To Teachers in Unprecedented Times

Educators have many obligations, some of the same, some new ones. That there is more to figure out, more to contend with, more to know, and more unknowns ahead, writes Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. 

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich photo portraitI'm supposed to write about professional development in these unprecedented times. Perhaps I can offer you some tips that will be a boost in your classroom or library, a few bullet-pointed strategies that you can incorporate into your routine. After all, I've done this before.

My first experience as a “professional developer” was during a job I had in grad school, for an organization that claimed to support teachers with the incorporation of technology into their curricula. Fortunately, I had had some years of practical experience in classrooms, supporting the work that teachers and students were already doing, so I was somewhat prepared.

For my first assignment, I was to spend three days training teachers, I think it was to develop class websites that would somehow magically make teaching easier. Forgetting everything I knew, I walked in on day one, expecting a room full of bright-eyed educators who couldn’t wait to learn the magic of HTML from a grad student for three hours in the middle of the school year. I may have even opened with the kiss of death “Um, OK guys…”

They destroyed me. Those teachers, who were dealing with overcrowded and underfunded classrooms, most of whom didn't have computers in those classrooms, were not interested in "OK guys" and how to spend two hours creating a simple multiple-choice form. It was comical, the way they handed me my behind. I had to laugh to keep from crying. And I deserved my defeat.

On day two, I came in with a tightly structured plan, more bass in my voice, and no smiles. We got the websites done, it was fun, they thanked me, I felt like I'd succeeded at my professional development task.

I left knowing almost nothing more about those teachers, their students, the community, or its needs than I had on Day One. I gave them… something. But it certainly wasn't anything they needed. How could it be? I had no idea. But I'd completed my "professional development" tasks.

Unprecedented times.

How much have we heard that phrase in the last year and a half?

For many of us, the rhythm of daily life was upended in enormous and irrevocable ways.

And while many shared stories of learning to bake or starting a successful side hustle during this COVID-19 pandemic, educators worked quickly to transform their teaching strategies to adjust to virtual learning with a wide range of available resources, reflecting the inequities embedded in our systems.

While some spoke of getting much-needed rest and reconnecting with family members at home, countless educators were on screen after hours, conferencing with parents and caregivers, wondering about the well-being of their students who never turned their cameras on, or who were unable to be present for online school at all.

As a parent, I've wondered and worried about the after and its effect on our young people. When—if—this pandemic ends, what will be the state of our kids. What trauma will they carry? What scars will we have to let heal and fade over time? I've witnessed the online conversations that started as cheers of support for our educators from parents and caregivers, now faced with the work of managing their children's schooling in a new and up close and personal way, marveling at what our teachers do day in and day out. Then I’ve heard those same cheers give way to grumbles about unions, teachers who don't want to work, who “don't care about the students.”

Read: "To Be a Force of Change, Be Open to It. Edi Campbell on Personal and Professional Development."

And what about you? What haven’t you been able to take in, leave out? Whether you’re dealing with vaccine and mask mandates or a lack of them, whether you’ve seen your community come together or be pulled apart in the last year and a half, what are you holding? What do you know now? What do you realize you've never known?

These unprecedented times mean that educators have many obligations, some of the same, some new ones. That there is more to figure out, more to contend with, more to know, and more unknowns ahead. 

I can go on about writing to understand, and ask more questions, about reading and writing to discover and grow.  I can wax poetic about reading as an act of transformation and expansion; as you probably already know all too well, analyzing the travel, the transformation, the movement of some of your favorite stories makes for an opportunity to be transformed yourself. 

I can suggest titles for your collection, share booklists, websites, and literacy activities, and quick tips to build empathy and help with adjustment to these…unprecedented times.

I'm supposed to write about professional development. And I've learned my lesson.

we are each other’s
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.

- from Paul Robeson, Gwendolyn Brooks

So:  How can I honor the work that you do and listen? What's your story right now? What will renew and restore you? What will help you do the work you want and need to do? What stories will nourish your imagination and creative spirit? Who are your allies, your supporters, your co-conspirators and collaborators who can help you nurture your students and care for yourself? What have you held in over these last months, what do you need time and space to reflect on, what do you need to leave behind and forget?

I can tell you that these days have been unbelievably hard, that doing my job is an incredible challenge, and some days I do it horribly, or I just can't do it at all. I can say thank you from the depths of my heart—thank you for all that you've done and continue to do to teach and learn with our children in these unprecedented times. And then I can listen. I do say thank you, and…what else do you need?

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich is the author of several children’s books, including 8th Grade Superzero, Two Naomis, co-authored with Audrey Vernick, which was nominated for an NAACP Image Award, It Doesn't Take A Genius, Operation Sisterhood, Above and Beyond: NASA's Journey to Tomorrow, and the picture books Someday Is Now and Mae Makes A Way. She is a member of the Brown Bookshelf, and editor of the We Need Diverse Books anthology The Hero Next Door. Olugbemisola lives with her family in New York City where she writes, makes things, and needs to get more sleep.



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