A Teacher’s Reflection
The 2020-2021 school year has just come to a close and never in over a decade of teaching have I felt so many emotions. How can you feel that you have done too much, not done enough, feel excited yet overwhelmingly beat down every single day? I have heard countless conversations in the halls of my building, the parking lot of the grocery store and in online forums that have been filled with things educators learned this year and NEVER want to forget. So let me give you just a few of my top lessons…
You will never do enough.
I have never in my entire career been spoken to in such disrespectful, ungrateful and unprofessional ways as I have been this year. These hateful comments came from parents, administrators, the media, the government and random people who felt the need to tell me what a crappy job we were doing working our butts off in the midst of an educational crisis. I’m a people pleaser. I always have been and while that can make you a great employee it can also set you up for failure. I did everything possible at the beginning of the year to make everyone happy. To meet every expectation perfectly. To go over and beyond and you know what? It didn’t matter because some people do not ever want you to succeed. They will always find something to criticize. There will always be a parent writing an ugly email to the principal full of lies. Administrators will always want you to do just a little bit more with a little bit less and most politicians haven’t been in a classroom since the Nixon administration so they’re cluelessly making rules that benefit no one but themselves.
I got about half way through the year when I realized that the pace at which I was running was not practical and benefited nothing outside of a checklist I had been given. I decided to do what was best for the kids under my care and if that included not checking off all the boxes I was given then that was okay. It also came with accepting ridiculous criticisms and doing my best not to get my feathers ruffled. I documented more thoroughly this year than ever before and let screenshots and contact logs bear witness to my efforts without trying to jump through hoops to prove I was doing enough. You cannot force people to appreciate your efforts.
Self-care is important.
In a similar light bulb moment to the above truth, I realized that self-care could no longer be put on the back burner. Since the beginning of this pandemic we’ve been told to make sure we were taking care of ourselves by higher ups while still having more and more piled on us. This is a career that glorifies overworking and underpaying their employees. If I only worked the 40 hours a week I got paid for my classroom could not function and that is in a regular year. This year saw this work double if not triple with virtual teaching, hybrid learning and traditional students.
I know different school systems handled it in different ways but I was told I’d have to learn a new system that would teach my kids my subjects, then told that the program didn’t handle my classes so I wouldn’t have virtual kids, then told to create my own virtual classes… all before school actually started and before I was getting paid. I teach multiple preps so I had to create lessons, record lectures, create tests, worksheets, activities and more for the kids at home. I also had to have comparable options for the kids who didn’t have access to technology while proving that I was teaching identical concepts without actually being able to see or contact the kids. At one point during the year we were flipping schedules every two weeks and the kids were so confused that they would show up on the wrong days or stopped showing up at all.
I don’t say any of this to downplay the difficulty of the decisions being made but I found that when I was told to take care of myself it didn’t exactly mean take care of myself. It meant try not to lose your mind but if you do please make sure you get what we need done first and if you could lose your mind after hours that would be great because we are short on subs. I came to realize that my sanity and my kids' sanity was far more important this year than what was on my pacing guide. So some days we put on a movie or we just played catch up because these kids were just as burnt out as I was and I could see them dwindling.
I also realized that working from 7:30 to 4 and then going home and recording lectures, answering emails and reviewing classwork from 5 to midnight was going to kill me. I’ve never been a crier but let me tell you I cried more this year sitting at my desk out of sheer frustration than I ever dreamed possible. I’ve had more migraines, anxiety attacks, stress dreams and utter brain fog than I would wish on my worst enemy. Once again, I had to learn to let go of what I thought I HAD to do for my job.
Here’s the thing, if I drop dead on a Monday morning, they will have someone in my classroom, my job will be posted by Tuesday and the school will go on running as it has for the last 125 years. So, that tells me it will probably keep going if my papers don’t get graded today or if I don’t have the perfectly edited lectures using the 50,000 new bits of technology I’ve been trying to grasp since that professional development course last summer. You don’t have to be perfect to be a great teacher but you do have to be healthy. All the kids ask for is the best you you can be.
School is far more important than education.
