The past two-plus years of the COVID pandemic have been hard for everyone, but teachers especially have felt the strain. From the difficulty navigating online instruction during lockdown to students’ emotional difficulties with the transition back to in-person classes, it has been challenging.
Monica Gagliardi and Heather Redin, fellow Cider Mill School teachers and friends, know this all too well to be true. Last fall, after witnessing their students struggling, the two decided to apply for a Fund for Teachers grant so that they could design their own professional development course to help themselves, their colleagues, and their students through this time.
“Monica is always looking for new opportunities to enhance her teaching and she was the one who suggested that we both apply for the grant,” Redin said.
Fund for Teachers is a national organization that gives teachers funding to design their own professional development. “Fund for Teachers’ premise is to have teachers find something that is inspiring and that’s going grow their career and make their educational practice better,” Redin explained.
In Connecticut, Barbara Dalio of the Dalio Foundation generously supports Fund for Teachers, in addition to many other education initiatives. “We are so lucky here in Connecticut to have the Dalio Foundation and their support,” Gagliardi said.
After many months of writing and rewriting their grant application, Gagliardi and Redin were approved for the professional development program they designed, which focused on mental health and overall wellness.
The program they designed had them go to Hawaii and meet with Wanda Simmons, a healer, sports medicine practitioner, acupuncturist and unofficial therapist who Redin had met when they both lived in Fairfield before Simmons relocated to Hawaii. The two had chatted post-pandemic and Redin learned that a lot of Hawaiian schools and students weren’t experiencing the same difficulties that students here were.
“We [examined] their model of what they were doing at these indigenous schools and realized there was something we could learn and bring back to balance out what had happened with our students,” Redin said.
Simmons planned an itinerary for Redin and Gagliardi that touched upon mental health awareness, meditation and self-care practices that the two teachers could employ for themselves and also share with their students. The program was centered on the concept of prioritizing self-care, which they describe as the act of filling your own cup first to ensure you have enough to give to others.
“We focused a lot on filling our cups up. If we, as teachers, are in a better space, we are more available to our students,” Redin explained.
Simmons taught them different breathing techniques that can be used in a variety of situations. “We also did a lot of journaling and reflecting on how we would bring home these strategies to our students,” Gagliardi added.
Simmons also put Redin and Gagliardi in touch with the non-profit program called Surfriders, a foundation dedicated to cleaning up and protecting the oceans.
“There’s a real grounding in nature there, and the kids [who were involved] were just so passionate,” Redin said. Gagliardi teaches a unit each year where students discuss banning microplastics. “For me, this was an incredible educational experience. I learned so much that I can bring to my students,” Gagliardi said. When that unit comes up, Gagliardi plans on coordinating a zoom meeting between her students and Surfriders.
One of the main philosophies that Gagliardi and Redin took away from their experience and what they are most excited about sharing with their students is the concept of “the Aloha spirit”: the idea that we’re all one big family and no one’s basket should ever be fuller than anyone else’s.
Redin and Gagliardi hope to help their students embrace that concept. “Having such a focus on community and connection to others and the world is an important message to bring back to our students,” said Redin.
Both Redin and Gagliardi are enthusiastic about the new school year and implementing what they learned during their professional development experience. Redin looks forward to helping her students take a breath, slow down, and really appreciate the world around them.
“A lot of the things we learned can’t really be put into words, but they can be put into practice, and I can’t wait to share with my colleagues and students,” Gagliardi added.