, and an informational session with another agency, let’s call it Agency #1, that places teachers in low income schools in several locations across the country. This non-profit organization obtains grants to fund training on equity, inclusion, and classroom management strategies, which they provide to teachers who are then placed in these schools. I was interested in both School #1 and Agency #1 and signaled my desire to move forward with both.

Soon after, I had a second video interview with School #1, this time with the head of instruction, who was similar to me in age and experience, and who articulated the philosophy of the school and some of the initiatives they were working on. She didn’t mince words, and neither did I. That’s the beauty of being 50-something; I feel the freedom to clearly articulate who I am from the start, because I want to make sure I get a good fit. So when she told me that they are working on rebuilding school culture, I asked what does that look like? how are you setting school climate? do you utilize police or safety officers? what are your priorities in terms of curriculum? how do you view your role in racial justice work?

Maybe that same day, or the day after, I had a preliminary video interview with Agency #1. This was a little different. I was given five minutes to introduce myself, share my journey in education, and communicate why I was interested in this particular agency’s work.

As you can imagine, simply being in this process was clarifying and invigorating. Having to articulate my ideas about education and equity, often with interviewers who were themselves most often people of color, was challenging and affirming. I feel strongly about providing high quality education to all students, but most specifically students who have historically been denied access, and the more I talk about it, the more passionate I feel.

Within a week, School #1 offered me a position teaching freshman English. I was elated! I immediately drafted a list of questions I wanted answered before I accepted the offer and sent them off in an email.

That same day, I got an email from Agency #2, which was hiring for School #2; would I be available for a 15-20 minute interview in the next few days. Of course! The next day on my lunch hour, my phone rang. It was a typical call, “Let me tell you a bit about what we do,” followed by “tell me a little about your journey.” The more we talked, the more kinship I felt. This school follows a “do no harm” model and values “restorative justice”. Its current initiatives are to 1) increase academic achievement, 2) decrease suspensions, and 3) increase attendance. While, as with School #1, 99% of School #2’s students are Black and qualify for free and reduced lunch, and though only 25% of graduating seniors go on to college, this interview was upbeat and full of hope.

I hung up thinking, “I sure hope they hurry up and give me an offer before I have to respond to School #1,” and then my lunch hour was over, and I went back to work.

Over the next few days, I checked my email for responses to the questions I’d sent to School #1 but saw nothing. Then, I got a phone call from School #2, asking me if I could do an in-person interview at the school, socially distanced, of course.

Then, I got a call from School #3, asking if I could do a virtual interview. And, I had an follow-up video interview with Agency #1.

Yes, it was moving very quickly — and it was affirming. Imagine that — not only might I have an opportunity to go back to the classroom, I might even be able to be selective. This privilege was not lost on me.

I did all the interviews, including the in-person interview at School #2, where I met with the hiring agent I had spoken with on the phone and with the principal, who I immediately saw as a champion of kids. Within a week of that interview, at the end of a holiday weekend, I received an offer.

As it turns out, although both offers (from School #1 and School #2) were for freshman English and both offered the exact same salary, the communication I received from School #2, Detroit Leadership Academy (DLA), was far more timely and thorough than what I received from School #1. Not only that, when I toured both schools, I saw evidence at DLA of intentionality that I did not see at School #1. I saw a plan in place to support students in their ownership of their education and their future, and evidence of DLA’s commitment to not only the students but their community as well. In fact, DLA is the school I mentioned in an earlier post that has been providing food not only to their students but to any community member throughout this Covid-19 season.

In the end, the choice was not difficult, even though I interviewed with Agency #3 on the day I accepted DLA’s offer. That same day, I put in my notice at Lindamood-Bell, and the goodbyes began.

Although those goodbyes were tear-filled, I am very excited about this coming school year at DLA, even with all the questions that Covid brings. I’m taking some time right now to rest up, but I’m also gathering supplies and dreaming big dreams of how this choice will change my life in this next chapter.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about that next time.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever.

