A Little Help?

As you may have read, I moved my teaching life back into the classroom last week, hoping that my students — the seniors who have been moved back and forth from remote to in-person instruction over and over since March 2020 — would join me there. I planned my classes, rearranged desks that had been moved during the roof repair, opened up windows to let in fresh air (and to lower the boiler-heated room’s temperature to a setting somewhere close to “less-than-suffocating”), and positioned myself at my threshold, mustering all the “we’re back” enthusiasm I could find.

And they came.

Well, some came.

Our students trickled in on Monday, looking around skeptically as though asking, “are we really back? Are we actually going to stay this time?”

I started class by assuring them that yes, we should be back for good this time and by re-setting expectations — again.

“Your phones need to be down; your eyes need to be up. Learning requires engagement — a choosing to attend, to try, to open the mind.”

But for some, it seemed too much.

Take Darren*. Darren has been with me all year. He has not just one class with me, but two. He is in ELA IV, the required class for all seniors, and he is also in 12 Writing, an elective for a handful of seniors who are most likely to move on to a 4-year college.

All year he has struggled — mostly to stay engaged and stay awake. Once he gets started, he is typically able to complete any assignment I give him, but it’s the starting that’s the thing. After all, if he doesn’t start, he can’t finish.

I don’t have a clear picture of what’s going on at Darren’s home, even though I’ve met his mom a couple of times.

I know he loves basketball, even though he’s not on the team.

I know he wants to be an athletic trainer, even though he’s not currently connected to any sports.

I know he’s been accepted to college, even though there’s a seemingly impossible-to-fix issue with his FAFSA, and even though when he walked in last Monday, he was failing ALL — yes, ALL — of his classes.

Why? Because the whole time we were working from home, he didn’t have a charger for his laptop or the $35 to replace it. He couldn’t fix this problem, he had missed four weeks worth of assignments, and he didn’t see a way to climb out of this hole and make it to graduation.

So he walked in to class with his ear buds in, turned up his music, put his head down, and went to sleep.

I tried to wake him — once, twice, three times — but he wasn’t staying up.

Rather than just let him check out, I called our behavior interventionist, who took him for a walk. I’d hoped he’d wake Darren up and bring him back — but I’d lost him for that day.

It was that very day that I had posted my most recent blog, “Under These Circumstances.” While Darren was out walking to wake up, I received a message from a dear friend I’ve known for more than 40 years who said he’d read my blog. He said, “I just sent you [a gift] in memory of my dear friend and high school instructor who passed away on April 3. In his will he asked that his estate be used for progressive social change in America….if that doesn’t describe you and what you do, nothing does.”

My jaw dropped — the amount he’d sent would allow me to incentivize my students for the remainder of this year and into next fall and give me the freedom to help when situations arise, and in my context, they do always seem to arise. I was buoyed by the encouragement and by God’s way of providing for my students, which He has done consistently from the moment I took this position.

On my way home that day, I used these newly gifted resources to stop and restock on snacks, prizes, and a few essentials. As I was paying, I requested a little cash back, just in case.

The next day, Tuesday, Darren came back to my class, and his routine from Monday began to repeat. The headphones went in, his head went down, and he began to fall asleep. We were in the middle of the research paper that would be the major grade for the semester. If he opted out, he would certainly remove all possibility of passing, and I was not about to have it.

“You are not quitting,” I said with my jaw set, “you are too close.”

“It’s no use,” he replied. “There’s no way I can make up all that I missed. I don’t have a charger. There’s no sense in trying.”

“That’s not true. You just have to get started. It’s one step at a time. Just start with what we are doing today. Have you asked about getting a charger?”

“It’s $35. I don’t have that. It’s no sense in getting started. I can’t get caught up.”

That was it for me. I walked to my wallet, got $35 of the cash that had been provided the day before, and said, “Darren, come with me.”

I asked the teacher across the hall to keep an eye on my class, the rest of whom were working on their research, minus the one who had already been sent out because he was throwing up [it’s all part of a day in the life of a teacher, friends].

Darren reluctantly dragged behind my Momma-Ratch-on-a-mission pace as we trekked to the office where we could get a charger. At the door to the office was our vice principal, a great champion of our students. I told him what was going on, enlisted him in my conversation with Darren, and made it clear to him and to Darren that under no circumstances was I going to allow a student who was this close to graduation, who had been accepted to a four-year university, who had a dream to be an athletic trainer, to sleep out the last four weeks of the semester.

That ain’t how Mrs. Rathje works. Not today. Not any day.

The vice principal encouraged Darren, told him we were on his team, and let him know that we would support him every step of the way to graduation. His tone was encouraging and not quite as in-your-face as mine was that morning, Darren seemed to hear us, even if he wasn’t sure he believed us.

The Vice Principal said, “You can still do this; you’ve got to believe me.”

