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Nestled right into an inner-city Saginaw neighborhood, Francis Reh Academy is a beacon of support for many students and families who face daily challenges of poverty, violence, trauma and more. Erin Fought still remembers going home on a Thursday afternoon back in March, not knowing that she and her students wouldn't return on Friday, the next week, the next month, or at all through the end of the school year. Many nights she lost sleep, thinking about her kids and the many challenges they faced, compounded with the pandemic. Getting back to school this year brought a wave of relief and joy - not just to resume instruction, but also to allow the Francis Reh team to reconnect and forge relationships with students and families once more.
As a third generation educator, Erin always knew her path would lead to teaching. Just a week from graduating college with her certificate, she got a job at Francis Reh, and has been there ever since - in the same role, in the same classroom for seven years. As with many other educators who serve high-need students, school at Francis Reh is so much more than instruction. Many students rely on them for meals, hugs and emotional support from the staff, one-on-one academic support and more. The COVID-19 pandemic didn't erase those needs, and the Francis Reh team stepped up. From March 16, 2020 through August 21, 2020, their small school kitchen prepared and provided over a quarter million meals to Saginaw area children (even those who were not Francis Reh students) - a feat that is absolutely astonishing. For Erin, this is just one of the reasons she's incredibly proud to be part of such a passionate, dedicated team.
As summer pushed on, developing a reopening strategy came with many hurdles. Erin and her fellow educators knew that safety was important, of course, but also that given the needs of their student body, they needed to ensure this year wasn't something completely foreign and new. They had to prioritize building a real school community, where kids saw their classrooms as safe spaces. While most schools in the Saginaw community opted for entirely virtual instruction, Francis Reh ultimately settled on both a 100% virtual option and a hybrid model of in-person and virtual instruction. For Erin, getting back into a classroom (both physically and virtually) was amazing.
It was very hard to have so much up in the air over the summer, not knowing if plans were going to change one way or another. I worry about my kids when they're away for so long - particularly those that are high-need, either academically or emotionally. I'm very thankful to be teaching again, just to have the opportunity to build relationships with kids - whether they're in my classroom or at home. Because so many of our students do have high academic needs, having such small classes is actually really exciting for me - it presents a unique learning opportunity.
Like many other educators, Erin also learned a lot between last spring and this fall in terms of successful virtual instruction. The first challenge was access - and the Francis Reh team worked diligently to get technology into the hands of every student. But soon after that, it became clear that many students weren't comfortable using the technology; they struggled to complete academic work, many were shy or uncomfortable using camera features for Zoom calls.
Before COVID, I certainly incorporated technology into my classroom - and we had some assumptions about how well students could use technology. What we learned was that even if students knew how to navigate a smartphone, they weren't prepared to do academic work on it. For me, this pandemic has made it so clear that we have to foster technology independence in young children. Moving past this year, that's going to be something that I will work to build in all my students.
For Erin, the challenges, technology frustrations and the hurdles of this unusual year are far outweighed by the opportunity to once again build relationships with students. On one hand, it begins with her daily morning meeting - something she has done every year since beginning at Francis Reh, and can now be found live-streamed for those learning at home. On the other hand, it means one-on-one Zoom calls simply to help a student practice reading. Whatever the method, Erin and the Francis Reh team are committed to the journey.
Relationships are the key to fostering growth in each student. You have to have a relationship if you want to meet them anywhere academically. Every kid can learn, no matter where they're at when they come to you - every kid can experience that amazing growth. It just starts with the relationship.
We asked Erin if there was an object that she felt impacted her as an educator or exemplified her as a teacher. Pictured right is her chosen object, and below is her description.
The story behind why this card means so much to me is that this particular student had struggled prior to the shutdown in the spring, so when he wasn’t completing much work during the spring virtual learning, I asked his mom if we could set up a one on one session each week to work together. We continued this until the end of the school year and when school was out for summer, I would bring him to the public library at the same time each week to continue working together. Once school was about to start in the fall, he and his mom delivered a gift to my house and a card he wrote me that said “Thank you for believing in me.” For him to know that I truly believe in him, meant so much to me because I think that this helped him to start believe in himself.