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 […]Under these Circumstances — Next Chapter
of Death and Resurrection
Nadia* came to my desk the other day. The other students were working on an assignment, and she had a question about something she had missed a few days prior.
“I wasn’t here the day we did this,” she said.
“Yes, I remember. You missed a few days. Is everything OK?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she answered, “first my grandma died and we had all the arrangements for that, then my uncle died.”
“Oh my goodness! I am so sorry! That is a lot of loss all at once. I am impressed that you are working to get caught up. How can I support you?”
It’s not uncommon for us to hear about these kinds of losses. I myself lost a much-loved uncle last month, and many of us lost loved ones during Covid. However, it always shocks me when I learn of the amount of death my students have faced in their young lives.
Bianca* was sitting near my desk this week working on a college application. She was hoping it wouldn’t require a social security number because her mother had been reluctant to share hers with her when we had been getting FSA IDs, the first step in completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) .
“If it’s required, I’m just gonna call my mom and tell her I have to have it,” she said.
.”Does your mom want you to go to college?” I asked.
She shook her head no.
“Hmm. What would she like you to do?”
“She wants me to keep doing hair.”
“That’s right, you do hair. Is that what she does, too?”
“No, she doesn’t work, because my dad was a firefighter who died, so she is taken care of.”
“Oh my!” I said. “When did that happen?”
She held up three fingers and said, “Three years ago.”
“I am so sorry! I had no idea.”
And while we were chatting, her mom texted her the number, and Bianca completed her application.
Working with high school seniors, I see that kind of subtle movement all the time. One week a parent refuses to let their child have her SSN, then suddenly, nonchalantly, she sends it in a text two weeks later. Parents are ready to release when they are ready to release and not a moment sooner.
And it makes sense when you know that the mother and the daughter have already experienced devastating loss.
I’ve been listening to Anderson Cooper’s new podcast, All There Is, which is his examination of his own grief through conversations with others who have also experienced loss. Cooper lost his father to heart disease at age 10, his brother to suicide when he was 21, and his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, just a few years ago. As he navigates the packing up of his mother’s things, he is struck by all the unprocessed grief from the previous losses and how raw the hurt still is.
As I’m listening, I hear his voice crack as he recalls a detail, and my throat tightens, My eyes well up and my chest feels heavy. I have not experienced much physical death among my immediate family and friends, but I have definitely experienced loss — the loss of my parents’ marriage when I was seven, the loss of some dreams for our family that were taken away, some by circumstance, some by error, and some by violence, and the loss of my health and career before I was even 50.
We all experience loss. We all experience death.
Cooper posits, and I agree, that we don’t make enough space for discussions of our losses and the hurts that we carry with us. Instead, we try to pack them up, put them away, and function in a way that seems “normal” when we will never feel “normal” again.
In one of his interviews, Cooper speaks with Stephen Colbert, who lost his father and two brothers in an airplane crash when he was 10. Colbert says it was the worst thing that happened in his life, but he has grown to be grateful for it — not the deaths, of course, but the opening it created in him that has allowed him to see the devastations in the lives of others and the ability to have compassion for them.
I resonate with that. For many years I have said that while my parents’ divorce was — for a long time — the biggest blow to my life, it grew in me an understanding of brokenness that prepared me to marry a man who had been divorced. Having stepparents prepared me to be a stepparent. Having experienced trauma and devastation in our own family has opened a chasm in my heart that has space for the brokenness I see in my students and my friends.
Because I have written about loss, and because my husband and I have explored our losses in depth with our therapists, with each other, and most extensively with a small group of friends who we meet with every week, we were prepared last spring and again this fall, to share our story with a small group of others like us who are in the midst of devastation and who are looking for shreds of hope. We believe, like Anderson Cooper, that we don’t talk about our losses — especially not in polite company, and even less in the church. Especially if those losses involve estrangement, divorce, sexual assault, alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling, or crime.
So when we stand in front of a group of church folk (last spring) or church workers (this fall) and tell our story, we do it as educators. We model — this is how you can be vulnerable and tell your story. We provide safety — you are in a room full of others who also have a story. We give space — take a chance, and share a piece of your story with someone next to you.
And they do.
And the tears flow.
Strangers touch hands and are no longer strangers.
It looks like resurrection.
