For me, this fall has been all about learning and connecting. Starting to work at a new school after 18 years in the same one was more of a leap than I could have imagined, but not in a bad way. Because my own kids went to the elementary school I'm working at, it felt so familiar in many ways. I knew a lot of the people, I knew the space (or so I thought), and since one of my close friends teaches there, I had an idea of what goes on inside. This was all true and correct, and also, when I started I realized how much I had to learn.
I could have stayed in my comfort zone of teaching in the same room, same subject, with the same colleagues and the same routine. A very wise close friend advised me to make the change, to push myself, learn new things, "climb higher", as she said. I took her advice. Months later, I feel it was the right decision.
At first, it was definitely overwhelming. What did I get myself into? Did the principal of the school know what he was getting himself into? What if I messed up? Who am I, anyway, to think I could be an assistant principal? Impostor syndrome was in full effect in the first month. I realized that I needed to just voice it - and I did, to multiple people. The more I talked about it, the less I felt like an impostor.
I started my journey of learning by studying the IEP and special ed meeting process - this is all under the purview of the AP in our district. At first, the special ed secretary would say things to me, and I would nod and take notes, not really having a clue what she was saying (sorry Suzanne!). I would reassure myself by saying "It's ok. Just take it in now, you will figure it all out." I convinced myself to give myself the gifts of grace and patience. Now, looking back on late August, I can see how far I've come. I know how to run an IEP meeting. I know the difference between the different kinds of meetings and how each one is different. I know abbreviations and acronyms (for a while I made up what the acronyms meant). I know which SE teachers to ask which questions, and how each one is involved in the process. I learned that the school psychologist would be one of my best allies and teachers. I learned that the SE secretary knows everything (thank goodness).
Outside of special ed, the learning has been immense also. I learned that the mental health team and the admin work together in such a way that the work feels manageable and the school is functional. I learned that people back each other up - stepping in to sub, to cover a lunch or a recess without thinking twice or feeling like they are owed something in return. I learned that teachers manage behaviors in the classroom so well that admin very rarely needs to step in. I learned that the principal is a caring, smart and perceptive person who leads by showing, not telling. I learned that the systems that are solidly in place there make you feel like you work in a sane and healthy place, with happy children and parents and guardians that are overjoyed their kids are in this school community. I also realized there were people who would support me in my new learnings and that yes, I might make mistakes - but I remind myself that making mistakes just means you learn from them and get better at things. I don't have to be perfect.
In a book about leadership that I've been reading, the author writes about trust as a part of making connections with people you work with. This sounds perfectly logical, but it took me a while to figure this out in my current context. I assumed because of events last year in our district, that I came with a certain reputation or history, but then I realized that most people didn't know me. I'm not trying to boast here - just saying that I was often quoted and was in the local news a lot for things that were happening in my school/district that I was speaking up about. I realized that where I work now, you can exist in sort of a little happy bubble because of the physical distance between this school and the district central offices.
About a month into working at my current school, I started to feel I wasn't connecting enough with teachers. That was when I realized a few things: 1) they didn't know me and I had to be patient and build trust, and that it would come; 2) I was an administrator now, and regardless of the many years as I spent in teaching, or the many friends I have who are teachers, or how great teachers feel about their admin, it was still an "us vs them" sort of situation. It was a friendly situation, but even so, it could be lonely. I realized I would not have as many teacher friends here, and it was hard to come to terms with that. I also processed the fact that the main office staff and mental health team were now "my people" - the ones who would celebrate birthdays and who would share challenges happening in their families. My teacher identity had been compromised and would need to shift.
For someone who taught for 28 years, this has been a hard fact to reconcile. I didn't want to teach for so many years, but then when I became a teacher, I was all in. I wholeheartedly embraced my teacher identity. After mom, daughter, and spouse, I was a teacher. I never want to feel far away from the classroom - I never want to be one of those admins teachers look at with disdain and say, "they've been out of the classroom so long they've forgotten what it's like." So, right now, I am in this weird limbo of trying to figure it all out.
