For this blog post, I would like to welcome a friend and colleague, Sara Barber-Just. Since my first interactions with her I could see why her students love her so much. Then, my son and one of my daughters were lucky enough to have her as a teacher, and I really understood. Sara does not only practice what she preaches. Love for teaching and for her students infuse everything she does. In my daughter's words, "she radiates this extremely positive energy to everyone around her." My daughter had her for an A period English class - the time when many high school students are still half asleep. She managed to engage the class, all the while projecting understanding for their sleepiness.
I recently read something Sara wrote about teaching during COVID-19, and it resonated with me more than many posts I have read about this profession right now. I think I liked it so much because I feel the same as her. Love is at the center of what we do, which is why so many teachers are devastated right now. All the teachers I know are doing their best to push through, to contact all of their families, to engage their students. Yet, we end up feeling frustrated because we can't reach our kids in the same way. In her post, Sara describes one way she has been successful with her students during "distance learning." Her bio can be read right after the post. Thank you for your words, Sara!
I breathe books and language, but I became a high school teacher because I wanted to live in a world where relationships were just as important as curriculum or ideas—sometimes more. Validating, loving and listening to my students always seemed to open them to new ideas, sometimes to even set them free.
So Distance Learning has been hard for me. I have tried my best. I started meeting with students online the week we closed, not to jump start “education,” but to throw out a lifeline to those who wanted it, saying “I’m still here!” “I care about you.” I’ve tried to make the course content I’m offering during closure really interesting—from reading books about sexual identity or depression and recovery, to combatting white nationalism/hate with education and love. And also offering up ways to talk and think about life during coronavirus/quarantine—everything from the chaos and grief it causes to the creativity it fosters.
I have sent letters, YouTube videos, and surveys to students, and when that didn’t work, personal emails to ask how they are. When I’m all business, the silence grows. They may comply and turn in some work but it feels forced and sad. They report feeling overwhelmed by schoolwork.
The miracle has been that when I lead with love and kindness rather than with grades or credit, the conversations flow. I sent out 30 personal emails to all my MIA students yesterday. It took time, but not even half the time of a regular work week. And I heard back from so many today. About their work landscaping or working at supermarkets or doing scholarship applications. Their tears about lost graduation and cancelled sports seasons. Their challenging family situations. Their virtual guitar lessons and puppies they’re adopting.
I’ve sat in this uncomfortable chair by my foldout card table in my bedroom trying to replicate school however I can. It’s so imperfect. But it’s what I can do. Virtual school is not like real school. I can’t hand out tissues and snacks and write comments on papers in my hot pink pen. I can’t make eye contact or tell jokes the way I did before. But every chance I get, to “teach” the only way I think matters—with compassion, flexibility, and kindness, I do. It took me a while to realize I can’t do this old thing I used to do one way the same—not at all. But I can remember why I started doing it. And hold on to that with all my might.
Bio: Sara Barber-Just is the English Department Head and school newspaper advisor at Amherst Regional High School, where she has been teaching for 22 years. She created the nation’s first LGBTQ Literature class in a public high school in 2002; she still teaches that course, as well as Journalistic Writing and Tenth Grade Literature, Writing, and Public Speaking. She and her wife live in Leverett, MA with their twin sons, rising ninth graders.