Theologian and writer Jeff Chu asked in his opening talk at the 2022 Evolving Faith Conference** last weekend, “What does resurrection matter except to those have tasted death?”
What does new life matter, until you thought that life was gone forever?
When you have sobbed on your pillow knowing your family will never be whole again and then you see a connection, you receive an invitation, you embrace someone who has felt the rending of the flesh as deeply as you have and somehow what was dead seems to breathe new life,
Resurrection isn’t witnessed in isolation, is it? I find I see it most in community — in the sharing of stories, of tears, of understanding. I see it in friendships that walk through the valley of the shadow of death together long enough to get to the other side.
This fall I’ve had a student in my class, Monique*. Her attendance has been intermittent — she’s pregnant. When she comes, I greet her without judgment because I don’t know her story.; I only know that she has one. For the past week or more her seat has been empty. She didn’t appear to be full-term, so I didn’t expect that she had had the baby. I expected her to walk back in any morning, just as she had been doing all fall. But yesterday, I was standing in the office when her sister, a recent graduate, walked in. We chatted, and she mentioned that Monique had had the baby, but that the baby “didn’t make it”.
What happens to a seventeen year old heart when it has carried a life, moved through labor, and then experienced such a devastating loss?
I have no idea, but I am hoping to hear Monique’s story, and I am longing for her to experience resurrection.
[He] comforts us in all our trouble so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”2 Corinthians 1:4
*All student names have been changed, of course.
**Although the Evolving Faith conference is over, you can still register and watch the entire event, which was virtual and recorded.
Coronavirus Diary #35: Two and a half years later
I was all set to get rolling again last Monday. My lunch was packed, my clothes for the day had been selected, and my lesson plans were ready to go. I got up at 5am, as usual, and since I had been having some mild cold symptoms over the weekend, I decided to take a Covid test — for the third day in a row — just to be safe.
I swabbed, I swirled, I tapped, I put three drops in the chamber, and then I set the timer for 15 minutes.
While I was waiting, I took some cold medicine and moved through my routine as though I would be out the door in just a little while. However, when the timer dinged, I saw the faintest line ever. I checked the packaging and consulted my husband before I was convinced that yes, a very faint line is indeed a positive test.
Then I started the texting — the assistant principal in charge of substitutes, the principal, the director of HR, my student teacher.
They were all compassionate, of course, saying “Take care of yourself!” and “Get plenty of rest,” but all I was thinking was, The last thing I want during the fourth week of school is to miss a whole week!
But these things are sometimes outside of our control.
So, for the past week, I have not been firing on all cylinders. No, I have been in bed. I have slept 10-12 hours a day, mustered the strength to make a pot of soup, then rolled back into bed to read a novel, falling asleep at intervals. I’ve watched mindless television, scrolled social media, worked on crossword puzzles, and done the bare minimum to keep my classes in motion in my absence.
I’ve written lesson plans and sent them to my student teacher and my substitute. I’ve graded the work that has been turned in. I’ve responded to student emails, and I’ve replied to texts.
But mostly, I’ve rested and slept, and it’s paying off.
Over the past several days, I have gradually regained strength, and I plan — again — to get rolling on Monday.
After such a long absence — have I ever missed a whole week of school? — I will have to do some work to reconnect, to reset the climate, to re-establish my expectations. Although my student teacher has been at the helm for a week, I know there has been some confusion and some frustration.
Job one will be to hear from everyone — what did I miss? what do you want me to know?
Job two will be to provide clarity and reassurance — Yes, this is what we are working on, let me show you what it should look like, we’re all going to get through this together.
I’ll be doing all this in a mask, of course, because if you’ve been home with a positive case, and are symptom free after five days, you can return to real life, as long as you mask for 5 more days. Some of my colleagues have been masking all along — a few students, too. It’s not a bad idea, to continue using that precaution. I have opted to go mask free, even in my classroom because a) the mask is hot, b) I believe students hear and understand better when they can see my face, and c) two and a half years later, I just want Covid to be over.
This past week has been a reminder that it is indeed not over.
We’d been vaxed and double-boosted, of course, but I’d been pushing off the latest booster for a weekend when “I don’t have anything going on.” Sigh.
We’d had a bit going on, of course. The week before we tested positive, my husband and I had been at a conference with a couple hundred people. Later that week we had attended a celebration dinner with a couple hundred more. In neither setting did we mask. In fact, both events were rich with people we hadn’t seen in a long time, so we hugged, we chatted, we laughed.
