Yesterday was the last day of my 16th year of teaching in both NYC Schools and PS 1. Reflection is a crucial part of both our personal and our professional practices as educators. It’s important on a personal and professional level because teaching is both an art and a science. As a special educator, my creativity is the power and energy that helps me to reach students and families. My clinical approach to closing the gap between the present level of performance and grade level standards requires research, observation, collaboration and precision. Educators are professionals who are often overlooked because there is a social construct that has identified them as “just school teachers.” We are so much more that “just school teachers” and the 2019-2020 school year is packed with evidence of that!
I always have conflicting feelings at the end of a school year. I am sad to see my 5th graders move on because I will miss them. Teaching the same students for two years in a row makes it difficult to say goodbye to students and their families. Strong bonds develop across two years of learning. Simultaneously, I also am excited for their new adventures and the possibilities ahead of them. I look forward to their visits at dismissal and listening to their new stories.
This year though, the ambiguousness of my emotions is really difficult to explain. As I think back across the year, I feel blessed to be part of a school community that always collaborates and is radically pro-kid. Examples of this can be seen in the way PS 1 teachers speak and listen to students, their commitment to professional growth, the incredible amount of extra time they put into their planning and family outreach as well as their willingness to take risks. Prior to the pandemic, our school had to be evacuated due poor air quality from a nearby warehouse fire. We have never had to put our evacuation plan into effect aside from fire drills. Evacuating close to 1,300 people is not an easy task. It wasn’t perfect but everyone went home safely. Staff members collaborated to reach out to families and comfort very scared children and parents in multiple languages. We are community who prioritizes our children and families. The pandemic changed many aspects of education but our priorities didn’t shift.
I am so proud of the way our teachers and administrators banded together to support our families during remote learning. It was not an easy transition and everyone was dramatically pulled out of their comfort zone in both their personal and professional lives. Remote learning was not easy but I always tell my students that when we do hard things and we make mistakes, our brains grow! The staff of PS 1 modeled that so well that our students really stepped up to this learning challenge. It was so impressive to watch our students take on the many obstacles that occurred during remote learning. In our school community, the whole child is the priority and that didn’t change during remote learning. Our connections with students and families continued to be our number one priority. Not only did we collaborate to provide instruction but we also supported our families with technical support, emotional support and food security. I don’t know that people outside of education realize that remote learning was only successful because educators prioritized their connections to children and families over everything else. Much of the time we prioritized those connections over our own families and friends so that the communities we serve would continue to feel safe and supported.
Even though we figured out how to continue building community, hold virtual awards celebrations, graduations, field days, trips and proms, I am still so deeply sad about everything that feels lost. On West Wing, the character of President Bartlet frequently says, “Show me the numbers.” Here are my numbers. Each year I make my students an iMovie using photos from our classroom activities as an end of year gift. Last year and every year before, I have taken an average of 500 photos per year. This year I took 300 photos. That difference of 200 is just living with me right now. I just can’t stop thinking about those “missing” photos. My students and families loved our iMovie. They don’t know that those photos are missing but I do.
I am sad that time has stood still in room 307. My classroom calendar still says March 13th. The last time I was in my classroom was on March 20th and walking away from that room felt like I was walking away from something unfinished and incomplete. I had the opportunity to go to my classroom last week but I could not bring myself to go back. On Monday, I am going back to the school building to organize yearbooks, graduation photos and t-shirts for parent pick-up but I know I will not go upstairs. I am not ready to confront that overwhelming sadness and regret. It was easier for me to do a “drive by” on my bicycle to the homes of my 5th graders than it is to even think about walking back into room 307 right now. Regardless of the effort we put into remote learning, it is hard to shake that feeling as educators that we did not do enough to address our students learning and personal needs, celebrate their successes, say goodbye and bring closure to the school year. In my brain, I know these are not facts but part of good mental health is acknowledging your emotions. I need to give myself time to mourn those things that we lost. If I feel that way as an educator, I have to be open to the fact that my students might also feel a need to mourn what was lost during the transition to remote learning. I could see that in my student interactions the last few days of school. My students didn’t want to leave their live lessons, they made videos that they asked me to share with their other teachers, they asked for Google Meets just to talk about their feelings with each other, they showed up to my office hours to tell me jokes and show me magic tricks and they repeatedly asked me if we could continue to have live Google Meets during the summer. There just didn’t seem to be a way to say goodbye in a way that really brought closure. Students and teachers implicitly understand that the greatest learning happens with strong human connections. We have learned how to adapt and build those connections across a video screen but we also mourn the loss of those daily, weekly monthly and yearly traditions that build a learning community.
Educators are going to face so many new challenges in the fall. Administrators on all kinds of levels are being tasked with making the important decision of the best way to open schools in a safe and equitable way during this pandemic. I don’t envy any school administrators right now. However, it is important to remember that teachers are the ones who will continue to be on the front lines. Teachers will be the ones to continue to use their creativity to support students and families. Teachers will be the ones using research, observation, collaboration and precision to close the gap between the present level of performance and grade level standards. Teachers will be the ones who speak to and listen to students every single weekday. Teachers will be the ones choosing to stay up late to plan and reach out to families, sometimes at the detriment of their own families. Teachers are the ones who will prioritize the whole child regardless of the obstacles in front of them. Thinking about the fall feels overwhelming. For that reason alone, I think all of my colleagues - teachers, therapists, counselors, educational associates, school aides, custodians, principals, assistant principals, school secretaries, parent coordinators, social workers, school psychologists and family workers - need to give themselves some room this summer. Give yourself room to honor your amazing professional and personal accomplishments. Give yourself room to honor the way you supported your families and students. But also, give yourself room to mourn those events and opportunities we may feel we lost. Give yourself room to mourn the closure we didn’t get to have. It is okay have conflicting feelings of accomplishment and deep sorrow. To the rest of the world, please stop saying that we are “just school teachers.” We are so much more.
If I get to walk back into room 307 at the end of August, I hope to do so without tears of regret. I hope to walk back into room 307 with a sense of purpose and the knowledge that both my students and I and the entire PS 1 community made the absolute best of the 2019 - 2020 school year.