Over the past year, many teachers have taken the time to share their stories with us. In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, here are a few excerpts:
Getting back to basics
As the school day gets underway on the Friday before Thanksgiving at Ledge Street School in Nashua, English Language teacher Danielle Boutin is in the school parking lot in jeans, sneakers, and a tie-dye mask, staging the weekly farmers’ market. She and her team of fellow teachers and volunteers lug grocery bags crammed with potatoes, onions, and carrots from the backs of SUVs and arrange crates of milk, boxes of pancake mix, bags of fish sticks, tubs of pulled pork, and the rest of the week’s bounty on long folding tables.
For many of these families, this weekly event has become a lifeline in a year of crisis and uncertainty. It’s one piece of a community support system Boutin — who was recently named 2021 Teacher of the Year — and her EL team have knit together over the years. Her efforts started small, with a homework club, then grew to include a clothing closet, a food pantry, and more.
“People fall on hard times, and sometimes you have no one to turn to, and sometimes if you’re in a brand new country you might not have a support network yet,” said Boutin, who has been teaching at Ledge Street for 11 years. “You may not have the language, you may not know how it works. … Trust is really at the core of a lot of the work that we do in building those relationships.”
Finding silver linings
In a year of extraordinary challenges, teachers logged grueling hours and lost sleep over their students.
For Clare Delay, an eighth grade science teacher at Weare Middle School, one of the hardest things during the early months of the pandemic was hearing her students talk about the everyday things they could no longer do.
“They are really missing sports. A lot of them were revved up for the sports season. … They say that they practice alone in the backyard,” she said. “That breaks my heart.”
But Delay also found ways to make the most of those difficult months. She helped her students improve their writing and technology skills and employed a “flipped classroom” model, in which students acquaint themselves with new content on their own and then gain practice and heightened understanding through projects and discussions in the classroom.
She also noticed that her students were getting more sleep and more exercise: Some of them who in the past had yawned and blinked through her afternoon class were logging in first thing in the morning and cranking out assignments.
“It’s been interesting,” Delay said. I’m learning a lot.”
Giving young people a voice
One day in the English Language advisory group she leads at Manchester West High School, Liz Kirwan asked her students to brainstorm the differences between schools in their home countries and their current school. Some had come here from refugee camps or developing countries with few resources. By comparison, their new school was impressive.
“But then we asked them to delve a little deeper,” Kirwan said.
Soon, the students — who come from countries including Tanzania, Mexico, Nepal, and Egypt — started talking about how their sports teams can’t compete at the same level as other schools their size, how they can’t find food they like at lunch, how the limited course options affect their future plans.
“One of the kids said it really well. He said, ‘I want to cry when I hear about what other schools have,’” Kirwan said.
Kirwan and her student teacher, Angelina Gillespie, helped the students write letters to the Commission to Study School Funding, which were then read aloud at the Commission’s Youth Voice comment period on Oct. 7. A few of the students attended the virtual comment period, along with Kirwan and Gillespie, and read their own letters.
“I got the honor to say what I think in my opinion,” said Kritika Ghaley, a 12th grader from Nepal. “And to make my voice heard about the change in my school.”
Prior to the pandemic, Kelly Jobel, an educator for the Manchester School District who has led and participated in equity work in the district, ran community engagement initiatives to identify where the greatest needs were and design solutions. That work took on new meaning after schools closed. Last summer, the district’s summer learning program — which is operating remotely in a combined model — coordinated with other summer programming around the city to connect students to opportunities and resources, such as the city’s new bookmobile, which brings library books directly to neighborhoods through a partnership with the public library.
“That was one of the best things was seeing the community say, ‘how can we help?’” Jobel said.
Students became part of the support systems as well. Two high school students started a program called Operation Lemonade, creating public service announcements, running a student help desk, and working with local agencies to distribute feminine hygiene products to families in need through local agencies.
The remote learning period also gave teachers new insights into their students and their families. “I think we built a lot of really good parent connections during that time,” Jobel said.
In the technology realm, for example, Jobel learned that families need support that goes beyond mere troubleshooting. Informed by community feedback, she’s incorporated technology classes into summer programming and hopes to offer additional training to help students and families feel comfortable using a range of educational tools.
“We’ve talked a lot about continuing education to help students and their families with technology,” she said. “A lot of them want to know more.”
Glimpsing the future
Veteran Concord High School science teacher Jane Voth-Palisi seems to draw energy from some secret source.
On a recent Friday morning, she’s coordinating separate activities for students in her hybrid Advanced Placement Biology class, instructing in-person students to grab their goggles and gloves and head to the lab to study E. coli, while taking attendance of her online students and getting them set up with a video on epigenetics. Her glasses steam up a little above her medical mask as she gives rapid-fire instructions into her headset.
“It sounds a little like rush hour in Boston in here,” she says brightly.
As a brand new teacher at Concord High School in 1986, Voth-Palisi cheered on her colleague, Christa McAuliffe, while she prepared to go to space and then mourned alongside teachers and students when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. That incident rooted her in place at Concord High, and McAuliffe’s motto, “I touch the future,” has guided her ever since.
Voth-Palisi started teaching dual-enrollment courses through Running Start in 1999 and eventually began running the program.
Running Start classes, which are taught by high school teachers who have been approved as faculty adjuncts at the corresponding community colleges, have become enormously popular at Concord High School, as well as at many schools around the state. They’re part of an effort to create viable career pathways for young people — which may also include traditional classes, career and technical education, apprenticeships, extended learning opportunities, and more.
The real trick is sparking passion, Voth-Palisi said. “If you let a kid choose a passion that might give them a glimpse into their future and celebrate their curiosity,” she said. “I never have seen anything more satisfying.”