BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER FELIX YERACE
In May of 2019, I was ecstatic to find out I had been admitted to the Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at the University of Pennsylvania. I was excited to be able to use this opportunity to learn more to help improve the education of my students. What I didn’t know then was that less than a year later, I would come to rely upon my learning to help myself, both personally and professionally, get through the Covid-19 pandemic.
As parents, teachers, administrators, and students themselves could tell you, the 2020-2021 school year has undoubtedly been one of the most challenging and difficult for students due to health and safety concerns. Delayed starts to the school year, social distancing, cancelled events, mandatory masking, and quarantining are only some of the adjustments students have had to handle in addition to the normal stressors of school. These challenges have exacerbated student mental health and wellbeing concerns. The youth suicide rate has been rising in recent years, especially among young females, and the CDC released statistics in November 2020 show a 24% increase in children ages 5-11, and 31% increase of adolescents 12-17 years old requiring mental health-related hospitalizations since the onset of the pandemic.
If there has been one bright spot in the pandemic, it has been increased awareness of a need to act to address youth mental health. In schools, there are increasing calls for mandatory mental health curriculum, and hopefully, these enhanced efforts to address student wellbeing will prove long-lasting.
However, these actions have largely overlooked teacher wellbeing. Many teachers have experienced high levels of stress and anxiety this school year, although this is not new. Teaching requires a great deal of emotional labor, and teachers’ stress levels are often at the same level as those experienced by emergency room doctors and nurses.
This year, teachers have been expected to handle new sanitary protocols, teach in hybrid environments, and consider their own safety concerns, in addition to all of the other responsibilities their role usually requires. Because of the challenges of this school year, many teachers have seen a decrease in their wellbeing, and this decrease in wellbeing goes beyond what is typically attributed to “burnout.” One study found that 90% of teachers who were "burned out" were in fact suffering from depression. This is in part because the unique pressures of this school year have left many educators facing “demoralization,” which occurs when teachers cannot reap the moral rewards that they previously were able to access in their work. Many of the routine joys of teaching, including student engagement and interaction, have disappeared.
The impact of this could cause a critical crisis in education. While typically less than one out of every ten teachers leaves the classroom annually, this year up to 25% of all teachers nationwide may leave the profession. Worse, while enrollment in teacher preparatory programs is already down, the pandemic this school year has caused even more drops in enrollment in teacher training programs as well as other programs like Teach for America.
Simply asking educators to engage in “self-care” as a solution to this problem is not enough; it needs to be the responsibility of school leadership, not teachers, to reduce stress and burnout amongst faculty. Gallup, which recently found that less than 40% of US workers are engaged in their work, suggests that employee burnout is caused by five major factors: unfair treatment at work, unmanageable workload, unclear communication from managers, lack of manager support, and unreasonable time pressures. For true wellbeing to take root, more workplaces and organizations need to provide better working conditions rather than placing the burden of self-care on employees, and this is a problem that goes beyond schools as workplaces.
However, that does not mean that individuals cannot take steps to improve their own wellbeing. This school year, I found myself relying on my education from Penn to help me at many points. I also found myself teaching an elective on positive psychology for my students which gave me an opportunity to apply some of what I was teaching them to myself as well.
Positive psychology offers us many cognitive tools from disputing unproductive thinking, changing our explanatory style, overcoming obstacles, satisficing, finding flow, engaging in prospective thinking, building willpower, cultivating positivity, and developing hope in our lives, as ways that we can help ourselves. There are also many specific actions we can take to improve our wellbeing and help move from languishing to flourishing. While not every strategy listed below will work for you, consider trying some of these as you navigate the remainder of the school year:
Shawn Achor has encouraged millions of people to make positive changes in their lives through his book The Happiness Advantage. In it, he encourages people to engage in a “21-day challenge” in order to develop practices into habits that can be beneficial to them. There are multiple small changes that we can all make in our daily routines to help ourselves, and I encourage you to try some of the ideas suggested above.
While educators are busier than ever, finding even 15 to 20 minutes a day to engage in an activity like a Savoring Walk or expressing gratitude can make an impact. Once you find something that works for you, commit to working on it for 21 consecutive days to make it into a habit. It might help if you involved your family, colleagues, or even your students. Both the Greater Good Science Center and Action for Happiness offer monthly calendars with daily actions you can perform to increase your happiness. People interested in learning more can also take the free Coursera concentration on Positive Psychology featuring many of the faculty from Penn’s Positive Psychology Center.
To conclude, in their book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges, Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney write about different factors of resilience, including confronting fears, maintaining an optimistic but realistic outlook, seeking and accepting social support, finding ways to accept what cannot be changed, looking for meaning in the midst of adversity, and maintaining one’s physical health, among other strategies. Perhaps more importantly, they note that 90% of people will, at some point in their lives, be confronted with a serious traumatic event (serious illness or injury, unexpected loss, victim of serious crime, etc.) and that a majority of people will not just recover but actually grow stronger as a result of their experience.
Their work reminds me of the Viktor Frankl quote “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” While this year has undoubtedly been challenging, I also recognize this school year has helped me learn and grow as well and that I will be taking some new practices with me into the future. It has also reminded all of us of the importance of relationships, not just with our students, but with our colleagues, friends, and family members as well. Hopefully, it will also help lead to more attention on teacher wellbeing and the long-term work environment of educators.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER CHRISTIAN WRABLEY
I was 13 years old, in my 8th grade History classroom, when my teacher explained that planes had flown directly into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field 30 miles south of our school. After he told us four planes had crashed in one morning, my classmates and I began nervously peeking out the window at the clear blue sky, hoping not to see more planes falling.
I had so many questions.
“Who would do this? How did people take control of those planes? How could this be planned to all happen at the same time? How could people be so evil?”
My teacher spoke with calmness and clarity. He offered some possible explanations. He told us what he knew and wasn’t afraid to let us know that he didn’t have all the answers. He heard our questions though.
I am so thankful that the school administration didn’t tell our teachers, “Do not talk about the terrorist attacks in school today.” Because we needed to talk. I needed some background information and some connection. My young mind was filling in the blanks either way. I appreciated those gaps being informed by a professional teacher, skilled in facilitating meaningful and emotional discussion.
