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Partnership Teachers’ Rituals of Hope

“I’m an early riser,” Brian Armstrong explains. Yet that’s not the only reason you’ll find him at Sacred Heart School at 6:45 in the morning, over an hour before his middle school students arrive: “I like to be in a quiet building then, and prepare for the day.”

His colleague Coral Elias arrives in the neighborhood shortly after, but she usually doesn’t join Brian in the building quite yet. “I sit in my car with jazz music, and I pray,” she explains. “Then at 7:30 I start walking up.”

Across the Harlem River at about the same time, teacher Kelly Simpson is walking ten blocks from the stop where the express bus drops her off. She could take the subway, which would deposit her just a couple of blocks from Our Lady Queen of Angels, where she also teaches middle school. But on that early morning walk, “I have time to reflect. I walk through the neighborhood, I look up at some of the buildings where our students live, and I think about the kids I have taught.”

Kelly’s colleague Stephanie Burgos also likes to be one of the first adults at school. With worship music on and the lights dim, she looks around her PreK classroom and focuses on one thought: “The Holy Spirit is here, in this room. God is here.”

Many of us, regardless of our professions, might consider these four morning rituals a good way to start any work day. But perhaps only teachers who have also juggled the many demands that await an educator each day might understand fully why these kick-off rituals are so crucial.

In a 2018 presentation to the American Educational Research Association, professor and elementary math teacher Deborah Loewenberg Ball identified 20 decisions she made as a teacher—in one minute and 28 seconds of a single class. Multiply that load by an eight-hour teaching day and you’ll understand some of teaching’s complexity—and perhaps appreciate even more the power and importance of routines, not just during the school day but before teachers even start it. They can be crucial for filtering out cognitive and emotional noise and fueling teachers’ focus.

Last week, we explored some of the routines these teachers and their St. Athanasius colleague Elizabeth Perez thoughtfully deploy so that students and classroom community can thrive. But as Kelly Simpson reflects, such habits are important for teachers’ states of mind as well.

OLQA, Kelly’s school, has a morning routine that many schools share: every teacher stands at the door and greets every student in a personal way as they arrive. They greet not only their students, but all the students who pass them. “That’s a routine that sets the day off on the right note for kids,” she explains, “so much so that if you’re not at the door, the kids will come find you. But it also lets the adults know if something is off with any one student. And it lets me start the day right; if I wasn’t in a good mood before that, I am now.”

A few things strike us about some of the routines that our teachers use even when students aren’t present. First, they help teachers integrate their work into lives that include much more. Brian, Coral, Kelly, and Stephanie are parents and spouses, graduate students and community members. So Brian comes to work before school in part so that he can “shut work down as much as possible when I get home.” Coral likewise has a routine when she gets home from work. “I cook, I sit down with my girls to talk and help them with their work, and then at 8:30 I get back to work. I take one day at a time. My husband and I worked on that together, and it really helps.”

Second, their routines are intentional about sound. Major League ballplayers have walk-up songs; Coral Elias has jazz, while Brian, Kelly and Stephanie specifically seek out quiet at the start of the day. Given the persistent hum of a school day—even an orderly one—and the steady buzz of thoughts in a teacher’s head, starting the day in this peaceful, intentional way makes sense.

And finally, these routines of Partnership teachers include prayer. Stephanie Burgos describes those few minutes in her classroom before she leaves to greet her four-year-old students as “an intimate moment with me and God. I thank God for the brand new day; I ask him for the gifts that I need; I thank him for the gift of teaching–then I leave to go pick up the kids.”

After all, she explains, “If our goal is not to get into heaven, what are we here for?”

One of the most famous books about education from the early 2000s was titled The Discipline of Hope. There is no better description of what helps seasoned educators persevere in the work; what these routines embody; and what we all need right now. So maybe when we all get up tomorrow, at the moment we first realize the sun has risen again, we can send a prayer toward Brian and Stephanie in their quiet classrooms; Coral in her car; and Kelly walking through the neighborhood–along with all of the other teachers starting the rituals of a brand new day.