We hear tons of stories from teachers across the country, and we love sharing and celebrating teachers' work. That said, we don't typically share teachers' real names, schools, students, and districts, out of respect for privacy. Therefore, some names have been anonymized in our articles. We are grateful for your understanding!
Delaney walked through the school office, a woman on a mission. She is the type of teacher who has perfected a walking style of complete calm combined with clear urgency. “I’m looking for a nutritional drink for Katie. There’s none in her backpack.”
The principal I’m meeting with springs into action and I follow her, picking up my pace. Most of the time I meet with a principal I end up tagging along on a mission as the principal’s walkie-talkie crackles to life to request their presence – to assist at the drop-off line, to take over a classroom, to calm down an upset kid, or to administer a test to group of third graders because their teacher has a flat tire. I make a mental note to keep my emails to principals shorter. I don’t know how I’d keep my inbox intact with this many fires to put out.
We walk alongside Delaney - known by only her last name (no Mrs. or Ms.) as school’s most beloved teachers seem to be - in search of the nutritional beverage one of their special needs students has forgotten at home. I am introduced. Delaney is the school counselor and has been at the school for nearly 20 years. She knows every kid’s name, every kid’s home situation, and every parent at the school. “She’s legend,” the principal says to me over her shoulder as we walk. “Wait until you see the Zen Den.”
The women stop in a supply closet and Delaney grabs a small toy from a prize box, saying, “Ooh! She loves this one!” and adds it to the pack of items they’re assembling for this child.
This school has Title I status, which means that a high percentage of students at the school qualify for free and reduced lunch based on their household income. For Title I Schools, there are many programs to support kids both at school and at home. Backpack programs for supplies, pantry programs to send food home, book programs to fill libraries, coat closets with every type and size of cold weather gear. It’s a lot of supply to manage and I marvel at the way these women navigate the inventory.
With the pack of immediate needs filled for this student we continue on our school tour, Delaney promising to catch back up with us at the end.
At the last stop we see her again, standing at the door of an enormous room that doesn’t look like any room I’ve ever seen in a school. The lighting is soft - twinkle lights and warm-tone lamps replace fluorescent overheads. Rugs, soft seating, and small nooks with blankets fill the corners. In the center of the room are two hammock chairs, swinging from hooks on the ceiling. Ah, this must be the Zen Den.
Delaney points out her office - a tiny space that’s been converted into a small counseling room. She explains. “I find that if kids can relax out here in the Zen Den, they’re more likely to come visit me in there and talk about what’s going on with them.” Smart thinking, brilliant execution. I walk around, marveling at the thoughtful touches everywhere. White noise machines, healthy snack items, encouraging posters, stickers, and pillows. Stuffed animals and quiet games, sensory items and fidgets, lava lamps and bean bag chairs. On the floor are spots that look like an oil slick, rainbow liquid swirling around my feet as I step gently on them.
“Oh, I love those!” Delaney exclaims. “I found them last year for $25, such a deal, I couldn’t believe it.” I look around. There are at least 10 of them around the room. I start mentally calculating the cost of this room, and she can see what I’m about to ask.
She looks at me a little sheepishly and carefully says, “Well, I’ve been building it up for more than ten years. But…I bought almost everything in this room myself.” She’s gotten savvy about it over the years by finding donations, writing a few grants, getting stuff secondhand or scratch-and-dent. Parents and teachers who know about the Zen Den tell her when they see something they think she’d love. She proudly points out a dresser and chair she refurbished from a garage sale, thanks to a tip from one of her parent-friends.
When she finally tells me what she thinks she’s spent over the years, I look wide-eyed over her shoulder at the principal, whose thumbs up motion indicates that the real number is almost certainly higher.
I have to ask: “Why do you do it?”
She looks at me with that same calm but urgent energy from before and says: “Listen. This is one of the only really safe and comfortable places many of our kiddos know. Some of these kids come in here and fall asleep because it’s much more comfortable than where they sleep at home. I’m here for that safety. When they feel safe here, they tell me what’s going on. And when they talk, I can help.”
I’ve thought about this conversation for months. The safe space she created. The kids she supported. The knowledge she used to create a place where she could do her very best work, and the resources, time, thought, and energy that went beyond any contract or job description.
This is the brilliant work that doesn’t show up on a teacher’s job description.
This is the innovation that we don’t hear about in news articles about teachers and schools.
This is the untold work of a teacher who will spend her weekend refurbishing a rocking chair, in hopes that it will help one more kid open up and let her in.
Featured image sourced from Google, representative of what a zen den may look like.