Students may have been back in classrooms this year, but it was still a difficult time for educators across the country. We talk to three teachers about the challenges both students and teachers faced this last year, as well as what they hope for the year to come. Chris Riser is an 8th grade social studies teacher at Ockley Green Middle School in Portland. Ethelyn Tumalad is an English and AVID teacher at Clackamas High School. And Nicole Butler-Hootin is a second grade teacher at Irving Elementary School in Bethel.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Geoff Norcross: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud, I’m Geoff Norcross. A public school teacher from St. Paul put it, ‘Well,’ she told the New York Times last month, ‘most people knew that our system had fault lines, way before the pandemic; the last two years just emphasized how much our cultural fabric needs us, but is unwilling to listen to us.’ Students got back in the classrooms this last school year, and they brought two years of isolation, fights over curriculum and books, and fears over school shootings with them. Here, at the end of the school year, we wanted to check in with some Oregon Teachers about how their kids did and what’s different now, and how they’re doing. Chris Riser is an Eighth Grade Teacher at Ockley Green Middle School in Portland, Ethelyn Tumalad is an English Teacher at Clackamas High School, she’s the reigning Oregon Teacher of the Year, and Nicole Butler-Hootin is a Second Grade Teacher at Irving Elementary School in Bethel, Oregon. She was the State Teacher of the Year in 2021. Nicole, Ethelyn, Chris, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Chris Riser: Thank you.
Ethelyn Tumalad / Nicole Butler-Hootin: Thank you, Thank you for having us.
Norcross: Yes, it’s our, it’s our pleasure to have you. So, I’ll go around the table here, with an establishing question, which is when you think back on the Spring of 2020 and you started moving toward remote learning, How long did you think it would have to be like that? And Nicole, I think I’ll start with you.
Nicole Butler-Hootin: So how long did we think we would have to be in remote learning? That is a great question, as we think back on one of the most challenging, emotionally exhausting, times in my 16 year career, I think that as I taught on my, you know, 12″ little Chromebook, I was hopeful that it would last a few months and then as it lasted into the year, and then into the next year, I was so blown away by students’ resilience. I was blown away by my own resilience and strength, in being creative and feeling like I was on an iceberg, but really those relationships that were created via Zoom, via pandemic learning, I learned so much so that once we went back into the classroom, we could start making some systemic changes that I saw right away was going to be necessary.
Norcross: And we’ll talk about some of those changes a little bit later, but Chris Riser, how about you? 2020, what were you thinking?
Chris Riser: Well, I remember I had actually taken Friday, March 13 off, and it felt very strange, because I had already planned to have that day off and that turned out to be the last day of school before the shutdown. So for me, it was just like… it felt very disjointed because, you know, I really value the relationships I have with the students and so to not be present on that last day, it just felt very awkward and honestly, I wasn’t thinking at that time about, you know, how long is this gonna last? Once we went into remote learning, I figured that, ‘This is it for the foreseeable future,’ and I wasn’t really thinking about how what…how long we were gonna be in this situation, and certainly by the end of that year, it felt like it was gonna be at least a year before we were gonna see any semblance of return to in-person, if not longer.
Norcross: Now, that turned out to be true enough. Ethelyn, how about you? What was going through your mind in March of 2020?
Tumalad: When you’re at the end of a school year, and I’m sure that Chris and Nicole can speak of this, you’re kind of in this mode of go, go, go, right? And you’re just thinking, okay, this is what I gotta do. I remember that month, I was supposed to go on two field trips with my students. One with my AVID [Advancement Via Individual Determination] students, and of course, my Asian Pacific Islander Student Union was supposed to go to the Asian Youth Leadership Conference. And as I watched that get shut down, that was when things started becoming more real. And as Chris and Nicole were both speaking, I found myself nodding along to several different parts of what they were saying. So it was very surreal and similar to what Chris had just said, I really thought that it had been temporary...at the same time, ‘Well, I guess this is it,’ I didn’t anticipate it to be so long.
Norcross: And how did you present it to your students that you know, these things that you planned, these field trips and other activities? How did you tell them that it wasn’t going to happen?
