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Western Massachusetts Teachers Prep For A Year Of Uncertainty And Change

After months of late-night school committee debates on the merits of competing hybrid education models, many western Massachusetts districts now plan to go remote, at least for the first quarter.

One of these districts is Holyoke, where ninth-grade earth sciences teacher Daniel Thiombiano describes the shifting plans for fall as a “highly fluid situation.” 

That might be the understatement of the summer.

“I mean, I do foresee some real challenges,” he said of the upcoming school year.

In his short time at Holyoke High — just one year — Thiombiano has turned around challenging classrooms, and he’s made budding scientists out of some of his most reluctant students. 

“I loved math growing up,” he said. “But at some point, I hated math, because I did not like my teacher. And there’s ample research to attest to the fact that when kids do not have a positive relationship with their teacher — it doesn't matter what the subject is — they hate the subject, as well.” 

"The civil activism that we've seen on the streets of America has had a monumental impact on my own frame of mind as an educator of color."
Daniel Thiombiano

Thiombiano, 31 and an immigrant, is now poised to take on a profound educational challenge: making meaningful connections with students amid the restrictions imposed by a global pandemic. He’s taught high school both in the U.S. and in his native Ghana. Like other Holyoke teachers, he’s concerned about the city’s many English language learners and other at-risk students. 

“Some students need live sessions,” Thiombiano said, describing ways students learn not just from their teacher’s voice, but also from physical cues and gestures. “For me as a teacher, I also need certain relevant feedback to be able to know if the student truly understands or not.” 

While most Holyoke students will attend classes online, the district plans to offer in-person education to English learners and students with disabilities. 

Teachers’ unions played a significant role in convincing districts of the risks of in-person learning, and Thiombiano said he understands why many of his colleagues are reluctant to return to poorly-ventilated classrooms while COVID-19 numbers are on the rise. But Thiombiano said he’s young and, unlike many teachers, he doesn’t have children at home or elders to care for.  

“For me, personally, I am absolutely comfortable being in class and teaching,” he said.

While teachers across western Massachusetts describe a sense of profound loss at not being able to rejoin their students in the classroom, there are some educators who see potential benefits to teaching remotely. 

One of these is Sarah Banning, a 10th-grade English teacher at the Springfield Renaissance School, a magnet school in Springfield.

Sarah Banning, an English teacher at The Springfield Renaissance School, spent part of the summer making her 10th grade curriculum more relevant to her students, most of whom are Black and Latino.
Credit Ben James / NEPM
Sarah Banning, an English teacher at The Springfield Renaissance School, spent part of the summer making her 10th-grade curriculum more relevant to her students, most of whom are Black and Latino.

Banning said she absolutely wants to be back in the classroom. But one advantage she’s found to remote teaching is that there are actually more opportunities for her to have one-on-one interactions with her students. She even had a few kids who thrived with the flexibility of online schooling last spring.

“That flexibility was really great for some kids,” she said. “And then I had other kids where it was a crash-and-burn situation.”    

Banning said the disruptions of COVID-19 have challenged her to assess what’s most essential for her students, and she wants that same assessment to happen school-wide. If the initial remote learning forces administrators to reevaluate the 7:35 a.m. start to the school day, that’s a good thing for teenagers, she said. 

"Brains don't learn when they are stressed, and when they feel unsafe."
Sarah Banning

Banning engaged this summer herself in a process called Freedom Dreaming, based on the work of Georgia educator Bettina Love.

“So, I really went back to thinking about, like, ‘OK, so why do we teach English?’” Banning said. “I was like, ‘OK, why do we read? What's the point?’”  

Banning is a white woman who grew up in Alabama. She’s reworked her curriculum for the upcoming year in an effort to make her reading and writing assignments more relevant to her students, the majority of whom are Black and Latino. One poem she plans to teach — which Banning said speaks powerfully to our current moment — is Margaret Walker’s “For My People,” published in 1937. 

For my people standing staring trying to fashion a better way from confusion, from hypocrisy and misunderstanding, trying to fashion a world that will hold all the people, all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations; Let a new earth rise.

Banning demonstrated with her students at Black Lives Matter protests in Springfield this summer. From police officers in schools to excessive force on the street, she said her students are hugely impacted by the disproportionate policing of black youth.

“The criminalization, particularly of young boys of color on bikes, is, like, a big issue that the city of Springfield has not really addressed,” she said.   

Thiombiano’s students in Holyoke were also impacted by the killing of George Floyd.

“My young Black students, when they see Black people being murdered, it takes a psychological toll on them,” he said. “The civil activism that we've seen on the streets of America has had a monumental impact on my own frame of mind as an educator of color.” 

Prior to shutdown, Thiombiano had been a cautious supporter of Holyoke High School’s controversial plan to randomly search student backpacks. Those views changed over the summer.

“I am of the position that police officers should not be present in school,” he said. “I am of the position that students should not be searched in school.”   

Thiombiano expects his students — after a summer of protests for racial justice — to return to school more wary of people in power.

“I think students are going to come to school more aware, [and] — unfortunately — more distrustful of the system, which I think is really the fundamental problem, because they look at leadership and it doesn't reflect who they are,” he said.   

The protests highlighted fundamental inequities at the heart of U.S. society, including in schools.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has brought sobering revelations of how much the nation depends on its schools for health services, nutrition, and child care, not to mention education. With little preparation, the country has now embarked on a massive experiment to see whether schools can effectively educate students outside the classroom.

Thiombiano said that experiment shouldn’t start with academics.

“I would say what my students need the most would be a holistic attention to social and emotional aspects of their lives,” he said.  

Banning agrees. She said the learning gaps her students faced prior to COVID-19, many of which have deepened since the pandemic, definitely need to be dealt with.

“But we can't address those gaps until we address how brains work,” she said, “and brains don't learn when they are stressed, and when they feel unsafe.”  

In early September, Banning and Thiombiano will welcome their students back to school. Their job will be to comfort, reassure, assess, listen to and challenge those students. We’ll check back with them in a few weeks to see how it’s going. 

This report is part of a series tracking several western Massachusetts teachers as they navigate the challenges and opportunities of a school year impacted by COVID-19 and shaped by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Correction: This report originally misspelled Daniel Thiombiano's last name. It's been corrected.

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