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Ilan Weissman is a nonbinary multimedia artist, educational reformer, teacher, and TGNB (Transgender & Nonbinary) child advocate. For 19 years, Ilan has been a teacher at the Ella Baker School, a progressive school in Manhattan. She is a classically trained musician, a creative technologist, and presently a semifinalist, in the running for the FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence
Teaching in a New York City Public school, one quickly learns that there is always more work to do; more lesson plans to write, more spreadsheets to create to foster transparency among colleagues, more ways to individualize the curriculum in order to meet every single students’ needs, more parent’s to check in with and always more to learn. That’s the best part of teaching. As long as our students ask questions, we are lifelong learners.
We are not done at 3:00 pm when the day is over. 3 is when the planning and magic begin. We incorporate our families into each extended workday. My six-year-old understands that being a teacher is so much more than a job. It is a movement. It is a way of life. It is the reason why our home is filled with the most wonderful collection of children’s books and why our living room is a center of inquiry from the marble ramp made of building insulation cut in half to the couch transformed into the bridge the Billy Goat Gruffs’ tirelessly travel.
I began teaching a 1st/2nd grade merged class at the Ella Baker School in September of 2001. I was 21 years old. The day the Twin Towers fell was my third day ever leading my own classroom. Our students commute from all five boroughs each day. Some parents were not able to pick up their children until it was dark. There were parents covered in ash who frantically entered the building. They had walked and sometimes ran for many blocks.
I wondered if the whole city was under attack.
I did not know.
The only thing I knew was that I would not leave the school until every one of my students’ was picked up. That is what it means to be a teacher in a community that is home. That day, I learned that our fear becomes our students’ fear and our calm becomes their calm. It is the gift we carry as teachers. Our peace is powerful enough to counteract hysteria. Our serenity can heal. We learn this as we huddle with our students on one side of the room, lights off, away from the door, and sit in silence during active shooter drills. In these moments we are ready to stand between our children and anyone who enters.
Some of us already have.
The first class I taught remotely after the unprecedented closing of our nations’ schools, ended halfway through the lesson because my internet was spotty. When the screen went dark I cried for a long moment, then turned the computer on and off and contacted the parents to help their children get back online. One of my third-grade students suggested that we use our classroom meditation practice on meditation for tech glitches. “Let’s focus our breath for 30 seconds”, Noah said calmly with a voice so soothing we all felt at ease. “Now as you breathe in, fill your mind with positive thoughts and tell yourself that this moment is just a glitch and soon it will be fixed and we will see each other again.”
Inside our remote classroom, we learn together, we grow, we sing, we dance, we practice mindful meditation, we heal from moments that have hurt us, we say we are sorry when we hurt someone else, we dream, we write and we become a family.
When you are in your home, your role is to do what needs to be done. You don’t do it because you have to, but because when you build a space together, you create a ripple effect that is transformative. Before you know it, a collaborative of communities; working, learning, and thriving together form around you. That is what I set out to do each day I turn on my computer and step into our new normal. As a cohesive community, we have adapted.
We are home.