Grand Opening, Grand Closing

A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge…One role of the writer today is to sound the alarm.

E.B. White on the role and responsibility of the writer.

This was to be our first year with a set of triplets in our school. Having had a few conversations with the parents over the summer, I knew that the parents shared my excitement of having them join a unique school that they’d heard great things about. We had it mapped precisely well in advance. The siblings would be placed in three different Kindergarten classes. What an amazing adventure they would have entering our school together and growing into their own unique sense of identity over the years of being enrolled in our school. The triplets did enroll and join our school community this Fall, but their experience has not been anything like we’d imagined due to a virus that has not only changed the experience of one family, but reshaped an entire profession, forcing us to evolve and adapt. The words of Maya Angelou saying, “Stand up straight and realize who you are, that you tower over your circumstances” could not be more fitting than in this moment for our community of scholars and educators who have had to stand up. It is in those moments of difficulty that leaders are forged and the impurities are burned off in the process.

Shadows of Black Trauma

The Covid-19 pandemic has emerged in the shadows of unprecedented Black trauma. The crime rate in metro-Atlanta has reached a peak in recent months. Nationally, we’ve seen more deaths of Black people at the hands of law enforcement. Many educational professionals are starting to feel the psychological effects of isolation, quarantine fatigue, and the added stress of having to redesign their instructional delivery in a mostly trial and error fashion this year. What is the cost of silence for educational leaders? So many of us who lead schools remain silent in the midst of it all. One of my teachers recently asked me, “Don’t you worry that ‘they’ will monitor what you write and say something about it?”. Educators in urban communities have a responsibility to shatter the silence in the service of social justice. Thankfully, I’ve positioned myself in a district that doesn’t shy away from issues of social justice. From launching a district-wide Black Lives Matter initiative to supporting the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, they understand who we serve and the time in which we live. The families served by schools in my community were already wrestling with the ravages of unemployment, broken homes, and poverty. Grandparents were raising the second generation of children as their own. School districts were aware, but not yet responsive to the urgency of creating 1:1 schools where every child had a device. The delay in scholars getting devices issued by school districts has helped some families reflect on those Black Friday big screen television purchases when children need access to instructional technology beyond the school day. How are our priorities, districts, and households, impacting our children? All of us, especially communities of color, were trying to live in an America under assault of the Trump presidency. As he intentionally scraped the wounds of race and civility, our communities were the first to bleed at the hands of armed police officers. Each thoughtless tweet was another blow at an already teetering level of civility. The pandemic has presented us with questions that we all will have to grapple with over the next several months:

  • Which communities will be most impacted by the school closures?
  • How will the digital divide be addressed by an incoming administration in Washington?
  • What autonomy will teachers have to make decisions about school reopening?
  • How will we confront the role of high-stakes testing and how we evaluate schools and teachers in the post-Covid reality?

But more than anything else, the pandemic let us see ourselves for what we’d truly become: A society so suspicious of our institutions that we at first saw it all as a hoax, then with the data in hand, refused to believe the professionals. Now, with the highest death tolls in the world, we continue to flirt with the idea of sending our educators and children back into schools where they are at risk of contracting a life-threatening virus. At this moment, we all pray that our district-level leaders are as intent on data driven decision making as they are when we analyze student achievement for sub-groups in our schools.

Lost Traditions

“I think she can go the rest of the way on her own”, I whisper in passing as a subtle suggestion to well-intentioned parents who want to walk their child to class day after day each Fall. One of the joys of the principalship is seeing Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten parents walk into our school holding the hands of their timid four or five-year-olds. The mission they are embarking on is one of momentous significance. Photos are taken. Tears are shed. On occasion, parents watch and wave as a scholar insists on walking to class on their own on this first day in a remarkable show of independence. Sadly, we haven’t experienced this rite of passage since the Fall of 2019. Instead, we’ve welcomed them into virtual classrooms where children exist in a virtual community where they can only see their classmates on the screen. It’s an awkward arrangement where teachers can glimpse into the homes and lives of their students and get a feel of how they live and the environments from which they come.

Another tradition in our school that brings back vivid memories of joy and community is our Honors Day, held at the end of each semester. It’s a time when we celebrate the efforts of our scholars. Along with my assistant principal, I stood on a stage and shook the hands of hundreds of scholars for several hours. Covid-19 had made an indelible mark on us as a school. If we return to the format of the large assembly programs in the future, we will likely replace the handshake with another gesture to celebrate them.

