This past year, I came the closest I ever have to ending my teaching career — midyear. Between August and December, my second graders and I had four different classroom models. The models were remote, hybrid, remote, and then back to hybrid. When I left for winter break, I told my principal that I didn’t know if I would return. However, this piece is not about all the reasons that I nearly left. It’s about the reasons I stayed.
Somehow in the midst of continual unforeseen challenges, I found my teaching roots. I went into teaching to be a part of something that mattered in students’ and families’ lives, and also for the greater good. As I wondered if I would return, I realized that I was doing my part in this pandemic. I was not a doctor or a nurse with a skill set that saves lives. I wasn’t a scientist studying an unrelenting virus. I was not a public health official trying to navigate science and politics. I was a teacher. I was a set of smiling eyes above a mask communicating how precious each child was to me. I had a heart with enough room to take on the worries and joys the students and families shared with me. I had the capacity to learn new technology platforms to create lessons that were both accessible and culturally relevant. I was doing my part for the greater good. That is why I returned in January.
My early career was based on thematic teaching, asking essential questions, field trips to begin learning cycles, and home visits. It was about connection. In the last few years, I felt weighed down by being asked to teach too many standards divorced from real-life experiences with a heavy emphasis on assessments. I have been clawing my way back to the connectivity and spark of my early career.
Last summer my district delivered timely and effective professional development that asked us to strip our work down to three priority standards in math and reading. We also pinpointed prior learning needed to engage with the new material. This allowed us to teach grade-level content while frontloading unfinished learning from the year before with the goal of meeting our diverse learners where they were at. Finding the connections between reading and social studies or reading and science while answering essential questions such as, “What do living things need?” brought me the greatest joy of all. Somehow in the midst of a pandemic, it felt like my teaching self was coming back.
For my partner teacher and I, this meant that we had monarch butterflies hatching in our classroom that we let out at snack time. We mapped monarchs’ flight paths to Mexico. Students learned about the main idea and details in a paragraph while reading nonfiction books about butterflies. We read stories from different points of view, including monarchs, to teach character motivation. This cycle of connectivity continued throughout the year with other topics.
As the year progressed my teaching was not only based on priority standards from that summer PD, it was based on what was the priority for my students. Because the students were the priority, they had space to find their voice through our writing workshop. They developed reading preferences and asked that I check out books on certain topics or by certain authors. They asked if they could use hand sanitizer just so they could hold a precious book in their hands rather than read one on the screen. They laughed when my partner teacher and I dyed our hair pink as a result of a vote for a graphing project. It was hard and important work and they did it.
We had a grant to fulfill from the previous year to create a sensory meditation garden. What was intended to be a three-phase courtyard garden project was almost fully completed in one phase due to an outpouring of support beyond the initial grant money. Community partnerships, teacher donations, and donated design services meant that my students had tangible evidence that the larger community was invested in their well-being and that the community's well-being also was tied to our school. The second graders designed their own garden plans. We looked up plants on the landscape architect’s plan using the Latin names to find pictures of the plants in bloom. We dreamed of our new space during those cold winter days.
By February, the second graders began preparing for a program in May to thank our donors. We chose the song, “Outdoors” by Jason Mraz for our thank-you performance. We analyzed the lyrics and found connections to our pandemic experiences and our hope for the future. I sent them one verse at a time on their Chromebooks to listen to and memorize. They found long vowel patterns and contractions in the lyrics and sang the song as part of the daily closing circle.
Our final classroom change in May was a return to in-person learning. Our class was too big to have everyone stay together so the class was split and moved classrooms. One of the students took it upon herself to learn the song in parts and taught it to half of the class. In April, they marveled as the meditation garden was installed in our courtyard. Eventually, they read books, ate snacks, and practiced for their performance in the garden. In May they performed their song, in the round, for all of the garden donors and were even on the news. They did their part.
I’m glad I came back after winter break, but I have told many people that the education system and the general public get one pandemic out of me. I wove everything I could of myself into our classroom community leaving very little for my own children and husband. I cannot do it again and I pray for our sake there will be no need to ask. What I can do is keep traveling back to my teaching roots to find the connections that drew me into teaching 30 years ago in order to keep me going forward ... for the greater good.
Kimberly Folkening is a second grade teacher. Her diverse experience in 25 years of education reflects her love of teaching students of diverse backgrounds. She taught in Mexico, Indiana, Chicago, and currently in Countryside, Illinois. She served as a literacy consultant for City Year for four years and the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute for 10 years before realizing the ...