Pacing

Last semester I was teaching three classes — three different classes. I loved it.  I interacted with students almost every day.  I was teaching writing, literature, and even a methods class — a class of future writing teachers.   I was steeped in theory and practice and I was loving every minute of it.

I had agreed to teach the methods class first.  I considered it a great honor to work with students who would one day be teaching others how to write.  I had high expectations of myself for what I wanted to expose these future educators to — instructional strategies, cultural considerations, and personal practices that I feel are important to instruction.  From the moment I agreed to teach the class I was fully committed to creating a high quality experience.

I had cleared the month of August to prepare for this class when I received a request to also teach one section each of composition and literature.  I opened the envelope and instinctively said, “You’ve got to be kidding me! Three preps?! That’s too much!”  But, instead of saying, “Thank you so much, but I think it would be best if I just taught one or the other,” I signed on the dotted line saying to myself, “It’ll be fine!  I’ve taught these two classes before; they shouldn’t require too much preparation.”   I was then informed that the English department had adopted a new textbook for the literature class which would necessitate a new syllabus and a new plan.  And, once I wrapped my head around the fact that I was going to be essentially creating two courses from scratch, I went totally rogue and decided to re-craft the composition class, too.

It just snowballed from there.  As I read composition theory to prepare for the methods class, I discovered strategies that I wanted to try with my own writing students.  As I tried new strategies with my writing students, I convinced myself to alter instruction in my literature class, too.  That’s kind of how I am as a teacher; left to my own devices, I keep tweaking and re-tweaking.  I don’t ever really find a groove to settle into.

So, as you might expect, the whole semester I was reading, thinking, planning, reworking, teaching, scoring, and conferencing.  I think it’s as close as I’ve come to being fully in the classroom again.  I loved the relationships I was building with students, I loved speaking into their writing, I loved leading classes, but guys, I gotta admit, it was too much.

I don’t think I even acknowledged it was too much until November, when I was asked if I would take a couple of classes for this semester and I reflexively answered, “Nah, I don’t really like that schedule.” I was only being asked to teach two classes three days a week, but I was sitting in the midst a mountain of work of my own making, and I instinctively grabbed the white flag and started waving with all my might.

Of course, three weeks later, when the semester ended, I second-guessed that decision  and heard myself asking the same old question,  “Well, then, what will I do?”

[Stop laughing at me!]

A weird series of events involving a car ride to Detroit, phone conversations with both of my daughters, and a few emails with a friend landed me back at Lindamood-Bell where I worked in the summer of 2015.  Lindamood-Bell is a private agency where students get one-on-one intensive instruction.  The incredibly rewarding work is based on brain research.  It’s quite remarkable — I have watched students improve their reading and/or comprehension by several grade levels in a matter of weeks!  On any given day, I might work with four to six different students, for an hour each,  performing tasks that are prescribed by a learning consultant based on the Lindamood-Bell model of instruction.

You read that correctly — I implement the plan; I do not actually write the plans.  Further, I do not do any grading or scoring.  I punch in at the beginning of my shift, work with one student each hour, then I punch out and go home.  Once home, I work on puzzles, I read books, and I find time to write.

All last semester, I found it very difficult to get to my blog.  I wrote with my students, as I always do, but that is a different kind of writing. When I write with my students, I model the process and produce whatever type of writing that I am asking them to produce — a narrative, a research paper, an argument.  That kind of writing builds my skill, of course, but it isn’t the kind of writing that I produce for my blog.

The kind of writing I produce for my blog is very personal and very restorative.  It’s the kind of writing that grows from deep reading, purposeful thinking, and sitting. (I discuss this in an early blog post you can read here.) I can’t produce this type of writing when I am overcommitted.  It’s just not possible.

When I started back at Lindamood-Bell in early January, I  committed to working no more than 20-30 hours a week.  Almost immediately, I found that I had space in my days, so I returned to my blog.  As I began to write again, I saw, almost immediately, how God continues to work in my life.

He gave me the option last semester to commit to one, two, or three classes. I chose three.  He let me see, again, what it is like to fully commit to the classroom for a season.  He allowed me to run on all cylinders as I tend to do so that I could see what I exchange for that kind of pace.  And then, he allowed me to have a moment of clarity last fall to say “no” to more adjunct teaching so that I could stumble back into the pace that He has been offering me since I moved into this next chapter. Finally, He nudged me toward the keys.

