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Perspective | What we want for our students this fall

Dawn Gilchrist, Western Regional Teacher of the Year, Jackson County Public Schools

I’m sitting alone in my silent classroom as I write this. It’s noon, and in normal times, students would be heading to the cafeteria about now, excited that it’s the first Friday in May. But instead of student conversations and laughter in the hallway, the only sounds are the wind buffeting the building and the clinking of machinery from the lumber mill next door. The sun pours in the big windows, warming the empty desks and chairs. 

To my left is where Daykota helped Brian decode and pronounce words in the one-act play we did in November. In front of me is where Canyon wrote his memoir project, listening to “smooth jazz” a little too loudly through his earbuds. To his right was Lelia, who takes care of her brother’s infant daughter and aided others with technology in ways that I could not; and Jazmin, who enrolled in late January, and had just begun to overcome her shyness enough to participate in class discussions when we left in mid-March.

But that’s all done now — and students won’t be returning to the classroom this school year. What’s more, we don’t even know if they will return next year.

While our State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction have done the grueling work of hammering out what school is and is not for the remainder of this semester, no one has yet ventured any ideas that are equitable — or even feasible — for what happens in August, except that school starts on August 17.

And since we still have neither hard facts nor easy answers in terms of what we will do to educate our public school students for the next year, I asked a group of accomplished teachers to weigh in on the subject with what they think school should look like in the 2020-2021 school year. 

From thoughts on equity and broadband accessibility to staggered schedules, competency-based learning, and rebuilding trust, here is what all nine 2020 North Carolina Regional Teachers of the Year have to say.

Tonya Smith, Piedmont-Triad Regional Teacher of the Year, Elkin City Schools

Teachers will be given the daunting task of filling in the gaps in the curriculum in the move to remote learning. Relationships will need to be rebuilt and re-established, and routines that are necessary to “normal” school operations will need to be re-instituted.

However, what if “normal” is not what should be reestablished? What if this is our time to reimagine what learning looks like and feels like for students? What if this is our opportunity to rediscover our “why” and continue the creativity and innovation that began occurring out of sheer urgency and necessity?

Students will be suffering from trauma. They will still be going through confusion, fear, and uncertainty. It would be a travesty for teaching, learning, and assessment to return to exactly what it was before this life-altering event.

If this has taught us anything, it has taught us that inequity is real and raw for so many of our students. We have confirmed what we as educators already knew: that assessments can look different in showing mastery and that creative alternatives to what has been used traditionally should be explored. Teachers will be the barometers of this situation, and if the situation changes and remote learning is again necessary, teachers will again be on the front lines to give the best education humanly possible given the resources available to them.

We as educators will be the “safe space,” continuing to see our students as people with a plan and a purpose. Give us the grace we need to reevaluate, reinvent, reestablish, and refresh.

Carol Forrest, North Central Teacher of the Year, Franklin County Schools

Over a span of four decades teaching young children, I have been hugged around the legs so many times that I cannot count — and all those hugs have communicated that student and teacher belong to each other. And yet, what has happened to many of our students during the COVID-19 pandemic? We have been separated from our students. Only those who are equipped with resources in technology and have an involved adults for accountability still have that unique sense of belonging engendered by the classroom.

As school resumes after COVID-19, we have the great task of, again, building the bridge for students to school by connecting to them and building their trust. We may have to rekindle the sense of belonging in some, but because our need to belong is so basic, we know our efforts will not be in vain. 

Chad Beam, Southwest Regional Teacher of the Year, Cleveland County Schools

After querying several of my teacher friends in Cleveland and Catawba counties, we all came to the conclusion: The necessity for social emotional learning to lead the way in August is major. We think that to do anything else would be to do the students and ourselves a huge disservice. Specifically, we would like to begin the school year with a two-week summer academy, assuming we have a traditional start.  

During the first week, we would have school-wide events such as a yearbook signing, senior walk, and a memorial service in which we, as a school family, will be allowed to grieve the losses suffered during COVID-19. This would be followed by mental health professionals privately and discreetly counseling students who need these services.

The second week, students would be allowed to spend each day in their previous classes. This week would provide some closure socially, emotionally, and academically. Teachers would be encouraged to provide instruction that forges this closure, promoting growth and progressive movement forward.  

And, finally, upon beginning the fall semester, instruction would be provided, but perhaps at a slowed pace, and with letter grades adapted to focus primarily on growth.

Maggie Murphy, Northwest Regional Teacher of the Year, Alleghany County Schools

COVID-19 has brought about a need to see public education not as it was, but as it could be. My hope is that we will see a huge shift in the perception of public education: that a new appreciation will strengthen community and parent involvement. 

