Teaching can be difficult even in the best of times. Restrictions on social gatherings brought on by the pandemic, however, left many teachers with fewer opportunities to bond with colleagues and find much-needed camaraderie and relief.
Fortunately for those in Enfield, leaders of the more than 400-member Enfield Teachers’ Association (ETA)—which had already been prioritizing events that allowed members to come together pre-pandemic—continued finding ways to hold social events that allowed members to connect throughout an extremely challenging year.
[Above right, retired Enfield reading teacher Beth Wadden led a yoga class at Collins Creamery in May. Members and their families stayed after to enjoy farm-fresh ice cream.]
“I’ve been a teacher for 29 years, and when I first started teaching you had enough time in the day where you could develop good friendships with people,” says ETA’s Chief Organizer Michele Wilcox. “If you had questions, you could go to friends next door, and they would sit with you and give you ideas. Now we’re so burdened with curriculum and student issues that we don’t have time to sit and talk. In Enfield we decided we needed to create time for teachers to develop friendships so they’re comfortable working together, asking questions, and being more of a team.”
“We haven’t had convocations or similar district events, even before COVID, so we don’t get that time to connect with each other over triumphs and challenges,” says ETA President Emily Hulevitch. “Michele’s events give us something fun and not school related to connect over. We’re able to have that time to meet people in the district who we wouldn’t normally meet.”
From hikes to a cider social to yoga outside at a dairy farm, Wilcox has come through with events for members this year that have allowed them to connect safely even during a pandemic.
Wilcox, a teacher at Hazardville Memorial Elementary School, says “My goal is always to have our members be engaged in the union, and my job is really to plan events that are going to be relevant to teachers but also fun and inclusive so even teachers new to the district feel welcome.”
Pandemic forces new kinds of gatherings
“Michele has lots of really great ideas for fun, family-centered events,” says CEA Regional Organizer Bendan Murphy. “She really has stepped up and wants to make things work for teachers.”
After years of event planning, Wilcox knows what’s popular with her colleagues, but the pandemic made a lot of favorite activities impossible.“I’ve had to think outside the box this year,” she says.The first big event of the fall was a cider social outside Collins Creamery, an Enfield dairy farm with a pumpkin patch. The parents of two of Enfield’s teachers own the farm, which made organizing the event relatively simple. Educators came out with their families, picked pumpkins, and stayed for ice cream and cider. The spacious grounds allowed for COVID-safe distancing.
In November Wilcox organized a guided hike along the Scantic River. “I talked to the Scantic River Watershed Association, and they provided a guided hike. Members came out with their families, children, babies, dogs—it was really nice. The watershed association taught us about the history of the river, and we ended the hike right by the Powder Hollow Brewery so members who wanted to stay to socialize safely could do so.”
One of the ETA’s most popular traditions is a Christmas Cookie Night where members gather to bake cookies and swap at the end of the evening. This year the event went virtual, with two culinary teachers leading the evening and the ETA offering canisters of hot chocolate for members to take home and enjoy while baking.
May brought a yoga class outside at Collins Creamery followed by delicious ice cream, and in June members took part in a walking tour of Enfield.
Recognizing the constraints on teachers with young children, Wilcox says, “Having family-friendly events makes it inviting and possible for everyone to engage,” and holding events outdoors or virtually has allowed the union to maintain COVID safety. “I’ve loved it,” Wilcox says, “and I think we will do it next year as well.”
Having an organizer position on the executive board in Enfield has been key to holding the types of events Wilcox has organized, Hulevitch says. “When I talk to teachers in other locals, I get a lot of ‘Wows,’ and ‘Where do you find the time?’”
“Emily does an excellent job at empowering our executive board to work extremely hard under her leadership,” Wilcox says. “She trusts her executive board to do their jobs well. With the events that I plan, most of the executive board comes, ready and willing to help. We work hard and respect each other’s strength and expertise.”
Focus on early career educators
In addition to the all-member events the ETA held this year, the Association also took on a special initiative for early career teachers. With the help of an early career educator grant from NEA, the ETA provided PD sessions for teachers in their first six years, along with take-home dinners.
“Culinary teacher Josh Ogrodowski is a fabulous chef and teacher,” Wilcox said. “He and his students prepared dinners for teachers in to-go containers, and they were delivered to teachers’ schools. Our early career educators could finish their workday, pick up dinner in the teachers’ lounge, and go home to enjoy some good PD.”
Wilcox adds, “I thought about what would have made it hard for me to participate in PD when I was young and decided the more convenient we could make things the better. Teachers didn’t have to drive anywhere to get dinner.”
“Early career educators really need support, especially this past year,” says Hulevitch. “Two new teachers in my building participated, and the next day said, ‘Wow, that was great!’ They commented on how great it was not to have to cook.”
CEA Teacher Development Specialist Kate Field led the PD, which was a self-care workshop focused on early career educators. “I offered some simple strategies teachers can work into a daily routine that can lessen stress and also be shared with kids,” she says.
“The professional development and grab-and-go dinner are a wonderful way for Enfield to support their newest educators,” she adds. “Enfield is a larger local, and it’s so important to focus on your new teachers, connect with them, and build community.”