Did we catch Covid at one of those events or just in our normal everyday interactions with students and coworkers? It’s hard to tell, but catch it we did.
As someone who experienced Covid early on — in the fall of 2020 — I will say the second time wasn’t easier. In fact, I think I was hit harder — more symptoms, more severe fatigue. Perhaps because we are vaxed, we were able to recover at home and didn’t have the severe symptoms that sometimes send folks to the hospital. For that, we are thankful.
But we still missed out — on a week of work, on several appointments we’d had scheduled, on a visit from our granddaughters. That last one hurt the most.
Nevertheless, we are on the road to recovery and hopefully ready to merge back into reality.
And, for the foreseeable future, reality includes Covid.
I’m obviously still trying to figure out what that means for me. For the coming week, at least, I’ll be masked in the classroom and I will stay away from any type of gathering, but after that, will I resume living as though we are post-Covid when the last week as taught me that we certainly are not?
I want to say that I have been transformed, that I will consistently mask and avoid large gatherings, and maybe I will, at least for a season, but my guess is that as the memory of this past week fades, I will likely gradually ease back “normal”. I’m not sure it’s the wisest course of action, though, so I wouldn’t mind if you joined me in praying about it.
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to him.James 1:5
We were rolling — we were!! — but this week, we got sent to the pits — twice!
It’s hard to believe that it happened so early in the school year — week three!! — but, as I’ve heard my principal say, “It is what it is, and we do what we can.”
It was Tuesday afternoon, and I was in the teacher’s lounge doing some required online training (blood born pathogens, sexual harassment, asthma, concussion, and the like), when my principal asked if she could speak to me. She wanted to let me know that we would not be in the building on Wednesday. The weather forecast was predicting temperatures in excess of 90 degrees, and our building does not have air conditioning. It had been warm on Monday, and with the poor ventilation in our building, our students had struggled to stay on task; one had even had an anxiety attack that had led to a 911 call.
If our first goal this year is to ensure our students that they are safe, we certainly couldn’t bring them into a sweltering building. We couldn’t expect their brains to allow higher cognitive functioning if they were preoccupied with survival.
You might think we would swiftly transition to remote learning for the day, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Our students do have chromebooks, but in week three, we are still working out all the kinks. Some chromebooks are malfunctioning, and there’s a long line for tech support. Some students had a chromebook and lost it, and we don’t have replacements on hand even if they did have the money to pay for them. And, even if every student did have a chromebook, we brought on four new teachers this fall who have not had the training they would need to transition to teaching in a Zoom room, and even if they did, not all of our students have at-home internet.
We want to get this all in place, but it’s week three, and we are still enrolling students, still balancing schedules, and still dealing with the disruptive behaviors that come from transitioning back to school in a culture that is characterized by trauma, poverty, and inequity.
Even though we started the school year with intentional school-wide culture-setting and community-building informed by the brain science around trauma, even though the general temperature of our school is warm and settled, we have still had daily behavioral issues to manage. Behavioral issues are common anywhere two or more adolescents are gathered, of course, but when those adolescents have experienced trauma, when they are living in poverty, when they have been consistently underserved in educational spaces, these behaviors are amplified.
Our administration and our wellness team have been on top of it all. They have intervened in arguments that might have led to violence. They have restored relationships that were on the verge of disrepair. They have picked up signals, anticipated trouble, and taken steps to ensure the safety of our students and our staff. It has been a moment by moment journey over the past few weeks, so pardon them if every student does not currently have the means to swiftly transition to online instruction. Forgive them if a student or two in each class is still doing all of their assignments on their phone.
“It is what it is, and we do what we can.”
So, Wednesday, the black flag was waving, all forward progress was halted, and all of us headed to our pits. Each staff member was given a list of tasks to complete — meet with your instructional coach, complete lesson planning for next week, make contact with families, finish online training — and teachers were happy to have the time to comply. By the end of Wednesday, all systems had been checked, fuel levels had been topped off, and we were anticipating the waving of the green.
It did wave, and we resumed forward progress, but not for long. Thursday afternoon, the administration became aware of a social media threat of violence against our school that was planned for Friday. This team — the same team that has been working non-stop since September 6 to read the temperature of each room in the building, to study the body language of students in the hallway, to stand between two teens who are lunging at one another — this team followed protocol, worked with the police, and determined that we would not have school on Friday. For the second time inside of one week the black flag was waving, and it was only the third week of school.
