still learning, re-visit

after writing about what some of my students are learning on Monday, I re-discovered this post, first written almost three years ago, about the lessons I have learned from my children and my students. re-examined on February 28, 2019

Parenting and teaching have changed me. At one time I was quick to pass judgment on apparent ‘misbehavior’, I often fell prey to either/or reasoning, and I saw most arguments as very black and white. However, through more than two decades of parenting and almost that many years of interacting with students, my firm — almost rigid — beliefs about almost everything have been challenged and re-shaped.

One of the lessons that my kids and students taught me is that there is always more to a situation than first meets the eyes. Let’s say a student walks into my class late, unprepared, and seemingly unengaged. It would be easy to assume that this student is apathetic about my class specifically, and perhaps education in general. However, a closer look might reveal that the student was doing everything he could to get to my class on time, but his parents had their own timetable — they made him take care of a younger sibling all night, they got home from work late in the morning, and then made my student wait while they showered before they brought him to school. My student wanted to complete the homework, but his sibling was demanding. He wanted to be on time, but he had no alternate way to get to class.

Or, let’s say one of my children is snarky, disrespectful, and seemingly bent on opposing every direction I give. I might assume that my role is to demand respect, give firmer demands, and heap on consequences, but a closer look, and some long hours of listening, may uncover some deep pain that the child is afraid, even ashamed, to share with me. Acting out is not the problem; it’s a symptom.

Another lesson I’ve learned from my kids and my students is that there is always a third option. “Mrs. Rathje, should I study education or medicine?”  “Mom, should I run track or play soccer?” “Would it be better if I took this job or if I didn’t work at all?” My answer — “Is there a third option?”  Why not consider a career as a nurse educator? Is there any other sport or activity that seems interesting to you? Is there a different job you could consider? more schooling? service learning?

Too often I have found myself trapped in either/or thinking:

  • Do I want to be a vegetarian or eat meat?
  • Am I a night person or a morning person?
  • Do I like contemporary or traditional worship?
  • Am I conservative or liberal?
  • Should I teach or write?
  • Am I a Spartan or a Wolverine.

Don’t be ridiculous, that last one was just to see if you were still paying attention.

In my earlier life, I found it safest to ‘choose a side’. I was forming my identity, after all. I wanted to find my place. It felt too risky to remain fluid. I wanted the security of saying that I was Lutheran or Republican. I wanted a box to check. I was anti-Disney, pro-Life, for the environment, and against dying my hair.

Here’s the thing: putting myself in those boxes positioned me against those who put themselves in other boxes. If I liked only wheat bread, I might judge someone who only bought white bread. If I only shopped at Kroger, I might look down on someone who only shopped at Wal-Mart. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to listen to why they preferred white bread or Wal-Mart. I knew I was right. No discussion was needed.

My attitude limited me. I unwittingly cut myself off from all kinds of people and experiences.  

Enter my children. And my students. Early on they were willing to listen to whatever I had to say. They were pliable. They wanted to please me. But over time, as they developed minds of their own, they began to question my positions. They began to challenge my opinions.

How dare they? I did not like this at all!! After all, I had been being right for so long. If I allowed myself to think differently, I was admitting that I had been — gasp — wrong!

But not really. That was some more either/or thinking. Here is what I have come to believe: once upon a time I held certain opinions based on what I knew at the time. Over the years, I have had many experiences that have caused me to re-think those positions. Based on what I know now, some of my opinions have changed. That, my friends is called human growth and development.

And here is the most important thing that I have learned. Life is complex. We can hold conflicting truths. I can, for instance, like the story line of The Lion King and still hate the over- commercialization of Disney and its portrayal of female characters. These opinions can co-exist. I can understand the health benefits of whole grains and still appreciate a nice loaf of French white bread. I can appreciate Wal-Mart’s low prices and still object to the business practices of the Waltons. I can eat both meat and vegetables, just vegetables, or choose a third option — vegetarianism on the weekdays and carnivorism on the weekends.

The amazing human mind is capable of far more complexity than we give it credit for. We limit its capacity to grow when we compartmentalize ideology into false dichotomies.

You might think I feel afraid now that I’ve moved outside of my previously confining boxes. Not at all. I find more room to breathe out here.

I’m telling you — a mother can learn a lot from her kids, and a teacher often learns from her students.