Tumalad: I just said, ‘This is what we’ve got to get used to at the moment. This is what it is, and we will get back to it, right?’ Nicole talked about resiliency with our kiddos and it’s absolutely true that the kids had to be resilient. That meant that the teachers also had to be resilient. You had to put on that brave face for them, right?
Norcross: Nicole, did you have to put on a brave face since you were dealing with young kids who may have been scared and upended?
Butler-Hootin: Yeah, and I think that’s part of my own emotional healing journey that myself, along with all educators, are really navigating, is coming back after the pandemic, because we did have to be brave in the face of everything as our students did, but in very unique ways, with the lack of training and the resources and the technology needs and meeting students ‘where they were,’ I remember going over to countless houses, with caregivers and grandparents and helping them log into Zoom, right? This was so foreign to everyone. So I remember taking a care package to all of my students and going door to door and masking and social distancing. I look back and that seems like a lifetime ago. But really, how we supported these authentic partnerships during this disconnect from traditional schooling was so unique. And I think teachers are still going through this healing journey of what it means to actually recover and come out. And I feel like I can take a breath for the first time in a couple of years.
Norcross: Let’s skip ahead to this school year that just ended. And we reached out to listeners and teachers to tell us how it went for them. And Hunter McCurry wrote on Facebook: ‘It was the worst year since my first year as a teacher.’ Chris, does that resonate with you?
Riser: I wouldn’t call it the worst year. I would call it the most difficult year. It was a serious challenge, and for many reasons. First of all, we’re in this context, right? Not only are we dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, but nationally and globally, we have climate disaster. We have a doubling down of patriarchy, white supremacy and imperialism, which leads to both state violence and non-state violence, and this unprecedented wealth concentration at the top, with severe austerity and massive debt or both, for the rest of us. And this ascendant fascism that we’re hearing about through these January 6th hearings. So this is the larger context in which we as educators, are operating in our communities, right? And then, the PPS context, our leadership is critical of critical race theory and they’re union-busting, they’re privatizing. They’re pushing corporate education reform. So even at the District level, we had those issues to contend with. So every time that, in Portland Public Schools, we were seeking solutions to practical or social and emotional problems for our students, we were met with resistance, silence, ignorance, and bureaucracy, when what we really needed was, you know, care and responsiveness from, kind of a human perspective. So that made everything else that we were already trying to do, and those existing fissures that you quoted from, that St. Paul Teacher at the beginning of this segment, those… all of those things, not only were they made clear, but they were made infinitely worse, because the same logic was still being applied in the middle of these overlapping crises, where we have students who are coming from homes where families have to work two, three, or four jobs in order to make ends meet. And so these kids have been sitting on their phones unattended. And they’ve been interacting with each other. And you know, I’m working with 11 to 14 year olds, and we’re talking about the pre-adolescent and adolescent brain and body, which is going through incredible changes. These things all made this year exceptionally difficult because we didn’t have the resources that we needed in order to meet student needs. For example, at the beginning of the year at Ockley Green Middle School, students were being forced to sit outside at lunch without any shelter. We didn’t have any tents, which I had asked the administration for, the prior spring, when we had hybrid learning and we had some folks in person. We didn’t have tents at Ockley Green until October and kids were forced to sit outside on the concrete. Our administrator had to go out and buy, herself, 500 of those plastic folding stools for kids to sit on. That took a couple of weeks. So kids are outside with nowhere to sit, in all the elements and that was lunch and recess. And so you know, we were not getting served at an institutional level in order to meet the very basic needs of our students coming into the building. And yet we were expected to go back full time, five days a week, and, in Portland Public Schools, the mantra was ‘acceleration.’ These kids are missing so much academics. We’ve got to speed it up. And so that corporatized talk of, like, accelerating the system and moving things forward when we haven’t even addressed the trauma that the students are coming in with, that we as Educators are still coming with, right? It just, really, was not a set up for success at all, and then it just went from there.
Norcross: You’ve laid a lot out there, and there’s a lot to think about, and I’m wondering, Nicole, if in your role at Irving Elementary School, you had to navigate all of those challenges too, and also a lack of support, just like Chris did.
