By Amina Ahmed
Every August I start the new academic year with an activity called “My Hope,” where students write one hope they have for the upcoming school year. They put their hopes on the bulletin board, so we can revisit them all year long and gauge our progress. Most hopes tend to be academically inclined, though at times kids get silly. Like the one year one of my fifth graders at the elementary school where I teach in Irvine, California wrote, “I hope to get buff this year.”
Each year, as I read through their hopes for good grades, new friends and hitting milestones, I smile and sometimes laugh out loud. Their hopes and dreams are what motivate me to start the new year strong.
After ending the last school year with an abrupt shift to distance learning due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, our school district planned to offer three different models of instruction in fall. In anticipation of an approval from our county to safely open schools, I was assigned the “traditional” in-person model. The approval did not come in time though. This meant I had to start the new academic year with distance learning, shifting to in-person in October.
So this time when I did the same “My Hope” activity, it set a totally different tone. My students’ hopes consisted of health, survival and sheer fear of the pandemic. When I read hopes like “I hope we all survive, and we don't lose any classmates,” and “ I hope to stay healthy,” and “I hope I get to socialize with my friends,” it cast a very somber tone on the new year. I couldn't smile as I usually would have. How was I supposed to promise them a successful year when their hopes were not connected to something I could control? How was I to motivate myself to start strong with so many uncertainties.
Fifth grade teacher Amina Ahmed, as she began the 2020-2021 school year teaching from home. Image source: Amina Ahmed
Nevertheless, my students and I teamed up and promised ourselves to face this year with grit. Grit has been a buzz word for a few years now in the education field. But, this year the resolve and commitment I saw from educators and students gave the word a new definition. This pandemic has tested us all in ways we couldn't have imagined. And for educators, this meant reinventing the whole learning and teaching process – often in a matter of days.
Teachers designed lessons to be taught digitally using programs and platforms they hadn't heard about a few days prior to being told they had to do it. The first time I heard of “zoom meeting” was last March, literally two days before we completely shut down our school. But we persevered. Every educator I know, rolled up their sleeves and was teaching remotely within a week of the lockdown. I applaud the teachers for that.
Where I teach, we went from in person, to remote, to hybrid, and back to in-person academic models all in the span of six months. And with student placement protocols out the window, I was expected to teach General Education / Special Education / English Language Learners and Gifted and Talented students all in one classroom. Moreover, I was teaching two separate cohorts, as all students needed to be seated six feet apart. It was like being in a circus ring while juggling the whole circus. But we all showed grit, teachers and students.
None of it was easy, and certainly there were a lot of issues and problems we all dealt with as we navigated this most unusual and unprecedented year, whether we were teaching virtually or in-person. Teachers and students were asked to do what felt impossible at times, and my students will forever have my admiration for how they stepped up.
Students were the unsung heroes this year. No doubt educators bent over backwards to cater to the needs of the students, but our students' perseverance was amazing. After a few months of remote learning, my fifth graders came to me in October for in person instruction and were greeted not by a high five or a hug, but by masks, face shields, desk shields and a hundred new social distancing rules. Our whole school was patched up with rules and instructions so we could remain safe and open as the pandemic raged everywhere.
Amina in her classroom after her school returned to in-person learning in October of 2021. Image source: Amina Ahmed
Many doubted and questioned our decision to open, which remains a debatable topic. But given the challenge, our students made it work. Their hopes clearly voiced their fears and apprehension, but they did not give up. They followed every rule of sanitizing, washing and wiping that our school enforced on them. They did not complain when asked to wear a mask all six hours of the day, only taking a break from it to eat. They went to recess and followed every protocol of handling equipment and respected the rules.
They just kept going.
In the classroom, they collaborated using Google slides and worked together while keeping the social distance. They completed all homework and assignments on digital platforms, and managed to not only meet standards, but often exceeded them. As a teacher, I did not back down on rigor. I modified my instruction, not the grade level standards, and the students rose to the occasion.
Some of the assignments my students completed using multimedia and digital tools were breathtaking. Every student willingly learned new techniques and took risks everyday. They tried every bit to keep their hopes alive. And today, as I am wrapping up the last week of school, I look at their hopes and dare to smile.
We made it. Their hopes survived, some more than others, but we all see a light at the end of the tunnel. I can't wait to return in fall and go back to “normal,” however that will look. Back to (Insha’Allah) the good ol’ days of reading the cute and sometimes silly hopes of getting buff again.
Amina Ahmed is a fifth grade teacher at a public elementary school in Irvine, California, where she lives with her husband and two daughters (in college).