Darren said, “It’s too late; It’s not possible.”

I said, “It is possible. We’ve been down this road many times. We wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true. We’ll believe it for you until you believe it for yourself.”

I glanced at my watch. We’d been in the hallway about five minutes; I knew I had to get back to the others.

“Come on, you’ve got work to do. Let’s get to it.”

Darren shuffled back into the classroom behind me.

Over the next few days, with plenty of prodding and encouragement, he got to work. By the end of the week, Darren was passing ALL –yes ALL — of his classes.

He’d needed us to insist. He’d needed some resources. He’d needed an intervention. He’d needed a village.

Countless Darrens are trying to sleep in classrooms across the country, and they need us. They need us to believe with and for them that it’s not too late. We need to show them with our time, with our money, and with our whole bodies.

Why? Because they’ve seen all kinds of evidence that it’s not going to work out. That there is, in fact, no use.

If I’ve learned anything in my years of teaching, in my years of living, in my years of falling flat on my face, it’s that no one is beyond the point of no return. Restoration is always a possibility, but when we find ourselves deep in a pit, we often need some assistance before we can take the first few steps.

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,

    when it is in your power to act.

Proverbs 3:27

With thanks to all who have prayed for, encouraged, supported, and helped me take my first few steps.

*As always, I have changed the name of this particular student.

Under these Circumstances

I am packing my bags and loading up my car — again.

This morning I will drag materials back into the classroom — again.

I’ve been teaching in a Zoom room from our home since March 25 — more than a month — again!

And it’s not because of Covid this time!

My students and I have been in and out of the building multiple times this year. In fact, I can’t even remember how many times we moved to virtual and then returned to the classroom. Sure, it’s been convenient to have the option to move to a Zoom room when Covid numbers are high or staff counts are low. It’s great that we have the technology in place so that we can be flexible, but let me tell you, these students — especially the seniors, who have had to be flexible since March of their sophomore year — have had to bounce back an extraordinary number of times, and their resiliency is waning.

This last move to virtual proved too much for many, and it could have been avoided.

Here’s the thing, though — many of the inequities my students face every.damn.day could be avoided.

Picture if you will, if any school in a predominantly middle or upper class community — dare I say, any typical white community — would tolerate any of the following:

A parking lot with a crater-like gaping hole the size of 3-4 parking spaces that regularly fills with water.

Classrooms heated by a hard-to-control boiler that often reach temperatures upwards of 80 degrees, some of which only have 2-3 working windows that must be propped open to lower the class temperature to an only partially-stifling point.

No air conditioning — so, again with the windows and an elaborate system of fans and cords that create an obstacle course throughout the classroom.

And, until this week, a disintegrating roof. I mean, the materials were literally falling off the sides of the building. When a heavy rain came last summer, the gym floor was covered, wall-to-wall, with more than a quarter inch of water.

What would you do if your child went to school under these conditions? Would you complain? Would you pull them out? Or can you not even imagine such circumstances?

Let me tell, you, friends, these kinds of “circumstances” have been normalized in city schools, predominantly serving students of color, for literal generations. This is not the first time I have worked under such conditions or witnessed them first hand — in Detroit, in St. Louis, and in cities across the country. Such “circumstances” have become so normalized, that the students who attend these schools [and many of the teachers who serve there] can not even imagine any alternative circumstances.

And what does that do to you? What does it do to your sense of safety, security, and self-worth, to day after day, walk into an aging building in disrepair? Do you feel valued, encouraged, celebrated? In that building can you be inspired to learn, to achieve, to hope?

Now, let me tell you, that our building leadership was well aware of the issues of this problem building that we lease from a major religious body in Detroit. They had been asking for roof repair, window repair, etc., etc. I am not privy to the full story, but I do know that we are under contract with a long-term lease and that the people on the other side of that lease required legal pressure to finally agree to get the roof repaired.

I watched the contractors, a whole team of middle aged white men (I am just reporting the facts; I am not making them up) came, climbed up on the roof, measuring tapes in hand, laughing and joking in the middle of our school day. Then, a couple weeks later, we were informed that the lessor of this building had scheduled the roof repair — which from my understanding was like a whole new roof — for Spring Break and the week after. That would be the last week of March and the first week of April.

I don’t know if you’ve been to Michigan, but March and April are very unpredictable when it comes to weather. In those two weeks, we might’ve had rain, snow, sleet, hail, or sunny days in the 70s. It was a coin toss heavily weighted toward inclement weather.

And I bet you can imagine which way that coin landed. It landed the way my students often experience it to land — in a way that would further disadvantage them.

The rain and the snow came and came, and the roofing project stretched out. The students could not be in the building during the project — obviously — so for an entire month they were at home, in their beds, or at their jobs, or caring for their siblings, or fully and completely checked out of the educational process.

