Messages of HOPE from Iowa teachers
We admire you and we want to tell you about some of the stories we have heard.
Your dedication, perseverance and commitment make you the defenders of our democracy. You make it all possible; teaching full time while caring for parents, children, spouses and friends.
We would love to hear from you. Please send us your stories at:
Michelle Bacon Curry is in her 8th year of teaching high school English at Elizabeth Tate Alternative High School in Iowa City. She writes:
Honestly, in terms of teaching in a pandemic, I have been extraordinarily blessed. I am in a school district (Iowa City) that is committed to putting the health of families and students first, which has been such a relief! We began the year with three weeks online after our community infection rate spiked to 30% after the UI students returned to town. We also pushed the start date back two weeks, so that bought us some time.
We began in-person hybrid on 9/8: the students are divided by alphabet, and half of them come on Mondays & Tuesdays, the other half come on Thursdays and Fridays, and they alternate Wednesdays. A little over 50% of our district’s students opted to go entirely online for at least the first trimester, so this means that until December 4th, on any given day, only about a quarter of the enrolled students will be in any building.
ICCSD is also requiring masks at all times for all people on school property, limiting gatherings, and implementing many classroom and building protocols that make school a bit of a foreign place, but a clearly safer one than it would be if it were business as usual.
SO MANY. people throughout Iowa and beyond are NOT so lucky. We just had our first school employee die in Iowa, a paraeducator, and there is currently a kindergarten teacher fighting for her life on a ventilator. Madness. Heartbreak.
My school building itself is a paradise of supports for students and staff. It is Elizabeth Tate Alternative High School. The ICCSD has three comprehensive high schools which all have between about 1200 and 1700 students. And while they are great educational institutions with dedicated staff, they are easy places to get lost due to the sheer volume of students.
Tate serves around 125-150 students from the three ICCSD high schools and some smaller districts in surrounding communities.
We have an AMAZING administrator who has been here for ten years and strives to provide excellence for students in a people-first environment. There are around 20 teachers, so class sizes in a “normal” year, I am told, are between 7 & 20 students. But we have tons of supports for kids and interventions that would work MIRACLES if they would be funded for all high schools — tiny classes, intervention periods, fulltime onsite social worker and therapist, full time MTSS coordinator, fulltime building sub who serves as a Jack of all trades in the building — AND COLOR PRINTING! 😂 That was perhaps the most mind blowing of all! 😂
Honestly, if you ever get the chance, an article about what the education world would look like if it could be funded, staffed, and supported like Tate, would be a telling read.
So, THE KIDS. I absolutely, 1000%, LOVE them. 😂 Surprising, right? My largest class right now — due to the combination of hybrid and online, has seven kids. S.e.v.e.n. Single digits every class period. As a result, we are able to do amazingly meaningful stuff, have incredible conversations, and actually collect and analyze the kind of data and do the kind of assessment, and SEL work that —on paper— is expected of every teacher who sees 180+ students a day.
For example, yesterday I had a little quiz: when the student was finished I’d check it, offer them a layer of support, and send them back to work on it. When they were “finished” the next time, I could give feedback, offer a second layer of support, send them back on their way. When they were out of time, I could individually conference with them about their performance, ask them for a self-assessment, have them reflect on what specifically it would take to come back the next day and get 10/10, and then send them on their way. And guess what: 97% of them were able to get at least 9/10 today!
This is good instruction with scaffolds and checks for understanding and reflection built in and high standards of learning. It was also impossible for me to implement effectively with 180 kids per day. With 52 students, yes, yes, I think I can do this. I have no doubt that some teachers can do all of that. But should they have to? And at what cost to themselves and their students are they doing it? And where does the demand for perfection at every level with no support for implementation end?
Emily Thomson teaches 9th, 11th & 12th graders ELA at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids. She is a second career teacher coming into education as a school-based physical therapist at GWAEA then moving to mentoring and instructional coaching at GW then working for the New Teacher Center as a national consultant supporting induction and instructional coaching programs professional learning, coaching and school improvement efforts.
