Finding my next Crew

This past week flew by! They all do, but last week was especially full. In addition to my regular teaching duties, I was tasked with testing a dozen or so freshmen to select next semester’s cohort for my AARI (Accelerated Adolescent Reading Intervention) class.

I had a spreadsheet of data including the students’ names, attendance record, scores (if available) on last year’s NWEA MAP test, PSAT/Academic Approach scores from this year, and their current grades in English Language Arts. My job was to first select about a dozen students to test, and then to complete those tests before a Friday deadline.

Now, don’t feel sorry for me. I teach all day long (literally 8:30-3:15 with 35 minutes for lunch) on Monday and Thursday, but on Tuesday and Friday, I teach only one 50 minute block. Wednesdays we have a shortened school day that ends at 1:45 with meetings or professional development following that. The large blocks of time on Tuesday and Friday are usually reserved for planning and grading, but this past week, I used almost every one of those spare minutes to assess the group of freshmen that I had identified. Of the twelve I tested, eleven qualified for the program. I can only keep 10. And really, even ten is a number that is larger than I am comfortable with.

The space in the back of my room comfortably seats 8 — the class size I started with last fall. I am going to have to reconfigure that space sometime this week. AARI says the results are consistent with groups up to 10, and my administrators want to impact as many students as possible with this program, but let me tell you, the freshmen class that we have right now, the one straight outta COVID, is a challenge to wrangle. For two years of their adolescence they could do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. We have been working as a team all semester to use systems and procedures to build a culture and to tame all that energy, but let me tell you, these fourteen year olds have a ton of energy. and impulsivity. and immaturity.

I beckon to their better selves, “Class, why are we here?”

Monotone chanting accompanied by eye rolling, “to become better readers.”

“That’s right! And how do we become better readers?”

“By reading…”

I turn to write on the board, a small bit of pencil eraser flies across the room. Laughter breaks out. I turn back around, meet their eyes, call them back to order, and begin again — over and over and over.

Yes. I am doing this willingly.

So, anyway, Tuesday morning I started pulling students from their regularly scheduled classes.

I knock on the door, ask a teacher for a student, the teacher calls the student’s name, the student looks at me — who they do not know — and stands, walks towards me, and looks as though to say, “What do you want me for?”

“Hi, I’m Mrs. Rathje. Have you seen me around before?”

“Yeah,”

“I teach 12th graders, but one hour a day I teach reading to a group of freshmen. How do you feel about reading?”

“It’s alright.”

“Yeah? Do you like reading?”

“Not really.”

“Well, I am getting ready to start a new class of freshmen who will meet with me everyday to improve their reading. Is that something you are interested in?”

Silence.

“Ok, well, I’d like you to come with me for a few minutes to do a couple of activities to see if you would be a good fit. OK?”

“Yeah.”

We walk to my room, I invite them to take a seat, and I instruct them to start reading lists of words that have been grouped by grade level. Once we have established their familiarity with words and their ability to sound out unfamiliar words, I ask them to read a passage. I started the passage reading for most students at second grade level since I know that most of my students last semester began with an independence level of second to third grade.

Student after student this week complied — not one refused to sit with me and read word lists and passages. In fact, I believe they all gave a good effort to show me their abilities. Of the eleven I tested, seven fell in the ‘instructional’ range at the second grade passage. Three were instructional at the third grade passage. One was instructional at the Primer level — below first grade, and one student surprised me.

Nash* had been on my list all week long, but I didn’t meet with him until mid-morning on Friday. His teachers had informed me that they weren’t sure about his reading but that in class he was “all over the place”, that he had difficulty focusing, and that his grades were abysmal. I had never met the student, so I was curious to find out if reading was the source of the problem.

I found Nash in the back row of the class he was attending. His laptop was open even though the teacher was giving directions and everyone else had their laptops closed. He was deeply engaged in what he was doing, so I walked over to him, touched him on the shoulder, and said, “Would you come with me, please?”

Once we were in the hall, I asked all the same questions. When I asked, “how would you feel about being in a reading class?” he turned to me and said, “Just reading?”

“Yes, we have a small group of students and we work on reading skills every day.”

“I would love a reading class.”

That should’ve been my first clue.

“Great,” I said, “let’s do a couple of activities together and see if you would be a good fit.”

He read every word list I had — from pre-primer to high school level. I think he mispronounced a half a dozen words that he attempted to sound out, but he didn’t see a word he wouldn’t try.

I started the reading portion by giving him a fourth grade passage because even though other students have read far into the word lists, they often haven’t demonstrated comprehension at the same levels.

He easily read the fourth grade passage and answered all the questions, same with the fifth and the sixth. When he got to the Upper Middle School passage about the life cycle of stars, he took a little longer, but he combed the text looking for answers, asked me some of his own clarifying questions, and reasoned aloud about his answer choices. He was deeply engaged with the text and with the process. He was easily “instructional” at that level, so we moved on to the high school passage about cell replication.

This passage was trickier; it was not only longer, but some of the questions referred to captions on illustrations. Nevertheless, he persevered. He kept going back to the text, talking out his reasoning, and then explaining to me why he was giving the answer that he was.

After almost an hour of testing, he was still diving back into the text to verify that his answer was correct. Finally, I said, “Nash, we are going to stop right here because we both have another class in a few minutes, but I have one more question for you. Your name was on a list of students who have difficulty reading. Can you explain to me why your name was on that list?”

He looked at me and smiled innocently.

“You don’t have any difficulty reading. In fact, I would say you are very bright — the kind of bright that not only goes on to college but that often goes to graduate school and might even get a PhD. Do you know what a PhD is?”

“No.”

“People with PhDs teach at universities. Do you want to go to college?”

“Yes.”

“Good. You need to go to college. I see only one problem with that.”

