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  • Writer's pictureRachel Terlop

V: Academia, Teaching, COVID, Quarantine, Reflection

Being a PhD student during COVID has been an interesting experience. I had one full semester of the program during my time at George Mason before it became clear we were moving to online instruction. In my first semester, I dragged myself to class every day with an attitude of some kind about that day and the events with children. The children is what you leave school thinking about; every single day. It's always the children.

I had a professor named Dr. K-S who worked her behind off. She told us her entire life story; her inspiration for living, for working, and for being in academia. When I looked at her, I saw someone who loved her job. At the time, I am sure I told myself otherwise, but this woman loved what she did; every single day of her life. She exuded it through her pores and she was the one in charge of teaching the introduction to PhD program 800 class.

This class is called Ways of Knowing, and let me say this as plainly as possible. This class tells you that other people think differently than you do.

The past can't hurt you anymore, unless you let it.

I cannot emphasize enough that calling a class that, and having that as a description caused my Ego to churn inside of me. I have taught in Ohio, Wisconsin, Kenya, Uganda, Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. I have my Reading Specialist endorsement on my licenses as well as Special Education, English to Speakers of Other Languages. My mother and sister and grandmother are educators. I've traveled. I've met people. I know.

I didn't know.

I knew, and I didn't have the words to describe it. If Dr. K-S did anything, it is this. She gave me words.

This is a big deal for me. The idea of having a voice is a huge deal for me. There have been people and spaces in my educational career where I have been told 'stop talking,' 'stay in my lane,' and 'you do too much.' These things because my internal dialogue because that was the pattern I heard in every job, every single day.

In my undergraduate program, I was kicked out of student teaching on the last day. This story was recounted in Diary of a Student Teacher, and was one of the most traumatic and transformative moments of my life. From there I went to teach in Green Bay, Wisconsin at a dream of a preschool.

When I talk about my boss being one of the kindest, most supportive women I have ever met, I am not kidding. I showed up to this interview in a dress and blazer my mother picked out for me. We went to Macy's and spent hours trying on suit coats, and pants, and blazers until I cried. I told her that I wanted to be myself in that interview. I wanted to wear this fun blue and white striped dress, with a blazer, and pink sandals. Nice sandals. Literally, my mother and I had an argument around this whole scenario. They were hot pink and plastic, from Target. Who was I kidding, I wanted to show off my purple toe nail polish - I look back on that and tell myself I should have put on heels. Should have. What a destructive phrase that can be.

Anyway, my boss, Ms. T. She was a legend and I knew it. My husband met her when he was working in Green Bay while I was finishing up college. He was running a remote at the local bar and her husband won a contest. He was talking to her while he was filling out paperwork and she gave him her card. That is how I ended up teaching at the best preschool in Green Bay, Wisconsin. A bar competition that involved people sitting in a Lazy-boy recliner during a football game and switching each time there was a score? This is how my husband describes it: it sounds like musical chairs to me. ANYWAY. Ms. T hired me, and told me that money was no object - if it is good for kids, we can do it. She modeled our preschool off of the work of the late Bev Boss (rest in peace to that absolute legend of a play-based/nature-based educator/authentic experience educator). She was the coordinator for the entire pre-school system in the district and her office was attached to my classroom. She left her door open and spent her time between centers checking in on everyone. She organized days for all of us to visit each others centers and literally draw inspiration from one another.

These centers had chickens. Rock walls. Animals. Curly slides that were the exit protocol for recess. She took a child's wildest fantasy and she made it a reality. Ms. T loved her job. An7d I loved working with her; and in my first year teaching I was a 7-7 teacher. I was there before everyone and I left after everyone. I wanted her to know that I was invested in this the way she was. I wanted her to know that I wanted education to be the best thing in the world for my 4-year old students. This was their first step into the world of academia - it should fulfill their wildest dreams.

That's what I did that year. Goldfish races. Digging in worms. Dry ice in our milk. Making a 6 foot bubble to read in. Milk jug igloo. 9 foot hand woven spiderweb on the ceiling. A pet snake. X-Ray machines. Harry Sydney singing 'Banana Phone' by Raffi during circle time. Yes. I do mean Harry F. Sydney III, a former professional running back. Yes, he played six seasons in the NFL for the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers after three years with the Denver Gold and Memphis Showboats of the USFL. Yes, I did use Wikipedia to help me write that because to me: he was the person who invited my husband and I to Thanksgiving dinner when we couldn't go home to see our family. To me, he was Mr. Sydney working on My Brother's Keeper and who we would go Applebee's with and eat green bean crispers.

I do, like many of you, appreciate the comforts of every day routine- the security of the familiar, the tranquility of repetition.

That's what Ms. T did. She brought experiences into people's lives and she got it. She absolutely got it. That's why it wasn't surprising that when my husband was promoted and got a job at Sirius XM in Washington, DC she hired a replacement for me before lunch and told me, "Go work on your marriage." It was the most supportive gesture I had ever experienced up until that point. I had never told her that we were trying to figure out how to afford rent in two cities, and who would take the dog, and how on Earth we were going to do long distance again. She took that fear and evaporated it: go!