While parents and teachers alike knew a transition to online learning wouldn’t be without hardship, moving students to online learning has exposed disparities that weren’t evident before. As we return, I hope that we are keenly aware of the students’ needs beyond instruction. I hope we will work to erase inequities of all types, beginning with the basic needs and continuing, especially, to address the digital divide. I implore our state to work harder than ever to put devices and connectivity in the hands of all students. It is my hope we are able to meet the needs of the whole child unlike ever before. 

As a part of that, I would love to see student services strengthened. Living through this pandemic will affect every student differently: some are without food, some are without socialization, some worry about losing family. Counselors and nurses at a new and advanced level will be needed to navigate the return to our “new normal.” 

At the district level, I hope that administrators and other leaders will have a renewed trust in educators. I hope that teachers are given the autonomy to make essential decisions about closing gaps, reaching all students, and even the structure of how the school days will look with new guidelines. Above all, I hope we never take for granted the gift of each day in our classrooms with our students. 

Ashley Bailey, Charter School Teacher of the Year, Roxboro Community School

As a high school science teacher and mom of three school-aged children, “working from home” while also helping my 7-year-old navigate her Google Classroom is challenging on a good day and impossible on others. I say this while acknowledging that we are the privileged — the ones with devices, food, and a support system. So what is it like for students and their families who have none of these?

I believe that as we enter the next school year, we still need face-to-face learning in some form. Recently, EdNC had state education leaders answer questions in a virtual town hall, and it was posited that “students most in need may be able to return sooner than others.” The fact is, however, they are all “in need.”

Obviously, in my utopia, we all enter those doors together in August, but if that is not possible, if that is not safe, we must look for ways to make contact with our students in the school building each week. For instance, I could see students coming in on Monday and Thursday or Tuesday and Friday, both to receive feedback and direct instruction, and then go home to continue assignments with a clear direction. 

Whatever model we adopt next school year, I know that educators will dive in with all the energy and dedication they have shown during this time of quarantine distance learning. Until we can all be together again, we will hold on to every thread of contact with our students, continuing to educate, support, and uplift them with every resource we can muster.  

Maureen Stover, Sandhills Regional Teacher of the Year, Cumberland County Schools

Over the past several years, equity has been a buzzword in education. As we attend professional developments, engage in book studies, and discuss equitable education at school improvement team meetings, we skirt around the concerns of inequity, never really solving the problem.

In these early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the harsh reality of the inequities in the American public school system is evident. As we transitioned to a virtual learning environment, many students have not had access to digital technology devices or internet connectivity. This could have been a show stopper, but it was not.

School districts, administrators, teachers, parents, and community leaders stepped up to meet this challenge head-on to ensure that learning could and would continue. School districts developed solutions to get devices to students. Administrators, educators, and classified staff shifted brick and mortar lessons to a virtual platform while finding ways to get hard copy resources to students who need them, helping with meal distributions, and supporting the social emotional learning needs of our students.

As we move into the 2020-2021 school year, I expect that work will continue. The COVID-19 pandemic not only exposed a real problem, but it also provided us with the opportunity to begin working on solutions to this problem. However, there is still much work to be done. As we return to school in the fall, providing an equitable education for all students, regardless of their family’s financial status or zip code, must be one of our main priorities.

COVID-19 has forced all of us to be resourceful in ways we never imagined, and whether or not we move back into our school buildings, we must continue to improve our educational system by providing an equitable education to every single student.

Jeanie Owens, Northeast Regional Teacher of the Year, Hyde County Schools

While this is a stressful time for everyone, there is a silver lining in the changes happening in North Carolina Schools. This opportunity to transform the educational system needs to be addressed as a long-term solution, not just a short-term fix. 

I am a 20th century learner educating 21st century students — a divide that humbles me as I recognize my students’ different learning needs, styles, processes, and capabilities. What this means is that the notion of “instruction” has to change. While standards are inevitable and warranted, the methods we have used to teach these standards need to pivot from focusing on test results to an authentic assessment of whether or not a student has learned a concept.

We need two elements in order to make the switch to a student-centered system: personalized learning and competency/proficiency based education. The use of personalized learning plans creates self-awareness as students work with parents, teachers, and counselors to build upon learning and behavioral strengths, while identifying and working on weaknesses.

Competency/proficiency based education allows students to master standards at their own pace and calls for a reevaluation of the grading process. Both personalized learning and competency based education lead to stronger relationships between teachers and students, build self-awareness in all learners, and transform teaching from teaching skills to teaching learners.

Daniel Scott, Southeast Regional Teacher of the Year, Onslow County Schools

Education is an absolute, inalienable right. As schools reopen in the fall, we must focus on providing equitable opportunity for every student to have access to this basic human right. Dr. King proclaimed, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and if we cannot be sure that every student has access to what they need to be successful, we should not accept the plan as a solution. 

