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Guest Column: Teachers have been bright lights in dark year

Guest Column by Mary Hinnenkamp

I still have dreams about teaching, even though I retired a few years ago. Sometimes my dreams are about students happily reading or working on their papers at their computers. There is a golden glow and a productive hum. And sometimes the dreams are unpleasant — a class that is talking back or walking out on me. Yikes! But in all my dreams, my students are in my classroom, sitting at tables or desks, physically present with me. That was my teaching experience.

Mary Hinnenkamp

How do I write the Teacher of the Year column this year, when I am so out of touch with the reality of present-day classrooms? I turned to the teachers. A friend teaching English at ALHS now teaches entirely by distance learning, meeting with students online in groups and individually. He tells me some students are thriving online, and some students are just doing OK. But about a fourth of his students are struggling and may fail.  They often need extra help, a quiet place to work, reliable Wi-Fi and more structure in order to focus. He tells me that distance learning requires a lot of extra teacher time and work — planning lessons and making contact with students and parents. An Area Learning Center (ALC) teacher tells me that ALC staff works hard to keep students safe, fed and on-task. They struggle to maintain the human connection that is the heart of the ALC. None of this is easy. An elementary teacher tells me that when students physically attend school, teachers welcome them at the door, handing out masks as needed. She says students have been amazingly flexible with changes of routine and format. She celebrates “how special it is to have in-person time.” An early childhood teacher tells me that she works hard to build and maintain relationships with students and parents, and she treasures in-person school.

Over the past year, teachers’ reality has included distance learning, hybrid learning, multiple lesson plans for distance learning and in-school learning, meetings by Zoom, phone calling to students and parents, mask-wearing, constant cleaning, changes in strategies, worries about everyone’s health and often working around the clock every day. And in spite of all that, our teachers are resilient and remain upbeat. It is no wonder this year the committee received 81 Teacher of the Year nominations, all filled with words of admiration and affection. 

Students nominated teachers who are fun, kind, hilarious, caring, committed and who make learning exciting.  Students said their teacher is “brave,” and “wants us to actually to learn and understand.” Another student says his teacher “is understanding, funny, and … a good man.”  They appreciate a teacher who makes learning enjoyable and genuinely cares. One student writes of a teacher who “motivates me to be a better person.”

Parents write of teachers who are passionate, committed and who challenge their child to think critically. They appreciate teachers who make their child feel safe and cared for, happy to be in school, and who handles students with understanding and patience in a virtual setting. One writes that a teacher taught her daughter “compassion, empathy, culture, leadership, poise and confidence.”

Particularly poignant are the teacher nominations of their colleagues. Teachers wrote of colleagues who are helpful, informed, organized, focused, energetic, hard-working, creative, professional, resilient, positive, patient, kind, caring and “who is the voice of reason.” They nominated colleagues who bring humor to stressful situations, who are supportive team players and who deal with family anxiety and frustration compassionately. They appreciate a colleague who brings “calmness to a crazy school year,” and who is “dauntless is trying out new technology … in distance learning.” They describe a colleague as “a bright light in a dark year” and “a steady guiding light.” Clearly, teachers are leaning on and learning from each other in this daunting year to do best by their students. 

The TOY Committee has recently narrowed the field to five finalists: Jenni Braaten, Lisa Dugger, Burke Egner, Kevin Gentz and Amber Jensen. On April 7 the committee will announce the Teacher of the Year at an invitation-only outdoor event at Hammer Field Complex. Stay tuned by radio, TV and the district website.

Mary Hinnenkamp is a member of the Teacher of the Year Committee.