Fish Without Water

Thomas Rademacher
3 min readDec 7, 2021

I don’t have answers.

There may not be answers from anywhere yet about how to help schools this year, but I know for sure they aren’t coming from me.

I might be starting to ask some good questions though, and that’s not so bad. A good question can be a compass of sorts. It may point you the right way, even if it holds no instructions on where you’re going or how to get there.

I used to work with this guy who would start every year asking his students if a fish knew that it was wet*. This was an 8th grade world cultures course, and was done to illustrate to students how hard it can be to see the water we swim in every day, our own culture.

We can often identify the quirkier parts of our culture. In Minnesota we talk about grey ducks and hot dishes as if those things define what it means to be here, but the more subtle and substantial, the invisible and inescapable pieces are the water we swim in, the rules of how we communicate with each other, of showing respect, engagement, appreciation, of conflit, those make up the water we swim in, what surrounds and supports us sustains us. They offer a path of least resistance when we need one.

The water is guide rails and guard rails for getting from one side of the day to the other.

The water at school, the culture of our buildings, has always had problems. Some of our fish need salt water, but instead of changing the water we put some oceany-looking fake plants along the sides and let them continue to breathe poison. Our water has never been really great.

But this year is this year, and it’s like we’ve drained the water out completely.

School culture has been erased by the apathetically destructive forces of pandemic. My 8th graders were only middle schoolers for half a year before the pandemic hit, and we’ve missed the often invisible process of our school culture being passed from older to younger students, of students learning about and from classmates who are different than them, of students seeing what success looks like, of witnessing the reward at the end of all the hard stuff.

At the same time, our culture has been twisted and rewritten by ill-intentioned hate mongers. In a nation where we are increasingly defining ourselves by who our enemies are, students are hearing more messages than ever about not respecting each other, not trusting their teachers or what they learn.

And so, here we are, flopping at the bottom of a waterless bowl.

It took me until now to see this, because I didn’t really think about the water before, didn’t understand what the absence of it would even feel like. It feels exhausting. It feels like 20 conversations a day where I’m trying, often unsuccessfully, to communicate ‘that’s not how we do things here’.

It’s a rough year, and the students in my classroom and in the hallways of my school need more from me than I’ve ever experienced before. That’s an issue. When that issue appears to be true of almost every school in the country, well, now we’ve got a serious problem. I don’t really have any answers, but I think I have questions.

How do we add some water?

How do we build back up what is lost or changed?

How do we make school better than it is and better than it was?

I don’t know, but I suspect that it’s going to be hard for a long time. I suspect that it will be through small, intentional interactions. I suspect the water will rise so slowly we won’t even notice, but that some of what feels so hard right now will start to feel easier.

Some days I think about how this could be our chance to rebuild our school cultures from the ground to be anti-racist, affirming and empowering of our LGBTQIA+ students, rooted in consent and autonomy, trauma-informed, student centered. I imagine what this work could be if we ask the right questions while we do it.

Some days I just think about getting through to the end of the day and back to my couch or bed because all this flopping around is exhausting.

*This is not a “is water wet” sort of thing, I promise.



Thomas Rademacher

Author of ‘It Won’t Be Easy.’ and ‘Raising Ollie’ 2014 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. @mrtomrad on everything.