By Farrell Kelly
The last six months have been challenging for teachers, as we have been buffeted not only by our own hopes and expectations for school, but also by those of our local communities and nation. We all want to be back in the classroom, face to face with our students and each other, as soon as it can be done safely, but as we have witnessed events unfolding in schools across the country over the past weeks, with universities and school systems that have tried to open up only to be peremptorily shut down by Covid outbreaks, it’s difficult to know just how long we’ll all be living in the shared reality of virtual learning. So much feels out of our control that the situation can feel pretty daunting, but if we give each other a little grace I know we can do great things.
Since I was in middle school, one of my favorite movies has been “Stand and Deliver,” which shares the true story of Jaime Escalante, a math teacher in East Los Angeles who, over the course of several years, built a calculus program out of nothing, helping his students to achieve successes of which they had always been capable, but never dared dream. In the movie, his recipe for success consists of one essential ingredient: “ganas” – a desire strong enough that it leads one to action. He tells his students, “If you don’t have the ganas, I will give it to you, because I am an expert.”
In life outside the movies, things are always more complicated. Even so, ganas, on the part of his fellow educators, his students, and their parents, was the root of Escalante’s success. It was belief in ganas that fueled their efforts; the belief that they could achieve anything if they had the drive to put in the hard work and make it so. While we don’t face the same set of challenges those Angelenos underwent in their struggle to achieve success, over the past months we have all struggled with the uncertainties that accompany this unprecedented time in our nation’s history. Despite that uncertainty, I am confident that we will achieve great things, because the educators of the Falls Church City Public Schools have more ganas than any group of people I have ever worked with.
Over the summer, I spent hours in meetings with colleagues as we put plans in place, first for hybrid learning, and then for a fully virtual fall rollout of school. At Mary Ellen Henderson, where I teach 8th grade, the optional weekly staff meetings over the summer consistently saw a 90 percent turnout among teachers, paraprofessionals and specialists, all of us hungry to get updates and help brainstorm solutions to the many logistical challenges presented by any focused endeavor involving thousands of people. There was a similar level of engagement in every building in the division during those unpaid summer weeks.
Over the past weeks, I have worked with colleagues and students to brainstorm ways of building enthusiasm in our school community, for both ideas and each other. I have watched my colleagues learn how to work with new technologies and adjust their long standing practices to meet this new moment. Whether creating bitmoji classrooms that bring a sense of place to cyberspace, or working with new dynamic cameras that bring students into their actual classrooms, educators throughout the district are moving beyond their comfort zones to enhance the comfort of their students.
I have worked with colleagues as we adjust the pacing and presentation of concepts and skills to the reality of an online workspace. In many cases, it amounts to rewriting the curriculum from scratch; devising new tricks that make use of the possibilities afforded by online learning while minimizing the limitations. Here’s one example: the door is pretty much closed on doing group skits when everyone is working from their own home. Suddenly, however, there’s the potential to open a window to radio theater, which can be every bit as evocative and inspiring, and which offers new opportunities for creative problem solving (and historical knowledge) for students.
To some extent, however many years of experience each of us has in the classroom, we are all first year teachers this year, with all the giddiness, trepidation and boundless creativity and optimism that come with that status. Fueled by ganas, we are striving to replace uncertainty with possibility by doing everything we can to spark joy, foster community, and nurture understanding in our virtual school environment. I can’t imagine a better group of professionals to set the tone for our schools and the example for our students.
We’re looking forward to working with our students, and the larger community, this fall.
Farrell Kelly is an 8th Grade Teacher at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School, NBCT and President of the Falls Church City Education Association