Compiled by Robyn Kontra Tanner
After millions of students finished their spring term with an abrupt adjustment to distance learning, the nation debated a return to the classroom this fall.
The conversation swirled with heated arguments over masks, moral obligations, mental health, equitable access and budget. Above the fray and beyond the political grandstanding, teachers from elementary school to master’s programs were concerned with the same thing: helping their students thrive in these unusual circumstances. Thousands of Cal Poly alumni educators went to work preparing to meet the challenge.
It became clear that plans would vary school by school, with many classrooms continuing some form of virtual instruction. Unlike spring, some teachers would begin the year getting virtually acquainted with students, including some they had never met in person.
As the new school year began, Cal Poly Magazine invited alumni educators to write an open letter to their students and share their candid perspectives before the first virtual bell rang. Take a seat and see the school year from the other side of the Zoom screen.
The Stuff of Dreams
Jon-Paul Ewing teaches anatomy and physiology and marine biology at Paso Robles High School in Paso Robles, California
I’m excited to get to meet you in a few days. We have an entire year to get to know each other, and I can’t wait to laugh with you and work toward your understanding of difficult topics in science.
As summer starts to wind down, I often start getting “teacher dreams,” where I’ve lost materials for class or my planned lesson fails miserably. As we start off the school year doing distance learning, I am curious to see how I will be able to interact with you and your classmates.
The science content I teach will be available to you, but my usual method of delivery will be so different. How will my corny jokes land in a virtual setting? How easy will it be to pair you up with a neighbor to do a quick check for understanding? It will be a new challenge to build a relationship of trust and respect with you when I can’t simply talk to you during passing periods or during lab activities.
We are living in historic times; the pandemic has affected almost every part of our lives. While I am anxious to see how distance learning will play out in our classroom, my No. 1 concern is for the wellbeing of my family and my students.
We are bombarded with opposing viewpoints, and we often have to decide whose version of the story is the correct one. It is worrisome that the Program for International Student Assessment found that only 14% of 15-year-olds in the US could correctly distinguish a factual statement from an opinion, meanwhile less than half of adults can get it right. This sobering statistic encourages me to work harder to give you more opportunities for critical thinking. As you learn more about the science of how our world works, you’ll be better equipped to challenge false narratives that are being shared.
The first day of school is coming quick, I am already having dreams about it. Thankfully my teacher nightmares aren’t prophetic, I’m 100% committed to making this virtual learning work for you all. We will have a great year and I’m sure we will find unexpected advantages of this new form of school. I will be learning and adjusting my delivery as we progress on this journey together.
Until we meet, go Bearcats!
Jon-Paul Ewing (Ecology and Systematic Biology ‘04; CR Life Sciences ‘05) is a science teacher and department head at Paso Robles High School. He was named the 2018 District Teacher of the Year and San Luis Obispo County’s Teacher of the Year. The Central Coast native is also an alumnus of Paso Robles High School.
Practicing Kindness, Even When Things Get Hard
Michele Frantz teaches kindergarten through second grade at Joe Nightingale School in Orcutt, California
Dear first grade friends,
Welcome to the 2020-2021 school year! I am so excited, and if I am being completely honest, a little bit nervous, about this school year. I know this year will look differently than any of us could ever have imagined, but I also know that it will still be an amazing year filled with connection, support and learning … for us all.
My name is Mrs. Frantz, and I am delighted to be your teacher this year. I have three children of my own, whom I love dearly. Each day I try my best to ensure their safety, help them grow and develop into happy and fulfilled individuals. I will work hard to ensure the same things for you that I want for my own children. Although I would unquestionably prefer to teach you in person, we will proceed through this year in a manner that is as safe as possible, which right now is through distance learning.
I want you to know that I am part of a strong team that has been working hard preparing for this unique year we are entering. Over the past several years, my first-grade team and I have created a Professional Learning Community (PLC) that has helped us focus on the needs of all first-grade students at Nightingale. This year, we will apply the same level of teamwork as we guide and teach you through distance learning.
This is truly an exciting time as we are embarking on a year that will change education as we know it. What an incredible opportunity! I am honored that we will be on this journey together and that you will be one of MY teachers through it all! Student learning has always been a joint effort between students, parents and teachers, but now more than ever your education will require incredible communication and collaboration between us all. Together, we can do this!