I miss my former colleagues and the trust and connections we had after many years of working together. I notice that many people have that at my new school, and I sometimes feel left out - until I remember that this all takes time. I also miss my students, and teaching, but am starting to enjoy aspects of this position. For example, last week I went out to dinner with the best friend of one of my daughters, who is the head coach at a local gymnastics school. Before we walked in, we both mentioned how we didn't want to see anyone we knew. Of course, as soon as we were led to our table, we saw two big tables with about 10 kids and their parents - kids Avery coaches and who attend my school. They looked at Avery; they looked at me. They were so confused to see us out of context, and together. They exclaimed "Ms.Lopez!" and then, "Avery!" And in the adorable way that 9-11 year olds do, they rushed over to our table and stood there, staring at us. Avery explained our connection. They scurried back to their tables. A little later, 2 of them scurried back. They had a tiny plate with half a mochi on it. They said "we saved this for you, Avery" and ran back to their table. They obviously adore her and the gesture was so cute, I didn't even mind that there was no half mochi for me. The next day at school, I made sure I connected with those girls at lunch.
Along with learning names (I might be at 1/2 the names of the 270 kids now), making connections with kids will be my next goal (along with figuring out MCAS!). In December I'm going to host 2 craft making lunches, where kids can sign up to eat and work on a craft with me. And after that, connections with families by hosting a series of "Cafecito con Ms.Lopez" events. More learning, more connections, changing identity.
As we head into a new school year, there are lots of changes all around me, some great, some bittersweet, some worrying.
We sent our middle daughter off to Buenos Aires for a semester abroad at the end of July.
We took our youngest to college last week.
Our oldest son is transferring from community college to a 4 year college. Lucky for us, he is living at home.
I began a new position this year, after 28 years in the classroom, as interim assistant principal of the elementary school my kids went to.
My mom and I finished and sent in our second book together, due to be published in January (a collection of teacher essays about teaching).
We are adding an apartment to our house so that my mom can move in (from around the corner!).
In local politics, we have had a huge shake-up of leadership at the district administration and school committee, with the hopeful promise of new leadership coming in November.
Some of these changes feel surreal to me. The fact that both of my girls are away is unsettling. I still expect to see them when I come home, but their rooms are neat and quiet.
The change to being an administrator again was unexpected and happened after the school year ended. Last time I was an administrator, there was a lot I loved about it, and when it ended I couldn't figure out if it was the job or the team I worked with, or both. Since then, I had been hesitant to return to administration. However, last year was challenging, straining, stressful and exhausting as teachers united to demand both a fair contract and an honest administration. I felt the months of struggle wearing on me and was grateful to have a summer of mostly staying home and working only for a week, teaching a class. I feel strongly we should listen to what our gut tells us, and when this job offer came up, I felt genuinely excited - that's when I knew I should say yes to it. So I did, and while part of my heart remains with my colleagues and students at the middle school, I also know that some distance will give me a fresh perspective and new colleagues and students to appreciate. So far, it has been great - a lot of learning, but so many people have been helpful and genuinely kind. I miss being in front of students, teaching, but I also welcome this new schedule and the chance to do something different.
I am trying to roll with the changes of having 2 out of my 3 kids out of the house, but I'm not going to say it's easy. I know they are happy and growing and learning, and that helps - but my heart still aches. I also left my teacher bestie behind, and that's hard on both of us! Luckily my new position is keeping me pretty busy and my thoughts occupied.
Wishing all educators a happy beginning to the 2023-24 school year. I'll keep you updated on my learning and challenges being an administrator!
Change is in the air this summer. All three of our children will soon be in college – one transferring from community college, one entering her junior year, and our “baby” who just graduated from high school, attending her first year of college. Our middle child will also be heading to Buenos Aires for a semester abroad from the end of July until December.
I always thought I would be a complete wreck as my kids became teens, then graduated from high school and left home to attend college. I have been surprised that as they get older, I am excited to see who they are becoming. It fills me with pride and a sense of satisfaction to see that all our hard work when they were little is coming to fruition, that the lessons we hoped to teach them were learned and internalized, that they are wonderful people. This is not to say I am not emotional, or that they will be perfect and not make any mistakes. We know they will, and that is of course part of the learning process of becoming an adult. I think they know that we will be there every step of the way – backing them up, holding them close, and listening to them without judgment (or trying hard!) when things don’t go as planned – so that making mistakes is a little less scary. It is a wonderful and scary process to see them slip and stumble, grow and improve and to make big decisions with big impacts and also continue to be silly and have fun. People told me years ago that it is beautiful to see your children morph into these beings, but I always thought I would be so sad I wouldn’t see the beauty in it. I am sad, too, but grief has taught me that there is only one way forward, no going back.
