The Fish that Swallowed Me

After four years of teaching in a small, inner-city k-8 school, I have been forced to move on. The school is turning over to become a traditional elementary school and all the middle school teachers have been displaced–each of us sent to another school.

Many of us teachers were against the split from the beginning. Our school had seen huge improvements over the years and if there was ever one thing that our students do not handle well, it’s change–especially change with regards to teachers.

We had seen it over and over again in the past four years. As long as a teacher stayed and worked hard with the students, they grew academically, socially, and in maturity. But whenever a teacher quit during the year (which happened multiple times every year), the class became unstable; the students distrustful of adults, and unmotivated to learn. The thought of moving them all to a new school with a whole new staff just seemed like guaranteed chaos.

When asked if I would transfer with the students to teach at the new school, I politely said, “I don’t know” and quickly searched all available options. There were a few schools I had connections with, and I contacted them to ask about available jobs. I rewrote my resume and attended the biggest job fair in the area where I was given on-the-spot interviews with more than one school.

It was there at the job fair that I ran into one of my coworkers who was going to transfer over to the new school and wanted me to come with. “These kids need our strong team,” she said. “It will be chaos, but I think it’s what’s best for the kids.”

“God will have to swallow me with a fish first,” I said. We laughed it off and I went back to collecting business cards and contact info for as many places as I could, but as soon as those words had come out of my mouth, I knew that God was going to make me regret saying them.

That was back in May.

I had so many promising options, but none of them went through. By June, I had come to realize that God really had swallowed me with a fish. I had run out of time to find a different school and had resigned myself to transferring with my students to the new school, bracing myself for the worst possible scenario.

Now it’s October.

Our “new” school is up and running in a “newly renovated” building from the 1950s. When this place was first constructed, it was a segregated school, and with the exception of a few students, it still feels like it is.

The staff was given a very short amount of time to learn the school building, the planned procedures and schedule, or even each other’s names before we opened for students at the end of August.

To add to the anxiety and chaos, the number of students enrolling in the school blew past the expectation by nearly 75 students. That’s three classes worth of students without any teachers to cover them!

My class sizes are nearing 30 students–with only 20% reading on grade level.

But in spite of all of that, I don’t feel the panic or helplessness that I did four years ago when I started teaching in the inner city. God has given me a peace about where I am. The best part of my day is when I see my previous students who stop by the 6th grade hall to say, “Hi.”

My days are long and my students are exhausting, but they’re not hardened or mean-spirited. When it comes down to it, they really want to learn and they get frustrated when something is keeping them from learning (like constant fights and chaos in the hallways).

I’m genuinely excited about teaching them this year, and I’m mad that I’m surprised by that. I should know by now that where God has me is where I’m going to be satisfied. It may not be easy–ever. But that’s never what He promised me.



Help Me Teach Students

Reversing the Poles on a Magnet

Just apply heat

It’s my 4th and final year at this inner city school in Charlotte, NC. I have spent many days thinking about how far I’ve come. I said 4 years ago that I wanted to be a survivor. Even more, I wanted to thrive. It hasn’t really felt like thriving, but today, especially, it hit me how much things have changed. The changes have been subtle, yet the end result is quite drastic.
In the previous 3 years, I have had chairs thrown at me, I’ve been called a rainbow of inflammatory names, have had to hide tears from students, and, at times, have openly cried in front of students. I’ve had my phone stolen, I’ve had students throw my water bottle in the trash, steal pens and money out of my pockets, and throw paper at me and, at one point, gum.
But on Friday, I stood at the bus parking lot to monitor kids and in that time I had 2 first graders come and lean their heads on my stomach and hold onto me until their bus came. Another little one came to hug my leg. Then, as the middle schoolers came out for their buses, I had one of my current students lay her head on my back. And two of my previous students come to hug me goodbye for the weekend. More came and soon I had students of all ages clumping around me to talk, joke with me, hug me, or hang onto me for guidance.
If you’ve ever put a magnet in a dish with metal shavings, you might have an idea of what this was like.

That’s me dressed in red.