On Thursday night, when the news came through that we would be closed on Friday, our leadership advised us to ” take care of yourselves tomorrow and over the weekend.” They understand that merely learning of a threat of harm can be traumatic, so they didn’t heap expectations on us; they merely gave us permission to drive into the pit, turn off the engine, close our eyes, and take rest.
For me, rest looks like preparation, so I spent most of Friday checking off items on my to-do list: preparing for Monday’s instruction, recording grades from last week’s assignments, and coaching my student teacher and another new hire on some instructional practices that will make their work a little easier. I took a long walk, folded a little laundry, and plucked some fresh tomatoes from the garden.
For the weekend, I’m doing the things that refuel me: writing this piece, receiving acupuncture care, eating well, worshiping, reading, sleeping.
Monday, God willing, the green flag will wave and we’ll return to the building and get rolling again. I don’t want to anticipate that we will be stopping and starting like this all year, but I have to remain flexible in case we do. I’ve got to roll when we are able to roll, and rest when we are able to rest.
I’ve got big plans for next week — giving my students opportunities to dream about their future: a career, an education, a life that looks different than what they see now. I hope to give them space to research colleges, to begin to learn the language of academia, and finally, to tour Henry Ford College at the end of the week. I’m praying we get to do it all, that we won’t have any more unexpected stops.
But if the black flag waves again, I will obediently head for the pit and await further instructions.
It is what it is, and we do what we can.
…we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him.”Romans 8:28
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.
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
Gem of the Week: Sam*
*Perhaps the Gem of the Week will turn into a series. Sam is a fictional name for a real person.
I “met” Sam last year after seeing him regularly walking or running in the hallways during class periods. He’s what I affectionately call a “hall walker”. A hall walker is not a student who regularly asks for a pass to go to the bathroom or even one who is routinely late. No, a hall walker is a student who appears to spend at least as much class time in the hallway or the office as she does in her actual classroom. Hall walkers are clever; they have somehow managed to convince a number of authority figures at a variety of different times that they have legitimate reasons for being in the hallway.
I was aware of Sam, who last year was a junior, even though he was not assigned to my classroom. I didn’t know his name, but I was familiar with his face and the red jacket that he wore almost every day. Because my student rosters are mostly full of seniors, it is the exceptional underclassman who falls onto my radar, and when I say ‘exceptional’ in this context, it is not always a compliment.
One day, last winter, I was in the hallway on my lunch period, and I saw Sam, red jacket and all, flying down the hallway, away from a staff member who was asking him to come back. I overheard Sam call the staff member an expletive right before he slid back into his classroom.
I took note.
I did not track him down in the moment because he was finally where he was supposed to be, but I logged the interaction and determined to find out the student’s name.
It wasn’t the last time I saw such an interaction. Sam seemed to have a default emotion of “pissed”, as several of our students do, and for good reason. I didn’t know the whole story, but I knew there probably was one.
On one occasion, I happened to be walking down the hall side by side with Sam, and I spoke to him, calling him by name.
“You know my name?” he said.
“Yes. Do you know mine?” I asked.
“I’m Mrs. Rathje. What grade are you in?”
“I’m a junior. How do you know my name?”
“Well, usually, if you’re not a senior and I know your name, it’s probably because you’re a hall walker.”
“Whatchu mean? I’m not a hall walker.”
“Well, I see you in the hall a lot.”
“That’s not me.”
“I’m pretty sure it is.”
And then we were no longer walking together.
But I saw him often throughout last school year. He was usually not where he was supposed to be, and he was usually running his mouth, stirring up negativity, as one does. I made a point to speak to him when I had opportunity.
“How’s it going, Sam?”
I didn’t always get a response.
But then, on the night of the Senior Pinning last May, when all of our seniors come dressed to the nines, and their parents stand next to them and “pin” them to show that they are nearly there, I walked into the hall, to find Sam, dressed in his red jacket, hovering near the registration table.
“Hey, Sam,” I said.
“Hey,” he said, but he looked different. He looked timid. He hovered near one of the senior sponsors, and waited for her instructions. He carried in boxes, he ran errands, he watched everything.
Our seniors strutted in, suited and heeled, hair freshly done, and shoes at high polish.
