Sunday, May 2, 2021

Celebrating Teachers: Challenges, Endings and New Beginnings


May 2, 2021

by Vicki Bechard, Secretary LFKS

The first week of May is traditionally dedicated to showing our appreciation for all teachers.  I think we could have two such celebrations – or may be more!  What if we started each school year off celebrating teachers?  Maybe show some love at the end of the first semester to give them an extra burst to keep it up into the second semester? 

Teachers work hard every day, every month, every year.  They care for the students (their kids) with all they have.  Teachers actually call their students “my kids,” even after they have retired (I can attest to that and some of “my kids” are ready for AARP!)  Every teacher works tirelessly regardless of the size of the system in which they work, but the smaller the school the more likely they are to juggle multiple roles to ensure that the school is successful.  By May, regardless of the year or the school, teachers are tired, but still engaged in the work of student learning.  While teachers look forward to summer break, this is hardly a part time job. 

Summers are spent reviving the spirit, learning new content or strategies, and planning for the next school year.  Last year at this time, teachers were navigating new teaching strategies while making the sudden shift to online learning.  The end of school brings plenty of distractions and activities in a “normal” year, much less one blown up by a pandemic like we’ve not experienced in three generations. So last summer felt very different as we wondered what the fall would bring.  Fast forward to 2021. 

This May, we are ending what may have been the most challenging year of anyone’s teaching career.  Some schools were able to be in front of their students all year, some brought kids back some of the time, and others didn’t bring them back to the physical classroom until the spring semester.  Regardless of the situation, the protocols to keep everyone safe cast a large shadow over what was the ‘20-21 school year, and the subsequent teaching and learning.   But much good has come from this adversity and challenge.  Let’s hope that the adults are learning right along with the kids as we reflect on how we (in schools and the rest of society) will move forward, shaping our new normal.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) became a real focus after talking about its importance for years.  Finding ways to strengthen relationships between the staff, students, and parents was a necessary priority to minimize the isolation people felt and ensure learning would take place.  We are all familiar with the old adage, “kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  This was a year that really underscored this message! 

Appreciation and gratitude became something we all could embrace.  Parents found new appreciation for teachers as they tried to juggle their own work/home lives with that of their student’s learning, often as all of the family was online for work or school.  Teachers and students realized how important the day to day in-person learning was to achieving understanding.  Even sleepy middle school and high school students were ready get up in the morning to go back to school to learn, see their friends and participate in some (albeit restricted) activities and sports. Some semblance of normal seemed like a really great aspiration!

We saw empathy and understanding improve as we addressed each stakeholder group’s challenges, i.e. connectivity issues; shared devices; navigating zoom and other online platforms without prior experience; stay-at-home fatigue; and health concerns.  Schools made many changes in their protocols, bus routes, how they fed students, how they passed in the hallways, and how classes were set up – all to keep our students and teachers safe.  We all adapted and these lessons shouldn’t be lost as the pandemic restrictions begin to lift.

What will our new normal look like?  Can we continue to appreciate each other?  Can we maintain some of the protocols we had in place so there is less illness of any kind in our buildings?  Can we continue to make concerted efforts to strengthen relationships and make all stakeholders feel valued in the educational lives of every school?   Can we carry enduring technology tools and instructional strategies we learned during the pandemic back to our brick and mortar classrooms? (Read more here) Can we STOP focusing on student “learning losses” and START focusing on how we will move forward to target individual student learning needs (gaps, if you will) and not just assume everyone fell behind?  Can we use our data to make teaching and learning more effective as we develop a culture of learning that works for everyone?  Most importantly, can we not go back to the old normal, but create a new one?

Michael Fullan, in his latest paper, “The Right Drivers for Whole System Success,” notes Covid 19 has been (and may continue to be, I might add)

“…a disruption so fundamental that it loosens and discombobulates the system in a way that creates openings for transforming the status quo. 

How can we transform our system given the opening we have been handed?  Our state’s Accreditation Process (KESA) asks us to re-imagine our school in new and better ways.  Lessons from our Covid year might be very useful in this type of future planning. 

Many have written articles (Edutopia, Education Week, Forbes, etc.) that align with Fullan’s advice:

Above all, we recommend avoiding a ‘loss of learning’ mindset that would take us back to traditional learning – to a system that we know was not working for the vast majority of students.

The lessons of SEL are still the foundation for making school (and ultimately learning) meaningful for students.  These are as simple as greeting students at the door each time they enter your school or classroom, or as complex at identifying what losses the student or his/her family experienced over the last year.  If we fall into the trap of starting school in the fall with a battery of assessments to “test them to see where they are” we will not make students excited about learning, and could easily contribute to the mindset and/or inequity that (even the best of intentions) can create by pigeonholing or labeling students in ways that might set them up to fail.  Edutopia has an interesting article that explores this topic more closely. (Read here.)

In this month of endings, let us focus on new beginnings.  Let’s appreciate the teachers (and other administrators and staff) that have gone above and beyond this year to keep our kiddos safe, engage in the important work of relationship building, and provide excellent teaching and learning.  They will continue to do this in our post-pandemic world, and deserve our daily appreciation and support.  They love our kids and care for them as if they were their own.  In my book, they are heroes just as the other many caregivers that have embraced us throughout this last year.  (Coincidentally it is also around this time of year we celebrate nurses too.)  School is a work in progress, just as our students are.  We are continually learning, tweaking, and revising what is best for kids.  There is a rainbow at the end of our Covid storm, setting us up for new beginnings, and inspiring hope for better tomorrows.

Today and every day, let us celebrate all that we are, and all that we aspire to be by saluting the backbone of the educational system, our TEACHERS!