2 years ago, I had a nightmare about being haunted by my most troubling class of students. In my sleep, they disrupted my classroom like poltergeists, clanging metal and calling out over my instruction.
Now my biggest issue is being haunted by my last batch of students who keep coming into my room on their bathroom breaks to say “hi.” They interrupt my class to ask me corny jokes with pun-tastic answers. They come by to try to sneak attack me with a hug and ask if they can come back to 6th grade and be a part of my class again. Sometimes they just slip into my room and try to blend in with my current class.
My first class at this school made bets on how fast they could make me quit. Now I have students who want me to tell them which class I like more and if I’ll stay forever.
Unfortunately, I can’t stay forever. Next year, the district will split the school into two and I will be forced to go elsewhere (I don’t know where, yet). But God, in his infinite kindness, has decided to make this last year a sweet blessing to me, with kids who leave sweet notes and gifts on my desk instead of taking things from my desk.

What it Means to Church

When God dragged me kicking and screaming back to Charlotte, I began a new season of my life. The sun of that season, which warmed the ground and made things grow, was The Gathering–a nondenominational church meeting in an elementary school gym.

Until The Gathering, I had always attended church. It was as necessary as attending school. The Gathering, however, spurred me on to something more. It wasn’t just a corporate worship event. It was a community of friendly smiles that made me feel like Sunday morning was home–like I had friends even though I was new. They taught me that being a part of the church was so much more rewarding than being a member of a congregation. For the first time in my life, I didn’t want to miss a Sunday because I didn’t want to miss the love and support of that relationship.

I can’t lie. I joined their children’s ministry because I thought it’d help me get a job. You know they say connections are key and volunteer work is what builds them. But all that changed in an instant when I showed up the first Sunday to work with kids. Before the service began, Pastor Derwin came back to pray with us. The head of the children’s ministry grabbed me and said, “Derwin! This is the one we have been praying for!” I knew then, that I wasn’t there for me. I can’t describe that feeling–to be needed that much, to be an answer to prayer. It was such a boost in confidence that it stirred a powerful sense of humility in me.

I was a part of the Gathering for eight years, working in the children’s ministry as much as I could. It was the longest I had ever attended a single church. And it was the first time I was really a part of a church.

Through them, I learned of One7 Ministries, which became my passion and the start of my teaching career. I gained invaluable friendships that have lasted through thick and thin. I found loving accountability and genuine connections. Through them, I found what it really meant to church.

The Gathering closed their doors this summer. It was the end of a season for all of us, and God is ushering us on to the next. He has sent us out to bear witness, and all the things we’ve gained from that community will be shared.

So we will “go out with joy and be lead forth with peace (Is 55:12).” …There’s not too many mountains around here, and far more buildings than trees, but… I think the sentiment is still there.

Thank you, Gathering, for your part in my life!

Class Notes

IMG_0228A few years ago, I read a story about one of those life-changing teachers that lifted her students’s self-image by having them write one thing that they admired about each person in their class. It was a sweet story and one that I knew I could never replicate because the amount of censoring I’d have to do with so many notes would be brain-numbing.

But by the end of this school year, I started to wonder if maybe it’d be worth it. God knows, my students could use a little encouragement from their peers, and my classes seemed a little more likely to cooperate than my previous year’s students.

So in the last few weeks of school, I stood in front of each class with a big smile and announced that they would be writing notes to everyone in their class–good notes! Positive notes! Just one good thing about each person in the room.

The students groaned.

“Everybody?” One of them asked.

“I ain’t got nothin’ good to say about him!” Another said, pointing a finger across the classroom to a boy who stuck his tongue out at her.

“Come on,” I said, dropping my smile, but trying not to drop my hope. “You guys can do this! You’ve been with each other all year! You know each other so well!”

It took a little more coaxing before they were willing to try. But all I needed was for them to try.

Now, I don’t know what the legendary teacher of the tale had done to help her students find positive things to say about each other, but for me, it was an interesting journey. I knew the students would draw blanks on a lot of their classmates, so to help them along, I made a chart filled with words like “dignified,” “meek,” “funny,” “leader,” and “mad scientist.” For one full day, we worked on putting students into broad categories that might jog their minds about what to say.

It was supposed to be a simple warm-up, but I was glad that it became much more involved. The students spent the first bit of class asking each other how to spell their names, arguing with each other about who belongs where, and defending each other for their positions in the chart.

After they had settled a few things between them, I gave the students an opportunity to come up to the front of class and share where they put someone on the chart and then explain why. “Try to tell us about someone that maybe other classmates forgot about,” I said, hoping that my more difficult students would get a chance to hear something nice about them.

