School year 2020-21 was a year of wide-ranging and significant everything. Full of layered emotions and experiences existing between the ever-collapsing dichotomies of together-alone, 2D-3D, right-wrong, real-unreal, then-now, time-no time, nowhere-here.
The stories we tell about our learnings of this time will be revealed as we take care to process and reflect together. What we think we’ve learned likely will be revised (re-seen) many times over in the coming months and years.
Throughout this school year I have been continuously inspired by the educators in my life, especially the educators who are part of Educators’ Neighborhood 2020-21. Educators started this school year with endless uncertainties. They end this school year, too, with endless uncertainties (as indeed, uncertainty is a constant). Yet how educators approach their work inside these uncertainties has shifted. I notice an expanded grace—a beautiful giving and receiving of grace for their colleagues, for families, for children, for themselves, and for uncertainty itself.
I asked this year’s group of educators: What is a surprising gift from this school year? Their answers reveal beautiful alignment with Fred Rogers and his ideas around generous giving and receiving in relationships.
Gifts for how educators approach their work inside schools and organizations:
- Educators asking other educators if they are okay. Along with an onslaught of various trials and tribulations, this year has shown me a community where people aren’t afraid to check-in with another teacher and cry or celebrate alongside them. (Anamarie Neville, Digital Learning Specialist, NC)
- Learning to breathe again. Meet people where they were and learn to be “Ok” with not meeting “the bar” of what we would typically expect in regard to data. Acknowledgment returned to the need for more social and emotional development at ALL grade levels. (Erica Nemzek, Early Learning Coordinator, Waynesboro, PA)
- Practice of being present and intentional. I took every single moment to be intentional. My students may have “lost” learning time during their time away, but when they returned there is one thing that I know they learned: that they are unconditionally loved exactly as they are. (Sierra Dinges, Kindergarten and First Grade Teacher, Kansas City, MO)
Gifts in relationships with families:
- In the past, I have always tried to connect with families but based on a variety of issues, there are many caregivers I have never even met. This year we did weekly phone calls/texts, supply drop-offs at homes, and in many cases, we just see and hear each other daily through the screen. Having this time at home with my own children has been such a blessing too but it’s also helped me realize how differently each child learns and how each family needs understanding and flexibility. (Renata Capozzoli, Kindergarten Teacher, Pittsburgh, PA)
- Strong partnership with caregivers. Staying home and learning through a pandemic allowed for more caregivers to take an active role in their child’s schooling. I could not have accomplished what I did this year with my students without their help and support. We worked together every day. (LeeAnne Kreuger, Kindergarten Teacher, Pittsburgh, PA)
- I have always valued building strong relationships with the families of my students, but I never anticipated how much we would come to rely on each other and be supports for each other during this crazy year. We became co-teachers as well as sounding boards for our worries and frustrations. It also gave us a new appreciation for each other; being reminding that we are all human first, with families and pets and homes that are far from perfect was a valuable reminder. (Shellie Grooms, preK Teacher, Pittsburgh, PA)
Gifts from, for, and with children:
- Resiliency and adaptability of young children. I watched my preschoolers faithfully wear masks, respond positively to a complete change in schedule and curriculum, and navigate through this changing pandemic without seemingly batting an eye. Being in school with friends was all that mattered, and they did whatever we asked to make that happen. I am in awe of and full of gratitude for them. (Carin Blair, Preschool Teacher, Alexandria, VA)
- How much I really love our students. Often we can get bogged down with all the “other” duties that are put on our plates. This year was so full of difficult things that it became crystal clear that our students are just the best part of what we do! (Jenna Valentine-Turner, Social Emotional Learning Specialist, Kernersville, NC)
- Conversations with children. For most of the year we were only able to see each other through a screen. I truly think it made our interactions more rich and concentrated in a way. They never stopped wanting to share what they had learned recently, what their classroom pets were up to, what friends they had been playing with. (Erin Dolan, Program Coordinator, Hyland Child Enrichment Center, Northeast, OH)
- How close my students came to be. Despite the distancing in the classroom, they ALL got along with each other! No joke! I didn’t have a lot of arguing or tattling this year. They would plan out what they would play at recess or talk about at lunch. Also, they were always willing to help one another without being asked to do so. Somehow, all this distancing brought them closer together because children need that interaction with one another. Social distancing didn’t stop them! (Molly Ouchis, Kindergarten Teacher, Reading, PA)
- Hearing my students tell me how much they love school. They returned in March after having been online fully for the first three nine weeks. They really tell me how much they love first grade. They say they are “sad to leave.” So I just see a great appreciation and love for school! (Chantel Little, Grade 1 Teacher, Brownsville, PA)
- Making new friends. I thought for sure socially the students wouldn’t have been able to make friends due to social distancing and wearing masks. I was so proud that during this difficult time (even with restrictions) they were able to build relationships. I also watched as my students patiently listened to one another as they spoke. I was amazed by their caring personalities and kindness during this time. It brought tears to my eyes! I do believe with me taking time to talk about kindness and love has changed their way of thinking. They know how to truly respect one another, and I hope this continues. (Rachel Septak, Kindergarten Teacher, Pittsburgh, PA)
Overall gifts of being in in the world:
- Slowness and unexpected gift of time. More time has given me the opportunity to become a better listener; to focus on one thing at a time and give space for silence; to ask thoughtful and intentional questions of a person and give them the space to authentically and honestly answer because they know I am truly LISTENING. (Liz Kostandinu, WQED Education, Pittsburgh, PA)
- Vulnerability. It sounds uncertain and scary to be in that position but allowing myself to be vulnerable created many opportunities to develop new skills and become more intentional about connection. (Bobbie Hall, Children’s Department Manager for Henderson County Clint W. Murchison Memorial Library, Athens TX)
Fred Rogers said, “All of us, at some time or other, need help. Whether we’re giving or receiving help, each one of us has something valuable to bring to this world. That’s one of the things that connects us as neighbors–in our own way, each one of us is a giver and a receiver.”
Through a school year full of opportunities for “Help me, please!,” we’ve expanded a space of generosity, for giving and receiving in abundance—gifts of vulnerability, trust, mistakes, revision, forgiveness, listening, compassion, surrender… all softening, opening, deepening our connections with each other. May we bring these gifts into our work next school year and continue to expand opportunities to give and receive from the wholeness of who we are in relationship with each other.
Melissa A. Butler is the project lead of Educators’ Neighborhood with the Fred Rogers Institute. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and her blog: Noticing Matters.