And can we blame them?

What would your children do under these circumstances? Would they muscle through? Would they take one for the team? Would they “do what had to be done” because “it is what it is”?

Please do not answer that question unless your child has, since his earliest days, experienced school in a setting like the one I’ve described, where even before Covid, he likely didn’t have a fully-staffed school, or after school programming, or sports, or arts, or any of the things that we (middle class white folk) count on to inspire our kids to love learning, and achievement, and excellence.

We. do. not. know. what this experience is like. We have not lived it.

But I am bearing witness to it — again — and I am angry.

Why?

Because the last month of virtual learning pushed many of my seniors over the edge. They are beyond caring. They may not have all the credits they need to graduate in just five weeks.

Take that in.

Yes, some hung in there. They came to the zoom room. They showed up. They opted in.They worked hard. They finished strong. And their grades show it.

But many didn’t, wouldn’t, or just couldn’t. They might’ve gone to work to earn some money during this time — like one of my students who got a job as a nurse’s aide and did her 40-hour in-person training last week. They might’ve been needed for their families’ needs — like one of my students who cares for her disabled mother and uncle whenever she is at home. They might’ve stayed high the whole.damn.month — like a few of my students have said that they do whenever we go virtual.

I have not one ounce of judgment for them. Instead I am disgusted that we allow this system to continue. That we do not pour resources into our communities of color to show these students — these kids who are created and loved by God — that we, also, love them. That we want to see them learn, thrive, and grow. We want them to have a hope and a future. I want them to see that we are willing to say hard things, to put our money where it matters, and to hold people accountable so that all students — these students — my students — our students — all of our freaking students — can walk into a building in the morning where they feel comfortable, safe, secure, welcome, supported, and encouraged.

That is not too much to ask.

If your children do not, or have not had to learn under the circumstances I’ve described, I am happy for them. No child should have to.

Do you hear me? No child should have to. What, my friends, are you willing to do to make sure that not one more child has to go to school under these circumstances?

For my part, and the part of the dedicated professionals I work with, we will show up tomorrow morning before our kids do. We will stand at the thresholds of our doors. We will welcome the students into our rooms, calling them by name, and not giving them any amount of crap for whatever they chose to do over the last month.

We will re-set expectations, examine the reality of each of their situations, and do whatever we can to encourage, support, guide, and even carry our students across the finish line.

Why? Because we do believe that each of these kids matter, regardless of their zip code, skin color, family income, or educational history. We believe they have a hope and a future.

We cannot continue to do this alone. Teachers are leaving the profession in droves because the system is broken and it won’t continue to be tenable under these circumstances.

Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.

Psalm 82:3

*I encourage you to look in your community for ways that you can let every child know that he or she matters.

**As always, if you want to help support, guide, and carry our students across the finish line, please email me krathje66@gmail.com for my current wish list.

Providing the Little Things

Click to listen (please ignore the sounds of me wrangling a cat while I read.)

Last fall, when I was prepping my classroom for the return of students who had been learning from home for a year and a half, I had no idea what to expect, but I knew that job one was going to be building relationships and fostering trust. How would I do that? Well, first I wanted to create a space that was inviting, supplied, and intentional so that my students would know I was looking forward to them — that I had prepared for them.

I loaded my bookshelves with classics and young adult fiction in a variety of genres. I arranged my desks to allow social distance for Covid. I put up a few welcoming posters and organized an area in my room where students could go to “chill”. I stopped at Lowe’s and picked up a full-length mirror and mounted it on the wall right inside my classroom, hoping that students would stop by to check their outfits, their hair, their face, and that they might stay to chat.

That was really my goal — the chatting. After talking into an almost silent Zoom room for a whole school year, I was longing for conversation, for bonding, for what my school calls “life-altering relationships”.

In my years as a teacher, I have learned that one way to draw students in is to have what they need — band aids, school supplies, feminine hygiene products, deodorant, and an endless supply of snacks. All teachers know this, of course, but the continual purchase of such items can be costly, and though we are committed to our students, we also have our own bills to pay.

About the time I was getting ready to go back to school, I posted a blog about Critical Race Theory. At the end of that post, I typed a short note inviting my readers to partner with me in loving my students, and boy did you! Just a few weeks after that post, I wrote again about the amazing response I had from long time friends and new acquaintances.

You sent snacks, school supplies, feminine hygiene products, small prizes for my students to earn like chapstick, pop sockets, pens, stickers, hand sanitizers, lotions, and the like. You also sent cash that allowed me to purchase more than 100 composition books, gift cards, and weekly replenishments for my snack supply. Your generosity carried me all the way through February!! What a blessing!

And has it worked? Oh my, has it worked!