“What’s that?”

“What do your grades look like?”

“They are terrible.”

“Why’s that?”

“I have trouble focusing.”

We talked about focus for a little while — about how two of my own children also struggle with focus, about how hard it is for a fourteen year old to manage his own distractibility, about the fact that he sees a therapist, and about his huge potential despite this difficulty.

“Look, Nash, you’re not gonna be in my class, but you are going to get sick of talking to me. I am going to be checking up on you because it would be a shame if you continued getting the grades you are getting and you eliminated yourself from some great college opportunities.”

“OK.”

I returned him to his class and returned to my room to teach a class. After that, I reported for lunch room duty where I saw Nash again, in a sea of chaos, plunked down alone at a cafeteria table, scanning something on his computer as his lunch debris accumulated around him. I recognized him right away — the little genius that is navigating his way through this high school experience.

I finished up my testing later Friday afternoon and sent my results to my principal. Over the weekend she affirmed my selections and agreed that the eleventh student, the one who needs the AARI program but who said she would not be willing to work in our small group environment, should be referred to our special education team for some other sort of intervention.

Today and tomorrow, I will communicate that all out to the students I tested, and next Monday I will meet my new crew. Before then, I’ve got to finish up with my current class of seven, give them some parting instructions, and let them know, too, that Momma Rathje will be keeping tabs. When they — and Nash — are seniors, they’ll be back with me, God willing, to finish their high school years strong and launch onto what’s next.

What a pleasure it will be to watch their development between now on then.

*Name changed to maintain confidentiality.

Christmas Cheer

Like many of you, I’ve been checking off items on my to-do list as I prepare for Christmas. In fact, I’ve got multiple lists! We’ve still got a few gifts to purchase, some homemade gifts to finish, and some food to prepare before holiday gatherings. Each day, I complete a task or two and then revise my list, recalculating to make sure everything will be done “on time”.

And while I’m doing that, I’m insisting that my students attend to their own lists.Yes, we are still in school. Our last day is Thursday, December 22. Between now and then, my seniors will complete an essay, which many of them have not yet started. They’ll write a rough draft, participate in peer review, attend to revisions, and carefully proofread before submitting their final drafts. We’re on a tight schedule, but if we stick to our lists, they [and I] will complete everything right on time.

Sounds like no problem, but we’re all kind of over it, if I’m going to be honest — the getting up in the dark, traveling to school in the cold, filing into the building, taking our places, and trudging through the motions, day after day after day.

And, as though she had her finger on the ho-hum pulse of the collective arm of our community, our instructional coach created a spirit week for this of all weeks — the week that I’ve scheduled down to the minute with very little room for getting off task.

The announcement came on Friday at around 1:30. “Get excited, everyone! Next week is spirit week!”

Sigh.

Monday we’ll have a door decorating competition. Tuesday everyone will enjoy hot chocolate and cookies at lunch. Wednesday will be ugly sweater day, and Thursday, our last day at school before break, will be Holiday Cheer Day, where everyone is encouraged to wear Santa hats, jingle bells, or other holiday items.

My first response on Friday afternoon at 1:30pm, as I was wrapping up the week’s work and preparing for the final push, was a very Scrooge-y “Seriously? One more thing to cram into next week?” and “You really want me to take time out of class on Monday to decorate my classroom door? My students are writing a paper!?!?!”

Then I progressed to, “I don’t even have an ugly Christmas sweater!” and “I need to bring supplies to decorate my door?”

Didn’t she know about my lists and my strategy for getting each item ticked off before Christmas? How was I going to fit MORE to-dos onto my lists?

But this morning, my eyes are turned to our students.

This past week, as we have been preparing to write our personal essays, my students have been sharing scenes from their lives, letting me in just a bit, sharing a peek at the things that have shaped them.

Calvin’s* mother died in 2017, when he was just 13. He said it “messed me up”. He found comfort in eating and ballooned to over 300 pounds. But, last summer, an area gym offered free memberships to teens, so he joined. He and his sister, who he now lives with, stopped eating fast food and started cooking at home, and he has lost over 70 pounds. He wants to keep going; his goal is to look sharp for prom — one of the biggest days in the lives of our students.

Monette*, who started this school year pregnant but gave birth and then lost her young son a few days later, says she wants to write about this experience. She says holding her son was a moment she was proud, and losing him was the biggest hurt of her life.

Hope* engaged in an argument with someone on Twitter who claimed that Breonnna Taylor’s boyfriend was a drug dealer. She searched for evidence to disprove his theory and stayed at it until the original post was deleted.

Kevin’s* enlisting in the Army. He spent last summer training with his recruiters, cutting the weight he gained during Covid. He’s our valedictorian, and his ASVAB score qualifies him for just about any military training he chooses. He’s going through the steps now to ensure that he’ll start boot camp just a couple weeks after graduation.

These seniors of mine stand at the edge of adulthood, where the choices they are making have long-lasting impact. They are showing up each day, working hard, and looking forward to a not-too-distant future where they will be responsible for every aspect of their lives. It’s heavy, and I need to take a moment to acknowledge that.

The weight they are carrying goes beyond checking off items on their Christmas to-do list, beyond choosing which salad they will make for Christmas Eve, beyond what gift to purchase for a colleague. They are engaging with real adult stuff — health, loss, political engagement, and military service — when they have a few fleeting moments left to enjoy being kids.

What will it cost me to allow them a little bit of fun this week? a little bit of encouragement? A little reward for continuing to show up even when they are over it?

And won’t I enjoy it, too? Won’t it be fun seeing my seniors scrambling within the 10 minutes they have been allotted to decorate my classroom door, glancing over their shoulders at the classes across the hall to see what they are doing?

Won’t it be great to see our students sipping cocoa and dunking Christmas cookies?

