Water, please!

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). As many schools return to in-person learning this spring, Ms. Kubesch describes one issue—access to water—that must be considered, and shares her strategy for solving the problem in a positive way. This blog is part of a series on returning to school during the pandemic. 

Before the pandemic, I visited the homes of my students. It gave their families and me a way to collaborate in support of the student. I gained insight into how to best offer support, and they appreciated my unique way of reaching out. This school year, however, home visits are not an option. I reflected on two puzzling questions: How could I still connect with families while COVID-19 cases continued to climb, and how can students who extend kindness even during a pandemic be recognized? 

I found answers to both questions while working on another issue. Recently while I was in my classroom, a 9th grader named Joshua stopped between bells imploring for a cup to get some water. All school fountains had been shut off due to the pandemic. I looked around and pointed to an old container I use to water plants and apologized that I had nothing to offer. To my surprise, he eagerly asked to borrow it. He filled it with water from the restroom faucet, drank, then filled it again and watered the plants.

That day I became aware of unintended consequences resulting from new safety protocols. While a few students carry their own bottled water, most do not. I have even seen some youth put their heads down on their desks due to a headache from thirst. Water is a basic need and now unfortunately is not accessible to all.

Joshua is the kind of kid who helps everyone, contributes ideas in and outside the classroom, and looks for ways to make a difference at every opportunity. Many of his peers share these traits, so I searched for ways to recognize their spirit for a boost of positivity we could all benefit from, as well as a way to address the water accessibility issue after witnessing students’ dire thirst.

That day I was inspired to create a monthly recognition program. Quickly, it has turned into weekly. Aside from of a certificate and treats, the main gift is a personalized bottled water that students can reuse in school to fill with water. I call it “Message on a Bottle.”

How it works

I design and print a custom bottle label to share what I appreciate about the student. Then I contact their guardian about the surprise recognition. The families have been supportive to accommodate me. We have met in parking lots, on the family’s porch, and in parks. We end by taking photos to capture the moment.  My favorite part is seeing the student’s surprise at my visit and even more when they read the customized label on their bottle. We leave with upbeat spirits and exchanges of gratitude.

My aspiration as part of the in-person school mandates would be to include more than just cleaning protocols. While we clean desks after each bell, we need to keep in mind that safety involves more than sterile classrooms, such as safe access to drinking water. This could be as simple as providing access to cups or bottled water.