After the Capitol insurrection on January 6, I turned to my go-to Twitter teacher friends to see how they were responding. “How do they plan to talk about this with their students? What questions will they pose? Will they show pictures and videos?”
I was alarmed to see some teachers saying they had received directives from administration not to discuss the events with kids.
Please trust teachers to guide safe conversations with kids. We don’t want to wait until there is breaking news to figure out how to have difficult conversations with students.
For teachers who are unsure of how to discuss current events with kids, my advice is to start small but start now. And do it regularly. Our students need to discuss current events, and if they can’t do it in our classrooms - designated learning spaces with trained professional teachers - then I don’t know where they can safely have these conversations. I know I needed to have them when I was 13.
People seem to think that because we’ve been talking since we were about two years old, it’s something everyone can do. But that doesn’t consider that language is extremely delicate.
Thoughts in our heads aren’t always clearly articulated when we try to put words to them. Conversations can be uncomfortable and awkward. It takes practice. The more you do it, the easier it gets and the better you will get at it. We don’t need to do it perfectly; we just need to keep doing it.
I should also note that our classroom mantra is basically: “You’re allowed to be wrong inside here. You’re allowed to misspeak, say you don’t know right now, or disagree with me or others. Our goal is to get right before we leave here. This is our arena. This is where the messy work happens. That’s exactly what we’re here for.”
A few weeks before the election, I was inspired by The New York Times’ Civil Conversation Challenge which fosters safe conversations with kids about powerful topics that can be uncomfortable. Since then, we have had 24 different Civil Conversation Challenges in class. (See some of our topics below.)
Every Sunday morning, I post a Civil Conversation question online for students. In addition to responding to the question, students must also reply to one of their classmate’s comments. If they agree, they must explain why or with which parts. If they disagree, they are taught and coached to do it respectfully, with an explanation. They can also ask a question to a classmate to enrich and extend the conversation.
On Thursdays, we hold these discussions in the classroom. When expecting students to contribute to a heavy conversation in class, I’ve found it beneficial to post the question several days before the live conversation, if possible. This allows students to prepare thoughts, ideas, or stories they’re comfortable and confident to share.
The goal is for me to just listen quietly as they run the discussion. We often pass a Nerf brain around to designate who has the open line to speak. Each student gets a chance to hold the ball, but they do have an option to pass. I don’t require them to share their thoughts because sometimes topics may be too emotional to speak on or sometimes they may just not have the words or the confidence to speak on it.
But some students who wouldn’t normally interject tend to speak up when the ball is handed to them. This simple system shows students that everyone’s thoughts are valued. It prevents a few students from dominating the conversation.
In cases where spontaneous conversations arise, it’s important that we listen to understand rather than listening to respond. We have all had different life experiences that shape our lives and our values. What’s good for one student may be aggravating or damaging for another student.
I always thank students for keeping an open mind and engaging respectfully with their classmates about meaningful issues. I encourage students to keep thinking, keep reflecting, and keep learning even when our conversations end.
UPDATE: This week, I actually asked students to write about our Civil Conversation Challenge series in their journals. They expressed overwhelming support and enjoyment for these talks. They appreciate the value in being heard. They recognize the growth that comes from sharing thoughts and ideas. They rise to the occasion when they’re assumed to be mature rather than the opposite.
I have two students: a boy in strong favor of preserving the language of the 2nd Amendment and a girl who is adamant about improving common sense gun control legislation. They are best friends. This week, they told me that our Civil Conversations often continue after they leave the classroom. They asked if I’d support them in doing a podcast episode to make their debate public. Meaningful discussions extend authentic learning and often lead to meaningful action. Even from young people.
Here are some of their responses:
“It’s good to get our opinions out and be able to say what’s on our mind.”
“I enjoy our Civil Conversations because they give us a chance to share our opinions and understand where others are coming from.”
“I love our class discussions. They always challenge us and make us think and communicate with each other. I feel like when we talk about these things in class, it helps us figure things out together and learn together as a class.”
“I think it’s important to let kids express themselves. We have opinions and experiences and strong thoughts that deserve to be heard.”
“We have social media that generations before us never had. This allows us to share thoughts with the world with the click of a button. But it can be dangerous too if we don’t know what we’re talking about. Our conversations feel like a safe place to practice sharing our thoughts.”
I always include the following:
“PLEASE REMEMBER: Our Civil Conversation topics can be sensitive issues to people in our classes. Please be cognizant of this, and respect other people’s views, experiences, and emotions.
We should listen to others to understand different perspectives. We should be most respectful of others’ beliefs and preferences and experiences, and use our words to learn and have constructive conversations. I am grateful for this respectful space where you all can share your voices and learn from each other."
CIVIL CONVERSATION CHALLENGE QUESTIONS
What responsibility do you think schools have to address the use of slurs? What responsibility do YOU have to call out people who use them?
Does our school reflect the changing diversity of the United States? What are the benefits of classrooms that include people from many walks of life?
Does the U.S. need tougher gun control laws? What ideas do you have to improve this issue in our communities and our nation?
Do you think happiness is a matter of luck or a mindset you can learn? Do you think we, as a society, give too much attention to physical health rather than mental health?
Should there be more gender options on identification documents? Do you think the way we talk about and denote gender should be more inclusive of individuals who identify outside the binary?
What does Black History Month mean to you? How can white and non-Black people of color better honor Black culture and Black history?
Would you volunteer for a Covid-19 vaccine trial for teenagers? What do you see as the benefits of enrolling in such a trial? What are the possible downsides?
Is summer school a smart way to make up for learning lost this school year? How do you think other students - students at different grade levels or with different learning needs - have been affected by this challenging school year?
Should athletes speak out on social and political issues? Do they have a responsibility to use their platform and influence to raise awareness? Or should they stick to sports?
Should schools be able to discipline students for what they say outside school or on social media? Or would those actions violate students’ right to freedom of speech?
What do you think of the decision by tech companies to block President Trump? If you were the chief executive of a social media company, how would you respond to the actions of January 6?
What is the purpose of school? Is it to prepare for more school and get a good job? To prepare us for “the real world”?