Won’t it bring some laughs and joy to compare our ugly Christmas sweaters?

And won’t it lighten the mood to hear some jingle bells in the hallway?

Yes, of course, yes.

So, I dragged myself out today, found an ugly sweater that I will try to make uglier before Wednesday. I picked up some supplies for our door decorating contest, and while I was out I bought a chai latte to sip on as my attitude finished adjusting.

I checked some other items off my to-do list, too, and then reminded myself to relax. What gets done, gets done. Christmas is about more than my to-do list. It’s about seeing the people in front me, enjoying the time I have with them, and sharing the joy of a love that offers hope, restoration, and a future.

Once again, my instructional coach gave me just what I needed.

for unto [us] is born this day, a Savior”

Luke 2:11

*All names changed, of course.

Humming Along

When I woke up this morning, my cells were vibrating. I don’t know how else to describe it other than to say it feels like my body is humming. I’m not a doctor, but when this happens, I imagine I’m having an inflammatory response. To what? To living my life.

This is the fullest fall I have had since probably 2011 or 2012. By 2013, I was collapsing on the couch immediately after arriving at home, wondering if we had something edible in the fridge or if I had enough energy to drive to Chipotle to pick up “dinner”.

After a years-long journey back to wellness, I am in the third year of the great experiment called, “Can Mrs. Rathje really return to the classroom?” and this year I’m pretty close to matching the load I had prior to being diagnosed with autoimmune disease. Granted, I don’t have teenagers living at home or even a pet to take care of. I am “simply” returning to the “regular” demands faced by teachers across the country, and two weeks shy of Christmas break my body is humming.

A typical work week for me includes 5 hours of commuting, 16+ hours of instruction, 14+ hours of grading and planning, a handful of meetings, some lunchtime and hallway supervision, and all kinds of miscellaneous “duties” such as separating teenagers who are verbally escalating toward a fight, texting with a student who doesn’t have transportation to get to school, doling out snacks to students who are “starving, Mrs. Rathje”, or listening to a student tell me why she got into an altercation with someone she thought was her friend and why that altercation resulted in her one-day suspension.

I am fully invested in my work and the lives of my students, but school and my students are not the totality of my life.

My husband and I have also been blessed to invest quite of bit of time with family this fall. Since October, we’ve travelled to Ohio, Missouri, and the Dominican Republic. Not only that, we have traveled within Michigan to see our parents and siblings and have enjoyed an extended visit from our son.

We’ve also connected with several friends — through our weekly small group community, coffee dates, and other social functions.

And, we’ve participated in some personal and professional enrichment including presenting at a couple of conferences, both separately and together.

We are living a pretty typical professional life, but my body is not wired for ‘typical’.

I will note that this old girl has been hanging in there. Yes, Covid knocked me down in October, but I got right back up (and was temporarily knocked down again and again got back up). Other than that, the bod has been getting it done.

But over the last few weeks she’s been clearing her throat (Ahem!) and raising her hand (Excuse me?) and asking for a little attention.

It started when we were in the Dominican Republic over Thanksgiving. We were totally relaxing — our hosts wouldn’t let us lift a finger! And while we were sitting on the lovely patio surrounded by luscious plants and later lounging on the sofa, listening to Adrea Bocelli on surround sound, my body began to quietly whimper.

There, there, I said. Relax. You’re on vacation. Try to enjoy it. We’ll be home before you know it.

But she continued to whine, so I loaded up on Motrin, did some yoga, took some deep breaths, and soaked up the surroundings and the lovely company we shared.

And, when I got home, I hobbled directly to the chiropractor.

“It’s the travel,” he said, “it always has an impact.”

Then, I met with my therapist who said, “Don’t underestimate the impact of your work stress and the emotion of family interactions on your body.”

And then I went to my physical therapist who said, “You might want to consider getting a pain injection.”

[Dammit.]

I’d been hoping I could do it all and manage my pain without an injection. I had been believing that my discipline — my yoga, my diet, my writing, my therapy — would be enough.

I’d been hoping I could teach at full capacity and travel and present at conferences and still enjoy my improved health.

And, really, for the most part, I think I can, if I also get periodic pain injections and continue being disciplined, and that includes taking significant rest at intervals. I’ve known this, but it seems I’ve always got to test my limits.

And, my body has told me that we are at our limit. Period.

So, this morning, as my humming body and I crawled out of bed, we said goodbye to my husband who is making a whirlwind trip — involving eight hours of driving inside of the next 24 hours — so that he can attend our granddaughter’s birthday party.

I am sad to be missing the festivities. I miss stuff sometimes — that is my reality.

And, at 10am on Saturday, I am still in pajamas. I have done 20 minutes of yoga, eaten a noninflammatory breakfast, drank a lovely cup of green tea with ginseng, am finishing my first of many tumblers of water, and am writing this all down because I need to admit that it is true.

I love my life. I really do.

I have a supportive and loving husband, a remarkable family, a cute little house with an extraordinary garden, a career designed especially for me, and countless high-caliber friends.

And, I sometimes spend quiet weekends at home alone, reading, soaking in the tub, putting together a puzzle, or working on a sewing project.

It’s the miraculous rhythm I get to live in this next chapter.

[He] is able to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine.”

Ephesians 3:20

A Week’s Journey

Click the arrow to listen

I clicked ‘publish’ on last week’s blog, jumped in my vehicle, and drove to school. By the time I got there I had a text message, “I want to feed your students!”

At the end of last week’s post about my developing freshman readers, I had mentioned that they eat a ton and had invited my readers to a) support any teachers they know with gifts of snacks, or to b) help me feed mine. A close friend and fellow educator was the first to raise her hand and say, “pick me, pick me!” It’s such an encouragement to me when any of you reach out — you read my blog, you ask me about my students, you send cash for feminine supplies, or you buy snacks, and I feel encouraged to keep going.

