By Meda Kessler
It has been a challenging school year for parents, students and, of course, educators. Jan and Donna Lässker look back at the good, the bad, the tears and the smiles.
The 2020-21 school year felt like both the longest and the shortest for schoolteachers Jan and Donna Lässker. It was also the best of times and the worst. The concerns they had for their students extended beyond the norm. Workdays became even longer; sleep became even more precious. It was also the best of times and the worst. The concerns they had for their students extended beyond the norm. Workdays became even longer; sleep became even more precious.
Relatively speaking, Jan is an academic newbie; the music instructor at M.L. Phillips Elementary (kindergarten through fifth grade) just completed his third year. Wife Donna teaches high school art at Amon Carter-Riverside, and just wrapped up her 24th year. If you live in Arlington Heights, you’ve probably seen the Lässkers’ home: It’s the one with the painted cow on the roof and the yarn-bombed tree. There usually is a Swiss flag flying, too — a nod to Jan’s home country. The Lässkers — they also are the parents of a third grader — are all creatives. Their home is filled with art, music, pets (dog, cats, turtle, leopard gecko, fish). It’s also full of love and laughter. We sat down with the couple as classes wound down in late June. They were tired — mentally, spiritually, physically — and eager to hit the mute button on day-to-day life and head out in their camper for a family vacation. But also they are recharged by the hope and joy that came of watching their students valiantly struggle, virtually and in person, through the year.
While COVID took everyone, including educational institutions, by surprise in 2020, these educators felt a bit more ready to grapple with 2021. “We took courses and training sessions,” says Jan, who credits his wife for getting him into teaching. “I definitely felt more prepared, but it was still a massive challenge for us and our students.”
Donna admits she was terrified. “Teaching is my dream job, and the main reason I do it is to be with the kids. All that had changed.”
The Lässkers are in art and music — fields that don’t translate that well to Zoom meetings. The kids attending from home can listen and look, but they can’t “feel” what shared classroom students feel. And, of course, there was no sharing of instruments. Jan also had to come up with music kits for his virtual students, which consisted of things like chopsticks for drumming, plastic eggs filled with beans to serve as shakers and more. He then had to hope that parents would pick the kits up for their kids studying at home.
Not all students stayed home, but things were different at the school, too. For Jan, singing through a mask his broad, infectious smile. And because kids didn’t change classes, his music classroom was replaced by a rolling cart for his instruments. “I had to wheel quickly between classrooms all day long,” he says. The custom design, crafted by a friend, held Jan’s keyboard, his banjo and a trumpet, among other items, and was personalized by a singing carved-wood Roadrunner (the school mascot) gifted to him by Donna. He was determined to make it work. “Music is all about communication, community, expression. It is absolutely essential to human existence.”
Donna feels the same way about art. Her students are older but often more sensitive. “I’m a school mom, too, and I accept the hard fact that students deal with depression, loneliness and thoughts of worthlessness. I want to make a connection, whether I have them for one or four years. The virtual learning environment was tough for me; I admit I’m not that great at it. I decided just to be as honest and humble with them as much as possible. I think it helped to let them know that I was struggling, too, and that they helped me heal and get through the year.”
Both Donna and Jan reached at least some of the students, thanks to the love they have for their chosen fields and for the kids themselves.
Jan watched as introverted students suddenly became animated. He started a blog in the hopes of getting more kids involved and was blown away by the response. He managed to put together a modern version of a holiday concert by videotaping and recording all his classes over the course of four days.
The result is the usual mix of some kids hamming it up and some standing as far away from the camera as possible. Jan used music to help young Spanish-speaking kids learn English. One third-grade student gifted him a cheat sheet of essential Spanish words in music. “I am the teacher, but the lessons I learn are invaluable,” says Jan.
Donna would notice kids who weren’t even in her class pop onto her computer screen to observe her virtual lessons.
She had students in an AP (advanced placement) art class who turned out incredible work for a required 24-piece project without any prompting. She watched as kids would log out because they needed to go help siblings with their classwork.
“Honestly, I found myself paying more attention to my virtual kids than the ones in my classroom, because I felt like they needed me more. And when anyone became overwhelmed by their workload, I made sure they knew that art shouldn’t get in the way of what they needed to do to graduate.”
The past year definitely forced Donna to redefine her role as a teacher, especially one who has been doing it for so many years. “I think art teachers always have been allowed certain freedoms in the ways we interact with students. My classroom always has been a safe haven for students. We talk about current events and their concerns about what’s going on around them. This year, I taught openness, love, flexibility, kindness and grace — with a side of art.”