This turned out to be pretty inspiring! Students who normally caught a lot of flack from others had the chance to hear accolades about them. “A___ is a ‘superhero’ to me,” one student said about a particularly abrasive classmate. “Whenever someone is picking on me, she always stands up for me!”

“O____ is a mad scientist.” Another student got up to speak about an autistic boy in the class who really struggled with social interaction. “He’s always on technology.” This made O_____ rock back and forth in his chair with little happy sounds. It was the first time his classmates said so many positive things about him. Normally they just directed him around class.

The verbal accolades for each other stretched on until the bell rang that day, and even then, a lot of students wanted to stay after and say just one more nice thing about someone else. The few students I had that couldn’t read or write really soaked up this time to be able to tell the class how they felt without ever writing it down. Students who normally get ignored were acknowledged and discussed with more and more students adding on what good thing they noticed. And at the end of the day, I had learned a thing or two about my students that I had not known before!

And then it was time for the note writing. I gave the students colored pieces of paper to write their notes on and then told them to make sure they got to everyone in class. Each class responded differently to the task. In one block, I had students writing notes and then wanting to run around class, or call out across class to tell the other person immediately what they had written about them. It brought instant joy in sharing the sweet thoughts.

In another class, the students were a lot more secretive. And in another class, I had a handful of students who purposefully thought through all the students that might get overlooked and then take time to write profoundly encouraging notes to those students. One of my students who could not read or write begged me to help him write a note–just one–to the classmate that had affected him the most–it was the girl that had the patience to work with him and didn’t make him feel humiliated for not knowing how to read and write.

While the students wrote their notes to each other, I, too, wrote notes to each of them. When I started, I thought it’d just be a really nice way to end the year and say something encouraging to each of my students. But after a while, I really started to understand how big the number 85 was. And by the time I made it through 60 students, I was running out of ways to be encouraging.

But, class by class, I wrote notes to each student on the back of their envelope. And for the next few days, as I worked to complete those notes in all of my free time, the students begged to see what I said about them. Some of them tried to steal them off my desk to take a peek. Several students, when they saw that I was writing them notes, started writing me notes, too.

Quick note about the green one on the right: The “hateful comments” she’s referring to are things that she said a few weeks prior to this. It was especially encouraging to hear her say she respected me after the things she had said to me earlier.

In the last week of school, I started handing out the envelopes for each student, filled with notes that his or her classmates had written. On the back of each envelop was the note I had written to each of them. I passed them out to the students at the very end of the day, as they were getting ready to go to the buses or to their cars. And all through the halls, 6th graders walked with their heads down, reading their envelopes, or pulling out the notes to see what others had said about them.

Honestly, I don’t know if this activity will be as life-changing and influential as the story that inspired it. But over the last few days of school, the students showed a lot of care and tenderness for each other. They constantly came up to me to say how much they appreciated my note and talked about what others had said about them. And by the end of the year, after the students had run out of paper and lost all their pencils, my classroom was filled with more notes:


The Cow-Tail Switch and Family Values

One of my favorite stories to read with my classes is The Cow-Tail Switch. It’s a short, African folktale about a hunter that is killed by a leopard in the forest. It takes all of his sons to bring him back to life, and after he returns form the dead, he makes a cow-tail switch (a sign of honor and authority in the village) and wants to give it to the son that did the most to bring him back home.

The funnest thing about this story is that, traditionally, there was no real ending. The point of it was to argue over which son did the most important thing to bring him back from the dead, but it’s impossible to say which was most important because each brother’s work was useless on its own and dependent on each other to bring the father back. So how do you decide?

“Let’s have a death match over it,” one of my students said in 3rd block. We had just performed a little reader’s theater with the piece, which really put the students in the mindset of the characters. Then we started a class debate over who should get the cow-tail switch. Both previous classes had argued and voted, civilly on who should get the switch. But my 3rd block always made things interesting. “I can take all ya’ll,” he said as if he really was the son that gave his father blood to live.

“That’s not fair, Z,” I said. “The youngest brother is only two years old by the time they find the father. You can’t fight a two year old!”

“Yes, I can!” he said. “He’ll be the first one out!”

“I think we should just burn it,” one of the girls said as if the switch was really sitting in front of us. “It’s causing too much trouble.”

The verbal battle over the imaginary cow-tail switch (an item that no one in the class understood or cared about when we first started the story), went on until the bell interrupted us, signalling the end of class. My 3rd block students argued all the way out the door and into math class.

