Educators Speak Out: Spring 2022

By Julia Putnam, Lynn Fedele, Marilyn Ricketts-Lindsay, Debra Hunter, Shalonda McGhee, Mona M. Abo-Zena, Tiffany Mitchell Patterson, Sally Stanhope, and Kawal Varpaul

From left to right. Top row: Debra Hunter, Kawal Varpaul, Julia Putnam. Second row: Mona M. Abo-Zena, Marilyn Ricketts-Lindsay, Tiffany Mitchell Patterson. Bottom row: Sally Stanhope, Shalonda McGhee, Lynn Fedele.

To say this year has been tough on schools and educators would be a wild understatement. We asked a group of educators if there was one moment, event, or issue that really stuck out for them — something that encapsulated their experiences during these tough times. We also asked if there was anything that gave them hope, strength, or helped them through this year. Here’s how they responded . . .

The Diverse World that Awaits
By Julia Putnam

This year, our school launched a discussion series for our white parents based on the podcast Nice White Parents. There was unexpected backlash from families that ranged from white parents wondering what “we” did that necessitated this calling out and Black families that felt excluded from a conversation that might need their voices for context and correction.  

In another event, a Black History Month intergenerational circle, organized by students (with the support of their social studies teacher), was the source of controversy when a white staff member shared about their Polish ancestry in response to a question about generational trauma. The student facilitators learned about the importance of framing their questions better, including who should and should not respond to certain questions — but only after a healing circle with the staff member to repair the harm they initially felt.  

An Asian American student was also ridiculed by Black classmates for her mention of Asian American Pacific Islander Month because those classmates had never heard of it: “Who do they even celebrate?” This, in a school named after an Asian American icon.

These issues were resolved painstakingly and lovingly in conversation, either one-on-one or in healing or restorative circles. These are the result of a principle that conflict is healthy and that building community is done one relationship at a time. 

While the world is at the brink of a literal world war and we are in figurative wars in schools over critical race theory and banned books, we have to acknowledge that conversations about race are already happening and that books can provide insight into lives we are often removed from in our segregated schools. As a principal, I reflect this year on moving beyond the Black/White binary of identity toward more multicultural conversations in the classroom and adding more geography in our K–8 curriculum. Any book, lesson, and practice that promotes empathy, self-reflection, and inclusion is necessary to prepare our students for the diverse world that awaits. But it will not be without conflict.

Julia Putnam is the principal of the James and Grace Lee Boggs School in Detroit.

They Wrote Back
By Lynn Fedele

Being thrown into a remote, then hybrid, “learning environment” — if one could label that with either term — was outrageously hard, because besides considerable fear of the disease, I was filled with anger. This anger was hard to deal with because I was accustomed to being angry in specific ways, with clear causes and targets. This anger was different: heavy and pointless.

In October 2020, we had an English department meeting with new administrators, and one announced that we were to have students spend two hours a week doing online test prep. She explained that they would just log in to the program and it would go at the student’s own pace, and the students would learn, again, how to better take standardized tests. The meeting was held in the cafeteria. We were spread far apart, and I was in the back. Listening to this woman talk was a catalyst for action, a clarion call. All that unfocused, heavy anger seized onto a point. I stood up.

Shouting to be heard across the large room through my mask, I decried the damage already done to students through both the current pandemic and testing their whole lives. The students, who had been hiding behind avatars on their screens, were suddenly really there to me, more than just pictures or letters. When I paused to breathe, some fellow teachers found their voices too. The administrators were shocked. In the following week, after more meetings, we beat the idea down.

It was the release I needed to see that as I sat in my classroom alone every day staring at circles on a screen, I was not really alone. The children hiding behind those screens were just as angry and scared as I was. I scrapped every lesson and activity that had to do with traditional curriculum and testing. I started each class by playing music. I read them stories and poems and novels, and I asked them to tell me something, whatever they wanted, in response.

And then there came inspiration.

And they wrote back.

Lynn Fedele is an English teacher in Hudson County Schools of Technology in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Resilient and Hopeful
By Marilyn Ricketts-Lindsay

As a special education and English language teacher in British Columbia, to say that the second year of the pandemic in schools was challenging would be an understatement.

Although in BC we started the year with in-person learning and a mask mandate for teachers and staff, there were heightened concerns about the prospects of being exposed to COVID-19 in our classrooms with the absence of a mask mandate for students. After advocacy by parents, teachers, and other stakeholders, a mask mandate order was implemented making  it possible for teachers to have some modicum of safety in schools. We did not get the HEPA and Merv 13 air filter upgrades that we requested, but concerns about contracting the virus were somewhat reduced and we considered it a partial win. 

I had mixed feelings about returning to in-person school. Although I wanted protection for myself and my colleagues, I was aware that my students would be negatively impacted academically if we did not return to in-person learning. In fact, the learning loss was significant for some students from families that do not speak English. I teach students who are complex learners of varying degrees, as well as English language learners who generally have limited English skills and whose families have limited resources being new immigrants and are trying to get their feet on the ground in a new country.

It is frustrating to not be able to sufficiently help students progress as learners, especially during a pandemic. We have had to navigate public health orders, strict cleaning and handwashing protocols, changes in classroom setup and schedules, enforcing the mask mandate, ensuring that students with mask exemptions are not singled out, and dealing with social-emotional challenges due to environmental disruptions. While doing all of that, we have had to maintain stability and calmness in our classrooms. So yes, educators have had a tough year, but we are resilient, innovative, and hopeful. We will emerge from this pandemic more connected to our colleagues, students, and school community.

Marilyn Ricketts-Lindsay is a learner support teacher at Don Christian Elementary in Surrey, British Columbia.

Finding Hope in the Little Moments
By Debra Hunter

Sitting in my second classroom this school year, third since the pandemic began, I reflect on what it means to keep changing rooms. A teacher’s classroom is their anchor, at least it is for me. I was told on a Wednesday afternoon that my room was being changed, effective the following Monday. The room change is symbolic of these past two years of pandemic teaching. Abrupt changes that leave me feeling adrift and unsettled. Even with those feelings I have learned to be nimble and flexible. So I moved my classroom without a complaint.

This pandemic has also taught me that self-care is necessary. My mental health outweighs any teaching strategy. As the cliché goes, “Self-care is not selfish!” It may seem trite, but what happens when teachers don’t prioritize their daily mental health needs? We all hear of the teacher shortages across the country and I believe much of it is due to teachers feeling overwhelmed and frustrated.

I believe in radical self-care. My practices consist of prayer, meditation, tapping (an emotional freedom technique to combat anxiety and stress), acupuncture, drinking celery juice, eating no sugar or flour, adequate sleep, walking, journaling, hot yoga, and constant doses of positive, high vibrational people in my life. I need all these practices to stay balanced, so I can be of service to my students, my family, and myself.

At the start of the year I thought I didn’t have much hope, but now I know that hope in the little moments is still hope. My wish is that, collectively, we can dwell on hope in the little moments to help create hope in the big moments.

Debra Hunter is a math teacher at High School Ahead Academy Middle School in Houston.

Love First, Teach Second
By Shalonda McGhee

This school year came in like a wrecking ball. New students, new curriculum, and new safety guidelines. The mission to “return to normal” has been like watching a three-way MMA battle between teachers, students, and the districts. Students are coming back with huge deficits, behavior issues, and trauma. Teachers are returning to demands from the higher-ups, pressure to fill in the gaps from the pandemic and their own personal drama. The districts are delusional with their expectations and lack of support and resources for both teachers and students. In the end, all of us are getting burnt, bruised, and bloodied by this huge wrecking ball.

 One thing that keeps me coming back every day is my students. When I look around my classroom every morning, I greet my students by saying “Good Morning Scholars.” Hearing their singsong voices gives me hope and reassurance that everything will be OK. Building positive relationships with them makes the classroom environment run smoother and everyone is happier. Making my students believe that they bring something to the classroom gives them ownership.

Even with so much positivity and hope. There are some days I drive home on the verge of tears because of the challenges that we are all facing. It has been a struggle this year to connect with my students. But we have been finding different ways to do so. Air hugs, sharing our weekends, elbow bumps, and air high fives are some of the ways that we all build relationships. Sometimes, as their teacher, I have to go against the grain. When my littles need a hug, they get it, when they need reassurance, they get it. Love first, teach second. I cannot let this pandemic affect the way that I run my classroom. 

In Room 9 we learn how to build safe relationships. Because relationships are key. Through all of the chaos of the past few years, those little eyes, hands, and people are what brings me joy.

Shalonda McGhee teaches 1st grade at Chapman Elementary School in Portland, Oregon.

Yes, My Camera Is Off
By Mona M. Abo-Zena

Logging onto another virtual meeting, I displayed a photo instead of streaming video. The well-intentioned convener asked in a friendly yet presumptive tone, “So, Mona, will we get to see you?” Although routine, I felt triggered as a Muslim woman who covers. Invocations for self-care conflict with expectations to (voyeuristically) explore what and who are in my background. I decided not to respond with the obvious: Seeing someone / being seen in a virtual meeting (particularly during a pandemic) is not the same as seeing them / being seen in person.

To diffuse the situation, I replied, “I feel self-conscious . . .  my posture, how my scarf looks . . . Video may help us feel connected, but it distracts me.” A cacophony of voices described settings where I can’t see myself, but others can see me. I know the cost of explicitly challenging their insistence on video. I also need to protect myself, my children and family (one with dementia) who may not remember when I’m streaming video. Constantly re-evaluating consequences of not presenting in “public” forums is exhausting. 

Uncritical video-streaming marks a new terrain of oppressive educational practices. In requiring video, we educators strayed from intentional, critical educational goals. As a teacher educator, I explicitly discuss unequal power dynamics, beginning with my own privilege and vulnerabilities. I invite students to brainstorm intersecting reasons students and families may prefer avoiding video including protecting minors, children in foster care, breastfeeding mothers, individuals with compromised health or disabilities, fearing surveillance, or surviving interpersonal violence. 

“Standardizing” engagement by requiring streaming practices represents a failure in empathy and is unjust. Does our curiosity about students and colleagues justify coercing virtual access? We need to co-create safe virtual learning spaces. To promote my own engagement and solidarity with others, my default setting is to keep my camera off.

Mona M. Abo-Zena is an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education and Care at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

We Won’t Always Win, but We’ll Keep Trying
By Tiffany Mitchell Patterson

Recently, I read Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer — Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Boston Weatherford to a class of 4th graders in Washington, D.C. For an hour and a half, students were captivated by her life story full of loss, hope, and a will to press on for freedom. We discussed the ways she engaged in activism and organizing, but also her humanity — as a daughter, sister, woman, wife, and mother. As we wrapped up, I asked students to share their takeaways and one stood out to me. A student said, “She didn’t always win, but she kept trying.” When I asked the class what she was fighting for, they yelled almost in unison “Freedom!” I couldn’t contain my joy. This powerful and poignant moment speaks to the power of teaching social movements and fuller Black herstories. 

This school year, the notion that we need to keep trying feels especially important as we see concerted efforts to roll back the racial justice progress in schools with anti-racial justice teaching laws and the banning of diverse books. But I find hope in the young people speaking out against these bans at school board meetings. I find hope in their advocacy to learn robust histories beyond limiting white, male, cisgender narratives. I find hope in young people organizing for police-free schools. I find hope in this trying year that even though we will not always win, we will work to dismantle systems of oppression. I hold dear the words of the little Black girl in that 4th-grade class, who after learning about Fannie Lou Hamer said, “She didn’t always win, but she kept trying.” This is where I get my strength from. I will, and we will keep trying — until we are all free. l

Tiffany Mitchell Patterson is a critical educator-activist and manager of social studies in District of Columbia Public Schools.

Teachers for Sale
By Sally Stanhope

During this year’s Black Lives Matter Week of Action, my last class of the day analyzed the geographic distribution of anti-racial justice teaching laws and pending legislation across the country. I told students of the $500 bounty a New Hampshire organization had offered to anyone who could find a teacher who dared to address the systemic inequality that has faced our nation since its inception. Two young 9th graders snickered and commented that they wished Georgia passed a similar law so they could collect the reward. 

Before this year, I may have dismissed the comment. But the dystopian dynamic of our current moment makes it seem symbolic of an existential struggle I fear we are losing. Both of these students, like the vast majority of my students, support the 13 principles of the Black Lives Matter movement and value their teachers. Despite their values, the enticement of cash prevailed.

The need for immediate rewards and solutions threaten the heart of education: human relationships. Cell phones entrap students, robbing them of any love of learning that survived virtual school and crushing their motivation to challenge themselves academically or socially. When I sit down with my students, most acknowledge the destructive role their phone plays in their academics and relationships. They promise to use them less but when we meet again they blame FaceTime, TikTok, or Netflix for their failing classes.

While I may criticize my students’ reliance on phones, schools depend on them. They are a low-cost solution to the teacher shortage. Cell phones pacify the most unruly class, making it safe for schools to leave classes teacherless for months and common areas under-supervised. Moreover, districts (including mine) outsource remediation and socio-emotional well-being to profit-driven entities when research suggests that smaller classes and more social workers would be far more effective.

Still, I show up as a teacher because I believe that our education system can become centered on human relationships that foster critical insight, collaboration, and empathy.

Sally Stanhope is a social studies teacher at Chamblee, the high school she graduated from, in Atlanta.

In One Fell Swoop
By Kawal Varpaul

I had a thriving performing arts program that gained momentum over the years. I poured my heart and soul into it. In one fell swoop, the pandemic killed it.  

I returned to students who were unmotivated yet wired. One day we were in isolation, and the next, we were back in crowded classrooms. There were those who didn’t know how to connect with classmates. I understood the transition would take time. But how long?

In the classroom, there was a divide between those who were engaged and thrive in the performing arts and those who resist. Then there are those who were uninterested and spread toxic energy. The domino effect of dealing with negativity and behavior issues drained my passion and enthusiasm. I began to question myself as a teacher. I felt like a failure. The performing arts will never be regarded with the same reverence as the academic subjects. Was it worth continuing in this profession? I began spiraling into despair. I was going through the motions but with no purpose.

But then, a beacon of sunshine appeared on the coldest winter day. 

We had been rehearsing for an upcoming dance festival. I apologetically warned my students that they would have to rehearse every day at lunch throughout the following week to polish their choreography. I seem to be apologizing a lot these days. I don’t know why. A wave of murmurs spread across the room. I assumed they were unhappy.  After a pause, I added that I would give them a break from rehearsals after the festival. The room suddenly erupted into an outburst of protest and consternation.  

To my disbelief, they did not want a break. They were upset that I had even suggested it. My heart swelled and I was overcome with emotion. I had been so focused on my failure to engage the naysayers that I failed to notice those who were present and needed the program. They needed me.

Kawal Varpaul is a performing arts and English teacher in the Surrey School District in Vancouver, Canada.