This is one I already knew but it seems to have just dawned on some of society. Kids come to school for a variety of reasons. Yes, all my high school students cheered during March of 2020 because they didn’t have to “go back to school” but many of those kids were itching to come back by the fall. All levels of the school system provide so many different ministries, yes, ministries, to kiddos. While we were not able to meet in person our district set up feeding stations run by teachers, principals, security officers, food service workers and more to insure our kiddos didn’t go hungry. As a teacher, I see the kids that are desperate to take the leftover party food home or will gladly take the food their classmates don’t want from lunch. In my class this year, we set up a “snack bucket” where I put snacks but kids could also contribute anything they didn’t want to eat so that others could enjoy it. Giving kids the opportunity to get what they need with dignity.
Schools also provide other tangible resources that largely go unnoticed unless you have needed it. We help kids who have impoverished living conditions by providing basic hygiene supplies, we help kids get the school supplies they need or even clothes. Once again we try to do this in a way that doesn’t set a child up to be ostracized but it can be hard to see these needs when we can’t see the kids.
We also provide an extra pair of “eyes” in the life of these kids. Unfortunately, we sometimes spend more time with these kids than their families so we can see changes, warning signs and more when it comes to issues that might not always be obvious to parents. This was exceptionally difficult this year but we tried to reach out to the kids we knew were struggling and tried to keep an eye out for those who needed help with handling their current situations. One of the most important things I can offer as a teacher is an ear. Sometimes a kid just needs to talk and sometimes that can lead to realizations that you need to know. I always try to create an environment of comfort and ease which was challenging this year with limited communication, masks and the difficulty making connections.
There’s the old adage that “Some kids come to school to learn and some kids come to school to be loved.” There is so much truth in that. Some of these kiddos had no one in the corner cheering them on this year, some were overwhelmed with all the uncertainty and some just needed to know that they weren’t the only ones struggling. When your students burst out in tears because the school is going virtual again, you know it’s not your lessons they are going to miss but the relational experiences they have within your classroom walls.
Life can always be fun.
My hall became the party hall this year. It started as a joke for football season because pep rallies obviously had to be cancelled. Actually, most of our traditional student activities had to be cancelled but we still wanted to celebrate what our students were doing so we decided to have a pep rally before the tardy bell rang every Friday. I had an old box of poms, other teachers had music and cowbells and we went to town. Every student that came down our hall was greeted with screams and whoops and hollers. By the end of it some were even joining in. This led us to roll our hall for Homecoming Week since we were limited with our activities and toilet paper was such a hot commodity of 2020.
Afterwards, we realized the hall looked awfully bare when we took down the decorations so we began decorating for every holiday or season. We played classic rock every morning and all sat in the halls to greet the kiddos as they started their day. By the end, we had many kids tell us they walked down our hall just because it made them happy and not because they needed to be there. We were silly, ridiculous and a bit obnoxious but we didn’t want these kiddos to lose the fun that comes with school. Learning is fun! School should be fun! If all you want kids to do is read through the textbook, listen to the lecture and do the assignment then close the buildings down. That can be done at home now and would save us a lot in tax dollars. But if you want these kids to be well-rounded, happy, healthy, educated, functioning members of society then you better have a dress up day, a silly project, pizza parties and more because that is what those kids will remember long after they’ve gotten their transcripts.
I could go on for ages with all I’ve learned this year and truthfully, I am still trying to process a lot of it because it goes against my personality and against all the educational practices I was taught in grad school. Any veteran teacher will tell you that 90% of that is theories that look good on paper but don’t translate well to the real world. That’s what makes teaching so exhausting. I’ve heard this year in education described as learning to fly a plane while building it. That is 100% true but it’s also nothing new. Teachers never stop learning and changing and growing to benefit the kids in their care, even if that goes against the grain of what those in “Education” are telling them to do. I know my kids, I know what is best for them and if I don’t, I figure it out. If nothing else, this year has taught me to fight for what I know is right and love these babies the best I can. This I hope to never forget in the hustle and bustle of deadlines, pacing guides and pedagogy.