Changes are also happening in my school district. Some of these are long overdue changes and I am hoping they will have positive outcomes. I continue to love and believe in my school and treasure my students. I’m lucky to feel that way in my almost 30th year of teaching. I still have hope that things will improve and that we will grow and see positive changes. I have hope that our students will recover from COVID learning and their socialization stagnation. I even still feel excitement at the prospect of the new school year - something about school supplies and starting all over again is thrilling.
But first - I wish everyone a relaxing summer that fills your cup in the ways you need it filled. I know I'm looking forward to having that first morning cup of coffee without being rushed, to lounging in the pool, to seeing friends, taking walks, reading (not only before bed), and hugging my kids close until it's time for them to go.
I grew up attending marches and protests, making posters and chanting for human rights, against discrimination, violence, and oppression. From my early teens until the age of about 20, I didn't touch a grape because of the 1980s grape boycott to support farm workers. Our protest themes varied from this to demanding the end of apartheid in South Africa and the U.S. government involvement in Central America. I corresponded with Lolita Lebron, a Puerto Rican political prisoner, and then met her when she visited my school along with other released political prisoners. My father was a feminist and pro-LGBTQ rights before it became more widely accepted and in his quiet way. When I began college, the Latina organization I felt most kinship with and joined quickly was Mezcla, a group of U.S. Latinas who worked on different political issues - such as the grape boycott.
After college, my political activism waned somewhat as I navigated my twenties. In the early nineties the extent of my political action was walking in the AIDS walk in New York, in honor and memory of my uncle Mariano. Figuring out life took over, and then I got married and had 3 babies in 4 years. We moved back to Massachusetts, I began a Master's program, and teaching and raising kids filled every possible second. My activist upbringing was always there, though it was dormant for a while.
When the pandemic began, and George Floyd was murdered, I attended a protest in town with my daughters. It brought back memories of all those marches I had participated in and I felt I had come home. After years of teaching public school, I began to become more aware of what was happening in my local teachers' union; I had always been a supportive member but not very involved. Then, recently, things came to a head in my district. In 2022 I began to become aware of our leaders turning a blind eye to corruption and other serious issues in our school district. In the fall, I began contemplating and researching what could be done. A retired friend published a letter about corrupt hiring practices and nepotism in the district, and that motivated me to find out more. In the winter of 2023, I got together with a few colleagues to discuss and plan. Slowly but surely, others in our union came on board, willing to help and spread the word, in order to preserve the safety of our students and the well being of our staff. Working together in this effort has brought back some hope and joy.
Celebrating Mother's Day today seems appropriate because I feel like I birthed another baby with the letter of no confidence pasted below (publicly released yesterday) - the product of many conversations with colleagues, research, and careful planning by a small group (at first).
The activist spirit in me never died, it was just hibernating and waiting for an issue that I could not sit back and do nothing about: standing up for my school, my students, and my colleagues.
Dear Members of the ----- Regional School Committee,
We are writing as concerned staff members to express our lack of confidence in our district leadership. In this letter, we outline some of the issues we have observed in the actions of -----, Superintendent, and -----, Assistant Superintendent for Diversity, Equity and Human Resources.
We understand that the School Committee has a responsibility to ensure the well being of all staff members and students, and we trust that you will take appropriate action to address these issues.
We express our loss of confidence in district leadership for these reasons:
-Failure to properly supervise the district offices and people in his employ, especially the supervision of the assistant superintendent
-Failure to promptly deal with complaints of anti-LGBTQIA+ behavior on the part of some staff, which has created an unsafe environment for children, especially those whose identities are marginalized.
-Failure to collaborate with staff in planning how to support positive leadership in our schools.
-Unethical hiring practices.
-Use of position of professional power to enrich self on school time.
Acting in ways that undermine the district’s stated mission of equity and excellence.
-Unsafe environment, where people do not come forward out of fear.
-Toxic work environment that stifles open communication and collaboration.
-Have led to a decline in employee engagement and motivation.
-Have a negative effect on our district's ability to promote and maintain an environment that supports our mission of equity and excellence.
-Create toxic work conditions where staff well-being is declining.
We call for the immediate resignation of the assistant superintendent. In addition, we call for an investigation into the leadership of the superintendent. To aid in this investigation, you should know that all of these assertions are verifiable; each one has someone willing to come forward and attest to their veracity if requested by the committee or investigators.
We appreciate your prompt attention to this matter and look forward to working with you to create a more equitable and inclusive environment for all at ----- Regional Public Schools.
Due to the culture of fear and retribution, an anonymous vote on this letter was held.
