What it means to be a teacher right now

boy walking in the snow

By Megan Sager

Early December. The temperature hovers near forty degrees, a cold mist falls. More than a dozen children stand with me in a haphazard circle on a playground surrounded by a fence and evergreen trees in a Northeast suburb. The children are young; they range in age from three to six. Achieving a symmetrical circle is a challenge. I imagine the day that I can tell them to hold hands instead of what I keep saying now:

“Hold out your arms, take a step apart.” I am ever conscious of my responsibility to make sure they are social distancing.

They instinctively cluster, like magnets.

I am in ski pants and shearling-lined boots. I run cold, so I wear at least two long-sleeved wool shirts, my hand-knitted wool sweater. On top I wear a rain jacket. I can move faster in a light jacket atop thin layers. It’s 3:40pm and I’ve been outside since 8am. Most children are in snow suits or rain pants. They wear thick mittens and face masks. One wears a hat in the shape of a bear head. As my glasses fog up because of my own face mask, I realize the bear-child resembles a large stuffed animal. 

We move to get warm. It works every time. Jennifer Gasoi’s song, Happy, comes next in the queue on my Spotify playlist; my wireless speaker is on a tree stump in the middle of the circle. All of the children know exactly the spot in the song when we will grab maracas and twirl around. When Happy ends, I’ll play Tim Kubart’s Dancing in the Kitchen. Four kids, kindergarten-aged, have been working on choreographing moves for it. I will be relieved to turn over the “stage,” the center of our circle, to them. By then we will be warm and they’ll probably ask to take off their coats. 

I am not a natural dancer. I am equally likely to be off beat as on, equally prone to have my hands in my pockets when music plays. But we are in a pandemic, in Outside School. Suddenly I find myself “teaching” dance. My rocky relationship with dance makes this a conundrum. 

On weekends I research Grammy Award-winning children’s artists to curate my playlist. I listen to possibilities during my early morning workout and consider whether or not squats could be considered a possible dance move. I watch YouTube instructional dance videos. I Google “line dancing” because a friend said, “try line dancing.” But the steps look too hard. I try to forget the teacher who made me a “helper” in dance class when I was five because I had trouble following along. And also my piano teacher who struggled to keep me on tempo. I clap hard in my new role as a dance motivator and am sometimes brought into rhythm by a person a fraction of my age.

We are all each other’s teacher. 

This song and dance circle is new for me. It originally started as story time. But that was late August, when temperatures were in the 80’s. Kids were happy to sit on the ground and have a rest. We were hot back then, especially in our masks. But as temperatures began to drop we needed action.  

On this late afternoon I make an important announcement. 

“There is no right way to dance. It’s how your body hears music.” I am telling the children as much as I am telling my 51-year-old self. 

I am overjoyed when I hear the meaning of my words repeated, the next day, on the playground from one boy to another. 

“You can dance any way you want.”

At least twice each day, I am re-invigorated in my heavy boots, grateful to the artists who sing from my speaker. I’m grateful for their company—their voices and rhythm—that move our feet, make us sweat, and keep us warm. In these early winter weeks, these children have learned words to multitudes of songs, matched motion to meaning, and know there are dances called the Rhumba and the Mambo, all thanks to Jennifer Gasoi’s song, Purple Man. Though I’ve never met her, I feel as if we are now friends. 

“What’s your favorite part of the day?” I ask my class one morning as we look over the schedule. 

“Song Circle,” says one girl, jumping up and down in a new purple coat.  

It’s become my favorite part too, I tell them, as we prepare for another day outside together.

And in that moment, I forget about the small hardships—the masks, the cold toes, the way crayons get lost in mulch. Instead I feel gratitude that Outside School has pushed me past my comfort zone, that the cold has rattled me into motion.

I am grateful to have reason to dance.

Megan Houston Sager, M.Ed, is a teacher in New Jersey. She has been grateful for the challenge of learning to teach outside. She can now tie tarps in the trees, amidst a rainstorm, at a moment’s notice. Of course, her best discovery has been experiencing the joy of dancing in the rain.

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