Tag Archives: school chaplain

The inability to meet all requests

While standing in the office at Columbia yesterday, waiting for my agreed-upon time to go read to the second graders, I talked with a fifth grade boy who was also waiting, waiting to cool down and regain his composure before returning to class. The current fifth graders are the first group of kids I read to, when they were first graders.

Boy:  (after telling me my he was in the office) Who are you reading to today?

Me:  One first grade class and one second grade class. I’m going to be able to read to all the second graders this year because there are only three first grade classes. When you were in first grade there were five first grade classes.

Boy:  How come you don’t come read to the fifth graders?

Me.  Because I’m old.


My worlds collide

Or, another way to put it, it’s a small world…

Friday turned out to be one of those days that was over-scheduled. In my retirement life, that rarely happens, but when opportunities come, I like to take advantage. I had a lunch date with an old friend, a parent of a former student. This woman helped me so much when I was doing the yearbook for that large, inner-city high school. Because she loves to take pictures, she did a lot of sports and other event photos and I always rewarded her with each year’s yearbook. We laugh at the same things and have high expectations of everyone and everything.

She took a half day off on Friday and met me downtown for lunch at a place I just knew she would love. It’s an old 1880s newspaper printing office that was turned into a men’s club for many decades in the mid 1900s. Now it’s reopened as an upscale restaurant and event venue. The architecture is amazing and the newspaper’s printing press still sits in the main dining room. The bar from the men’s club days is still in place. Great place to wile away a couple of hours over lunch.

I would have loved to continued our time together, walking around downtown and checking on renovations, but I had to get home to finish up some chores because I had a second event in the late afternoon–a retirement party for two of the teachers in whose classrooms I read stories as school chaplain. Both are amazing teachers and both had moved on to other schools for this past year. I had missed them and was immensely pleased to be invited to their joint party hosted by another Columbia first grade teacher.

The party was on the other side of town, a 30 minute drive from my home during the best of times, but during commuter traffic, even longer. Because I’m not good with late-day events, I wanted to arrive just as the party was starting, hug the ladies, say my congratulations, and head back across town. I only took a couple of pictures which is unusual for me, but time was fleeting.

I posted the pictures of one of the teachers to my Facebook page and immediately got a response from the friend with whom I had lunch earlier that day. The retiring teacher is her cousin! None of us knew how we were connected until I posted that photo. I’ve known Delores for 18 years, Patty for 4, and just learned how our worlds overlapped, all because of a Facebook post. That’s the value of social media.

The end of another school year

When I walked out the door of that large, inner-city high school eight years ago, with no misgivings, no qualms, just joy to be done with a long career in education, I had NO intentions of going back to any school building. God sat back, chuckled, and said, “We’ll see about that.”

MY plans were to be done with the classroom. I didn’t want to be retired, just refitted for another career, but not one in education. I could see myself working for a nonprofit, doing marketing work like events and social media. Contacting potential donors and working with current supporters. Those were areas where I wanted to put my talents to work. Once more, God chuckled.

On Thursday I again walked out of a school, this time an inner city elementary school, finishing four years of work as the school chaplain, but with every intention of returning to that school in September. Eight years ago I didn’t even know there was such a thing as school chaplain. I certainly didn’t plan to ever work with elementary students. My plans were for the big city with big people.

Those small children have won my heart. They need me and what I bring to their school each week. A story, a hug, a smile, a sticker, a reassurance that they are special. It’s small stuff, but I believe it’s making a big difference. There are now 34 school chaplains, spread out over the city. We all have these amazing stories of small children, and even some of the adults, finding meaning in what we do each week. As I’ve often said for myself, and I believe the other chaplains would agree, we put on the uniform and show up and let God do the heavy lifting.

Next school year, my fifth as chaplain, the first class of first graders I saw will be fifth graders. I would very much like to reconnect in some way with those kids. Although they occasionally see me on the school grounds and say hi and give me a hug or ask for a sticker, I would like to do more for them. Remind them of some of those lessons learned long ago in first grade, and reinforce the resiliency they will need as they head to middle school.

Overwhelmed teachers

I think it’s the time of the year. Almost summer vacation, but not quite close enough. Still lots to do. State tests still on the horizon, and getting closer by the hour. Then there are the issues children are facing in their homes. Crowded homes. New babies. Unemployed parents. The need for new spring clothing but no money. More neighborhood violence. There have been three killings in the southwest community in the last month. Many shootings. It all adds to the trauma.

The teachers are feeling the trauma, too. It affects their classrooms. Outbursts. Meltdowns. Inappropriate behavior. Inattention. Some of the teachers are asking for leaves of absence. The testing season is here and they just can’t handle it. How will that affect the scores?

I have no solutions, and that hurts my heart. I want to wave the magic wand and make it all better. I really hurt for the teachers right now. In a couple of weeks, California has what it calls, Day of the Teacher, when all teachers are shown some appreciation for what they do. In the well-to-do schools, parent clubs put together lovely breakfast or lunch buffets. The children bring gifts to the teachers. The administration makes a big deal of their teachers. In the hardscrabble inner city schools, not so much. It’s the tyranny of the urgent, and while attempts are made to honor the teachers, more pressing items must be attended to. Site funds must be spent on the students’ urgent needs.

I found a gift box of post-it notes with a super hero theme. The store was able to get four boxes for me to give to the four first grade teachers with whom I work on a weekly basis. I would love to give these super hero notes to all the teachers, but I’m a retired teacher on a pension. The funds just aren’t there for that extravagance.