It is not only the old who are wise,
    not only the aged who understand what is right.

Job 32:9
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Marvel with me

No wallowing today. Period. I declare this a day of marvel.  Want to marvel with me?

First, I got out of bed after only 40 minutes of wakefulness today!  Woo-hoo!  And what did I find after I had maneuvered from horizontal to vertical?  A fresh blanket of snow reflecting a beautiful sunny day.

Second, having gone to bed without a lesson prepared for my 1pm class today, I woke to purposefulness, started with the end in mind, and prepared a process-oriented lesson that will allow my students some practice in critical analysis.

Third, while I was preparing this lesson, I heard from a couple of former students. One young man who I spent several years trying to convince of his giftedness shared a link to his recent appearance on an AOL sponsored webcast in which he brilliantly articulated the power of technology as a platform for young black voices (Here’s his link.); similarly a  young woman who was in my first high school class in Missouri shared her Christian maturity via social media. I get to know these brilliant young people!

Fourth, I found a forgotten gift card I received for Christmas and purchased two new pillows online.

Fifth, I discovered that a savings bond that we received as a wedding gift over twenty-five years ago will more than cover the cost of passports for me and my husband.

Six, I was offered a position teaching composition to high school students in a summer program at the University of Michigan.

Seven, I get to teach college students in just a couple of hours.

Eight, I get to work with two middle school students later today.

Nine, when I sat down to write, I first read a blog post by another former student. She reminded me that although I am prone to wander, my wandering never satisfies. Here’s her blog.

I read my devotion this morning and it reminded me that just as I have been blessed with following in the footsteps of many faithful believers, I am granted an opportunity to leave some footprints of my own.  I’d hate to spend all of those footprints on the path to wallowing.  So, I’m taking the opportunity, once again, to turn.

My life is rich. I am blessed. I’m just going to marvel at that today. Hope you’ll join me.

Psalm 71:17

Since my youth, God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.

not perfect

I’m not perfect, but sometimes I try to be.  It’s not really a conscious decision; in fact, if you ask me, I will tell you that I have many faults. I know I am not perfect, yet when I make mistakes, which I am bound to do, I am pretty hard on myself.

For instance, I met a new student last Wednesday night.  I had made some assumptions about her ethnicity based on the name she used on her online profile.  I met her in person and began to talk about her language issues.  I asked, “Is English your first language?” “No.” “Chinese?” “No, Korean.” Ouch.  That’s the second time inside of a month that I had mistakenly assumed that a Korean student was Chinese.  Of course both times I apologized, but that didn’t release me from the guilt, judgment, and reprimands that I heaped upon myself for hours —  ok, days –afterward.

Shall we continue? My husband and I had been planning a trip to Cincinnati for Valentine’s Day.  We had offered to watch our granddaughter so that our kids could get away overnight.  He adjusted his schedule so that we could leave as soon as my class ended at 2pm.  I had a test scheduled for my class, so that should be no problem.  I would give them the test, then we would be on our way. Well, my test required a lot of writing.  The class is only fifty minutes long.  I spent the first five minutes discussing the next assignment.  Then, I passed out the test and gave instructions. As I sat there, I realized that my test was taking much longer than I had planned.  Only ten minutes remained in the class when the first speedy student turned his in.  At the end of the allotted time, I still had about ten students writing.  I probably should’ve cut them off.  Class time is class time.  However, I was doubting my ability to gauge how much time it should take to complete this test, so I let them continue.  Some students just needed an extra minute — no big deal.  However, a couple continued writing.  Against my better judgment, I allowed one student to continue writing long past the scheduled class time.

Then, when he finally turned it in, I felt so uneasy, that I stopped to ask a senior professor what he would have done.  With no thinking whatsoever he said he would’ve cut the student off.  The allotted time is the allotted time.  So then I felt awful.  I had forced some students to rush in order to get to their next class on time while this student had the luxury of writing and writing.  Add to that the fact that my husband was now waiting to leave on our trip — bags packed and loaded, coat on, car running — and I felt like I had made a pretty substantial goof.

But that’s not all, folks.  We started driving amid what looked like flurries.  Well, the flurries got pretty intense.  Visibility was limited.  Traffic was heavy. The first portion of the trip which usually takes about one hour, took an hour and forty-five minutes.  We decided to pull over and re-group.  As we approached the exit, we had a mere twenty yards of visibility.

