Back-to-School, 2020 Teacher Edition

Each morning last week, I opened my laptop and clicked on a zoom link to join the team at my new school. In some ways this Summer Summit, the name my school gives to back-to-school teacher inservice training, is reminiscent of many other trainings I have attended. I’ve been learning about the school’s culture and procedures, getting familiar with faculty and staff names and faces, and examining curricula, assessments, behavior management plans, the master schedule, and school-wide protocols — all the regular details of back to school preparation.

However, in some ways it’s very different due to the added layer of preparing for teaching in the era of Covid-19. I’ve learned how to meet with kids virtually through Zoom, how to deliver and receive content digitally through Google classroom, how to maintain online investment and engagement and build relationships with kids who I’ll see only on a screen, and how to stay safe in the school building where I’ll be working while students work from home.

And, this year, I have one more layer that I keep trying to look at, assess, and interrogate — my deeply rooted racism. I know it’s there, and I’m trying to call it out and deal with it as much as I can.

The first time I saw it last week was when I noticed myself chiming in to provide answers during instructional sections — I knew the answers, so why shouldn’t I unmute myself? But then I heard a small voice saying, Hey, Kristin, why don’t you pause a minute and see if someone else would like to speak? I took a moment to recognize that as a white woman, I’ve had all kinds of opportunities to speak — in fact, I’ve been the leader at several back to school trainings like this — my voice has been heard plenty. How can I learn, in this setting where half or more of the staff members are people of color, to close my mouth and listen to the voices of people who have been in the setting longer, know the community better, and who might have something to teach me?

This realization may have been sparked by the fact that I recently started listening to the Podcast Nice White Parents. It’s a story of the history of “well-intentioned” white parents who have attempted to integrate black schools in New York City and who have often done so by plowing in, demanding their voices be heard, and failing to acknowledge the culture and values of the people of color who were in the school first. Instead, they have come in waving money and shouting loudly about what should be done with it, silencing those who’d been just fine thankyouverymuch before the white people showed up. I’ve been cringing through these episodes, seeing my own well-intentioned-ness in the rearview mirror.

Midway through last week’s training one of the leaders inside a small group of a dozen of us, posed a sharing question to check in on how we are doing and how we are managing stress. It was the day after a 17 year old white boy in Kenosha, Wisconsin shot and killed two protestors in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake on Sunday, but when I was called on to respond, Kenosha was not at the front of my mind. I said that I was doing well, happy to be part of the team, and managing my stress by taking long walks with my husband. I then sat and listened as the Black men and women in the group took their turns, mentioned their grief and fear in light of recent events, and their passion for caring for our students, 99% of whom are Black. I felt conspicuous. Of course I am there for these students, too, but my privilege, my racism, was exposed in that moment. I could easily share, untouched by the impact of such racial violence. Though I had just the night before been horrified as I watched the video of the shooting on national news, my feelings of injustice — no matter how strong they are — can in no way compare to the lived realities of many of my new coworkers, and I’ve got to acknowledge that.

I’ll be supported in the interrogation and dismantling of my own racism because the school’s mission is explicitly anti-racist. All week long I heard the refrain of ensuring access, closing the achievement gap, and providing resources to ensure that our students have everything they need to succeed. I completed an hours-long course on strategies and language to use to convey the importance of education to my students and the imperative for 100% participation and 100% success.

And not only did I hear the refrain, I saw the practices enacted in our professional development. Staff members were provided scaffolding and support as they learned to function virtually through Zoom. We were given step-by-step instructions and modeling in the use of Google Classroom. We were given breaks away from the screen and incentives like gift cards and fun games that encouraged us to participate. Every instructional practice I will be expected to use — from the technology, to lesson planning, to behavior management — was modeled for me.

I’ve been walked through how to set behavioral expectations, how to use Google Forms to create informal assessments that I will use every single class period (as will everyone else on the team), how to use Google Slides to guide my students through each lesson, how to use my language to encourage my students to show up, opt in, work hard, finish strong, and reflect. We’ve played games, we’ve had hard conversations, we’ve laughed, and we’ve worked!

Why so intense? Because it matters that we get it right — lives are at stake. Whole futures weigh in the balance. Over 300 of our high schoolers have been at home since March, with varying levels of support and resources. Many of them live in poverty in communities that are under-resourced. Many have been fighting to survive in ways that I am sure I will never fully understand. Because we want to provide them with opportunities and access, we are committed to giving high-quality instruction. Because we want them to be able to use their voices and to have choices to pursue education, to obtain employment, to follow their dreams, and to live their fullest lives, we have high expectations for engagement and achievement.

And if I have high expectations for my students, I must also have high expectations for myself. If I expect them to learn and grow, I must be willing to learn and grow, too. If I want them to invest in their education, I must first demonstrate my willingness to invest.

So, I listen to podcasts that make me cringe. I lean into learning about all the technology and all the evidence-based practices. I commit to learning the culture of the school and conforming to the way they do things around here. I acknowledge that I have deeply imbedded racist beliefs, I call them out when I see them, and I invite others to call out the ones I don’t see.

When we were broken into our departments to analyze assessments and do lesson planning, I was thrilled to see that my two English department colleagues are Black women. They will be my guides, my mentors, my supports. I have a lot to learn, and I am thankful for the posture of willingness they have greeted me with. They are sharing resources, answering my questions, taking my phone calls, and welcoming me aboard. The highlight of my week was the end of one of our departmental sessions when the team leader looked into her camera and said, “We have got a dope squad!” Guys, I’m part of a dope squad!

I want to be very mindful of the privilege I’ve been given here — the opportunity, after believing my career was over, to use my gifts of writing and teaching in a community that is committed to social justice and the dismantling of racist systems, working side by side with highly qualified people of color. I could never have dreamt it was possible, but I am thankful, and I am ready.

I’ll put in this hard work; this is what I was built for.

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord.

Colossians 3:23

P.S. Many of you have offered support as I step into this work. So many of you have said you are praying for me and will continue to do so. I can’t tell you what that means to me. I will continue to take donations of surplus school supplies (I will never say no to all the surplus paper, folders, pens, highlighters that you have piled up at your house). I will always take book donations — particularly books that feature people of color and memoirs. Additionally, I learned this week that our school offers student incentives for showing up and working hard. I would love to have a stock pile of prizes for my students — I’m thinking small items like college logo cups, stickers, pencils, pens, etc. — think all those freebies you get wherever you go — or gift cards to Target, McDonald’s, etc. in small denominations such as $5 or less (free drink, etc.). I am open to suggestions, too! Thank you for all the support you have given me so far.

“Both Sides”, one more time for the people in the back — Next Chapter

I wrote this piece last summer, and I ran it as a ‘re-visit’ in January, but as we head into the Democratic and Republican conventions over the next two weeks, perhaps we can take a moment to remember that although the US is largely a two-party system, the complexity of beliefs and political viewpoints in […]

“Both Sides”, one more time for the people in the back — Next Chapter

The Choice: Changing Course, pt. 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ephesians 4:20-21

But Wait, There’s More, Changing Course, pt. 2

I have a confession to make: I like to apply for jobs. That might be an understatement. Applying for jobs has become sort of a hobby for me. I scroll through postings on Indeed and search school, district, and university websites to see what’s available, then I “throw my hat in the ring.”

Quite often.

I’ve been doing this for years — maybe close to thirty years, on and off, even when I had my most satisfying job ever at Lutheran North in St. Louis. I would burn off a frustrating day or month by applying at a community college or a public school. Typically nothing comes of all this applying, but once, about a year before I left Lutheran North, when I was quite sick with my first extended autoimmune flare, I applied for a job because I thought a different teaching position at a new school, in the city, closer to home, would lighten my load and be more doable in my weakened state. (I obviously was not thinking very clearly at the time.) I went through the interview process and received an offer but came to my senses and turned it down.

Shortly after that decision, my husband got an offer to take the position he has now, which afforded me an opportunity to take an extended break and begin healing.

When I was taking that break, I took applying for jobs to a whole new level. I did force myself to not apply for anything for the first four months, but then I started applying with abandon.

At first I applied for only part-time or gig work because that is what I felt up to. I applied to shelve books at libraries — can you imagine the bliss for an English teacher? I applied to fold towels at a gym — free membership included! I applied to proofread textbooks — I mean, come on — who’s got a better skill set?

While I cast a wide net, I found myself landing in jobs that have uniquely prepared me for what’s next.

I began by proofreading and tutoring which was like taking a course in grammar and MLA/APA style. I bent over ACT and SAT tests for hours with students, showing them patterns and strategies. I was constantly checking rules and then explaining those rules to students. I read and re-read college essays and coached students through AP literature and composition courses.

Then I worked a summer at Lindamood-Bell which gave me a framework and language for verbalizing my mental movie and teaching kids to do the same. It also helped me understand the nature of reading as two processes and how to spot which area was more difficult for a student.

I moved from there to the college classroom which not only let me apply some of my Lindamood-Bell language and skill to literature and composition courses, it also gave me a more realistic picture of university instruction, particularly through the lens of an adjunct instructor. I’d been romanticizing that role for a while, and I needed the reality check.

I worked two summers at the University of Michigan teaching students of means from all over the world how to write college essays. This experience reminded me that kids are kids are kids — whether they are from Manhattan or Turkey or Detroit. However, it also irked me — why should these kids get intense high-quality instruction in the summer when the ones who really need it don’t have access? Why should those who could easily pay for their college education get an extra leg up when it comes to admissions?

