In trying times, many educators turned to their colleagues (and their union) for support, inspiration, and even a few laughs.
After treating his first coronavirus patient in the intensive care unit, Nathan Wood—a resident at Connecticut’s Yale New Haven Hospital—recorded himself playing the piano and singing the 1972 hit “Lean On Me.” He said it was a way to manage his mounting stress. But when he heard that the song’s writer, Bill Withers, had died on March 30, 2020, Wood was inspired to share his recording on Instagram.
The post went viral. Soon, the song rang out in nursing homes and hospitals, from windows and balconies, and even in videos made by public school educators. In one post from Cider Mill School, in Wilton, Conn., a seamlessly edited video shows the entire staff singing “Lean on Me” from their homes, while playing everything from pianos and guitars to ukuleles, maracas, flutes, and even a bassoon.
The song became an anthem for the pandemic, when everyone needed somebody to lean on.
During the most difficult year of their careers, when grief and stress became overwhelming, educators recognized that their strength was restored by helping and receiving help from one another. So district by district and around the country, educators reached out across the internet to tell their colleagues, “Lean on me … I’ll help you carry on.”
The faculty of Cider Mill School performed the song “Lean on Me” in a video for students and families, but the project also showed the educators how they leaned on each other. “We had to rely on each other for everything but hugs,” says music teacher Andrew Pearson, who edited the video. “A project like this was therapeutic.”
The five art teachers of East Maine School District 63, in Cook County, Illinois, used to meet just four times a year. That changed in March 2020, when schools closed and the educators began having weekly Zoom check-ins. They all agree—they’ll never go back to the old schedule.
“Our weekly meetings became a lifeline. Just seeing each other was so important,” says Tina Daskalopoulos, an art teacher at Nelson Elementary School. “It maintained our sense of purpose and, because we were all struggling in the same ways as creative types, we completely understood each other and developed a real sense of unity.”
Colleague Juli Kim, an art teacher at Melzer Elementary School, agrees: “No one will understand an art teacher like another art teacher.”
After school buildings closed, the educators had to reinvent their jobs and became each other’s how-to guides, says Monika Larson, who teaches at Apollo Elementary School. “Each of us has a different teaching style and approach to art education, and we shared individual expertise, solutions, and experiences—like how to use breakout rooms for students in doubled class groups of 50 to 60 students. We shared trials and errors, then we’d go about doing it ourselves, having already sorted through the mishaps.”
The biggest hurdle they had to overcome was getting supplies into the hands of the students. Their school district is located in a Chicago suburb with a large low-income population. One of the educators’ many challenges? Figuring out how to teach art to students who don’t even have crayons or paper at home.
At first, students made art on everything from paper plates to napkins to scrap cardboard. But after the educators created a spreadsheet of materials and their costs, they worked with the district to find the best deals to provide about 2,200 students with oil pastels, permanent markers, large sheets of drawing paper, watercolor sets, tempera cake paint sets, colored pencils, construction paper, and paintbrushes, all of which they procured, packaged and distributed three times during the year.
Another question they grappled with was how to help students who had nowhere to create. Some students logged on from inside cars, underneath bunk beds, sitting on the floor of the family’s convenience store, or surrounded by crates and boxes in what appeared to be a warehouse or factory where a parent was working.
“We shared a lot of concerns about [students’] emotional health and their access to a learning space to sit and log on, let alone create,” Daskalopoulos says.
Student self-expression is essential to social and emotional learning, and it suffered immensely during distance learning. Their students missed walking around the art room and having activity choices and a huge variety of materials for their projects. And that worried their teachers, who knew the students needed a creative outlet, now more than ever.
“Being an art teacher and not being able to create art with our students in person affected all of us,” says Andrew Hancock, an art teacher at Mark Twain Elementary School. “I wanted to be able to help my students bring their creative ideas into fruition, and there was only so much I could do through a screen.”