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Lessons learned and reasons for hope for the 2021-22 school year

As we approach another back-to-school season with a pandemic not yet fully behind us, if we take the lessons of 2020-2021 to heart, our children and our schools will thrive in the year ahead. Here are three of the many lessons I've learned that give me hope as the 2021-22 school year kicks off.

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Children, school, masks
Tim Tinnesz
, head of school at St. Timothy's School
Editor's note: Tim Tinnesz is head of school at St. Timothy's School in Raleigh.

As we approach another back-to-school season with a pandemic not yet fully behind us, if we take the lessons of 2020-2021 to heart, our children and our schools will thrive in the year ahead. Here are three of the many lessons I’ve learned that give me hope as the 2021-22 school year kicks off.

1. We can and will prevail.

Shortly after the pandemic began, a colleague reminded me about Admiral James Stockdale, an American hero and prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven years—starved, kept in solitary confinement for four years, and tortured repeatedly. In "Good to Great," author Jim Collins asked Admiral Stockdale to explain what differentiated those POWs who survived from those who didn’t. It wasn’t about courage or strength, he said. It was about mindset.

Surprisingly, he said those who didn’t make it were the optimists—people who were so confident that they’d be out by Christmas or some other date that they weren’t prepared, mentally or emotionally, for the painful reality. Stockdale observed, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Our adversity doesn’t compare to Admiral Stockdale’s, but many of us since March 2020 have had dates circled on the calendar by which we’d hoped COVID would be behind us. Chances are, those dates have all passed. The unfortunate reality is that this pandemic is not yet over. But it will be at some point.

In the meantime, we’d do well to give our all every day for our children and families, navigating any challenges as best we can, helping and caring for one another, and never losing faith that—if we work together—we will prevail in the end.

2. Teachers are magical.

Education during COVID has taught us yet again that successful teaching isn’t about the lesson plan, or the textbooks, or even what the teacher says and writes out on the whiteboard. All of those things can be (and were) recreated virtually last year.

One key reason why the virtual education of 2020-21 was inevitably not as effective as in-person learning is because good teachers stand in a room for a split second and instantly know who is understanding and who is struggling. They can see the briefest glint in a student’s eyes when the light bulb goes off and they get it. Without saying a word, by gently laying a hand on a student’s shoulder while walking by her desk, by giving an understanding nod, or by offering a quick wink and a smile, a teacher can transform a student’s perspective, confidence, and attention, inspiring them to keep at it, try a new way, and never give up. Those magical moments are incredible to witness—and they’re almost always impossible to achieve through a computer screen.

Masking… distancing… whatever sacrifices and health protocols might be required to keep our classrooms safe for in-person learning, they’re worth it. That’s where the magic happens.

3. Children always find joy. And where they can’t find it, they will create it.

Schools who met in person last year took countless precautionary measures. Students wore masks, got daily temperature screenings, and took COVID tests the moment they caught a cold. They washed hands ten times a day and had few opportunities to interact and play beyond their small cohort group. Field trips and dances were canceled. They had to stay several feet apart, requiring schools like mine to convert the dining hall, the library, the gym, and other spaces into temporary classrooms.

The list goes on, but the point is clear: even in-person, there were lots of things that were not fun about schooling during COVID. And for anyone who was not on campus each day, it’s understandable if you start to believe that schools seemed like pretty bleak places.

However, for those of us who were fortunate to be on campus with our students each day last year, we know that list of restrictions is misleading. Every day, I saw students genuinely joyful and successfully learning, growing and thriving. Every. Single. Day.

I saw “a-ha” moments of hands-on science labs and amazing poetry recitations (with proud parents attending via Zoom). I saw math classes sprawled out on yoga mats in the gym and new games invented at recess. When we began the year unsure about how best to do soccer safely, our students quickly created kickball tournaments, which were more accommodating of distancing and masking. I was so moved by the daily resilience, creativity and joy that I witnessed that I grabbed my phone and made an impromptu video of it all for families to see firsthand.

COVID is not yet behind us, but it will be eventually. In the meantime, we’ll take whatever safety precautions are required for our teachers to work their magic in our classrooms. And we’ll do so knowing that when children are involved, joy will find a way!

Best wishes to all students, educators and parents for a safe and successful 2021-22 school year.

Tim Tinnesz, a father of three, is Head of School at St. Timothy’s School in Raleigh and was previously a high school teacher and principal. He served two terms on the Board of Directors of the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools and currently serves on the boards for the nonprofit organization Note in the Pocket and Triangle Day School in Durham.  

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