When I was a kindergarten teacher, I would spend the night before the first day of school making homemade playdough. It was a recipe I learned in an elementary art class in graduate school. It was immensely satisfying to mix the flour, water, oil, cream of tartar (the secret ingredient), and food coloring together and then see it start to form and then develop into a smooth, elastic dough.
It was a ritual connected to my earliest days of teaching and also a method I used to start to understand my new students. I would put the playdough out on a table at center time. I would notice who would choose the playdough and what they would do with it.
It often revealed to me the students that had the most issues to work out. There is something therapeutic about making things and squishing them and remaking them in a new way. There are no mistakes in playdough and no permanence. It is a safe place.
I think for most educators, the day before the first day of school is filled with emotion. Some teachers stay late in their classroom, affixing name tags, straightening out the class library, and just being in the clean and empty room, wondering about the many personalities that will be showing up tomorrow. Other teachers spend as much time as possible on that last day at home, soaking up the final hours of their summer tempo like a delicious soup. They might tend to their garden, read an extra-long bedtime story to their own children, or take a walk with their spouse. Underneath that quiet, that lingering spaciousness of summer break, is the tension of knowing it will be broken tomorrow.
We are lucky that we get to work in an environment where there is such a clear beginning, middle, and end of every year of work. As school people, we have the space for self-reflection and the opportunity to start the new year in new ways. We can practice new habits and try new methods.
I often hear the expression in business circles, “You have to build the airplane while flying it.” Clearly a terrible idea. As a teacher, I was able to use my time in the summer to craft a new vessel to carry each of my classes to the other side of their grade each year.
A fresh start sounds appealing, but it was only fresh for me if I could manage not to drag last year’s burdens into the new year. I had to wipe clean my issues with that difficult parent who always leaped to the worst conclusion about me and extend a warm hand of partnership to my new families. I had to let go of the sadness I carried for the student that I could never quite reach and the frustration from the one who would never listen.
I had to allow all the students in my new class the chance to reveal themselves to me without preconceived ideas about them. It took time and self-reflection to glean the lessons I learned as a teacher from last year and determine how to apply them to the new year. Some years were harder than others. The past three years have been almost impossible to make sense of.
This past summer seems like the summer all of us educators finally got to let go of the trauma of being an educator during the pandemic. People were able to travel, play sports, relax with friends, go to parties, go dancing, take classes, and do all the things that we do to help us process, reconnect, and recharge.
When we came back to school this year, everyone knew it would be similar to last year. There would not be some new medical mandate involving social distancing preschoolers, wearing masks while teaching phonics, or trying to engage middle schoolers over Zoom. There is not the same fear that stalked us all during those years.
Now that I work with adults leading schools, I no longer make playdough before the first day of school. But in the days before the students arrived, when it was just staff in the building, I did feel it all coming together. My hope is that this year, we are able to be smooth and elastic, ready to yield to the thumbprints of our students, but still able to spring back each day. That school will feel like a safe place again for teachers, students, and families. That this first day really means a fresh start.
Christine Ferris has been the Executive Director of Highline Academy Charter Schools since 2016. She founded and led Our Community School, a K-8 charter school in Los Angeles from 2005 to 2013. She is a writer of personal essays and a memoir about her experience leading Our Community School.