Before we get to academics, we will begin by talking about what it means to be kind to one another. We will practice showing kindness throughout the year, even when things get hard. We will learn about demonstrating perseverance by having a growth mindset, what it means to be flexible in our thinking, how to use mindful strategies when things get difficult, and having the courage to face a challenge. These skills and strategies will undoubtedly help us get through this school year together, and it is my hope that they will help you navigate life beyond this school year as well.
As we move through this year, the only thing that I can promise is that things will be difficult before they will be easy. I am sure that we will make plenty of mistakes, but if we use our new skills and strategies, then we can learn and grow from them. If we remain flexible, think creatively, and support one another then we will all emerge from this year stronger than we started.
I look forward to meeting you and to an exciting year together.
Michele Frantz (Liberal Studies ’94; M.A. Education ’95; CR Multiple Subject ’99) teaches kindergarten through second grade at Joe Nightingale School in Orcutt, California. After 25 years as an educator, she was named the 2020 Santa Barbara County Teacher of the Year.
The Journey Between Head and Heart
Ashanti Branch trains teachers on how to help at-risk young men as the founder of the Ever Forward Club in Oakland, California
This year is going to be a year of uncertainty. We’re already in August and many schools around the country don’t know what they’re going to do next year.
There is no playbook. We don’t know what’s happening next. We’re all just taking it as it goes. But what I’m encouraged by is the resilience we share, that we all have overcome challenges that face us.
Working in education, our best way forward is to stay positive, stay focused on why you came into this work, and know that no one knows how to handle everything that’s happening right now. No one has all the best answers, but we can only do the best that we can.
There’s a saying that the longest journey that most people will take is the 18 inches between their head and their heart. Most people get stuck in their heads. I invite you all this year to stay connected to your hearts because when we get stuck in our heads it can make it hard to focus on what’s important.
Connect to your heart and to why you came into this work, so that you can help your students do their best through all this uncertainty.
Ashanti Branch (Civil Engineering ’98) is a former middle school teacher and administrator, and the founder of the Ever Forward Club, an organization that trains teachers on how to help at-risk boys overcome barriers to their success. Read more about his work in this issue’s Alumni Profile.
Every Child Deserves a Champion
Nancy Stauch coordinates the single-subject teaching credential program in Cal Poly’s School of Education.
Dear amazing future teachers,
As you reflect on why you wanted to enter this profession, I can safely say that sitting in front of a computer, taking education classes via Zoom, interacting with your students as a teacher-candidate from a distance without the opportunity to socialize with your new cohort, was not on the list!
We become educators to foster relationships with our students and colleagues, support our school community, and make a difference in the world we live in. Although the 2020-2021 school year will look different, we need to strive to achieve these goals, along with providing an equitable and inclusive access to learning and belonging for the students we serve.
This year, you will be on both sides of the virtual learning environment. Your credential classes are online, where your professors will work hard to prepare you for your future as an educator. They will intentionally wear two hats: one to facilitate your understanding of research-based educational philosophies and practices, while the second hat will model strong teaching, designed for you to build your own “tool belt” of innovative instructional strategies. Embrace your classes with passion, open mindedness, and humility. Learn about yourself through interactions with your peers, instructors, and your clinical experience.
The other side of your virtual learning journey is your role as a co-teacher to a group of students anxious to find success in this new culture of discovery. Building community within your classes and fostering relationships with your students, your cooperating teacher, and fellow faculty and staff of your school community will be at the cornerstone of your clinical experience. With distance learning in place, you will be stretched to find new ways to do this. Get to know your students!
It has been said that “students don’t care what you know until they know how much you care.” Teaching is not only about the transmission of knowledge, it is about taking care of the whole child — their feelings, their struggles, and their ideas. Make time for this in EVERY lesson you develop and facilitate.
I leave you with a quote from Rita Pierson, who said, “Every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists they become the best they can possibly be.” Be that champion for ALL of your students!
Wishing you a successful and fulfilling year. I believe in all of you!
Nancy Stauch (Biology ’81; CR Science ’84; M.A. Educational Leadership and Administration ’08) is a full-time lecturer in Cal Poly’s School of Education. She works with future high school teachers while coordinating the single-subject teaching credential program. She previously taught middle school science for 14 years.