God works through my writing.  He speaks to me.  He says, when you slow yourself down long enough to put your words on a page, you finally hear what I’m trying to tell you. And what is He telling me today?  I think He’s saying, settle in.  Enjoy this pace. And, you know, I think I’m gonna listen.

Psalm 46: 10

Be still, and know that I am God.

 

 

 

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Moving into the School year

A few minutes ago, I sat down to read my Bible study.  Just as I was getting comfortable, I remembered what my husband said last night, “If we don’t move the car first thing in the morning, you won’t be able to get out of campus when you need to leave at 10:30.”

We live on a college campus.  Our home, a three-bedroom ranch,  is nestled between three residence halls.  One long, narrow driveway enters the east side of campus and winds past a large parking lot and between the buildings to land at our doorway.  We’ve got one way in and one way out.  This is typically not a problem.  Our campus is small, and most cars are required to park in the parking lot.  We’ve usually got a straight shot from our doorway to the highway.

But today is freshman move-in day.

When I leapt out of my seat a few minutes ago to go move the car, I walked outside and noticed that about a dozen student leaders clad in red “Welcome” t-shirts were gathered, waiting the arrival of the first students.  My path was clear, so I drove our little Suze-e Cruze-e straight to the  lot,  slipped in an end slot, and put her in ‘park’.  As I pulled the key from the ignition, I looked up and saw a line of cars snaking down the narrow drive from the entryway.

I was just in the knick of time.

All week, the excitement has been palpable. Our campus pastor embodies enthusiasm.  Even though I haven’t seen him in person since Sunday, I have ‘heard’ him over social media.  He has been posting pictures of dozens of student leaders meeting at his home. He’s been gushing over Twitter about how he and the leaders have prayed over every building on campus, how he witnessed the first class of nursing students gathering at our new North building, and how the campus is primed and ready for our newest students to arrive for a year that’s themed #togethersetapart.

And he’s not the only one who’s excited.  I’ve stopped by the Student Life Office a few times this week and have found bustling activity — the men and women in this office work hard all year, but this is one of their busiest times.  Not only do they make the housing assignments,  train the resident assistants, and coordinate the move-in, but they also plan multiple events for welcome week including meals, evening activities, and a campus-wide service event for Sunday.

The campus, that gets pretty quiet over the summer, is starting to pulse.  I’ve been sitting here now for about half an hour, but I know that when I get up and look out the window, I will see overloaded cars pulled close to residence halls.  Parents will be carrying Rubbermaid containers and laundry baskets and thinking to themselves, “What have we forgotten?”  Students will be bundles of emotion — excitement, fear, enthusiasm, wonder, anxiety — as they meet their roommates and urge their parents to leave, saying, “I’ve got it from here.”

My golden retriever is pacing from one end of our house to the other.  He’s pressing his nose against the glass because it’s just so exciting out there!!

All my life I have loved the start of the school year.  It’s a clean slate waiting to be written on, a blank planner begging to be filled, a new race waiting to be run.  A new school year screams possibility!  For the kids outside my door and the one sitting right here at this laptop, I pray for the fulfillment of dreams, the facing of challenges, and the opportunity to fully embrace what it means to be #togethersetapart.

John 17:21

that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

 

 

 

Experimentation

Ladies and gentlemen, I am about to participate in an experiment.  After two years of limited part-time employment, I am gearing up for the next level of engagement.

As you may be aware, from 2005 to 2014 I was a full-time teacher and administrator at a small private high school in St. Louis, MO.  For at least seven of those years I was a very hard-charging,  responsible faculty member who worked long hours both at school and at home.  I managed that position while being married to a seminary student turned mission-planting pastor and parenting three teenagers.  It was a very busy life full of challenges and rewards.

When chronic illness started to impact my effectiveness in that position, my husband and I began to watch and pray for God to open a path to something different.  This blog began when God answered our prayers and transplanted us in Ann Arbor where he has been serving as the Dean of Students at a small Christian university for the past three years.

When I joined him two years ago, I rested for six months and then began to experiment with different levels of employment.  I started with occasional private tutoring.  I added a summer ‘internship’ at an educational agency before transitioning to adjunct instruction coupled with private tutoring.  I’ve been doing well for the past year balancing those two positions.  I have taught a few hours a week in the classroom while supporting several private students that I meet in homes, in libraries, or in coffee shops.  I’ve loved this combination.  So, I’m continuing it this fall — at the next level.

