By: Dr. Raymond Heipp
A few weeks ago, I ran into a former student of mine who graduated from the Class of 1987. It was enjoyable to catch up on life and share some fun anecdotes from the past. Then, last Friday, I virtually connected with a teacher to discuss some approaches that she was seeking to use to help keep her students calmer this academic year. As we wrapped up, I heard a thunderous sound from outside that kept getting louder. It was a clear and sunny day, so I had to investigate. To my surprise, it was the Blue Angels flying by. This should not have surprised me, as it’s a normal event for the Cleveland Airshow over Labor Day weekend to have the Blue Angels flying in my area. As I sit here on Labor Day, I am reflecting on those three events and thinking about how our perspectives in education have changed over time and what they are now.
If we go back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, Labor Day not only meant the suggested, “end of summer,” but also the factual end of summer vacation for us students. School started on the Tuesday after Labor Day, so we cherished that last chance to enjoy the outside freedom and play from dusk until dawn without homework! We knew that teachers were in school the week before, as the rooms were always decorated and bulletin boards were ready to display our work. When I became a teacher, I had the chance to visit with some of my own elementary teachers. They shared that the week before Labor Day was focused on getting the classroom ready, as well as making copies of worksheets for the activities throughout the first month of school. Those of us from certain generations remember the “Ditto Machines” and how careful we had to be with the master copies and to be ready to clean the blue ink off of our hands! It was an action that we don’t put much thought into today as our worksheets are either online or in a file, which makes printing a simple task.
Thinking back to my former student from the Class of 1987, we began school the week before Labor Day. This was done so teachers could get the administrative tasks (seating charts, assigning of textbooks and numbers, handing out of syllabi, etc.) completed and begin teaching before the weekend. Some of my colleagues used that long weekend to assign a paper or an extended homework assignment, while I knew that students would put in little effort because of the longer weekend. When speaking about past classroom environments, it was different than today. I was on the fifth floor of a 100-year-old building. “Air conditioning” meant that I opened all of my windows and my classroom door, and the teacher across the hall did the same thing. Teaching in Cleveland also meant that the Friday before Labor Day was practice for the Blue Angels at Burke Lakefront Airport. You did not want to schedule any tests or quizzes on that day as the noise did not allow any concentration. Making sure we had air circulating and that the students were not hanging out of the windows were our most important responsibilities. Today, air conditioning and air purifiers keep us comfortable and healthy.
How times change! My last Labor Day, which only focused on administrative tasks and continuing the movement into the new school year, came on September 3, twenty-one years ago. As a veteran administrator, the school year had already started, and we were getting ready for parent back-to-school nights. Another school year had begun, and everything was moving along. It would be only eight more days until the unthinkable would occur and I would never be able to look at the start of the school year with thoughts of simple planning again.
Although I was already out of administration and working with School Health, Labor Day weekend of 2020 meant something completely different for my colleagues that were still in schools. Administrators were furiously making sure students had access to equipment, internet, and other requirements for virtual learning. Teachers were adjusting for another year’s worth of lessons to be conducted in a virtual format. Some even needed to plan to conduct both virtual and in-person classes simultaneously. The focus became how we could teach in an environment that we never have before.
This year, the focus of teachers and administrators is looking at the health and well-being of our students. I want to remind all educators that we need to also make sure that we are taking care of ourselves within that structure! Breathing breaks, sensory breaks, calming areas, and yoga sessions are part of how we can all continue to move forward and live healthier lives. We need to look at education in a holistic manner and understand that a 30-60 second sensory break or teaching a student how to use breathing to calm down, creates a life skill that will assist them forever. Our students, as well as ourselves, are still in an anxious state of mind. By modeling how we can grasp all of the unique events that come our way each day, it gives them a greater lesson, compared to teaching them a science concept or a math equation. We give them a way to live.
Over the summer, I had an administrator ask me how much more difficult I thought it was to be in education now, compared to 20, 30, and 40 years ago. I told him that it was simply different. Our world 40 years ago was local and today it is global. Thirty years ago, we still had to research topics and questions in libraries using reference materials and today, we have students jump on their cell phones for the same information. Twenty years ago, we were focused on the safety and security for our schools and ourselves, and today we are more aware of everyone’s well-being. Perspectives and students are the key parts that have changed. We still need to operate with the idea of, “in loco parentis,” and adjust it to teaching life and coping skills. The most important thing for myself that I shared with the administrator, was how we, as educators, are now more aware of how our mental well-being is the key factor for us to bring our students to that same level.
Although the perspectives have changed, there is one task that we continue to do. We give our students the tools to make differences in their futures and, therefore, keep those perspectives changing to adjust to the world around them!