Text and photos by Laurel Smith
I left teaching to become a photojournalist almost four years ago and I didn’t look back. I never expected to return to it and I certainly did not expect to fall in love with being a teacher all over again.
When the pandemic hit, I found myself suddenly back in a classroom, only my classroom didn’t have walls. It was simple – a patio with two tables, a white board and a shelf where the kids kept their supplies. In the summer we followed the shade around the deck like the hands of a clock and in the early hours of the fall we squeezed into small pockets of warm sunlight on the edges of the garden. Teaching outside was enriching and surprisingly easy. Between August and mid-October, we only had to go inside once because of bad weather. As the fall rolled in, my students came prepared with blankets and winter clothing for cold mornings. Once, when I shivered during a cold math lesson, my students were quick to remind me of the Norwegian expression I had taught them months earlier, “There is no bad weather, only insufficient clothing.”
Schools going virtual this year left parents of young children scrambling to keep their kids engaged in learning while continuing to work full-time themselves. All over the country, families formed learning pods to either share the responsibility of childcare and homeschooling or the cost of hiring someone to help facilitate their kids’ learning. My own “pod” formed after a group of families who knew of my background in education asked if I could help with their first and second grade girls.
The parents trusted me and allowed me to make the classroom my own. I taught the things that I am passionate about. In addition to core subjects, we studied Spanish, photography and ceramics. Every Friday, we went hiking and found a new trail to turn into our classroom. Often the kids would beg me for five more minutes to play a math game, or read a story or explore the arctic landscape that their imaginations had blanketed over the nearby park. I always said yes.
I watched as these six girls became best friends. They loved each other and loved learning. In all of this pandemic madness we had found a bit of magic in what education could be. However, while we were exploring all that a classroom without walls had to offer, I never stopped thinking about how the majority of kids in our community had no school to go to.
I taught in public schools for five years and looked straight into the achievement gap on a daily basis. The achievement gap refers to the disparity in academic performance between students of different socioeconomic statuses and/or races and ethnicities. In other words, in the U.S., wealthy white students with more resources and opportunity generally show higher academic performance than their lower income, more diverse peers. Helping to close the achievement gap was the reason why I had gone into teaching in the first place. Now, I was in a position where I loved teaching more than I ever had as a public school employee, but knew I was widening the gap that I had spent half a decade trying to shrink.
Learning pods, for the most part, were only available to families with the resources to either facilitate a pod or pay someone to do so. During this time, low-income families were faced with no good options. For example, many young kids were left at home with an older sibling to facilitate their virtual education because staying home was not possible for their parents.
I think it is important to note that every family in our pod is a fervent supporter of public education and shared my concerns. We looked for ways to expand opportunities beyond our six girls and I am confident we would have if schools remained closed. But, at the time, we were taking it week by week and doing our best to figure out how to live in this new world.
There are a lot of reasons why I left public education. The work is grueling and the pay is terrible. But, what broke me was that, as a teacher, I felt like I had very little voice in fighting for a better system. I wanted something better for myself and my students and after a few years it became clear that I was unlikely to ever see any big meaningful change. Every year, no matter where I taught, I saw our system fail the same kids and my fellow educators. The next year we would hit the reset button and fail all over again.
Teaching in a learning pod was the single most gratifying experience in my – albeit, short – teaching career. It makes me sad to think that this type of experience would have been impossible if I’d stayed in public education. Learning pods could be a simple and effective tool to meet the needs of vulnerable students, students who are not being given an equitable education under our current model. Why is this idea considered so radical?
This pandemic has put long existing inequities front and center and highlighted how much we all depend on public schools. Isn’t it time to try something new? It is a new year. Why not take all the lessons learned from the successes and failures of this incredibly challenging time and use them to build something better? Schools need money. They need innovators and teachers who love their job and are paid appropriately for it. We need to give all kids the resources they need to reach their potential. A better future is possible, but we won’t get it unless we fight for it.