The beginning of a school year is always a time of uncertainty and hope for students, educators, and parents. Uncertainty about what is ahead and hope about the possibilities of what might be achieved.
Those feelings might be especially prevalent this year, as teachers, principals, and district leaders continue to grapple with the effects of the pandemic. Concerns about catching students up from unfinished learning, the growing mental health needs of students and teachers, and teacher shortages are still top of mind for most educators.
During an Education Week K-12 Essentials forum Aug. 18, the big-picture theme centered around this question: Amid all these challenges, what can schools do to start the year strong?
For one teacher who was a featured guest for the event, one word was particularly important: community.
“I think one of the things that we lost during the pandemic, even if we were in school, [is] that sense of community,” said LéAnn Murphy Cassidy, the 2018 Gilder Lehrman Connecticut History Teacher of the Year. “Children lost it with their peers, they lost it with their families, and they lost it with their school community.”
For her, one of the most important things this school year is about “helping people find the joy again” and that’s done by building community.
The discussions during the online forum put a heavy emphasis on how schools can help students and teachers feel safe and connected, as well as how to re-energize teachers.
How to help students feel safe and connected
The educator panelists agreed that school safety is a broad topic and emphasized that it isn’t just about securing physical buildings. School safety is also about whether students feel like they belong, whether they have good relationships with their peers and school staff, and whether they feel empowered.
“Part of feeling safe is feeling like you can ask for help and that help will be given as well,” said Larry Ferlazzo, who writes a blog for edweek.org and is a teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif. Ferlazzo was one of the featured guests on a panel titled “How To Help Students and Teachers Feel Safe and Connected.”
For students to feel connected to a school and its staff, trust needs to be built, said Sarah Gams, the 2021 South Carolina Teacher of the Year who is now the student learning and development program manager for the South Carolina Department of Education.
“How do we create that trust? That really comes to the adult actions in the building,” Gams said. “Are we taking the time to talk to our students about non-academic things? That’s how you establish that trust and then how you make that bridge for students to know that you care about them as people. And therefore if they do need you, you’ve opened that line of communication for them to talk to you.”
But Ferlazzo also cautioned teachers not to take it too far and become “trauma detectives.”
“We need to find out as much as our students are willing to share about what’s going on with them, but we’ve also got to be careful to stay in our lane,” he said.
How to get teachers excited and motivated about what is ahead
Michael Brown, the principal of Winters Mill High School in Westminster, Md., said to get teachers re-energized for this school year, he made sure that his teachers were using the summer break to get away from education and do other things that make them happy.
“This summer was really going to be paramount for people to come in with the right amount of energy,” Brown said. “If you don’t have the energy to come into the school year, it’s hard for you to be positive because you come in empty.”
But even as the summer ends and the pace of the school year speeds up, the educator panelists reminded their colleagues that one way to continue energizing themselves is to think about why they went into education, why they are passionate about it, and what their purpose is this school year. That purpose might be a little different than it was in previous years.
“There’s been an increased focus on [social-emotional learning], morning meeting, greeting your students as they walk in the door—that connection,” said Meredith Lesser-Gonzalez, a teacher in the Framingham Public Schools in Massachusetts and one of the featured guests on a panel titled “Re-Energize Your Teachers in Meaningful Ways.”
Her advice to principals: “I think the same is true for teachers. Build those connections. When you walk in the door, don’t start on the 50 million curriculum changes.”
What teachers need from their administrators
One big theme that emerged from the discussions is that what teachers really need is time—time to collaborate, to reflect, to focus on the students, to talk to each other, and to talk to parents. But they also need a partnership built on trust with their principals.
For Nancy Antoine, the principal of Bridgewater Elementary School in Northfield, Minn., one of the ways she empowers her teachers is by helping them support the students.
“There’s so many times when you could be stuck as a teacher in a classroom knowing that you’ve got a student who needs some extra assistance, and there’s no one there,” she said. “But that’s what I want to be able to do is make sure that I’m available to step in and help with those students.”
What teachers don’t need, some panelists said, is a micromanager. School and district leaders need to trust and respect that most teachers can handle their lesson plans and objectives, but then have measures in place to help those educators who are struggling to handle those duties.
Teachers also appreciate when principals “act as a shield between [teachers] and district pronouncements that are not necessarily connected to what’s going on in the classroom,” Ferlazzo and others pointed out.
“There are going to be things you can’t get around—the district saying you have to do or you have to make your teachers do—and there are things that, in a perfect world, you might want them to do,” Lesser-Gonzalez said. “There’s only so many hours in a day, there’s only so much energy to put into any new initiative. Which do they have to do? Which will truly serve them in their job in the classroom? And do your best to eliminate those things that aren’t one of those two.”