The following is a guest blog post from Carl Oliver. Carl wants justice for Breonna Taylor. He is an assistant principal at a City-As-School High School in New York City, and a Math For America Master Teacher Emeritus who is working on an upcoming Stenhouse book about teaching secondary math for a more empathetic and just world.
This fall, a cloud of struggles is suffocating what would normally be the joy and possibility of a new school year. Teachers are looking to recover from the pitfalls of last year’s quarantine and care for the health of themselves and their families while understanding new and often incomplete policies for the new school year. While federal officials, governors, and superintendents make plans satisfying the legal requirements of school, school will not return to the place we spent our careers shaping.
The place I remember let me thrive in the bustling hallways, find peace guiding a class conversation, and look forward to one-on-one conversations with students about what is going on with them. Left unable to do these things in April, May, and June, I fell into a deep funk. It was like a part of me was missing. Now, with COVID-19 showing no signs of “going away,” I’m genuinely worried what the changes in the school, and the loss of my favorite parts of the job, will mean for my mental health. We’ll all likely need a way to shake out of last year's funk to serve students at the level they deserve. However, the protocols guiding this fall’s return won’t include plans for helping teachers be their best selves. That means it will be up to us to include the elements that help educators thrive beyond temperature checks and social distancing. Let’s take a second to consider the impact of these smaller losses at our workplaces, and to counteract that loss with a plan to sustain yourself through whatever next year will bring.
Make a list
Think for a minute about the beginning of the 2019–2020 school year. What moments from the beginning of last school year brings back positive emotions? Maybe it was getting to know a quiet student on the first day, only to see that student blossom before Thanksgiving break? Was it a well-timed joke? A wave of a-ha moments that spread across the class? Getting through the first unit with time to watch that related movie? As memories are rolling in, try to pull out 5 distinct ones from all facets of your role that made you want to go to work each day. We are going to use these memories, so it may be good to grab some paper or open up a google doc, and write down at least 5.
If you're having trouble getting started, maybe my list can give you some ideas.
- Last year, I co-taught a math-English class about police brutality that gave some students a space to use and sharpen their voice about a real issue for them.
- Playing Spaceteam with the math department as a meeting icebreaker.
- I was idly banging out a beat on my desk when a student, Russell, came in and we jokingly made plans to record a track at the studio.
- Helping a student after school who was going through a tough time decide to get professional help.
- Giving a speech to 100 people in Boston at the NCTM regional conference.
These were not just the first 5 things that come to mind, but things that represent different types of interactions that happened at school. See if you can pick 5 pre-COVID moments that gave you energy, lifted your spirits, and maybe even made you laugh.
Hopefully, you were able to reflect on your positive memories while making your list. The walk down memory lane is the first beneficial thing that we are going to do with that list. It may seem inappropriate to think outside of our current situation's difficulty, but reflection can reveal ideas that can help at this moment. Be sure to take note of any themes that emerge as you recall your positive memories. For example, I noticed that I tend to come alive when I'm connecting with people. Odds are, the end of your school year wasn’t filled with as many positive moments as the earlier months of the school year but those may have some ideas worth noting too. After doing the reflection, let's use your list, and any themes that arose, to plan for positive moments for yourself in the next year.
What is doable?
Looking at your list of memories, what things are you able to do in your school or district next year? Surely your school will have a number of new protocols to follow. As you work out a plan to incorporate all of your districts new health and safety requirements, see if there is anything from your list that could happen as well. These doable item(s) could represent a positive boost to your upcoming year, but only if you make them happen. Can you put them on the calendar? Will it help to talk to your students about it? Do you need to talk to someone about it? For me, I will incorporate the police violence lessons that we did last year, and try to find planning time with my co-teacher. Also from my list, our math team can all play the Spaceteam game in a socially distanced meeting or on a zoom call. We’ll schedule that as the opener on our first team meeting. What are things that you can immediately do from your list for next year? While these first two options can immediately work for me, the rest of my list will require a different approach.
What are the themes?
Some things on your list are not going to work with your school's plan for this year. While I love casual conversation, I'm just not going to have a student casually walk into my office to talk about beats or basketball. The lack of these conversations will be the new normal indefinitely, there may be some conversational variant I can try. Right now, I'm thinking about using more social media to talk with students in some way. Talking with kids fits my theme of connecting with people, and I can find a way to adapt my methods so I can still fit this theme. When you look at your list, can you find one or two general themes? What is happening in these school moments that energize you? Maybe it’s getting a chance to create a special craft project with kids. Maybe it’s getting students to talk to each other. In the upcoming year, is there any space to be creative and flexible with what made your list items memorable so the essence can live on in this new environment?
Adapt your theme(s)
Looking back to the plan that you will have to carry out for the year, what are ways we can bring in the spirit of the things that can't work on your list by adapting them in some way? Think of each of these as an experiment to see if you can do the things that line up with your theme, without too much extra work. Let’s say you like creating a welcoming space for kids. Can you create a bitmoji classroom? Or start connecting visually with kids on Instagram? What if you really got a lot out of knitting during lunch. Can you help kids to start knitting from home? Maybe you can’t coach sports. Could you host a fantasy football league with kids online? I really enjoyed casual interactions with students. Instead I’m thinking about interacting with students via Instagram or a YouTube channel. If you have adaptations that match the themes on your list, integrate them into your new school year by making a plan, and make it happen. Contact the people you need to contact. Reach out to any students who can help you. Set up a Donors Choose if you need supplies. Just as you did with the doable options, set yourself up to have success with these adaptations.
You should now have a list of things that you can do next year to have energy. Now you just need to find the time and energy to do them. Make time by blocking off your calendar so people know it is important. Be careful not to overextend yourself. Help from other people in your school or online can help you, so look for others who may want to try this out with you. Don’t worry if it isn’t perfect. We’re trying to create temporary housing for parts of your love of teaching, not building permanent mansions. After you have tried it a couple times you can look at it and figure out how to adjust it and get it better. Or shut it down. The last thing you need is “another thing.” If it isn’t working, then nothing is wrong with quietly shutting it down after you’ve given it a couple months. It might help to treat each one as an on-going experiment. You can always try to adjust as the year unfolds.
Saying this past spring was difficult is certainly an understatement. The school-based uncertainties were a big part of it, and will certainly continue in the fall. The difficulties resulting from the loss of bright spots could also continue, but hopefully, they won't because I will make a plan. Taking steps to bring positive energy into your school life will help give you the energy to best serve your students, despite whatever the fall will bring. The loss of last school year was the loss of routines and activities that usually provides energy and fulfillment. The work of teaching normally gives you a lot of energy, don’t let that energy be another thing that COVID-19 takes away.
About the Author
Carl Oliver wants justice for Breonna Taylor. He is an assistant principal at a City-As-School High School in New York City, and a Math For America Master Teacher Emeritus who is working on an upcoming Stenhouse book about teaching secondary math for a more empathetic and just world. To get more ideas from Carl, follow him on Twitter or visit his and his colleagues' blog page, Coast 2 Coast Math Ed.