I have always wanted to be a teacher. And while I’ve taught religious school for several years now, this past year was my first as a full-time classroom teacher.
It took a pandemic for me to realize that to be a teacher is to be a hero. Being a teacher is something our society needs; it is a form of civic duty. What’s more, over the course of this difficult year, I realized that I not only wanted to be a teacher, but I wanted to be a teacher right now — at this very moment in history, during a pandemic.
I think back to the first day of school in September, as I looked out on my 11-student cohort of second graders at Boston’s Jewish Community Day School. The kids were 6 feet apart, seated at desks that looked like they were set up for a 1950s schoolroom photo shoot. Long hair, in style out of necessity during the pandemic, framed the sides of their little faces, their wide eyes peering out from behind their masks. Those eyes were a window into how they were feeling throughout this year, a window that was often difficult to see through. Were they scared? Were they happy? Did they understand that lesson on suffixes? Were they up to something mischievous? I learned to read a lot into those eyes over these past 38 weeks, to get to know these small humans with whom I spent 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, only ever seeing half of their faces.
During a meeting with my colleagues earlier this week, we discussed some of the big moments of this unprecedented school year, trying to find some closure. I found my own eyes welling up with emotion thinking about how much happened these nine months. I thought about how scared I was when our Head of School got Covid. How anxious I was about the outcome when I taught on Election Day. How confident I felt when I scrapped all my lesson plans for January 7 to explain to my students what had happened the day before. How excited I was when I collaborated with teachers to create a day of reflection and action following the Derek Chauvin verdict. And then, how scared I was again when we tightened security in response to the uptick in antisemitic attacks across the country, following the violence in Israel. Even without the backdrop of the pandemic, it was a momentous and overwhelming year to be a teacher.
My first and foremost personal goal for the year was survival. Both physically, from the virus — by working in-person and indoors all year, I was putting myself more at risk — as well as mentally and emotionally, as being a first-year teacher is no easy feat, no matter what else is going on in the world.
My goals for my students were different. I had curriculum goals — reading, writing, math, catching them up on the holes from the prior spring. But I also wanted to teach them about their agency in the world, their civic duty to make their voices heard, even at their young age. I often watched my students effortlessly hand sanitizing, masking, eating without talking, and walking without touching, and thought about just how little control they had over their lives, how so much of their lives had been upended through no fault of their own.
With that in mind, I infused the theme of civic action throughout my curriculum. I read aloud books like “Say Something” by Peter H. Reynolds. I had my students make their own flags that conveyed messages they wanted to share with the world. And, in January, during the week of the Presidential Inauguration, I had each of them write a letter to President Biden. I told them to introduce themselves, then ask him a question and/or to share with him issues that were important to them. In addition to being a good, grade level-appropriate writing assignment, I wanted my students to know that their voices mattered; that in a time where they had so little control over so much in their lives, they did have agency to speak up.
I gathered all the letters in a big envelope and addressed it to President Joe Biden, The White House, Washington, DC 20502. Inside were messages about climate change, saving animals, helping people who were poor, and ending coronavirus. For a few weeks after I sent out the letters, many students asked whether Biden had written back yet. I always smiled and said, “I think he’s a little busy right now.” I also explained that sometimes we don’t get to hear back; that sometimes we don’t know the impact of using our voices, yet it’s still important to do.
Our last day of school is next week, which means my mind is flooded with assessments and cleaning and packing and summer birthday celebrations, along with the normal cuts and bruises of elementary school. As I’m preparing to say goodbye to my class, I’ve been trying to find a way to ensure my students carry both the knowledge and the values they’ve learned this year with them.
I was mulling this over before class began on Tuesday when I paused for a routine check of my school mailbox. Inside, I found a stiff envelope, mailed First Class to “Naomi Greenfield’s Second Grade Class.” Return Address: “The White House.” I was floored. Could it be? I thought to myself. Did Joe Biden really write back to our letters from five months ago?
I ran down to my classroom, excited to show my students the envelope. There was similar disbelief and excitement — and then a lovely reminder that these were still very literal 8-year-olds, when one student asked me, “How can a House write a letter?”
We gathered in a circle that morning and opened the letter together. It read:
Thank you for writing to me! I really enjoyed hearing from you and reading your thoughts about the issues most important to you.
Our country faces many challenges, and the work we have ahead of us is going to be really tough. I am certain that if we set aside our differences and come together as a Nation, we will create positive change. It will not be easy and I am going to need your help.
Even at your young ages, you have the power to impact the future for generations to come. Throughout your lives, remain curious, creative and fearless. These traits will serve you well and allow you to experience the best life has to offer.
I wish you the best in the years ahead and look forward to seeing where your futures take you. Study hard. Keep challenging yourself. And be kind.
I read the letter twice to my students, and then walked around the room with it so they could see it up close: the seal, the signature, the beautiful words and sentiment. “Who can tell me what President Biden said in his letter?” I asked, turning this magical moment into a reading comprehension activity.
“He said we should be friends with people who are different from us.”
“He said there are a lot of problems in the world.”
“He said he needs our help.”
It took me a few more reads of the letter on my own to realize that Biden had managed to capture so simply what I’d been trying to teach all year long. His letter helped me synthesize the important values I had been trying to convey this year:
- Curiosity: Being curious will lead you to learn new things and meet new people.
- Creativity: Come up with creative solutions when life hands you a challenge without a roadmap.
- Fearlessness: Be safe and smart, but don’t let fear guide your actions.
- Kindness: Lead with kindness. Never take the simplicity of a kind act for granted.
Thank you, President Biden, for helping my class and me make sense of this difficult year. I hope to carry these values, so succinctly and beautifully distilled in your letter, into my next year of teaching and beyond.
Header image via Naomi Greenfield/Drew Angerer/Staff/Getty Images