Lori Rice teaches fourth grade at West Elementary in Wamego and is the current Kansas Council for the Social Studies elementary teacher of the year. You can find Lori on Twitter at @MsLRice. She also blogs on all things teaching (not just social studies) at The Educator’s Room.
Twenty years ago, I took a special education class for my undergraduate degree. I have been teaching in the regular education classroom ever since then, and have honed my craft each year. Each new class and school-year brings with it new challenges, and so my learning continues as well. However, I could have never foreseen this year’s learning curve. I would have never guessed a month ago that I would spend the last nine weeks, with this class, in a completely new classroom, a virtual world, where my honed skills had to be pushed, restructured and reimagined to conclude the year with continuous learning.
Twenty years ago, in that special education class (which I don’t recall the title of), the instructor shared a poem, Welcome to Holland , written by Emily Perl Kingsley, a beautiful prose about becoming a parent.
The journey in that poem described by Kingsley, was a brilliant metaphor comparing the excitement of becoming a new parent to planning a trip to Italy. Teachers, just like new parents, are planners, but those plans don’t always work out. This school year we have implemented ¾ of our plans with our current classroom, however, the plans suddenly changed a month ago.
As in the poem, the plans we made no longer work. The curriculum, field trips, and activities we had planned all school year long, are just out of our grasp. These are the things we’ve always looked forward to. The excitement and joy of teaching in the spring is always a highlight. New teachers are wrapping up their first year with reflections of successes and failures they will use to strengthen their craft next year. Veteran teachers are longing for traditions and classroom activities that bring smiles and further build community within the classroom as the school year winds down. The journey had been planned.
In her poem, Kingsley writes:
Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, “Welcome to Holland.”
Having spent this year planning for “Italy,” teachers across the nation are struggling with the new requirements in “Holland.” This was not our plan. This was not our destination. These are not the tools and languages we wanted to experience at the end of our school year. Learning continues, but in a way that could’ve never been foreseen. This is not what teachers wanted. This is not right!
Kingsley further describes in her poem:
they haven’t taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place . . . It’s just a different place.
I hear the stress of teachers, and families, across our nation. Teachers who had a week to abandon their plans and their activities and their normal. Teaching is an art and so much of our profession is about connections with students. Non-verbal communication leads much of what happens in the classroom. Quizzical looks, slumped shoulders, smiles and silent celebrations all guide us as we teach. This is how we know to adapt and focus our lessons.
When to push, when to help, when to shift gears in a lesson are oftentimes determined by our students faces and interactions. These pieces of the classroom do not translate to a digital platform. These are not the tools and languages we have implemented with this class, with these kids, and the reward of teaching is to see the learning. But teachers are masters at adapting and adapting is what we will do.
The poem ends with my favorite line:
if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things.
Teachers are stepping up and making the transition to continuous (online) learning. With an attitude of determination and finding the good in the situation, digital classrooms and online meetings are allowing learning to continue. It is not what we wanted, but if you pay attention it is so much more.
I have witnessed a couple of things over the past few weeks as I, like teachers everywhere, have taken Room 123 and gone virtual. There are success stories coming from teachers and districts where kids are put first. I know these things to be true in a successful classroom, however seeing them occur outside of the brick and mortar has been a gift. Community is the foundation for learning and learning can happen in many unexpected ways.
- Community is the foundation for learning: I have spent three-quarters of the year with my students and families; the foundation I set is paying off. We have mutual trust and respect that has been built all year and I am now captivating on that as we have moved into our digital world. I am able to communicate with my families and continue to provide them with ideas, activities, and resources to use at home. Our community has been divided, but we are stronger together.
- Learning can happen in unexpected ways because out of trauma, heroes arise: My fourth-grade team, my school, my district, my town and my state have rallied. We are putting others before ourselves. There are so many examples of this in our world right now: teacher parades, communities cheering nightly for emergency and medical workers, educational companies allowing free access to their resources, community support of small businesses. These examples and opportunities allow me to have conversations with my students.
- “Look for helpers. You will always find people who are helping,” said Fred Rogers. I cannot create a lesson stronger than what is happening in our world right now for my students to better understand compassion, empathy, giving and community. For this class this year, our learning has been extended beyond what I ever thought imaginable.
Teachers are planners. We had this year mapped out and we were so excited about the spring activities: field trips, play day, prom, talent shows, award and celebration assemblies, promotions and graduations; there are so many events we celebrate in the spring. Yet, here we are in this unexpected “classroom.” But the successes and celebrations and learning are still happening. They just look different.
All of my students now know how to have a Zoom meeting. They are learning to look at the speaker and listen to others in ways impossible to practice in a classroom. My students are exploring personal interests and then those can be used to guide them in reading and writing and learning. Our community is still together.
So, take a breath, refocus your goals, and look at the new tools and languages you now have available. Get to know your students and families better, because you see their pets, their homes, their yards and their lives. Understand you are teaching them every day, through your attitude and your example, through your respect of their time and emotions, through your support and activities for their learning.
We are not where we want to be. This is not the end of our year as we had planned. Kingsley concludes:
And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away . . . because the loss of that dream is a very very significant loss.
But as teachers we will move forward and we will make this school year a year to remember and a year to celebrate. Because these are still our kids!