I recall vividly a high school lesson in which our wizened and esteemed English teacher asked the class to analyze a poem describing barren trees in the depths of winter. I wrote feverishly throughout the class period about the manner in which the trees symbolized death and loss, quoting verses from the poem to justify my claims. With confidence, I submitted my essay just before the period ended.

Two days later, the essays were returned to all of us during class. I won’t soon forget the way our teacher commented about our collective work. He informed us that virtually every student, save a few, had written in their essays about how the trees in the poem represented death and decay. I became increasingly confident about my analysis — until he began to chide us for falling victim to such sophomoric conclusions. As he peered over his glasses, he spoke very slowly to the group. “Students, this poem is about trees. Sometimes you really just need to focus on the obvious.”

Like so many important lessons learned from memorable teachers over the years, this one has stayed with me. It seems particularly relevant during this difficult time, which also coincides with Teacher Appreciation Week. The face of education has changed abruptly as our society faces down the most substantive threat that many of us have ever experienced during our lifetimes. In the midst of COVID-19, educators across the land have been required to reinvent themselves in the service of learners and their families. This dynamic is occurring on a wholesale basis because teachers are committed to the goal that academic learning will continue to progress — even during the challenges of school closures.

Still, we cannot discount the significance of the social-emotional impact that this pandemic is having on the students (and all of us, frankly). Even in the best situations, teachers are striving to provide education for our children against a backdrop of uncertainty, anxiety, and a shared sense of loss. Never before has the obvious seemed so clear. While teaching and learning represent the work of the profession, the essential needs of our students must remain the foundational consideration. For elementary school districts such as River Forest District 90, prioritizing these needs represents the heart of the matter.

This child-centered mindset is one of the many reasons why I am so proud and grateful to work alongside D90 staff members each day. While our faculty and staff have always put children first, the manner in which they are continuing to apply their student-oriented lens during this public health crisis has been inspirational. Conveying and reinforcing academic content obviously remains an essential goal.

However, the way D90 teachers pursue this goal acknowledges that children cannot learn effectively without certain, necessary prerequisites for success. These include establishing safe and caring learning environments, being attuned to student needs for support, and communicating clearly that there is always an adult at school who stands “in their corner.” Certainly, our faculty and staff provide many other benefits for students beyond these, but they are arguably the most critical to ensure that students can achieve their best potential. And they are no small things.

In the midst of this extraordinary moment in time, please join me in thanking an educator. Teacher Appreciation Week is May 4-8 but every week can be dedicated to teacher appreciation. Among the many other exceptional individuals in our community, they deserve the pedestal they occupy as heroes and unrivaled role models for our children.

Ed Condon, PhD, is superintendent River Forest School District 90.

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