Within a couple of hours, two retired teachers (who taught some of my children!) reached out with a very generous gift of support and another educator who got connected to my blog through a mutual friend, emailed to say “snacks are on the way!”

Monday night the Amazon trucks started arriving. By Tuesday morning, I had a large tote to carry in to school full of protein bars, fruit snacks, and candy,

Why do I need so many snacks? Because I have 80 students of my own who come into my class most days and many more who have become aware that “Mrs. Rathje probably has something.” Students come to me to borrow chargers, to get a bandaid, or to ask for feminine supplies, deodorant, or something to eat. Our school provides breakfast and lunch to all of our students, but breakfast often looks like a juice box, a granola bar, and an apple — hardly enough to hold a teenager until lunch time. Lunch might be pizza, “walking tacos” (taco fixings piled inside a snack-sized bag of Doritos), or more standard school lunch fare like chicken with mashed potatoes, all of which sound decent, but each of these arrives in large insulated boxes which cafeteria workers open up before distributing the food through a window in the gym where the teeming masses fight for a place in line. It’s loud and chaotic. You get one choice, and if you don’t like that, you are, as they say, out of luck. Many kids do eat what is provided, but some check out in a “quiet” corner, where they mind their own business and scroll on their phones.

Whether they’ve eaten or not, teenagers are always persistently hungry.

I don’t give snacks every day, but students know that if they missed breakfast, if they are going straight to work after school, or if they are just plain hungry, they can ask, and I will have something.

So, I hauled snacks into school Tuesday morning, and Tuesday afternoon, instead of going back home, I drove north for a two-day conference. The Michigan College Access Network (MCAN) was having its annual conference at a casino in Mt. Pleasant, MI, and I had received a scholarship to attend on behalf of my school and the Michigan Teacher Leader Collaborative (MTLC), of which I am currently a fellow.

When the conference started Tuesday morning, I learned about state funding for students like mine that has been made available in the wake of Covid and a disengagement in postsecondary enrollment. We’re talking millions of dollars! As the director of MCAN said, we have right now “unprecedented funding for unprecedented impact.”

Over lunch, I learned about LA Room and Board an organization that provides housing for the 1 out of 5 community college students in Los Angeles who are homeless.

The next day, I learned about the Digital Equity Act, a bi-partisan $2.75 billion initiative that provides funding for building out Internet infrastructure, providing devices, and increasing digital literacy so that “everyone – no matter where they live – can fully participate in our society, democracy, and economy,” and that means college access, job preparation, and, ultimately, increased financial freedom.

I was surrounded, for two days, by individuals who were aware of and leveraging resources that have the potential to transform the lives of my students and others like them. In the midst of this, I found myself at a table with three complete strangers. I was catching up on notes and eating my meal, when one of the others introduced himself. I told him I was a high school teacher in Detroit and then asked him what he did. He said said he was a gifts manager at a major agency in Detroit; his main project is funding the post-secondary pursuits of Detroit students.

I perked up. “Do you have a card?”

He handed me one.

I made it my job for the next few minutes to invite him to speak at our career day and to “sell” him on the mission of our school. Whenever I shared a fact or detail about the lived experiences of my students, he replied, shaking his head, “I already know. I already know.”

We parted ways to go to separate sectionals, but I found him again at lunch, and continued our conversation, sharing specific stories like the one about the brother (a freshman) and his sister (a senior) at my school who have dealt with homelessness and are now trying to navigate into more permanent living situations. I shared that one obstacle they’ve had is finding transportation to school since their new address is no longer on our bus line. I shared, “I do a little grass roots philanthropy, enlisting a small group of friends who help me out from time to time. One set of friends right now is financing Lyft and Uber rides for these two while we figure out a longer term solution. Their gifts are small compared to what you are looking at….”

He interrupted me and said, “but they add up to big wins.”

They do! I cant tell you the impact it has had on my relationship with these two students and the senior’s boyfriend, who is currently arranging all the rides because the siblings do not currently have a cell phone. The boyfriend, who had previously not wanted to engage in my class — who would barely speak to me — is now greeting me in the hallway, texting me on the weekend, and leaning in a little harder to academics. The freshman is trying to be just a little less squirrel-y (bless his heart), and his sister is growing up before my eyes, advocating for herself, navigating difficult waters, and trying to emancipate herself so that she can provide a space for her and her brother until he, too, is of an age to do for himself.

I was sharing this with my new friend, when he said, “Can you imagine what it would look like if my organization set up a fund to cover expenses like these?”

“I can!” I said, and I promised to email him the next day.

I returned home Thursday night to find an enormous pile of Amazon deliveries waiting for me — trail mix, more candy, beef jerky, cheese and cracker packs, an enormous box of potato chips, feminine supplies, deodorant, and on, and on, and on.

Big wins for my students, for sure.

Saturday, I participated in a small virtual conference put on by the MTLC. One of the speakers, Silver Moore, said she likes to picture each of her students as a hero on the hero’s journey, traversing through challenges, receiving supernatural aid and assistance from mortal helpers, on their way to transformation. She said, that “if indeed they are heroes on their journeys, they need us to tell them they are amazing.”

And I thought, “they really do!” They need my little group of friends to spoil them with snacks and Uber rides for their journey. They need the state of Michigan to provide “unprecedented funds” to overcome their challenges. They need the federal government to fund access to the technology that will help them navigate their paths, and they need philanthropic agencies to commit their resources in a way that signifies that they are truly heroes.

This is a message that is unfamiliar for students like mine. They don’t often hear that they are amazing. Instead they hear through both words and actions that they are simultaneously too much and not enough, that they are loud, wrong, and unworthy of a hero’s life.