My fear is that we will provide a rushed framework, one in which each student is given an “equal” opportunity to learn, but because we live in a system in which students have unequal backgrounds, abilities, and livelihoods, there is no model that can possibly replace student-centered teaching. I agree, our main concern should be student safety, but “safe” must include both the body and the mind.

My picture of school in the fall has a larger percentage of time spent in classrooms than in remote instruction, and that is because face-to-face instruction is the only avenue that provides every student with the information they need to be successful.

My hope is that through this experience, educators across the region, state, and country have had time to reflect. A paradigm shift of dramatic proportions is taking place as we gain a clearer vision of the failings of the American education system. When we return to school, we must have a renewed importance of how and when to give grace, of progress over perfection, of reestablishing relationships, and of the possibilities of rigor in remote instruction. 

We must also not forget to plan solutions that will be equitable for all teachers and subjects of learning. Many ideas (ie., A and B schedules, half day schedules, etc.) will not work for a music classroom, for fine arts in general, nor for any classroom that serves multiple levels and grades of students. What is most important is this: we must be sure to create opportunities for ALL students, no matter their abilities or background, to learn and grow.

Dawn Gilchrist, Western Regional Teacher of the Year, Jackson County Public Schools

As I finish this reading through my peers’ thoughts, I’m sitting in my calm dining room, with birdsong and neighbor’s lawn mowers serenading me and my third cup of coffee. Since late March, I’ve done most of my remote teaching from this table, where I have all the space and quiet I need to do my best in this situation. Lucky me.

I try to imagine my students doing the work I assign from their bedrooms, but most of my alternative school students don’t have their own bedrooms, much less their own computers. And because almost all of them live with extended family, or extended family’s significant others, or in foster care, or sleep on a friend’s couch, the chances are that their situation is going to be just as impossible come fall. 

And yet, even though I want my students back in the safe space we call school, I don’t see how it can be possible given the lack of COVID-19 testing and a vaccination two years out — and that’s if we’re fortunate. So what do I want school to look like this fall? It is going to have to be more individualized than ever because there is no one answer that will fit every school or even every district.

If it is virtual, everyone must have access to broadband and a reliable device. If it is a physical classroom, students will have to be staggered, with no more than half the students in school at any given time (and even then, of course, they will still touch each other). If it is virtual or a hybrid, the workweek should be four days — according to the teacher who mentored me — because screen fatigue exhausts students and requires far more planning by teachers.

But there’s hope. We know how to roll with the punches because, as public school teachers, we’ve had a lot of practice. We know how to make our students feel important even when the world does not. We know how to roll up our sleeves, paint our own classrooms, buy our own books, and feed our own students when their families cannot.

What we don’t know how to do yet is recreate in every students’ home what we’ve nearly perfected in our brick and mortar buildings: a place where they are equal to every other child; where they have food, warmth, and safety; where the tools they need are always provided; and where learning is the focus and primary goal. But we’ll get there, even if it seems impossible right now. We know all about achieving the impossible. After all, we are teachers.

Dawn Gilchrist

Dawn Gilchrist is the 2020 Western Regional Teacher of the Year from School of Alternatives in Jackson County Public Schools.

Tonya Smith

Tonya Smith is the 2020 Piedmont-Triad Regional Teacher of the Year from Elkin High School in Elkin City Schools.

Carol Forrest

Carol Forrest is the 2020 North Central Regional Teacher of the Year from Long Mill Elementary in Franklin County Schools.

Chad Beam

Chad Beam is the 2020 Southwest Regional Teacher of the Year from Burns High School in Cleveland County Schools.

Maggie Murphy

Maggie Murphy is the 2020 Northwest Regional Teacher of the Year from Piney Creek School in Alleghany County Schools.

Ashley Bailey

Ashley Bailey is the 2020 Charter Schools Regional Teacher of the Year from Roxboro Community School in Roxboro.

Maureen Stover

Maureen Stover is a high school science teacher at the North Carolina Virtual Public School.

Jeanie Owens

Jeanie Owens is the 2020 Northeast Regional Teacher of the Year from Ocracoke School in Hyde County Schools.

Daniel Scott

Daniel Scott is a graduate of Western Carolina University where he received a BM in Trombone Performance and a minor in Bassoon, as well as a BS.Ed with a minor in psychology, concentrating on adolescent development. Scott is currently the Director of Bands at Swansboro High School in Swansboro, North Carolina. Under his direction, the Swansboro Concert and Jazz Programs have received consistent superior ratings at music performance adjudications and state festivals. In 2019, Scott was named the Swansboro High School Teacher of the Year, the 2019-20 Onslow County Teacher of the Year, and most recently, the 2020 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Southeast Regional Teacher of the Year.