After more than two decades in the classroom, I can say with confidence that this particular school year has been more challenging than most.
There are lots of little things that make it challenging. Things like trying to speak loud enough and articulately enough to be heard through a mask. Listening closely enough to hear my students speak through their masks. Finding ways to engage distracted students via video conferencing. Designing lessons and activities that can be done independently by students with an enormous range of abilities. Serving as hourly tech support for students who are learning at home while continuing to actively teach the students in my classroom.
Sharing a restroom with fifth graders to better preserve our bubble.
Fifth grade boys still can’t keep pee in a toilet with any regularity. They are disgusting.
Then there are more challenging things for teachers.
Constantly, relentlessly worrying about the safety of your students. The preservation of your life. The safety of your wife, who teaches kindergarten across town. The safety of your own children, who are attending school in the neighboring town.
Worrying about the health of your colleagues, some of whom you know have underlying medical conditions that make teaching especially dangerous, but they do it anyway because they love their students.
Then there is that ever-present drumbeat. The awareness that you alone are responsible for the safety of 19 other human beings. The knowledge that despite your constant worry and fear, you cannot allow your students to feel any of it. You may be drowning in fear at any given moment, but you must find a way to keep your students happy, positive, and productive no matter what.
I’d say that you need to keep smiling despite the dangers that you face, but smiling doesn’t matter anymore. Everyone is wearing a mask.
Add to all of this the constant monitoring the distance between your students. Mentally calculating six feet at all times. Rarely seeing your colleagues in an effort to maintain your bubble. Missing out on the field trips and overnight trips that you know your students have been waiting years to enjoy.
It’s not always easy.
Think about it this way:
Since March, very few Americans who are taking this pandemic seriously and believe in science have found themselves in a single room full of people for hours at a time. Even worse, our rooms are filled with people who are often the most asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus. Many kids contract COVID-19 and never know it, but they are perfectly capable of passing it onto others.
If teachers seem stressed, tired, or even frightened, cut them a little slack. Offer a little support.
I’d tell you to give them a hug, but don’t. It’s dangerous.
Therefore, it’s critical that we seek every source of joy throughout our day and make it count. Notice it and remember it. Share it with others.
For me, it’s been simple things:
The happiness of students who are seeing friends again for the first time in months.
The quiet under the trees as students sit on blankets and read books.
The slowly growing appreciation of Bruce Springsteen by some (but not yet all) of my students.
The moment when a student says, “Wait a minute. Are decimals just another way to show fractions?”
The moment when another student says, “I wouldn’t normally be worried about Hamlet, but Romeo and Juliet both died in the last play. This Shakespeare guy is willing to kill off anybody. He even kills off the people in the title of the play. So yes, I’m worried about Hamlet.”
Today I’m excited about wearing shorts again. The weather has been so lovely that I’ve only needed to wear pants twice this year. It’s a small but significant victory. My attempt to cling to summer as long as possible. My ongoing attempt to eschew needless convention and artifice.
If it’s warm enough, I may even ride my bike to school today.
I’m excited about ensuring that my students understand the proper use of the words “a” and “an” while writing today. Teaching them how to make inferences while reading. Showing them new strategies for rounding decimals.
I’m excited about our ongoing study of American sign language. This week we learn the signs for specific sports.
I’m excited about the games of “Wax Museum” and “Red Light Green Light” that we will play during our mask breaks. The walk we will take through the forest. The discussion about what Springsteen means by a “runaway American dream.”
I’m excited about getting my kids excited today. Excited about books and music and language and poetry and more. Getting them excited about school and learning and the possibilities in their futures.
I will spend my day endlessly worrying about the safety of my students, my colleagues, my family, and myself. I will focus an enormous about of energy on mitigating risk for my kids. It’s a year unlike any other. More fraught with fear and anxiety than ever before.
But I’m wearing shorts today. And we’ll be reading Hamlet. Listening to Springsteen. Discussing current events. Rounding decimals. Writing. Thinking.
Even smiling behind our masks.
It’s not easy, but teachers are doing it. Despite the dangers and the ever-present fear, teachers are getting the job done.
Do me a favor:
Support them today. Offer a word of encouragement. Thank them for their efforts. Tell them that you’re thinking about them.
Remind your fifth grade boy to pee into the toilet and not on the seat.
Anything you can do to let a teacher know that they are appreciated will be appreciated.