I first stepped into a classroom as a full-time teacher in September of 1995, as a first-year English teacher at Syosset High School, in Syosset, New York.
It was during that year that I experienced my first national moment as a teacher in a classroom.
I still remember it. It was a spring afternoon, and over the loudspeaker during my English 11 class – one of those crackly things in the upper corner of the classroom –someone stopped everything in order to announce the verdict of the OJ Simpson trial.
Since then, I have been in many more such moments.
I have worked in schools during the 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016 presidential elections.
Since then I remember the horror and pride of various national moments playing themselves out on school campuses – Columbine, 9/11, the great recession, President Obama’s inauguration, and more.
So, knowing all of that – let me tell you what I believe about this school year.
I believe that the 2020/2021 academic year is likely to be as important academic year for this generation of young people as any I have experienced in my now 26-year career in schools. And, I suspect it will be the most important year of my career, of any of our careers. Why? Simple…
We all got into this business, I assume, because we like teaching young people. Yes, we love our subject areas and the things we teach, but in the end, it is about teaching kids, young adults. And, this year, we have the opportunity to teach like we have never taught before, because this year, like never before, as Ted and Nancy Sizer so famously entitled their 1999 book, The Students are Watching.
Why are they watching? Because Covid-19 is an accelerant. And, since March, we have accelerated to this moment – a moment that will be an entire year, a moment that is likely to define a generation of our nation’s youth.
What has accelerated? So much…
Since March, our already high level of dependence on technological devices has increased, what, two-fold? Three-fold? More?
Since March, the cultural, racial, economic disparities in our country have been highlighted perhaps more than ever since the 1900’s – certainly for the last 20-30 years.
Since March, our cultural, economic, educational, governmental, and political institutions have been tested and questioned in ways never before imagined.
Since March, our journey towards social isolation that started by technological devices born in 2007 has in, some ways, been made complete. And, since March, the tech sector of our economy is soaring, while manufacturing and traditional jobs are struggling to rebound – if at all.
Since March we have seen more protests, more frustration, more ideological clashes than at any time that I remember. I mean during the last five months – opposing views on racism and health and safety have been used as political positions. How can there be opposing views on racism and health and safety? Never have I seen such a landscape.
In many ways, all of these situations, and more, were coming – and we knew it – we just didn’t expect to face all of them, head-on, during one, 6-month period in 2020.
Then, in walked Covid-19, the great accelerator.
As many of you know, I have been talking about change and how we need to prepare young people to be ready for it. How we needed to be ready for it. How PRS has always been built to be nimble, to embrace change, to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, to evolve into a place that is always evolving.
Well, here it is.
Rapid evolution, uncomfortable change, the need to be nimble, our opportunity to prepare the young people in our charge to be ready for the future none of us can predict.
This year is our chance to be who we have always said we want to be.
So, what is before us?
Opportunity. Challenge, difficulty, hard-work, frustration, joy, laughter, tears, nothing we expected, and opportunity. Lots of it.
We have to opportunity to teach our students how to live with care, concern, and confidence during a regional, national, international crisis.
We have the opportunity to learn how to teach in ways we probably never imagined, but I suspect will become more and more common in the coming years.
We have the opportunity to teach the next generation of young adults how to be anti-biased, anti-racist, and how to build an inclusive classroom, school, community, region, nation, even world.
We have the opportunity to show (and teach) our students how listen, learn, and be respectful of oneself and others during a national election.
We have the opportunity to teach our small group of students what it means to be community members that take care of one another so that we can serve the broader community as well.
We have always had these opportunities, but, Covid is the great accelerator – now they are not just opportunities that would be nice for students. Now, they are opportunities we must embrace.
Our mission has never been more important. How do we build a community that fosters academic excellence, ethical responsibility, and global engagement during an international pandemic, in the midst of a national opportunity to make a long-term move against prejudice and bias, and during an incredibly important and contentious national election?
Easy. Well, not easy, but not so complicated.
First, we make sure to take care of ourselves, our colleagues and our students and families. We take care of our “community.”
Second, we remember that while we may not be around Harkness tables, but we can still be student-centered, problem-based, exploration-based, discussion-based – that’s always been our “academic excellence.”
Third, we may not be able to get our students off campus for service learning, but we can lean into “ethical responsibility” by doing all that we can to make PRS an inclusive space and show that we can turn contentiousness into collaboration.
Fourth, we remind our community that “global engagement” has never been about travel – but about engagement in the local and global community – through education, systems, and collaboration.
Finally, we teach how to prepare for “college and a purposeful life” in a pandemic by not mourning that which we cannot do, but by seeking out and embracing the opportunities before us.
If we do all of that… Here’s what I can tell you (and some of us know this well from the first year or two at Pacific Ridge School):
If we do these things, we will look back on this year and know that we “never want to do it again,” but be able to smile and nod at the incredibly important work we have done.
I am so glad to be starting this journey with you all.
August 19, 2020