There’s still a bit of a philosophical rift about honors and awards lingering in the air. As much as we want every scholar to be honored, we insist that scholars earn what they receive based on rigorous grade level standards. Gone are the days when everyone in the class receives something just for showing up and sitting in a desk. Let’s send a message to our scholars early in their educational careers that the world owes you nothing. What happens when you consistently give children awards and accolades they have not earned? They come to expect it. We want our scholars to understand that their scholarship and academic progress rests upon the blood, sweat and tears of centuries of people who were denied education and fair treatment. Many of them overcame tremendous obstacles to learn to read or earn a portion of the education that is afforded to our scholars. They must understand this.

Sense of Belonging

This year, one of my goals was to go deeper in creating a sense of belonging in our school community. While we might not be together in the building, I wanted to make sure there was no doubt about who we were and what our legacy was. Founded in 1996, our school is a true partnership between parents and teachers to set higher expectations for scholars. Our school song, which speaks to that idea of doing what others say can’t be done, became a central part of the weekly announcements. One of my parents was a recording artist, so he offered to rerecord the song for us with an updated vocal arrangement. It reminded us all of the scene from “Lean on Me” when Principal Joe Clark marched those young men to the music teacher’s class and said “I certainly never authorized you to change it…Mrs. Powers, you’ve rewritten our alma mater”. The song became the anthem for a rebirth of Eastside High. I don’t remember my elementary school having a school song, but I want to engrain the lyrics of ours in the minds of our scholars this year more than ever.

After a few weeks of virtual learning, I realized that having all of my scholars arrive in their virtual classrooms wearing their school uniform shirts was another step in the right direction. We continued to emphasize the importance of morning meetings as a way to forge a sense of classroom community. Our school design includes the requirement that students complete projects each semester. Despite calls from some parents and one staff member to eliminate the projects this year, we decided that this part of our school design would not be compromised since we were not in the building. Leaders have to determine how they will respond to the forces that are acting upon their respective schools. What will be the cost of the school closures? What experiences will we adapt to the new reality and which ones will be set aside until later? How can we as school leaders continue to help our schools evolve despite school closures? Here’s what we knew for certain. Students were still capable of conducting research and presenting their projects virtually. Parents were still available to support scholars in choosing a topic. Projects could be presented virtually by scholars sharing a screen or uploading a completed presentation in a number of alternate formats. Volumes of books exist on how to deliver engaging lessons, build on prior knowledge or enhance rigor. Those are the easy parts of our profession. No one has written the handbook on how to open a school while it remains closed. There’s much work to be done to script the way to bring an entire school community with rich and deep roots of celebration collaboration together via virtual platforms.

Reevaluating Our Relationship

The global pandemic has forced us to confront how we view schools. Every relationship reaches a point when we have to determine why we are in it and what our expectations are. We’ve discovered that some families view the school/home relationship as primarily a childcare and supervision arrangement while they are either at work or home. Other families have continued to view the school as a vehicle for their children gaining access to college and careers. Among the ranks of our educators, we’ve been able to see who our most committed educators are in the midst of this remote learning environment. We’ve also been able to determine which educators struggle with self-management, technology, and deep commitment to the mission of the profession. The depth, quality, or lack of plans only brings heightened visibility to a teacher’s performance, broadcasting the level of preparation and expertise into households. For my scholars and families, this is the only teacher they will know this year. Let’s not compromise on the quality of our profession at its most critical hour. This is our grand opening during our grand closing. The decisions we make at this moment will determine the texture of our impact for years to come. Whether we work together or use this moment as a time to turn against one another, we will have children standing in the wake of our decision-making.

Our profession is improvising much like Miles Davis in the “Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud” video where he is looking up at the screen and creating the notes to match the moments in the film. We are reaching into the depths of who we are to capture the moment in all its beauty, opportunity, and tragedy. It is inherently flawed, raw, unrehearsed, and unscripted.

Soundtrack: ”Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud” by Miles Davis

Published by Andre Benito Mountain

Andre Benito Mountain is an elementary principal in the metro-Atlanta area. He is the founder of Def-ED Clothing and the author of The Brilliance Beneath (2016), "The Mountain Principles" (2018) and "Principals Don't Walk on Water" (2020) . His forthcoming book is "Virtually Lost" (2021).

One thought on “Grand Opening, Grand Closing

  1. First of all: loved the JAY-Z lyric reference in the title (most appropriate). What you’ve written conveys a fresh and positive outlook on this brave new world of ours and teachers are essential shouldering the load (never mind ‘ushering in’ this new world order). I believe almost (sane) readers would agree with you, but Teachers especially need this message. Also loved the Jazz ‘improvisation’ metaphor. This technique (improvisation) created some of the best music ever. I see that as the takeaway – improvisation: learning to still play as a ‘band’, staying in key, when the sheet music goes out of the window. An opportunity to show what one brings to the table when all the plans either change or disappear.

    Like

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