The next three summers I flew, along with thousands of other teachers, to score the AP Literature and Composition exam. I read over a thousand essays in the space of a week, each year, and the evidence of disparity in the United States educational system was palpable. Some students had been so well prepared — their analysis was mature and concise, their evidence vivid, their sentence construction well-developed. Other students wrote letters to whoever who end up reading their exams, “I don’t know what I’m doing. My teacher didn’t prepare me for this. We only read one book all semester.” I was reminded that while students who had excellent experiences in elementary and high school would inevitably go on to excellent college experiences, those from ill-equipped districts would not. Not without some kind of miracle.

I worked for another two and a half years at Lindamood-Bell. I went back when I realized that the adjunct instructor life wasn’t for me. Yes, it got me in the classroom, but unlike teaching in a high school, it didn’t allow me to form the kind of long-term relationships with my students that foster trust, growth, and transformation. Besides, it was a lot of work, and I felt isolated from other instructors who were all staying in their lanes, prepping their courses, grading their papers.

Lindamood-Bell was, once again, an excellent experience. This time around I was developed from an instructor into a leader. I took on more and more responsibility, had a caseload of students, and began mentoring other instructors. I was beginning to remember my skill sets — my ability to build strong rapport with students and families, my capacity to shift instructional gears in the moment based on student needs, and my deep empathy for students who struggle. Yet, it continued to eat at me that the students who were receiving this instruction — targeted one-on-one reading interventions — were mostly students of means whose parents could afford the high price tag of such instruction. What about all the kids whose parents could not? Who was helping them?

A couple of years ago, I was up late at night thinking such thoughts along with I just really miss the classroom! and I applied for a high school English position in Detroit. When I got an email asking me for an interview, I was ecstatic, so when I saw my husband at the end of the day, I blurted out, “I got an interview at a school in Detroit!” He looked at me dumbfounded and said, “What?” which is when it dawned on me that I hadn’t brought him along on the journey. He knew, everyone close to me knew, how I felt about inequity in education, but he didn’t know I had applied or that I was even considering the possibility of going back to the classroom. The days when I was so terribly ill were clear in his mind — he’d seen me lying on the floor writhing in pain, he’d watched all the experiments with treatments and medications, he didn’t want to see me go back there. How, he wondered, did I imagine that I could drive to Detroit every morning, teach a whole day, and then drive back home? Why did I think I wouldn’t end up right back in bed? Didn’t I remember the stacks of paper? the long days? the time on my feet?

Oh, yeah, I thought. He’s right. I probably can’t do that. What was I thinking?

But time passed. I continued to heal. I found myself working 40 hours a week at Lindamood-Bell, and though I got tired, I could feel my health beginning to stabilize, my stamina starting to build.

And then Covid happened.

And then George Floyd was killed by police. Ahmaud Arbery was murdered for running and being black. And Breonna Taylor died in her own home in her own bed. And people across the country walked out of their quarantine homes and said, “Enough is Enough.”

I looked at my husband and said, “I want to be part of this. I belong in the classroom. I belong with kids who have been told they don’t matter. I’m ready. I’m strong. I want to try.”

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

So, I tossed my name in some hats, and I can’t wait to tell you what happened.

The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.

Proverbs 16:9

Finding Common Ground, a re-visit

Next Chapter

On Monday, I posted a piece about wearing a face mask during this pandemic. Who could have predicted at the start of this year that such a topic would be polarizing? A simple piece of fabric across the face has come to represent a political position rather than an attempt to stop the spread of disease. We could’ve seen it coming. The piece that follows was written in January of this year, long after many of us had taken our political positions, formed teams, sunk in our heels, and declared war on one another. How long will we allow this go on? How long before we are willing to find some common ground?

January 2020 is the start of a new year and a new decade. It is also a leap year, and, in case you hadn’t noticed, an election year.

It’s been pretty hard not to notice, what with…

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Blessed at the DMV, a re-visit

Next Chapter

On Monday I wrote about privilege; this post from December 2014 — way back near the start of this chapter — talks about privilege, too. Throughout my life I have considered myself to be blessed — to have abundance because of the generosity of God. I will render to God the praise that is God’s, but I will also acknowledge that I have privilege because I am white and Christian in a country that has historically benefitted white Christian people at the expense of others.

I am writing late today, and as I sit at my desk, the sun is setting over the river. I can see it right out my window. It. is. gorgeous.

Today was a pretty bleak day weather-wise — cold and gray –and the task on the to-do list was also pretty bleak: a trip to the Secretary of State’s office — the DMV.

If…

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Close Contact, a re-visit.

Next Chapter

On Monday, I asked if you were willing to take some risks for the sake of others (post here). I’ve asked this before. In February, after the Super Bowl, I asked if you’d be willing to enter into dialogue about what in our culture perpetuates sexual violence (post here). In March of 2018, I wondered if you’d be willing to spend time in community, to be vulnerable and open to the change that can happen there (post here). Today, I’m reposting this piece that I wrote one month — one month — before we went inside to protect ourselves from a pandemic. In this post, I explore what we have to gain from looking at the ways we have hurt one another and committing to do the hard work of healing those hurts. I was writing on a more personal/community level, but it seems that this type…

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