Distant, but Connected: How TAF Martinez Fellows continue to build community during a global pandemic

Image Credit: Safiya Jetha @saftography

 

TAF Martinez Fellows, a group of educators of color and part of the TAF Martinez Fellowship program, aren’t teaching in classrooms right now, nor able to convene in person, but they are still finding ways to support one another during a global crisis. 

Planned to be hosted at Heritage University in Yakima, WA, TAF Martinez Fellowship Program Manager Saara Kamal was excited to make seminars more accessible to Fellows east of the mountains. Then, as we all know, the impact of COVID-19 brought a halt to mostly everything that TAF had in the works. Unfortunately, like many other events across the state, the seminar was canceled.

At its core, the Martinez Fellowship is changing the culture of education by recruiting and retaining teachers of color in public schools across Washington State to offer all students, and particularly students of color, the chance to learn and feel validated by an educator who looks like them. The mission of the program in itself is to increase equity in classrooms and districts with racially diverse educators, and one of the greatest assets of the fellowship is the relationships formed from shared experiences as teachers of color.

Educators everywhere began feeling the weight of the urgency to adapt without warning.

As schools shut down, and the approach to distance learning was still being determined by districts. Educators everywhere began feeling the weight of the urgency to adapt without warning. Teachers reported concern for the well-being of their students including how they would eat, continue learning without critical resources like the internet and a computer, and for some, care for their siblings while their parents continued to work. Some, like many others,  reached breaking points, understanding how this disruption in education coupled with the fear of an uncertain future would impact their students. Teachers were given short notice of school closures, leaving an incredible challenge for them to prepare materials and ensure their students were at least minimally equipped with classroom textbooks before being sent off into uncharted waters. 

Teachers all around the world were and still are hurting — both personally and for their students. What Saara decided to do next in the best interest of Martinez Fellows, was to not only move the seminar online but to scrap her planned content altogether and shift the focus to community building and support. In the invitation to fellows, she offered them the opportunity to engage with one another by talking through how they’ve been affected by the abrupt changes, to share their coping mechanisms, and simply to have a space to connect that was not tied to anything other than focusing on their own social and emotional health. 

When outlining the new virtual seminar, Saara remarked on the irony saying, “the seminar was originally going to focus on social-emotional development and learning for students!” Now, the focus was shifted to the Fellows as educators.

“I miss my students but we’ll figure it out! We got this!”

Jahira Teague, Martinez Fellow

Over 25 Fellows hopped online to reflect on how they were doing. Like most Washingtonians, there were concerns for family, loved ones, and communities. In addition to those fears, Fellows shared their frustration as educators of being removed from their students who they miss deeply. Fellows shared an acute awareness of how the challenges of creating equitable educational spaces are magnified through distance learning. When asked about how the seminar might affect their work moving forward one Fellow commented, “It was helpful in seeing how spaces to just share how we feel about our situation, were valuable. There was so much variety in the issues people faced, the different decisions by schools, and how to prepare for potential future situations. It was nice to be able to see everyone and just talk and share our experiences, both good and bad.” 

Fellows felt encouraged and fulfilled. It was a time where our educators of color were able to escape, if only for a moment, for self-care, reflection, and that much-needed sense of community.

“We suspected this might happen but it’s still sad to hear,” Martinez Fellow Jahira Teague shared. “I miss my students but we’ll figure it out! We got this!”

Now that Governor Inslee announced that schools will remain closed for the remainder of the school year, little breaks from the “new normal” like this virtual seminar will be critical for teachers. Saara has now implemented additional virtual touch-points called #CoffeeBreaks so fellows can remain connected and uplifted because, during this time of social distancing, relationships are everything. By supporting our teachers, we can help them do their best to support our students. At the end of the day, everyone wins.

TAF is participating in #GiveBIG on May 5th-6th. Early-giving begins on April 15th. To schedule a gift, visit the TAF GiveBIG profile.

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