May 28, 2017
This morning I bring you a report from my mission field. The last time I spoke to you here was June 19th of last year, the day before I embarked upon this mission. For the past year I have been a resident with Urban Teachers, a clinically based, masters degree program in education. Clinically based means that, for this school year, I have been teaching with a host teacher in a D.C. charter school classroom from 8 am until 3:15 pm every day, then attending graduate courses four evenings per week, 5:30 to 8:30, and doing a lot of homework every weekend. Plus lesson planning and preparation. In my sermon last year, I said this: “Can I really do this? Make such a huge career change – at my age? Can I get un-stuck from my habits of thought and action that consume so much time and energy? What will it be like to go to graduate school with a bunch of 22-year-olds, and work for employers young enough to be my children? . . . How can I give up my perfectionism, my attachments, . . . my compulsion to control my environment? Can I spend all day, every day, with people? I’m an introvert, for goodness sake. Can I really do this?”
The answer, one year later, is yes, I can do this, I have done it, am doing it, and, depending on grace, will continue to do it. And, yes, it’s intense, and difficult. I do it one day at a time, sometimes one hour at a time.
So, in my report this morning from the mission field, I’m going to tell you a few of my successes, a few of my failures, and what I depend on to keep going.
I offer you this report because I go out from this church. I know that you support me and you pray for me – June prays for me every day, and probably others do, too – and I depend on your prayers. I also pray for you – every one of you is included in my prayers each week, if not every day. This mission is your mission. I am here today to bring you some news of it and, I hope, to add another picture to your album of what Resurrection looks like.
Last summer, which is known as Summer A for Urban Teachers residents, I worked in a summer school classroom of rising third-graders at a D.C. public school in Southeast. My first host teacher quit before the summer session started. The second one, a very nice young man who seemed to have a lot of teaching expertise, quit after one day. I spent the rest of that week in the classroom with a substitute teacher; the following Monday another teacher came on the job, and stayed. That is when I began to learn that, in order to have any chance at success with classroom management, you have to go in there on Day One with a detailed action plan that you stick to with absolutely total consistency. By Week Two – probably by Day Two – it’s too late.
For the fall semester, I was assigned to a class of 20 PreK 4-year-olds at a D.C. public charter school. In January, my assignment was changed to another charter school, and a class of 21 kindergarten students. I feel like I have just returned from the field, although I will go right back out on Tuesday morning. Last night, however, I uploaded the last of the semester’s graduate coursework assignments – so I have officially completed about 75 percent of my degree, in decent standing. And, for the next three weeks until the kids’ school year ends, all I have to do is teach.
Even though I don’t yet know where I will be teaching next fall, Urban Teachers all but guarantees me a placement somewhere in a D.C. school. One of my failures that I’ll tell you right up front is that the principal at my present school has no interest in hiring me, and the principal at the school where I was last fall also didn’t like me. That means it’s not going to be easy for Urban Teachers to place me, and my placement will probably be at a school that is desperate for a teacher. This is good news, as it means that probably I will be sent where I am most needed. With grace, and much prayerful support, I will make at least a small difference in some children’s lives. If not – if Urban Teachers is not able to place me next fall – I will finally get a vacation.
Aaron is one of my kindergarten students. (Names of all students have been changed herein.) Aaron is a 6-year-old with an attitude. Whatever his internal thoughts and feelings are, he exudes what many people, including me, judge as “attitude.” He doesn’t walk, he swaggers. He cocks his head, chin up. His hands are always in his pockets, except when he’s playing with a toy or spinning his lunch box on his upheld hand while walking in line to the lunch room. Aaron speaks with the vocal inflections and dialect of a rapper. His parents are young, and he’s the eldest of four children. The baby was born in March. His grandfather, who occasionally brings him to school, is French, and white.
Aaron is light-skinned, as he will tell you at any opportunity. The first time I heard this from him was when, just before Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, I was reading to the class the book My Daddy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (by Martin Luther King III). As soon as I read the quote, “I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin . . .,” Aaron called out, “I’m light-skinned.” He’s always calling out during lessons. He also cries, loudly and persistently, when he doesn’t get his way, and often his crying escalates to temper tantrums.
Aaron is hard for me to like, though I keep trying. He has his charming side. He’s cheerful, when he’s not pitching a fit, and he loves to sing. He’s athletic and a skillful break dancer, for a 6-year-old. I start most days working on a positive relationship with him during breakfast, but as soon as he’s annoyed one of his peers and then burst into loud sobs of “Nobody likes me!” I usually react with unfriendly efforts to shut him up.
One of my courses early in the semester was Understanding and Managing Behavior. It’s a required course for certification in special education because many students who are found eligible for special ed and related services have a Behavior Intervention Plan, or BIP, as part of their Individualized Education Plan, or IEP. Education-speak is filled with acronyms. In nearly all the courses in this clinically based program, a large part of the work involves practicing on actual students. For this course, my guinea pig was Aaron. Before writing his BIP, I had to do a Functional Behavior Analysis, or FBA. That meant gathering data on the exact nature, frequency, and environment of his disruptive behaviors, in order to determine his positive goal – which for most children is to gain attention, or avoid work, or both. The BIP includes a plan, which is made with the child’s agreement, for a substitute behavior, which is then rewarded by giving the child the positive attention he wants. I actually had a little bit of success – enough to write my report and get a decent grade – by having Aaron raise a silent hand, put the other hand over his mouth, and then wait while I called on one other child before calling on him. I might have experienced more success, and a better relationship with Aaron, had I kept this up after the course ended. I did not keep it up, mainly because I was constantly feeling overwhelmed with other course requirements and with the daily grind of managing and trying to teach 21 kindergarteners.
I had more success with three students I worked with for my course titled Leveled Literacy Intervention Practicum. The entire work of the 12-week course was these kids, with whom I used an excellent program designed to give extra support in learning reading skills so that students who are behind can progress faster and with more solid understanding and therefore not, in the future, need special education. I worked with this small group three or four days each week, for about 30 minutes. Most of the time, it felt like herding cats. The attention spans of these kids could be measured in seconds, and I was constantly trying to reign in their active little bodies and minds to focus on CVC words. That’s Consonant-Vowel-Consonant – words such as dog, fog, log; sat, fat, mat, etc. All that, plus listening, giving teaching prompts, and taking notes as they read two books per lesson. At the start of the lessons, my students struggled to read the beginning level of books, Level A. During our 12 weeks together, their lessons progressed through Level B and into C, but I never felt any confidence that the kids were actually learning to read. Then, at the end of course, I gave what’s known as an F&P benchmark assessment to each student. Natalie read the Level C book so easily that I then gave her the Level D book, which she also read with astonishing fluency and comprehension.
I have learned at least three important things in the past year.
1. I have to depend on the Holy One, on grace, moment by moment. There have been many times when I was required to do something – either for my coursework or by one of my host teachers – that I had no idea how on earth I was going to do, and the answer came, from some mysterious source, at the moment I needed it – generally the very last moment.
2. Prayer is my go-to habit of mind. Prayer is a wonderful form of thought control. I can counter any and all temptations to judgment, discouragement, despair – with prayer. That means that I pray a lot, because all those temptations come to me continually. Recently, I read a prayer in the daily prayer book that I use, which says (I’m paraphrasing a bit), “Help me to let go of anger, resentment, and judgment, and not to take them up again.” There are times when I say that prayer inwardly probably 30 times, at least, in an hour. There are certain prayers that I say first thing in the morning, in the middle of the day, and in the evening. Nearly every morning – except when I’m feeling extra-desperate about the time – I read at least a psalm and the daily gospel lesson from my prayer book. And, my favorite early-morning prayers are the ancient Celtic prayer known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate (“Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me,” and so on) and the Prayer of St. Ignatius (“Take, Lord, receive all my liberty, my memory, understanding, my entire will.”) I listen to both of those prayers in song every morning as I ride an exercise bicycle to wake up my body and spirit for the day.
3. I experience gratitude intensely, as I’ve never experienced it before. For several years now, I have kept a gratitude journal, writing each night five things for which I am grateful. That’s a discipline, and it’s important. But now, I feel gratitude – quite often, and for the simplest things – such as, going home for an hour between the end of a particularly difficult school day and the start of the evening class. Gratitude for my afternoon mocha, which I prepare in a soothing ritual as soon as I get home. Gratitude for a teacher’s letting us out of class half an hour early. Gratitude for a hug from a child who’s not even in my kindergarten class.
Roberta, who is in my class, is small for her age and often quiet and withdrawn, but she’s tough. She has severe asthma; last fall she spent two weeks in Children’s Hospital. Before any outdoor recess, she has to go to the school nurse for her medication, which is administered through an inhaler. Unlike many other kids, who resist necessary medicine or use it as an excuse to get extra service from coaxing and cajoling adults, Roberta is totally responsible for her medication; she goes to the nurse on her own, with no reminders.
She’s been behind in schoolwork ever since her hospitalization and is in the “low” reading group. But she has a quick mind and she’s eager to learn. Any teacher who bothers to spend some focused time with her is rewarded by her understanding and using what’s being taught, to a much greater degree than most kindergarten kids. Roberta gave me my first-ever experience of knowing for sure that a student actually learned something I taught. I had been trying to teach several of my kids how to use a number line for addition and subtraction. According to the “best practices” I am being taught in my courses, kids need to learn math concepts (why it works), not just procedures (how to do it). In order for kids to gain the conceptual understanding, they need to use multiple ways to approach math problems, including methods that they create themselves. This was hard for me to grasp at first, but once I understood it I was totally on board. I was taught only one, “correct” way to solve math problems, so were my fellow grad students (who are in their 20s), and so far I’ve found the same to be true of all the elementary school students I’ve encountered. So I was trying to teach my kindergarteners the number line, and they were having none of it. They use one method for addition and subtraction within ten: counting on their fingers. It’s been a struggle for me to convince any of them even to count something other than their fingers. However, when I taught Roberta the number line, she got it, and then she completed the problem set I gave her with every answer correct.
One Friday Roberta was having a bad day. First thing in the morning, she complained of a sore throat. That was a nearly daily thing with her in the early spring, probably a result of her seasonal allergies. I sent her to the nurse, but the nurse didn’t have her sore-throat medicine – her mom had it at home. Later, shortly before recess, she was complaining again and told me that the nurse had said that she would call her mom to come pick her up if the trouble continued. I took her back to the nurse, but, when offered the opportunity to go home, Roberta shook her head no. So the nurse gave her the inhaler and a cup of water, and she and I went outdoors to recess.
Usually Roberta plays with her friends and gives me no trouble at recess, but on this day it seemed everything was going wrong. One by one, three different friends came to me and complained that Roberta was been mean to them, and finally Roberta came, crying, with the same complaint about them. There was a lot of back-and-forth, with me trying with no success to get the girls to talk to each other, and I was annoyed because it seemed that Roberta was just being whiny. It was Good Friday, the last day before a long-awaited spring break week. We had to go to work on Good Friday (welcome to D.C. charter schools, my host teacher said), so I was feeling whiny myself. However, I had set for myself the spiritual practice to fast from complaints and, instead, to be kind for the entire day. So, having earlier gently admonished Roberta to use her big-girl voice, I just stood there with my arm around her while she cried.
After a few minutes she walked away, and next thing I knew she was running to one of those “mean” friends, saying, “Let’s play hide-and-seek.” Her total mood change happened so fast it made my head spin. I looked over at her a few minutes later, and there she was, her hands covering her eyes, happily counting.
Later that afternoon, when everyone was just trying to pass the time till the end of the school day and keep the kids from completely falling apart, I brought out a Lotto game (it’s like Bingo) using those CVC word patterns that I’d been trying to teach my reading intervention group. Roberta had recently joined the group, after a student moved away. She was among three girls playing the Lotto game with me. The other two were advanced readers, so I concentrated on Roberta. As with the number line, it just took a few minutes of focused teaching before she got it and began decoding and reading the words on her game card. I could see in her face her joy at the success she knew she had achieved. As we were putting the game away (and the day finally was almost done), she said, “I love you, Ms. Gelfeld!”
To me, today, that is what Resurrection looks like.