The first months of the 2020-21 school year have been unlike those of any year before, and educators beginning their first year in the teaching profession face a number of unique challenges. That’s why Leadership in Diversity Educators held a virtual panel discussion to answer some frequent questions posed by early career educators.
Leadership in Diversity Educators is an organization founded by teachers Symone James and Tracey Lafayette as an extension of the Leadership in Diversity organization at UConn. Its purpose is to bring Connecticut teachers of color together for networking and support.
The panel was made up of four Connecticut educators who are all in their first five years as teachers (pictured above, clockwise from upper left).
- Asfia Qutub, an eighth grade English teacher at East Hartford Middle School
- Symone James, a fifth grade teacher at Roger Sherman Elementary in Meriden
- Tracey Lafayette, a third grade teacher at O’Brien STEM Academy in East Hartford
- Orlando Valentin, a fourth grade teacher at Pulaski Elementary in Meriden
Though the panel focused on the needs of early career educators, much of the teachers’ advice is useful to new and experienced educators alike. Among the topics they covered are adjusting to distance learning, social justice and anti-racism in the classroom, and self care and work-life balance.
Adjusting to distance learning
Orlando Valentin: Fortunately, I work in a district that was able to get distance learning up and going fairly quickly as we were already one to one. It was still difficult in terms of getting the kids engaged and getting them to call in. Getting them to check in, in-person was more important for me than any homework.
We’re all learning. The first year of teaching is overwhelming without COVID. The big thing is to communicate with parents. Send out weekly progress reports to families—parents want to be involved, just be flexible
Asfia Qutub: The struggle was real for me in transitioning to distance learning. We weren’t one on one with devices, no Google Classroom. It was definitely a learning experience. I was just finishing up my first year teaching. Thankfully, my district provided online PD. I could search whatever program I was learning and watch the tutorials, and they really helped. With Google Classroom I didn’t realize you could schedule an assignment. It’s amazing what I didn’t know about before.
There’s not one way to do distance learning. Be generous to yourself and your students. I love watching other teachers on YouTube, it’s so helpful for me. Your colleagues are going to be your best friends–those reciprocal relationships where you can teach each other.
Symone James: Joining different Facebook groups for teachers was super helpful for me. By joining groups I was thinking about different methods I otherwise wouldn’t have considered—different ways to get students engaged. I had students who would log in every day to talk with me and their classmates, even though they were not turning in any work. Of course we want them to turn in the work too, but that connection is so important.
Tracey Lafayette: Keep in mind how you yourself are doing. There is lots of focus on the social and emotional health of students, but you don’t realize how much of a toll it takes on you. Part of my magic and joy as a teacher is being in the classroom and planning stuff for my kids, which I couldn’t do during distance learning because we were in a one-size-fits-all situation.
You have to think about how you feel and how you can still bring yourself into what you do for your kids. I would still dress up as different characters and read books aloud to them when we had “lunch” every week. You’re of no use to students and families if you’re not in a good spot. Check in with your teacher friends and make sure you’re good along the way.
Social justice and anti-racism in the classroom
James: With the Black Lives Matter movement and protests on TV last spring, I knew my students were seeing those things. With fifth graders, they’re seeing it if it’s online. I was really worried about how we weren’t able to discuss these topics in person. I made a decision to put a video together saying, “I’m here to talk about these issues if you want to talk, and please talk to your parents.” Parents messaged me to say thanks for speaking up about it. The majority of my students are Black and Brown, and I want them to know their identity matters.
Lafayette: Our reading curriculum is supposed to be a guide, so I use the actual lessons, but rather than a book on polar bears, for example, I read the kids a book about Nelson Mandela, and we’re able to have deep conversations. Picture books can work well even with older kids. There are ways to incorporate these topics if you’re more creative with your planning.
When it comes to opinion writing, we can push students further than writing about their mom or their dog. I had kids write about foster care, animal shelters, and environmental issues. We have conversations about things I already know my students are passionate about. That helps them learn what social justice activism looks like, even as a little kid. Parents have been really grateful because they say it opens up conversations with their children that they might not have had otherwise.
Valentin: If kids are young enough to experience racism, they’re young enough to learn about it. Young kids are egocentric, and it can be hard for them to abstract and conceptualize. They understand fairness though, and even though fairness is not equity, it’s a bridge to getting there.
Qutub: On our journeys as anti-racist educators, it’s ok if we don’t know something, but we shouldn’t stop there. We have to learn and push ourselves to know in order to be good teachers. I also believe in the idea that what you say matters, but what you don’t say also matters. As an English teacher, I start with books about diverse characters from every walk of life. I want to develop my eighth graders as critical thinkers who can consider whose voice is being heard.
Self care and work life balance
Valentin: The most important thing is to find someone to talk to. It’s great to have a loved one to talk to, but sometimes you need an unbiased sounding board. I have a therapist who was recommended to me by one of my coworkers. As educators I think we can underestimate the amount of trauma we’re going to encounter. I’ve left so many meetings crying.
I’ve been reading about mindfulness and meditating more. Adults need routines too, they’re really important. When you’re mindful, it helps you take care of your mental and physical health. We can’t take care of these babies without taking care of ourselves. You’ll say, “What’s wrong?” and they’ll tell you things you didn’t think could happen to little babies.
Lafayette: I make sure to take time every day for myself. Even 15 minutes of uninterrupted time is so essential during the day since we can get so caught up, especially in those first years. When I put something relaxing onto my to-do list, I can make sure I do it. I love to read, and I’ve had to reevaluate my habits. If I have time to scroll through Facebook for 20 minutes before bed, I could read then instead.
I love being transparent with my students. In the fall, I started going to therapy. Having that conversation was really powerful for my kids. It normalizes that nothing has to be “wrong” with you to seek therapy. It’s also important to remember that we can say no to things. A lot of times, we think we have to do everything. It’s ok to say “no,” or “not right now.” Especially when a new, exciting opportunity comes up—we want to do it all, but we can’t.
James: Finding my squad for me has been so important. I know I have people I can go to in- and outside of my building. It’s also vital to have a set schedule for myself so I know what I have to do and can set aside time for myself. This past year has been really stressful. I’m usually good at compartmentalizing, but I was waking up at all hours of the night. For teachers, we can get subscriptions to the Headspace and Calm apps for free, and those offer me so much. You can’t pour from an empty glass. We’re in a career where we often put ourselves second.
Qutub: During my first year it was definitely a journey figuring out a self-care routine and what works for me. I made the mistake of not taking a lunch break. Write down things that make you happy and look at it to find something to do when you’re feeling stressed. I go to the gym and exercise and go there to get everything out. It is okay to cry–if those tears fall down, let them. Close your door if you need to. You’re not weaker or anything like that. There are so many things you’ll learn about your students, crying will feel like the only thing you can do, and that’s okay.
I also recommend reading about other teachers’ struggles. Sometimes it seems like other teachers are perfect. It’s important to know that I’m not the only one, and if they’ve made it, I can do it too. Self care is also being honest with yourself and your students too. I would find myself overthinking things. Students will only have more respect for you when you apologize if you overreact because you’re having a bad day. East Hartford has a phone therapy hotline, which is important for teachers to make use of. Invest in yourself so you can do better for your students.
James: It’s all about reflection and learning from our mistakes. There have been times when I too had to apologize to students. They get it. They’re understanding, especially when you have a relationship of honesty with them.