All my thinking and writing has been on a slower program, as we slog through the cold and the phases of this pandemic. Coming back from break and into the new year, at the peak of the Omicron virus was.. something. I finally found the words and wrote about it for Edweek.
The responses to my original tweet that led to that post were heartbreaking and illuminating. I wanted to reach out and hug every single educator who responded, every parent who showed solidarity and support, and all of the health care workers who have dealing with impossible conditions for far too long. I wrote about the emerging themes for We Are Teachers.
Lastly, I read at a fever pitch this deftly reported book on climate change education by Katie Worth. Sometimes it takes a journalist shining a bright light on an issue, going way back, making connections and showing evidence over time, to give us a clear eye on how we got here. I encourage all parents, educators, and concerned citizens (and well, everyone!) to read it too, and think about how we can do better.
But mostly, I hope you are taking care of yourself. Resting. Getting out in nature when you can. Finding pockets of joy and love.
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.)
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.