Starting next Monday I will have three sections of college composition. (All the writing instructors in the room just gasped.) Now, to be fair, two of those sections are small at just 12-13 students each.  The third section is a more average-sized class of twenty-one. So, do your math and you will find that I am going to have 46 composition students.  That’s a solid load.  Most English teachers would say, “That’s fabulous!  What a joy to have forty-six writing students!” (My last year in St. Louis, a staffing issue created a situation where I had about 80 writing students!)  And, indeed, I am thrilled.  I am also thrilled that entering my second year as a private tutor, I have a solid student base that easily yields 8-10 hours of tutoring per week.  God has indeed engineered a sweet gig for me.

However, I am a little anxious. My health is more stable than it has been in close to four years.  With the help of my medical team I have eliminated biologic and anti-inflammatory medications.  That’s right; I take nothing for pain!  I am also currently weaning off the anti-depressants that I started taking seven or eight years ago.  I walk, do Pilates, practice yoga, and get in the water regularly. I see a physical therapist and a chiropractor,  avoid gluten and dairy, and am following my doctor’s instructions for taking homeopathic and nutritional remedies. I’m doing all the things, yet I still have a measure of pain in my hips, neck, and back.  I still have psoriasis. I still have chronic eye issues. I still get knocked down if I do too much.

So how much is too much?

That’s why this fall is an experiment.  Can I teach forty-six students in the classroom and meet with a handful outside of the classroom without spending every weekend in bed? Will I still fit in exercise? physical therapy? time with friends?  time with family? What will happen if something unexpected pops up — an out-of-state emergency, a family crisis, a family celebration? I don’t know.  Have I created a schedule that allows for these variables?  We’ll see.

I do know that the success of this semester is more likely if I continue to practice the disciplines that I have re-discovered in this time of stillness — Bible study, blogging, prayer.   It seems I struggle to fit them in, when in truth, they are the most impactful moments of my day.  Writing the prayer reminders on my mirror and my fridge is a help, but I still need to choose to act on those prompts and actually pray. My devotional materials sit out in plain sight, but I have to move toward them and take the time to engage each day.  My blog is constantly percolating in my mind and begging to be let out through my fingers, and when I allow it the space and time, I become aware of all that God is working inside of me.  When I do these three things — prayer, Bible study, and blogging — I feel centered and purposeful.  I feel at peace.

So, on Monday, I’ll step feebly forth.  I won’t try to kick any butts or take any names, I will just show up and see what God has in store in this next chapter.

Luke 12:32

“Do not be afraid, little flock,

for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.

Students of the Months

So it’s been a while, guys. If you’re my friend on Facebook, you may think I haven’t been writing simply because I’ve been putting together a particularly difficult 1000 piece puzzle.  That’s not really the reason.  The puzzle is my forced stillness in the midst of a pretty crazy summer lifestyle.

In addition to visiting family in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio this summer, I have also had the opportunity to work with quite a few students.  While some of my regulars from the school year take the summer off, a handful have continued their lessons.  I have a Korean brother and sister who are transferring from a public school to a fairly rigorous private school this fall.  We are sharpening skills to ease the transition.  I have an Indian brother and sister who are entirely bi-lingual and whose parents choose to have regular English lessons to ensure that their English skills for academic purposes rival those of their native-speaking peers. I have a Romanian woman whom I’ve been working with for eighteen months now — we’ve done everything from grammar to pronunciation to reading to writing to nursing school assignments to spelling. I work with a young man, also bilingual, who has challenges in comprehension.  He and I work on vocabulary, test prep, and life skills including interviewing for jobs.  These ‘regulars’ are officially adopted into my heart and have become part of my the larger body I call “my kids”, but they aren’t my only students.

For a willing teacher, the summer also provides some temporary liaisons — opportunities for just a ‘touch’.  This summer I chose to be part of a program called Summer Discovery .  In this program, students from across the country and around the world, move to a university campus for 2-5 weeks to live in a dorm, experience campus life, interact with other students, and take some classes.  They don’t all take English.  In fact, of the hundreds of students who are attending the program at the University of Michigan, here in Ann Arbor, only 18 have chosen to take my “Essay Writing Workshop”.  I mean, they had over forty options — including  architectural design, business management, exploring medicine, sports management, and even a cooking class at Zingerman’s!   So, you can probably imagine that the seven students I had during the first three weeks of Summer Discovery and the eleven students I am working with during the last two weeks are pretty serious about improving their writing.  Most of them have one thing on their minds — completing and even perfecting the college essay that they will use in the admissions process this fall.

