By Suzy Israel
Today in our school, a calm and sullen quiet that doesn’t usually characterize our hallways made its way into our spaces. As the principal of an elementary school, I had to ask our teachers to make space for socially distant learning by packing up their books, their classroom toys and games, and all of their school supplies. Their quiet packing was intermittently interrupted by the sound of a tape gun and the shuffling of boxes across a classroom floor.
The images of packing and boxing unsettled me, but the image that tugged at my heartstrings most was the pile of rolled up classroom rugs waiting to be moved to storage. The carpet in every classroom is the hub of celebration, of reflection, and of storytelling. It is on this carpet, that children reveal the top-secret news that mommy is having a baby; it is on this carpet that children sing happy birthday, and it is on this carpet that children receive some of their most potent life lessons.
Over the 25 years that I have worked in the elementary schools, I’ve witnessed this space used as a powerful hub of community building. The carpet is where students share their favorite toy from home, learn to express their anger appropriately, and discover what they have in common and what makes them different. This is where we as teachers, take the temperature on classroom dynamics, address teasing, read stories, set goals, and review a tricky math concept. But above everything, the classroom carpet affords teachers, with a simple turn of the head, the opportunity to look squarely into the eyes of each and every member of their classroom community.
Let’s say, a 3rd grade class has been sent out of PE early; they have misbehaved and have treated their classmates unkindly. Their classroom teacher, having been summoned to collect them early from the gym, walks them back with a stern face and a staccato gait. When she arrives at the threshold of her classroom, she points at her carpet and invites the children to gather and sit. It is on this carpet, in this community gathering place, that they will talk through what happened, brainstorm ways of making things right, and outline a plan for comportment in PE class going forward.
Seeing all those carpets rolled up and ready to be removed from our elementary school brought a wave of sadness over me and also got me thinking. The classroom carpet is where powerful community building takes place and where relationships are forged through discussion, proximity, and struggle; it hosts all of the essential elements of our community. If we have succeeded in reshaping our school community in a virtual platform, we need to create a virtual carpet in our new socially distant school setting. As educators, we know what matters most; building a caring community of little learners who will lean on each other and will elevate one another. And sit together on a colorful carpet and talk.
The best classroom teachers look at their classrooms as a microcosm of an authentic community and take upon themselves the responsibility of building and maintaining the structures that lend themselves to keeping that small community healthy. Yet now our teachers have to reimagine and restructure everything they know about community building and again, we will rely on our greater community to hold us up as they hold us accountable.
Those rolled carpets reminded me yet again of the importance of recognizing just how hard teachers worked these past few months, even if they could not provide the same kind of environment as the classroom experience. Together they struggled to ensure that children with lagging skills were making progress. They found creative ways to measure learning and growth. They had lunch with their students virtually. They organized drive-by visits, and they celebrated milestones on a virtual classroom carpet. These past few months, our teachers worked on so much more than helping children identify metaphors and similes or factoring trinomials; they worked to shape the citizens of tomorrow, and they took that responsibility very seriously. Stacked up in those rugs are the thousands of thank yous to our teachers that must be offered for rolling out the carpet, quite literally, for all of our children.
We will bring the children back. We will educate them. And we will work to build a loving classroom community, and await the day – may it come soon – to put our treasured carpets back at the center of our classrooms.
Suzy Israel is the Principal of the Berman Hebrew Academy’s Lower School.