As I move through these conversations, I always note trends. There were clear trends this year, and I heard them reflected by teacher after teacher. The most prominent trend was that teachers felt that this year was a hard year – not a bad year, but a hard one nonetheless, and that the hard work was worth it.
As we dug into this realization, they overwhelmingly followed up sharing that what has been hard has also been what they most value. There is a common recognition by teachers from all departments that they needed to ensure that they were meeting our students where they are. In the 2020-2021 school year, that was more obvious. They were in masks, distanced; they were in quarantine and joining classes on the Hub; they were navigating the uncertainty of a global pandemic. This year, however, students were in person in the classroom, and, as we are in Texas, they have been mostly unmasked, if they chose to be, for the year. Things looked surprisingly “normal”!
We all quickly learned that although they looked like our typical students in past years, they were not exactly matching our previously expected levels of readiness to which our teachers have calibrated and perfected their lessons. Of course they were not! They are in a decidedly different place than our students in pre-pandemic years. Students were in a third interrupted year of learning. We intentionally reduced instructional time in the 2020-2021 year, and there are, naturally, gaps to fill. Their opportunities for socialization with peers and adults were infrequent and often a little strange. We had the privilege of having Lisa Damour speak with our teachers in January 2022 as we were ramping up for our second semester. In her brilliant way, she offered a clear explanation of why we were seeing all that we were with our students. She presented a clear metaphor for where they are in their lives. They spent many years progressively building up their strengths as learners – their academic muscles. Then, suddenly, their access to the gym was cut off. The access resumed, in a limited fashion, but just as anyone who was on a fitness plan prior to Covid which relied on actually going to the gym, they lost some muscle. It would be unrealistic for us to expect that a sophomore in the fall of 2021 was going to have the same academic stamina and skills as a sophomore would have had in the fall of 2019. This resonated with our faculty, and I heard a room full of educators saying “yes! I get that!”
Even before they heard this helpful metaphor, our teachers had recognized that they had to recalibrate. They had been rethinking their course goals and curriculum content and order. They had identified new pathways for students to use on their way to mastery. In many cases, they tossed their favorite lesson plans and started fresh. Their collective empathy and affection for our students showed up in all of this consistent tweaking and rethinking. At times they could see that the students were struggling, and they did the loving thing by pressing pause on their daily plans and giving the girls room to breathe and gather themselves. I am profoundly grateful for the ways our teachers met this moment for our students.
And then, the year ended. We resumed final exams, and it was not an overwhelmingly positive experience, even with significant preparation and thoughtfully designed assessments. We had a small Covid outbreak among faculty in the final week of school, and colleagues needed to step in and help as a sub when none of our “on call” subs were available. Our hearts collectively shattered hearing news of the murdered children in Uvalde. We had thought we were running toward a glorious finish after a grueling race, but instead it felt like we all just dragged ourselves through the final days. It was not our best ending.
I am now in summer mode, taking long walks around campus, watching the sweet middle school campers who join us for workshops designed for sheer fun, finding a colleague in the hall and having a genial chat, neither of us needing to bolt off to the next meeting. I keep seeing the tired faces of our faculty in my mind as they were at our closing luncheon. Their eyes, their questions, their love for our students are driving me to uncover a way to welcome them in August with transparency and hope. I will use this summer to seek a way forward for next year. I am imagining that the spring of 2023 end-of-year conversations reflect recognition that kids are still recovering from the many effects of the pandemic and that faculty felt ready for it. I am visualizing faculty letting me know they felt supported and appreciated. Now – it is up to me and the other leaders here to make that happen, and that will be hard but worthy work.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)