Can We Center Both Joy and Safety This Year?

September 10, 2021 by Shawn Rubin

Yesterday, during a Design Team meeting with the fantastic staff at Baychester Middle School in the Bronx, we worked collaboratively to interrogate the school’s vision for change using the thinking routine Word-Phrase-Sentence from Project Zero. One teacher elevated the phrase “safe and joyful space” because it resonated with her as a powerful statement as the staff prepares to open their doors to students next week.

In the best of times, the phrase “safe and joyful space” is a cornerstone of back to school relationship-building. However, amidst the pandemic, these two descriptors become more important than ever. When our attention is focused on preventing the spread of the Delta variant – an immense task for folks trained in pedagogy, curriculum and assessment – we are prone to lose sight of joy. Our educators are not healthcare workers, but every day this line is blurred with PCR tests and quarantine planning. For even the most seasoned educators, this work pushes beyond our comfort zones, causing fear and anxiety. 

Our mitigation efforts are undoubtedly essential, but we must name and own that such fear and anxiety can work against the second part of the Design Team teacher’s phrase – joyful space. We have the ability to stay safe this school year, but at what cost to joy? Yesterday afternoon my brand new high schooler returned home to share that he sat in silence, engaging on his phone for three of his six class periods on his first day of school. He was masked, distanced and safe, but there was no joy. 

Our students, especially our most under-resourced and disenfranchised, need joyful spaces. As educators, leaders, nonprofit teams, and government agencies we must find ways to rise above our sadness, anger, and rhetoric to tap into the natural brilliance, energy, and joy that our students show up in our classrooms with each and every day. 

My Twitter feed this week has been filled with incredible back to school, community building activities from elementary levels all the way through 12th grade. Yes, these types of activities may bring kids in closer proximity to each other in physical classrooms or take up precious time in remote settings. But even as students’ words are muffled through masks or accidentally cut off through mute buttons, these opportunities can nurture the much needed joy and connection that keeps our children engaged, learning, and excited to return the next day. 

As adults, our instinct may be to lament our lost summer, or to reflect on our current situation in comparison to pre-COVID times, but our students don’t have that luxury. This is their one and only shot at a brand new high school transcript or a kindergarten dramatic play area. Some of us are experiencing intense bouts of stress, anxiety, and fear right now. These feelings should not be minimized, by anyone at any time, but they also cannot get in the way of our duty and obligation as educators in all corners of our education system. We must work to create spaces this fall that are both “safe and joyful” for every child – work that brings us all closer to a new vision for what our schools can be. 

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