As trite as it sounds, you never think it is going to happen to you, until it does and then hindsight is just that — a lot of “wish I would have thought about that before the fire happened.” Crestline Elementary in Vancouver, Washington burned to the ground on February 3rd. The outpouring of support — in particular, Choice Literacy subscribers who purchased books for our classroom libraries — is heartwarming beyond measure. As part of the Choice Literacy family, saying thank you isn’t enough, so I write this article in the hopes of helping you proactively prepare should something like a fire or natural disaster come your way.
One of the things we have learned in hindsight is the importance of classroom community and how a tragedy, which disrupts the normalcy of the school year, can affect that community.
1. Should you have to go through a major upheaval, your first priority will be rebuilding community and re-establishing procedures and high expectations for both behavior and work.
Related to re-establishing community, procedures and expectations, is the importance of accepting a “new normal” and the work of school. This is important for children and adults. The emotional impact of the fire varied among our staff. Weeks after the fire, some teachers continued to “process” the loss through artwork and writing. While therapeutic and necessary at first, there comes a time to move on.
2. Children and adults need time to process and heal. Part of the healing is getting back to the work of school and learning needs to happen. School can’t wait.
Prior to becoming the instructional coach at Crestline, I was an instructor of literacy, preparing future teachers of reading and writing. I always said my goal was to prepare teachers who, if stranded on a deserted island with nothing but a stick and dirt, could teach children how to read and write with no program or leveled book necessary. As we wait for replacement curriculum materials to arrive like leveled books for our youngest readers, the importance of being theoretically grounded has become clear and the dangers of being strongly tied to “materials” an apparent roadblock.
3. If you are in a position of providing professional development or coaching to teachers, provide opportunities for teachers to simply nestle in beside a child and support their learning with nothing more than what the child has in their book box.
It is important teachers are able to instruct and support students without depending on certain materials to do so. They may burn up some day and children’s learning can’t wait until they reappear in the mailbox.
4. Look around your classroom and office. What do you have at school which you could not replace? Photos of your child or family? Sentimental trinkets? Take them home.
If we were able to rewind and have one last day in our classrooms or offices, we would spend some time to take a few things a bit more seriously. I’d look around my office, poke into drawers and files I have not in awhile, and look for those things which are simply irreplaceable. From my years of teaching, I kept a “Happy File.” This file was a comfort to me on those hard days when a parent and I failed to communicate or when a colleague or administrator stressed me out to the point I seriously considered working the counter at a nickel and dime store preferable. Going through these notes, thank you cards, and pictures carefully drawn and colored by a child’s hand, never failed to lift me up. I wish I had kept them at home.
5. Do you keep your teaching license, certification paperwork, etc. at school? Take them home.
In Washington, we collect “clock hours” for district professional development opportunities which are used for continued certification and incremental pay raises. It is common practice to just put the paperwork in a file until needed and then pay the $3 per clock hour credit all at once. The trouble with this practice is the issuing agency has no record of your attendance until your form is turned in. Now all of us are painstakingly trying to remember classes taken from long ago.
6. Do you have a record of all the books you have in your classroom and professional library?
Oh the books! Like most classrooms, ours were filled with wonderful collections of children’s books and professional literature. My professional library was extensive. I am trying to build an inventory list for insurance claim purposes. This is difficult to do after the fact. One teacher is in good shape. She took advantage of a website: http://classroom.booksource.com/ and had her entire classroom library and professional library catalogued.
At the very least, lay out the books you have on top of a table, and snap a picture. If you have one-of-a-kind books or sentimental gifts used only on occasion, bring them only when you use them. Otherwise, take them home.
7. Look through your files. Scan and save a digital version of any articles, masters, work samples, and artifacts which are essential for your teaching. Make sure you store them on a server which survives even if your computer turns into an almost unrecognizable piece of melted plastic and metal. Make hard copies of things you really need to have in your hands and take that file home.
Even in this tech age, many of our lessons or blacklines or ideas are on that one dog-eared master we copy each year. I had so many articles which I relied on and reread from time to time to answer a teacher’s question or remind myself of best practices. All of those copies are now gone. I had wonderful student samples of writing collected over the years to use as examples of great voice, gut-wrenching endings, and tantalizing hooks. They’re gone.
8. Do you have pictures of your classroom spaces and systems?
Take a moment to photograph your classroom and record your systems so you have a backup for your memory. “Overwhelmed” has a whole new meaning for us and it includes the inability to think straight and remember things you would swear you would never forget. Snap a picture of the layout of your room now.
The past couple of years, Crestline teachers worked very hard on creating warm, inviting classroom environments which had spaces for authentic work, efficient systems, and comfortable spaces. When something devastating happens and you see your classroom reduced to a mound of unrecognizable rubble, a paralysis sets in and those once fine-tuned systems are lost in a fog.
We continue to learn lessons from the Crestline Fire of 2013. Perhaps the most enduring lesson is that in the end, it’s all only stuff. We will be together under one roof next year and in a new building for the fall of 2014. When that time comes, there will be a pragmatic, more intentional occupant of my new office — one who takes full advantage of our digital world, catalogs what is there, and only stores at school what is necessary and replaceable. Otherwise, I’m leaving it at home.