She has been a track coach for 22 years at CR Jefferson High School. She is an avid cyclist, a devoted aunt and a mom to a very spoiled golden doodle. Emily took our class: Examining Students in Poverty: Building Genius
and in her last assignment, she wrote:
When I started this class in June, I was in a very different place than I am now. I was heading into my third year of teaching 9th and 11th graders Language Arts at Kennedy High School. I was assigned the same courses as I had been assigned in 2019-2020: Language Arts 9 and U.S. Humanities. I was preparing for a return to the classroom and for virtual learning. I was reviewing the scope and sequences and making enhancements based on what I learned from students, from my own reflections and from my coursework. I was stressed by the volume of coursework I had taken on and that I was already behind with my classes due to the needs of my students who had received in-completes and were trying to finish their coursework with my support. I was feeling balanced through by training for a bike ride scheduled in the North Georgia mountains at the end of September, participating in virtual yoga and connecting with friends and family.
Then Monday, August 10th arrived. The forecast called for a severe thunderstorm. My mental model of an Iowa severe thunderstorm was lightning, possibly hail and some wind with perhaps gusts of 40-50 mph. My phone rang. Bill said, "Bring in your yard sign and your patio umbrella. It is supposed to be windy.” I went out and grabbed both and put them in the garage. At 12:30 pm, my puppy Elvis, who dislikes storms, and I thought we heard thunder; then all the appliances and lights went dark. Elvis’ safe place is on my bed so we headed to my bedroom to wait out the thunder. I had never heard anything like this storm before. The wire ornament on my wall above my head shook creating a ringing, metallic sound. I thought a pipe had burst since there was a rushing water sound coming from the walls. I wanted to look out the window and I was scared to see the damage. I wondered if Elvis and I needed to move into the bedroom closet in case something fell, but he was perfectly still with a rhythmic and relaxed breath- sleeping! We stayed on the bed.
At 1:45 pm, the storm passed. I peaked out the window and saw a piece of translucent material I assumed to be one of my solar panels laying in the corner of the yard. Gray siding littered the yard. I called my insurance company to file a claim before I even walked outside. I opened the front door and saw my antique jug that sat at the corner of the garage had exploded. My garage door was inverted and two of my evergreen trees bent and uprooted.
Later that afternoon, Andrea, my sister, called frantic, “Marty fell through the attic and landed in the stairwell. He was trying to patch a hole in the roof from the inside. The chimney was ripped off in the storm. He is in a lot of pain, especially his back.”
“Is he conscious?." I asked.
Yes and he can feel his toes.” she said.
“Ok I am on my way over, oh shit, I can’t get out of my garage.”
Andrea was crying. “I don’t know what to do to help him.”
“Call 911 and don’t move him.” I said.
“I don’t know if they can get here.” she replied.
“The fire department will get there. This is what they do.”
I felt helpless not being able to use my medical training to help my family. By evening my cell phone battery needed charged so Elvis and I sat in my car to charge my phone and cool down with the AC.
Andrea called again. “Marty is in the emergency room at St. Luke’s. The nurse will call me with an update.”
“Ok keep me posted.”
Two hours later, she called, “St. Lukes is transferring him to the University. He needs spinal surgery. They don’t know when he can go. It could be 10 minutes or 10 hours.”
At 8:30 pm Marty was heading, by ambulance, to Iowa City. Andrea planned to take Lindy with her to meet my parents so that she could stay with them since they had power. I headed to Andrea’s house to pick up Hurley, her golden retriever. The city streets were pitch black and covered with fallen trees and downed power lines and poles The trip that normally takes 15 minutes took 40 minutes. Andrea called while I was trying to get in their house.
“I couldn’t get Hurley to your house with all road closures so I took him to Iowa City.”