Then it was time for 4th block. We went through the story in the same way and when it arrived for the big celebration where the hunter, Ogaloussa, chooses which son to give the switch to, we began our debate.

At first, it was a debate very similar to every class before us, they brought up each of the sons and weighed their contributions to their father’s reincarnation. But then something strange happened.

“So what do we do?” I asked to wrap things up.

A tiny little doll of a girl raised her hand. “I think we should share it,” she said. “Can we share it?”

A few other students nodded their heads.

“Oh yeah!” another student added on. “We can put it in one of those glass cases and the whole family can keep it in their house!”

“How about if we just make more of them?” Another student said. “Then each son can get one.”

“Or we could take it apart and use each piece in a new switch so that every son gets a piece of the first switch.”

This class came up with more ways to share the switch than there were characters to give it to! I had never heard any idea like it in all the times I’ve taught the story. But I had to stir up some kind of controversy. So I said, “Let’s assume we only have the one switch and we have to give it to only one person. Who would we give it to?”

They thought for a moment, and then someone raised their hand. “What about the mother?” he said “She’s the one that raised all the sons. She had to raise all seven of them! She’s the one that kept the family together when the father was dead. She’s the one that must’ve taught them to do all the things they know how to do. She deserves it the most.”

All the students nodded.

We took a vote in the last minute before the end of class and the mother won in a landslide.

It struck me how odd that was. The mother is barely even a character in the story. She has no lines of dialogue and is mentioned perhaps twice in the whole passage. She could have just as easily not existed and it wouldn’t’ve changed the story.

But the mother figure of any family is not so easily overlooked by my students–most of whom live with single mothers. To them, that invisible mother in the African village was the cornerstone of the family. All of the arguments spoken on her behalf were just as true for each student’s own mother. And when they took that vote in the end, they weren’t voting for a fictional character. They voted with a heart dipped in the reality of their own lives.

It was beautiful.

Jacob, Jonah and My One Word

I’m starting off the new year reading The Forgotten God by Francis Chan, and it has taken me all of 2 weeks t realize how terrified I am of the Holy Spirit.


Some people are afraid that if they call on the Holy Spirit, he won’t show up–that God will remain silent. I am afraid of the opposite. I’m afraid that he will show up. As soon as he does, I know there will be things in my sinful life that he will want to strip from me and there will be things he wants me to do that are not easy, comfortable, or pleasant (and all this coming from a missionary kid who grew up with spiders the size of my hand).

The topic has driven me to wrestle with God for all of January. I know that I can’t say “no” to the Holy Spirit. And I know that he should be the focus for My One Word this year. I can’t ignore him anymore. He’s too much of an integral part of the Bible, salvation, and relationship with God. Even Jesus said that it was better that he leaves us so that the Holy Spirit can come to us. How can I shrug that off?

So out of a sense of Christian duty, I started praying that God would help me want the Holy Spirit (because I was still at the point where I couldn’t just say I wanted him on my own). And then I took a walk to sort through my thoughts, to argue with myself, and wrestle with God about the fears I had for the future.

The truth is, I already know what it’s like to have God pull me into places I don’t want to go and situations I’m not comfortable with. I’ve been a Jonah several times. That’s how I ended up in Charlotte after asking God to send me anywhere in the world except Charlotte.


I mean, it looks fine from a distance and all…

But after I got over myself, I found that God didn’t actually want me to be miserable. In fact, living in Charlotte was how God managed to give me exactly what I wanted all along, in ways that were far better than anything I had dreamed up for myself. God actually made me happy and gave me a chance to serve him joyfully in a place I never thought I could stand to be in. It was almost like… God was smarter than me or something. And he proved to be a good God. He made me a part of something awesome, gave me meaning, and used my gifts in ways I never thought possible. I helped start a school for God’s sake! (literally, for God’s sake. And at the age of 21, too).


But being dragged into Nineveh (or Charlotte, or wherever I decide I don’t want to go) wasn’t my only fear when it came to following the Holy Spirit.

I have on my wrist a constant reminder of Christians around the world who were willing to follow the Holy Spirit boldly–even to death.

Coptic Cross tattoo

I keep this Coptic cross as a sign of solidarity with the persecuted church, but there are many times that I wonder if I have the courage to back up my tattoo with action.

It’s not that I’m afraid of death. It’s more a fear of everything that leads up to death. Physical pain, mostly. I’m a wimp. Hell, I whimpered just getting the tattoo!

But as I took my walk/wrestling match with God, he reminded me that suffering isn’t something he sends us through–it’s something he carries us through. Kind of like the famous poem about footprints in the sand, but instead of a peaceful walk on the beach, it’s more like hot coals and beds of nails. (Life is rarely a walk on the beach).

When I was 11 years old, I had guns pointed at my head by a gang that threatened to kill my family and rape us. It was an experience that a lot of people would say they never want to risk going through. The kind that makes people like me (right now) say, “God better not put me in that situation because I can’t deal with that. I’m not ready to follow the Holy Spirit into that kind of thing.”

But I did go through it. It wasn’t easy, comfortable, or pleasant, but I didn’t suffer through it on my own, either. God carried me through. And looking back on it, I would never want that experience–painful as it was–to stop me from being there in Papua New Guinea where my family had the privilege of serving God in an awesome and exciting way.

Which means that these two big fears I have are both things that God has already answered with proof of his goodness. And in retrospect, I can’t be surprised. I already knew all along that God is good and that His ways are better than my ways. I just… forgot.

So with all that said,

Come, Holy Spirit, come.

My One Word for this year is Follow.

Confession of a Wrong

I must confess to a mental wrong doing: I am guilty of a hurtful and possibly harmful judgement made on a boy in my class. I am not telling this story to try to explain away my crime, or excuse myself. I am telling this story so that others might recognize their own symptoms of stereotyping others.

This young boy appeared on my classroom roster before school started, but he did not come to class the first day. His cousin did, though–a cleanly dress, tall girl with glasses and colorful school supplies. I asked her where her cousin was and she simply rolled her eyes and said, “he wants to pretend we aren’t related.”

He did come to school the second day. As soon as I saw him in the hallway, I took a breath and thought, “oh, boy.” He had a face that looked much more mature than an 11 year old should, but not in the “I know better than to cause problems” sort of maturity. His solid jawline and squarish features indicated that he was either older than the others in the grade, or that he simply matured, physically, much faster than everyone. Either way, it screamed trouble to me and gave me flashbacks to some of my most difficult students of previous years–the ones that ran gangs and got girls to do things that 11 year olds are much too young to be doing.

He smiled broadly at everyone–the kind of smile that was less friendly and more mischievous–and stepped into my classroom with a swagger that made  him look like he owned the room.

That smile never left his face as he squatted with his feet in his chair and raised his hand to volunteer to read out loud just before saying, “psych!” And pulling his hand down.

When I asked him to sit properly in his chair, he jokingly tried out several positions with his feet on the desk or wherever he knew would be bothersome.

His cousin sighed loudly across the room.

I wrote him off after only 2 attempts to call on him, deciding that he probably wouldn’t give a reasonable response to anything, regardless of the fact that he raised his hand constantly. I gave up on him before the first week of school had ended.

But I was wrong. And this isn’t a “people can change” story. No. This boy didn’t suddenly change his attitude. He is still the playful kid he always was.

But in an attempt to be “fair” I called on him the second week of school to answer questions. “Nah, I don’t want to answer,” he said with a smile and yanked his hand down. I gave an internal eye roll and looked to someone else to answer, but then he said, “I’m just kidding, I’ll answer.” The next string of words that came out of his mouth proved to me that everything I thought about him was exactly wrong. Not only had he been paying attention to our class discussion when I thought he had tuned out, but he had solid insights to offer.

I called on him more often after that and was greatly impressed with his level of positive participation. The one thing he still would not do was read out loud (though, he did manage to psych me out about it a few more times).

But even that barrier got crossed eventually and I realized why he was much more comfortable playing games instead of reading. Three syllable words were not easy for him. And as I listened to him struggle to read a few sentences out loud in front of the class, I realized that it took a lot of courage for him to go through with reading instead of psyching me out.

We’re into week 5 in school and he has become a lot more comfortable with trying, even when he sees those big words and knows he’ll stumble in front of everyone. He keeps that mischievous smile on his face and volunteers more than most students to do/answer/read anything. And I am so grateful that my first impressions of him and my reactions to him did not harm his desire to try, do, and learn.

Thank you, Michael, for teaching me a valuable lesson so early in the school year.

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