So this week, I’m gonna haul a bunch of snacks into my room to celebrate my amazing students who are on various points of their hero’s journey. I’m going to tell them they are amazing, and I’m going to let them know that you are cheering them on.

We are the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ that might enable them to ‘run with perseverance the race that is set before [them]’.

Doing Fine

Click the arrow to listen.

Last spring, my supervisor asked me to take on the role of Reading Interventionist at our school. I’d been pointing out students’ low reading levels since the minute I walked into the building, so I knew there was a need.

She said I would continue with my main responsibility, teaching senior English — building literacy skills by way of career and college exploration. I would also continue to sit on the Leadership Team as the Master Teacher, offering support to other teachers, attending meetings, and managing a few additional responsibilities like once-a-week lunch room duty, hallway supervision between periods, and occasional projects like helping to plan career day.

My initial thought when she asked was an inaudible but nevertheless deep sigh — could I handle more responsibility? I was just finishing year two in the great experiment called, “Can Kristin really teach full time without triggering autoimmune distress and ending up back in bed?”

The first year, 2020-2021, I was alone in my classroom the entire year, meeting with students only in the zoom room. The tax on my body was minor. Yes, I had to drive 30 minutes each way, and yes, I had to plan for instruction and manage the grading stack for the first time in six years, but those things seemed fairly easy without the day to day drain that the management of student bodies, behaviors, and attitudes can be.

The second year was a bit more draining. To effectively manage a classroom full of kids, I had to relearn the strategies that I’d used in the past along with some new practices that are part of our culturally responsive model. The preparation and grading stayed mostly the same, but teaching in physical proximity with students, while much more effective and far more gratifying, is exceptionally more taxing. The fact that we moved in and out of virtual instruction provided me with intermittent periods of rest that probably allowed my second year back in the classroom to remain flare-free.

I’d made it two years with very little physical consequence, how much more responsibility could I add?

“We don’t have it in our budget to hire a full-time reading interventionist, but we know the need is there. You’ve got the background in reading from your time at Lindamood-Bell, so we’d like to eliminate your elective and give you that time for reading intervention with a select group of students who need the most support,” she said.

“Well,” I responded, “the need is definitely there, I do have some experience, so let’s talk more about what this would look like.”

A couple months later I started a continuous cycle of training in a program called the Accelerated Adolescent Reading Initiative (AARI), and we selected a group of freshmen. I rearranged my classroom to accommodate the design model of the program, obtained a whole bunch of materials, and prepared to meet my students.

They’re a lively little bunch — the eight I ended up with. They went into the Covid lockdown in March of their sixth grade year, and stayed there all the way through seventh. Last year, their school — the elementary building in our network — was virtual even more than we were. They were short several staff members all year long, and often didn’t have enough adults to safely open the building. Describing our freshmen as feral might be taking it a bit far, but all freshmen since the dawn of time have lacked maturity and self-control, and this group, having missed a great deal of school-provided socialization and having endured the societal trauma that was/is Covid-19, has even the most experienced of educators shaking their heads and digging deep into their training and experience to creatively manage their erratic, impulsive, and sometimes volatile behavior.

I only have eight of the them — the freshmen I affectionately call “my babies” — and even that small group has challenged me. It could be that 75% of them came into my classroom reading at a third to fourth grade level, and the other two came in reading at a first grade level.

What would you do in high school, if you were unable to read the materials that teachers were putting in front of you? Would you be quiet and compliant? Or would you find a way to entertain yourself?

Yeah, me, too.

Anyway, when I tested each of them individually in September, each acknowledged that reading had been “hard” and admitted that learning to read better is something that they’d like to do.

I have to remind them of that — when they won’t stay off their phones, when they are talking during instructional time, or when they are distracted by someone walking by in the hallway. I have to say, “Guys, why are we in this class? What is our goal?”

They respond almost in unison, “to be better readers.”

“What do we hope to find on our retest in January?”

“Higher reading levels.”

“Exactly. And if we want that, we’ve got to be together. We’ve got to do this hard work.”

And hard work it is. I tell them we are “dusting off the cobwebs” and remembering information they likely learned long ago — the sounds that letters make, how to break words into syllables, how to sound out words in chunks, and how to recognize sight words — and that part isn’t even AARI! That’s all Lindamood-Bell!

The core of every day is reading informational text and discovering the author’s purpose, the text structures, the evidence, and the organization. I document our process on giant sticky notes as we read each book and then, together, we map out the text. Finally, each student writes a summary and we take a text-based assessment.

For emerging readers this is very difficult work, but this week we got a pay off.

After a two-day effort to reset expectations after I’d been out of the building two days the week prior, we were back on track when the principal popped in for a visit. I say these students are my babies, but our principal has actually known most of them since they were in kindergarten. She is their strongest advocate. She fought for our school to offer this class; she’s actually still fighting to hire a full-time reading interventionist. She loves these kids with her whole life. Let me show you what I mean.

When she came in quietly, my students took note, and sat up a little straighter.

I asked them, “You guys wanna show off for Ms. Few?”

“”Yeah,” they said trying not to seem excited.

I took out a stack of cards to show her how quickly they can decode multi-syllable words like intersectional, combative, and defensively. Some are quick, but when they are not, we demonstrate how we identify the vowels, how we break the word into syllables, and how we sound out the chunks. One of my students — one of the two who tested at first grade level — demonstrates how he has learned to sound out a word like ‘drawn’ when even a word like “hat” was difficult not long ago.

She watches. She says, “Wow!” and “I don’t even know that word!” when one of my students decodes a nonsense word like prediptionally. Then she puts her hand to her forehead, covering her eyes, and says, “You’re gonna make me cry.”

My feral little freshmen beamed.

“But wait,” I said, “that’s not even the program! Do you have five more minutes?”

“Yes, I do.”

