There is Room to be Hopeful in the Space Between Teachers and Students.

Thomas Rademacher
4 min readApr 30, 2023
My elementary school in Milwaukee, WI, where Mr. Horowitz taught me that it was cool to be curious.

Can I ask you to do something today? Can you ask three people who their favorite teacher was? Can you ask them what that teacher did for them?

I don’t know, but I can guess what will happen, because I’ve asked a few hundred people this question probably, and though each story is it’s own beautiful thing, there are some consistencies. You are very likely to see faces light up, very likely to hear a person’s name spoken with such reverence and gratefulness, and you are very very likely to hear about many moments that have nothing to do with assessments, with daily schedules, with the fidelity with which a curriculum was implemented.

What you’ll hear about is the work and growth that happens in the space between people.

I’ve been thinking a lot about those spaces lately, woke up this morning thinking about them again, trying and failing to think of the right word that captured the power of two people connecting. But, it is Sunday and basketball doesn’t start for a few hours, so I had some time to try to find one.

I didn’t really know where to start, and google was less than helpful, so I tried having a conversation with ChatGPT about it. I asked for words that describe the energy created between two people in any language. It gave some good ones (that for all I know are wildly inaccurate):

“Gigil” (Tagalog) — The irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished.

“Samodzielność” (Polish) — The feeling of independence and self-sufficiency that comes from being connected to another person.

“Wakan” (Lakota) — The sacred energy that connects all living things, often used in reference to the connection between two people.

“Egregore” (French) — A collective energy or spirit that is created and sustained by a group of people.

I asked a few times in different ways and got very different lists, except this one word that popped up in every list and didn’t seem to be related:

“Komorebi” — (Japanese) — The interplay of light and leaves when sunlight filters through trees

Like, ok, that’s beautiful, and that’s a beautiful word, and the definition doesn’t match anything I asked for, but ok. Interest piqued. Basketball still hours away, may as well look it up.

The first site (Japanese Words We Can’t Translate: Komorebi) said that the word is popular in Haiku, which, yeah, the word IS haiku.

Further searching shows me that I am not the first non-Japanese-speaking person to become interested in using a word they don’t understand in an attempt to sound philosophical and worldly.

It does seem like there’s a second layer to the word that involves taking time to connect with the world around you, but since I don’t speak Japanese I’m going to dig deep and resist the urge to colonize the word into meaning what I need it to mean.

Another word that popped up feels closer to what I was after, though it hadn’t originally occurred to me:

“Vibes” (English slang) — The feeling or energy that two people share, often used to describe a positive or negative connection between them.

I passed over the word at first because it seemed unserious and impowerful (which isn’t a word, but ‘weak’ didn’t sound right), but maybe that’s the point. The connections we have with each other, the power and possibility of each one of those connections, are so often seen as less important than they are.

This feels especially true in education, where so much time and money and battling is done to shape or reshape or support or limit how and what and why we teach. Of course our curriculum and our conditions and our compensation is important and worth the fight, and it’s been a defeating few years as we’ve been defending on many fronts the right for teachers to even attempt the core mission of educating young people.

I’m not in the classroom right now, and I can’t imagine the weight of it. I know that nearly every person I talk to is a teacher, and that when they talk about the good parts of this year, the bits of joy and worth-it-ness and fulfillment, it is coming from the spaces they create between people, teachers and students and students and students. It’s in the vibes.

I guess what I’m saying is that, to slightly paraphrase a line from Braveheart (a movie I’m not sure I’ve ever seen), “they can try to take our freedoms, but they’ll never take OUR VIBES.”

I’m not in the classroom right now, and I can’t imagine the weight of it, but if I were I’d be doing everything to focus on the power that teachers have, the spaces no legislation, directive, or moral panic can touch.

There is space to be that teacher that will be remembered for decades, that can be there for a student in the moment they most need a teacher to tell them they are capable, are worthy, are not alone.

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Thomas Rademacher

Author of It Won’t Be Easy, Raising Ollie, and 50 Strategies for Learning without Screens. 2014 MN Teacher of the Year @mrtomrad on everything www.mrtomrad.com