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 emo