Are all Americans treated equally? Our founding documents say, “All men are created equal.” Are we living up to that promise or claim?
What does it mean to be a good citizen? Does a good citizen follow the law all of the time? Are there exceptions? Are there unjust laws that still exist?
How should we remember the problematic actions of our nation’s founders? Should we take down the monuments of enslavers? Or should they remain? What role might your identity and life experiences play in how you feel about this issue?
My teachers taught me how to deal with tragedy. They showed me the world in a way that allowed me to begin to figure out where I fit in. They coached me in learning skills to navigate the troubled waters. And now I spend my days in a classroom full of 8th graders getting a chance to give that back. I hope to teach them kindness and empathy. I hope they learn lifelong skills and develop action plans for how to take on challenges.
Our students see the world through curious lenses, constantly craving new information and stimulation. Their brains are still developing and their minds are malleable.The world actually comes to them -- new information arrives by the second as their phones light up like traffic flares, demanding urgent attention.
Ready or not, the news is coming.
BLOG POST BY 2019-2020 PA TEACHER OF THE YEAR AND PTAC MEMBER MARILYN PRYLE
I teach tenth-grade English at a suburban high school. Like many teachers, I have been teaching in a hybrid, concurrent mode almost all year. This means that I have some physical students in front of me and the rest of the class on a Google Meet. I teach all of them at the same time.
Often, I find it difficult to explain to people why this is so challenging. The increased workload of extra preparation, grading, and record-keeping is only part of it. There’s something more, something in the day-to-day living of it that is emotionally wounding--but it’s hard to express exactly what that is. Here. I’ll try to give a close-up look in an attempt to explain.
Period 1: Students filter into the classroom and make their way to their six-foot distanced seats, greeting me. I greet them back, and click the link for the Meet. Immediately it starts to ding as students arrive at it. I let them in by repeatedly clicking “Admit.” I greet them as they appear on the screen. Alternately, I look up to greet the physical students who trickle in. The bell rings. I look at my screen.
Some students don’t have their cameras on; they are supposed to, but it has become a losing battle throughout the school, and like most teachers, I have decided it’s not worth my energy to begin each class by demanding, yelling, or shaming students into submission on this. Still, I make my usual request: “Turn your camera on if you can, thank you.” A few dark squares come to life with faces in them. Two others flicker to a wall or ceiling. The rest remain dark. Are they being disrespectful? Did they hear me? Is there something distracting going on at home that they don’t want to show? Are they there?
Ding! A comment: Mrs Pryle, I’m sorry my camera’s not working.
Ding! Ms Pryle, if I turn my camera on my wifi goes out.
“Ms. Pryle?” A student is standing in front of me, and I hadn’t realized it. I look up. “Can I go to the bathroom?”
“Sure, go ahead,” I reply, and look down. That’s okay, thanks for letting me know, I type. “Okay everyone, let’s start with our Book Club reading,” I say loudly, almost shouting because the students are spread across the room and I am in my prescribed corner. The heater fan is cranking. “Did everyone get that? Let’s start reading. Good job.” The students in the room open their books. I glance at the screen.
“Ms. Pryle? Are you talking? You’re muted,” a square says.
Darn. When did I do that? I click the reddened mic icon to black. “Whoops, sorry about that, everyone. I was just saying to start reading, okay? Take out your book, and I’ll tell you when 10 minutes is up. Good job. Good to see you.” Are any of them struggling today? Jane looks a little tired; Chris has a hood pulled over his head. Are they okay? Are they reading? Do they think my class is a joke like this? Or boring? I feel like I’m not doing this right. Maybe I should start writing discipline referrals for the non-cameras. But what if they’re too anxious about it? Sometimes they film each other and then post things to social media--
“Ms. Pryle?” My head jerks up; another student, Audrey, has apparently been standing there. The rest are reading. “Can I grab a temporary book from the shelf? I forgot mine.”
“Sure, absolutely, go right over there,” I say, and follow her over. “What do you like? Do you like science? Do you like poetry?”
“I like science,” Audrey says.
“Great—here’s a perfect temporary book for a day or two,” I reply, and pull a copy of What If from the shelf. “Each chapter is its own short episode of sorts. The author asks these random hypothetical science questions, like ‘If I hit a baseball into space, would it go into orbit?’ and stuff like that. And then he answers it with real physics and—"
“Let me check that, Audrey. You can page through this,” I say, and hand her the book while I head back to my station. Someone has arrived late.
“I’m so sorry, Ms. Pryle, I was trying to get in here with the link for Human Geo, and I didn’t realize it till just now—”
I remember to unmute. “No problem, Gavin,” I whisper, “we’re just reading for ten.” In the meantime, I really need to talk to Casey about her paper. I open up another tab, open my Google calendar, and copy an additional Meet link.
I unmute. “Casey, if you can hear me, come on over to the conference Meet for a minute so I can talk to you about your paper.” I mute, paste the new link in the chat, and go over to it in a new tab. I wait. Did Casey hear me? Was her camera on? Did she just walk away from her computer at home?
Ding! It’s Casey asking to get in to the new Meet. I let her in.
“Ms. Pryle?” Matt calls from his desk, raising his hand.
“If we’re done with our book—I just finished mine—can we start on our book review?”
“Sure, good question.” I look at the screen. Casey is looking at me from her square, waiting patiently. “Ok Casey, can you open your graded paper?”
“Um, where is it?” she asks, squinting at her screen. “Oh wait, I think it’s in my classroom folder. Hold on…”
I click on the other tab of the main class Meet while she scrolls. They are still there, apparently reading. I make sure I am muted on that tab and return to the tab with Casey on it. We review her paper, and I send her back to the main Meet.
I unmute. “Okay everyone, that’s ten. Finish up your paragraph and then go to your Daily Reading Chart. Make some notes on it for today.”
“My book just got really exciting!” Gina says from her desk. “It started off slow but--
“Ms. Pryle?” a voice calls from the computer. I look down, but Gina is still talking.
“—and then it got really good when the main character—”
“Hang on there, Gina. Hold that thought—” I say and look down. “John, can you hang on a sec? Gina was just telling me about her book.”
“Oh. sorry about that. Sorry. I didn’t hear her,” John says sheepishly. He feels bad; he would never normally interrupt a classmate. I feel bad for him.
“Totally fine, John, you didn’t know. Just one minute— Go ahead Gina.” Gina finishes her point, I ask a follow-up question that feels a bit forced, and then I look at the screen. John asks about the final due date for book clubs, and I answer him. A couple more hands go up on screen (Ding! Ding!). We talk. I look up. The in-person students are done and waiting patiently. It feels like I’m failing at this. You’re not failing, I tell myself. You’re doing it. It’s a difficult situation and you’re doing the best you can. Breathe. Managing the voice in my head has become a second job this year.
“Ok everyone, we’re going to work on some questions in small groups. Start with sharing your reading responses, and then work on the questions together. In-class people, get right to work. Online people, I need a minute to make your small groups. Hang on…” I scan the room. I have not only allowed but encouraged students to work with their friends this year, both to increase engagement and to create a space for social interaction during this time of isolation. Two groups begin talking in class, yelling over their masks and the space between desks and the heater. One student sits alone, his two friends from this class both online today.
“Simon, do you want to join Matt and Bryce in their group? Just turn your chair and all of you can work together,” I suggest. He shrugs. I’m failing at this.
“Do you want us to start on the questions while you make our groups?” a voice says from my computer over the din in the room. I look down.
“Um, yes, thanks Maya. Yeah, just get to work on your own and I’m making your groups right now,” I say. I look at the Meet. One girl laughs; another smiles. They are muted. Are they laughing at me? At something else? Do I have something on my face? I know from my own teenage sons that at any given moment, there are actually two classes going on online: the one on the Meet and the one on the continuous group chat. What are they saying? I can’t think about this now; I have to make groups. Focus.
I quickly drag names into groups on the Meet Breakout feature. Students chose their group mates in the beginning of the year, but in Google Meet I must recreate the groups at the beginning of every single class. This takes a few minutes, but in my heart I know it’s worth it. I have the groups memorized by now but I still have to consult my chart because my brain is just--
“Mrs. Pryle?” I look up. Aidan is yelling from across the room. “Should we write answers on the story itself, or a separate doc?”
I hold the cloth of my mask so it doesn’t go into my mouth. “The story itself. Add to your annotations,” I yell back. I look down. Chloe goes here, Marta goes there…. I drag the rest of the names. “Done!” I announce to the Meet, “Okay, when you get in your groups, talk to each other. Share your responses. Work on the questions. I’ll pop in,” I say, and click the button that sends them into groups. I look up and breathe. Everyone’s working.
“How’s it going in here?” I ask the physical space. “Any questions? How about someone tell me their reading response?”
Hannah raises her hand. “I wrote about a cultural value—how the Greek gods are part of almost every scene and that shows—”
“Ms. Pryle?” Someone on the Meet is still in the main group. “I just had to change devices and got kicked out of the small group. Can you put me back in?” Sure, I tell him, and click “Edit groups,” drag him over, and click “Save.”
I look up. “Go ahead, Hannah. What were you saying?” She finishes. I try to listen. I’m failing at this. No you’re not; everyone’s working. Hannah just had a great thought. You’re doing it. Don’t look discouraged in front of them. They are saddened too; be strong for them.
Ding! Someone arrives to class 20 minutes late. I say hi and put them in a small group (Edit—Drag—Save). I’ll find out why they’re tardy later.
I enter one of the small groups. All the cameras are off, and no one is talking. I’m failing at this. “How are we doing in here?” Silence.
Then, Jessica unmutes. “Hi Mrs. Pryle, we’re good. We just finished sharing our responses and Mary is just waiting for the questions to load so she can share them and we can work on them together.”
I thank her for unmuting and talk for a minute to each of them, listening to their responses. They’re doing ok. I’m not failing. I go into another small group.
“And then I told her she could just go—” Evan closes his mouth dramatically on camera and everything is silent, stopped. I obviously surprised them. Someone giggles.
“Did I interrupt something here? Do you want to finish your thought, Evan?” The rest laugh. I wasn’t trying to embarrass Evan, but he is clearly embarrassed. I’m failing.
“No, sorry, Ms. Pryle, I was just talking about something that happened yesterday,” Evan says guiltily.
“That’s ok, I know you don’t see each other a whole lot these days. I get it,” I say. I’m smiling, but he can’t see through my mask, so I squint the corners of my eyes a bit harder to reassure him. “How are we doing with the story?” I ask, and chat with the group for a couple minutes.
“Ms. Pryle, what does number six refer to?” Alex asks from across the room. I look up. There are only two minutes left in class.
“It’s referring to the part with Helen and Aphrodite,” I say, but I don’t want to go too much further. “Actually, we’re getting close to the end of the class so start to wrap up your last thought. I have to bring these other small groups back.” I click on “End Groups—>Yes, I’m sure—>Groups will end in 30 seconds—>Groups will end now—>Yes, I’m sure.” I wait for the main Meet to populate with faces and blank squares.
I did not get to talk to most students about their responses. I did not review the questions. I could not circulate. I don’t even know if most of them wrote responses or did the reading at all. I did not talk about the plot of the story, or symbols, or emerging themes, or modern-day connections, or, or, or. I’m failing at this.
Ding! That one is our actual class bell. The students in the room get up and start toward the door. The students in the Meet are waiting for me. I look at them as my arm waves on its own to the students filing out the door. “Ok, everyone on the Meet, good job. I hope you made some progress today. Email me if you have any questions, and just follow the work on the calendar. Okay? It’s so good to see you.” I think of them alone in their rooms, possibly alone in their homes for the entire day. I am saddened. “You’re doing it, you showed up, you’re doing a good job,” I say. “I’m proud of you, you’re doing it,” I add. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” I try to sound happy and hopeful; I send them hope and strength energetically. Some wave; some of the blank squares unmute and say goodbye. They have been there, the whole time. I feel bad for doubting them. I should have more faith in them, and in myself, I should--
Ding! The next class streams in, and it all starts again. And again. And again. Six times every day. Sometimes seven, when I cover another teacher’s class: there are precious few outside subs this year. After school, I will spend another hour or two preparing (reading, creating, and converting material for online consumption), grading (every activity has to be turned in this year, and I don’t feel comfortable giving tests, so it’s mostly writing), and following up on attendance and missing students.
