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Former Teacher of the Year: We can do this

Georgia 2017 Teacher of the Year Casey Bethel says: "Start planning out how you will connect with each student.  Remember, 'no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.'  Get hold of your roster early and start calling each home to introduce yourself.  Assign 3 or 4 different students each day to stick around after the Zoom call just to chat. "
Georgia 2017 Teacher of the Year Casey Bethel says: "Start planning out how you will connect with each student. Remember, 'no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.' Get hold of your roster early and start calling each home to introduce yourself. Assign 3 or 4 different students each day to stick around after the Zoom call just to chat. "

Casey Bethel says relationships, rigor and relevance can prevail, no matter what form teaching takes

Here is another good piece by Casey Bethel, Georgia’s 2017 Teacher of the Year who is now the 6-12 science coordinator for Douglas County Schools, coordinating resources, curriculum and teacher professional development for 14 middle and high schools.

Here is another recent Get Schooled piece by Bethel. And one other.

By Casey Bethel

COVID-19 is taking a toll on everyone but it is especially tense for teachers who are grappling with a separate list of concerns. This morning, I captured some of the questions being posted on teacher discussion pages. Will school open fully? When? If delayed, for how long? How? Will it be face to face or digital? If in-person, will students wear masks? How do we distance them on the bus? In the hallway? What happens if someone tests positive? If digital, will every student have a device this time? How about internet access? Whenever and however they return, how prepared for learning will they be? With the way last semester ended, how much did they miss? With no camps this summer, how much did they ‘slide’? Will they be distracted by all that is going on? Did any of them lose family members? Will students have questions about George Floyd? Protests? Race relations? This is a time of great uncertainty and many teachers have a painful knot in their stomachs concerning all of it.

We need something certain to grab hold of and here it is. Whether in-person or digital, school will open.

From there, I do not know the answer to anything else. Like you, I am praying that for our leaders make the right choices in answering the other questions. However, during this time of tremendous uncertainty, I hope that one certainty is as helpful to you as it is to me.

Fortunately, there are other certainties that can help. I am not trying to distract from the serious questions that still need to answers but focusing on a few certainties re-center us and help prepare us for this upcoming school year, regardless of how it might look. To teach during this time of uncertainty we should focus on the things that will remain the same.

  • Relationships – whether in-person or digital, who you are STILL matters. Whether meeting in a classroom or on Zoom, students will be wondering “who is this person?” Start planning out how you will connect with each student. Remember, “no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Get hold of your roster early and start calling each home to introduce yourself. Assign three or four different students each day to stick around after the Zoom call just to chat. In my traditional classroom, I would eat lunch with different kids each day. You would be accomplishing the same goal. Don’t believe that it is impossible to build relationships virtually. It is certainly possible if you think creatively. You can’t tell me I’m not besties with my fav TV personality whom I’ve never met.
  • Reassurance – On every first day of school ever, kids come to class nervous. Kindergartners are coming to school for the first time while others are coping with a new grade, a new teacher, or a new school. Add the possibility of face masks or virtual lessons this year, but it will be the same. Start brainstorming how you will calm their fears while making them feel comfortable and capable. Good teachers know how to get kids feeling like “I can do this.” They will need that again. Develop your pitch. Mine is “I’m Mr. Bethel and I’m going to teach you everything about science. Although it’s going to happen differently, I know you are going to excel because I’m going to do everything I can to make sure you succeed.”
  • Relevance – Get ready to hear “why do I have to know this?” Students will STILL question the usefulness of what they are learning. Although COVID-19 might steal the chance to make magic in your classroom, it presents the easiest opportunity to connect the dots for your students. Start deciding how you will your lessons to their daily experiences.

Teach math to understand daily COVID statistics. Inspire students to use their writing to describe all they have seen and heard since March. Explain how this pandemic has affected geographic regions differently. Art can be the medium for students to express their deepest feelings during this time. Whatever subject, you don’t have to squint hard to connect the dots. Just remember two things. The goal of education is to help young people make sense of the world and you cannot teach without first considering the thoughts and experiences that shape students’ worldview.

  • Rigor – Now is not the time to ‘take it easy’ on students. It is STILL a good time to push them. Infuse rigor in your instruction. Remember, instead of just harder tasks, rigor requires students to do something with their learning. Make a list of the ways your students can put their learning into practice. Eleven year old Holli Morgan used her sewing skills to make hundreds of masks for essential workers in Atlanta this summer. Awe-inspiring! It’s your students’ turn.
  • Risks – Teachers are creative and now is not the time to scale back. Whether in-person or digital, it is STILL the time to try new things. Look outside the box for ideas to reach all of your students, even the struggling ones. Toss out lesson plans that won’t fit the new normal and sprinkle extra ‘magic’ on the ones that will. Luckily, due to COVID-19, everything is on the table.
  • Resilience – All of us have experienced the failed lesson. The projector bulb died or the website crashed in the middle of your dream lesson. That will STILL happen this year. We need to exactly what we have done before – cry for a moment, then dry our eyes and get back to work. Start today telling yourself that when it gets difficult this year “I will not give up.”
  • Reach Out – Guess what? You STILL cannot do this alone. If we end up teaching from home again, you don’t have to do it by yourself. Find new ways to create those water fountain and coffee pot moments. Call and text your teacher tribe. Schedule a weekly zoom for your teammates to bounce ideas and motivate one another. No one is an island. At least you don’t have to be.
  • Righteous – Teachers are getting lots of attention right now – some of it negative. In a month, we went from being celebrated heroes to being blamed for hindering the economy. Don’t let that get you down. Remember the students and remember that our cause is STILL righteous. We have the privilege of molding tomorrow’s leaders. We have the best job in history and it’s almost time to put our capes back on. It is almost time to swoop down the save the world yet again.

I hope that those making the tough decisions land on the right ones. But for us, preparing to teach while watching the world change, focusing on the elements of teaching that won’t change can be the rope we grab hold of and pull our heads above water.

It will be okay. We. Can. Do. This. Good luck.

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