This past April, as we were adjusting to life in a pandemic, it become increasingly clear that the 2019-20 Tennessee Educator Fellows would not convene in person for their final convening in early May as originally planned. Fellows had spent the year learning about Tennessee education policy, participating in skills training, and leading their own advocacy work for students. Beyond the formal learning, they had bonded as a cohort, forging professional connections and friendships.

In a typical fellowship year, the final convening is marked by continued learning, an end-of-year celebration, and tearful goodbyes. Now, we would shift to a half-day virtual convening and plan to convene in person at a later date — even if it would be after the official end of the fellowship year. I shared the news with fellows via email and immediately received kind, encouraging replies, but I was feeling disappointed too — this was one more thing cancelled in 2020. As educators were grieving the loss of the end of the school year with their students, I was grieving the end of the year with them, and our work as a cohort felt unfinished.

One fellow sent a quick email that said something like: “However long we wait, this group WILL get together again!” It was the pep talk I needed to hear. I carried that optimism with me as we planned to welcome a new cohort of fellows in a virtual environment. While we were virtually wrapping up one cohort, we were preparing for the next. I wasn’t sure if the educators who had submitted applications in the early spring would still want to move forward in the fellowship during an uncertain year, but we planned for the year ahead and asked educators to join us in moving forward.

The fellowship, typically a one-year program structured with four in-person and four virtual convenings, will look different this year. We are going to stay in a virtual learning space for an extended period of time, focusing on deep policy learning in monthly sessions that will take place in the evenings. We know it’s important that fellows are focused on their day-to-day work with students, and this steady start allows fellows to continue their policy learning without taking focus away from their daily work with students.

Fellows will have an extended fellowship term, spending a year and a half together. We’re hopeful this extra time will give us the opportunity to later convene in person, where our days will be filled with deep learning and interactive skills training, and our evenings will be spent enjoying meals and one another’s company and solving the world’s problems in hotel lobbies. In the fall of 2021, fellows will plan and launch their own advocacy work in their communities.

We kicked off the fellowship in July with a series of virtual sessions over three days. As a team, we’ve started calling this group of educators the “courageous cohort” for their willingness to invest in their own learning in a tough time and move forward with an experience that will be different than in years past. I’m encouraged by the ways we’re forming connections and learning in the virtual space. The energy, thoughtfulness, and optimism fellows bring to the virtual sessions is incredible. I’m grateful for the community we’re building virtually, and I look forward to the day we’ll gather together face-to-face. It’s a nice reminder that when the work feels impossible, we can still learn and grow together and lean on the community we’re building for support.  

Leigh Cooksey is director of educator engagement at SCORE.

Learn more about the Tennessee Educator Fellowship: