I landed my first job as a teacher through a newspaper ad at the end of the first quarter of the school year—aptly, during Halloween week. My new role began the following Monday when the assistant principal hastily led me to the end of a long, gray corridor, knocked on a classroom door, and said to the elderly gentleman who opened it, “Mr. Melton, this is your replacement. You’re fired.”
After that, Mr. Melton sat in the front of the classroom waiting for the day to end so he could join his carpool and leave behind his career as a teacher. I sat in the back of the classroom as five classes of high school students alternatively crawled in and out of the first-floor windows to socialize or invested their energies in igniting the fire-retardant bulletin boards.
Oddly, I found myself and my calling in that stressed and stressful place. Not on a single day after my tenure began did anyone use the window as an escape hatch, and I never again saw matches come out of pockets. Still, I had a recurring nightmare for a couple of months prior to the start of school over the next 35 years in which students made merry in the classroom while I seemed capable only of watching the mayhem.
These days, I have a different dream for a different time. I construct it during waking hours—between work responsibilities, as the morning begins, or as the day wanes into sleep. The students I see in this dream are the COVID kids: the ones who will begin 2nd grade hoping for their first normal school year ever; the 9th graders who never had a normal middle school year; the high school seniors who hope this one year might magically prepare them for the world ahead. I see, too, the teachers who taught for months at the outset of the pandemic in uncharted territory, trying to normalize life for their students as their own lives were shaped by fear, self-doubt, and exhaustion.
The architecture of my new dream is a simple one, or should be. The dream is not greedy or outlandish. I dream of five realities for each student and teacher who embarks on this extraordinary school year.
- In my dream, a teacher waits at the classroom door with nervous anticipation and a surge of excitement as students arrive—an actual teacher, not a stand-in recruited wherever one is available. This real teacher understands, appreciates, and does their best daily to honor both the art and the science of teaching in service to the young people in their care. This teacher works from a deep well of belief in the capacity of each learner to do remarkable things and responds to learners individually and collectively with acceptance, respect, empathy, and lofty expectations. As the teacher models such an approach, she helps students to discover the power in lifting one another up rather than tearing one another down.
- In my dream, every learner feels safe in the classroom. Unthinkable as it is that young people must entertain the worry that they might be shot in their classrooms, that is the reality. The classroom should be a sanctuary from the host of weights outside the classroom that children cannot bear alone, and the teacher will work to come close to that ideal. In this place, especially in this year ahead, the teacher understands, too, that students are suffering at least as much because of social and affective deprivation resulting from two-plus years of isolation as they are from “learning loss.” So learning will involve generous opportunities for students to collaborate as they relearn how to connect and work together because when the fundamental need for belonging is not satisfied, the classroom does not feel safe and academic and intellectual development are largely off the table.
In my dream, no adult in the school ever sees a child as a test score or allows a child to see themselves as a failure.
- In my dream, no adult in the school ever sees a child as a test score or allows a child to see themselves as a failure—or even as a success—because of grades, standardized test scores, or any other trapping of school. No adult makes any decisions based on actions designed to raise test scores without first considering deeply whether the action also raises a young person’s sense of worth, motivation to learn, and aspirations for the future.
- In my dream, every student experiences learning as joy, a grand adventure, a window into the world and the important roles they can play in that world. No teacher or school leader in my dream space confuses merely following a pacing guide with real teaching or a curriculum of coverage with real learning. Of course, students focus on reading and math, but they learn those things not predominately through rote practice but as the issues and ideas they explore call on them to apply those skills in a meaningful context. They experience learning as the remarkable human gift it is.
- In this classroom I dream, where students do work that proves to them repeatedly how much they can do rather than what someone else thinks they cannot do, each student finds ample support as they challenge their own limits and discover the life-altering experience of achieving excellence. They learn to compete against themselves rather than against one another. They chart and take their own next steps in learning. Along the way, they learn the skills and habits of mind that enable accomplished work and change their sense of who they are and what they can become.
This is my dream these late summer days in the third school year that COVID is among us. A skilled and resolute teacher. A classroom that feels and is safe. Re-connection with peers and the larger world. Being a celebrant of joyful learning. Learning to strive not for proficiency but for excellence.
In a right-side-up world, those would not be things of a dream but rather baseline expectations. In this third year of COVID and other threats to normalcy, some students will find these conditions in their new classrooms. Many, tragically, will not. I wish for each of you the courage to weave worthy dreams for each young person in your care.
A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 2022 edition of Education Week as My Dream for This Extraordinary School Year