It took a little while, but I now have a steady stream of students in and out of my classroom all day every day — seniors that I teach and know, and more recently, underclassmen who dare to pop in and ask, “can I look in your mirror?” or “do you have anything to eat?”

I’ve said it all along, if you feed them, they will come, and boy, do they come.

They show up in the morning when the school-provided breakfast looks less than appetizing — a cold plain bagel and a condiment-sized packet of cream cheese sealed together in a plastic pouch and partnered with an 8oz box of juice.

They come mid-morning when they realize they didn’t get any kind of breakfast because they were running late.

Over lunch, when I’m catching my breath, trying to get a little planning or grading done, or checking email, they come again when they’ve been presented with what they call “prison food” — one of a handful of options that are prepared off-site, packaged, and set out in our gym/cafeteria.

They come after school, hoping to grab something before they climb on the bus.

“Do you have anything to eat Mrs. Rathje?”

I pull out a small basket I keep behind my desk. It usually has a variety of breakfast bars, granola bars, or pop tarts. They take what they want, and sometimes they stick around to chat, to share some news, or to just sit in a desk in a quiet space. When they leave, they usually throw “Thanks, Mrs. Rathje” over their shoulder.

They have let me know their preferences, of course. They’d prefer that I have a suitcase-size bin of Slim Jims at the ready along with a wheelbarrow full of Takis or Flaming Hot Cheetos. “Don’t you have any juice, Mrs. Rathje?” Sometimes, when they have earned a reward, I do bring juice and chips, but for my regular offerings, I try to provide something with a little nutritional value that I can purchase economically.

Since February, each Wednesday morning, the first period of the day is devoted to social-emotional learning. My small first period class spends time developing communication, building relationships, and learning vocabulary to match their emotions. It’s a big ask to get high school seniors to engage in this type of work at 8:15 on a weekday morning in the last few months of their high school careers, so I lure them in with bananas, clementines, apple juice, and some type of breakfast bar. They’ve been showing up, if a little late, eating the snacks I provide, and engaging with this curriculum — breaking into groups, learning each other’s names (surprisingly, some have changed schools so often they don’t know all of their classmates!), and sharing out with the whole class.

Also on Wednesdays, I open the Rathje Store. My students earn raffle tickets — one per completed assignment — and on Wednesdays they can use those tickets to purchase the items I have in my store. One ticket for one Slim Jim, three tickets for a chapstick, 5 tickets for a T-shirt or a knit hat. They can also choose to throw a ticket into the weekly drawing; the winner gets their choice of any available prize.

I also keep a substantial supply of candy that I use for a variety of purposes — to reward students who are not on their phones, to calm the cravings of a desperate teacher who shows up at my door (“Rathje, you got any chocolate?””), or to acknowledge a class that has been particularly on task.

I’ve also got bandaids, Motrin, a huge supply of feminine products that I’ve been using to fill a “take what you need” basket in the ladies’ room, and a tea kettle that’s always ready to pour out when someone is running low on caffeine.

Why do I go to all this trouble? Can’t kids just come to school and learn without all this stuff? Without the snacks, the prizes, the candy, the supplies?

They can, and they’ve had to, but who among us hasn’t found ourselves in a situation where we just needed a little something to eat, a little encouragement when the going is tough, a simple reward for doing the thing you were supposed to do anyway? Doesn’t it make a difference for us when someone thinks about our needs even before we know we have them?

I think it does; in fact, I see the evidence.

One young man comes to my room every single day at lunch after having escaped the lunch room undetected. He doesn’t like much of what is offered there, so he comes to see what I have. I think he hopes I’ll somehow have a slice of pizza or a couple of cheese burgers, but he surveys the items I offer, which don’t vary much from day to day, and grabs something, often suggesting what else I should have on hand. If I engage with him, he’ll stay and talk my whole prep period, but usually, I ask him a question or two then send him on his way. I know I’ll see him in class, and I know he’ll be back tomorrow., just like he knows that I will always be in my room, and I will always have something for him to eat.

It’s a small thing, but it’s not really, is it?

In my experience, an accumulation of small things ends up being a pretty big thing. If my goal was building relationships and fostering trust, I believe you have helped me achieve that this year.

Thank you.

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,

    when it is in your power to act.”

Psalm 3:27

*If you know a teacher in your community, ask them what you can do to help them love their students.

**If you would like to partner with me in loving my Detroit charter school students, you can email me at krathje66@gmail.com for my wish list, Venmo, and CashApp information.

Scenes from Room 106

Click to listen to this post.

After twelve days at home, I headed back to my classroom in Detroit last Monday.

I lugged in snacks and prizes, two laptops, and my lunch, then prepared to meet my students who had been on winter break. Some of our students love breaks — time to sleep, work at their jobs, and scroll on their phones. Others dread breaks — more time in somewhat chaotic or hostile environments, less food security, and less predicability. I try to keep that in mind as I stand at my door watching them walk down the halls. My students, unlike students in other districts, did not go to Cancun or Miami over their break; they likely spent their time in their bedroom, behind the counter of a Subway or a Panera, or in a car with a family member, attending to medical appointments, groceries, or other family responsibilities.