Ephesians 4:20-21

Getting Here: Changing Course, pt. 4

I started teaching in the fall of 1989 at Lutheran Special Education Ministries (LSEM) in Detroit. I had a degree in Secondary Education with a major in English and a minor in psychology, and I’d taken a couple courses on the exceptional child, but I had no special education certification. I had at one time explored special education as a career, and my first job out of college was working as direct care staff at a group home for teenaged girls with emotional impairments, but I wasn’t really prepared for a self-contained classroom of 10 seventh-graders with diagnosed learning disabilities. I learned a lot from those kiddos; I can only hope they learned a few things from me, too.

I took a few graduate courses at the University of Detroit that year and the next when I moved to a resource room position at Lutheran High School North and Lutheran High School Northwest. And then, though my husband was thriving in a 3rd and 4th grade classroom and I was beginning to gain some skills in special ed, we abruptly changed course when our son, who lived with his mother and stepfather, relocated right before the start of kindergarten. Because we wanted to continue our frequent visits, we relocated, too. I started teaching middle school and high school emotionally impaired and learning disabled students English Language Arts in a residential school, The Manor Foundation.

While there, I took more courses toward special ed certification, this time focusing on emotional impairments. I stayed at the Manor Foundation a year and a half — until our daughter was born — and then I began ten years focusing on one, then two, then three young children at home.

When the youngest started preschool, I started substitute teaching; then when she was preparing to start first grade, I began exploring graduate school.

I landed in Michigan State University’s Critical Studies in the Teaching of English program. Writing had long been my passion — in fact, the whole time I was home with my young children, I had been working on writing projects: submitting small pieces to parenting magazines, writing devotions, songs, and chancel dramas for our church, and even writing all the content for a monthly newsletter for teachers. I felt strongly that I wanted to further explore writing and literature, but I had no idea how this one choice would impact the course of my life.

Through this program, my gaze was turned to African American literature, Native American literature, and the power dynamics that exist in writing, academics, and society. In each of my courses, I began focusing my projects on the ways language is used to assert power and gain access. The reading and writing I did for those courses laid the groundwork for the ways I have continued to grow in my understanding of academic language, home language, and the ways we navigate different settings through our use of language. I began to see the language of the home — whether it be African American Vernacular English, Spanish, or Chinese, or a mixture of many languages — as a strength and the ability to shift from that home language to the language of work or the classroom as an asset — a tool to gain access.

So, when I left MSU and taught first in a community college in Michigan and another in Missouri and began to observe my students who were struggling to make that shift day in and day out, I sought ways to provide supports and encouragement while also validating the strength of the home language. What this looks like is that rather than being the English teacher who corrects students’ grammar, I have become the teacher who instead invites variation in grammar, even trying it out playfully myself, and then modeling for students the times and places where making the shift from one language to another becomes a way to gain access and even power.

Over the next nine and a half years, both at Roosevelt High School and Lutheran North, these ideas that began to form at Michigan State became integral to my classroom. Through my collaborations with other staff members, I began to develop a strength-based approach to teaching literature and composition. My students walked in the door with strengths — their personality, their resiliency, the language that they used to navigate their lives in whatever contexts they found themselves in, and the fact that they had access to education. My job was to help them identify and articulate those strengths which often looked liked reteaching.

Some of my Black students, and some of my White and Hispanic students, reported that they spoke ‘bad English’ and they ‘couldn’t write’. Those messages are debilitating — they don’t provide a place from which to grow. In my classroom, I began to use language such as, “you use different kinds of language in different settings — the language you use gives you access to your community. Do you imagine that the language I use would give me access to your community?” When students pictured me trying to come to their homes or their neighborhoods speaking the way that I do, they could see that I would be at a disadvantage. When I played with their language, using phrases such as “See, what had happened was…” or when I asked my students to teach me slang using the strategies I used to teach ACT vocabulary, they saw me struggle to learn in the same ways that they were struggling to learn Standard English. We were all language learners; we were in this together. Students who said they ‘couldn’t write’, were affirmed by my words, “you are learning how to write.”