What’s so exhausting is not just the fact that my attention is pulled in several directions at once, that I can’t hold or finish a thought, or that I don’t know how much literature anyone is actually learning. What’s most exhausting—spiritually exhausting on an existential level—is the emotional component, the variety and intensity of emotions: the overwhelming doubt, sadness, uncertainty, insecurity. The constant feelings of failure. The utter grief that remains, even a year later—or more so, because it’s a year later—that this has happened at all, that we have all lost so much. And then the energy I have to muster to counter these thoughts, to encourage myself, to encourage the students, to encourage my colleagues, to remind myself to go easy, to have compassion for myself and everyone around me.
Mixed with all of this are moments of real connection with the students. Lighthearted moments, laughter even. Emails that thank me for caring, for trying so hard. At the end of the day the children need us, and this is what we wanted to do when we became teachers: to care for children, to better their lives by helping them grow. As difficult as it is to constantly feel like a failure, I’m old enough to know that ultimately I’m not; I’m just experiencing a profoundly difficult time. The students are too young to fully have that perspective. So I keep going: You showed up, You’re doing it, I tell myself each day. Keep going, I say. I’m proud of you.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER KAREN GENNARO
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” So begins L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between. I lingered on this famous first line while walking amid the windy and vast uncertainty of last March. When Covid 19 began to spread last year, it forced an abrupt closure of our schools. Overnight, what was - was no longer. Since then, Hartley’s words have served as an affirmation of sorts - a reminder that we all travel through time as we move toward new destinations, and we carry things along.
Where are we going?
The early days of the closure were laden with an indescribable sense of urgency and a longing for clarity and stability. Ensuring the continued presence of a daily walk became my first step along an arduous journey, one that precipitated the need for persistent strenuous laborious action along with profound mental focus.
As a kindergarten teacher, I believe physical movement serves as fuel to ignite the brightness of inspiration and unite it with the starkness of analysis, and the revelations born of reflection. Walking induces actionable ideas to emerge and percolate freely through confirmed pedagogical beliefs. Conclusions are considered; solutions arise. Refined ideas are propelled forward, and, in so doing, confirm the next instructional steps and opportunities for collegial collaboration. Walking served to distance nervous thoughts from unwavering professional obligations- a way to gain mental momentum. The walk became a mainstay along the search for stability, replacing part of the lost structure of what was once the school day.
What must we leave behind?
Fear can truncate creativity and imagination. Fear replaces them with a recoiling sense of ‘nope’. A lack of hope and inconsistent opportunity contributes to a rising sense of fear and overwhelming dread. Phillip Schlechty’s work informed my decision to support and provide pathways for families and children to remain engaged with school in order to regulate, relate, and reason together until we reached a safe harbor. So began a deliberate search for ways to coax calm and to refresh collective purpose.
What must be maintained?
We need to preserve the active learning community that is school. We are critical go-betweens for young children and their families. We guide them from the known toward the new. We must support, strengthen and nurture our inclusive collective resolve to go forward together by ensuring there are links to school. If we do this, we can move away from the irons of indecision, uncertainty, and fear that threaten the integrity of our safe passage. Then, we can offer the critical continuity and stability young families need.
So, in those first days of the closure, I contacted my student’s families. Every morning I set up a series of short simple video lessons based on our school work to offer parents, children, and caregivers a link to kindergarten. This included key elements of our regular routine: calendar time, our songs, our Bear playing with math and working on problems, and a storytime. Notifications of these small videos arrived in family inboxes through an existing digital community posting app that all of the families regularly accessed.
Almost immediately responses returned. The children recorded themselves talking to our classroom Bear. They asked when the next posts would come along. Every morning I forwarded the next videos and learning experiences; every afternoon I responded to the children and families. In the evenings, check-in-and-chat phone calls with parents offered a place to stay connected to our kindergarten community.
Eventually, Google-Meet touch-points on different days and at different times allowed small groups of parents and of children to share thoughts, worries, and stories.
These were simple yet meaningful initial attempts to stay connected - this became our Go-Between school. In it, we found some comfort and stability. We found time to strengthen our resolve to forge ahead. Soon enough, though, we were to learn that we would stay at home for the remainder of the school year. And, the District took over. They established the platform. They linked us all to their plan.
What must we take along?
If the past really is a foreign country, as Hartley affirms, perhaps our navigation of this expansive Covid-void will bring about opportunities for educators to consider essential scholarly and pragmatic questions about the future of education. We need to carry critical questions along this journey. Here are just a few that I am taking with me: which substantive teaching and learning presences must survive and thrive? Which decisions about teaching and learning in kindergarten should be recalibrated? Without teacher efficacy, how will history and the essential and innovative teaching practices of a true kindergarten coalesce? How best can we serve? How can we link arms to forge equitable pathways forward?
What educators take along this journey away from the past will truly define the next iteration of public education. Along the way there is school. School endures. May Sarton, the Belgian-American poet said, “It always comes back to the same necessity: go deep enough and there is a bedrock of truth, however hard.”
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER REBECCA GIBBONEY
Elena Aguilar states in her book Onward that it takes about “10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become a master at something as complex as teaching” (p. 239).
And yet, here we are, teaching through a pandemic--a pandemic that has turned our Picasso masterpiece into a blank canvas. Fall of 2019, I would not say my canvas was a masterpiece, but it was a work in progress. However, as I sit here almost a year since we were isolated by the pandemic, I stare at a blank screen--a blank canvas, not exactly sure how to write my thoughts on paper, not exactly sure how to reach you. Like many of you, I have so many questions.
Yet, my questions target a different audience --YOU!
As a former teacher turned professional development provider, I have so many questions. Some have answers. Some seem impossible. Some still have me holding onto hope.
How can I create professional learning opportunities that do not feel like one more thing for educators?
How do I help educators believe they are enough?
How can I…
My incomplete masterpiece in the past could not possibly be the exact same work of art in the future. I had to let go. I had to find a way, one brushstroke at a time.
