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April 22, 2008

Pioneer Day

Teaching is often referred to as being “in the trenches” and if you have ever wondered what that means, by all means keep reading.

If you've even heard of Pioneer Day, my guess is you'd think its some quirky thing we do down here in Texas to celebrate our diverse heritage.  You'd be very wrong though.

It all started with a bang last week-- literally -- when a severe storm with winds of 90+ mph ripped through our community in the middle of the night. The morning after, as I drove to school slowly inching my way through the darkened intersections of Dallas Fort-Worth, I contemplated the numerous scenarios that might lie ahead: Was the school still in tact?  Were our students safe?  Did they still have adequate housing? As I pulled into the parking lot, I was relieved to see that the first of my worries was unfounded.  Some trees had fallen near the playground and the power was out, but our building was still standing.

My relief quickly turned to horror as I entered the darkened school to discover that classes were running on schedule. No, it wasn't a typical nightmare or “schoolmare” that us teachers often have, but basic necessities like air conditioning in the Texas heat and classroom and bathroom windows were completely missing .  As I toured the damage, I had to pinch myself several times to fully comprehend the gravity of the situation. 

Our principal had things under control calling both teachers and students to the cafeteria.  There we were informed of temporary emergency procedures: some classrooms were doubled up to make use of windows, several were forced to conduct lessons in the library, while others found themselves teaching traumatized children in the hallways near open outside doors.

Many students were crying and fearful of the dark although we had a small window in our room that provided some light. One little boy crying hysterically kept asking for our custodian.  When I asked him why he said, “Because Mr. S fixes things and he can fix the lights!” Soon the chorus of “why’s” became deafening and completely overwhelming. No matter how many times we explained the power outage, the concept was too abstract for our little ones to understand.  One after another they chimed in:

  • "Why can’t you turn on the lights?"
  • "Why is it so hot in here?"
  • "Why can’t we do the calendar?" (Our calendar is now done via the ActivBoard, which requires power)
  • "Why didn’t we hear the morning announcements?"

Multiply the above questions  by 1000 and crank up the volume of inconsolable children 44 times to understand my day in a nutshell. While pre-k teachers are known for having many talents and skills, I assure you teaching a double-class of four-year-olds in the dark is not one of them.

We waited patiently for the announcement that school would be canceled as the temperatures in the classroom began to climb. The power lines weren’t the only things buzzing as teachers scurried back and forth with their flashlights to find out what was going on.  With little new to report, the verdict was in, we would have to make do for now.

Our principal, known far and wide for his wit and witticisms, quickly coined the term “Pioneer Day” to help lighten the mood.  His humor and contribution, ordering pizza for the entire staff, did wonders for staff moral. We quickly established a makeshift Pioneer Day schedule that included taking the students to the bathroom with flashlights. Our two classes alternated throughout the day; while one group sat at the tables, the other circled in a carpeted, large group area. We were fortunate that the calm after the storm brought a beautiful day.  Half the students took a walk outside, while the remaining listened to a story (listening being the operative word since it was difficult to see the pictures), before we switched.

By the end of the school day, Pioneer Day had a whole new meaning for me.  I felt like I had survived an entire month on a wagon train!  Sweaty, dirty, and exhausted, legs and back aching from the day's constant crowd control activities, I had made it.  Even my jaw hurt from having to talk constantly: ‘It’s going to be okay." "We’re safe." "I’m sorry I can’t turn on the lights.” 

Although I didn’t have a mirror, I am certain I looked as if I had spent the entire day in a trench.  But that's what being a good teacher is all about: surviving the trenches by making do with what you've got and still managing to bring the troops home safely.  At the end of the day, I was grateful to be in a figurative trench with my class rather than the overseas or stuck-behind-a-desk-in-a-quiet-office-space variety.

Let this story serve as a reminder: be it Teacher Appreciation Day or any day, take time out of your busy schedule to thank a teacher for a job well done.  While circumstances differ, chances are they too know about the trenches as operating within them just comes with our territory.


Awesome story. I often tell people,preschool is primal.

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