Now some of you  may think, “Bummer.  Bad weather.”  That would be logical.  However, after we decided to turn back for safety’s sake and forfeit our weekend with our granddaughter, I did the shoulda, coulda, woulda game.  I shoulda cut that student off.  Why did I let him take that long?  We coulda left right at 2 like we planned and been ahead of the storm (although I don’t know that to be true.) If I woulda written a better test, we could be in Cincinnati right now.

Been there? Guilt inhibits logic.  Regret twists the facts. Self-condemnation clouds judgment. And then we wallow.  And, as an experienced wallower, let me just share that wallowing is not of God.

As it turns out, my ‘bad test’ was effectively handled by all of my students.  Not one of them failed it.  In fact, the majority made it out with As and Bs. Further, our kids got their weekend away after all when a sibling stepped in to care for the baby.  The husband and I got a much needed weekend at home with no obligations.  And, we got to worship together at the church that we are now calling home.

Making lemonade? Nope, just being beloved.

Let me explain.  I often find myself still on that treadmill of trying to do the right thing — of trying to be-perfect.  It’s silly.  I know. But I do it.  And when I fail, I beat myself up.  But when I listen, I hear the words of God.

I heard them this morning.  I sat down to work through my Bible study on Hosea and I read these words, “God has not called you to be the ‘be-perfect;’ He has called you to be the ‘beloved’!”

Did you hear it? We are not perfect; we aren’t expected to be.  We are beloved — this is evidenced by the fact that in the midst of my faults, the Lover of my soul turned us around, carried us home, gave us a weekend of rest, and most importantly whispered into my self-condemning thoughts, “You are my beloved.”

I’ll take that.

Jeremiah 31:3

…I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.

 

syllabus shock

A new semester started today at Concordia University.  Students are roaming the campus with the stunned look of disbelief on their faces.  I kept my class short — about twenty-five minutes.  I introduced myself, handed out my syllabus, got an introductory feel for who is in my class, then excused them to go sort out their new realities.  Some of those students said they had had four classes today!  Four classes equals four syllabi and innumerable deadlines and assignments to consider.

The first day often serves as a warning — beware! I am going to expect a lot of you!  In fact, I informed my students that we will have our first quiz and our first in-class writing response on Wednesday.  We aren’t wasting any time.  We are jumping in with both feet.  By this time next week they will have already read Sandra Cisneros, Jamaica Kincaid, Kate Chopin, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne!  They will have already got in the habit of identifying author, time period, genre, and literary devices, and they will be taking some stabs at author’s intent and strategy.

Or they won’t have gotten in the habit…in that case, they might already be overwhelmed by this time next week. In fact, many of them were overwhelmed already today.  They don’t know how they are going to pay for their books.  They are on academic probation because they didn’t get in the swing of things last semester, and they are worried that this is the first day of a repeat performance.

And those are just the school-related worries.  When I stood in front of twenty-eight students today, I am sure I did not fully grasp the combined weight of concern that they dragged in with them — family issues, friendship conflicts, relationship woes, health concerns, and any number of internal conflicts.  And here I am, ever the jokester, making light of all the additional responsibility I am heaping on top of them.

Earlier today, way before my class, I attended the first chapel service of the semester.  As per usual I don’t remember all of what was said, but I do remember an admonition that Pastor Ryan Peterson gave to the students.  He said, “I want to challenge you to attend chapel everyday…to engage with this community…to connect with the Word of God…because there will never be a better use of your time than that.”

I am praying right now that the students heard that message, not because it’s a good thing to do to go to church.  Not because anyone will be taking attendance.  Not because someone is going to judge them if they don’t go to chapel.  No.  I am praying that they will hear his words of love — the invitation to enjoy the privilege of engaging with community and to feel the strength that comes from the Word of God.

Why? Because it will keep things in perspective.  The overwhelming tide of assignments, finances, and responsibilities can make us think that we are drowning.  When we believe we are drowning, we flail about, we yell for help, we try to swim for the shore, and we exhaust ourselves with all that trying.  But the Truth is that we are not indeed drowning.  Yes, it can get a bit stormy and bleak.  In fact it can get downright scary.  And, if you’re going it alone, it’s really easy to forget that you are sitting in the palm of His hand.

Have no fear, little flock, for your Father has happily given you His Kingdom. 

Luke 12: 32

Sharing oxygen

Did you ever think about how many you share oxygen with during the week? Some weeks the number is higher than others.  This has been one of those weeks!

On Sunday we were with my in-laws in the Thumb of Michigan.  We worshipped with them at their little Lutheran church. In that small space we shared oxygen with about a hundred people — among them were a former college classmate, two additional relatives, and a young woman who is looking for her first job after college.

On Monday I got to share oxygen with an eye doctor who is doing his fellowship at the University of Michigan, a nurse, and a cornea specialist.  Then, I was able to share food and laughter with several of my husband’s coworkers.

Tuesday I had the blessing of inhaling hope at my physical therapist’s office, exhaling stress at the gym, and then breathing calmly over a table at a library where I leaned in with two students — a woman from Romania who is studying to become a nurse and a man from China who is an automotive engineer.

Wednesday the sweet aroma of my Bible study battalion filled me up before I headed to meet three more students — all children of Indian professionals, eagerly breathing and learning with me.

Thursday, back at the gym, I panted and sweat among many I do not know. Then, I was refreshed by sharing space with my chiropractor and his office manager before I headed to meet another student — a  Chinese man who shared the aroma of my tea and his goals for improving his English.

This morning, my dog and I are sharing space and oxygen.  We are snuggled in together on the futon. He’s been patient with me as I have read my Bible study, chatted on Facebook, and responded to emails.  He knows that in a while I will leave him so that I can sit beside two more students this afternoon — an International college student and an American high school student.

Then tomorrow I will be surrounded again at the gym before I share space, ideas, and air with, first, a Jamaican woman and , then, an Indian young man.

Many times throughout the week, my husband and I have sat side-by-side, often exhausted after very full days, breathing deeply, drinking in each other’s quiet company.

I’ve shared a lot of oxygen this week.   And in all of my encounters, I have not had one single conflict.  I have not felt betrayed. I have not been abused.  I have not been taken advantage of.  I have not been intimidated or afraid. Rather, I have been encouraged, inspired, enriched, and blessed.

It’s worth noticing, don’t you think? It’s worth reporting on a life so blessed.

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

Psalm 150:6

 

The Teacher You Need, re-visit

I’ve been teaching since I lined up my childhood friends in chairs or desks in any garage or basement we were allowed to play in and ‘taught’ them the lesson of the day.

Some might say I was ‘bossy’. I prefer the term ‘influential’.  I had to start practicing early to hone the skills I would need to manage a classroom of teenagers and convince them that yes, they would write a three-page paper on the use of dashes in Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

Now that is not to say that I became “the boss” in the classroom.  I can be. I will be if I need to be.

I prefer to be the Ellen DeGeneres of the classroom. I like to make students laugh. I like to learn about them. I like to showcase their strengths and celebrate them. That’s my sweet-spot. Kids need a little “Ellen” in their lives. They need someone to be happy to see them, to dance with them, and to applaud them.

However, students also sometimes need a boss. They need to know that a limit exists. They need to understand that they are expected to comply with the teacher’s expectations. They need to know that if they choose not to comply, there will be a consequence. Not a punishment, necessarily, but a consequence.

Other times, kids need a mom in the classroom. My “mom” self shows up when a student reveals that her mother is in the hospital, that his dog died this morning, or that she hasn’t eaten since yesterday. The mom of the classroom has snacks in her desk, a shoulder to cry on, and the ability to grant an extension on any assignment. The mom oozes grace.

I have been known, on rare occasions, to turn a little Jack Nicholson in my classroom. I cock my eyebrow, quietly walk past a mildly misbehaving adolescent, and crush a hornet on the window sill with my bare hand. “Jack” shows up out of the blue. He makes off-the-wall comments to get a reaction.  He keeps class interesting.

I guess I developed a cast of personas to keep my students engaged, to keep them on task, and to help them feel loved. I wasn’t trying to do this; it just happened.

Sometimes when I was teaching in a high school classroom, “the boss” would show up to re-gain control on the heels of an “Ellen” appearance gone-rogue, and my students would say, “Mrs. Rathje, what’s wrong? Are you mad?” I would reply, “No, I’m not mad. I’m just willing to be whatever teacher you need me to be today.”

Recently I was reading how God used Hosea to announce that He he had had enough. He was going to punish His people, have no compassion on them, and refuse to acknowledge them (Hosea 1).  Yikes! Why so harsh? How could God do that to his own people?

Because He was willing to be whatever His people needed Him to be.

Sometimes we go rogue. We forget that God is God, and we are not.

When we need a line, a barrier, a boundary — He will provide it.

When we need affirmation, celebration, applause — He will give it.

When we need mercy — He has it in abundance.

Why does He do all these things?  Because He loves us, knows way more than us, and understands the consequences of us going our own way.  He is Creator, Redeemer, Friend, Lord. He is the Teacher who is exactly what we need Him to be.

Teacher I will follow you wherever you go.

Matthew 8:18

More Life Lessons – Celebrate

I’m three days into my training to be a clinician at Lindamood-Bell and let me tell you, this English teacher is learning about language. It’s linguistics, really — the rules of the English language and how you teach them to struggling readers.  On Monday I held up vowel flash cards for my partner who was making the phonemic sounds and then took my turn doing the same.  We learned about consonants, vowels, diphthongs, and the beloved schwa. Now I know that way back in the eighties I sat in class with Professor Campbell and learned all the basic rules of linguistics.  In fact, during my master’s work, I had two classes in linguistics with Dr. Stalker where we did all this and more — studying the rules of sentence construction and the ways that different people groups vary from the norm.  But somehow knowing that these rules, when taught to a struggling reader, might unlock the door to decoding and then to comprehension, makes it all just a little more meaningful.

I believe it was my fourth grade teacher who clapped out the syllables for me.  “My name is Kris/tin.  I have two syllables in my name.”  I have used that strategy with poetry students when I teach them meter, but I have never considered the fact that each syllable has a vowel or that the arrangement of consonants and vowels — whether a syllable is ‘open’ or ‘closed’ has an impact on the way that we pronounce the sound of the vowel. I’ve never had to!  Reading and language have always come easily to me.  I must have thousands of sight words.  I very rarely have to sound a word out or look it up in a dictionary.  I don’t have to think about how to decode; it’s natural for me.

But it isn’t natural for the students I will be working with.  Some of them are years behind in school.  We’ve looked at case after case over the last few days — many of these students are very bright, they just have never had success with reading.  Some of them have already been through several other reading interventions, both in and out of school.  They, and their parents, have had enough.  They are ready to give up.  They are almost ready to admit that they will never know how to read and comprehend. In my imagination they come dragging into our office, believing that their worst fears are going to be confirmed.  They are beaten down, exhausted, and hopeless.  I would be, too!

So for the last three days I have not only learned about language — phonology and orthography. I have also learned how to be a cheerleader. From the moment that a family enters the door, the focus is on success and celebration.  Even the FOUR HOURS of testing is designed to be fun.  From the room where I was training yesterday I could hear a student and a teacher in the next room laughing and celebrating — during a battery of tests!!  The students are celebrated for showing up, for trying — even when they get it wrong, for hanging in there, and eventually, for reading!

My fellow trainee and I have even been celebrated.  We are training via teleconference.  When we are brave enough to un-mute our microphone and speak up in the conference, we get a prize — candy or a little toy to use in our tutoring.  When we practice with one another we give positive reinforcement with every response, even when it is followed with a correction.  We use words like great job, fantastic, amazing, you got it! Not once have I heard a trainer say no, but, not exactly, or not quite. The focus is on celebrating what the student did get right and guiding him to see what he needs to correct.  It’s pure genius.

It’s also a life lesson for me.  I have been pretty critical of myself and others over the years.  I have focused on my flaws — my errors– instead of celebrating my strengths and successes.  I’m pretty sure I have done this for the others in my life as well.  I’ve probably told you more than I should what I think you are doing wrong instead of what I notice you are doing well.  I’m sorry about that.

So today, let’s focus on the strengths.  I am excited about another opportunity to learn!  I have a very supportive husband and family!  I have a forgiving, redeeming God who daily says to me, “I see your strengths. I gave them to you. I love you.”

Psalm 139:14

[We] praise you because [we are] fearfully and wonderfully made;

your works are wonderful, [we] know that full well.