By April Pendergast, Learning Specialist at Kent School
Last year, the COVID messaging from all powers that be seemed to uniformly pump the brakes. “Be gentle on them.” “We are all struggling, go easy.” These phrases appeared ubiquitous in our private-school landscape of “rigor” and “challenge.” We dealt with rolling closures and quarantines, hyflex half-Zoom technological mayhem, and general mass hysteria. No one, to a person, in public or private schools, admin, faculty, or staff, felt like they were doing anything remotely close to the job they signed up for, and none of us felt good at what had for years become a profession that brought us joy and meaning.
Still, it was comforting to have something to do day after day. We had a reason to shower and dress (at least from the waist-up), students and a subject to dance around however remotely, and something to listen to other than hospital overflows and supply chain woes. In a way, I loved having more time with my family, even if it meant juggling four Zooms at once all while fixing lunch. I also loved the challenge of learning something new, knowing that the more tools I had in my toolbelt the better an educator I would be, regardless of where (or when) we came out of this. I wasn’t certain we would ever go “back to normal” or anything that looked like the profession I’d grown to love.
I had underestimated, therefore, how thrilling it would be to step back in the classroom this fall able to do some of the hands-on learning I used to implement as a rule. We could do think-pair-shares! We could do flexible grouping! We could work together on posters! We could lend each other pencils and not stare at a screen the whole block! What joy!
At the end of the second week back, as tentative and nervous questions from colleagues floated in, I was reminded of something I’d warned my fellow teachers-in-arms the week before we welcomed students back to campus: “The messaging this year is ‘back to normal,’ but these kids are going to be coming to us from a wider array of backgrounds than ever before. I get the feeling this year is going to be much harder than we anticipate.”
Sure enough, in my first classes, I asked how many students had spent most of the past year either fully or partly remote, and 75% of the students raised their hands. In the first weeks, advisors let me know of students who took their classes remotely while taking care of their younger siblings as their parents worked. Others hadn’t seen their family in a full year and a half for fear of getting stranded in their home country and not being able to make it back to the States. If meeting the needs of a diverse student body has always been a challenge, the coming year was bound to stretch us even further.
But again, my Pollyanna outlook on this challenge got a little excited. Maybe this is it, this is the time. This is the moment of opportunity for real change, where we as Learning Specialists might be less an addendum to the curriculum and more embedded in an effective and meaningful rigorous academic experience. Maybe we can help bridge the gap between what students carry into the classroom in their metaphorical backpacks (a family with substance abuse issues, crushing anxiety, or an undiagnosed slight auditory processing disorder) and the high standards we know they can achieve. I’ve spent the past few years making inroads into personal relationships with individuals on the faculty as a supportive friend; my job, when it gets down to it, is not only to provide strategies and supports to help students navigate the curricular challenges put before them, but also to help faculty and students understand each other so that each can avoid causing the other frustration.
I am extremely lucky to be surrounded by admin, faculty, and staff who are all inner Keatings; they all embody true citizenship and care for their fellows and students. They are all also doing amazing things in the classroom that, in the hustle and grind of our busy schedules, can too often go unsung. I’m making it my mission this year to help faculty celebrate each other and remind each other we are a community of educators, all learning from one another and pushing toward the common good. I’ll bang the drum. Here’s the oar. Let’s row!