And she watched while we read the last page of the book we’ve been working on for three weeks. I ask, “What is the author doing here?” and one young man — a 6’3″, 120 pound baby — looks at his book and says, “He’s taking us right back to the first page of the book.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“The words on the last page are almost the same as the ones on the first page,” he answers.

“Yes, they are,” I say. “Why is he doing that?”

The student struggles for a moment. The other kids look at the first and the last page. They think. They struggle. And then they have it.

“He’s going back to the introduction.”

“He’s repeating the claim.”

“He’s making his conclusion.”

And the principal applauds. She says, “I can’t tell you how proud I am. I want to offer this class to the whole school, because when kids struggle with reading, they begin to get into all kinds of trouble. I can see how hard you are working. Do you feel like you are learning?”

And almost in unison, they say “yes!”

It’s been a hard nine-week journey to get to this point, my friends.

Is it a drain on my body? It is.

Does it energize my spirit? Unquestionably.

Am I beaming as brightly as my students? Obviously.

Do I think I can continue to manage this load? I think I’m gonna be fine.

For you make me glad by your deeds, Lord;
    I sing for joy at what your hands have done.

Psalm 92:4

**Freshmen are the most famished humans I have ever met. If you know a teacher of freshmen, offer to provide her with some snacks to have on hand. If you’d like to feed my freshmen, email me at krathje66@gmail.com and I’ll send you my wishlist.

of Death and Resurrection

Nadia* came to my desk the other day. The other students were working on an assignment, and she had a question about something she had missed a few days prior.

“I wasn’t here the day we did this,” she said.

“Yes, I remember. You missed a few days. Is everything OK?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she answered, “first my grandma died and we had all the arrangements for that, then my uncle died.”

“Oh my goodness! I am so sorry! That is a lot of loss all at once. I am impressed that you are working to get caught up. How can I support you?”

It’s not uncommon for us to hear about these kinds of losses. I myself lost a much-loved uncle last month, and many of us lost loved ones during Covid. However, it always shocks me when I learn of the amount of death my students have faced in their young lives.

Bianca* was sitting near my desk this week working on a college application. She was hoping it wouldn’t require a social security number because her mother had been reluctant to share hers with her when we had been getting FSA IDs, the first step in completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) .

“If it’s required, I’m just gonna call my mom and tell her I have to have it,” she said.

.”Does your mom want you to go to college?” I asked.

She shook her head no.

“Hmm. What would she like you to do?”

“She wants me to keep doing hair.”

“That’s right, you do hair. Is that what she does, too?”

“No, she doesn’t work, because my dad was a firefighter who died, so she is taken care of.”

“Oh my!” I said. “When did that happen?”

She held up three fingers and said, “Three years ago.”

“I am so sorry! I had no idea.”

And while we were chatting, her mom texted her the number, and Bianca completed her application.

Working with high school seniors, I see that kind of subtle movement all the time. One week a parent refuses to let their child have her SSN, then suddenly, nonchalantly, she sends it in a text two weeks later. Parents are ready to release when they are ready to release and not a moment sooner.

And it makes sense when you know that the mother and the daughter have already experienced devastating loss.

I’ve been listening to Anderson Cooper’s new podcast, All There Is, which is his examination of his own grief through conversations with others who have also experienced loss. Cooper lost his father to heart disease at age 10, his brother to suicide when he was 21, and his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, just a few years ago. As he navigates the packing up of his mother’s things, he is struck by all the unprocessed grief from the previous losses and how raw the hurt still is.

As I’m listening, I hear his voice crack as he recalls a detail, and my throat tightens, My eyes well up and my chest feels heavy. I have not experienced much physical death among my immediate family and friends, but I have definitely experienced loss — the loss of my parents’ marriage when I was seven, the loss of some dreams for our family that were taken away, some by circumstance, some by error, and some by violence, and the loss of my health and career before I was even 50.

We all experience loss. We all experience death.

Cooper posits, and I agree, that we don’t make enough space for discussions of our losses and the hurts that we carry with us. Instead, we try to pack them up, put them away, and function in a way that seems “normal” when we will never feel “normal” again.

In one of his interviews, Cooper speaks with Stephen Colbert, who lost his father and two brothers in an airplane crash when he was 10. Colbert says it was the worst thing that happened in his life, but he has grown to be grateful for it — not the deaths, of course, but the opening it created in him that has allowed him to see the devastations in the lives of others and the ability to have compassion for them.

I resonate with that. For many years I have said that while my parents’ divorce was — for a long time — the biggest blow to my life, it grew in me an understanding of brokenness that prepared me to marry a man who had been divorced. Having stepparents prepared me to be a stepparent. Having experienced trauma and devastation in our own family has opened a chasm in my heart that has space for the brokenness I see in my students and my friends.

Because I have written about loss, and because my husband and I have explored our losses in depth with our therapists, with each other, and most extensively with a small group of friends who we meet with every week, we were prepared last spring and again this fall, to share our story with a small group of others like us who are in the midst of devastation and who are looking for shreds of hope. We believe, like Anderson Cooper, that we don’t talk about our losses — especially not in polite company, and even less in the church. Especially if those losses involve estrangement, divorce, sexual assault, alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling, or crime.

So when we stand in front of a group of church folk (last spring) or church workers (this fall) and tell our story, we do it as educators. We model — this is how you can be vulnerable and tell your story. We provide safety — you are in a room full of others who also have a story. We give space — take a chance, and share a piece of your story with someone next to you.

And they do.

And the tears flow.

Strangers touch hands and are no longer strangers.

It looks like resurrection.

Theologian and writer Jeff Chu asked in his opening talk at the 2022 Evolving Faith Conference** last weekend, “What does resurrection matter except to those have tasted death?”

