What will school look like this year? As educators, parents and concerned community members, we have asked this question since school ended last June. As summer started, and COVID seemed to simmer, there was a sense of liberation, and a hope that maybe, just maybe, next year would be back to “normal.”

Second-grader Mona MilNeil holds the hand of her mother, Jessica MilNeil, on Aug. 31 while waiting to enter East End Community School in Portland for the first day of class. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

This is my second year teaching. So I am not sure what a normal school year looks like. But what I can tell you is that after the first couple weeks, it feels similar to last year – the masks, the COVID-lesson constraints, the wondering and worrying about how this is affecting our students, our community and our society now and forever. Last year, confronted with the novelty of the problem, there seemed like a collective determination to overcome any obstacles. But the thought of doing this for a full year again, as if a do-over of last year, is overwhelming.

So we ask ourselves: How will we do this again? Personally, I find reflecting on what drives me to educate in the first place is the most powerful motivator. For many of us, this includes a commitment to empower all students with an education: an education not only with academic knowledge, but also with social experiences and challenges that build students’ character and allow them to gain a sense of their authentic selves, cultivate a love of learning and develop the skills and values of thoughtful, caring and reflective community members. I believe these beliefs unite us, and can empower us with the collective efficacy needed to take on this year.

While individually I know that the longer in-person days, the full classrooms, the many unknowns and anticipated changes are overwhelming (especially so for new teachers), I am comforted by my colleagues who show up with me, who support me and others and who realize their visions for our learning communities.

I can’t help but be inspired.

Especially because this year is different. Many of our learners will be re-entering a physical school with a full in-person schedule – a school devoid of Google Meets and remote assignments, but filled with the undeniable human connection and fulfillment that come from being in a room with people. There will also be renewed opportunities for social and emotional learning, and for self-discovery. I am inspired because I know we will learn from our students, who so often remind us that a growth mindset is something we too often grow out of. And I am humbled to know, after last year, that these students are resilient; that they will continue to learn and practice resilience; that they will rarely give up on themselves, their classmates or me; and that this collective resilience will make our students better community members, leaders and change makers for decades to come.

With the force of collective teacher efficacy behind me, and a year teeming with potential, I know I can try my best; to give help when I can, and lean on others when I just can’t; to engage all members of our learning community wholeheartedly; to support students as they pursue their curiosity, and to facilitate a love of learning and journeys of self-discovery; to model authenticity by being silly and vulnerable and myself.

And I am committed to trust that this year has much to offer; that there are many pathways to growth; and that a pandemic which has sharpened our attention to kindness, compassion, courage, gratitude, and present-mindedness, could improve our curriculum better than we ever could.

Every single day, I know our students will continue to surprise us, delight us and unite us with purpose. They will make us laugh, they might make us cry and they will certainly not know how much energy we give them, nor how much energy they give us. Together we can and will confront education and COVID challenges alike, and I know we will overcome. Together, we will learn. Together, we are empowered.

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