Thomas Rademacher’s audience is not impressed.
That he was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year in 2014, that he just wrote a book on the lessons he has learned from his profession, mean little to the seventh-graders who face him like a firing squad.
His accomplishments “give me no credentials” with the kids he shepherds into young adulthood, he said on a recent afternoon in his English classroom at the FAIR School in Crystal.
Middle school is a tough crowd.
In his blunt and witty new memoir, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” Rademacher goes behind the scenes into some of his more challenging encounters with his charges.
Rademacher’s 10 years as an English teacher are fodder for tales both devastating and inspiring, from the time he got a death threat from a student to the times he got schooled on his own unintentional misogyny and racism, from the times he almost quit to the time he realized teachers should always keep around a spare pair of pants. His vivid, no-holds-barred stories about his ups and downs at the head of the class serve as a guidebook to other young educators, as well as a window for outsiders into the often mystifying ecosystem that is school.
“Teaching is 1,000 puzzles a day that you need to figure out in 30 seconds,” he said.
Approaching those puzzles with humor seems to have given him an edge.
“Seventh-graders are way funnier than you would imagine,” said Rademacher, 35. “My relationship with most human beings is that I tease them all the time, and the kids figured out that’s how I roll.”
Indeed, they serve deadpan humor right back to the red-haired teacher they call Mr. Rad.
A girl in a Nike sweatshirt and pigtails was curious why a reporter was in Rademacher’s classroom. When it was explained to her that Rademacher wrote a book about teaching, she had some questions.
“Did he say it’s boring?” she asked.
“Did he say the students are bad?”
“He should have,” she quipped.
Despite the sarcasm, Rademacher is in fact beloved by his students for his willingness to embrace difficult topics in unconventional ways.
A recent lesson taught his students about confirmation bias — that when you believe something to be true, everything you see is evidence you are right. To demonstrate this, he showed them a photo taken during a protest in Ferguson, Mo., after the police shooting of Michael Brown. The photo of a man throwing a flaming can of tear gas could be interpreted either as documentation of a riot, or as a protester protecting his community, depending on what the viewer thinks of the protest, Rademacher explained.
“It’s the real world,” he said to his class. “How do other people see the world, and why do they see it that way?”
It was an opportunity to teach empathy, he said.
“My belief is that we are raising the most empathetic and literate generation in history, and where we can make that stronger is their ability to critically think about the information they are being given,” he explained. “It’s how to be socially literate — not in a way of saying here’s what you should believe, but whatever you believe, here is how to investigate the world.”
Rademacher gives his students the floor, letting them share their opinions and explore their beliefs. Conversations can get difficult, but he doesn’t shy away from them.
“There’s a healthy way to have debates, and he’s an expert on that,” said student teacher Amal Younis, who shares Rademacher’s classroom.
His approach has inspired her do the same.
“It’s been good for me to watch and learn,” Younis said. “We are valuing the students’ voices and different life experiences.”
Sophia Reed took Rademacher’s English class in eighth grade. Now, she’s graduating from the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
In addition to encouraging her as a writer and artist (he gave her her first Moleskine notebook to start working on a novel), Rademacher also brought a social awareness to the classroom that Reed hadn’t yet experienced as a black female student.
“In many schools, before and since, my opinions and insights about racism were easily misunderstood or ignored completely,” Reed wrote in an e-mail. “Mr. Rad chose to listen to me at a young age, and support my ambitions as a student and as a human being, not a quota or obligation.”
Processing in print
Rademacher didn’t start out intending to be a teacher. The Milwaukee native studied creative writing with a focus on poetry at the University of Minnesota. After reading Dave Eggers’ “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” he was inspired to write nonfiction. (In a dream come true for Rademacher, Eggers authored the foreword to “It Won’t Be Easy.”)
But his mother was a teacher, and he eventually decided to follow in her footsteps, as long as he could teach other budding young artists. He had no idea what he was in for.
“I didn’t know what it meant to be a white person in a room of mostly nonwhite kids,” Rademacher said. “The students forced me to be better.”
His book is a chance to set the record straight for other young teachers, who don’t learn about anti-racism in their college curricula.
It’s also a way to document all that he’s learned in his decade in the classroom. Before the book, he wrote about his adventures in teaching on a blog, Mr. Rad’s Neighborhood.
“I think it’s the way he processes things,” said his wife, Laura Rademacher. “He kind of writes how he breathes.”
‘Crisis of ego’
Rademacher dreamed of writing a book since he was 5 years old, and had been quietly crafting “It Won’t Be Easy,” when he was selected as Minnesota Teacher of the Year. That acknowledgment was “life-changing,” but led into the worst year he’d had as a teacher.
Riding high on the award, he’d had a “crisis of ego,” he said. He was proud of his accomplishments, but in the classroom, he was still just Mr. Rad, and teaching didn’t suddenly become any easier, he said.
He added it to the pile of learning experiences that he’d stacked up.
“I think the thing that strikes me most about Tom is how every time he is knocked down, he does his very best to learn from it and then get back up again and go forward with that new knowledge,” his wife said.
Bouncing back is something he has to do right now. A couple of years ago, Rademacher left the FAIR School to become a teacher-coach in a Minneapolis school for one year. But he missed teaching kids, so he went back to his former job. Because of the move, however, he lost his seniority. Last month, a budget shortfall in Robbinsdale Area Schools cost him his job. He’s currently looking for work for next school year, a search he’ll double down on when the book buzz subsides.
A humbled Rademacher avoids boasting about the book in class, though he did share his enthusiasm when he got to see the hard copy for the first time. He’s not sure how many students will actually read it, though he knows some of them will, “which is just embarrassing.”
He’s more concerned about how colleagues and parents take to his candor in the book, which was recently published by the University of Minnesota Press.
“There’s a risk that wherever I end up, it’s out there, and that’s super weird and frightening,” he said. “At some point I had to make the choice, is this going to be comfortable or honest?”
For curious students, he gives them a warning: “It’s got a lot of swearwords in it.”
But one student who got her hands on an advanced copy had some pretty blunt feedback, served up in Rademacher’s own signature acerbity.
“Hey, saw your book,” she said to him.
“Oh, yeah?” Rademacher said.
She responded, “It’s trash.”