Dr. Marcia Okun, history teacher

The last six months have been surreal in many ways. Last spring was far from what anyone wanted. I spent the summer attending workshops on anti-racist teaching and checking out various platforms to use in my classrooms in case we were remote. I worked to be ready for the coming year and kept asking what that year would look like. Instead of finding out, there was a lack of communication once school officially ended. 

Like most of Newton, I did not hear of the Newton Public Schools’ plan for a return to teaching until it was presented to the School Committee. It was only after choosing a plan that the administration asked who was able to return to teaching in person; it was only after choosing hybrid that they counted the number of students in the high school classes and the number of classrooms. The result of this lack of communication and data gathering was the change from having decided to go hybrid to going remote for the high schools, something that could have been avoided with clear lines of communication and data analysis.

With all the platforms that will be available to us for teaching remotely and a schedule that will allow us to spend more time with our students, I am sure that the new school year will be better than last spring. While there are still many elements of the new schedule that have not been made clear to me, such as if Wednesdays are actual class time or office hours, I can work with two 90-minute periods. With that much time, I can have students meet in pairs, small groups, individually with me or as a whole group. 

This flexibility of grouping was not something that I could do if we met in person given spacing requirements. While it will be frustrating not to be meeting in person, on Zoom students will also be able to see if I am smiling, and I will be able to see if they smile back. I have also learned how to use multiple new platforms and am just waiting for the district to officially purchase them so that I can start creating lessons with them.

I realized last spring that if I focused on all the bad, and there is certainly plenty in 2020, I would sink into despair. So I am actively looking for the silver linings. They exist, but rarely in plain sight. One is that parents and teachers have reached out to each other to fill in the communication vacuum, having important conversations. 

Another silver lining is the advocacy I have seen from students as they step up to question the status quo and ask to be heard, whether it was the admirable student representatives on the School Committee or the “Intersections X Massachusetts” group organized by students to discuss racism in their schools. 

Yet another silver lining is that the faculty is working to use an anti-racist lens to evaluate what we teach and how we teach. We are not fully there yet, but I feel confident that what I teach this coming year will be closer to an anti-racist curriculum than what I taught in the past.

In addition to looking for silver linings, I am striving to embrace uncertainty. There are many more unknowns going into this school year than I have had since I was a first-year teacher. I need to accept that all I really control is what I bring to my classroom and how I act. With all of that in mind, I am looking forward to meeting and getting to know my new students.

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