Credit: George Danby / BDN

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Rhonda Tate of Otis is a STEM education specialist for the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance (MMSA) and a former classroom teacher of 16 years.

The first of May and Teacher Appreciation Week has returned — despite a pandemic. While this week might be a bit cliche, there is something reaffirming year after year when the community you serve as a teacher does, indeed, see that you have chosen not just a career but a life of sacrifice — one for the greater, collective, good.

As a former teacher and current mother of three school-aged children, I wondered what I should do for the teachers of my children. Somehow — after the past year — a coffee store gift card seemed lacking (though, on behalf of teachers everywhere, please keep giving them gift cards).

We have always said that teachers serve so many roles but this year has been like no other. And while we could rattle on about being nurses, teachers, custodians, coaches, mask-patrolers, zoom experts, etc., the real role of the teacher this year has been the peacekeeper.

At no other time in my lifetime has this country faced the division we currently face. Politically, spiritually, public health-wise — or however we want to coin this new area of division — communities of people now disagree, somewhat loudly, about some of the very core tenets of our way of life.

In the meantime, teachers welcome all children into their classrooms regardless of their parents’ political leanings or opinions on masks. In the meantime, children come together in ways their parents no longer seem to be able to do. As the adults in this country choose sides, the children, under the brilliant leadership of their teachers, keep calm and carry on.

Not only are they experts in child development, reading fluency, and computation, we have now asked our teachers to act as peacekeepers. A role typically reserved for high-level statespeople is now being carried out by kindergarten teachers. And you know what? It’s working.

In our little community school, Beech Hill School, teachers appear each morning and open their classroom doors and laptop screens to welcome all students. The classrooms and Zoom rooms become a space that is safe for students to be kids but also to begin to work through the experiences none of them were sheltered from. As my own children logged in from home, I had a front-row seat to the artistry these teachers engaged in each and every day. Regardless of subject area or grade level, real-world events and concerns found their way into the classroom.

What I heard from the students was alarming, sad and compelling. I wondered, how should the teachers respond? How could they? Instead of answers from these teachers, what I heard was teachers listening. I heard teachers listening. It’s worth repeating as we, the adults, have not been doing a very good job of listening.

I heard teachers listening to their students, giving them room to share their very well-founded fears and acknowledging their frustrations with the grown-up world. They did a lot of listening this year. And then, as the best teachers do, they sensed when it was time to pack it in and play a game of kickball.

Little by little, this simple gesture of giving kids space and actually listening to them allowed kids from dramatically different families to work through algebra problems, play a game of flag football, share a good laugh and go home for the day, none the worse for sharing time and space with those with opposing viewpoints.

It goes without saying that schools are the heart of small communities. While our edges might be a bit frayed currently, our heart — our little school — is beating strong. Leading by example, shaping a vision of the future that includes us all. The peacekeepers are leading us home. And, they probably need some coffee.