Sam stood to the side and watched, eyes wide, mouth closed.
A couple weeks later, he stepped into my room for the first time. I was between classes, and I looked up.
“Hey, Sam, what’s up?”
“Is your class hard?” he asked.
“No, I wouldn’t say it’s hard. Why?”
“Everyone says it’s hard.”
“I can’t imagine why. Everything is spelled out. You just have to follow directions. It’s no big deal. You worried?”
“Yeah. I’m a little worried.”
“You’ll be fine. You’re pretty bright — you have to be — you’re a hall walker.”
“I’m not hall walker.”
The summer passed, and a couple weeks ago, we had our back to school open house. Who did I see first? Sam.
“Hey, Sam! Welcome back,” I said. “I hear you are in the dual-credit class that is going to Lawrence Tech twice a week. That’s amazing!”
“I ain’t doing that.”
“Well, you’re on the roster. It’s quite a privilege to go to college during high school. Only the brightest seniors get to go.”
“I ain’t doing it.”
On the second day of class last week, I saw Sam again. He was visibly upset. He seriously did not want to go to Lawrence Tech twice a week. He didn’t think he would like it, and he didn’t want to be stuck there for his whole senior year if he hated it.
Two teachers were already speaking to him, but he was not budging.
“I ain’t going. I don’t want to go to college.”
“Sam,” I said, “you’re deciding that you don’t like it before you even get there. I can promise you, it’s a whole new world out there. You have to at least give it a try. You’re going to get to leave school twice a week — not everybody gets to do that. You were hand picked because we know you can do it.”
“I don’t want to do it.”
“Just go. Give it a chance.”
Other teachers continued the conversation, but he seemed resolute. He was not planning to go.
On Friday, I saw the small group of seniors — just 12 of them — as they got ready to get on the bus to go to their orientation. I looked at the group and said, “Have fun, guys! You’re gonna love it!” They were all clumped together.
I didn’t see Sam.
A few hours later, I found myself walking down the hall, in step with — Sam.
“Mrs. Rathje, I got my college ID!” he said smiling as he pulled it out of his pocket.
“You went! I knew you would love it!”
“Well, we ain’t been to the class yet. I probably ain’t going to like it.”
“But you got an ID! You’re on your way! I’m telling you — you’re going to love it. It’s a whole different world out there. I’m proud of you for going.”
Yup. Sam the hall walker said “thanks”.
He’s in my first hour class along with all the other kids who are going to Lawrence Tech twice a week. He sits in the back because that’s where he feels comfortable. He can’t see the board because he needs glasses, so he takes out his phone, takes a picture of my screen and blows it up to read it.
I walk near him, tap him on the shoulder and say, “Great use of your phone, Sam. Way to get what you need.”
We’ve only finished one week, and we’ve got a lot of heavy lifting to do between now and June, but I do believe I’m witnessing a transformation in progress.
I [can] see the goodness of God in the land of the living.Psalm 27:13 Rathje Revised Version
Over the past week I’ve participated in quite a bit of professional development with the other members of my team. The main focus has been on the brain science behind trauma-informed instruction. We are using a book called Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain to learn the why behind some of the strategies we use in our school. A guiding principle in our community is that a large number of our students have experienced trauma or adverse childhood experiences (ACES). Our population is predominantly students of color who qualify for free or reduced breakfast and lunch and who live in the Detroit metropolitan area. Many have experienced racism, poverty, and various other traumas, but even if they hadn’t before 2020, they have certainly experienced trauma (loss of schooling, loss of family members, financial hardship, etc.) because of Covid. For that reason, our network of schools has adopted a whole suite of practices that fall under the umbrella of trauma-informed instruction.
We understood from this week’s training that the brain’s ability to think and process information can be interrupted if it feels the body is in physical or emotional danger or if it doesn’t feel a sense of belonging in a community. Brain science teaches us that the brain stem is continuously searching for danger; if danger is perceived, all of its energy goes to reducing the threat through actions many of us know as fight, flight, freeze or appease. So, before we can hope to build community or engage our students in learning, we must first create a space that is safe, predictable, and consistent.
