First, let me speak for all Philadelphians when I say: Thank you. Just … thank you.
You are heroes for getting us through this first “post-pandemic” school year, sticking with it even when it seemed impossible to go on. Some of your colleagues gave up, even moved away — and no shade on them; it’s no doubt been, at times, soul-crushingly hard — but you persisted, and our kids, our city, are better for it.
You know how hard it’s been; I don’t have to tell you. For the rest of us, here’s a few reasons this school year was even tougher than most:
- The appalling, uninspiring start to the year, which highlighted a management vacuum.
- The unwieldy process of changing how special select school admissions happened.
- The continuing health crisis in school buildings.
- The staffing shortage, catastrophic at times.
- The mixed messages on masks, and vaccines, and closings.
- The usual underfunding, especially when it comes to special education.
- The pandemic-induced anguish, social and emotional stuntedness, of students.
- The hunger, the poverty, the trauma of living in a city in which kids are economically struggling and faced with record levels of violence in their neighborhoods.
Not only did you make it through the year, many of you did it with extraordinary grace. These are just some of the incredible teachers, and the work they did to educate our children in especially difficult circumstances this year:
As always, the Lindback Foundation honored 60 Philadelphia public school teachers with its annual Lindback Award. They include Kristian Ogungbemi, from Kensington Health Sciences Academy, Sunila Gorde at Overbrook High School, and Brian Raust, who teaches in the Philadelphia Juvenile Justices Center — all teachers who have no doubt had to contend with the most traumatic circumstances for some of their students. They were nominated by colleagues and honored with a $3,500 prize. Kudos to them.
Angela Chan at Fanny Jackson Coppin elementary school in East Passyunk allowed 3rd graders to become thoughtful and concerned citizens not only of Philadelphia but of the world. Hosting morning meetings where they have a safe space to discuss and ask questions about global events like the war in Ukraine and issues in their own school — like the school’s name change from Andrew Jackson to Fanny Jackson Coppin — and spent time this year holding poetry workshops for the students, who collectively published a book, Splendid City Poems, about their lives in Philadelphia.
Some of your colleagues gave up, even moved away — and no shade on them; it’s no doubt been, at times, soul-crushingly hard — but you persisted, and our kids, our city, are better for it.
Another 3rd grade teacher, Alicia Tsafos, was flexible and understanding about the learning and social development curves that came with the pandemic, which led to students in the diverse Point Breeze G.W. Childs Elementary School getting a chance to breathe and grow this difficult year. In fact, Tsafos and the other 3rd grade teachers at Childs created such a strong bond with their students that they are moving up with them, becoming 4th grade teachers for the 2022-23 school year.
Tech Freire Charter High School history teacher Julian Perrin was the butt of an April Fool’s joke when students in his class launched a GoFundMe to buy him a new pair of shoes. “They’re very hideous, and he is tired of being bullied by block 6,” they wrote. Their joke raised $3,779! But it was Perrin’s response that was the best part: “I love the relationships I have with my kids, and I hope people see how important it is to foster those relationships and give students a voice,” he told The Inquirer. “I hope my kids see how strong their voices are and how great they are.”
Ashley Cocca is not a teacher, per se, but as a school counselor at Bache-Martin School she was instrumental in helping the community get through the worst — losing students, both current and former, in the house fire in Fairmount. Cocca helped people cope, but of course, there’s no coping with such a thing. Instead, she carried her responsibility of caring and counseling in the most human, humane way: weeping alongside teachers and parents and students, coordinating the efforts to help our survivors, bringing in extra school counselors from across the district, and always (constantly) checking in with the children. As one Bache-Martin parent says: ”What I hope for every child in Philly is that they have a Ms. Cocca in their life looking out for them.”
Charlie McGeehan, a social studies teacher at Academy at Palumbo, founded BARWE, Building Anti-Racist White Educators, to train and support White educators “to continuously address their own unconscious biases and take an active role in fighting white supremacy in our schools, communities, and in ourselves.”
Leah Wood, a paraprofessional was one of our 2021 Integrity Icons for, in addition to her work with students at Feltonville Arts & Sciences, working to help her fellow paraprofessionals get the respect, pay and career opportunities they deserve.
As one Bache-Martin parent says: ”What I hope for every child in Philly is that they have a Ms. Cocca in their life looking out for them.”
And one of 2020’s icons was Central High School Social Studies teacher Tom Quinn, whose Philly Youth Votes pushed the school board this winter to adopt a policy that puts voter registration and education services into each high school in the city.
Rachel Combs, a science teacher at The Crefeld School, combines expertise and love for her subject area with a bright, sunny demeanor, and a witty sense of humor that both delights and disarms teenagers. Whether teaching stoichiometry calculations in her classroom, meeting individually with a student to give them extra support, or slyly weaving in a pun at a staff meeting, she promotes learning, goodwill, and a sense of fun to all. Rachel has rolled with everything that the pandemic has dished out, providing a consistency to her students, and to her school, that is invaluable.
Richard Chalme, a special education teacher at YouthBuild Philly, works incredibly hard to connect with young people who previously left Philly high schools. Chalme is often the first teacher in and last to leave the building because of his commitment to really know the students, and the appreciate his ability to make assignments understandable and to make a graduation pathway feel real and attainable. Chalme demonstrates that the work talented educators take on to support learners struggling with the most barriers is the work that we can and should be doing to support all young people.
Nancy Ironside, a teacher at Science Leadership Academy, wrote a column in The Inquirer last week, after the school shooting in Uvalde that summed up what many teachers must have been feeling — helpless and heartbroken, but also beholden to her students, who looked to her for answers. “I am a teacher — not an expert on gun violence,” she wrote. “I am not a policymaker. On a good day, I teach kids math and help them when they are confused or sad or angry. In short, I do the job I am expected to do — as do most teachers, parents, and kids. Many lawmakers, it seems, do not. Mass shootings will always be normal as long as the response to them is just a statement devoid of any action that prevents people from killing more children.”
This week, another teacher, Eric T. Turner, from Mastery Charter, echoed Ironside’s sentiments in an equally heartbreaking — but also heroic — manner in his own Inky column: “To the federal government: Help us and pass sensible gun legislation banning weapons of mass destruction. Do the work to end domestic terrorism in our schools. To my fellow educators: The end of this school year is near. Be as strong and as gentle with yourselves as possible, even if that means not being strong at all. To our students: Hold on to your teachers; we still got you — even if we have to die trying.”
Those are just a few of this school year’s stars. Know of more? Let us know.
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