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Teacher Spotlight: Samra Mekonen

Samra Mekonen

Samra Mekonen teaches 2nd grade ELA at KIPP Harmony Academy. This is her 5th year. Previously, she completed her Urban Teachers residency at Thomas Johnson Elementary Middle School. Before teaching in Baltimore, Ms. Mekonen led and co-wrote a variety of after school arts programs, theater productions, and classes. She also taught in the Montessori setting.

What’s your favorite thing about your job?

My favorite thing about teaching is seeing my students grow their sense of self efficacy and independence throughout the year. Our kids are truly incredible in the ways that they can rise to meet the academic challenges that we demand. So often, we hear folks describe students in early childhood as being “too little” or “too young” to understand or accomplish something. On the contrary, I’ve seen students cheer each other on as they grow in reading levels, mediate conflicts between friends, and even grapple with complex ideas around social justice and advocacy. I deeply believe our students can do anything when we provide the support to do so, and seeing just a piece of their capabilities in their second grade year is what fuels my fire to teach. I love getting to cheer them on when they recognize their accomplishments throughout the year, as well as their accomplishments on a sports field or stage, and as alumni beyond 2nd grade!

How have you helped your coworkers adapt to virtual learning this year?

The shift to distance learning in the virtual classroom has been challenging for everyone involved, but I’ve seen educators do it flawlessly, as if they’ve been teaching this way for years. I’ve supported my teammates by making brief tutorial videos and walkthroughs on Google Slides to support our management of new apps and platforms we’ve adopted this year. Additionally, I’ve been supporting in translating lesson plans onto Google Slides for compatibility with PearDeck. With my co-teacher and friend, Jillian Turner, we’ve also led professional learning communities, professional development sessions, and achievement unit (AU) bearing classes throughout the year. We’ve supported teachers throughout the district in areas of creating Google Sites, using reflective tools, and supporting developing teacher leaders in their own PDs. I’m so humbled to work on a team with such a variety of skills and talents. Together, we’ve been able to make a relatively smooth transition for our students and families.

BTU has been fighting to delay the physical reopening of schools until it’s safe. Do you agree with this goal? Why or why not?

I absolutely agree with this goal. I think this goal should be the expectation. If the decision to open schools is being made over a virtual meeting, that should speak to the level of inequitable expectations and risks that we’re placing on our students and families. Our students deserve the right to learn in a safe environment. As employees we have a right to safe work conditions. Our country’s rate of positive cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all higher now than they were when we initially closed back in March. Without BOTH a vaccine and the safety measures necessary to guarantee those safe work conditions, it’s unethical to ask students, families, and staff to engage in in-person learning.

What could the District do to better support you and your students during this pandemic?

In the same way that teachers have had to shift expectations and ramp up support for families and students in this virtual platform, I would love to see the District do the same for educators and our students. The recently piloted opt-out program for formal observations Is a great start! I don’t have all the answers to successful distance learning. However, I have seen educators and students thrive when we partner with families to collaboratively problem-solve to find the best solutions for our students. We are currently dealing with a pandemic for a deadly virus that has no cure, no vaccine, and no predictable end. Prematurely forcing our students and educators back into buildings puts us all at risk and is certainly not the answer. I’m confident that our district has the capacity to support students and staff by working with families and educators to address barriers to distance learning, without putting our lives at risk.

Please describe your involvement in BTU. How have you stayed engaged with the union during virtual learning?

I wasn’t actively involved with the BTU until my third year in the district. Like many novice teachers, I wasn’t sure where or how I could get involved with my union. As I took more AU courses and became interested in pathway movement, I soon found myself shifting from enrolling in PDs to facilitating them. I met so many more educators across the district through these avenues, and learned that union leadership is made up of a diverse group of Baltimore City educators who are passionate about supporting educators to best serve our students and families. I’ve  continued to engage in our new virtual setting by presenting PD sessions at QuEST this year, working with the Educational Issues Committee, and continuing to facilitate AU-bearing opportunities for educators throughout the district.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I’m really honored to be nominated for the teacher spotlight, and want to take a moment to recognize all the educators fighting for what’s best for our students and families, often time well before and after school hours. I’m truly grateful to be amongst the hardest working people I’ve ever known.