The next morning the power was still off. The ice machine was leaking onto the kitchen floor as the ice melted in the inoperable freezer. Elvis and I set out in the car to charge my cell phone and find food. I had to drive off road in an easement to avoid the downed power lines. It looked like giant scissors had just snipped off 15 electrical poles. As we drove to Iowa City, numerous semis lay in the median of the interstate. A trip for gas, coffee and milk took an hour. I began to search for a hotel and finally found a Holiday Inn Express in Coralville where Andrea and I could stay so she would be close to the hospital and we would have electricity. Elvis was agitated in the hotel so my dad took him to Mt. Pleasant. For three days, Andrea and I lived out of the hotel working to get their house repaired, clean up the downed trees and prepare for Marty’s discharge from the hospital. We made sure we had enough gas in the car since there were no gas stations open. We filled our water bottles at the hotel and took extra food from the breakfast buffet since we didn’t know if we would find any food in Cedar Rapids.
When I learned that my home would be without power for probably 10 days, I came to my parent’s house in Mt. Pleasant. While I still lived out of a suitcase with a few items I threw in a bag, I now could wash clothes without quarters and enjoy the company of my parents and Elvis and have their support in addressing the challenges.
On Sunday evening, August 16th the phone rang and my mom answered,
“ No we haven’t been in contact with anyone.”
Mom hung up and looked at my dad and me,
“Jan Lange said that Scott and Amy were killed in a plane crash.”
Dad and I stared in shock and disbelief. I said,
“ When I walked up the road, I noticed people in the driveway crying but I didn’t know them so I didn’t stop.”
Mom and I walked up the road to our neighbor’s house. Amy’s family was sitting outside and let us know the tragedy was true. A relative went inside and let Kristin, Scott’s sister and our friend for more than 40 years, know we had come.
She came outside and the three of us embraced and shed tears.
I couldn’t sleep much that night. The next morning I drove to town to get a paper and some milk for my cereal. I poured the Cheerios in the bowl, added the washed blueberries. I picked up the bottle of milk and noticed it was only three quarters full.
“Dad, did you open my milk?”
“No”, he said.
“I must have purchased a bottle that had already been opened.”
“Are you sure you didn’t already put it on your cereal?” Dad asked.
I walked over to the dining room table and sure enough, my cereal was covered with milk. I had no memory of that step. Later, I sat in the living room looking out the bay window trying to work on a class assignment and thought I saw Scott standing on his deck.
I have always tried to create a space where my students felt physically and emotionally safe, have food if they needed it, come talk if they needed a caring adult or take a nap in my beanbag chair if they were having a rough time, but I never expected to experience food insecurity due to the derecho. I never expected to have to focus my energies on locating basic resources like cold drinking water, a warm shower and a place to charge my phone or be able to connect to the internet. I never expected to go hungry for a day because I couldn’t find anything to eat. I never expected to suffer a trauma like losing neighbors in a plane crash.
Now I may be able to empathize more and can identify with the feelings and the results. I had little cognitive space left for much else while I was trying to figure out how to find food and cold drinking water for the couple days after the storm while I stayed in my house with no power. I have suffered a recurring headache due to the poor sleep I have had since the plane crash and am suffering each time I see a photo memory of Scott and Amy posted on Facebook. I have suffered memory loss, forgetfulness and am sure if I had a PET scan my hippocampus and my prefrontal cortex have shrunk due to the stress. I can’t retain information that I read and can’t recall information that I should know. My class projects take longer because I lose focus. I have quit all of my exercise and am eating to cope.
In my new position as social emotional behavioral health facilitator for the district, remembering how these experiences have impacted my physical, emotional and academic abilities is critical. As we move into the start of our school year, many of our students and families have lost their homes, they are without internet and maybe had already lost jobs as a result of COVID 19. This has affected all of our students and will be even greater for our students who live in poverty.
Our staff has experienced trauma and how well they manage their own emotions and reactions to the stress. It seems very important that our staff has a deep understanding of the impact of stress on the brain. [Emily is referring to the class text Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind: Practical Strategies for Raising Achievement (2013) by Eric Jensen].
