CEOs get up at 5 a.m., but high school principals and religious leaders get up at 4. My husband made this observation on one of our first dates, and it came to mind as I drove across an eerily empty 149th Street to reopen my school in the South Bronx a few weeks ago.
This is just what I do, I told myself. But the early hour and my long pandemic absence still made simple tasks, like printing out class lists and checking student schedules, feel like a struggle.
The sudden challenge of my daily routine also made me more appreciative of the people around me who continued to perform their work with shocking effectiveness. As I jammed the printer like a first-year teacher, one of my assistant principals went downstairs to make sure students were lined up and socially distanced while they waited to enter the building. He had been in the building every day that our school had operated remotely, accepting deliveries, distributing technology to students, and making it possible for teachers to work from elsewhere.
This assistant principal had grown up in the neighborhood and attended prestigious schools on scholarship. He had taken a teaching job while he was applying to law school, fallen in love with the work, and stayed for good. The ninth graders in line greeted him like an old friend, though they had spent the equivalent of only a few weeks with him in the fall.
Before the day was over, he would clarify confusing guidance and settle disputes among coaches from different schools so that we could reopen our sports program after spring break. When a substitute teacher complained about the noise coming from a construction site nearby, he went outside, talked to the foreman, and somehow got them to stop work early so our students could focus.
My school is full of people who do their part. I watched a school safety officer who just buried her mother remind a student to pull up his mask in a way that communicated big-sisterly care. In the main office, one of the secretaries rushed to retrieve notebooks and pens from the cavernous supply closet while sorting our MetroCards and COVID testing consent forms. The payroll secretary smiled at each of us as we came to the main office to move our time cards, even as she worked tirelessly to meet the budget deadline later in the week. When we got an unexpected funding bump, she asked the head custodian about installing additional handwashing stations around the building. He found a way to make it happen.
The teachers in the building had volunteered to come in so that their colleagues with small children and other caregiving duties could continue to work from home. One teacher showed me proudly how closely she monitors the students in her breakout room, telling one that she couldn’t be reading the handout because she hadn’t scrolled down far enough on the screen. She did that while getting a parent on the phone to alert her that her child had stopped participating in class.
The news has been full of worry about how we will ever reopen schools completely. If you spent any time in a New York City high school building over the past month, the answer is obvious. The people who work there will make things work, somehow, as they usually do. Administrators will turn broken systems and confusing guidance into something functional. School safety officers will find ways to express care for students, despite the uniforms and the metal detectors. And teachers will teach.
Don’t get me wrong — there is a lot that doesn’t work. On any given day, you can walk into a New York City public school and see things that should be better. But that list is best understood as a finite thing. If you watch the people who work in our schools and tally up all the good things they do in the space of a day, it’s like trying to count all the stars in the sky.
I know that just doing good is not good enough. Public schools are charged with preparing children for the rigors of a global economy, compensating for stalled social mobility, battling systemic racism, and filling in for an inadequate social safety net. We fail in ways big and small every day.
But if we want to figure out how to reopen successfully, and plan for the summer and for next academic year, we can’t lose sight of our greatest asset: educators and school staff members who have shown their willingness to go above and beyond for students.
This was made particularly clear for me the day after the Capitol riot. In one virtual classroom, I watched a third-year teacher display a carefully curated selection of images of the events of the previous day. He asked students to respond in writing and then share their thoughts and feelings. He built on their comments to explain key concepts and make connections to the theme of the class, the history of colonialism. With perfect timing, his co-teachers stepped in to ask probing questions, offer their own perspectives, and suggest transitions in a way that kept the discussion honest, but not hopeless. It was clear the lesson plan was the result of a whole season of hard work, not just one night.
That class was not an outlier. In all my visits to virtual classrooms this year, there has been an observable theme. Yes, teachers admitted, our leaders may not always be up to the challenge of the times. But let’s learn about people who did do great things and movements that prompted huge changes under even worse circumstances! Let’s learn these skills that can allow us to solve problems more complex than exponential viral spread! As health care workers saved physical bodies, teachers have acted as first responders to this generation’s spirit, keeping hearts and minds alive.
When I was training to be a principal, I was once made to stand on a chair and sing the phrase “everyday miracles,” loudly, to an audience of my peers. The program facilitators believed that this phrase was the heart of my instructional vision — that faithful adherence to effective instructional rituals and routines would lead to the everyday miracle of learning.
This year, I’ve thought of this phrase repeatedly as I watched my teachers work with their students. Let’s not forget to marvel at those everyday miracles that teachers and others who work in schools have pulled off this year, and consider how we can build on them to come back stronger.
Not convinced? Ask a teacher what they did today. It might give you enough hope to tackle the challenges ahead.
Kristin Cahill is the founding principal of HERO High School, a P-Tech school on the Samuel Gompers Campus partnered with Hostos Community College and Montefiore Medical Center. A native New Yorker, she began her career as a teacher in Oakland, California. Cahill worked in school support, workforce, and research before opening her school in 2013.