Hats off, teachers: how we can teach from the heart during a pandemic

Note: Leila Kubesch is a teacher at Norwood City Schools in Cincinnati and was named the 2020 Toyota Family Teacher of the Year by Toyota and the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL). Her accomplishments as a teacher include making home visits, building a school library, advocating for youth and immigrants living in foster care, founding a nonprofit organization, and much more. As many schools return to in-person learning this spring, Ms. Kubesch describes how the power of partnerships can lead to better outcomes for all. This is her first blog in a series on returning to school during the pandemic.

For a long time, I mused about creating a pathway for school partnerships that included families, educators, and even other school districts. What would it be like to collectively address a challenge we face?

I thought about this more during the lockdown. As additional budget cuts were made to schools that had little to begin with, and educators were tasked with doing more with even less, disparity in high-needs communities grew. I remember making phone calls to guardians at the beginning of the pandemic, imploring them to get their children to attend virtual classes. One mom sobbed inconsolably—only just then realizing that her child had been skipping virtual school while she continued to work double shifts even as the world was mostly shutting down. Creating supportive partnerships with guardians like her became among the initiatives I aspired to achieve.

The process of collaborating for us teachers is often foreign; instead we attempt to be everyone for our students to fill the voids they experience. We take on more roles and pile on our hats, serving as a friend, parent, advocate, coach, mentor, social worker, and anything else that comes along the way. Imagine if physicians told us they, too, wear many hats and took on all the roles of custodian, nurse, coach, cook, and finally doctor. We wouldn’t deem them the right person for our health. Likewise, teachers trying to be everything for everyone during the pandemic is not good for their intellect and worse for their own well-being.

There were times when I reached out to other educators to collaborate on an idea or to share my grant funds but found the timing did not work. I can achieve a lot on my own and that’s what many of us do, but my vision now is different. There is power in partnerships, and now more than ever I find that two heads are better than one. This year as we returned to in-person teaching, I was mindful that my students came back to the classroom with more emotional and academic needs, and teachers cannot best address everything alone.

The reality of this came to me when a 9th grader had a meltdown in my classroom. She had no idea why she felt distraught and could not articulate how she could be helped. We hugged, even though we had no idea what the other looked like through their mask. I called on my colleague, a school counselor, who took over to give his attention to her needs. I was able to return to those waiting in my class to give them my attention. The ideal scenario is where we all bring our expertise to do our best. I followed up by contacting her guardian to share ways we could offer support to each other and to their child, a conversation that was insightful, empowering, and impactful.

Great outcomes do not occur in isolation, and as more districts open their doors for in-person instruction, they need to support teachers by fostering a collaborative mindset. My resolve to work with others elevated my spirit and brought me greater optimism, making my in-person teaching more positive. I found myself feeling grateful, joyful, and hopeful.

“What are you on?” I was asked. I am on a mission to develop partnerships and on a journey to cultivate relationships.

Through enlisting partnerships and working together, we can do more and perform our work better. Our students are returning with more social-emotional needs. There is a lot of work ahead to try to equitably close the learning loss gap from last year without also attempting to do it all alone.

Stay tuned as I share my pursuit of exploring new ways of outreach and forming meaningful partnerships through this series. Together, may we arrive at insights that allow us to thrive as educators and lead to the success of our students.

Leila Kubesch is named the 2020 Toyota Family Teacher of the Year.