Finding our rhythm again

There’s a rhythm to rowing. It takes months, years, even decades to develop. Rowers strive for a consistent beat, whether they measure 28 strokes per minute, or if the coxswain is yelling for another Power 10 at full pressure. Finding a rhythm requires focus, practice, and experience.

Just like teaching. 

Unlike kayaking or paddleboarding, a complete amateur cannot jump into a narrow rowing shell with any hope of remaining upright. Despite popular opinion, not everyone can walk into a classroom and teach. Both rowing and teaching are open to almost anyone at almost any age. Both activities look easy from a distance. But in order to be successful, you need a few basics.

RowingWhat you need for successTeaching
 Access to a boat, a waterway, and oars, slingsThe right equipmentDesks, a classroom, computers, online resources, books, pencils, paper, a board or screen to project lessons
To keep from flipping into the water, a rower needs good balanceGood balanceTeachers need a healthy work-life balance; work cannot dominate every waking hour, especially after two years of the pandemic
Rowing is a highly technical sport; someone has to teach you how to row; a good team  with a good coach can motivate you to wake up at 5:00 amA good coach, a team, a group First year teachers need a mentor; experienced teachers need colleagues to share ideas, cover class while you run to the bathroom, or gripe about the latest district busywork requirement
Port, starboard, gunwale, feather, coxswain, rigger, catch, slideTechnical vocabularyTeachers need to know the latest jargon: SEL, ELs, CCSS, objectives vs. outcomes 
Row upstream on the starboard side, use the second arch heading downstream, help novices on the dock; don’t help experienced rowers unless they askKnowledge of the rulesArrive at school well before the duty-day starts; don’t complain except to fellow teachers; deal with parents in a timely manner; don’t post photos of your students on social media; don’t ask questions in an all-staff meeting
Row every morning, or every evening; row when it’s 90 degrees outside; row on your rowing machine all winter; subscribe to rowing websitesPractice, practice, practiceThe first year sucks, but it gets better; the rewards come much later, when your students come back to see you or you learn that you were their favorite teacher
It’s almost counterintuitive, but once you find your rhythm, you can completely relax; it takes intense concentration to row,  Find your rhythmEstablish routines during the first weeks of school – this will save your sanity by November; we all need to set a new rhythm this year

Rowing has taught me discipline. Rowing has helped me get through the most difficult year of my entire life. Rowing is my lifelong passion – partly because I can find a rhythm outdoors, open to the healing powers of nature. 

As we head back into the classroom after two years of pandemic teaching, it is more important than ever before to find our rhythm. 

Pomp and Circumstance

Pomp and Circumstance brings my allergies out. Every year when they play that graduation song, my eyes water. Sniffles take over my nose. In 2021 when the commencement ceremony moved from an indoor arena to our football stadium as a covid precaution, pre-recorded music filled the air and very few students walked across the stage in person. In 2022, moving outdoors seems to be a wonderful new tradition of finishing high school on the home turf. This year I’m just happy it’s over.

In spite of the bittersweet farewells in front of the school banner, the most prevalent feeling among my teacher colleagues is exhaustion. Unlike last year’s unprecedented pandemic anxiety, where everyone acknowledged the severity of the crisis, this year we all moved back into our classrooms and pretended it was a normal school year. 

I wore a fake smile under my mask from September to June. High school seniors went through the motions of reading and writing. We faked the status quo as fights broke out in the hallways, as Omicron spread through the community, then state-mandated testing took over. We stumbled through a workload crisis as teachers dropped like flies and no substitutes showed up. We finished the school year mourning the 19 students and 2 teachers murdered in their Texas classroom on a day that should have been the best end-of-year celebration. 

We. Are. Tired.

Despite moments of true pride and joy, every teacher I know has said that this school year has been the single most difficult of their careers. Far more than 2020 or 2021. The disconnect between our deeply-held values and the toxic testing culture that education bureaucrats force on us creates a kind of cognitive dissonance. Yet we wear a happy face. We try to protect our students from the worst policies and expectations. 

The inspiration for the song title Pomp and Circumstance comes from Shakespeare’s Othello, which we teach in Honors English 12. In the play, Othello’s identity as a soldier gives him self-confidence and social standing. When he marries Desdemona, his military role diminishes. He is lost without the ability to prove himself in war and becomes isolated and unhinged – enough to kill his wife in a fit of unfounded jealousy.