Although they have that goal in common, in many ways they are quite diverse.  I have met a competitive horse back rider from Chicago, one boy and one girl from Manhattan, a Japanese boy who happens to actually live in Switzerland, a Chinese boy who goes to high school in Korea, two IB school students — one from Turkey, one from Memphis, a poet from Southern California, a hippie from New Hampshire, and a bantam-weight Korean-American defensive lineman from Kansas City.

Our task?  Each needs to identify a dominant characteristic that he or she wants to convey through the college essay.  One chose ‘hard-working’, one chose ’empathetic’, one chose ‘creative’, etc.  Once each student has determined which characteristic to convey, he or she then has the job of creating a written ‘highlight tape’ in the form of a college essay that just happens to respond to one of five prompts required by the Common App.  Easy? Nope.  Possible? Absolutely.

Today, as part of our class, I invited students to read their first completed essay out loud to the class.  Keep in mind that we have read many models, we have examined the prompts, we have brainstormed and pre-written together, we have drafted, we have participated in peer review, and we have had opportunity for revisions.  Also keep in mind that ALL of these kids are high achievers.  They are planning on attending selective universities.  They have high expectations of themselves.  I just wanted them to read out loud the 500-650 words on the page in front of them.  I had a few volunteers, but most were reluctant.

I pulled out all the stops — I gushed over volunteers.  I gave specific praise.  I offered targeted tips to those who had taken the risk to read out loud.  And then the classic Rathje showed up, “I LOVE reading your essays.  On Monday you walked in eleven strangers that I would get to interact with for ten days, but as I read your writing, I get the inside view!  I get to see who you really are!”

I don’t know if they care, but I LOVE doing this!!  I love the privilege of meeting students from different backgrounds.  I love hearing their stories — of growing up in a family where everyone is taller than 5’10”, of organizing a fund-raiser to benefit children with autism, of interviewing Kevin Durant for a school newspaper, of the challenges of having one Arabic and one Jewish parent, of growing up in Puerto Rico where half of the classes are in English and half are in Spanish, of  experiencing prejudice, health issues, language barriers, and success.  Their stories, though very different from one another, remind me of what is common among humanity — the desire to be seen, the desire to be heard, the desire to be accepted, the desire to be loved.

For a teenager, these desires can feel like desperation.  Imagine the courage it takes to travel to a place you have never been, to live there for several weeks, to put yourself onto a piece of paper, and then to read it out loud in front of people you’ve known for just a short while.  For any of us that would daunting.  For a teenager, it can be terrifying.  Yet today, five students out of my eleven dared to expose themselves, because of that, they had an opportunity to be seen and to be heard, and quite possibly the opportunity to be accepted and loved.

Ephesians 4:32

Be kind and compassionate to one another.

You can learn a lot from a toddler

You can learn a lot from a toddler.

We spent last weekend with our sweet grand daughter.  As many grandparents will attest, there is nothing quite like the love one feels for a grandchild.  People had been telling me this for years, but it took gazing upon our own grandchild to give me the full picture.  In the fifteen or so months since she was born, I have spent a lot of time just observing her. I’m starting to compile a list of lessons that this wee one is teaching me.

