Extra masks are placed on the desk of Michael Bartone, a math and science teacher at Carrigan Intermediate School in West Haven. Out of his 22 students in the fifth grade in the fall session, six students chose distance learning. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Since March 2020, our brave-heart teachers have, out of necessity, single-handedly altered how they instruct their students. They have made changes to accommodate scheduling vagaries, sometimes teaching one group of children one week in their classrooms and then teaching that group solely online the following week. Sometimes they have been confronted with teaching some children in person, while at the same time teaching others online. They have done this while always keeping in the forefront how best to create a safe and loving learning environment for each of the students in their care.

I know this first-hand because I direct and interact with a group of amazing teacher leaders from schools throughout Connecticut who meet on their own time regularly — virtually now — to share their stories of resilience and swap techniques they have tried with their students to make learning viable and exciting.

As they return this January to teaching still under the cloud of COVID-19, my wishes for them and the children they teach in 2021 revolve around feelings and the culture they and their students share. The culture their students experience in their classrooms as a result of the environment their teachers set up, often reflects the environment of the school and the district in which teachers interact with their colleagues – an environment enabled by all the adults in the building and district.

Specifically, my hope for our children and teachers is that they:

  • Experience more joy and serenity, less despair and anxiety;
  • Show and experience more empathy and kindness, less apathy and meanness;
  • Express and show more caring and compassion, less cruelty and indifference; and
  • Show and experience more respect and trust, less contempt and skepticism.

I know well that our teachers have devoted themselves to addressing these issues and see them as necessary prerequisites to robust learning. It is my hope for our teachers that they can continue and expand what they have been doing to:

  • Allow themselves and their students more opportunities to take risks in intellectual exploration, so that they become less timid/cautious in exploring new ventures;
  • Allow themselves and their students more time to create and innovate with peers, less time doing individual repetitive, rote tasks;
  • Allow, for children 10 and under, more time in free play with peers and in multi-aged settings indoors and out, and less time in structured, adult-directed activities and instruction;
  • Allow more opportunities to muck around, experience problems and “re-dos” to address them, with less concern about giving a grade and assessing success or failure;
  • Allow themselves and their students more time to pursue individual passions and interests, with less time spent on covering a pre-set, standard curriculum;
  • Allow students more opportunities to create their own questions, and less time giving answers to questions that have been given to them;
  • Allow students more agency in developing ways to show what they know, and less time taking standardized tests that have been developed by “experts” as a measure of what they know; and
  • Allow themselves opportunities to rely on their own wisdom and knowledge of what each student knows and can do, with less dependence on standardized tests.

As teachers continue to do their work to help students learn under the constraints that COVID-19 presents, they are finding that there are opportunities to envision education in ways that are more robust and fulfilling for their students. When we finally return to school buildings and no longer have to worry ourselves about COVID-19 transmission — hopefully in the fall of 2021 — the vision of learning described above, when fully realized, can offer our students and their teachers the freedom to learn in ways that are less standardized and better attuned to each student’s ways of learning.

 Betty J. Sternberg Ph.D. is a former Connecticut Commissioner of Education  and currently serves as the Director of The Teacher Leader Fellowship Program at Central Connecticut State University.

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