The meeting was virtual but the passion was real Wednesday afternoon as five of the best and brightest teachers in the state gathered to talk about what children will need this school year.
Mostly, they’ll need a friend, someone who tells them it’s OK to be afraid – but not too afraid to take the next step to a brighter future.
During an hour-long webinar sponsored by the League of Education Voters, the last five state teachers of the year – including 2018 honoree Mandy Manning of Spokane – offered advice, encouragement and even some admonitions for teachers, administrators and parents as they face a school year unlike any other.
But while the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the educational landscape, the path is the same, said Manning, who earned National Teacher of the Year honors for her work with immigrant and refugee students at Ferris High School.
Districts must do a better job of “meeting students where they are,” Manning said. “Otherwise, after this trauma, they’re not going to be able to learn anything.”
Manning was joined by 2016 teacher of the year Nate Bowling of Tacoma, 2017 honoree Camille Jones of Quincy, 2019 winner Robert Hand of Mt. Vernon and current teacher of the year Amy Campbell of Camas.
Honored for their out-of-the-box thinking, the teachers encouraged the same from stakeholders.
For parents, that means not being shy about advocating for their children, said Campbell, who also urged districts to meet families halfway or better.
For example, in Bellingham, kindergarten and first-grade teachers are planning weekly face-to-face meetings with students and families.
“I do think there needs to be a sense of urgency, of getting the plans out early,” Campbell said. “And we have to ask how are we reaching out to children who may have working parents?”
And for their colleagues around the state, perhaps the most poignant advice: Try to show empathy, even from the other side of a computer screen.
“Ask questions and be sure to listen to the answers,” Campbell said.
Most of the constructive comments were directed at the state’s 295 school districts, many of which are still unpacking their plans for distance learning, going back to buildings or a hybrid approach.
If it’s going to be distance learning, then the experience must be equitable, said Manning, who offered several examples why that isn’t the case.
“Ensuring that every kid has a laptop doesn’t mean that every kid is going to get connected,” said Manning, who noted that many working families must rely on older siblings.
“Is that high school child going to be able to help everyone else, and how is that going to affect that child?” Manning asked.
Manning also worried about how districts will meet the needs of families with special-needs children, and whether schools will offer enough flexibility to help working families better understand the nuances of the Microsoft Teams platform students will use to stay connected to their teachers and class work.
“We need to be really creative in how we utilize our counselors and our educational support professionals to reach out to students,” Manning said.
Hand said the pandemic is “definitely causing a lot of anxiety among all of us, many of us doing double duty with our own kids,” but he also saw some positives.
Noting the increased attention to equity, Hand said, “We have a chance to confront change.”
“I know that we don’t have any choice to adapt to what is in front of us, but I see a silver lining, an opportunity to look at these changes and embrace them,” Hand said.