I wrote every assignment with them — from prewriting and journaling through revisions and final drafts. When we needed to understand a grammatical rule, we looked it up together. We practiced identifying adjectives, prepositions, and clauses in our own writing, and then we experimented with breaking the rules intentionally — for effect, to make a point, or to show emotion.

This is what gives me life — playing with language, learning how it works, breaking the rules, and showing my students that they have the power to do the same.

I didn’t get it all right. I am sure that I made mistakes such as — in the early days, insisting that my students speak Standard English in my classroom, but why? Isn’t the classroom the place where we are learning the purposes and audiences for which we need to use Standard English? where we gain the tools we need for whatever comes next? As a teacher, do I want to be the keeper of correctness or an agent of access?

I think you already know the answer to that.

I’ve spent a lifetime getting here — building this philosophy by way of special education, writing, graduate school, and hours and days and weeks and months in the classroom with students — students who come to the classroom with inherent value, built-in strength, and learned skills. Each kid I meet matters.

But many many students in Detroit and areas like Detroit, many of whom are Black, many of whom don’t speak Standard English, have received the message loud and clear that the ways that they arrive, the manner in which they dress, or wear their hair, or speak, are inadequate. They don’t match the Standard — a Standard that was created and is maintained by white people in positions of power. They’ve got to learn to match that standard, they’ve been told, or they won’t succeed. No wonder they feel angry, or rebel, or fight like their lives depend on it to deny who they are and take on what they believe will get them out of the spaces they are in. And what does that cost them?

I’m just one middle-aged white woman from Michigan, but if someone is going to give me an opportunity to step into a classroom full of kids, to play with language, to learn, and to break some rules, how can I refuse?

I’ve been preparing for this my whole life.

So, yes, I took a position in Detroit.

Yes, I’m going to be teaching English.

This decision meant saying no to my current coworkers, families, and students, no to another group of kids, and yes to another.

I’m trying to get to that. Maybe next time.

And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

Esther 4:14

Ready, Changing Course, pt. 3

During the twelve weeks that I was working remotely, my husband and I developed some rhythms to break up the monotony. We walked a mile or so every day at lunch time to get away from our desks, we walked again at the end of the day to get our mail and talk about the events of our day, and we tuned in each night to watch the national and local news.

We’ve watched the numbers of Covid-19 cases continue to rise. We’ve watched reports of businesses closing, of economic stress, of overcrowded hospitals. For weeks, we caught the daily White House Task Force briefings, and then, when the eyes of the nation turned to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Brionna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, our eyes turned, too. When we heard the nationwide sound of wailing and protest for the sake of Black lives, we leaned in to listen.

The sound was not new to us. We’d been aware of systemic racial injustice for quite some time — not because we heard it on the national news, but because the trajectory of our lives has given us relationships across racial and socioeconomic lines and we have seen the impact of school inequity, racial profiling in policing, red-lining in real estate, inequities in access to health care and quality food, and racist practices in institutional hiring. We haven’t done much about it, if I am going to be honest, other than bear witness and believe that these systems exist, but we have seen the impact on people that we know and care about.

So when thousands across the country took to the streets carrying signs emblazoned with Black Lives Matter, I Can’t Breathe, and Arrest Brionna’s Killers, we were not horrified. We were not surprised. We were looking for ways to support, ways to ally, ways to join their voices. How could we do otherwise? How can we sit quietly watching repeated senseless acts of violence upon people of color, knowing that these blatant killings and attacks are a symptom of a much more insidious disease. Racism in our country runs deep — it has surreptitiously found its ways into our thought lives as all ideologies do, so that even when we believe ourselves to be free of racism, we make judgements about others because of their language, their skin color, their clothing choices, and their hairstyles. We use people of color as it benefits us (for sports, for entertainment, and to prove ourselves to be non-racist), but we rarely come to their defense or speak up on their behalf.