As I struggle to make sense of the world, Othello’s loss of identity brings to mind the young man who bought guns on a whim then shot up Uvalde children. Like my students, most mass shooters are recent high school graduates. Suddenly and terrifyingly, they are without the safety and routine of high school. They have no way to prove their manhood; their isolation makes them fall prey to their own obsessions. Just like Othello. We have to suffer the consequences over and over again because our leaders won’t pass common-sense gun laws. Teachers now have to plan for these once unimaginable circumstances. 

Composer Sir Edward Elgar chose the title Pomp and Circumstance in 1901 to illustrate the disconnect between military pageantry and the terror of war. After two years of pandemic disruption, we need that pageantry. It feels like we have lived through a war. 

The effects of 18 months in isolation played out in our school hallways, bathrooms, and classrooms. In the wake of the BLM movement, police officers were removed from schools. Security was understaffed. Record levels of violence marked the first semester. Drug abuse became so prevalent that administrators had to close off certain bathrooms. And I work in a “good school.”

How many times did an ambulance show up quietly to rush a child to the emergency room because of an overdose? Mental health meltdowns caused some students to become loud and defiant; some refused to work. Others simply disappeared. Phone calls to different homes would reveal that student after student was “dealing with some mental health issues.” Yet mandatory testing continued and Central Office pretended that everything was okay.

So when seniors promenaded into the stadium this year, I stood and clapped while Board of Education officials, the guest speaker, the Superintendent of Schools, and the principal led the procession wearing robes with colorful hoods and arm stripes indicating academic achievement. I snapped pictures of students wearing tassels, cords, and stoles signifying affiliations and accomplishments: National Honor Society, the Maryland Seal of Biliteracy, Eagle Scout, 240+ hours of volunteer community service. My smile was real.

Then I saw M, whose entire apartment building flooded in September and who became homeless. This student endured a 25-mile bus journey to get to school every day – and had to work every afternoon. When I saw M. in a cap and gown, my allergies really started acting up.  

The orchestra played ceremonial fanfare as graduates tossed their hats in the air and hugged each other. I grinned at the happy normalcy of it all. 

We honor our graduates with Pomp and Circumstance to acknowledge the end of their K-12 journey. This year, we are honoring so much more. We are all survivors. 

When it was over, I went home and curled into a ball.

Measuring the “good” schools

It’s like we never had a pandemic. U.S. News & World Report came out with its rankings of “best” high schools in the U.S. and media outlets jumped at the “news.” In Montgomery County, Maryland – surprise – the wealthiest schools are considered the “best.” Walt Whitman has a 2% poverty rate (the lowest in the district), Wootton has a 7% poverty rate, and Poolesville has an 8% poverty rate (it’s also the smallest high school in the district, all-magnet). Why are we still pretending that high test scores equal “good” teaching and learning?

We should be talking about teachers like my colleague Claudia who teaches math to immigrant teens with interrupted formal education. They arrive at our school reading at a kindergarten level, barely able to add and subtract whole numbers. She gets them ready for Algebra I in a year. Why aren’t we measuring that success? Like most teachers of Multilingual students, she advocates fiercely for them, going well above and beyond the job description. I’ve learned so much from her.

If Claudia notices newcomer English learners sitting in Resource class because there’s no room in ESOL 1, she writes to our supervisors. If a student is capable, she insists that they change the placement to a higher-level class, no matter what the transcript or placement test says. I always thought it was just a scheduling problem. She showed me that it is inequity. Can you imagine if that happened to wealthy white newcomer American students?

People misjudge Claudia. At first, I did too. She’s from South America and learned English in school, just like many of our students. She’s outspoken and self-deprecating. If you didn’t know her, you might take her complaints seriously. The students flock to her. They tell her things. She stands up for them, even when it earns her a reprimand. When I stand up for students, I do not get called into the principal’s office. Claudia made me acknowledge my own white privilege.

Now more than ever, schools need to pay attention to the soft skills that teachers bring to a classroom — not test data with a predictable outcome or how many are enrolled in AP classes. Even though the execution was problematic, Josh Starr (our previous superintendent) had the right idea when he awarded “the most hopeful” teacher and school. We should measure emotional intelligence and connectedness. After two years of pandemic learning, we should focus on building relationships and reward schools for student and staff engagement.

As a side note, I used to work for U.S.News & World Report, and we used to call it Snooze, a play on words. When I hear once again that Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, VA has won “best school” in America, I hit the snooze button. I’d like to invite those editors to watch my colleague Claudia at work for a day. I think they might learn something.

Hamlet and the Class of 2022

Appearance vs. Reality. Anxiety. Mistrust.

