Every school day, Rashaad Phillips ’12 puts on his blue-light-blocking glasses to teach middle school students at The Lab School in Washington, D.C., from his living room in New York City.
It’s not the way he envisioned starting his new job as dean of students and teacher at the private school for students with learning differences. But with teaching and learning primarily online, he has postponed his move to D.C.
Still, he works hard to connect to students he has never met in person.
He plucks events from the headlines for an elective he teaches on current events and their relationship to identity. To maintain a balance, he alternates heavier issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement with lighter topics such as gender roles in the new Mulan movie and other Disney films.
Wednesdays are especially fulfilling as he forges social bonds among homebound students by running a community meeting. The 100 or so kids do group activities such as “guess the lyrics” or “guess the music video” or mindfulness exercises or dance steps. Students also break out into virtual hobby clubs such as cooking, foreign languages, and Dungeons and Dragons. In the afternoon, he leads the Students of Color affinity club, one of many clubs offered. Other students congregate virtually for the healthy masculinity group, anti-racist white group, adoption group and others.
As a Black educator, he believes it is important for students of color to see themselves reflected in their teachers and administrators at private schools. He hopes to develop the kind of bonds that he still has with his many teachers at Shady Side Academy, whom he still corresponds with regularly.
“My teachers at Shady Side went above and beyond for me,” he said. “I had so many teachers who wanted the best for me and were totally invested in me. I try to do the same for my students.”
Phillips knows virtual learning can be tough on some kids and that many have trouble concentrating without face-to-face interaction. He tries to balance the high expectations of the private school with empathy for all they are going through.
“The kids are dealing with a lot,” he said. “They can’t see their friends anymore. They have to stay in the house with their parents.”
With the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, and the protests that followed, in addition to the ongoing pandemic, Phillips also feels the stress of 2020 acutely. “There’s a lot I’m dealing with. But it’s important that I am strong for my kids. We must give them comfort that we’re there for them. We are their protectors.”