The night before the first day of school

You may not know this about teachers, but they don’t sleep the night before the first day of school. For educators, this evening is like Christmas Eve.  Teachers toss in their beds, thinking about the next morning. They get up early with nervous energy to meet their new school family. Who are the children with whom they’ll spend most of their waking hours for the next year? What is this class going to be like? Every class is almost like a creature unto itself, an organism made of many parts that act together in weird and wonderful, harmonious and discordant ways.

This year, I wonder if anyone’s getting any sleep tonight, the night before the first day of school. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed in the last weeks of summer, it’s that everyone is worried. Teachers, parents, grandparents, children: we are all worried. 

What is school going to be like this year? We vaguely remember what last spring was like. It was heroic, and it was also not what anyone would have wanted for an education. Children away from the school building? It was a crisis.

And now most of us are heading into another time of remote learning. In districts like mine, we’ve known our start would be virtual for a while, and we’ve had time to plan. And although parents have been setting up desks and learning nooks at home, although kids have been on “meet the teacher” zooms, although teachers have spent all summer learning how to do virtual learning, although support staff have been running around with school supplies and chromebooks, although administrators have been grappling with state guidelines and schedules, we don’t know exactly what tomorrow will look like. 

We’ve never quite done school like this before. No one has ever quite done school like this before.

Here’s what I do know the night before school starts:

First, we all need to try to worry less.  Parents are worried about what  if they can’t get their child logged onto the zoom correctly on the first day. Teachers are worried about zoom or google classroom crashing on the first day. Cafeterias are worried about remote food distribution on the first day.  As a family engagement worker, inhabiting that space between school and home, I’ve noticed that a lot of worries are about getting in trouble or making someone mad. Parents are worried that their child will be in trouble if they can’t log onto zoom at the exact right time or if their child wears their Paw Patrol PJs on the first day of school.  Teachers are worried about meeting student needs when children are at daycare, taking care of siblings,  or grappling with crappy WiFi.  Here’s what I know: no one’s going to be in trouble in these first few days and weeks. 

Parents, teachers know how hard it is for your and your kiddos right now. Teachers, parents understand that you are doing the impossible right now. Let’s try to worry less about getting in trouble. Let’s think more about how to offer each other grace as we navigate a national experiment in education.

Second, the first few weeks are not going to go perfectly. Teachers are going to mess up; students are going to mess up; administrators are going to mess up; family engagement workers are going to mess up. 

But those mistakes don’t mean our experiment is over. They don’t mean that distance learning just isn’t going to work out. It means we adjust and figure things out.

Third, there are going to be miraculous moments and great gifts from this time of distance learning. Just when our mistakes threaten to overwhelm us, something incredible is going to happen. We’re going to find little touchstones of grace that remind us what education is and what humanity is. I know this because those little moments happened in the spring and they happened all summer long. We all need to savor those times when everything comes together.

Finally, we’re starting the school year, but this era doesn’t stop being a scary one. We’re living through historical times. We are all so tired of the word “unprecedented,” but there’s a reason we keep using it.  The world is scary right now for adults and for children, for schools and families. And while we are set upon the work of helping children learn to read, learn to do geometry, learn AP US history, or middle school phys ed, the times don’t get any less frightening. Even if we adults mainly are brave for our children and mainly feel brave for our children, there are moments when the fear catches all of us up. If we can remember that we’re all doing our best in a time none of us would have chosen, we’ll get through this and our children will get their education. It’s going to take all of us remembering that all of us are going through something, all of us reaching out instead of withdrawing, all of us looking for light in the dark.

But now, it is the night before the first day of school, and we’d better try to get some sleep for tomorrow.

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