The following is a column submitted by Mendocino County Superintendent of Schools Michelle Hutchins, published here as a letter-to-the-editor:
This has been a year we won’t soon forget. As the current school year comes to end, it’s important to take a moment to reflect, not only on the challenges but also on the many successes. Having just celebrated Teacher Appreciation Week during the first week of May, this seems like a good time to reflect.
When the pandemic hit last spring, many of us thought school would return to normal by August. Little did we know things were just getting started. With very few resources, school districts did everything they could to maintain academic standards while teachers constantly adjusted to new ways of sharing information with students—from distance learning to hybrid to both concurrently.
Change was the name of the game.
As a former teacher (for more than 15 years), I can tell you that teaching is probably one of the toughest professions on Earth. If you enter the profession thinking your only job will be to educate children, you’ll be stunned by the volume and variety of “other duties as assigned.”
The teaching profession embodies so many other occupations rolled into one. Teachers are counselors, doctors, judges (and juries), life coaches, students, secretaries, reporters, firefighters and more. If you can think of it, a teacher has probably done it! If you get the opportunity to thank a teacher, please do so. I’m confident they deserve it.
As we look to next year, how can we use the experiences forced upon us by the pandemic to grow and learn? This year’s disruption wasn’t fun, but if it can serve as a catalyst for lasting improvements, that’s a good thing.
One of the changes we experienced was an accelerated journey into remote learning, utilizing technology in a whole new way. I am not recommending we stick with distance learning; kids belong in the classroom learning from their teacher and each other; however, I do love the idea that if a student had to spend an extended period away from the classroom for some reason, they may be able to continue to participate remotely thanks to the new technology infrastructure many districts put in place.
We also became more conscious of health and safety protocols—in addition to keeping students safe from COVID-19, it’s worth noting that all the handwashing, mask wearing, social distancing, and cohorting (maintaining stable groups) also reduced the seasonal flu this year. Again, I’m not suggesting we keep all these safety protocols in place, but when students understand the power of handwashing to reduce the spread of germs, they can cut infection rates dramatically.
For some schools, the end-of-day dismissal and student pick-up routine changed dramatically. Rather than mingling with each other while they waited for their kids to come out of school in a rambunctious mob, parents stayed in their cars and students left school in organized cohorts. I’m not sure whether that’s better or worse, but it’s different.
Teachers of all ages and experience levels had to learn new routines to teach students of all ages and grade levels. Preschool teachers were tasked with helping the youngest students understand the importance of wearing masks and social distancing. Can you imagine? I’m pretty sure everyone who works in early learning and care deserves a medal.
Elementary school teachers, from seasoned veterans to brand new teachers, did their best to provide engaging and informative content to students who were easily distracted or quickly tuned out. Have you ever taught someone how to read or memorize their multiplication tables? Now imagine doing it while trying to compete with a three-ring circus (more accurately, with YouTube, online gaming, or playing outside).
Secondary school teachers did their best to provide solid academic content while staying alert for intentional or unintentional signals that students were at-risk for mental illness and needed emotional support.
All year, teachers rose to the occasion time and again in creative and masterful ways. They provided curricular and interpersonal support, helped students stay positive, and remained flexible in ways most people may not even recognize.
Looking forward, I hope we can take the good from what we’ve learned, embracing the unknown as an adventure and an opportunity whenever possible.