  • Play is important.  And it’s fun!  I’ve spent so many hours of my life being serious; I have sometimes forgotten to play.  Not this little girl!  She makes everything into play — eating blueberries, getting her diaper changed, taking a bath, riding in the car, and waiting in line at a restaurant.  If she has a spare second, she’s playing peek-a-boo, chase-me,  let’s-knock-it-down, splash your Oma, or anything that will make her, and me, laugh.
  • Fun is contagious.  Every time this little one giggles, I giggle.  If she makes a silly face, I make a silly face.  I can’t hep myself.  She draws me in.  She walks right up to me, hands me a book, leans toward me with a smile, and I’ve just gotta smile back.  I don’t think I was serious for a single second all weekend, unless you count that moment when she face-planted at the mall.  At that moment she taught me another lesson.
  • If you’re hurting, you just gotta cry. In my almost fifty years of life, I have stuffed a lot of emotions.  I have concealed fear, subdued laughter, and swallowed pain.  Not my little girl; nope. When she feels something, she shows it.  When she face-planted, she cried loud and hard — the kind of crying that loses its breath and gets silent.  It was legitimate.  She bruised the very fleshy part over her cheek bone.  She hit hard. When she cried, no one tried to silence her; we let her cry.  We had seen the injury.  We felt her pain.  And she taught us another lesson.
  • When you’re really hurting, Dad is the safest place to turn.  Opa swooped her off the floor and rushed her right to her daddy who engulfed her in his extra-strong arms so that she could bury her face in his extra-large shoulder and wail.  He just held her and held her while she cried.  He kept her safe and secure while Mom checked out the injury, Opa found us a place to sit down, and Oma got some ice.  When the pain ebbed a bit, and Dad placed her in a booster seat at a table, her tear-filled eyes watched him as she drank her drink and ate her fries.  When he stood to get some ketchup, her eyes followed him to the restaurant counter and back.  She checked that we were all still sitting near her, but she didn’t smile until he was headed back toward her. It wasn’t long before she regained her composure and reminded us of another lesson.
  • When you fall down, you gotta get back up.  After the spill and the fries, our girl cautiously entered the children’s area, observed what the big kids were doing, and then tried out some of the toys herself.  Mom showed her how to push the buttons that lit up.  She ran from one end of the play area to the other. She looked up at the towering climbing apparatus and then showed us another important lesson.
  • You’ve gotta know your limitations.  She was clearly impressed by the kids who were climbing higher than their parents’ heads, but she recognized that she didn’t have the means, or perhaps the courage, to go where they were going.  She walked under the looming structure, but when she realized that none of her people had gone with her, she turned around and walked back out.  No one had told her she couldn’t go in there, she just knew that if we weren’t going with her, she wasn’t going to do it alone.  In fact, at that point, she’d had enough of the play area and was ready to go walking for a bit.
  • Exploring is interesting.  Our girl was happy to ride in the stroller as long as we were moving and changing her scenery.  We walked through the crowded mall and she had plenty to look at, but when we went into a store and the stroller stopped moving, she voiced her protest.  And there’s our next lesson.
  • Let your concerns be known.  This little girl does not shy away from communicating.  When she is ready to move, she makes some noise.  When she’s hungry, she goes to the kitchen cupboard where her snacks are stored.  When she wants up, she reaches; when she wants down, she leans.  When she’s happy, she talks and laughs. When she’s sad, she cries.  But my favorite of all is her way of communicating when she’s just tuckered out.  She goes to her Daddy, the keeper of all things safe, and gives the signal.
  • Because when you need a recharge, you go to Daddy.  She stands near him.  She rubs her eyes.  She might try to climb up in his lap.  Since he’s her dad, he recognizes the signals.  He lifts her up and holds her close.  She puts her head on his shoulder and just submits to his embrace.  She doesn’t necessarily sleep; often she just soaks up his love for five or ten minutes.   He holds her, enjoying this mutual love fest.  If she falls asleep, he lets her. If a brief charge is all that’s needed, he smiles, kisses her head, and lets her back down to go play and explore some more.

I probably don’t have to spell it out for you.  You’re smarter than that. You can see what I saw, can’t you?  You can learn from a toddler, too.

    and a little child will lead them.

Isaiah 11:6

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

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

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

Being Held

I’ve been putting a lot of things together over the past couple of weeks — connecting a lot of dots — writing things down in indelible marker — trying to nail these lessons home.  But, even as I type this, I know that these are lessons I am going to have to learn over and over again.

I’ve written so many sentences, paragraphs, and blog posts about my soldiering — how I’ve marched through battles, brandishing weapons, kicking butts and taking names.  I’ve confessed that my years in the battlefield of my own making have wreaked havoc on my body.  I’ve vowed to put down my weapons and rest in the palm of the hand of God.  Yet, I gaze longingly at my fatigues that are propped up over in the corner.  I long to get back in the game, to live the life of my former self.

I mean, wasn’t it great? The camaraderie with the troops — working side-by-side to tackle issues like failing students, families in crisis, and new programs for success? The daily soldiering — lesson planning, writing exams, reading essays, and teaching grammar? The little skirmishes — with students, with parents, with colleagues? The victory parades — parent/teacher conferences, faculty parties, graduation?

Yes, it was great.

So what went wrong?  Why couldn’t I hang in there like some who have been marching for forty years or more? Why did I have to take my honorable discharge so early?

Perhaps because there is work for me in the reserves? Could I be as effective as a reservist as I was while on active duty?  Could I use the same skill set? Could I meet with a different population this way?

I mean, let’s be honest, I’m certainly not ready to retire. I have ideas, opinions, and strategies formulating in my mind all day long. Yet, it’s obvious that I can no longer sustain active duty.  A few hours of interaction with students and I am ready to put my feet up.  Sometimes I sit down at 3:00pm and don’t get up again for the rest of the evening.