What does new life matter, until you thought that life was gone forever?

When you have sobbed on your pillow knowing your family will never be whole again and then you see a connection, you receive an invitation, you embrace someone who has felt the rending of the flesh as deeply as you have and somehow what was dead seems to breathe new life,

Resurrection isn’t witnessed in isolation, is it? I find I see it most in community — in the sharing of stories, of tears, of understanding. I see it in friendships that walk through the valley of the shadow of death together long enough to get to the other side.

This fall I’ve had a student in my class, Monique*. Her attendance has been intermittent — she’s pregnant. When she comes, I greet her without judgment because I don’t know her story.; I only know that she has one. For the past week or more her seat has been empty. She didn’t appear to be full-term, so I didn’t expect that she had had the baby. I expected her to walk back in any morning, just as she had been doing all fall. But yesterday, I was standing in the office when her sister, a recent graduate, walked in. We chatted, and she mentioned that Monique had had the baby, but that the baby “didn’t make it”.

What happens to a seventeen year old heart when it has carried a life, moved through labor, and then experienced such a devastating loss?

I have no idea, but I am hoping to hear Monique’s story, and I am longing for her to experience resurrection.

[He] comforts us in all our trouble so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”

2 Corinthians 1:4

*All student names have been changed, of course.

**Although the Evolving Faith conference is over, you can still register and watch the entire event, which was virtual and recorded.

Coronavirus Diary #35: Two and a half years later

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I was all set to get rolling again last Monday. My lunch was packed, my clothes for the day had been selected, and my lesson plans were ready to go. I got up at 5am, as usual, and since I had been having some mild cold symptoms over the weekend, I decided to take a Covid test — for the third day in a row — just to be safe.

I swabbed, I swirled, I tapped, I put three drops in the chamber, and then I set the timer for 15 minutes.

While I was waiting, I took some cold medicine and moved through my routine as though I would be out the door in just a little while. However, when the timer dinged, I saw the faintest line ever. I checked the packaging and consulted my husband before I was convinced that yes, a very faint line is indeed a positive test.

Then I started the texting — the assistant principal in charge of substitutes, the principal, the director of HR, my student teacher.

They were all compassionate, of course, saying “Take care of yourself!” and “Get plenty of rest,” but all I was thinking was, The last thing I want during the fourth week of school is to miss a whole week!

But these things are sometimes outside of our control.

So, for the past week, I have not been firing on all cylinders. No, I have been in bed. I have slept 10-12 hours a day, mustered the strength to make a pot of soup, then rolled back into bed to read a novel, falling asleep at intervals. I’ve watched mindless television, scrolled social media, worked on crossword puzzles, and done the bare minimum to keep my classes in motion in my absence.

I’ve written lesson plans and sent them to my student teacher and my substitute. I’ve graded the work that has been turned in. I’ve responded to student emails, and I’ve replied to texts.

But mostly, I’ve rested and slept, and it’s paying off.

Over the past several days, I have gradually regained strength, and I plan — again — to get rolling on Monday.

After such a long absence — have I ever missed a whole week of school? — I will have to do some work to reconnect, to reset the climate, to re-establish my expectations. Although my student teacher has been at the helm for a week, I know there has been some confusion and some frustration.

Job one will be to hear from everyone — what did I miss? what do you want me to know?

Job two will be to provide clarity and reassurance — Yes, this is what we are working on, let me show you what it should look like, we’re all going to get through this together.

I’ll be doing all this in a mask, of course, because if you’ve been home with a positive case, and are symptom free after five days, you can return to real life, as long as you mask for 5 more days. Some of my colleagues have been masking all along — a few students, too. It’s not a bad idea, to continue using that precaution. I have opted to go mask free, even in my classroom because a) the mask is hot, b) I believe students hear and understand better when they can see my face, and c) two and a half years later, I just want Covid to be over.

This past week has been a reminder that it is indeed not over.

We’d been vaxed and double-boosted, of course, but I’d been pushing off the latest booster for a weekend when “I don’t have anything going on.” Sigh.

We’d had a bit going on, of course. The week before we tested positive, my husband and I had been at a conference with a couple hundred people. Later that week we had attended a celebration dinner with a couple hundred more. In neither setting did we mask. In fact, both events were rich with people we hadn’t seen in a long time, so we hugged, we chatted, we laughed.

Did we catch Covid at one of those events or just in our normal everyday interactions with students and coworkers? It’s hard to tell, but catch it we did.

As someone who experienced Covid early on — in the fall of 2020 — I will say the second time wasn’t easier. In fact, I think I was hit harder — more symptoms, more severe fatigue. Perhaps because we are vaxed, we were able to recover at home and didn’t have the severe symptoms that sometimes send folks to the hospital. For that, we are thankful.

But we still missed out — on a week of work, on several appointments we’d had scheduled, on a visit from our granddaughters. That last one hurt the most.

Nevertheless, we are on the road to recovery and hopefully ready to merge back into reality.

And, for the foreseeable future, reality includes Covid.

I’m obviously still trying to figure out what that means for me. For the coming week, at least, I’ll be masked in the classroom and I will stay away from any type of gathering, but after that, will I resume living as though we are post-Covid when the last week as taught me that we certainly are not?

I want to say that I have been transformed, that I will consistently mask and avoid large gatherings, and maybe I will, at least for a season, but my guess is that as the memory of this past week fades, I will likely gradually ease back “normal”. I’m not sure it’s the wisest course of action, though, so I wouldn’t mind if you joined me in praying about it.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to him.

James 1:5

And, we’re off!

We just finished the second week of school and let me just say: All. Cylinders. Are. Firing.

From Monday morning at 8am to Friday afternoon at 4, the weeks are gonna be full, full, full.

