writings and Reflections

Three Questions Before We Go Back to School
Tara Christie Kinsey

547 days. Our first day of school on September 9th will mark 547 days since March 11, 2020, the very last day that we were all—every Hewitt student, teacher, administrator, and staff member—gathered together on our campus.

547 days is a long time to be physically apart, whether wholly or partially, from a community that is in many respects defined by its close-knit togetherness. Over the last year and a half, as we gathered online or in-person in separate, small, socially distanced, and self-contained groups, I often wondered how our founder, Caroline Hewitt, might have reacted to the necessary reimagining of her declaration that “it is the touch of life upon life that matters most in a school.” Though I will forever be proud of the way Hewitt rose to the various challenges of the pandemic, I am also aware of just how truly excited we are to leave the last year and a half behind us and resume in-person school, with all of us together, in our school buildings, five days a week. Back to school, just like before, but with masks and some social distancing. Right?

Not quite.

While it is natural for us to want “back to school” to usher in a “back to normal” feeling—who wouldn’t be drawn to the comfort of familiar spaces, faces (even if masked), and in-person experiences following such an extended period of physical separation and social isolation?—how we begin again right now truly matters, and perhaps more than we might suspect. The world has changed considerably over the course of those 547 days, and this is not just any other back-to-school season. This fall, our success will depend in large part on our willingness to be intentional, present, open, and curious about why, how, and what we do in school.

So before we jump headlong into the frenetic pace of back-to-school season, snapping right back into the old and well-worn ways of gathering and being with one another in school, I invite you to pause and consider these three questions:

1. During the pandemic, what new insights did we learn about the true purpose of school, and how do we use what we’ve learned to clarify what to stop, start, and continue?
What stopped during the pandemic that we should not bring back into school because we now realize it takes up precious time and space we can better use on more authentic and meaningful growth and progress toward more clearly defined learning outcomes? What did we start doing during the pandemic that we want to continue? For instance, how might we continue to leverage technology to share content (for example, pre-recorded mini-lessons or sending a video or photo home to families) in order to free up in-person classroom and meeting time for truly meaningful and interactive learning and relationship building? What do we miss and want to rebuild back to the way it used to be, and are we being thoughtful about why we want to do so? At Hewitt, we will endeavor to resist slipping back into the old ways of doing things just because it is easier, because it is more familiar, or because “it’s the way we do things in school.”

2. What kinds of relationships unlock the most effective learning and growth in schools?
If you close your eyes, can you remember a teacher who made you feel seen, valued, respected, even loved? If you’re lucky, you had at least one teacher who made you feel that way. I will never forget my English teacher who asked me to stay after class to inform me that I had a gift for insightful analysis and writing. He sent me off with his entire collection of Samuel Beckett with instructions to come back during office hours after I had read them all. Words can’t describe the powerful effect this had on me as a young person, and even now as an adult. Many educators work in schools because we want to give others similar life-affirming, life-trajectory-altering experiences. At Hewitt, our faculty and staff understand that it is their most important job to be a positive force in a young person’s life. At Hewitt, we will be intentional about how we build deep and meaningful relationships, so that students, as well as faculty and staff, feel they are in a school where they are not only welcomed but experience a sense of belonging, where they feel respected, seen, cared for, supported, and where they feel challenged to stretch, grow, take healthy risks, and make mistakes, without fear of judgement or reproach.

3. If we know that some of the old ways of doing school didn’t actually meet the needs of many people, how might we invite more in our community to co-design what happens in school so that it works better for all of us?
Although we don’t tend to think of them this way, schools are sites of hierarchy and power in which the status quo is replicated unless consciously interrupted. How might we interrupt the status quo in school in order to build a learning environment that works better for everyone? The answer is complicated, but Gloria Steinem helps get the conversation started when she writes: "One of the simplest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen, and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak." At Hewitt, we intend to act on research showing that students learn and achieve more if they have more agency and active participation in what happens at school. Rather than handing a student an assignment, our teachers will work alongside students helping them chart their own paths while cultivating their independent thinking skills and leadership capacity. At Hewitt, we will teach content and skills in service of learning that is relevant and meaningful to our mission: to inspire girls and young women to become game changers and ethical leaders who forge an equitable, sustainable, and joyous future.

This back-to-school season, I invite all of us to keep these three questions at the forefront of our consciousness, and to keep the conversation going! Our faculty and staff are already actively wrestling with these questions, and I look forward to hearing how our families are making sense of this moment too. While it is true that these questions certainly take some time and effort to answer thoughtfully, if we don’t ask them, we risk squandering this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build anew, and design a “new normal” to bring about better outcomes for our girls and young women, and for our world. As we head back to school, let us remember that “back to normal” is not the goal. Doing school even better than we did before, so that our students are even more prepared for ethical leadership in a changed and rapidly changing world—that is the goal. This September, let us seize this momentous opportunity to balance tradition and innovation, the familiar with the new, and this moment full of endings and beginnings. It all starts with us here, now, at Hewitt. Our girls and young women are counting on us.

Dr. Kinsey shared this message with Hewitt parents, guardians, faculty, and staff on September 2, 2021. 

Five teachers wearing masks gather around a large poster on a wall while one writes on the poster

Hewitt faculty and staff reflect on our three back-to-school questions at an August meeting

Five teachers wearing masks gather around a large poster on a wall. The poster is covered with handwritten notes.

Our professional community prepare for the start of a great school year as they work collaboratively to answer our three back-to-school questions

Read More