I can’t know or imagine what they experienced on their “winter break”. Instead, I try to keep my eyes and ears open to see and hear what my students are saying [and not saying] to me so that I can respond with care, and “care” can look like a lot of different things.

One of the first to enter my room last Monday was Damon*. Damon has been in two of my classes all year — required senior English class and an elective writing class. He’s not always motivated; in fact, he often falls asleep. My approach with him has been mostly compassionate and firm. At the end of the first semester, after he had procrastinated on the major project for the quarter and asked me in front of the whole class in the Zoom room to walk him through the past three weeks of instruction so that he could finish the work on time, I came down a little more than firm. “Damon, this is not how it works. You can’t opt out of three weeks worth of instruction and then expect me to use class time in one-on-one support to carry you through. This is a habit that I have seen in you that will not fly in college. You’ve got to get it together.” I stopped speaking for just long enough to hear him leave the Zoom meeting. I’d come down a little too hard, even if all I’d said was true. He didn’t return to class that day, and he didn’t turn in the assignment. When he came to class the following week, I pulled him aside, apologized, and urged him to fully opt in moving forward. He mostly has, with intermittent gentle shoulder shoves and admonitions from me.

Last Monday morning, as he met me at my threshold, he said, “Mrs. Rathje, I won’t be here tomorrow. I’m going to Ferris State to register.” I enthusiastically put up my hand for a high five and said, “Way to go, Damon! That’s amazing!” because even though he often struggles to stay engaged even at the high school level, he is believing [and so is his mom] that he can take this next step. Now is not the time for me to tell him how hard it’s going to be, how many supports he’s going to have to reach out for, or how likely it is that he might actually fail this first attempt. Not today– today is for high-fives and encouragement.

Later that same day, I was wrangling my last hour class into some semblance of order so that we could tackle the days’ content. By the time this class starts at 1:20pm, I’ve already had 200 minutes worth of seniors, so I’m running low on gas. This group challenges me. Thy are tired, too. They talk too much, they play too much, they can’t find their seats, and they certainly don’t want to learn about the context in which Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime was written. Nevertheless, I set my expectations and acknowledge those who are following instructions. However, several are still not with me, and then one too many disrespectful comments later, I hit my limit and start in: “This is unacceptable. Your phones need to be down; your eyes need to track me. This is not just for this class. Right now is your opportunity to build muscle for whatever you are facing next. This type of behavior will not be allowed on a job site or in a college classroom. You will be asked — you’ll be told — to leave. Your behavior is disrespectful and childish. You can do better, and I am insisting on better.” The eyes roll, and the derogatory comments leak out quietly, but the room has quieted a bit. I proceed with the lesson. I walk through the notes, instruct my students to open a document in Google classroom, then break them into groups and tell them to get started. I hear James* who sits near the front of the room, say “This internet sucks,” under his breath as he tries to open the document on his phone. Where his laptop is I don’t have the strength to ask right now.

I walk around the room supporting as most work to find contextual information about South Africa, apartheid, Nelson Mandela, and Trevor Noah, when James looks at me beaming, “Mrs. Rathje, guess what I just did?” I am not sure I want to engage since he’s still holding his phone and his answer may include information about high school drama, Tiktok, or something else I don’t care to know about, but he seems so excited that I ask, “What did you do?” He replies, “I just paid my phone bill! Now I don’t have to use this terrible wifi.”

“James!” I say, forgetting any frustration I felt just a few minutes ago, “that’s impressive! You must feel so accomplished. Paying a phone bill is no small thing!”

He replies, “Oh, I been paying my phone bill since I was twelve. That ain’t new.” And that comment reminds me that sometimes my students act childishly perhaps because they’ve handled adult responsibilities way too early. I can still insist they meet my expectations, but I can do so with the knowledge that they are already carrying a lot — much of which I remain unaware.

On Thursday, I handed out Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s memoir about growing up in South Africa during and after apartheid. I directed my students to the opening pages, clicked an arrow on Audible, and we followed along as Trevor Noah began his story. I moved around the room, pointed out where we were, and stopped frequently to direct my students to a reading guide so they could answer questions to check for understanding, We were about half way through the first chapter when I noticed that they were engrossed. I could tell because they turned their pages in unison, laughed at the funny parts, and began to move easily between the book and the reading guide. I was beaming. Though this might seem like a baseline expectation for a classroom full of seniors, in my classroom, it is notable.

Even more notable were the comments as we wrapped up for the day, “This is a good book!” and “I can’t wait to hear what happens next.”

I can’t possibly in 1500 words or less convey to you the complexity of simultaneously holding seniors accountable for being mature and responsible while cheering them on as they navigate the difficult and celebrating when they engage in the ordinary. I can’t describe how full my heart feels when they share themselves with me — their anticipation for a college visit, their pride in paying a bill, their enjoyment of a story. I can’t expect you to understand how blessed I feel to share space with these developing humans. You’ll have to take my word for it.

establish the work of our hands for us— yes, establish the work of our hands.

Psalm 90:17

Coronavirus Diary 34: Teacher [extra] Tired

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?”

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

“Ok!”

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

A colleague texted, “Did you hear?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ephesians 4:32

Coronavirus Diary #33: Back to School…Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cue the carrying of screens and materials to our cars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you

Psalm 55:22

Time for Refreshing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buckle up, kids, here I come!

I will refresh the weary and satisfy the faint.

Jeremiah 31:25

Teacher Tired

Click the arrow to listen to me read this post.

It was a long first quarter.

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

Then, this past week was extra busy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not even a little bit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proverbs 3:27

Health Check

A friend asked me recently, “How are you doing with pain now that you’re back in the classroom?”

I appreciated her asking — it was an acknowledgement that she remembered how far I had come and that my move back to the classroom was not taken without much prayerful consideration regarding the impact such a move could have on my health after the years-long journey I have just taken.

It’s a good time to ask because a) last year wasn’t a real test since the students were learning from a distance and the physical demands were not as great and b) we’re now back in person, and the first quarter will end on Friday.

It’s an important question, too, because this blog started when I had to leave my teaching career due to health issues. I was struggling with pain, fatigue, and issues with my skin and eyes, and I just couldn’t bring quality care and instruction to my students in that condition.

My body, it seems, had gone on strike after years of overwork complicated by a failure to process my emotions or take care of myself. Inflammation was so prevalent in my body that I could feel it– it bubbled into my joints making them hot and stiff, it irritated my skin causing scaliness and itching, it inflamed my eyes sending me time and time again to a specialist for treatment.

Many times I’d landed on the couch or in my bed for days at a time. In the early years of my recovery, I had to lie down several times a day even though I slept 8-10 hours a night. I often found myself limping through the house or lying on the bathroom floor waiting to throw up. I was miserable, and I couldn’t imagine a time when I would be able to return to the rigor of the classroom.

However, over six long years, I learned strategies that began to reduce those symptoms and that have kept me on a path to improved health. Among those strategies is a diet that is rich fruits, vegetables, chicken, rice, and fish, and that avoids gluten, dairy, beans, and corn. I also exercise every day, write every day, and see a therapist, a physical therapist, a chiropractor, and a masseuse. When I do all of these things on a regular schedule, and get plenty of rest, I mostly stay well.

The progress has been slow and incremental, just as my return to working has been.

If you’ve been tracking the saga, you know that I didn’t work at all for six months, then I started by tutoring and proofreading. I moved on to part-time work in an educational agency, then progressed to teaching part-time as a college adjunct instructor. From there, I moved back to the agency and eventually worked full-time in a leadership role, but I still didn’t believe I would ever have the capacity to teach in a classroom full of students, managing their learning, their emotions, and their movements five days a week.

It was at this time, about almost six years into recovery, that Covid hit. We as a nation were knocked down by this highly contagious pandemic, and, as we social distanced from one another, we had some time and space within which other ailments — widespread poverty, systemic racism, educational inequity, and the like — became more evident.

The situation looked familiar to me because I had just lived through something similar — autoimmunity had knocked me down and forced me to take some time and space to recognize that I hadn’t been attending to my mental or physical health or to that of my family. I had to acknowledge that they were suffering, too.

And as I observed our nation’s symptoms in real time, something just clicked. It was like I had been training and preparing for this moment. I was in good shape and ready to step back in the ring, and if I was going to do it — if I was going to put myself out there and see if I still had the juice — I was going to do it in a place where I could turn the dial, be it ever so slightly, by identifying and using strategies that might reduce the impact of poverty, racism, and trauma for students who had been knocked down the hardest.

If you’ve been reading along for the last year, you know that I am intoxicated by the opportunity I’ve been given at Detroit Leadership Academy — I can’t keep my mouth shut about it.

But that didn’t answer my friend’s question, did it? How am I doing with pain now that I am back in the classroom full time?

I’d say I’m doing better than I might’ve hoped for. As I’m writing this, I’m tired, and I’m on the second day of a headache. I’m not surprised. It’s the weekend before the final week of the first quarter. We are still short one staff person, plus we’ve had one out due to Covid for over a week. I’m working in a setting that is rich with trauma and the impacts of trauma, and it shows. The students are tired, and worn, and often quite raw. I see all of this, and it weighs on my heart.

And, if I’ve learned anything through this journey, it’s that emotions are stored in the body. My students’ bodies show it, and my body shows it.

So, yes, I do have some pain — in my heart, but also almost always in my right sacroiliac joint, often in my low back, a little less in my hips and neck, and today in my head, and much to my dismay, my left eye.

That left eye — he’s the lookout — he always lets me know when I have pushed too far, when I need to take a down day, when I need to attend to self-care. Today I think he’s shouting because on top of a long week, I pushed a little further on Friday night, went out to dinner with my husband and a coworker, then travelled through a downpour to an away football game where my students were playing against a team with far greater resources — a well-lit turf field, cheerleaders, a marching band, and stands that were 1/3 full even in the downpour. Our side of the field had about a dozen fans including us. Our guys, after arriving late because the contracted transportation was late picking them up, fought hard, but they were outmatched; the final score was 42-6. The other team was jubilant — they had claimed their victory. Our team was despondent — their hopes were dashed. It felt emblematic of the divide in our country — the inequity of resources and opportunity I see in my work every day and the impact that inequity has on the lived experiences of students like mine. It was hard to watch.

We got home after 10:30, damp and chilled, and I crawled into bed to sleep. Through the night I felt a headache and some nausea. This morning, my body has the hum of inflammation — the heat and a quiet vibration that calls for my attention. Less subtly, my eye is shouting, “For the Love of God, take a break!”

So, I’m spending my morning writing and doing some yoga. Next, I’ll eat a breakfast of non-inflammatory foods, slowly go pick up some groceries, then come home, sit on the couch, and watch some football.

I’ll take the weekend to rest, recover, worship, and see some friends, and by Monday, I should be ready to step back into it again.

It takes vigilance to stay well — everyday attention to self care that puts the oxygen mask on myself before it dares to assist the person next to me. It’s counterintuitive to how I always imagined I was supposed to live — squaring my shoulders, gritting my teeth, muscling through, grinning and bearing it — and it’s a better, richer way.

I have way more gas in my tank, way more capacity to put my work down when students gather in my room like they did on Friday morning — a bunch of seniors huddled around my desk, asking for snacks, chatting, busting on each other, making me laugh.

Pain? Sure, I have pain; my students do, too. Somehow, we’ve landed in the same space, and we are learning how to be together, how to learn from each other, and, on the richest of days, how to laugh with one another.

For this, I am so thankful, and so committed to staying the course and attending to my wellness so that I can keep on showing up for these kids.

He picked me up

And He turned me around

And He placed my feet

On the solid ground

Hallelujah, hallelujah

Corey Asbury, “So Good To Me”

Rose-colored Glasses and Reality

Click the arrow to hear me read this post.

Since I re-entered the classroom last fall, I think I have been annoying some folks on my staff a bit. At least that’s the vibe I’m starting to pick up. Perhaps I’m a little too positive, a little too gung-hung, a little too happy-clappy.

I’ve not always been this way. I haven’t always interrupted staff meetings to say, “I really appreciate the thoughtfulness the leadership put into this decision,” or “Wow! Thank you so much for this meaningful professional development,” but after being away from the high school classroom for six years, thinking I’d never be back, I came to my little charter school in Detroit carrying an unbridled enthusiasm and wearing a lovely pair of rose-colored glasses.

You can almost hear the other teachers, most of whom have been trudging away in understaffed, under-resourced environments for most of their careers and who had recently closed out a school year that ended in an unanticipated three months of virtual instruction, saying, “Who is this woman? And why is she so happy?”

They didn’t ever say that out loud. In fact, I didn’t have any idea anyone was feeling that way until this fall when one teacher I’m growing closer to subtly implied that perhaps my positivity wasn’t firmly grounded in reality.

How could it be? I had been given a second chance at my career during a world-wide moment when everything was virtual. Reality was hard to get a grip on.

All last school year, I sat in my classroom alone, meeting with students who chose to log in to my Zoom room.Those who didn’t want to be there didn’t show up at all. I didn’t have to navigate noisy crowded hallways; I didn’t have to interact up close with the sometimes volatile emotions of high school students. I didn’t have to clean up messes, make copies on machines that sometimes get jammed, stand in line to use the faculty restroom, or cover a class when another teacher was out sick.

My first year back was a challenge, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t the typical Sisyphean grind that most teachers experience day after day, year after year. I was able to prepare, teach, and grade within the hours of the school day with very few exceptions. The classes I taught were similar to those I had taught in the past, and I was able to use my own materials that I had been developing for years. Other staff who had chosen to work from the building became my friends, joining me for walks on our lunch breaks. Every part of my position seemed tailor-made for me, and I was thrilled to be back!

I got excited every time a student logged into my classroom. The few rare times that we actually had students in the building, I gushed with enthusiasm, handing out gifts and prizes to anyone who crossed my path. I looked forward to faculty meetings and gladly answered the phone when anyone related to school — principal, coworker, parent, or even student — happened to call. I volunteered for opportunities such as a curriculum audit and mindfulness sessions, and I agreed to participate in a program for graduates over the summer.

I have been a cheerleader, literally clapping my hands, shouting “hooray”, and doing celebration dances for students and staff. I know, I know — perhaps it’s been a bit much.

But my colleagues can relax, because lately the rose-colored glasses haven’t been doing the trick. We started this school year in the flesh, and shit has been decidedly real.

I think we were “fully staffed” for four whole days, and that was before school even started. We lost one staff member before the students arrived and another within the second week. Not only did we have two fewer staff than we had planned on for the year, but we had a sudden need for an additional staff member when our freshmen class ended up being one and a half times as large as we thought it would be. Our HR department had just replaced the first two staff members that we lost early in the year and was still trying to find the additional teacher when another staff member resigned on the spot last week.

Why so much turnover? Because most teachers don’t experience what I had the privilege of experiencing last year. Most teachers work hard — very hard — with few, if any, breaks, and they do it for insubstantial pay. Teachers are leaving the profession in droves, and few young people are interested in entering the field. Our nation is experiencing a teacher shortage, which is especially felt in districts like mine where teaching can be even more challenging due to systemic inequities.

So, we’re still down two teachers, and Covid starts picking off first students and then staff. By the middle of last Monday, three key staff members had tested positive. Out of concern for student and staff safety, the decision was made to move to virtual instruction for two weeks. This news was to be communicated to students during the day on Tuesday.

When I walked into the building at 7:30 that morning, I felt wobbly. I think all of us did. We were extra short-staffed, and we all knew we’d be covering an extra class or two. The students, it seemed, were feeling it, too. The halls seemed louder, the classes a little more electric than usual.

About midday, as students got notification of the pending move to online instruction, the questions started coming. Why are we going to virtual? What about Homecoming — the dance is supposed to be this weekend?! The anxiety started building. I know it’s going to last longer than two weeks. I ‘m not coming to virtual class. I can’t do it again.

During the last period of the day, I was subbing for a class in which most of the seniors in the room were already disengaging. I tried, in futility, to get them to complete some of their work, to “get done what you can now before you are at home and don’t have the support.” Another teacher, whose room we were in, brought in a small group of underclassmen who were involved in “some trouble” in another room and needed to be removed. Since the vice principal was already backed up with other behavioral issues, we would have to house them until he had time. The two of us talked with students, answered questions, and tried to keep the atmosphere light until the final bell.

When it finally rang, and the students were dismissed, a handful of us teachers gathered in the hallway for a collective sigh. We hadn’t stood there long when we heard the yell of a staff member saying there was a fight in the parking lot and all of us were needed.

We ran out of the building to find chaos — a small cell of students involved in the actual fight and dozens of students moving about the parking lot instead of getting on their busses. What we had hoped would be a smooth transition to virtual instruction was anything but.

It made sense to me. The whole day had felt tenuous — not enough staff, impending change, and uncertainty about the future. I, a grown adult with years of therapy under my belt, had felt wobbly. How were teenagers, most of whom had experienced trauma after trauma after trauma, supposed to find any ground beneath their feet? How were they supposed to think logically, get on their busses, and go home trusting that we would indeed be back together in a couple short weeks?

The fight was soon dispersed, but not without injury, not without drama, not without the adrenaline and cortisol rush that witnessing chaos produces. Students who had missed their busses were picked up by parents or brought inside to wait for their rides, and staff wandered back to their rooms to hop on a Zoom meeting to discuss the details of Count Day which would coincide with our move to virtual instruction.

When the meeting was over, the same staff member who had gently chided me for my rose-colored glasses stopped by my room and pulled up a chair. We processed what had happened, shared our dismay, and acknowledged the reality within which we function, within which we have chosen to teach, within which we both believe we can make a difference — the messy, unpredictable, and sometimes volatile reality. Then, we loaded our computers into our cars and headed home.

The next day I sat in our home office, logged into my zoom room, and greeted each student who showed up with my overenthusiastic grin. I applauded the students who turned on their cameras, and I literally happy danced when a student told me that she had decided that she was going to go away to college after having resolved some personal issues that she had thought might keep her at home.

I think my happy-clappy self showed up not because I am wearing rose-colored glasses, but because I have fully acknowledged the reality within which my students live and move and have their being. Despite the fact that the challenges are many and varied, I am still a glass-three-quarters-full kind of gal. I think I have to be in order to see a path toward educational equity in spite of what I know to be true, to think that I can make a difference in the lives of my students and their families, and to believe that my experiences have brought me to this place for such a time as this.

The joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Nehemiah 8:10