I shared this poem with our team of teachers gathered this week for the Middle Grades Institute, but really, it is for all teachers who taught in this pandemic year.
We cannot begin this, this 28th year of MGI, w/o acknowledging that this year was different than any other year in so many ways. Before we really get into our work this week, we wanted to take a few moments and recognize the monumental efforts you put forth this school year.
Here is a poem for you, for us, teachers who taught in the pandemic year, 2020-2021.
You showed up with your body and your mind and your heart day in and day out while most of the world worked safely at home.
You showed up when unprotected and uncertain that you or your family would be safe.
When the ground beneath your feet shifted everyday. Your feet searching for purchase and sand pouring between your toes as you tried to stand up.
You showed up smiled and greeted elbow bumped and air high fived you questioned and encouraged and you read aloud books your throat sore your voice muffled.
You wiped down tables and markers you ate lunch in your car or in the hallway or in the utility closet.
You did this every day until many nights you could only sit on the couch and stare.
You showed up making facial expressions as hard as you could with just your eyes and you wore that mask for 7 hours at a time while the rest of the world complained about wearing them for 5 minutes in the gas station.
You showed up as families changed nerves frayed kids cried or acted out and you let them know that you were there with them. They were not alone.
You advocated and emailed. You knew who needed food and who needed help with the first steps and who might just need to say hi. You lost sleep and had laughs.
You planned remote, hybrid, in person lessons with new tools and new skills and deep breaths and followed up when you didn’t see a student for days.
Then you STILL went grocery shopping took care of parents, children, neighbors, partners. You missed birthdays and vacations and reunions managing your own disappointments and helping others with theirs.
You did first shift, second shift, third shift. While trying to care of the delicate bird of your mind keeping fear at bay
You showed up. In all the ways you could. Every. Single. Day. All Year. Long. It was monumental and heroic and held up the world.
(I wish you rest and joy and rejuvenation and family and love and all good things this summer and may it protect and heal you.)
(And I know the teacher as hero trope is problematic in so many ways, but I couldn’t help it here.)
(First, I want to acknowledge the grief, loss, and suffering this year has caused. I offer my deepest sympathies and hold space for those who have lost someone dear to them in 2020).
It is hard to even begin reflecting on 2020. What a …(add all the words I am currently sick of: unprecedented, tumultuous, historic) year. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water though. From my view, there were many lessons and experiences that I want to remember, and carry forward into the new year and yes, plenty I want to leave behind.
1. Prioritizing mental health.
This one is probably my biggest take home message. That mental health.. for myself, my students, family and friends, is critical. And needs to be nourished, cared for, normalized. Noticing when we are not feeling okay and moving through that by doing what we need to do. Whether that is a phone call, a walk in the woods, or a great big cup of hot chocolate, or seeking support from others.
This is all really hard, and creating space and time and effort for caring for mental health has been one of my biggest lessons. For me, this is waking up with calm.com and doing at least the Daily Calm (and I am enjoying the new, Daily Trips as well) and shutting down when I need to.
Often, I needed to say, that is enough for today. I will now read a book and not be available to anyone.
2. Connecting with loved ones.
We can’t visit our families and go into our friend’s houses. This brought into sharp focus the value of these relationships in a way I think I didn’t understand before this pandemic. I hope to hold onto this into the future.
To say YES to phone calls, messages, coffee dates, long walks, Zoom calls, and eventually getting together. I dream of that day. For the now, it means checking in on my people more regularly and holding space and time for them.
3. Putting your money where your beliefs are (when you can).
I realize I am writing this in a place of privilege. I have a stable job. I have a house. I am a CIS white woman. All of that.
This holiday I tried to focus on small businesses where I could. I know they are taking a huge hit to the mega online retailers. And yes, I have to use those sometimes but I tried as much as I could to shop at small businesses and restaurants. This meant fewer gifts but bigger impact and that felt really good. I want these businesses to survive this pandemic. We need them to keep our communities healthy and vibrant and this has never been more clear to me.
And takeout? What a treat. I think about it for days beforehand. It brings me true joy.
4. Books and Music heal and connect.
I have needed books and music like oxygen this year. Just needed to fill myself up with the good stuff. Beautiful writing feeds my soul, and thankfully, I have been able to find lots of it. A few examples, though thinking this could be a separate post entirely.
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
The Tender Lands by William Kent Kruger
Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson
The Body is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor
And music? I can’t imagine a life without it. Making playlists that reflect my feelings (see, this is hard) has been fulfilling and offers a glimpse into my lived experiences of this year (election, early quarantine, winter 2020). And, you know, I have been making them (mix tapes) since the 80s, honestly.
5. More humanity in schools.
The most important things and the starkest inequities have risen to the surface during this pandemic education period. Relationships matter the most, and this pandemic has reminded me to must focus on the whole child– the mental, physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional selves in their unique contexts and with their varied identities.
All of our students are handling this time period in different ways, and that teachers and parents must be flexible, positive, and supportive as we engage students where they are — not where we think they should be. I’ve written more about this here and here, and I am still reflecting on this year of education and agree wholeheartedly with this article, and especially this quote.
