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Why this Detroit teacher is confident that despite the pandemic’s devastating effects, her students will be OK

Tracey Sturdivant, a third grade teacher at Pasteur Elementary School in the Detroit school district, is optimistic that students will be able to bounce back after a year of pandemic learning.
Photo courtesy Tracey Sturdivant

Once a week, a different student in Tracey Sturdivant’s third-grade class receives a treat from her in the mail.

Sometimes, it’s a tub full of crayons. Other times, it could be a Spiderman set full of stickers and markers, or a “Frozen” coloring book.

It’s a recognition for the students having earned the title of student of the week, for things like being a star performer, participation, being a good listener, and having a positive attitude. But for Sturdivant, it’s also a way of staying connected with her online class.

Being remote has meant fewer of the personal interactions that are important to Sturdivant, a 26-year classroom veteran. In person, she can easily identify students who are troubled or stressed and offer a hug.

“I can’t be there to give you those hugs of reassurance to let you know everything is all right,” said Sturdivant, who teaches reading and social studies to third graders at Pasteur Elementary School in the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Recently, the district recognized her for the work she has done building relationships with parents and students, citing one young girl who said of Sturdivant: “She is like a gift.”

When Chalkbeat spoke to Sturdivant this week, she shared that despite the struggles of pandemic learning, and the worries many educators have about learning loss, she remains hopeful. She knows her students will be behind academically, but she also believes they’ll catch up.

“This generation is going to be OK,” she said.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I started out going down another path. Growing up, all I wanted to do was to become a teacher. But as I got older people kept saying, ‘You don’t want to do that. The pay is horrible. The kids are terrible.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ Ultimately, another lady spoke into my life. She did this for a living, where she helped people find what they want to do. She asked me, “If something apocalyptic happened and they needed people to work, what would you choose to do to help the population, for free?’ I blurted out without thinking, ‘I would teach the children.’ I just sat and I smiled. It was such a relief. It felt like a load had been lifted off my shoulders. I remember my mom telling me, ‘When you were a little girl I would look out the window and you would have all the papers from your teachers from the end of the year … and all the neighborhood children would be on the porch. And you would be teaching them all the lessons from the whole year.’ To this day, I have no regrets [about choosing teaching]. I love it. I love it. I love it. There’s not a day that I don’t walk in that room and I’m not skipping in.

What does a typical day look like for you now?

We start our day off in the morning with me asking them, ‘Is there any good news? Is there any bad news?’ That really helps me set the tone for the morning. I did that in the classroom, too. You just need to know. Sometimes kids need to get things off their chest, especially with COVID. They’re very candid with you. ‘My grandma has COVID.’ And I’ll say, ‘OK, we’re going to lift her up and make sure to ask you about her every day.’ Or, I’ll hear things like, “We have to move suddenly.” Afterwards, we always sing a song. I sing this song with them that I just love so much. My elementary teacher sang it (“This Land is Your Land”) all the time. They just love it. It’s such a nice little song.

We have two and a half hours of live instruction for the first class. And then two and a half hours for the second class. It is really hard. It’s a lot of screen time for the students. The district has instructed us to give them time to work off screen, so we are part on screen and part off screen. I usually wrap up the day with the Student of the Week. They get to choose a song of their choice. The whole class has to turn their cameras on and their sound on. And we sing and dance right on off the screen.

What challenges do you face teaching reading and social studies during this year?

Honestly, it’s the attention spans. It is just very hard at times to keep them engaged, keep them attentive. And some of their devices malfunction. Also there are a lot of parents that work at home and the kids have younger siblings. It becomes very challenging when their siblings are there and crying and the parents are trying to work. I feel like at times I’m a counselor, a referee. I’m like, “It’s OK, you just go to a quiet place in your room and close the door so your sister doesn’t come in.’

What do you do when you find students aren’t engaged?

I’ll say, ‘Everybody stop, turn your mics on, turn your cameras on. Stand up. Stretch. Let’s get ready to sing the happy song.’ We play that a lot and we just get the giggles out. Sometimes you just want to talk about nothing. I know they just want to talk too. One boy in particular, he loves showing us his latest toys. And, they love that. I do that on purpose because they’re lacking interaction right now and that interaction is necessary at this age.

What are some ways you have connected with students and parents during the pandemic?

I started a reading program for our class. I pick a new parent each Friday to read a children’s book to the class online. It has really taken off. I felt like the parents were just there on the sidelines, and I wanted them to have a part in their kid’s education, especially since they’re at home. Each week I randomly call the parents and ask them to read to the class. Nobody knows who’s going to read, from week to week, so nobody feels stress (if they can’t do it). The calls give me a chance to talk to them and feel connected to them.

Why are these connections so important to you?

Studies have shown that students who like their teachers actually work harder. And, if parents are on board, they’ll encourage the student to work harder and be more respectful. A lot of the disrespect and disconnect comes from parents and teachers not making those connections, not making those relationships. Those that I have mentored over the years, that’s the first thing I tell them: You get in with those parents, you get in with those students, and you make yourself a little community before you start teaching. It takes time. You have to talk to people at the end of the day when you want to go home. You have to remember birthdays and special days. It builds relationships and it builds better learners. Our goal isn’t just to have kids pass third grade. You want to create someone who has good memories of learning experiences.

How have you approached recent news events in your classroom?

Our principal instituted a word for the month. Our word for the month last month ironically was citizenship. I did a whole lesson/discussion about citizenship and how President Trump and the clash on the Capitol was not exhibiting good citizenship. It was so interesting. Even from a child’s perspective, it was clearly not being a good citizen.

Do you think education will look different after the pandemic? If so, how?

I believe that the kids will bounce back very well. They’re really resilient. They’ll be able to get back into those classroom routines and settings because, overall, most kids really like school. We’ve seen this during the pandemic how much they’d rather be in the classroom. As far as the kids being on target, I think they will all be very much behind academically. But they can be brought up. They do learn very fast, and they are like little sponges.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class (or your school)?

The COVID pandemic is very much affecting our classes. We have students having to move suddenly out of their homes. They’re having parents and grandparents that have passed. We have actual parents in our buildings that have passed. They’re afraid because a lot of us don’t have the answers that we normally have for them. They want to know how long it’s going to last. It’s very troubling at times for them.

Tell us about your own experience with school and how it affects your work today.

I had a variety of public and private school experiences. I really appreciate my teachers. I had teachers that would just take so much time with you. I also remember having this one Black teacher. I remember her and a good friend of hers telling a group of us: ‘You guys are little Black children. You’re going to have to do more, you’re going to have to work hard. Life is not going to be the way you think it’s going to be.’ It stuck with me. They really impacted my life in more ways than I know. I never forgot that and I give that (advice) to my kids.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received, and how have you put it into practice?

One of the best pieces of advice came from a lady in her 32nd year of teaching. I was her student teacher. I remembered seeing her leave on time several days a week. I would kind of turn my nose up at it. One day, she came up to me (at the end of the day) and asked if I was ready to go. I said, ‘I usually stay an hour after you leave.’ She bent down close to me and she got quiet. She said, ‘If you don’t learn how to leave work at work and have a life of your own outside of work, you will become a bitter old lady.’ I’ve held onto that phrase. I give 101% when I’m there. But when I get home I have my family time. I’m in the moment with them.

What gives you hope at this moment?

The kids are going to make it, despite the pandemic. I feel at heart this generation is very resilient. They seem so strong and energetic. They seem so hopeful. I love talking to them. I asked them the other day what they wanted to be. Oh my gosh, their dreams were so big. It was like, yes you can do all of that and then some.

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