While it might be tempting to begin this update by remarking on what a different start this is to any previous school year on the Goshen Campus, I’m instead going to focus on what hasn’t changed in the Lower and Middle School as we start the year: teachers are working harder than ever to build compassionate learning communities with their students. Witness any class, and you’re bound to see anything ranging from playful silliness like icebreaker games or karaoke contests to more serious personal goal-setting for the year or expectation-sharing for classroom communities.

Over the summer, many of our Lower and Middle School teachers engaged in professional development through Responsive Classroom, an organization devoted to research-based social and emotional learning practices that prioritize the creation of student-centered, joyful, safe, and engaging school communities. The mission and vision of the Responsive Classroom organization is well aligned with the mission and vision of St. Francis, and we knew that after a spring of emergency remote learning and a summer that was anything but ordinary, the social and emotional well-being of our students was of utmost importance as we began school again this fall. 

Responsive Classroom’s text The First Six Weeks of School reminds us that during this crucial time of the school year, all of our students need their teachers to systematically, yet personally, create warm, safe classroom climates; acclimate students to the schedules and routines of the school day and establish guidelines for how they will work together in their classes; establish expectations about how they will work together as a community of learners this year, generating enthusiasm about the learning to come; and introduce the physical environment and the materials used in the class, teaching students how to navigate learning spaces and use and care for the materials. 

In a COVID-19 school year, the learning space we’re using to start the year–remote learning–is a very different space than what we’re accustomed to, yet we recognize there will be another adjustment period to follow this remote start to the school year when we are able to return to in-person learning at St. Francis. Students will navigate the building, classrooms, and playgrounds once again, and new routines will be established once again, but they will be built upon the foundation of relationships being forged these first six weeks. Whether in remote or in person, we believe, as Reshan Richards and Stephen J. Valentine wrote in their Letter to Educators Teaching Online for the First Time, “The job of an online teacher is the job of an offline teacher is the job of a teacher. Connect to people and help them to feel connected to you and to the dimension of the world you are leading them to experience. Connect your students to one another in a way that enables them not only to learn content from one another, but also to catch life experiences from one another—to shape one another in the way that only peers can. It’s that simple … and it’s that complex.” 

We understand the task before us this fall at SFS, and we are thankful for our families’ partnership, faith, and trust in our ability to do this essential job for their children as we begin this school year. We will continue to work tirelessly to make sure that your children are cared for, engaged, supported, and making progress in their learning, whether through a screen or in person. Here’s to a school year like no other!