The themes of Hamlet could be taken from today’s headlines. Or maybe from our students’ social media posts. When we asked Honors English 12 classes to find elements of the play that are valuable and relevant for today’s young people, many chose to make a personal connection to Hamlet’s disturbed state of mind. Who can blame them? The mental health crisis among teens today is well documented and serious.

Like Hamlet, this year’s seniors have experienced plenty of disruptions in their lives: school shootings, toxic political discourse, the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, and two years of pandemic schooling. Hamlet spends half of the play depressed and brooding. Then in a moment of rage he lashes out at the man behind the curtain, killing Polonius instead of his evil uncle, the king.

Fortunately, student fights in the hallways don’t usually end in murder. Most school districts saw a huge uptick in violence as students returned to school buildings in the fall of 2021. School police officers had been removed in response to the BLM movement and administrative teams were overwhelmed. Something was definitely rotten in the state (of Denmark), and our leaders were very slow to recognize it.

In the classroom, however, we see almost the opposite effect: lethargy. Here we are, two months from graduation, and it’s almost like the entire class of 2022 presents with Ophelia syndrome: they’re going through the motions of writing an essay, but waiting for authority figures to tell them what to think. I don’t truly believe that, but wonder how much their social-emotional development was stunted by 18 months spent going to school from a corner in their bedrooms? Is that why they identify so much with Hamlet?

Teachers continually try to find ways of connecting Hamlet to the real world. Here and here are some of the best ways that is being done this year.

Polonius counsels his son Laertes before he heads back to university. “To thine own self be true,” he tells him.  What does that even mean for the Class of 2022?

The weight is over

The weight of the past two years begins to lift. The Maryland State Board of Education has pulled the mask mandate for public schools. WiDA Access testing is almost over. The green shoots of crocuses poke up from the cold ground. And spring rowing is about to begin. 

Like the naked trees outside my window, my emotions have been stripped to nothing. In the fall, I shed every pretense of being in control of my life. I endured the freezing rains of winter, sobbing alone in my room while imagining friends and colleagues nestled with loved ones in their own cozy retreats.

I spent my childhood outdoors and have always had a visceral connection to the changing seasons. After a dormant period, I feel a glimmer of hope as the sun grows stronger and buds play peek-a-boo. We feel these changes in a school as well.

Teachers waited for the vaccine, we waited for covid testing kits, we postponed weddings and family reunions, we waited to travel, we waited for omicron to pass. Now we’re waiting for our local Board of Education to decide what the Montgomery County Public Schools district masking policy will be.

The weight is almost gone.

Come with me into the woods where spring is 
advancing, as it does, no matter what, 
not being singular or particular, but one 
of the forever gifts, and certainly visible.

~ Mary Oliver

Finding Fellowship in Times of Trouble

I went to church on Sunday, something that used to be so ordinary. I hadn’t been to Saint Camillus in two years. The parking lot was nearly empty. Every other pew was roped off to keep us safely six feet apart. A video camera in the back live-streamed the mass on Facebook. A small choir began a once-familiar song. I made the sign of the cross as the priest began, searching for something that felt like community.

When my parents moved us from Louisiana to upstate New York, and then to West Virginia, the pang of leaving home behind burned into my heart each time we had to say goodbye. “You have to make your own family,” Mom said as we started over in a new place. She said I was the resilient one, the sibling who adapted most quickly to their new environment. This trait has served me well, but two years of pandemic anxiety, isolation, and uncertainty might finally have depleted my reserves.

January started with a snow storm that closed schools for two days. That was a huge relief, since omicron was infecting everyone. The week before Winter Break, none of my classes had more than 50% attendance. We couldn’t get rapid tests, PCR testing wasn’t widely available yet, and results took too long. Commercial airlines were cancelling flights all over the country because flight attendants, pilots, and crews were in quarantine.

When the two-hour snow delay was announced for January 5th, MCPS leadership was not prepared. More than 90 bus routes had no drivers. Thousands of students were waiting outside in the freezing cold for buses that never showed up. Building service teams were short-staffed and struggled to clear the parking lots and get the buildings cleaned. So many teachers were out sick that there were not enough substitutes. Only 25% of 1,500 jobs were filled. Many students who did show up for school had to sit in an auditorium where social distancing was nearly impossible.

Teachers covered for absent colleagues, giving up precious planning periods over and over and over again. With no free time during the school day to prepare lessons, teachers went home every evening exhausted, with work yet to do. The superintendent held a public meeting that was so boilerplate and tone deaf that it infuriated the entire community: parents, educators, elected officials, and students. Both the principals’ union and the teachers’ union passed a No Confidence Resolution. Parent groups blew up social media. Students staged walkouts at all the high schools.