Butler-Hootin: Coming back, I should say this year, I was able to do an overall instructional coaching. So I have stepped out of the classroom, but I’ve been able to support those teachers who are new to the profession, new within their first three years, and so I have been teaching right alongside some of them and everything that Chris mentioned, again, just resonated so deeply with me, because I think one of the biggest takeaways that I want to mention is we were able to see these overarching gaps and we saw and we wanted to address needs and we were being met with resistance. And so then it becomes an issue of equity. So then once again, Teachers have to use their voice and their platform and work in collaboration to really uphold that schools should be a place of healing and liberation, and we weren’t seeing that, because of the the vast differences that were represented during COVID learning, we had students who were not receiving services that they needed. And so what that did was that put some stress on families and on students and then we were – the Educators were meant to pick up all of that, and we weren’t trained, we didn’t have the resources and when we would go to our administrators or district level leadership, there wasn’t that support. In Bethel, in Bethel School District in Eugene, we really were trying to think about situations and systemic policy change, so that that advocacy for student need could be seen in the classroom and that teachers could work in collaboration to help students be seen, but I know that there’s still so much more that we need to do. One thing that I know that we were talking about was just that home-to-school connection, and we really needed more. Obviously we know this, but more counselors, more family navigators, more of those relationships within schools-to-community, and in connecting students with what they really needed. And so there was a lot of harm done and as we’ve come back, you know, just trying to resurface. In our district, we weren’t trying to accelerate, so I hear what Chris is saying and how that could definitely feel, but still our marginalized communities, you know, that’s where my heart really has been to, to really be an ally and to try to think about the advocacy for what other community needs can we be giving our students and our underrepresented populations.
Norcross: Ethelyn Tumalad, did you feel that push to accelerate too, to close the gaps of whatever kids might be feeling? Because they had to go behind their computers for a while and then back into the classroom. Did you see the gaps and were you pushed to close them?
Tumalad: I’m gonna say yes and no. North Clackamas School District has been really great with many things, but also at the same time, I had this strange paradoxical – of watching things unfold in my classroom because of the fact that I teach seniors and I teach sophomores. So I had seniors who had watched the year before, their upperclassmen not get a full senior year, right? And so therefore when they came to school, they really wanted to take advantage of everything. So they were very much ready to be in the classroom, do what they needed to do, celebrate the small things. And then I had my sophomores who sound a little bit more like Chris’ Middle Schoolers who, when they had left the classroom, they were eighth graders and therefore when I got them as sophomores, they needed that extra help, I guess is what I can say. So yes and no, truly, I do think that what I saw more in the classroom was we just needed to meet students where they were, and whatever need that was, and that was what was difficult because then it put a strain on the educators, right? Because as Nicole was saying, we had our own unique needs and traumas that we also were facing.
Norcross: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking about how Oregon teachers managed through the last school year after a pandemic, fights over curriculum, and so much more. We’re talking with Ethelyn Tumalad who teaches English at Clackamas High School, Nicole, Butler-Hootin, who teaches Second Grade at Irving Elementary School in Bethel, and Chris Riser, 8th Grade Social Studies Teacher at Oxley Green Middle School. I can’t recall a time when what happens in the classroom was so politicized in this country, and Chris, you touched on this with the fight over Critical Race Theory, but it also affected curriculum and books and what you can say to kids. Nicole, how did that affect you this year?
