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Lifestyle Schools

Whether Virtual or In-Person, School is Where the Heart Is

August 4, 2020

However back-to-school looks this year, Rochester elementary-school teacher Jill West assures that students will receive the care, attention and education they deserve

By Jill West 

Featured photo courtesy of Rochester Community Schools

“Back to school” is an exciting time filled with anticipation and enthusiasm for the adventures of a new school year. It’s the smell of fresh crayons, crisply sharpened pencils and unopened books. It’s the hope and joy that the year holds with much potential for discovery and growth. 

But this year also holds a new feeling: gratitude. We will feel grateful for the chance to come together once again, to be with each other in the same space, to see each other’s faces as we experience the wonders of learning. We will appreciate the little things that we have missed and perhaps took for granted. 

As teachers we know that connections with our students extend far beyond the physical walls of a classroom. When COVID-19 hit Michigan, we had two days to entirely reformat our way of teaching and learn how to educate online. I met with my team to make sure we had a cohesive plan across our grade level, and began creating videos, posts and adding to my classroom webpage with updates and resources. Preparing and facilitating as an educator — while also being a mother of two elementary-school-aged daughters — was overwhelming, to say the least. 

Courtesy of Rochester Community Schools

West with her students last November

But the process also showed that we teachers can pivot on a dime and jump into uncharted territory for the good of our kids. I had daily small-group video calls with my students to touch base on our lessons, but even more importantly so that we could stay connected. Our video calls offered a glimpse into each other’s lives we usually don’t get: I loved seeing spaces that my students were proud of and meeting beloved pets I heard so much about. We played scavenger hunts, had dance parties and celebrated birthdays. It was a different kind of togetherness, but as it became our norm, we adapted. As we grew more confident in our abilities to correspond through technology, we continued to grow closer together.

We proved that above all else, relationships are the cornerstone of education. There’s no lack of internet memes pertaining to our remote learning. My favorite is the play on Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham,” “I will teach you in a room, I will teach you now on Zoom, I will teach you in a house, I will teach you with my mouse, I will teach you here or there, I will teach because I care.” 

However our back-to-school format looks, we are going to roll with it. We are going to do what we do best — love our kids. And while it won’t be easy preparing for all sorts of scenarios to meet our kids’ individual needs while maintaining a safe environment, the rest will fall into place. 

Jill WestCourtesy of Jill West

West in her classroom at Baldwin Elementary in Rochester on the first day of school last fall

I’ll admit, I feel nervous about what our school situation will be like in the fall. If we are in person, how will I help my students make safe choices when many of our social distancing protocols run opposite of their natural instincts? If we are online, how will I establish relationships with students and families that I am meeting for the first time? As a parent, how can my kids and I minimize our exposure to the virus? If school is online, how will I balance being an educational partner for my children while running my own class? 

What I don’t worry about, however, is if I will still be able to create a space that offers peace, wonder, joy and love. Nothing can change that. Those values are an unfaltering pillar of light as the whole world swirls and wavers around it. It is my job to give my kids a place to feel safe to discover and grow. And I feel confident that my children will be with teachers that embody the same spirit of creating an environment rich with care, value and respect. We are teachers. That’s what we do.

Jill WestCourtesy of Jill West

West in her classroom with her daughters

Our love of teaching, of sharing, of being part of helping children grow their minds and hearts…those things cannot be altered. It is said that “home is where the heart is” and I believe the same is true with education. Our care and love will come through in the relationships we build in any location and by any method. 

Regardless of whether we are in person or online, where we are eating lunch or how our desks are arranged, one thing’s for sure: While this year will most certainly be different in the details, the love stays the same.  

Jill West is an elementary school teacher with Rochester Community Schools.

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