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.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee