Owen Bondono loves to see his students feeling confident, safe, and engaged in his classroom, but right now, he is terrified.
As school districts roll out plans for next semester, reopening classrooms is a question on the minds of students, parents, and teachers. Increases in daily coronavirus cases have raised concerns about the safety of reopening schools.
Owen Bondono, an English teacher in Oak Park, is Michigan’s Teacher of the Year.
“I think that the uncertainty right now is terrifying, says Bondono, an Oak Park ninth grade English teacher and Michigan’s Teacher of the Year for the 2020-21 school year. “We can say all we want. [We can say] that we want to go back [virtually]. We can say things like it'll be for the first semester or the first quarter, but we have no idea how long things are going to last. We have no idea under what circumstances we'll decide it's safe to go back.”
Teachers and families across the state are reckoning with the immediate realities that COVID-19. But regardless of whether he sees his students face-to-face, or screen-to-screen, Bondono said he knows teaching is his calling.
“Things that I enjoyed doing most, the things I've enjoyed about jobs and hobbies, … all these things have in common the desire to help people succeed and to help others on their journey. “ he said
Bondono was exposed to teaching through his family, even teaching guest lessons for his older sister who is a teacher while he was in high school and college. While studying at Wayne State’s College of Education, he was a substitute teacher and special education paraprofessional. He has spent five years teaching middle and high school.
Bridge sat down with Bondono to dicuss his experiences and perspective on the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Bridge: What were some of your experiences as a new teacher?
Bondono: You have to work until the task is done often. And as a new teacher, that meant for me extremely long hours. I was designing a brand new course while I was teaching it. I was building the plane as it was flying and I had to learn how to grade and how to manage time, how to make classroom management work…
[When I first started] the school asked if I would teach this brand new course that was meant to fill in the learning gaps that our students had in English and in math, that was all games based… [This led to] some really amazing moments, like when I got to change an entire group of middle schoolers, how to play chess, it was kind of amazing.”
Bridge: Do you think that being a parapro changes your interpretation of what it means to be a teacher?
Bondono: Absolutely. First of all, I was a special education parapro specifically. And so it gave me an inside view into how special ed functions that I think a lot of general education teachers don't get. And it made me much more capable at modifying and accommodating, not just for my special ed students, but for any students that need it...I felt like I understood the ways in which each student is sort of their own universe in a way that often takes time for teachers to learn.
Bridge: What's the best thing about being a teacher?
Bondono: Without question, it's the relationships I get to build with students. It's getting to share jokes with them and seeing them relax and be themselves in front of me and feel safe someplace, especially when you have students who maybe haven't felt safe in school before, and you get to see them relax and feel safe in your room.
I had a student who left the district midyear last year because of some family issues that were going on, and he came to see me before he left to say that mine was the first classroom he felt safe making mistakes in since elementary school. It was an effort not to cry, when he said that. So I think being a safe place for kids and seeing them flourish under that is the best thing.
Bridge: What's the hardest part about being a teacher?
Bondono: Well, I think sometimes the amount of unacknowledged work that goes into it is difficult. People seem to think that teachers work six hours a day and have summers off and we all know that's not true … There's a lot of uncompensated work that happens…
I also think that's sort of tied with how many times teachers feel like they're out on a limb on their jobs that they're that all of us are in a way trying to fly the plane while we're building it in our own classrooms, without being given enough time to plan and grade and collaborate with each other and do the work necessary to really provide those amazing experiences for kids. We're told we have to provide these experiences and then often not given the resources to actually provide them, which can be very frustrating.
Bridge: What do you think is the biggest misconception the public has about teachers?
Bondono: It feels often that the public thinks we are an extremely valuable commodity, but doesn't want to treat us like an extremely valuable commodity. When it suits the public, we are heroes who are building the next generation and are irreplaceable, but then at the same time when it suits the public we're babysitter … I see this conflict popping up all over the place in our conversations about school reopening. Are we here just to watch your kid while you work, or are we here to provide meaningful educational opportunities?
Bridge: Do you think students should return to classrooms in the fall?
Bondono: Speaking only for myself, I think that it is too dangerous to return right now. It comes down to when you look at all of the plans that are being put in place by districts that are planning to open in person — a lot of the benefit of in-person schooling is not there. We can't share materials, or work collaboratively. We can't socialize in our downtime. There's no getting up to move when you need to move. There's no taking that five minutes between classes to catch up with your friends and relax for a minute. There is no, in some cases there's no running around in gym class. There's no singing in choir. It seems to me like we're planning on delivering essentially an individual online curriculum to all students anyway … And we're just debating about whether we want to do that with all the kids in the same building or with all the kids in their houses
Bridge: What do you think the biggest misconception that politicians have around teachers and the work that you're doing?
Bondono: I think politicians assume that every classroom is like the classroom they were in when they were kids. And considering that most politicians are wealthier than average and generally whiter and maler than average they don't understand the complexities of classrooms that don't look like the ones that they were in.
Bridge: What is one thing that you would tell everyone about the work that you're doing and why it matters?
I've been seeing some feedback since I was honored with this award that things like students feeling safe in a classroom or working specifically to uplift marginalized voices should be secondary to the rigor and curriculum taught in my classroom... I would like them to know that not only is it possible to provide a loving, safe place for all students in their classroom while holding them to high academic standards; that loving and supporting our students has to come first because the student who feels loved and supported will try 10 times harder on the hard academic stuff than the student who feels afraid or feels unseen.