A yellow streak, understanding new learning management systems.
An orange streak, turning professional development opportunities into professional learning opportunities (yes, there is a difference) through gamification.
Blue streak here, there. Green streak.
Asynchronous. Hybrid. Synchronous. Remote.
Slowly but surely, my blank canvas is getting some color.
Each of us has a blank canvas. All we need to do is pick up a new brush. Perhaps, try a whole new paint. We all need to paint through our unknowns and sometimes beyond the lines, new perspectives; because with each stroke, we will create our own kind of masterpiece.
The ultimate question is, what kind of masterpiece will you paint?
Aguilar, E. (2018). Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER JAKE MILLER
The year “1920 was an auspicious year for a young person to enter the world as an American citizen.”
Journalist Tom Brokaw used these words to introduce us to “The Greatest Generation,” those Americans born between 1901-1927. In his epic book of the same title, he shares how they grew up watching the world become more authoritarian abroad, eventually leading to the outbreak of The Great War (now World War I). The war was followed by the 1918 Influenza pandemic (also known as the Spanish Flu), where 50 million people died across the globe (including 675,000 Americans) -- more than double (and quintuple) the number of war deaths.
Once the virus was under control, there was a decade of a new normal and explosive growth until the stock and job markets collapsed, thus beginning the long, painful journey of The Great Depression. There this generation remained stymied for another decade until war broke out. When their country called them to service, whether it was fighting on front lines or stepping up personal sacrifice and increased production at home, this generation quite possibly saved the world.
What if the group of students before us, in 2021, is the next Greatest Generation?
The historical outline above hardly is a recipe for replication, but there are more than enough rhymes to allow us to consider it.
To start, 2020 is an equally auspicious year for a young person to enter the world as an American citizen.
As a social studies teacher, former staff member at the Pennsylvania State Capitol, candidate for office, organizer for Pennsylvania State Education Association, and promoter of youth voices in government, I’ve said this more about politics and government in the last calendar year than ever:
“Well, I never saw that happen before.”
Whether it’s the Black Lives Matter or Q-Anon, “Stop the Steal” or a second Presidential Impeachment, or any other events that have tested the elasticity our democratic-republic like a trampoline, students are becoming Constitutional scholars if only because the events of the world have made it a priority to understanding - and fixing - them.
Additionally, while adults like to debate and surmise the difficulty of making sacrifices of wearing a mask to get this pandemic under control, this generation expresses the resilience needed to outlast and outmaneuver a pestilence. While others gawk at the slow crawl of immunization rollout - especially here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania - children don’t even have a vaccine trial to look forward to. And yet they continue on.
Graduating seniors enter quite an uncertain world already. However, 2020-21 has proven to be the most auspicious; that’s led to necessity being the mother of invention and brother of intention. Schools and their teachers - whether at the college level, community college, certification programs, or high school - have had to pivot more than those on the ice of a Flyers-Pens’ game. And, though far from perfect, teachers have mostly met the students where they are.
To say high school students and teachers are struggling to perfectly meet one another’s needs is an understatement. But what if the important lesson students taught us isn’t perfection - or isn’t in a textbook?
What if it was the auspices of tenaciousness?
At the middle school level, where I teach, coming of age with all the hormones and anxiety of the age is already quite a task. Even the most confident and successful adult can recollect some dour feelings of pubescence. While students have stumbled and failed more than ever, what if the lesson these kids teach us is resilience -- and personal ownership of their learning?
Less than 20% of schools are back to full-time instruction, and that impact has been hardest on elementary students, where attention spans are low and even lower behind a screen. Ask any parent of a Kindergartener, and you’ll know exactly what I mean -- or of any third-grade teacher who needs to see another kid bring another pet to the screen.
And while pundits (wrongly) mention how schools are “closed” (they’re not) and how 2020-21 will be “a lost year,” I have a bigger question:
What if this the year that redefines the American future, and these kids lead us there?
COMPARISONS WITH THE GREATEST GENERATION
I’m sure the adults who were raising the Greatest Generation had more than their fair share of doubts about the kids before them. The decrease in life expectancy was unparalleled. The number of America’s sons and daughters lost to war and then disease was comparable to the suffering in the Civil War. Jim Crow was at a crescendo, and anti-black racism led to an egregious amount of mistreatment and even lynching. The difficulty in determining who or what was “an American” extended to other groups, as Irish and Indigenous found difficulty. A decade of growth in the Roaring 20s was a dream that would pop and crush this generation just as much.
But when the time came to show their resilience, they heeded the call and met the challenges as best they could.
My hope is that this group sitting in our classrooms seats, the Zoomers, will be our next Greatest Generation.
A CALL TO ACTION
But our hope is not enough. The time for action to bridge these gaps is now. The way to make sure that this generation of students before us is the Greatest Generation and not the Grounded one. That’s why the Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee has stepped up to share:
Which brings us back around to 2020, our most auspicious year for a young person to enter the world as an American citizen. In this year, it is the teachers who will bridge that gap and give students every chance to transform into the Greatest Generation. Maybe it will be the year this generation proves themselves beyond our every doubt.
When we work so they may rise, we’ll once again say, in the most positive proclamation, “Well I never saw that happen before.”
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER BJ ENZWEILER
I write this blog post on Jan 7, 2021, a day after the protest, insurrection, sedition, attempted coup, or whatever you want to call it. Like many Americans, I was appalled by what I was seeing at our national capitol building. In a desperate attempt to understand, I flipped through different news sources on an almost minute-by-minute basis. Three screens, my phone, and my two computer monitors all showed news sources until I couldn’t take it anymore; sulking, I crossed the street to Rite Aid to buy a whole box of Tastykake Chocolate Bells. I needed to consume sugar to try and sweeten an incredibly bitter day.
Now, a day later - with more hours of news and chocolate bells devoured - I’ve given myself some time to reflect on what has happened and what it means for me as an educator. This is an educators’ blog after all. I want to understand the cause of what happened on January 6th in Washington DC.