The mandated subject-matter testing continued as if there were no pandemic. Algebra, Government, Science, English Language Arts, a four-domain WiDA test for multilingual learners, and a two-day Progress Check that did not affect student grades or fulfill any graduation requirement. If administrators are so concerned about “learning loss,” why are they okay when kids miss so much class instruction to take meaningless tests?

In all of this (madness), I’ve tried to find some fellowship. My District 5 Councilmember Tom Hucker held a virtual Town Hall to listen to members of the community. More than 5,000 people showed up. Most expressed frustration and anger at the Board of Education and MCPS leadership. The teachers’ union has held many meetings and pushed out direct communication that addresses our immediate needs. I’ve gotten more involved in the union. Maybe this is my community.

It felt restorative to step into a real church on Sunday. The piano player improvised a few songs beautifully, and a middle-aged African American woman kept the beat using a complete drum kit. I clapped my hands and swayed — not a behavior typically associated with the Catholic Church — while tears streamed down my face. It almost felt like coming home. My mother would have been proud.

Repetitive Movement

John is in the woods near my house chopping fallen trees. His forceful grunts echo up the ravine as he slams down on logs over and over and over again. 

My nephew paces the floor when he visits, around and around and around. 

My son plays video games from the moment he wakes up, clicking, tapping, and exclaiming. 

Repetitive physical movements have a calming effect that can reduce our fear and anxiety over things we can’t control. Like the uncertainty and chaos of the entire past 20 months. 

Writer Annie Dillard observed that “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.”

If that’s the case, I need to examine how I spend my days.

During quarantine, I walked outside twice a day and wrote short stories, poetry, and personal essays. After Zoom classes, I played my recorder behind closed doors. In warm weather, I rowed on the Anacostia and Potomac rivers. I built a fire in the fire pit and sat outside with friends and neighbors. 

These routines got me through the worst of the pandemic.

I’m holding on to them like a prayer to get me into next year, because who knows what 2022 will bring? 

Beaver attack!

Two days after the full moon of November, I was attacked by a wild beaver in the middle of the Anacostia River. It swam toward me as I fumbled to take out my phone and capture it on video. So cute! I’d just seen a flock of turkeys, so I thought it was a good wildlife day. Until it swam aggressively under my rigger, leaped over the gunwale, and chomped down on my right hip. 

This is not the only thing in my life to go completely wrong this fall, but it’s certainly the most extraordinary. I could never have predicted, for example, that my husband of 31 years would decide to retire and move to Maine on the same day, leaving me with a developmentally disabled son to manage alone. The irrational behavior of my siblings before and after my mother died hurt me more than I can admit. But rowing has always been my place of refuge, recreation, and relaxation. The river is my antidote for all that ails me.

Some people would take an attack like this as a sign to stop rowing all together. The cold weather usually forces us off the river from mid-November until late February. However, a crisp 50-degree, sunny afternoon lured six of us to launch our singles and head out together. I’m a seasoned rower, a coach, and a strong advocate of safety precautions. In fact, I’d just reviewed with Anthony how to avoid hypothermia if he flipped his boat and fell into the water.

Sarah caught up with me just south of the New York Avenue bridge while we waited for the others. She said she’d hit a beaver with her boat! Minutes later, Ben confirmed that he’d seen a beaver, too; maybe it was the same one. Rowers out of Bladensburg Waterfront Park are more accustomed to Great Blue herons, osprey, kingfishers, geese, and the occasional bald eagle. It’s unusual to see a beaver in the river but November is the time of year that they are busiest, preparing their lodges for winter. Why would it swim in front of a rowing shell?

I turned around first to head back to the dock, rowing pretty much ahead of everyone else, when I heard a big splash and looked over. Nothing. A few minutes later, a beaver emerged just off my stern. So exciting! I thought. I hustled to take my cell phone out. The thing started moving toward me at an alarming speed! Maybe it was looking for food? It had a large, open, pink sore on its head. 

In survival scenarios, victims often find a strength that they didn’t know they possessed. I screamed at the top of my lungs, grabbed the beaver’s front paw, and beat it on the head with one hand while desperately holding the oar handles steady to keep from tipping into the river. My waterproof bag was open, and everything would have tumbled into the river. Water splashed up onto my lap, soaking me from knee to waist in frigid water. 

I will never forget those orangey-brown incisors coming at me! 