Butler-Hootin: Well, I think in my District, I do have to say that we are more equity focused, we are more culturally responsive than I hear from generally across the state, but I do want to touch on that because I, I supported a lot of new teachers that they received most of their formal training, most of their formal experience of teaching on Zoom, because, right, they were students student teaching in 2020 and then those teachers came into the classroom and so the ability for them to feel like effective educators was definitely impacted negatively by all of this political, racial… all of the things that were happening in our state and across the United States. So I think for me it just reminded myself that these microaggressions, what we come into the classroom to combat, white supremacy and equity, and how we do this work meaningfully is a reflection of ourselves and our identity markers, and what parts of that do we bring into the classroom? Because that’s the education that’s going to either alienate or it’s going to advance these marginalized groups of students and communities. And so I always try to think of it as how do we live in community? How do we work to repair the relationship? And so Critical Race Theory aside, I come from CRT as, like, culturally responsive training. That is my job as an Educator and an Instructional Coach, is to deliver historical perspective from multiple perspectives and to provide, really, giving permission of our Educators, especially those new Teachers, to be co-learners and to be able to sit in discomfort as they understand about their students and they work to live in community with them, and those that are not represented in their classrooms. So, I encourage all my Teachers that I am supporting as an Instructional Coach to really think about ways to disrupt Racist curriculum. I was just in the classroom, I was subbing a lot this year, so I was all over the place in K-8 settings, and I was subbing in one fifth grade classroom and I was reading a story that was adopted in the reading curriculum and it was from pioneer perspective, which I think is important. And I thought about my own school experience, about what that taught me about race, ethnicity, gender, and how I was never seen as an Indigenous young person growing up in… I’d just never seen, accurately depicted in any curriculum. And so I thought to myself, there was no Indigenous perspective in this pioneer story except for that this Native person was bad and foreign and they were scared of him. And so I immediately went into that Educator space of how to celebrate cultures that are different, and in this classroom that I was teaching there might have been you know, mostly white, three students of color in the classroom. And I thought, ‘How important it is that we go in and we think about culturally responsive teaching and how we can give Educators permission to be co-learners,’ because I knew how to bring that to the classroom in the space so that Indigenous people were fairly and accurately represented. But the question remains, how do all teachers do that? And so I’ll stop there for now, but thanks for that question.
Norcross: Sure, thank you for your answer. You all also had to help your students metabolize the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, this year. Chris, how did that affect your students?
Riser: I think at one level it’s so commonplace, and so it was like just another day, and then at another level we talked about a lot of these issues as they emerge in my class. I’m lucky to be both a Social Studies Teacher and I teach an elective mock trial elective where we discuss the law and so you know a lot of things that pop-up in the headlines become the subject of discussion in my classroom and a lot of what students had to say regarding Uvalde was just that they don’t feel protected by the adults whose charge it is to care for them, you know, and then of course I always try, I don’t want to just leave students with their feelings of unsafety or you know, the questions of ‘Why this is happening?’ So we talked a little bit about the constitutionality of the police’s duty to protect, in the Mock Trial Class. And I had a Student Teacher who actually brought it to my attention, that the police, according to the Supreme Court, do not have a duty to protect. And so we talked about that and talked about, like how could we change the law, what needs to change within the legal system in order to affect the actual safety of people in the community? But students are both like, unfazed by violence, referring back to, you know, we don’t know what so many of our students were actually doing and watching on the internet when their parents were at work during all of that online learning time, and I’m sure that some of it was pretty violent stuff. So at one level they’re just desensitized, and then at another level they’re just want…they want adults to protect them, you know, and they want to know that the people who say that they’re there to protect and that our society says is there to protect us, are actually doing that. So it was just like another object lesson in…for many students, unfortunately, in like, how do we take care of us, and what is it that we need to do in order to keep each other safe? So that was kind of the discourse in my classroom.
Norcross: Just to wrap this up a little bit, Ethelyn, you’ve had some time to reflect on the past year and to look ahead to the next school year. What are you hoping from the next year, for yourself and for your students?
Tumalad: I really hope that there is consistency in everything I guess. By that, I mean the year before this one that we just wrapped up, was, as Chris had said, it was difficult, right? It was one of the most difficult years, wasn’t the worst, it was just difficult, in the sense that students and I started off with masks and then masks came off. And then of course there was pushback with vaccines. We had walkouts at my school. We had protests at my school. There were so many things happening even in the world. You just talked about these school shootings, right? And as Chris was saying that the students know what is happening most of the…I mean, I have high schoolers so usually they come to me and say, can we discuss this? Consistency and on top of it, direct support for my students, especially my marginalized students whose identity reflects mine – my Immigrant, my Bilingual, my students of Color, LGBTQ students, all of that, systemically, that’s what I want supported the most, and whatever way that is, through either the School Board, through more resources, through Administration, that’s what I would want to see for sure – is direct support towards my kiddos.
Norcross: Yeah, it was great to talk to all of you. Thank you for your work and best of luck, in 2022, 2023, it was great to talk.
Ethelyn / Nicole: Thank you.
Norcross: That’s Ethelyn Tumalad, who teaches English at Clackamas High School, Nicole Butler-Hootin, Second Grade Teacher at Irving Elementary School in Bethel, and Chris Riser, who is an 8th Grade Social Studies Teacher at Ockley Green Middle School.
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