In Conversation: A Both/And from the Classroom

The last year and a half has been a year of both/and. Struggle and strength. Hope and healing. At NGS, we believe that your stories matter. And that all need to be heard.

As many educators navigate a new school year, we want to remind ourselves and our community of the ongoing complexity and nuance that awaits us on this horizon. So we are sharing some of the #BothAndStories from educators who shared with us to create a space for reflection on all that the last year has brought to you, your students, your communities. We hope to honor the past as we all begin to look ahead.

In conversation with educator Michael Pope in Yamato, Japan.

National Geographic Society (NG): What stories of struggle have you witnessed this past year and a half?

Michael: I have been very lucky with my school having a good COVID mediation program and computer access and availability. My struggle started last school year and ended at the start of the second semester. Last year, the principal put me into a math class simply because we needed a math teacher and I had not taught any math for over 8 years. That math class was overflowing. I had no training and very little assistance with the curriculum, and I was just keeping my head above water. This year a new principal came and gave me the opportunity to change back to science and now I, and I feel my students, are enjoying the teaching and learning experience together.

NG: What stories of strength have you witnessed this past year and a half?

Michael: This year has been a lot of stress on both teachers, students and families. Just seeing how resilient the students and my colleagues during the mental stress and fatigue of the “Age of COVID” has given me many internal personal strengths to make it happen quarter by quarter. This includes giving moral and spiritual support to colleagues and families who are dealing with illness back in the states, lost jobs and the stress of the unknown.

NG: What stories of hope have you witnessed this past year and a half?

Michael: Hope is something that can be seen in the greatest of us and the weakest of us. I saw hope in the eyes of my 8 year old daughter who has seen the world change from certain to uncertain within her short span of life. Before the COVID situation, Emilia was excited about spending time with her friends and her extra-curricular dance and gymnastics. Then with little to no notice, she was isolated from her friends and classmates, lost all her extra-curricular activities and spent her days waking, living, and moving only in the confines of our small Japanese apartment. As cases and infections reduced, the spark of hope in Emilia started to burn bright. She went from hoping to see her Japanese classmates to returning to school, to hopeful that we will visit our family in Sweden to the current process of planning travel and buying tickets to hopefully returning to at least gymnastics in May being the return. All this she did with a hopeful child’s heart and that also gave me strength and hope for a more positive future.

NG: What stories of healing have you witnessed this past year and a half?

Michael: My personal healing is what I have seen for myself and my wife. This pandemic has taught us to take better care of ourselves and to be more aware of our physical and mental wellbeing. We are fortunate to have a medical plan that stresses wellness and we have used 2020 to take full advantage and to heal our minds, mental faculties and muscles. I am very fortunate to live in Japan. Masks have always been a way that individuals shield the public from colds, the flu or overactive sinuses. This pandemic had us all sheltered in place and once Japan gave residents the go ahead, provided masks were worn, to continue daily life, we jumped on acupuncture and massage therapy on a weekly basis. As adults, unless we are in a weakened or painful state, we often neglect ourselves. We decided that rather than allow depression to conquer us that we would be proactive and do these treatments. Needless to say, the treatments are still going strong and my wife and I feel the healing at least once or twice a week. This past year and half has taught us, the hard way, that Global Education is extremely necessary and being a Global Citizen even more important and relevant. It has taught us all that we can no longer see ourselves as Americans, Japanese, Colombians or Swedish but as world citizens and that comes with a responsibility to all people.

NG: What advice would you give your fellow educators at this moment moving forward from here?

Michael: Relationships are so important for us and for our students. Try to reconnect with loved ones and with friends as much as possible. This could be via social media platforms, viewing parts or a simple phone call. You never really know how impactful that simple action can be for the receiver and for your soul. “Kindness” is the foundation of teaching and will help you make the student-teacher relationship true and authentic. Carefully weigh how your interactions are leaving a positive impact on your students, even the ones who may be a challenge. You never really know the lasting value that moment in time will have on the future life of your student. Case in point, Spring 2021 I received an email from an 8th grade student who is now a senior at Cal Poly Tech telling me that my 8th grade helped guide him to his life decision to pursue a science research degree and wanted my advice on pursuing education beyond the 4-year graduation. The email came via the counselor as just a “If he is still working at the school, please let Mr. Pope about his impact on me.” and it reminded me that, moving forward, relationships and kindness are what an educator should interweave into their classroom culture. Teachers do more than teach, we prepare the next generation of leaders.

Michael Pope has been an educator for more than 20 years and has spent the last 13 years teaching eighth grade science at Zama Middle High School in the Japan East School District. He is passionate about teaching beyond the classroom, and has engaged in a Fellowship to Colombia to examine S.T.E.M. teaching between genders and has also been awarded a NEA Foundation Fellowship to South Africa. After returning from his international field experience in Colombia, he established an online platform to connect classrooms in his school and in Colombia with language and cultural exchange opportunities. During a recent course to obtain National Geographic Certification, he linked science inquiry, geographical skills and the teaching of Empathy to food insecurity, import/export and U.N. Sustainability goal #2: Zero Hunger into his curriculum leading to a student service project collecting food for the local Japanese community. He has served as a member of my local union and represented members at the annual meeting and as a member of the NEA Science Caucus. He has also served two past terms as a NSTA reviewer. In 2020, he was honored as a TOP 50 Global Teacher Prize awardee and is the 2021 DoDEA PAC-East Japan Teacher of the Year. He was also featured on the 2020 Brainwaves Anthologies for Teaching in the Pandemic and 2021 Game Changers Podcast for Teaching “Who We Are.” He is currently working on his Ed. Doctorate in S.T.E.M. with a focus on underserved populations.

Stay tuned for more reflections on #BothAndStories from the past year and a half and check out the storymap created from the voices within our community. For support and resources during this back to school season and beyond, check out our curated resources.

Header image designed by educator, Wendi Pillars.

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