By Kyair Butts
Imagine dealing with your own fear and anxiety in addition to those of children and families while balancing the requirements and growing expectations that others are placing squarely on your shoulders. Some have fallen under this weight. Their voices mere cries for understanding and a sense of direction as we march into an unknown landscape that is overtaking education. Welcome to teaching virtually in the age of a global health pandemic and crisis.
This imagining is bleak and crushingly scary for many of us, including myself. However, sometimes, out of the ashes comes something new. In this moment, we have a chance to be something better than we were or thought we could be. This is a moment that calls for a movement of epic proportions: rethink schooling as we know it. For so long, Black and Brown students have performed behind their white peers in just about every academic category and the truth behind that is rooted in how our society was built and meant to maintain facets of oppression. We have a moment to do away with the shackled model of leaving some behind to promote others and instead, create something entirely us – where Black and Brown voices and lives are squarely prioritized while lifting all boats. It begins with our approach to distance learning.
The spring of 2020 was littered with crisis learning. We were just trying to build the plane while it flew, stay afloat while the raft was losing air. However, you create the metaphor, the end result was no one was prepared for what educators were asked and tasked to do. There were challenges for sure: reaching all students, ensuring techquity (technology equity and access to devices, knowing how to work the device and access the resources), maintaining updated contact information for guardians, creating engaging lessons, giving grace to myself, assuming best intent and several more challenges. I chose to not let challenges define me because many were outside the list of factors I could control. I instead chose to focus on those things I could control and double down on the “heart work” aspect of teaching. Connecting and reconnecting with my students and their families and providing a sense of normalcy in abnormal times. I was a familiar face and voice when the circumstances were unfamiliar and at times, unforgiving.
Time and again in the spring I would receive an email or text message from a student or one of their family members letting me know that a relative had passed away due to COVID. It was heartbreaking to receive the news. In those moments, I wanted to extend my prayers and support to the student and their family because we worked hard to create a classroom family and now that very dynamic no longer existed in-person when kids needed that the most. Class became a work in content building and character-centering affirmations that this too shall pass, and we will endure together. Teaching in the era of COVID has given me that rare opportunity to stop, reflect and truly look in the mirror and ask those tough questions about what matters most, how do you connect with others, how meaningful can the content be if students don’t see you as someone that cares about them and their families?
Looking forward has provided me with the clearest visions and versions of my life. Looking forward, I see an educational system defined by our terms. I look forward and see an educational system where Black and Brown lives matter. I look forward and see educators continuing to engage in the hard work because it’s work worth doing. I look forward and see educators giving of themselves to embody the heart work because educators and families are on the same team. Our goal is to help students cross the academic finish line – that is a shared goal. Looking forward, I see greatness for Baltimore City Public Schools because we are better than the circumstances of the current times. We are a resilient profession that has long and forever created and imbued all other professions with the power of possibility. It is our time to meet the moment and create a movement. Potential is just that until it is given some push to become kinetic. We have the potential to be great but here, right now, we have our push. We are pushing for more equity. The voices of change and “no more” are crying for school to be for them. COVID might define a year but teachers and our effects transcend time itself. We are legacy lifters. If you needed a call, this moment is it – pick up and act accordingly. Personally, I plan to act graciously and teach fiercely.
Kyair Butts teaches at Waverly Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore City 2019-2020 Teacher of the Year (Baltimore City Public Schools)
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