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Can We Find JOY in Teaching and Learning in Our Schools in Our Post COVID-19 World?

Dara Berry, Director of Operations at Open Spirit, as well as my new assistant director of the Nourishing Teachers/Strengthening Classrooms Project, invited me to write a piece for our website update. As I begin to write, my heart (and perhaps yours), is in the midst of working to comprehend a world reeling in the emotions of uncertainty, a world stricken by COVID-19. Like many of you, I am self-quarantined. I have the time and energy to get my thoughts down on paper — to be shared with our Open Spirit friends.

What was it that drove me to found the Nourishing Teachers/Strengthening Classrooms Project? Was it my MOTIVATION? My PASSION? My ENGAGEMENT? What was it that took me in a new direction almost immediately after I retired from my role as a literacy leader in the Framingham Public Schools? I will ponder these questions and share my thoughts with you.

I find myself using the word “surreal” because we are in a world that cannot be defined...a “new normal” as we work to keep people alive and figure out the science of the coronavirus simultaneously. The balance of mind and heart has always been one that I have worked to achieve both personally and professionally. As an educator, I was never able to see the boundaries between those categories of personal and professional. Teaching for me was a work of heart, balanced with mind, and there was an undying spirit of making the world a better place by giving the students before me the best I had to support their growth. In my undergraduate training at Framingham State I was given the gift of a philosophy that supported teaching the whole child: the physical, emotional, intellectual, and social needs and how these needs were important to support each child’s growth.

I loved my years as a classroom teacher at the Juniper Hill School. I loved bouncing out of bed at 5:30 each morning – eager to start my school day at 7:30. I loved my “children” and their families. I loved working with parents and, together, setting goals for their children. I loved the time with my colleagues during those early morning hours. We shared read-aloud ideas, literature group plans, the writing of and performing plays, and field trips to the State House and The Nutcracker. We celebrated the Red Sox Opening Day with hot dogs, popcorn, and learning activities related to the stats and measurements of Fenway Park. We practiced real life experiences in our classroom.

On days when the trees glistened with ice crystals, the students and I would put on our winter coats, hats, and gloves and enthusiastically run outside with our journals. We took rough notes of what we saw, smelled, touched, and heard! These treasured notes were turned into poems, drawings, songs, reflections, stories, or seeds for future writing. We celebrated real life every day – with JOY.

I eventually transferred to the Stapleton School where I served as a literacy specialist and staff developer. The “whole child” philosophy endured as we moved to integrative learning models. Our school mission was built around an environmental theme and our school community built the Carol Getchell Nature Trail. We hiked the trail and wrote in our writer’s notebooks. Our students raised butterflies from egg, to larva, to pupa, to adult, and when the butterflies were ready, our children released then into nature with great pride, joy, and laughter. Our students read many genres of high quality texts for the Reading Counts program and every student was published in The Stapleton Sampler – four times a year! It was easy to connect science and math with content area books on related themes. It was rewarding to read and write literature selections that connected to real life. They all brought an atmosphere of JOY to our classrooms!

Unfortunately, the days of JOY, the “whole child” philosophy, and the collaboration with my colleagues to design integrated curriculum based on the needs of our students began to change. My role was dramatically altered: I scheduled testing, convened data meetings, and collected and analyzed academic data. The paperwork and meetings swept away the heart of teaching and took away the JOY.

I felt totally depleted and ineffective. I felt the pain of my colleagues, who were feeling depleted and ineffective, but also felt abandoned by me, their literacy leader. I was no longer able to be in their classrooms sharing new curriculum ideas and pondering how to reach our students who presented challenges. The social and emotional curriculum was dissolving, as time on learning required a fully packed day of academics across the many subject areas. Open Circle, a school wide social/emotional learning curriculum and Reading Recovery, a research based reading program for our most challenged readers, were both dissolved. More and more children were sent to the principal’s office, attendance was decreasing, and teachers were working around the clock to get paperwork for data purposes posted. Academic rigor was the new goal. The joys of teaching and learning were no longer there for any of us.

One day in March 2012 I left school in tears. A third grader returned to school after an extended psychiatric hospitalization and, based on a state mandate I was required to test him. I said to my husband, “I cannot do this any longer.” This child was alive and safe and coming back to a place where he deserved to be welcomed with open hearts by his classmates and teachers. He should have been given extra emotional support to help him adjust to his classmates and regular school schedule. But no, he had to be tested by the literacy specialist – me!

I administered the required tests, but I did so with the sensitivity and love that flowed from my heart. Testing a child who had so many emotional and academic needs was heart breaking. English is his second language; he reads at a first grade level; his father was incarcerated; his mother was working two jobs to support her family. This child’s needs were extensive and very similar to many of the children in our school, in schools across the district, and schools across the Commonwealth. These students were taught by highly competent teachers and were making steady progress, but they were not making the progress at grade level, in English, as required by the state mandated tests. There was certainly no JOY in this approach to teaching!

After enjoying many years as a professional educator and literacy leader, I retired in June 2012. The required changes to our educational system were too much!

Before long I began a new journey: Working with Dr. Deborah Clark at Open Spirit, I helped create the Nourishing Teachers/Strengthening Classrooms Project. Today, eight years later and with the continued support and encouragement of Dr. Clark, I am again fulfilling my dreams of addressing the needs of the “whole” person (teachers and students) and to share my heart, mind, and “spirit” through a most effective project. We nourish teachers and strengthen their students – and our community – at large. I am proud to give back to the school community by serving as a nonpaid professional and supporting our teachers and staff in every and any way I can. Our project has received many grants and private donations and we, at Open Spirit, are so grateful for the support we receive. The schools have embraced the importance of social/emotional learning and both the Framingham Public Schools and our Open Spirit community value our collaboration. The Framingham Public Schools are now supporting professional development efforts offered by our Open Spirit instructors through grant line items. This community engagement brings great JOY to everyone involved.

Today, as we work through the confusion and changes caused by COVID-19 we must create new ways to support each other and together we will provide the MOTIVATION, PASSION, and ENGAGEMENT to honor and support the physical, emotional, intellectual, and social needs of both adults and students in our school community. I hope that at the other end of this pandemic we will bring back to our schools the JOY inherent in teaching and learning. I hope that teachers and students in our newly defined e-learning “classrooms” will spread their wings, and like those butterflies on the Carol Getchell Nature Trail, fly to new heights beyond anything we ever imagined. That will be true JOY!

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