Of all the things that Covid-19 has robbed us of, strange silver linings or sometimes silver “learnings” are so abundant. Time is still a bit meaningless yet, but last Spring, at some point, a book love co-laborer and mentor tweeted out about an opportunity to meet up on zoom for teacher support. Why did I click that link?
I was fully unmoored. Twelve of my twenty-four students were regularly engaging in learning; I was texting parents at all hours to try to do something that justified my work. Someone around that time said it was “much less like working from home, and much more like living at work.” I was exhausted and confused but still determined. The whole dang season was what I now look back on as “the great letting go.” I’ll save that for the memoir.
So I saw the tweet. I clicked the link. I checked the calendar (why?). I signed up. Thank God I did. I met some amazing and generous co-conspirators in the great effort of transforming children’s lives through literacy. These colleagues became friends.
To the 12 previous readers of my blog: I started this blog with the purpose of twice monthly sharing thoughts on teaching and education. A very minor result of the pandemic was the derailing of my nascent blog writing. For the next few weeks, my blog is being taken over by my Slice of Life writings; we’ll just see where things go from there.
Since my first year teaching, I’ve liked to get a bit silly with my students. My bald head is just right for a variety of wigs and 3rd graders still appreciate the beauty of a little pretending. Each year, I create a character, often in the spur-of-the moment. With students now one-to-one and videos living forever, perhaps I’ve settled into a few characters. Time will tell. Mr. Hair, an aging British rockstar, now relegated to teaching math for Mr. Wheeler is the mainstay; but this is the story of his pal, Mr. Terrence Sputnick.
I was ready to film a math lesson, only to realize I had brought the wig for Mr. Hair to my house…and I was at school filming. I grabbed the red wig off my shelf, tried a voice for thirty seconds, turned on the document camera and began. Of course, every good recurring sketch character needs a catch phrase, and Mr. Sputnick’s came naturally; He was modeling math problems with a blue pen because it showed up better on camera. And so he began in a whiny, nasal tone, “If you have red hair, and a blue pen, you are ready to do some math!” Watching the clock as I recorded, I knew my problem instantly. Mr. Sputnick talks too slowly. This lesson is taking FOR. EVER. But whatever. I filmed the lesson, published it and went on.
No doubt, students groaned when they saw the length of the video. Then something happened. I told the students the truth. I didn’t like Mr. Sputnick. His lessons take forever, but also…that voice! I assured them he would not be returning and we would stick with the lively, fast-talking Brit, Mr. Hair. A couple of students agreed. And then, bravely, the conversation began:
“He’s not THAT bad.”
“I kind of liked him.” In a nasal, imitating tone “If you have a blue pen…”
“Yeah, he’s not bad!”
The students laughed. I was not moved. I held firm for a couple of weeks, shutting that discussion down, only to have it come back. At least once, several students started chanting, unprompted “Sput-nick! Sput-nick! Sput-nick!”
And so, once every chapter or so, Mr. Sputnick, or Terry as his friends call him, returns by video, sometimes talking off camera to his mother and occasionally referencing his mode of transportation (he rides a tricycle) while trying to help kids do math. He’s even grown on me.
I had begun some healthy eating practices. I was diligent and felt great. And then, I stopped.
I started working out 3 times a week, then 4, then running too. And then, I stopped.
I started my day with quiet contemplation and prayer. And then, I stopped.
I had developed a habit of writing, putting words to screen, crafting them with purpose. And then…I stopped.
Good habits are hard to keep up with. I haven’t abandoned these things. I’m finding new rhythms for some of them. Finding a new normal takes time. There’s always the tyranny of the urgent and teaching third graders, this rings especially true this year. But there’s also the tyranny of mental health which, if I’m honest, has been my greatest struggle. And of course, there’s also just…tyranny.
I thought about what I ate today and recognized how I’m feeling.
I went for a run today. I wasn’t fast and my hands got cold. But I did it!
I received and responded to an old friends message and was real about where I am today.
When I signed up to teach two weeks of summer school, there was not a pandemic. When I thought about teaching summer school, I was sure things would have blown over by July! And then, when it became apparent that things were not blowing over, it also seemed apparent that surely summer school would be canceled.
But it wasn’t! Now, you may have opinions on this but that’s not what I’m writing about. Our state came out with policies limiting summer school options, attendance levels, etc, but allowing it. While most schools punted on summer school, we went ahead. Class sizes were reduced to limit classrooms to 10 or less people. Attendance has been low. But we are learning a lot, both academically and as we think about school going forward. Below are some lessons we are learning from summer school as we think ahead to the fall:
Someone needs to hold that door. Right away, we noticed one touchpoint in our situation was students arriving and leaving. Social distancing has students arriving and leaving in shifts. And if no one holds the door, every student touches the same door. We can do this, but we are going to have to work together to get the logistics right.
Now, more than ever, behaviors and routines will be key. Regular lessons on hand washing and practice being distanced will be needed. With just a little practice and reinforcement, students are washing their hands when needed without much prompting. We can do this, but we can’t let some things slide.
Runny noses happen. Everybody can have a runny nose. Allergies or cold air conditioning can cause it. And the heat from breathing into a mask can also cause it. But when your nose starts running and you are wearing a mask, the results can be gross. I’ll leave it there. We can do this, but we are going to need solutions to clean masks when parents aren’t able to.
Outdoor breaks are wonderful! Where I teach, we have an ‘arboretum’ that allows for a nice nature walk or run. We can notice things to write about later, we can keep our distance from one another, and we can do it with our masks off. Whew. Fresh air! Let’s hope we have a late start to winter. Doing our read aloud outdoors is also a wonderful thing! We can do this, but we are going to need to appreciate and utilize our outdoor breaks.
What did you say? Get your visual aids ready, get your slide decks ready, and be patient. The first day I was spelling something the students needed for logging into a resource. “C,” I said. Student: “e?” “No, c.” “E?” All the while he was squinting straight at my mouth. He was instinctively trying to see through my mask to understand me. I’ve had similar situations where a student doesn’t speak up and I struggle to understand. We can do this, but we are going to need more visual cues for communication.
A little help? Remember that time that a few students were having trouble logging in or completing a task. You walked over and gave them some hands on help. Or perhaps you had another student help them. We aren’t going to be able to do that in the same way. Anticipating these challenges and preparing supports in advance will be key! Additionally, just knowing that when things take longer, independent pacing may be required and delays will be inevitable. We can do this, but we are going to need to have extra patience every day!
I know we all wish things could be normal. I will add, in the midst of all the challenges above, there are amazing moments. Shouts of “You got it!” and “I did it!” once again fill the room. Laughter and learning are happening. The classroom magic may be slightly muted, but it is not gone. And with a little forethought, I think we can recapture even more of it.
In February of my first year teaching 3rd grade, I lost my voice. I literally lost it. I muddled through a couple of days with my hoarse whisper, but it was a challenge. Worse yet, my muddling through just made my laryngitis worse. Ultimately, my voice could make no words, it just sounded like I was breathing.
What’s a teacher to do? Fortunately, we were in the second semester when classroom practices were well established. It was a harrowing three days where I used written expression, dramatic charades, and an ipad that I preprogrammed with detailed instructions for new assignments (it would read them in a british accent which delighted the kids). Later, a parent confessed that her son thought the whole three days was just a stunt! This is hilarious and believable, which tells you something about who I am as a teacher.
In any case, it makes me think of this moment in teaching. Being out of the classroom and distanced from my students, I fear I am losing my voice. I can’t sing, dance, or yell loud enough to get all of their attention. For some, it’s as if I do not exist anymore. It breaks my heart. Moreover, the natural playfulness of the classroom, which lends itself so well to sparks of silliness and formative observation that propel lessons forward, is notably absent.
How can I find my voice in this moment? Focusing on factors I can control and taking one step at a time is a good start! Here are some things I’m doing:
Meeting each parent where they are at
This means I have to send some facebook messages in addition to emails
This means I’m texting some parents
I recognize that Susie’s Mom doesn’t have time/patience for lengthy messages so she sometimes gets a shorter one.
I anticipate Ryan’s Dad’s questions and do my best to be ready
Meeting each student where they are at
For me, this mostly means being ok with awkward, short, and stunted conversations. Phone and video calls are awkward for everyone, but 9 year olds have not really developed the skills to interact with adults in this space.
With asynchronous learning, I’m asking myself if clarifying and perfecting work is important enough to delay moving forward. In this moment, some things are “good enough.”
Find the fun and inspiration in the moment in which I am living
Staying connected to inspiring and world class educators through reading and personal relationships
For teaching purposes, for me, this means still being silly with a ukulele on youtube instead of in the hallway
Developing and nurturing my own creativity
Finding personal moments of silliness (Ok, I started playing Animal Crossing. Don’t judge me. It’s fun!)
This is a strange moment to be living in as a teacher. As I move forward, I just have to figure out how to be myself while being there for those I am so privileged to call my students. And now my voice, just like it did after those three terrible days, is coming back.
What are you doing to find your voice in this moment in teaching?
One of the jobs my 8 year old has is replacing the garbage bag in the garbage bin. Recently, I bought the wrong type of bags. After a few years of having draw-string bags, suddenly we had tie off bags. As my son wrestled with the bag, he cried out, “WHERE is the top of the bag?!” I took some time to coach him through it.
Look for the side that isn’t flat. That is the top. Turn it around. Now, put your fingers on the top of the bag and do like this (I mimicked how to get it open).
This was all done patiently, because, thanks to the pandemic and social distancing, I’m not going anywhere. He clumsily completed the task. But he will get better.
It struck me just how much this looked like what I was trying to do with remote teaching. This is functionally different. Multiple times a day, I’m stuck. Awesome people are leading the way through this, but, due to social distancing, they can’t see my struggles and bail me out in the way I could intervene with my son. I have to reach out to others.
They say: The link to the meeting is in your email. Click submit first and last. Check the third box, but uncheck the fourth box. No, let me send you a screencast video to show you.
I have to fight with my computer and my internet connection. The number of times I have to start something over has multiplied 10 fold from pre-pandemic levels. This is hard. This is clumsy. But I know that day by day, I will get better.
Teachers, be kind to yourself; Be patient with yourself. You are trying new things. This is hard but we will get through this together and come out of this changed. On the other side of this, we will be able to do much more than we could before. I hope that, beyond the new digital skill-set, I’m able to see even more clearly the struggle and resiliency of my students who do brand new hard things all the time! I hope I’m more patient as I coach them; I hope I’m more patient with myself.
I have a Friday tradition with my students involving a Ukulele and Rebecca Black’s YouTube hit “Friday.” I played and we all sang as I walked the kids to the door on that Friday the 13th. But it felt wrong. I didn’t yet know why. Was it the already planned early dismissal? There were rumblings and “back up plans” but really, would we just cancel school? What is going on?
Of course, hours later the news came. Shocked and scrambling. How would I not be with my class and still reach them? What about the 3 students who had been absent that Friday?
My grandmother would quote a proverb that says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” Like a lot of proverbs, it feels wise. Maybe that’s what I’m experiencing? This feels more like “Grief delayed makes the heart confused.”
With delayed grief, the pain comes in drips and drabs. It comes at a press conference encapsulated in two sentences within a 90 minute speech. The reporter asks a question for clarification, the question I was wondering, and the Governor says “I don’t know.’ And I don’t know either. How to feel, that is. District emails focus on the task at hand. The emails either come too quickly or too slowly; too many or too few.
First, I threw myself into making videos. I YouTubed, I Flip-Gridded, I emailed away. “In this way, I will be with you,” I thought. This is temporary. I realized quickly the gulf between us; we hadn’t practiced learning this way. We only had 4 computers in our classroom. We weren’t ready. Kids are without devices. Parents are still working. Families are too big or too small to pull it off. And no one reads their emails. I grieve all that too.
I grieve the time I spent getting students ready for an assessment that never came. We practiced logging in and test skills and…you know what, I don’t want to talk about it. I want that time back. And that one Friday, when overwhelmed, that I put on twenty minutes of (on topic!) Bill Nye so I could find and complete the papers needed for a meeting. I want that time back too.
If it sounds like the stages of grief, that’s because I guess it is. It’s just that we haven’t yet received the worst news. Is it deferred hope? Maybe? It feels like delayed grief. And because the worst news hasn’t come, I know I haven’t really grieved. Suddenly and unexpectedly ending the school year is, honestly, something to cry about. I have invested so much in these kids and they have invested their trust and efforts into who they are becoming.
We will remote learn. We will google meet. We will digitally connect and confer. But still I grieve. I grieve for the missing students. We won’t ALL remote learn or google meet, or connect and confer. We won’t have the silly moments, the lining up moments or the run to recess moments. We won’t have the shared joy of I-figured-it-out moments or in person coaching. We won’t have cupcakes together or Dum-Dum parties and birthday bracelets.
At some point, the decision will be made and grief will come. But it will be blunted by the daily, weekly, bi-weekly pronouncements and the pile of emails that continue to come. It may surprisingly come in full force at the end of a 4 mile run or the end of a moderately sad movie. People will wonder if I’m ok. I will be.