The faces pop up in their miniature screens, small bundles of fifth-grade energy ready for math class, and their eager smiles and ready pencils are just the tonic their teacher Ms. Dempsey needs. Virtual online meetings might not be perfect, but as the most viable replacement for the trail of empty classrooms this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has left behind, the sight of those precious students is welcome as a reminder of more normal times.
It’s just the sound that isn’t quite right.
“It’s so quiet in the Zoom,” Dempsey laughs, knowing her colleagues at Winthrop’s Arthur T. Cummings Elementary School know exactly what she means.
“You guys,” she announces to the kids, “this is not what it’s like in the classroom!”
These days, nothing is. Classrooms have gone online, restaurants have all become take-out specialists. Grocery stores have to limit shoppers and social gatherings must be limited in size. And sports? Well, they had to stop altogether.
For Ms. Dempsey, better known as professional ice hockey star and Boston Pride captain Jillian Dempsey, that has meant double upheaval to a life she had so carefully ordered. No more days in the classroom and no more evenings on the ice, no more daily interactions with her math or social studies students, and no more Pride games with her teammates.
She could handle finding answers for herself, the quick purchase of an assault bike and setting up a home gym allowing for an upkeep of cardio and weights, enough physical activity to make sure she’ll be in shape to resume her hockey career once the NWHL gets going again.
And after falling one agonizing game short of adding a second championship in five years to her résumé, after learning only one day before the scheduled Isobel Cup championship game that the pandemic would postpone it indefinitely (it was later canceled), after finally accepting this glorious season in which her team lost only one regular-season game would not reach its appointed conclusion, the 29-year-old Dempsey has no shortage of motivation to get back on the ice.
Yet as much as she would welcome the sound of the roars that fill the rink and as much as Pride fans would welcome the chance to applaud her again, Dempsey’s true heroism is found in her daytime career. For all the frontline workers who have so deservedly earned our gratitude during the pandemic, the work of educators cannot and should not be overlooked.
As the nation grappled with rapid changes and policies to every sector of our lives, teachers answered the immediate call. On a dime, they went from in-person classrooms to online teaching, reformatting curriculum virtually overnight, resetting expectations and realigning priorities, all of it aimed at providing our children a much-needed dose of normalcy in such unsettling, unusual times.
“There’s nothing that can replace being in the classroom. I miss it terribly,” Dempsey said. “I have a whole new appreciation for the work in the classroom and engaging with students in that way. They feel the same way. They probably wouldn’t have imagined saying, ‘I miss being at school,’ but it’s definitely difficult for them to not engage with their peers, and not be working so intensely in the classroom every day.
“I’ve never considered myself much of a tech savvy person, and there was quite a learning curve engaging with technology, but once we realized it, everybody collaborated and supported each other so we could provide students with what they need.
“At times it feels helpless, I would love to be doing more, engage with them more. Some families are overwhelmed, their job status, school expectations, fear, health concerns, distractions, younger siblings. But we’re all trying to find a balance and trying to provide what we can.”
It might not be exactly what Dempsey envisioned back in her undergraduate days at Harvard, when she was studying the classics, playing hockey, aiming toward an Olympic tryout, and imagining her pro career. But after watching her sister Meaghan, who was three years ahead in school (and also graduated from Harvard), set the academic bar high enough for Jillian and their two younger brothers, Connor and Hunter, she knew what she wanted to do.
Like Meg, Jillian entered the Teach for America program. After spending a postgraduate year earning her master’s of education in curriculum and teaching, doing the intensive required training in the program and all while playing hockey, she taught two years of second grade in Lawrence before returning to her hometown district.
“We help each other all the time,” said Meg, who teaches first grade in Revere. “We constantly tell each other stories about students in our classes, things happening in our schools. We also help each other a lot with classroom space and layout. Jill’s come to my school many times, she knows the other people in the school and they know her.”
With similarly organized brains that like to cover details in advance and carry plans through to conclusion, the sisters are leaning on each other now more than ever. But support has always been a huge part of their family conversation. That was Meg in the stands for all those Pride games last year, and that was Jillian dressed as The Cat in the Hat over in Meg’s classroom for Read Across America day. The hope now is just that they get to do it again soon.
For the Pride, that means Jillian returning as the team’s top scorer and as its captain, getting back to balancing the two careers she loves so much, knowing how each makes the other better.
“Jill is as pure of a leader as they come,” Pride GM Karilyn Pilch said. “She is intense and driven, but finds a way to lead with compassion, while consistently motivating and encouraging her teammates.
“Jill’s ability to balance teaching and hockey are directly tied to her qualities as a leader. She knows and executes what she needs to do to be prepared in both settings, and to be the best version of herself for her students, and her teammates.
“Jill keeps a regimented schedule, and a positive mind-set that allows her to accomplish what most people would balk at. Though I haven’t witnessed Jill teaching, several of her students have attended games, and one of them has sung the national anthem for us a few times over the past few seasons. This year, he surprised her, and both he and his family were elated to support Jill, which I am sure speaks volumes of the way they appreciated her as a teacher.”
And these days, teachers should be appreciated more than ever.