The first assumption my brain jumps to is that we need more critical thinking in this country. This idea has been tossed around so much that it has almost become axiomatic. But, I must pause and think about my own experience and what I know of the teachers I have met. All of the teachers I have known in my decade of experience have tried to push for critical thinking in their classrooms through their own disciplines. We have used projects, Socratic seminars, and debates to push our students to see the world more broadly. We all know about the necessity for critical thinking in all classrooms, and we have known this for decades. To say that the current and former students of the United States schools have not had critical thinking training is reductionist. We should not discount the efforts of our fellow teachers across the nation. Many of us have pushed our students to take different perspectives and know that our students are thinking critically.
There are definitely other root causes of the events of January 6th. I think one of the more important causes is tribalism. This is blind loyalty people are expressing to demographics, religion, and political affiliation. With the rise of the internet, social media, and more politically focused news sources, we are able to choose our social groups and information. As such, political discourse has more easily turned into echo chambers that inflame the rages of sedition. Tribalism comes from a deep human desire for belonging. We must remember that we humans are still animals; we are social creatures with a basic need for connection. The tribalism of the 2010s and on comes from the community building that humans will always do. Tribalism appeals to our base nature and can circumvent our critical thinking when we are angry, hurt, and vulnerable.
So what do educators need to do? When people feel underappreciated and unheard, rabid tribalism can emerge. Therefore, we should recognize our human need for connection and listen to all of our students’ pain and perspectives. We need to continue to teach perspective-taking and critical thinking, but something else must be present too: compassion. Always recognize the humanity and pain behind the rage. In our classrooms, we should not ignore whatever crazy news is going to happen in 2021. Instead, we must talk about it with our students. No, we don’t all teach current events, but showing our humanity is a slow but positive step towards anti-tribalism.
With all of the directives and paperwork, this can seem like another thing that has to be added on to the workload. Compassion is not more work; instead, it is a methodology. We should inject empathy into all interactions we have with our students. Let’s not allow anybody to feel so sidelined that they turn to rabid echo chambers online or elsewhere. We should hear our student’s views to make our classrooms safe and stable spaces. Let’s be available, and let’s be kind.
And, maybe have a few more emergency Tastykakes stashed away somewhere.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER, ALICE FLAREND, PH.D.
Students usually see teachers as having finished school and, therefore, finished learning. However, the need and the drive to learn new things are integral parts of being an educator, both as an inherent trait and as a result of external forces.
I earned a PhD a few years back, and that process threw me back into a nascent learner mode. I had to learn not only a new language (e.g. epistemology, cognitive versus sociocultural constructivism), but I also developed a new social science way of viewing the world. This brought into sharper focus how I push my students to explain all the motions in the visible world with a few principles and with unfamiliar use of the familiar words, such as force (comes from the interaction of objects), acceleration (not just speeding up), and energy (specifically defined).
I was once again riding the roller coaster of learning: the frustrations of not understanding, the doubts of whether I could understand, and the elation when I finally could understand. I was in the same emotionally charged position in which I placed my students and was reminded just how difficult learning is. My learning journey improved my teaching by pushing me to build stronger relationships with my students to help them manage the emotional swings and to build stronger ties between my curriculum and their prior knowledge to help them navigate to deeper understandings. All of my students come with different prior knowledge, experiences and understandings. As a teacher, I need to learn these particulars about my students and then help them fill in the gaps and further their individual knowledge. This means taking the time to listen to the voices of my students as they tell me about themselves, their ideas and their questions. It also means the classroom activities will look different for different students.
Fast forward to teaching in times of COVID. With little warning, my fellow educators and I were thrown into the uncomfortable world of being learners of technology with a deadline and with hundreds of students, parents and community members counting on us. I need to help my students learn during these stressful times but without the means to look over a shoulder at the student device, or more importantly, without being able to look them in the eye.
My students are willing to simply click, secure in their cavalier view of technology that nothing cannot be undone. I, as an adult, am less adventurous, having unwittingly transferred funds between accounts with one of those simple clicks. My mistakes as a teacher are visible to and affect the lives of my students and their families. Posting wrong Docs, giving assignments on sites that cannot be accessed on certain devices, missing student responses that need an answer can all contribute to losses of learning and faith in schooling.
I felt and still feel awash in a dazzling forest of technology without much of a map. I am one of the lucky ones because my science and engineering background means that at least I have a foundation of programming and electronics which fills out a bit of the map. I understand that computers only know the syntax of the commands given not what we intend to do. This does not, however, mean that I know why sometimes my text comes out backwards on EdPuzzle questions or that I am able to predict how a Doc will look on an iPad versus a Chromebook versus my laptop.
One of the only good things to emerge is that once again I am in touch with the world of the learner, hopefully, pushing me to be a better teacher.
BLOG POST BY 2020-2021 PA TEACHER OF THE YEAR AND PTAC MEMBER JOE WELCH
Each May, my middle school holds an awards ceremony for our 8th grade students. We celebrate their accomplishments, highlight their kindness and contributions, and hear from administrators, teachers, and students. At the end of it, we roll the annual reflection video with Jason Mraz’s “Have it All,” amongst others, serenading us in the background.
And, even though I may have seen the video cut dozens of times before airing live, I always get that lump in my throat. Lyrics like “Here’s to the lives that you’re gonna change” or “May the best of your todays be the worst of your tomorrows” ring true. But, really, it’s the line “I want you to have it all” that captures the sentiment I - and so many other teachers - have for students as they begin the next chapter of their story. We want them to all to have the access, the opportunity, the support, the confidence, the resilience, the inspiration, and the character to experience all that life has to offer them.
But right now, they can’t.
As full disclosure, I opened the school year teaching in a semi-hybrid format, then virtual, then live hybrid, and then back to virtual. The yo-yo that is the 2020-2021 school year has put students in a position where they just cannot, as Mraz writes, have it all. They should have the experiences and opportunities that others before them have had in year’s past. Teachers want them to have that - and more. But, we, as local communities throughout Pennsylvania, need to be better at adhering to health officials’ recommendations and guidance so that our students can get back to having it all. It is beyond time to acknowledge that.