Last Thursday as I lie on the bed at the physical therapy office, I heard the therapist say, “Your body is kind of twisted in on itself, as though you were holding yourself together so that you could move forward.”  I was silent as I thought about that for a moment. Actually, I keep thinking about that one sentence.

Perhaps the reason I couldn’t sustain forty years of teaching is because I exhausted myself in just ten years by simultaneously attempting to hold myself together while kicking butts and taking names. And don’t I feel foolish for attempting to do what has already been done? I could never hold myself together anyway. Nor did I have to.  I am, after all, being held together in the palm of His hand.

Silly me.  Let me get out that Sharpie.

Colossians 1:16-17

all things have been created through him and for him.17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Reviewing Observations

Last June I resigned my full-time teaching/school administrator position to relocate to Michigan from Missouri.  I did this because a) I love my husband; and  b) I have a life-style changing auto-immune disease. I took six months off from work and have been gradually introducing more and more work into my life since January. I’m almost a year into this grand experiment, and  I’m eady to review some of my observations.

After the initial dust settled from our cross-country move, I spent a significant amount of time on the couch watching Netflix, in my bed resting, at the gym exercising, and on my computer blogging.  I really needed that time to recover after over 20 years of parenting, schooling, and working at or above my human capacity.  It was lovely — I had time to make friends, I began to listen to my body, I reconnected with my love for writing. It was healing physically, yes, and also emotionally.  For the first time in twenty-two years, my husband and I were living alone, enjoying a slower pace, and sucking up every minute of it.

But, I couldn’t quite rest easily because I didn’t have any students in my life. I know, I know –over the past umpteen years I have fussed and fumed about the menagerie of kids that have sat across the table from me — they are egocentric, they don’t meet deadlines, and, indeed, they smell bad.  But, you know, I love them. I can’t seem to get enough of them.  Something magical exists within each of us — an innate ability to learn, to process, to interact and be changed — that will never cease to take my breath away.  I had to have students back in my life.

It started with just one guy — a graduate student who needed help on his dissertation.  What a joy that was!  I got to have a text-based conversation with him about educational practices and how they impact learning!  That taste just whetted my appetite, so I moved onto a retired writing instructor who had written a novel and just wanted a final proof for grammar and punctuation errors.  That led me to set up a profile on an online service connecting teachers with students for one-on-one assistance.  In six months I have logged over 120 hours with almost twenty different students ranging from sixth graders to graduate students.  I’ve worked on research papers, vocabulary lessons, dissertations, speeches, and test preparation.  Each lesson is different, each student a challenge.

So why didn’t I stop there?  While tutoring independently, I could still maintain my exercise regimen, still build friendships, still find time to rest.  Why did I have to push the limits and take on a job that will soon be at forty hours a week for the duration of the summer? Because I had to know. I had to know if I was imagining my limitations or if they were real.  Maybe I was just burnt out from teaching and sorely in need of a vacation.  Maybe I had imagined all my symptoms.  Surely I didn’t have that much pain, that much fatigue, that much stiffness.  How could a regular job be too difficult for me?

Because it is.  This week I worked thirty-two hours at the agency and an additional seven hours tutoring.  Not quite 40 hours, but it was a bit too much.  Yesterday, at the end of an eight-hour shift, I met some friends for drinks and dinner.  I called one of my friends by the wrong name — twice!  This is a friend I have known since the fall! I was mortified. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, but I was home before nine and crawled straight into bed — no reading, no television, no nothing.  I was entirely depleted.

This morning I woke up crabbily.  I can feel the inflammation through my body like an electric current.  It is as if I am electric blanket that has been turned up to ‘high’ —   I can feel all the wires as they heat up.  My lips are dry and tingling. My back and hips ache.  My eyes are screaming, “If you think you are going to put those contacts in, think again!”

Yup, it’s too much.  And, just to be sure, I am going to push it a little further.  This week will be a little lighter because of a trip I am taking for the second half of the week, but then I am certain I will be working over forty hours a week for the duration of the summer.  Why don’t I just walk away now?  Because I know me.  If I walk away right now, I will rest up for a few weeks then start thinking that perhaps I was imagining my fatigue, maybe I didn’t really have all that pain, maybe my symptoms weren’t real.

Nope, I’m not going to walk away right now.  I am going to finish the experiment all the way to the end to be sure I come to all the right conclusions. My hypothesis is that I am going to be utterly exhausted and ready to slow back down, but I’ve got to complete this experiment to be sure.

Psalm 103:8

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.