The beaver would not let go. Martin and the others appeared around the bend, but they were too far away to hear me. Dang! I continued scream-shouting and hitting the beaver on the head. It finally let go. I slapped my blade on the water to warn it away. It looked at me, like it wanted more, so I rowed like it was the last 250 meters of a sprint race all the way back to the dock. 

What I’ve learned about myself from this incident is that I am resilient and determined. When faced with unprecedented challenges, I will fight to stay upright. This lesson applies to my personal life as well. Some days feel like I’m rowing upstream against invisible enemies. Other days, I can stop to enjoy the beauty surrounding me.

I will never stop rowing. 

Weather warning: magical morning

After torrential rains and coastal flood alerts, it was not at all clear that I’d be able to row on Saturday morning. But I got up before dawn any way, and dressed in my tights and performance tee — the one that stays warm when it’s wet. I drove out to the waterfront in the dark drizzle, easily found a parking spot, and watched the sun rise from the Bladensburg boat house.

A few other rowers were already on the dock sweeping off goose droppings and pushing heavy debris away from the launch area. Coaches had pulled their motor boats onto the dock the night before so they wouldn’t float away in the storm. The strong current washed the logs easily downstream. As the sun rose, the rain stopped, and instead of the usual mud banks, the high, flat water of the upper Anacostia River stretched out wide across from me. High tide. Cool air. Perfect rowing conditions.

My stress level started to fall once I shoved off — it had been a crazy week. At school, several fights had broken out, and a medical emergency sent us into a shelter-in-place. Rumors were flying that someone had been stabbed (not true, thank god). Every day, a different student was crying at their desk. Senior essays were overdue, college application deadlines loomed, and Halloween hijinks forced school administrators into high alert. 🚨 My own anxiety about paying utilities and the mortgage on time spiked my cortisol levels.

The upper Anacostia is so different than the lower part of the river – with the stadium, Navy Yard, several yacht clubs, and industrial-building landmarks – that fellow rowers at Capital Rowing Club have named us Narnia (after the children’s fantasy). In fact, on that very morning, CRC was hosting their annual Narnia Chase regatta downriver.

What most people don’t know is that our section of the Anacostia River is a lush greenway, full of wildlife and unexpected natural beauty. Normally I row past Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, the National Arboretum, and down past Kingman Island. Osprey flying with fish in their talons, turtles sunning on a log, great white egrets, black cormorants with outstretched wings that look like little Draculas, noisy geese, beavers, and the occasional bald eagle pop into view.

So when Sue suggested we head upstream, it didn’t take much to convince me. Even though I’ve been rowing out of Bladensburg Waterfront Park for 15 years, I’d never rowed upstream. Here’s why: that part of the river, even at high tide, is not usually navigable due to the mud and silt that washes down from the streams further north. The mud is so bad that once every couple of years, the Army Corps of Engineers has to dredge near the docks so that we can continue accessing the river there.

We rowed under the footbridge that normally signals danger, and kept rowing north to the confluence of the Northeast Branch Stream and the Northwest Branch Stream — the headwaters of the Anacostia. Only ducks and geese witnessed our historic adventure. The calm quiet juxtaposed against the fierce current and the surprisingly warm sun created a magical effect. Who needs fiction when such an extraordinary moment can transform us? We turned around at the Route 1 bridge, and I unsealed the plastic case around my phone camera to record the event. I smiled with child-like delight all the way home.

Sometimes when in times of trouble

My husband walked out of my life the week school started, and my mother passed away 10 days ago. My siblings are bickering, my son is depressed, and I am overwhelmed by sadness and grief for all that I’ve lost this year. I still wake up at 3:00 am in a panic about finances. Oh — and I’m teaching full time in a public school in the midst of a pandemic.

But one thing I’ve experienced has been a huge source of comfort: female friends. Neighbors, colleagues, relatives, and acquaintances have reached out to me just to talk, go for a walk, bring a meal, flowers, offer to feed the cat, hug me, say how much they’ve been thinking about me, offer condolences, or lend an ear.

“You will always find people who are helping,” children’s TV host Fred Rogers famously said. I’ve always been the one doing the helping, so it feels a little awkward to be on the receiving end of so much caring support. But I am enormously thankful. I think I’ve even made a couple of new friends.

It’s taken me decades to learn a lesson that many women know from their earliest years of life: Women will support you if you show vulnerability and express a need. Why did I wait until my 60’s to open up? Talking about hurt and pain is a way to ease it. I so appreciate everyone who has reached out to me these last couple of months.

Tribute to my mother, Ruth Christ Sullivan.