Heidi Crumrine: What’s next?

Monitor columnist
Published: 4/3/2021 10:00:15 PM

It’s hard not to worry. I’m a teacher, but I’m a mom, too, and not only do I worry about my students, I worry about my own children. How is this year affecting them? What if the little one doesn’t make progress with her reading? What if the middle one hates school after all of this? What if the oldest sees school as a series of assignments to complete and not something that brings her joy? What if, in my efforts to parent my own children through this pandemic, I am short changing my students? Am I a bad mom if I’m a good teacher? Am I a bad teacher if I’m a good mom?

I know that I am not alone in these worries. A lot of our collective worry has been centered around the idea of learning loss. What if they don’t learn enough this year? What if they lose skills? What should summer school look like so that we can help our kids stay on track? What should next year look like?

What next year should look like is what every other year of school looks like: Students arrive in our classrooms and we meet them where they are. We create a classroom environment and community that is welcoming, encourages risk taking, and fosters empathy. We create lessons with our students and their needs in mind. We read and write with them every day. We find ways to have fun, we seek to connect them to their communities, and we model with grace what it means to move through life in uncertain times and without having answers to questions we have never thought to ask.

We do not meet them on the first day of school and focus on what they don’t know, what they can’t do, or what learning standard they might have missed. We do not begin the year by using words like remediation and recovery. We do not focus on what they have lost; we focus on all that they have gained.

The truth is, they have gained a lot. Our children are navigating a pandemic with a resiliency that will serve them well as they enter adulthood. There are the obvious gains in the world of technology. When I watch my seven year old log into a Google Meet via her Google Calendar, I know that she has learned skills that are practical and useful for the future in ways that could not have been planned for in a prepackaged curriculum unit.

It is more than just technology, though. In fact, it is quite remarkable what our young people have learned, and much of it is about their own interests and passions because of the reality of being at home so much. My thirteen year old has been teaching herself watercolor painting techniques. My 10-year-old has become passionate about ancestry and spends hours online reading immigration and census records to try to fill in some missing puzzle pieces in our family history. She recently found nearly 15 ancestors who are buried in a cemetery 10 miles from our home that none of us knew about. When we went to visit and she ran around the cemetery yelling, “There she is!” everytime she found another grave, I thought to myself, this is what learning should look like.

It’s not just my own children. For some it has been a new skill: the student who taught himself to play the trumpet via YouTube, the student who returned to playing the piano and learned to read music after a several years hiatus, the student who learned he can do vocal impressions. For others it has been entering the working world. Many of my students have gotten part-time jobs and are now able to contribute financially to help their families. For others it has been political activism. The Black Lives Matter rally last June that attracted thousands of participants was initially planned and organized by Concord High School students. Another simply summed it up when she said, “What has come out of COVID for me is that I’ve gotten a lot closer to my family.”

How did I learn all of this? I asked them. How often do we ask our students what they love, what they care about, or what brings them joy? What if next year we focus on empowering our students to recognize what they have gained this year and allow them to embrace that alongside their traditional schooling? Our children are not the first or the only ones to have experienced disrupted schooling, public health crises, or massive cultural shifts during their formative years.

In perpetuating the conversation around learning loss, we are missing the entire point of what an education should strive to be. We also sound like we believe that children should be little robots who follow a prescribed progression of skills. It’s okay to give them more time to learn. It’s okay to reconsider what matters in an education. It’s okay to realize that maybe what we thought mattered all along, actually does not. It’s also okay to worry, but in the words of Corrie Ten Boom, “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”

I hear a lot of suggestions from elected officials, policy makers, administrators, and teachers about how we move forward. What if we ask our students how they would like it to look? What our children need is for us to listen to them and to believe that there is much power in what they have experienced this year and that it will only make them stronger.

(Heidi Crumrine, the 2018 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, teaches English at Concord High School.)

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