‘We are all first-year teachers today’: Chicago educators start unprecedented school year with ambitions, questions

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks at a press briefing after a first-day-of-school tour of King Elementary School. (Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat)

As the morning dawned gray and rainy in Chicago on the first day of an unprecedented school year, teachers expressed first-day jitters unlike those they’d experienced in previous years. 

“We are all first-year teachers today,” said Christel Williams-Hayes, the recording secretary of the Chicago Teachers Union. 

That sentiment seemed to be felt across the district, as teachers shared hopes, ambitions, and a lot of questions on the first day of an all-virtual start to the school year. 

The teachers union offered a window Tuesday into some of the common concerns: Will internet access hold up for each of the district’s 355,000 students and tens of thousands of educators? Are there sufficient accommodations for students with disabilities? And how will educators keep young people engaged for six hours a day when teaching through a screen? 

Lauren Kullman, a drama teacher at Nightingale Elementary in Gage Park, said she was excited and had arranged multiple monitors in her home office. She had contingency plans if the internet went out or if she needed to assist one of her small children. “I feel like I’m producing the Emmys or something,” she said.

At an eerily quiet South Side elementary school on Tuesday morning, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson toured classrooms with the principal and passed out caramel apples to a handful of teachers who opted to come in and take advantage of a district policy that lets educators work from school buildings. 

The only echo of previous back-to-school celebrations: A moment where, in front of cameras, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Jackson rang the traditional bronze bell to signal the start of school. “This is a ritual,” said Jackson, ringing the bell with a smile. “We have to try to bring back as much normalcy as possible.”

But nothing else rang familiar. The schools chief — a former teacher and principal — said she’d woken up on the first day also uncertain what the year would bring. “I had a lot of questions when I woke up this morning about what this school year was going to look like. How do you get the excitement of the first day? How do you package that in a remote environment? It’s hard walking through a school and not hearing kids voices in the hallway.”

At Nightingale Elementary, Kullman only had a half day to reach out to parents and students before the new year. She wasn’t sure who would be able to log on for the first day.

 She also worried about the effects of coronavirus-related trauma on her school community. Nightingale is located in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Gage Park, an area hit hard by COVID-19. “The thing that I’m most nervous about is not seeing some of them for the past six months and really checking in with them,” she said. 

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On Tuesday, Jackson stressed that despite the unusual circumstances of this school year, she expected a certain level of academic rigor. 

“Last week, we announced a record high grad rate, and I expect to see record-high numbers throughout this school year,” said Jackson, referencing Chicago’s improvement trajectory on several different metrics — from test scores to college enrollment — across recent years. 

For now, some teachers said they are trying to shore up as much excitement as possible and to bring that energy into the homes of their students. 

Nina Hike, a chemistry teacher at Westinghouse College Prep on the West Side, said in a classroom it’s easy to gauge students’ energy. But now “I feel like my energy is going to come through the computer screen,” she said. 

Her fall curriculum will teach students about the chemistry they see in their home on a regular basis, and she has purchased small beakers and flasks to help illustrate her teaching. “They’ll feel my excitement to teach.”

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