“But we are realizing what we should have known all along: that you can’t widget your way to powerful learning, that relationships are critical for learning, that students’ interests need to be stimulated and their selves need to be recognized.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the more humanity extends to teachers as well. Teachers are struggling under the weight of teaching in a pandemic. Offering support, grace, kindness, and listening means more humanity for all.
6. Activism means being active.
As a white person I have a lot to learn and unlearn about race, identity and privilege. I read, listen and learn about the true history of this country and will continue to. But this is not enough. I listen to the educators of color that I learn from regularly (Val Brown, Kelly Wickham Hurst, Tricia Ebarvia and so many others) and know I need to be active in all the ways I can be.
These places include: In my classroom. In my family. In national campaigns by doing, volunteering, organizing. That reading is never enough. That I must ACT on a daily basis and I am not an ally or an accomplice or any of it unless I am being active every single day toward justice. I fail regularly. And I will keep trying anyway.
7. Day to day to day, the next right thing
As Glennon Doyle says, keep doing the next right thing. In pandemic teaching, that is what I have been doing, as much as I can. Taking it day to day, trying not to get overwhelmed by uncertainty, and working hard to keep doing the next right things. Sometimes that is also saying I have done enough for today.
8. Dwell, when you can, in un-doing.
So much of society is GO GO GO. To do lists. Productivity. And worth attached to that. So this break I am trying to go with what I feel, and try to allow for swaths of not-doing or un-doing, simply being. This is hard when your whole life seems to be a list of ever growing tasks. So stop the lists, just for a day or two. See how that feels. Maybe even just for a few hours.
Letting go from 2020? That is easy. FEAR. STRESS. Comparison. Spiraling, repetitive thoughts. I’d like less of these, forever, please.
What are you holding on to from 2020, and letting go of?
Every single teacher I know: family, friends, on social media, across Vermont education..they are exhausted. Like brand new teacher, working 24/7, going to bed at 8pm exhausted.
They are living day to day. Doing the next right thing. Over and over again. They are simultaneously trying to do right by their students and their families, and colleagues, then also trying to parent, check in on family and friends, make sure there are groceries, and driving to practices, appointments, etc.
This has always been true, but the current situation has magnified existing problems in the teaching profession, leaving many educators deeply bone tired and at risk for the health consequences of that.
I’ve written quite a bit about teacher sustainability and attrition (Why Great Teachers Quit, and more recently, for Edutopia) and how schools can focus on increasing teacher agency, humanity, and wellness. Recently, I wrote about three more concepts that are often hidden, barely expressed, but consume more of teachers’ lives than ever.
They are emotional labor. Decision fatigue. And daily uncertainty. These ideas were not talked about much before the pandemic, and now, I think they are the main reasons teachers find themselves, like I did, unable to hold conversations with my spouse about schedule coordination at 8:30 pm, unable to to read directions on a Get Out the Vote action I wanted to do, and unable to even watch a TV show on a school night this past week.
The emotional labor of teaching in a pandemic has increased exponentially. For those of us teaching in person (and virtually too, come to think of it), we are on heightened alert emotionally, looking out for students’ mental and physical health. With parents and caregivers under significant stress, students are feeling this and are carrying it with them. Teachers have the constant labor of working to keep kids safe at school, with very high stakes. This looks like mask reminders, bathroom monitoring, material/supply management, and careful learning activity planning to safely social distance, or long screening processes.
We hear the whisper.. “If you mess this up, your students and their families could get sick”.
This conflicts with how much I want to help students, as I bend over to say, yes, you can take a break, yes, it is okay to feel scared/nervous/anxious/worried. And then there is the labor of constantly evaluating situations.. is this activity okay? Is this too close? Do we wear masks outside for this game? This lesson? Do I pick up that pencil or book? Do we share books in the classroom library? And then of course, how am I keeping my own family safe spins in the background. Consider teachers who are pregnant, or families that are fighting other illnesses, or preexisting conditions.
All of this combines to create decision fatigue, because teachers were already making thousands of decisions a day — and now– thousands more, with much higher stakes.
It is no wonder that you stare at the salad dressings for 15 minutes, in your sweaty mask, unable to decide. Or can’t fathom deciding what to make for dinner. Our decision making skills have been all used up.
And then there is the creeping uncertainty that chases teachers around like a small, aggressive, barking dog. It is the bark of: be ready to go virtual at any minute. Do you have what you need? Do you have all the materials? Because this building might get shut down at any second. Or your situation might change at any minute. So, be ready. The ground you stand on is not solid. And standing there is exhausting. Behind that is all the news, the stories, of sick teachers, of Covid closing schools, of new cases, a constant bark that unsettles, takes away sleep, and sets you off balance.
So, in all this coverage of teaching in a pandemic, consider the heavy toll emotional labor, decision fatigue, and massive uncertainty is taking on your teachers. It is an often untold story.
If you are a school leader, consider, how can you streamline communications, support your teachers’ wellness, and simplify their lives right now? How can you also do that for yourself?
Because it is only September. And we have only just begun.