Perhaps using the process Jensen outlined for deep understanding with first label, properties, creating a context by having the adults personalize it, create or review a rubric or graphic like the Optimal Learning Environment form the New Teacher which outlines a physical, emotionally and academically safe classroom and then finally putting it into practice and perhaps using PLC time and instructional coaching session to reflect on the environment and receive feedback. Jensen offers some useful graphics and tables titled: “Now What?: Meeting the Challenges of Implementation." A comprehensive and integrated visual is provided that could be a resource used in lesson planning or team meetings. I would be inclined to add the language from the text below to encompass a bit more about what each of the circles means. Lists are provided by Jensen that could serve as an outline for introducing these concepts to teachers with the definitions and then giving them an opportunity to add to these lists based on their experience, learning context (in person vs virtual) and grade level. Hopefully one of the ways we can do this is to model the work with the adults as we provide them professional learning about SEL competencies and content learning that they will be teaching to their students.
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A Message of HOPE from Bryan...
Hi Everyone, My name is Bryan and I am a teacher of At Risk Students. I have been working with this student population for over 20 years. I am currently teaching in a juvenile detention facility and I LOVE MY JOB! I would like to save every single one of my kids but that would be naive of me to think that. My realistic goal is for my kids to have a positive experience when they come into my classroom.
As with all of us, this has been a difficult year. I have had my share of difficult things over the last 7 months. It all started in April of this year when my sister took her life and then, a month and 3 days after this event, my mother died.
My mother died from a broken heart in the loss of her daughter and best friend and then finally right before the new school year started my youngest sister was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer.
It would be so easy to give up and just say “I am DONE!” But that is not in my DNA.
I have persevered through HOPE and finding the little things that make life worth living and trying to become the best version of myself each and every day.
Finding hope and seeing the little miracles in life that make life worth living are so important. I believe that the majority of us who decided to become teachers did so because we want to make a positive impact on our students' lives.
For me when I work one-on-one with some of my students who have been told that they will not be successful, some as young as in the 6th grade, and then when I work with them and they see that I have become invested in them not only as a student but also as a human being, to see them smile and they realize that they can learn and that they have value as a person, this is one of my little miracles.
Then there are our families and our surroundings and the miracles that they bring and make life worth living. For me, it’s leaving for work and seeing a full moon, or how my son can make me laugh and how he still gives me a kiss and hug goodnight, even though he is 17 years old.
As we work our way through this difficult time, look for the positives in our lives and the small miracles that we see every day that may get cluttered up with our daily routines and realize that every day is a NEW beginning filled with HOPE!
Kyle Huxford teaches HS English at North Linn Community Schools and lives in Cedar Rapids, a town that was devastated by the derecho in August. Kyle sent us a wonderful story on Willie Ray Fairley who owns Willie Ray's Q Shack in Cedar Rapids. . .
Willie Ray tirelessly and generously fed thousands of community members after the storm.
Person 2 Person: Willie Ray's Q Shack
by Karen Fuller
October 12th 2020
CEDAR RAPIDS, IA
Fuller writes that Willie Ray Fairley opened Master Barbecue in 2019; a drive-through restaurant that was inspired from his boyhood days in Mississippi.
He says, "My father. He's been a big BBQ guy. Still is. There's a lot of passion and love that goes into everything, and it makes people want to come and try it."
Fairley moved to Iowa almost 20 years ago and decided to open a barbecue business with his savings.
Fairley had a large inventory of meat when the derecho devastated Cedar Rapids in August. In a totally selfless act of love and generosity, Fairley drove to the hardest hit areas of the city and gave away free dinners to grateful and hungry citizens many of whom had lost their homes. He worked 16 hours a day feeding his beloved town. Donations started. pouring in for him to buy more supplies once word got around. He just kept handing out free meals
"I always told myself, if I ever got into a position to help someone, I will make sure I do that. And the opportunity came, and I fulfilled those dreams that I always wanted to do," says Fairley.
Social media picked up Fairley's story and news got out about his giving spirit. Fairley was awarded $25,000 by the Discover credit card company for the the "Eat it Forward" program, designed to promote black owned businesses.
The man from Mississippi who calls Iowa his home has demonstrated the true meaning of compassion. The derecho is over, but Fairley says that he will be supplying food to a homeless shelter every week.
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