Let me give you a glimpse. Mondays and Thursdays I spend three blocks — that’s 300 minutes –with seniors and one half block (50 minutes) with a small group of freshmen. From first thing in the morning until the very end of the day, all systems are go.

This past week, my seniors learned how we will respect one another in the classroom, explored my syllabus, and took the semester pre-test to show me what they already know. We also reviewed their SAT scores and had what I call “Real Talk” about where we are and where we are trying to be by the end of the school year. My students (and most students of color in urban areas across the country) have been broadly underserved educationally and their SAT scores show it. They’ve been underserved, and then they’ve spent their whole high school experience dealing with a pandemic. That’s right, my seniors went into lock-down as freshmen, spent their entire sophomore year “learning” remotely, came back for a repeatedly disrupted junior year, and are now trying to fully re-engage and prepare for college.

I need them to know from day one that we’ve got work to do. I don’t mince words. I say, “Look, we’ve got to look reality straight in the face if we want to accomplish our goals this year.”

“Sheesh, Mrs. Rathje, I feel like giving up right now.”

“Oh, we’re not giving up. Let’s pause for five minutes to catch our breath, but then we are right back to it.”

They took a 5 minute break, I called them back, and we were rolling — no time to waste here.

My freshmen — sweet babies — were hand selected because although most every freshmen in our building is trailing behind Common Core benchmarks, this little group of mine is the furthest behind of everyone. I spent the past couple weeks getting to know them, assessing their reading skills, and beginning to engage them in the arduous task of finding and filling in gaps in their literacy learning, getting their buy-in, establishing norms for how we behave in Mrs. Rathje’s class, and holding them to my expectations.

This little class, which meets every day from noon to 12:50 (pray for me!), has been 1 part “real talk”, 2 parts “you can do this!’, 1 parts “this is what we are doing”, and 1 part “this is what we are definitely NOT doing”. They are immature and a bit squirrely, but for whatever reason, they respect me and they know I am not playing. They lean in — they want to learn. And guys, the work we are doing is not easy or fun — I’m making them learn/remember very basic phonetic rules — we’re counting vowels, breaking words into syllables, clapping them out, and even playing games with flashcards.

Yesterday, at the end of our class, when the white board was covered with our notes — the words we broke up and the outline of the book we are reading, one of my students asked, “Mrs. Rathje, do you leave this on your board for your other students to see?”

“No, I do not. I will cover it all up. They won’t even know it’s here. I’ve got you.”

And the whole group collectively sighed.

They couldn’t have a bunch of seniors knowing that they are reading about what animals do in the winter, that they were discovering what the author’s claim was, that they had to break the word hi-ber-nate into chunks, or that we’re all learning the word adapTAtion.

And that’s just Monday and Thursday.

On Tuesday and Friday I meet with my freshmen, of course, but I also have about 300 minutes on each of those days for other tasks. Last week I filled those minutes by writing lesson plans, completing a reading assessment with a freshman, meeting with my instructional coach, returning emails, calling parents, supporting my student teacher, creating materials, grading assignments, and recording grades. The time fills up fast, and I often find myself scrambling to finish “one last thing” before I walk to my car at the end of the day.

I haven’t mentioned Wednesday yet. Wednesdays are typically what we call a “sprint” schedule. We see all seven of our classes in one day on a shortened schedule –typically less than 40 minutes per period with one additional period for social-emotional learning. This past Wednesday was an exception. All of our ninth through eleventh graders had to take the Academic Approach assessment which is a pre-test for the PSAT and SAT. It is computer-based and takes 3-4 hours. Because the seniors didn’t have to take this test, we decided to a) get them out of the building to limit distractions for the underclassmen, and b) get them on their first college visit.

Students filling out applications at EMU

Wednesday morning I found myself on a bus with 50 seniors and four other chaperones riding to Eastern Michigan University. Our students spent a few hours learning about EMU’s programs and touring the campus. Then, we boarded the bus and headed back to Detroit where we dismissed the students and I returned to preparing for the long day of instruction I would have on Thursday.

And before I new it, I was gathering my things on Friday afternoon, loading them into my car, and making the trek home. The week had flown by.

Not only were my days full, I had commitments at night, too.

On Monday, I left work to drive almost an hour to Chelsea where I have physical therapy about once a month. (I do still have to practice self-care if I want to keep pushing on the gas so steadily with my students.)

Tuesday was my first virtual meeting for the educational policy fellowship I am participating in this year where I learned that my working group will focus on policies that impact students’ post-secondary plans.

By Wednesday, I was out of gas. My husband was out of town, so I showered, crawled into jammies, and ate popcorn and garden vegetables while watching Arrested Development. Sometimes a girl’s just got to shut down.

Thursday night was for mental health therapy, and Friday night was for eating curry, watching Netflix, and nodding off to The Great British Baking Show — good old faithful wholesomeness to end the week.

And now? Now I continue to rest and refuel for the weekend because by the time you are reading this, we’ll be back in motion.

Teaching is hard work, but it’s good work. Teachers watch transformation happen right before their eyes — we set the climate and expectations, and because our experience tells us it’s going to happen, we wait and watch in expectation. It won’t be long before my little baby freshmen are reading like professionals telling me the author’s claim and supporting themselves with evidence or before my seniors are texting me from college saying, “Mrs. Rathje, I’m here! I’m setting up my dorm right now!”

We won’t get there by idling or pulling into the garage. No. The only way we’ll get there is by the everyday progress that happens by continually firing on all cylinders.

He who began a good work will complete it.

Philippians 1:6

Getting Ready

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

I’m getting closer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s me, Kristin.”

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

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

Act justly…love mercy…walk humbly

Micah 6:8

Not Quite Ready

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

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

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

Not yet.

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

I’m just not ready.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It won’t be long.

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

…in quietness and trust is your strength…”

Isaiah 30:15

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