So right now, when Covid-19 is disproportionately impacting communities of color, specifically because of the impact of inadequate access to healthcare, the wealth and educational gaps that keep people of color in service industries and on the front line, and the pre-existing conditions that disproportionately pervade these communities due to centuries old inequities, when even now people of color have to contend with incidents of injustice like the George Floyd killing, we must be moved to action.

So when my husband and I were standing in the kitchen one night in the middle of the stay at home order and he said, “Are you happy doing what you are doing right now?” I reflexively responded that what I really wanted was to be in a school where I could be part of the dialogue during this time that has potential for unprecedented transformation in the lives of communities of color. I felt ready. After a long journey back to health, I felt we were facing the moment I had been preparing for.

He said, “You’re right. Let’s do it. Toss your name in the hat. Let’s see what happens.”

I said, “Really? Even if it means I have to drive to Detroit?”

“Don’t be bound by geography. Apply broadly, and we’ll cross the next bridge when we get to it.”

Oh. My. Word. You’d have thought he had given me the keys to any car I wanted to drive off the lot! If he thought I was ready, then I knew I actually was ready!

I started combing Indeed and district websites like never before. I applied to positions in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, the Detroit metro area, and beyond. And though I’d been doing this to some degree for years, this time was different. Within a couple days of submitting applications early in the morning, on my lunch hour, and after work, I started getting phone calls and emails.

I was different. I felt different — healthy, strong, and impassioned like never before. While I had believed for quite some time that my career was over, I was beginning to believe that I might just have another round in me. Not only that, the landscape was different. Due to Covid-19, many teachers have been choosing to leave the profession, take a sabbatical, or move into a different sector — away from classrooms, particularly classrooms in hot zones like Detroit. While before I may have been passed over because my Master’s degree and years of experience put me a little higher on the salary schedule, suddenly I was a prime candidate. While many teachers were ill-equipped to manage the unavoidable transition from in-person to online learning, I have been using online platforms to work with students for the last several years!

As the interviews started, I could hear the skepticism in the voices of those questioning me. What is your experience with urban schools? Why are you interested in this position? How would you build classroom culture among students who are 99% Black? 99% of whom receive free or reduced lunch?

I could hear the subtext, “I can see, even over this video interview, that you are a middle aged white woman. Are you sure you are up to this? Do you know what you are getting into?” But guess what, kids, I’ve heard these questions before, and I was ready for them.

What I wasn’t ready for was learning that many of the schools I was applying to had been operating with long-term substitute teachers in core subject areas, because they could not find highly qualified teachers and they had to fill slots. I wasn’t ready to learn that many of the students in these schools did not have devices or internet in their homes when the stay-at-home order began. I wasn’t prepared to realize that because 5,000 people had died in Detroit and a disproportionate number of them were Black, chances are high that the students in these schools have experienced loss above and beyond the loss of their routine, the daily contact with teachers and friends, and life as we once knew it. They’ve likely lost people they love.

However, I was excited to learn that several of the agencies I was interviewing with were working to meet the needs of these students. They were delivering devices and personal hot spots — teachers and administrators getting in their own vehicles and driving to student residences across the Detroit metro. Not only that, all of the schools I interviewed with were still providing food to families — five days a week. One school was providing food not only to their own students’ families, but to anyone in the community who pulled into the parking lot to receive it. They were also working hard to secure more devices for the coming school year and making plans (state-mandated) for how to return to school fully in-person, fully online, and a hybrid option that would allow families to choose.

I met dedicated educators who care about kids — inner city kids, kids of color, kids who matter.

And one of these schools made me an offer.

And then another one did.

And I still had my position at Lindamood-Bell.

I had a decision to make, and it wasn’t going to be easy.

But I was ready. More on that next time.

He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.

Psalm 33:5