Although planning to give these boxes to the teachers the week of teacher appreciation, I changed my mind after seeing the disposition of the teachers. I wrapped the boxes, selected some special note cards, and then wrote this on each one:

Super heros are asked to save the world.

Super héros go to the hardest places.

Super héros are tasked with the impossible.

Super héros use their wit and instinct to overcome chaos.

Super héros never give up.

YOU are a super hero, saving the world, one child at a time.

Not much, but I hope it keeps them coming back for a few more weeks. That they will know there are those who see the hard work they are doing.

Heading into the last quarter of the school year

April is here, and it’s feeling like spring. Last week, Holy Week, was very quiet around here. I tried to be contemplative and was moderately successful. I feel recharged, ready to take on the world (or at least my world) again.

There are 10 more weeks of school for the children, eight for me. I have six more books to read to the first graders and two to read to second graders. There will be an assessment day for the first graders of which I am not fond but it is necessary so as to show some growth, hopefully due to the work I’ve been doing with these children. My all-time favorite day will come the week of May 22 when I get to hand out certificates and various prizes and awards.

Teachers are looking tired at this time of year. They too are hopeful that the spring break helped to revive them enough to carry on through the end of the year. We all hope that children will come back recharged and more curious about what they will learn. Maybe the routine can be changed up a bit and we can do things in a different way. I’ve got to work on that with my materials and my “bag of tricks” so as to spark some enthusiasm for the last few weeks. Although the first graders like routine, they also enjoy some gentle surprises sprinkled in the mix.



We all have those days

This week’s story for the first graders was Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. It’s been around for a long time, and I think there is even a movie made from it. I have a sign with the words “a terrible horrible no good very bad day” that I hold up at the right points in the story for the first graders to read aloud. Gives them a part in the storytelling, which they all love. Also reinforces the title for them.

Each book that I read also has a jingle which is part of the curriculum which has been written by a former teacher/principal who now heads up the school chaplain program through the police department. He is very clever. This week’s jingle was “If start the day getting up mad…stop and think before saying something bad.” The kids love these jingles, too.

Because a previous story, The Bad Mood, was similar in message, I decided to print out the jingle for that story and bring it along. It proved to be a reminder for the story and a reinforcer for the lesson. The jingle is “Be polite until you’re alright.” Badger, the main character who wakes up in the bad mood, changes his mood in the story by doing something he loves, gardening. Alexander, in this week’s story, never gets over his bad mood. We discussed the similarities and the differences.

I leave the jingle for each week in each classroom. I kept, though, the copy of The Bad Mood jingle and had it in my bag of tricks when I left the last classroom and headed down the hall. Because I had a series of texts and emails on my phone that needed responses, I decided to stop, midway in the hall, and sit on a chair to make those replies. While doing so, the school counselor came by and asked for my help. There were crisis all over the campus and she couldn’t handle them all.

I went to a second grade class to help a little boy who was having a meltdown–throwing his shoes, screaming, and pushing papers off of the desks. Since Calvin (not his real name) knew me from last year, he was willing to get his shoes and finally go with me. We sat in the hall and talked about his “bad mood.” I reminded him of the stories and even showed him the jingle. He remembered. I asked him what made him get over a bad mood. Playing a game.

The librarian brought me some books and toys to help. The counselor let me use her office. Calvin played and calmed down. After 45 minutes, I pulled out the jingle again and reminded him that Badger apologized to his friends for his bad mood. Could he do the same thing? Yes. I gave him the paper with the jingle, walked him back to his room where he went in, went straight to the substitute, and apologized and showed her the jingle. I slipped out the back door.

Those second graders

This is my fourth year at Columbia as their school chaplain. Seems impossible since I really had no idea what I was getting myself into when I signed on to go through the vetting process to become a chaplain. There was a 29-page application that asked about all the things I’ve ever done in my life. There was a financial background check to make sure I wasn’t an embezzler or had money issues. There were all the calls to my friends and co-workers who had to vouch for my character. The police even checked into my close relatives to make sure I didn’t live with or produce criminals. I sat down with a detective who is trained in questioning persons of interest and suspects. In the end, he commented that I was a really nice person and I would be perfect for the position.

The first class of first graders to whom I read and learned from is now in the fourth grade at Columbia. The students often come by and see me on the playground or in the front office, giving me hugs and high fives and asking for stickers or other prizes I might have in my bag of tricks. When they were second graders they begged me to come read to them as I had in first grade. That’s been the pattern ever since. The second graders wanted to continue the story-telling, but I never felt very comfortable with the second grade teachers. They seemed to eye me with suspicion.

A few weeks ago I was in the library when a second grade class was also there. Of course all of the students wanted to talk to me, show me their books, and beg me to come to their classroom. One of the boys asked the teacher, who is new to Columbia and very young, to invite me to their room. She seemed agreeable to that. She is warm and engaging and appears to really be good with the kids. We decided on a date to give it a try.

I had to find a book to read because these second graders have heard all the books from first grade. I pulled one from my own shelf, Katie Couric’s “The New Kid,” and worked up some talking points. I also pulled out a class-set of the police badge stickers that are like gold to the kids. I only hand them out to the first graders at the end of the year when I give them a certificate. I gave the sticker stash to the teacher to use as she saw fit. Many of the second graders said they still had theirs from last year.

The teacher and I met the next day to discuss how it went. She was very pleased and said the kids were motivated to go right back to the project they had set aside when I came in. She was willing to do it again. Fortunately, the school chaplain director, who is a retired principal, has started to produce a set of curriculum for second grade because more and more schools are asking their chaplain to continue beyond first grade. I will use some of those books in the next three months, probably once a month.