There is no certainty, only opportunity.

And she meant it too; with love in her heart. She paid out the remainder of my contract although I still had 3 months left on it, and threw me a party, and wrote references, and to this day: still writes my references. She was and is the cheerleader for my career. She is a model of God's love and lives her life for Christ. I have never experienced that level of being seen, heard, and understood.

All while I was working with her, I had interpersonal conflict with a colleague who recommended an exorcism at an IEP meeting, and who asked me to stop decorating the classroom because it made her feel insecure. And when I left, that beautiful co-worker is the same one who gave me her late mother's Bible and told me she would be praying for me. She loved her job, and she loved me. She taught me what bravery and vulnerability looked like during my time working with her, as well as all of her tricks of the trade. You see, she was a Kindergarten teacher who took a few years out of the classroom to raise her son and daughter. Once they were in school she came back into the classroom. An absolute legend and the most organized teacher I have ever met. She taught me how to create materials that last for more than one week, and how to organize by thematic unit - not season. Curriculum order changes and themes typically stay the same: themes in curriculum are based off of student cognitive development and not done at random. She loved her job and I soaked up everything I could, and we worked through our conflicts with tough conversations, and ate fruit snacks the entire time.

With that type of energy sending me into the world, my husband and I moved to Gaithersburg, MD.

Ideas do not bleed. Ideas do not feel pain.

Next up, I taught overlooking a cow field. Long term 5th grade substitute position where I broke up my first fight. I had a cheerleader down the hall Ms. M. That woman knew. One of the first things she told me was that teaching was her second career. She can come from the business world and left - kids are the future. She was sharp witted, talents, firm and kind. She reminded me of my first grade teacher, Mrs. Peas. My mom would always say, "I like Mrs. Peas because she could put her arm around you and give you a hug while kicking you in the butt." That was Ms. M and she loved her job. She showed up every day determined for a better tomorrow. We would go get Chipotle and debrief and she would help me navigate the political red tape of working in a public elementary. She helped me transition from religious pre-school into public elementary school.

Just as I was transitioning - applying for jobs for the next year and what not - my husband and I got into a delightful argument. I had taken a job interview in, literally, a broom closet and he looked at me and asked, "Do you want me to be proud of that?" I got ... what is a word for beyond defensive? I had left this dream job in Green Bay to come work here, and I finally landed an interview. Of course I was proud of myself. I ranted for a while until he finally said, "Fine, work wherever you want."

That is how I ended up teaching in Nairobi for a year before coming home to get my Master's Degree. Best year ever: international preparatory school, Hogwarts equivalent, incredible wildlife. Met some of my best friends and we (thank goodness for technology still talk daily and get together yearly - six years later. That experience taught me how to live on my own, take care of myself, and ground myself as an educator in what I believe is important.

I had 15 students in that class. Each from a different country, and for all English was a second language. Since it was an international British preparatory school, I was the only American. Even there I was speaking a second language. I was told in a staff meeting to "stop talking because I sounded simple," in front of the entire junior school team.

When I was teaching in Washington, D.C., I had incredible learning and growing experiences. The Starfish Class and The IMPACT of My Teaching outline two different years in the classroom. One story is about a classroom in a high-trauma filled setting, and the other... well the other is actually the same. The difference is money, and the power people think they have when they have money.

Our integrity sells for so little, but it is all we really have. It is the very last inch of us. But within that inch, we are free.

As I reflect on 2020, I realize my pattern. One of my basic responses to stress is to write. I have been doing it for years - all the way back to Mrs. Hall's class in 5th grade. When I felt strong emotions I would write poetry. She put me in charge of poetry club. She loved her job. She was a nurse in her first career and then moved into a role as educator. That brilliant, sparkly, warm, nurturing woman made our classroom a home - she let us sit with our best friends, build our relationships, and grow into ourselves. She somehow held space for each of us to thrive in that room. I can remember the posters on the wall, the computers, her filing system, and her baskets of yarn. She sat on a stool, wore a gold apple charm on her necklace, and only wore turtlenecks. She had a festive vest or sweater for every holiday and she would perch her glasses on her nose to read to us. When she would come to a bad word in a book she would edit it herself by making a "hmmph" noise, which is what I do in my classroom to this day. She said that since she was not the author she didn't have the right to change the words, but as a human she had the right to not say them. She loved her job.

Its amazing that I am sitting her writing all this while watching - what movie? Have you guessed it yet?

Yes, V for Vendetta.

People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.

This entire year feels like V for Vendetta. I understand it was not made as such but goodness gracious, what a shocking prediction of the Coronavirus Pandemic. However, on the last day of 2020, it is clear to me that we are V. We are resilient. We have the stories of others inside of us that push us forward with purpose and we did it. In this election, the United States voted for someone who outwardly represents progress and inclusion. For that, I am thankful that moving into 2021 I feel that research, science, equity, and justice will be at the forefront of the nation's leader's mind.

Happiest new year. Happiest celebration that we have another day together.

A revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having.

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