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The “F” Words of Teaching in 2020: A Year in Review

The first time you hear it, you won’t forget it.

It’s usually at recess, when the collective energy and impulsivity of 200 plus 5th graders could power a school bus. Or after P.E. class, where a well intentioned game of flag football becomes a sparring match reminiscent of a scene from “Gladiator.” Sometimes it’s during lunch between mouthfuls of green beans, chicken nuggets, and the occasional ketchup packet sent skidding across the cafeteria floor (after being opened, of course).

Regardless of where it’s dropped, you can feel the energy shift as teachers quietly take a deep breath and summon the strength to defuse the impending verbal combat. The wronged party before them stands at four-and-a-half feet tall, red-cheeked, watery eyed, shoes untied.

Whether it’s a reprimand for talking in line, pushing an opponent, spewing hurtful words, or being the perpetrator behind the ketchup packet that exploded under an unaware sneaker, the accused feels the consequence is unwarranted. The pent up indignation presents itself from quivering lips in the ultimate grade school f-bomb.

“…But that’s not FAIR!!!”

Fair is the currency of childhood, and kids are hyper aware of any chance they have been slighted. Did someone get more? Get away with something? Not get consequences, even though they were a part of the deed gone wrong? Teaching kids the meaning of fair ranks right up there with learning multiplication tables and phonics: grueling but absolutely essential to success in and out of the classroom.

The sting of unfairness has been felt even more so in 2020. Cancelled graduations, or modifications to the traditional senior sendoff, became the norm back in May. Stadiums went silent as sports seasons and playoff games were postponed. Students standing six feet apart and staying within their pod at lunch and recess are in stark contrast to the peer interactions of years past. Snow days seem to be next on the chopping block. That’s just the social aspect: the technological snafus and home environment issues impeding many students’ learning  have many of us woefully thinking “this isn’t fair.”

The undercurrent of another F word, fear, flipped fair on its head. Fear, backed by the facts, the trusted standby F word of all classrooms. When COVID showed up this spring, buoyed by facts that showed the need to change things drastically to protect our health, our routines and plans played second to the fairness of it all. With schools closing as rapidly as laptops opened, there was little time to explain the need for these changes with students. The proof in the numbers and science certainly could assuage the need to endure less than ideal circumstances in order to have the chance to stay alive and resume our normal lives when the danger passed, right? The unfairness of cancelled plans and skewed learning environments that made us long for the conflicts of recess shenanigans and lunchtime commotion would be justified if we came out of this alive, correct?

The grave realities of fair and fear further seeped into the headlines this summer with the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. Putting out the fires of student disagreements and lunchroom infractions paled in comparison to the cities across the country ablaze with riots over the injustice of brutality. The glaring fact is that many of our students aren’t safe, pandemic or not, because of their race. Disregard for human rights is a virus that a vaccine won’t eradicate and must be the greater focus of our classrooms and nation going forward.

In the mix of all of this was fraud - or at least accusations of it. Claims that COVID-19 was a hoax. Conspiracy theories. Demands of recounts of ballots when the results weren’t as one party had hoped. Our students have been witness to the facts being challenged and reality being denied. What are we to do as teachers, when many of us are trapped behind the same screens that hold the headlines we scroll through daily, the news of the day that threatens the constructs of our nation’s government and security? How are we to proceed at this moment in time, when the disillusionment stage of teaching, the holidays, and the heaviness of everything experienced this year are crashing down all at once?

Every year, my 5th grade class would watch the 1994 version of “Miracle on 34th Street” during our holiday party before winter break. The book and the movie gave us the chance to discuss fact versus fiction and make connections to what they had learned in social studies about the court system, since Kris Kringle is on trial for professing to be Santa Claus.  When Richard Attenborough’s character Kris Kringle defends his identity on the witness stand, he states “I'm a symbol of the human ability to be able to suppress the selfish and hateful tendencies that rule the major part of our lives. If you can't believe, if you can't accept anything on faith, then you're doomed for a life dominated by doubt.”

At some point this year, we’ve all felt a bit like that scorned child in the lunchroom, red-faced with tear-stained cheeks, staring with bewilderment at a computer screen, shoes possibly untied (Unless you’re teaching from home. In that case, maybe it’s mismatched socks). In this season where the disillusionment stage of teaching is colliding head on with the holidays, is it possible to steady ourselves as we enter 2021, to pull up from the pit of this year, with one final F word: faith?

This isn’t faith in the religious sense as much as it is the belief in good.

It’s faith that science will prevail and correct the course the world has been on for the last eleven months. It’s faith in the constructs of our nation’s Constitution to uphold democracy. It’s faith that you, in the midst of this chaos, are giving students the best education possible under the circumstances. It’s faith in our abilities to make good choices for ourselves and our loved ones as we head into the winter months of this crisis. Faith that wrongs will be righted in the year ahead.

It’s faith that, as our students have witnessed and experienced events that redefined learning, challenged our resilience, and deeply revealed our need to address social justice, that they will emerge as thoughtful, responsible human beings who will use the experience of 2020 to become the leaders our world desperately needs. It’s a mission we have as teachers to prepare them for this - to seek fairness, pursue facts, and have faith in their ability to be the catalyst for change. A mission that should transcend every interaction, be it face-to-face or through a screen.

As we close out 2020: remember what’s fair. Stay strong through the fear. Dismiss the fraud. Hold on to the facts. And most importantly, keep the faith.


Erin Sponaugle is a National Board Certified Teacher, NNSTOY member, and children’s book author-illustrator. She has taught for 18 years and is the 2014 West Virginia Teacher of the Year. Erin currently teaches art at Tomahawk Intermediate School in Hedgesville, West Virginia. She is the host of the Next Chapter for Teachers Podcast, a show focused on teacher self-improvement. You can follow her on Twitter @erin_sponaugle, on Instagram @nextchapterpress, and read her blog at www.erinsponaugle.com





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