Tag Archives: teachers

New School Year, New Reality: Start Slow, with Strengths, Place, Meaning

Here we go! Starting the school year back up again. But this year, things are different. We have faced one of the greatest upheavals in society. Ever. 

While most schools might LOOK like normal, with no mask mandates and few restrictions, let’s be clear, we are all changed from experiencing the last three years. Many students have lost something: a loved one, a rite of passage (likely many), social interactions, experiences, hours of schooling, and special events. They’ve been faced with a society that is fractured, confusing, and contradictory, and a host of persistent global problems. A 24 hours news cycle tells them constantly about crisis after crisis. Many of them have been under stress: some have done hours of summer homework that was assigned (!!!), or worked three jobs, or did not get enough food over the summer, or have faced countless other pressures. 

This is who we are welcoming back to school. Things are not normal, things are forever changed. Students face more mental health challenges than ever before and are having to learn and relearn social, collaborative, and problem solving skills. How can we react to this moment and not get bogged down by all the news (falling standardized test scores, increasing mental health problems, rising acts of hate in our country)?

Student Strengths. One way we can start is to give more moments of connection and humanity. What are your students’ strengths? What did you learn about yourself this summer, or last year? What lights you up? Starting with strengths centers the class community on assets. What we have. Who we are now?  It’s not looking for deficits, or assuming non-compliance. It’s building a community based on strengths, especially ones that students might not have ever considered until they were asked. 

Focus on Place. Strengths do not stop at the individual. What are the assets, the strengths, of this place? Begin grounded in these. Is the campus surrounded by trees? Is there a river nearby? What businesses or historical features are close to school? Let students find a sit spot to reflect, read, draw, and be, or design an experience on school grounds, one that connects them to this place they are about to spend so much time in and around. 

Starting academic study and teambuilding  rooted in place also builds community. How can you use your local place to teach your social and academic objectives? Almost everything teachers teach can connect to a school campus. 

Slow it Down. Think about pacing. Too much of the time in schools there is a frenzied state of rushing. Line up here! Go there! Stop this, start that! This is a lot for overwhelmed nervous systems. Try putting some space into the schedule and systems, allowing immersion, some rest, and moments of connection. Every single second doesn’t have to be productive. This model is outdated and based on a factory model of education. 

Purpose and Meaning. No busywork, disposable work. Link to wider purpose and meaning. Students need context, to understand the why, of everything they do. It matters. Pedagogies like project-based learning, service learning, and connecting to current issues facing students roots students in the WHY, often led by their own choices, passions, and interests.

I’ve got a new post over at We Are Teachers with more ideas on how to start the year to focus on student mental health.

Best wishes for the new school year. Take good care of yourselves.

For teachers who taught in the first full pandemic year, 2020-2021

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on photo site, Unsplash

I shared this poem with our team of teachers gathered this week for the Middle Grades Institute, but really, it is for all teachers who taught in this pandemic year.

We cannot begin this, this 28th year of MGI, w/o acknowledging that this year was different than any other year in so many ways. Before we really get into our work this week, we wanted to take a few moments and recognize the monumental efforts you put forth this school year.

Here is a poem for you, for us, teachers who taught in the pandemic year, 2020-2021.

You showed up
with your body
and your mind
and your heart
day in and day out
while most of the world
worked safely at home.

You showed up
when unprotected
and uncertain
that you or your family
would be safe.

When the ground beneath your feet
shifted everyday.
Your feet searching for purchase
and sand pouring between your toes
as you tried to stand up.

You showed up
smiled and greeted
elbow bumped and air high fived
you questioned and encouraged
and you read aloud books
your throat sore
your voice muffled.

You wiped down tables
and markers
you ate lunch in your car
or in the hallway
or in the utility closet.

You did this every day
until many nights
you could only sit on the couch
and stare.

You showed up
making facial expressions
as hard as you could
with just your eyes
and you wore that mask
for 7 hours at a time
while the rest of the world
complained about wearing them
for 5 minutes in the gas station.

You showed up
as families changed
nerves frayed
kids cried or acted out
and you let them know
that you were there with them.
They were not alone.

You advocated and emailed.
You knew who needed food
and who needed help with the first steps
and who might just need to say hi.
You lost sleep and had laughs.

You planned remote, hybrid, in person lessons
with new tools and new skills and deep breaths
and followed up when you didn’t see a student
for days.

Then you STILL went grocery shopping
took care of parents, children, neighbors, partners.
You missed birthdays and vacations and reunions
managing your own disappointments
and helping others with theirs.

You did first shift, second shift, third shift.
While trying to care of the delicate bird
of your mind
keeping fear at bay


You showed up. In all the ways you could.
Every. Single. Day. All Year. Long.
It was monumental and heroic and held up the world.

(I wish you rest and joy and rejuvenation
and family and love and all good things this summer
and may it protect and heal you.)

(And I know the teacher as hero trope is problematic in so many ways, but I couldn’t help it here.)

Supporting teachers, emotional labor, critical project-based learning (Winter updates)

Warming up.

I am relieved January is behind us. It is deep deep winter here in Vermont. Very little light. But there is a quiet beauty, even if your fingers and toes sting with the cold. Like the woods behind my house. Always quiet, beautiful, waiting for a visit. They stand guard and connect me to a world beyond impeachment, caucus meltdowns, and other human issues.

Since Why Great Teachers Quit and How We Might Stop the Exodus was published in 2010 I have been pondering, how would I write about that now? What would I add? I wrote a recent post for Edutopia with some new thinking about the hugely important issue of supporting teachers for a long and happy career in the field of education. It is crystal clear to me that we must work to increase the humanity we extend to teachers and students in schools, and create what Carla Shalaby calls in Troublemakers:

Resurrect our imagination for schooling as a deeply human, wildly revolutionary site of possibility.

Here are 7 ways to make teaching a sustainable profession, and these ideas are not revolutionary.. but they are ways to build the kind of learning environments we know support the growth and emotional health of teachers and students. I would also add the importance of building supportive teacher networks and communities, online and off as essential to this work.

Another piece that is often overlooked and undervalued is the emotional labor teachers put forth each day. I wrote about that over here at the TIIE blog. This one is personal for sure. I hope that we can validate and make visible the care and effort teachers give students each day.

Lastly, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we tend to focus on what is wrong before we focus on what is right. How can we bring a strength-based lens to project-based learning work so students can learn deeply about the values of their communities? By intentionally planning it.

One of the beauties we found on the dirt road outside our house. Can’t wait!

And the salamanders will be coming…. soon! I’m excited to head to a few schools this spring to share about the great salamander migration and Salamander Sky and how to write for change.

Thanks for reading!