Are teachers and students coming together to do amazing activities to foster learning? Absolutely, we are. And, we’re doing a great job in the situation that we have had dropped in our lap[tops]. Trust me, teachers across the state [and nation] are doing their best to innovate and inspire. After four months of collaborating, training, planning, and adapting, educators have, once again, shown their resolve and are proving that their dedication to students will not waver but grow stronger, especially in the face of adversity.
I have had the opportunity to experience this first hand. As the year opened, a small, but diverse group of educators from different schools and communities throughout Western Pennsylvania collaborated with their local PBS Affiliate, WQED, to produce high-quality lesson content to serve students throughout the entire viewing area of the network. This collaboration led to recording over-the-air lessons and units, producing engaging activities that can be implemented with or without technology resources [which leads to a greater conversation about educational equity]. Colleagues and I have worked to broadcast live lessons from historic sites around Pittsburgh as well as day trips to Fayette County and Washington, D.C. Teachers are willing to literally go the extra mile for students. Again, we want our students to have it all, to best experience it all, and to know throughout it all that they are our priority. I am also proud to be part of a group of teachers that filled their hybrid classrooms with historical figure cut-outs, social justice leaders, entrepreneurial role models, and local heroes to fill the physical voids students may feel in their classrooms when desks were left vacated due to social distancing and hybrid models. This is all part of what it means to do what is needed to connect with our students, and teachers are rising to the occasion and then some.
We all want students back in school, experiencing everything, with everyone, as soon as it is safely possible to do so. Students have been working under difficult circumstances as well. Some are trying to attend class while caring for siblings, some have family members who are sick, and some students are victims of a lack of equitable technology resources. We have seen some of the best that our students have to offer over the last four months, and, on the flip side, a spotlight also now shines on the need for equitable reforms now and in the future. Students’ resiliency, their perspectives, their positive attitudes as changes are thrust upon them, certainly are helpful fuel to press forward. However, the fatigue of students and teachers is setting in. The sustainability of this marathon that is 2020 is in question.
I’ve been putting off writing this for weeks. I wanted to make sure to have a positive spin on what I wanted to write. A feel good story, if you will, about what I had mentioned above. About how it is all working out for everyone, with a clear narrative that teachers are working harder than ever [and we are], and are sacrificing and risking more than ever [and we are], and will continue to be able to sustain it. But, that is just more of the toxic positivity that is detrimental to moving forward. In stressing about this recently, a colleague I consider to be a mentor shared, “Joe, some situations just aren’t all positive.”
So, let’s have the conversation. Unfortunately, despite all of the innovating, all of the collaborating, all of the inspiration that teachers, students, and communities are making happen in our schools, schools are slowly being forced to close physical spaces yet again. As scientists and doctors have predicted, not following safety recommendations has led to a rise in community spread.
I, like hundreds of thousands of teachers across Pennsylvania, want students back in school. I do my part to make sure that this happens, like hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania teachers. And, like hundreds of thousands of teachers across Pennsylvania, I am willing to make personal sacrifices and make the decisions in my own life, in and out of school, to put us in a better position to be able to do this safely. Making these choices so that a kindergartner has a better chance of in-person reading instruction? A no brainer. A middle school student has a better chance to participate in their first musical? Sign me up. A high school senior can hug their friends at graduation? Who wouldn’t pick that?
These are personal decisions that keep me and my family safe and keep others safe. These are decisions that teachers and so many others across the Commonwealth are wisely making. But they are also the decisions that are necessary if we want to return to normalcy as we await the cavalry in the form of mass vaccinations. But, until that point of widespread distribution, we need your help now more than ever to make this a realistic possibility.
I want the students to have it all. I want to sit in a full auditorium in May surrounded by students and have that annual lump in my throat. Put simply, I want students to be in school.
Please, help us make this happen.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER SUSAN MATTHIAS
After taking part in a workshop, “Developing a Growth Mindset in the Middle School Math Classroom,” I began to understand that it is the classroom culture that could positively impact the manner in which students approach their work. Although this workshop focused on math instruction, the concept of developing growth mindset in students can be applied to any content area on all levels.
If you have ever heard statements such as “I have never been good in math”; “I will never be able to write an essay”; “This science experiment is too difficult”; “This math problem has too many steps”, you are most likely working with students that operate using a fixed mindset. These students see their personal qualities as fixed traits that cannot be changed. Students with fixed mindsets do not recognize the connection between effort and success. With a fixed mindset, they believe that skill and intelligence are qualities you are born with and cannot be improved upon.
A growth mindset classroom culture can teach students that they are in control of their learning. Once students begin to understand, and most importantly, believe they are in control, an empowering mindset begins to creep in.
My classroom culture begins with me. After I adjusted the manner in which I responded to students,I began to see change. My responses to students began to communicate my confidence in them as the learner. In the past, when students came to me with questions and problems, I would be tempted to jump in and fix it for them. I stopped doing much of the work for them. What I realized is that learning stops when I respond in that way. I began to change how I responded. I began to ask more questions such as “Tell me what you do know about this problem,” or “Tell me how you got to this point.” The questions I began to ask and the discussions that ensued began to empower the students. I heard students say, “I got this!” or “I will work on that.”
Yes, a growth mindset is all about empowerment. Students need to understand that learning takes work and effort, and often, does not come easily. When students begin to experience success after doing their work, they begin to feel empowered. In a growth mindset classroom, students understand that a response such as “I don’t know” is not accepted. When students are not sure of how to respond, they learn and practice other responses such as “Can I phone a friend?”; “Can you come back to me?”, “I need a few minutes to think about that.” If teachers refuse to accept “I don’t know”, they promote a classroom culture where learning can happen, even if that learning does not appear to happen immediately.
It takes time and patience to develop a classroom culture that promotes a growth mindset. Educating students about the difference between a fixed mindset and the benefits of growth mindset opens doors they once thought were closed. It takes a strong teacher commitment to develop a growth mindset classroom. Discussions and responses to students must encourage students to do the work. At first, students may push back, as it will feel uncomfortable to them, however, if done consistently and with compassion, the culture will change. Although results will not be immediate, when promoting a growth mindset culture, I assure you that they will begin to try harder and reach deeper. They begin to be more accountable for their work and become more independent. Students will then be in charge of their learning!
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee