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.

Rest and Return

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The summer is winding down and I (along with teachers across the country) am starting to move toward the classroom.

Feeling truly depleted at the end of last school year, I spent the first two weeks of summer break at home. I gardened, slept late, wrote a teeny little bit, read, walked, and cooked.

And then, when I was somewhat revived, my husband and I boarded a jet and headed west. We alit in the land of palms and headed to wide expanses of beach, spread out matching beach towels. and spent hours reading, sleeping, chatting, and staring in awe at the waves and the sky. We wandered inland and wondered at the mountains and the forests then returned to the beaches — some tame and populated, some rugged and bare.

We ate well, slept long, and walked for miles and miles.

We breathed deeply. We laughed. We restored.

When our vacation was over, he reported back to his responsibilities, and I returned to rest.

This past week, I found my way back to my desk and started to consider and prepare for the roles I will carry this fall. It will be my third year at my current school after a long season of physical and mental recovery, and it will be the most challenging yet.

Earlier in this blog, I have elaborated on the fact that many years of pushing too hard and failing to take care of myself or process any emotion had sidelined me from the classroom for several years. In 2020, I felt called back, and because we were in the midst of a pandemic, I had the privilege of easing back in through a year of teaching virtually followed by a year of some in-person and some virtual learning. I was able to get my feet under me with mostly no physical or emotional consequences until the very end of last year when my body started waving warning flags.

Those flags reminded me to fully lean into my summer, and I have. I have put puzzles together, crocheted, and binge-watched. I have rested fully, and now as reminders of all I have committed to start pinging on my phone, I am both exhilarated and anxious. I have added some new roles, and I am wondering if I will truly be able to manage it all.

I know for sure that I can manage the first responsibility, which is the one I have had from my first day at Detroit Leadership Academy. I am the senior ELA teacher, focusing on building skills that will enable my students to experience success after graduation. Our research projects focus on career and college. Our writing includes college essays and resumes. We practice academic reading, writing, discussion, and presenting. The goal is that our students will have the opportunity to choose — college, career, military, or trade school. I love this role — in many ways it is an extension of what I did in my previous classroom position, and I am thankful that I am able to carry those skills forward to support another community of students.

I also know that I can handle the second responsibility which I have had for a year now. I am our school’s Master Teacher. We have instructional coaches in our building who work directly with teachers to improve instructional practices; that is not my role. My role is more to be an exemplar and an encourager. Teachers can pop in my room and ask a question, check out my white board or room arrangement, complain about a policy, vent about a student, or ask for a snack. I love this role, too. Because I’ve been a teacher and a mom across four decades, I have seen some stuff, and not much surprises me. I can typically remain calm and objective, which is what less-experienced teachers often need.

The above two roles are familiar and natural to me, but like many teachers throughout their career, I have been offered some additional responsibilities that will absolutely stretch me in the coming year.

The first of these is one I volunteered for. I will be participating in a year-long educational fellowship wherein I will work with teachers across the state to examine educational policies and practices, do research, and work with lawmakers and constituents to enact change. I am very excited about this opportunity, which will give voice to my passion for educational equity, the key focus of this fellowship.

The second new role is to be our school’s reading interventionist and to bring a new reading program to the building. I will have one period a day with 10 freshmen who have demonstrated reading skills 2-3 years (or more) below grade level. I am being trained this week in strategies that have been demonstrated to decrease/eliminate that gap in 20 weeks of daily instruction. I am fully behind this initiative. In fact, I asked for a reading interventionist after seeing evidence of weak reading among my students. Because of my Lindamood-Bell experience, I am a solid choice (at least initially) for this role, and I know I will love watching my students develop their reading skills.

Even though I am passionate about each of these roles, they are adding up! And I haven’t even told you the last one.

After I had already accepted all of the above positions, and had begun to wrap my mind around what they would each entail, I was approached by our director of human resources and asked if I would take on an uncertified colleague as a student teacher.

Let me pause for effect, because that is what I literally did when I got the call. I sat with the phone to my ear, breathing silently.

I’ve mentioned before that 2/3 of the teachers in our building are uncertified — most, like this friend, are working toward certification. Many, like this friend, will eventually need to do student teaching. If she can’t do the student teaching in our building, she will find a different school to accommodate her, and then we would be down one more teacher.

I know it is not my responsibility, but I am the teacher in the building with the appropriate certification to supervise her, and I have had student teachers before. I believe we will work well together and that the experience will be successful, but it is a large responsibility on top of an already full load.

This is not uncommon for teachers. In fact, I am not unique at all. Teachers manage their classrooms, provide excellent instruction, sit on committees, volunteer for study groups, and support their colleagues. They coach, they work second (or third) jobs, and they also have lives away from school that include myriad challenges and responsibilities.

It’s not uncommon, yet although I am excited to get started in each of these roles, I do have some anxiety. This is the most I have committed to since the 2013-2014 school year — the year that I requested a reduced load because I was suffering with pain, extreme fatigue, and myriad other health issues, the year before I left my classroom for what I thought was the last time.

I’m not the same person I was then. I have learned how to care for my body. I am learning strategies for managing my emotions. I don’t have teenagers at home. I no longer have pets to care for. And still, it’s going to be a lot.

So here I am recommitting to my best practices — I will continue to write, to do yoga, to walk, to rest, to puzzle, to crochet, to read, and to meet with our small group. I will go to my physical therapy, chiropractic, and (now) acupuncture appointments. I will eat the foods that make me feel well and avoid those that don’t. I will limit other commitments.

More importantly, I will pray, and I will trust that God has provided me this next chapter and all the opportunities in it and that He will carry me through it all so that I can be present and fully engaged with those who are counting on me, because they truly are counting on me.

And really they are counting on the One who lives in me — the One who sees each student, each teacher, each parent, the One who knows each of our names, the One who is faithful, the One who is answering before we even use our breath to ask, the only One who can really be counted on

I may continue to feel anxious, but when I do, I will try to remember that He’s got me and all of my responsibilities in the palm of His hand.

The One who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.

I Thessalonians 5:24

Learning Cycle

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It seems like just a few minutes ago that I was polishing up my ELA IV syllabus, organizing my classroom, and preparing for the class of 2022 to walk in.

But it wasn’t yesterday.

It was nine months ago.

They had walked in mask-clad and sheepish, unsure of the safety of the setting and the expectations of this middle aged white woman who greeted them too enthusiastically at the door.

For nine months we shared space in room 106 — some only showing up a handful of times before transitioning to our virtual digital-content option; others attending in person at various levels of engagement throughout the year.

We weathered multiple transitions from in-person to virtual instruction, completed two in-person college visits along with several virtual visits, and navigated the college application process. Some re-took the SAT. Some met with an Army recruiter. Some filled out the FAFSA.

In January one finished her credits and moved on to community college, one switched to our online curriculum and started a full-time position with Amazon, and three others transferred to other high schools.

Through the course of the year, one lost a brother, another learned her mother is dying, and one had a baby.

Many held down jobs at WalMart, McDonald’s, Tim Horton’s, Subway, and Wendy’s. One grew the clothing business he started during the pandemic; another got paid to do hair.

Almost everyone applied to at least one college, and many are enrolled for the fall — at Ferris State, Central Michigan, Michigan State, Oakland University, Henry Ford College, and a number of other colleges and trade schools. Some will take a semester or year to work before college, some will jump right into the workforce, and a few will join the military.

They are excited. They are relieved. They are terrified.

On Thursday morning, we greeted our seniors in the cafeteria, provided them with a chicken (wings) and waffles breakfast, and gave them the space they have had on just a few occasions in this building to just hang out and talk. They had submitted the songs for the play list that was bumping out of the speakers, and they intermittently joined in with the words or moved with the music as they hung out in clusters — standing or sitting around tables covered in red.

The principal addressed them — told them how proud she was and urged them to keep going. The class president, the valedictorian, and other students and staff stood up and took their moment at the mic. We watched a video compilation of photos gathered throughout the year and remembered some key moments — Homecoming, Decision Day, Senior Pinning.

And then, the students lined up for one last lap of the halls — the senior clap out. Underclassmen and teachers lined the halls and the seniors celebrated their way down all four halls to the sounds of cheers and the music blaring from the speaker one of them carried.

And then they were gone.

Sure, a few remained finishing finals, turning in missing work, and paying senior dues, but most walked right out the door — free at last.

The following night, at a venue 20 minutes from school, they gathered again, cleaned, polished, styled, and decked out for their senior prom. It was my job to stand at the door and direct them, so I was first to spot them as they rolled up to the door like A-listers dripping in swag, tottering on heels, and striking poses as we all clicked away.

They had a lightness about them — they had made it. They had finished high school despite adversity, despite a pandemic, despite the broken systems that they’d had to navigate, despite poverty, despite educational disparity. They were one short week away from crossing the stage, grabbing their diplomas, and tossing their caps, and it showed.

They filled the dance floor shouting lyrics in unison, applauding the reveal of their prom king and queen, and reveling in this once-in-a-lifetime moment.

They weren’t thinking about the challenges that lie ahead or the disappointments that they had already experienced.

No. For one night they were magic — gleaming, invincible magic.

This week I will sit in my empty classroom in front of my laptop, examining my syllabus and scope and sequence. I’ll be asking myself, how much further can I push this next class, how much more can I give them, in what other ways can I prepare them? What experiences can I provide that will better prepare this next group to step into their future?

I’ll rearrange the desks, re-think my incentives, and ponder my classroom expectations.

I’ll walk away and take some much-needed rest — tending to my garden, my body, my spirit.

Then, in three short months I’ll be standing at my classroom door, too enthusiastic, welcoming in the class of 2023, who might be a little less sheepish, a little less uncertain, but just as deserving of the best that I can give them, just as worthy of feeling for a few brief moments like magic.

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord

Colossians 3:23

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