A Thought on “Back to School”

A Thought on “Back to School”

Although people who live and teach in any part of rural America are able to appreciate natural beauty every day of the year, August in Maine is, in my opinion, the height of summertime. Beautiful warm days are followed by cool and clear nights, producing what is affectionately known as “good sleeping weather.” The vast number of pristine lakes play host to locals and tourists who come to fish, camp, boat, disconnect from work, and spend time in the woods, and the many beaches that comprise a coastline longer than California’s offer stunning vistas and world-renowned sailing…


The aura of it all is, in effect, what Keats was alluding to in “The Human Seasons”...

[A person] has his Summer, when luxuriously

Spring's honied cud of youthful thought he loves

To ruminate, and by such dreaming high

Is nearest unto heaven: …

It is indeed a divine time to be in Maine while surrounded by family and friends.

However, August is also when one likely begins to think about the upcoming school year: which colleagues to meet with, what new curricula to write, which last-minute research topics to complete, and what instructional materials still need to be gathered. And, unfortunately, this year, as was the case last year, is filled with uncertainty as we head into the first days of school. Without question, the Delta variant of COVID 19 is leading to shifting guidance and recommendations from public health agencies regarding masks, social distancing, and safe reopening procedures. An inconsistent patchwork of interpretation is sure to follow, and online echo chambers perpetuated by algorithms and misinformation will foster discontent between groups and increase angst for everyone in the process. That ambiguity is one that Brooke Gladstone discusses in her 2017 work “The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time,” where the naturalist and the bloodhound walk through the same woods (objective reality) but have fundamentally different perceptions (subjective experience), each feeling pity for all that the other does not understand. It appears to me that the aggregate state of resurgent COVID infection rates, divisive echo chambers, and inherent subjectivity of experiences is one of perpetual overstimulation, a constant din in the back of the mind that is counterproductive for children and adults alike.

In thinking about what this din has meant for me, I was reminded of the 2020 Camden Conference on “The Media Revolution” when I first heard Maria Ressa, CEO of the Filipino news site Rappler, discuss calmly what echoing misinformation and divisive social policy had wrought on her life. In the face of political repression, the threat of physical violence following the mischaracterization of her work, and the continued violation of her rights by her own government, she asserted her own agency to help winnow out the mistruths and promote truth instead. Rather than be consumed by the din or overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge, she prompted her audience to “Start with your area of influence...we begin by taking care of what is in front of us.” Ms. Ressa continues to be persecuted, but her premise remains true for us-- our individual area of influence is the place where we can limit the white noise and focus more fully.

No one could be faulted for having been subsumed by the din in a time of crisis, but it need not be that way permanently. This next year of school, I plan to support my students, colleagues, and self by consciously limiting the white noise in my classroom in order to assert the more important mission of education: to foster intellectualism and build social capital, to cultivate the whole person and broaden their knowledge of himself/herself/themselves and the world at large, and to better oneself and one’s community through those same means.

The new school year gives us a new narrative that we will co-create.

We can limit the white noise that permeates our classrooms and school communities without disregarding how serious the situation is in which we find ourselves.

We can establish clear, transparent, and consistent protocols for communication among ourselves and our communities to avoid falling prey to sensationalism.

We can recognize the humanity of all of our students and colleagues by actively listening to their experiences, taking their perspectives seriously, and making it clear that they will need to do the same in order to avoid othering those who disagree with us.

We can build upon our individual and collective efficacy in-person, online, and in these difficult moments by modeling critical thinking and scientific thinking in our teaching and professional learning communities to avoid siloization.

We can attend to the socio-emotional needs of all of our community members by remaining cognizant of our positive nonverbals and paraverbals while also taking precautions to avoid serious illness.

We can call upon the various lenses present in our school community to see more clearly, thoroughly, and productively by inviting the participation of all people into civil discourse in order to avoid the silencing of valuable voices.

In sum, we can strive to provide the intellectual, emotional, and physical quietude that students need to learn, and I am confident that we will rise to this challenge just as our colleagues have risen to meet the others that came before it.

So, I wish us all the best of luck with the beginning of our school years, and I hope that we are all able to keep the white noise at bay in whatever ways we can; retreating to the woods for a moment with family and friends; practicing mindfulness in our day-to-day teaching and learning with our colleagues and students; or, simply remembering time spent on the lakes and beaches, on the trails in the mountains, or in the comfort of good sleeping weather during the summertime.

Photo 1: Lake Onawa, Onawa, Piscataquis County, Maine Photo 2: Part of the Appalachian Trail, Monson, Piscataquis County, Maine Photo 3: Center Harbor, Brooklin, Hancock County, Maine

Joe Hennessey is a high school English teacher in Guilford, Maine and is the 2019 Maine Teacher of the Year and the 2020 National University Teacher Award Winner for Maine. Additionally, he was selected by his students as the Faculty Speaker in 2015 and 2018 and received the Yearbook Dedication in 2016 and 2018. Prior to moving to Maine, in 2013-2014, he received the Yearbook Dedication and was named the Teacher of the Year at Collegiate Academy of Colorado. Mr. Hennessey is a Graduate with Distinction in Humanities from the University of Colorado at Boulder and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He is a proud member of NNSTOY and can be followed at @MeTOY2019.




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