Crises, especially prolonged ones, test an institution’s core values. The five core values of Making Waves Academy (MWA) – community, resilience, respect, responsibility, and scholarship – have been the school’s superpower throughout the past year. Community and resilience, in particular, showed students, faculty, and staff how essential core beliefs are to an institution. For Teacher Appreciation Month, we spoke with four faculty members who have seen every day through the trying 2020-2021 academic year how core values keep an institution strong.

Sarah Woodworth is completing her eighth year as an art teacher in the upper school. She wanted to work at MWA because the school clearly supports a strong art program. “Just to have two art teachers has been phenomenal for an upper school program,” she said, because it enables the department to offer electives to complement the fundamentals of the program.  “It’s just really a great program for the students.”

When schools were mandated to close for site-based learning on campus, Sarah pivoted from her usual ceramics classes to subjects more suited to the medium. The talent and enthusiasm of MWA students inspires her. “They really challenge themselves and take risks in an art space. One thing I’m missing right now with remote learning is the face-to-face collaboration they have in the studio. They’ll check in with each other, ask for advice, and get other perspectives. They’re just generally very thoughtful about their production of art, and that continues to inspire me to show up for them because they’re showing up every day for me.”

Artwork created by students at Making Waves Academy

Even though distance learning has modified how students collaborate, “they continue to show up for each other in a way that’s super supportive but also helps them grow as artists. It’s a continuous thread of ‘we love connecting with each other around our artwork.’”

She noted that seniors are especially challenged to balance college preparation with class work and family responsibilities. “They’re juggling a lot, and I think they feel that stress more heavily than they would in a normal year. That also inspires me about Wave-Makers – they’re so resilient. They’re going above and beyond to help in their communities, help in their homes, and showing up for school.”

One major project for Advanced Art’s students this year was called “Windows Into Our World.” Many produced still-life works, while others created visions into their future. “Even just the act of getting out paint and brushes, or even painting something abstract can be extremely helpful in times of stress,” Sarah said. She is pleased that two of her seniors are heading toward careers that incorporate what they’ve learned in their art classes – one in architecture and another in art therapy.

“One thing I see as a strong component in the art realm is resilience,” Sarah said. “Whether a student is struggling through creating something in that moment or whether they’re going through a larger life issue, they find support and resilience in the process of supporting each other and creating in a safe space.”

MWA’s middle school is where Alexandra Morte and Natalie Crespo have found their joy in teaching. Alexandra started her career at MWA, initially as a participant in the MWA Teacher Residency Program, while Natalie was placed here by Teach for America, the nonprofit organization that assigns top new college graduates to schools serving primarily socio-economically disadvantaged students.

Alexandra, a third-year faculty member, was training for a career as a marriage and family therapist when she found herself shadowing kids on the Autism spectrum in classrooms and decided to switch tracks to teaching. She then put her toe in the water by substituting in area schools, one of which was MWA. “I loved it there and then found out that it had a teaching residency program that would allow me to get my credential.” Her path was set, and she was subsequently hired to teach 7th grade English Language Arts (ELA).

MWA proved an ideal environment to make her teaching debut, Alexandra said. “Many of the teachers have been mentors to me. You can go to anyone, and they will be more than happy to help you. That’s something that MWA does really well. This is a really tight community where the teachers truly care about their students, and it’s a great place for new teachers to grow and learn their practice.”

The onset of the pandemic interrupted the sort of casual contact that creates community, she acknowledged, although for some shy students, communicating in the distance learning environment seems to work better.  “Building relationships is harder this year for teachers and students alike. We have had to get more creative with it,” Alexandra continued.

“Sometimes I don’t want to sit in front of a screen all day, but my students can bring me right back. One is just a bright ray of sunshine all the time, and I’m just so grateful for that – that cheerfulness just keeps the group’s morale high. The grit and resilience my students have shown has been amazing.”

Support for new teachers at MWA has also made Natalie feel welcome. Despite starting at the Academy during the pandemic as a 5th and 6th grade history teacher, she said, “I’ve always felt that I can reach out to my grade level leads, my content leads, whoever it is, even if it’s just by a quick text. It’s all one big happy family in a sense.”

When she started college as a biology major, Natalie was not sure what career she wanted. She eventually switched to her true love, history. She comes from a family of educators in Panama but hesitated about the field.  She briefly tried other jobs before committing to Teach for America’s program. “I love that teaching allows me to have the opportunity to have a different day every single day. And what I especially value about teaching here is the autonomy, which allows you to develop your teaching philosophy and become the teacher you want to be.”

Zoom fatigue has nagged at everyone, Natalie said, but how the students have handled it has inspired her. “The days when I feel burnt out, I just think about the students and how they are being engaged in this impossible setting, and there’s background noise, and their siblings are yelling at them – and yet they show up. I appreciate and respect them so much because they’re teaching me so much about that core value, about resilience.

“And although I haven’t met my students in person yet, I feel like I know them, and this year has allowed me to grow stronger in building those relationships, because it’s so important right now. Over Zoom you have to do so much more to get kids engaged, and because of that I feel it’s created greater opportunity to know students on a deeper level. Those moments of connection are what I’m really focusing on.”

Joshua Amey, a 7th grade math teacher, came to teaching by working with kids in summer and after-school basketball programs. Joshua participated in the MWA Teacher Residency Program in 2018-2019, and he is currently finishing up his second full year in the math department. “I was given a lot of love and support by my mentors here,” he said, “and that really helped me grow as a teacher.”

For children of color, representation by their teachers is a powerful example. Joshua himself had a black male math teacher in 6th grade, as well as positive role models in his own family.  “My big brother decided to go to college and get his master’s, and that made it seem real to me. It told me I could do that too.”

The conditions imposed by the pandemic have in a way led to richer, more holistic relationships with students, Joshua said. Seeing them through a computer screen in their home settings has been important for relating to them as individuals, he said. Some have to babysit or cook for a younger sibling, for example, but “they’re still able to focus. You understand how resilient they are.”