‘We made it’: Channel 9 checks in with 3 CMS teachers ahead of new school year

CHARLOTTE — A year ago, right before school started, Channel 9 education reporter Elsa Gillis sat down with three Charlotte-Mecklenburg School district teachers to talk about the looming year.

And a few days ago, she did that again -- checking in and talking about what’s next.

“My first question is a loaded one,” Elsa told the trio. “I just want to know how are you all doing? How are you?”

“It was a rough year,” said Jen Bourne. “There was a lot of loss in our school community. I experienced personal loss, my hashtag on Instagram this summer was ‘summer of healing.’”

“It was a really difficult year,” said Rae Legrone. “It’s amazing that we’re all still here. I’m very appreciative of that.”

“You know, I’m fine because we made it,” said Jolandra Houston. “It was kind of a relief toward the end of the year. Like, you did it!”

Jen Bourne, Jolandra Houston and Rae Legrone

Houston, a pre-K teacher, also shared her enthusiasm about the coming year -- and a few minutes into the conversation, revealed more details about the reality of the last one.

“I celebrated because I didn’t think I was going to make it,” she said. “I didn’t think I was gonna be able to finish the year teaching virtually and in-person. I was going back and forth all throughout the day, several times a day. I lost my voice. I could barely eat sometimes. But the thing is, as a teacher, as an educator, we could not be in this field if we did not love children. If we didn’t have a heart and a passion to teach.”

That passion is clear, as is their excitement to see all of their students.

“I’m really glad to be back in the classroom next year,” Legrone said.

But the trio also shared some concerns they have.

Legrone, a high school art teacher, said she’s worried that there’s no plan yet for COVID-19 testing in schools -- a recommendation laid out in the state’s toolkit. It’s something the district told Channel 9 it is developing but has not yet approved and finalized.

Legrone is also concerned with some schools still lacking outside air flow, and the equity of that issue. While it’s something CMS is working on, Legrone said in the interim, she’d like to see the use of outside or alternative classroom spaces.

“It feels like we haven’t done the creative thinking that it takes to make it safe to go back, and that part makes me angry,” she told Channel 9.

Houston expressed worry about being back at full capacity, with the virus and delta variant impacting all ages, and having to keep her young ones distanced.

“How do I explain those expectations to an early intervention child?” she asked. “That age, how do I be there for nurturing, comfort? This is their first time in school.”

As tough as the last year was, Legrone shared some of what she is taking with her into the upcoming one.

“I found that I made some true connections with students I would not have made before through phone and texting, so it taught me the value of their technology,” she said.

Elsa then asked them all what they wanted their students to take away from them on their first day back this week.

“I want them to know that they matter and that I’m willing to meet them wherever they are,” Houston said.

“I worry about those kids who can climb the highest mountain or build the hugest LEGO tower, but the things we value in school are not the only things that have value,” Bourne said. “So, I’d like children to know that you matter, you have value.”

“I want my students to know that it’s OK to be nervous,” Legrone said. “I want them to know that we’re all in it together. I want them to know that they’re loved.”

Learning loss: ‘I’m concerned with the perception that our best wasn’t good enough’

We have all heard so much about learning loss -- kids falling behind, wondering will they be OK after last year. Elsa posed that question to all three teachers.

“I’m concerned with the perception that our best wasn’t good enough and that the kids are hearing that, Bourne said.

Bourne, a CMS reading teacher, spoke passionately about the grave educational concerns we’ve heard over and over during the pandemic about learning loss.

[WSOC SPECIAL SECTION: Back to School]

“Families did the best they could, teachers did the best they could, children did the best they could and we keep telling them, ‘Well, lost generation -- learning loss.’ Like, we are projecting -- the adults are projecting their fears,” she said.

Legrone spoke to that as well.

“If we play into the notion that if these children not on grade level are never going to be able to succeed, I feel like that is just false information and really damaging to not only students, but their families,” she said. “I don’t hear people talking about during the London bombings and World War II, I don’t hear people talking about the learning loss and how people in that generation were held back for the rest of their lives because they lost years in school. You do hear about resiliency.”

(WATCH BELOW: CMS teachers discuss challenge, perception of learning loss)

“They lost aunties, uncles, grannies, grandpas. They lost access to their friends, they lost the ability to play outside safely, they lost childhood,” Bourne added. “They did not lose learning. They learned how to get online, how to be more responsible, how to follow their schedule.”

Moving forward, she said, to her, the greatest need is social and emotional learning.

“There is literacy and social studies built into social-emotional learning, so it’s not a waste of time and I think the perception is we have a hierarchy of content, like this content is more valuable than this content, but really, when you’re talking about the whole child development, it’s all valuable,” Bourne told Channel 9.

Houston also addressed that need.

“The thing is, will they be OK? Yes, but the thing is how are we going to foster their social-emotional development even more this year? That’s where our focus needs to be,” she said.

There’s a lot the trio shared about how to navigate this upcoming school year. One idea they had was for parents to have more community engagement with people on the ground level, like school staff.

“I do believe that talking to public education staff is a really good way to problem solve,” Legrone said.

“We are the voice. We are the ones that are dealing with this head-on,” Houston said. “We are within the classroom and can give you exact details on how things are going.”

(WATCH BELOW: ‘I’m more nervous this year’: CMS mom shares concerns ahead of return to classrooms)