With that in mind, we have always emphasized common building norms and expectations such as teachers standing at our thresholds to greet students, having a strategically arranged classroom, and using consistent instructional practices such as Do Nows, Exit Tickets, and other practices of the No-Nonsense Nurturer model. This year, our school is being additionally intentional, using the first week of school to set culture and behavioral norms across all classrooms through common slide decks that the instructional coaches and I have prepared for use by ALL teachers. The first period that students are in the building, ALL teachers and students will review the same community guidelines — focused on ensuring our students that they are safe in our school. The second period that students are in the building, ALL teachers and students will review the same school-wide behavioral expectations — focused on ensuring our students that they are partners in keeping our school threat-free for all. Throughout the first week, teachers will ALL play community-building games and review classroom systems that they will use throughout the school year so that students, who are hopefully beginning to feel safe, can begin to feel engaged within their classrooms.
That’s the second function of the brain, the limbic system’s focus on finding relationships and belonging, also a prerequisite for learning. Our network, with the understanding that the highest functions of cognition cannot happen until students’ safety and belongingness needs are met, has initiated the school-wide adoption of a social-emotional learning curriculum that was piloted last year. This program, Character Strong will be used in every classroom every Wednesday morning. Its content focuses on self-awareness, goal-setting, and community building. The hope is that the more safe, the more connected, the more self-aware our students feel, the better they will be able to engage with rigorous curriculum.
And they do need curriculum! Our standardized test data from last year is not great — I’m not sure that anyone’s is post-Covid! This makes sense! The whole world was collectively in survival mode — our brain stems were at high alert!! It’s no wonder we suffered socially and academically — we were all collectively fighting, flighting, freezing, and appeasing ourselves into a tizzy! This is evidenced by the ways that we treated each other — not as the collective that we are, not as members belonging to each other, but as freaked out individuals trying to scratch our ways to survival.
But guys, it’s time to return to our right minds, and the only we can do that that is by taking actions that remind ourselves (and our brain stems) that we are safe, held, loved, supported and part of a community.
In my classroom, that looks like order and predictability. It looks like standing at my door each morning, greeting each student by name, smiling, and tracking their language (verbal and non-verbal) so that I can attend to any signs of distress and minimize any further triggers. It also looks like an orderly room — I have desks facing one direction; seats will be assigned, but those assignments are flexible based on student feedback. Everyone has adequate space, all can see the screen where I project the goals and content for the day and the white board where I display my students’ learning data so that they can track their progress. We track this progress as a whole class — where are we together? what do we need to do so that all of us can succeed together? We set goals together; we work together; we celebrate together. We are a community.
In my personal life, it looks like continuing my practices of healthy eating, regular exercise, and plenty of physical and mental self care and adding community practices such as a ride-share with a colleague, which will ease the driving burden for both of us and provide time for building relationship in our 25-minute drive each day. We will both have heavy loads at work, so we are intentionally building in support because we are caring for ourselves while caring for each other.
As we move through the fall, using these safety and community-building practices, we will increasingly become available for academic challenge. After learning about brain science and viewing our student data, I identified a couple areas of focus for this year. I will, with everyone, focus in those first two weeks to build safety and community so that I can increase the rigor of instruction and the independence and agency of my learners. I met with my instructional coach (everyone in our building has a coach!) who agreed with my goals and to thought-partnering, challenging, and supporting me as I work toward them. I am very excited about this partnership.
Some teachers I know go back to their classrooms two days before school starts. They arrange their rooms, they make a seating chart, they pull out supplies, and that is enough for them to feel ready. That is not me.
I need every minute of the past week and the coming week to fully shift my mind from the relaxation and freedom of summer to the intentionality and rigor of the school year. I need to remember the traumas my students have endured; I need to be mindful of how my attitude can make or break the culture of my classroom; I need to remember the importance of every moment of instruction and the potential impact it might have on the futures of my students.
My principal says — and she’s dead serious — “We are saving lives here, team.” We are the potential last educational stop for many of our students. What we do and how we act can change or solidify the trajectory of our students’ futures. Our practices, our climate, our culture might just create the safe space in which our students can try to trust, begin to believe, and turn toward a life of transformation — one for themselves, but also one that impacts everyone they touch.
And isn’t that the most powerful thing we can give one another — the space, the safety, the confidence, the support, and the encouragement to be transformed?
I am looking forward to transforming right along with my students — what a privilege I have been given!
be transformed by the renewing of your mindRomans 12:2
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 humblyMicah 6:8
Not Quite Ready
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.
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
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