I have struggled to continue blogging regularly this year, and I've been thinking a lot about why that might be. As things often are, it's a complex answer involving grief, exhaustion, my doctoral studies, family needs, and challenges at school. Grief has changed my writing audience. Since my dad died, I have been writing to him - one long letter processing what's happening in my family and with my grief. 16 months later, his death is still very raw, but writing to him helps me feel close to him.
This year I started my 29th year of teaching. I'm happy to report that 1) I still like what I do!; 2) I haven't become that jaded, bitter teacher I was afraid of becoming, and 3) I still have new and creative ideas all the time. That feels like a win.
Unhappily, though, teaching has become harder and harder, and it's never (almost) because of the kids. It is true that I am seeing more trauma, more anxiety, less attention, and more distractions in my students than ever, and I can bet that many teachers around the country are also experiencing this. Post-pandemic teaching is no joke, too. It's not easy to try to get students back on track, help them regain studentship skills, and propel their learning.
However, the hardest part about teaching lately is what's happening all around me. Criticism of teachers in the form of social media posts, school committee public comments, articles, and more leave many teachers wondering how much longer they can stay in the profession and stay positive. More and more this year, I have come to understand the power of having a strong collegial community, and of an active union. Both of those aspects of my profession have shown me what can happen when groups come together and work collaboratively with a goal in mind.
Next year, I will start my 30th year of teaching. I have a hard time believing that I have been teaching that long when I had never planned to be a teacher! I still have some years left before I can retire, and I just hope I remain enthusiastic, caring and unjaded until that day comes.
Keeping up with my blog was a struggle this fall. In other years, I churned out posts easily. This year has been hard because for so many reasons: educators all over the country are struggling with the challenges of teaching, and on a personal level, I am still grieving, and will be forever in various degrees, my dad. It was hard to focus and find something I felt was worth writing about.
But last week, I started a unit I love to teach and talk about: Immigration Stories*. I change it a little every year since sometimes I have the same students 2 years in a row. This year, I needed a movie to show before the break, but I also didn’t want to show just any movie that wasn’t related to the curriculum. Knowing I would be introducing this unit, I did some research about movies related to immigration (they had to be appropriate for middle school and the one I love to show, Bajo la Misma Luna, some of my students had already seen). I came across Paddington - yes, Paddington, the one about the bear who goes to London! After reading about how to relate Paddington to issues of immigration, lessons began to form in my head. Paddington is an immigrant. He is a natural disaster refugee, having to leave his home in Peru because of an earthquake. He stows away on a boat, leaving his only family behind. He shows up in London, not knowing anyone. People ignore him or are rude to him. He doesn’t understand the customs and makes a lot of mistakes. He is undocumented.
After watching the movie, I asked the students to answer this writing prompt: How was your immigration journey similar or different to Paddington’s? It might seem childish to compare yourself to a bear, but the students were game. They wrote that they were different from him because they didn’t come on boats, they were not alone, and they were not refugees (not in this particular class). They were similar to him because they were both sad to leave and a little excited or nervous. The most touching answer was from a student who recently arrived from Brazil. She said “We are similar because Paddington found a home, and we found a home, too.”
The next day, I took out the photos from the photo-text exhibit I worked on in 2017 along with Elena Betke-Brunswick, Patty Bode, other teachers, and many students. As a result of a large grant we had received, we created a photo-text display for the whole school to observe, and then recreate in their social studies classes. We took photos of students, had them professionally framed, and laminated the immigration stories they wrote in my class. Students visited our display in small groups, writing and discussing the stories they read about. As I took out these photos, I was reminded of how special and beautiful this project was.
I placed the framed photos around the room, and asked my students to look at them all and then choose 2 to take notes on (using the questions “what do you notice, what do you wonder?”). The next activity was to match the text, which I had not put up yet, to the photos. Each student got 4-5 texts. They did pretty well except for a few they needed help with. As they asked me about the students, I told them who was at the high school, who went back to their countries, and who had graduated. Some students had chosen an object for the photo to represent them - a lacrosse stick, the Statue of Liberty. My current students and I talked about why those students might not have wanted their face in the photo.
The next step in this unit will be to learn about immigration to the U.S.: push and pull factors, the many different groups of people who have come to the U.S. and so on. Then students will both interview someone else about their immigration story, and they will write their own stories and publish them in small books. Another activity I have done in the past is Immigration Songs, which we may repeat also. I hope to show the final products here if all goes well!
*A note about wording: I say immigration stories here, but in class we will broach the topics of how people from Puerto Rico are called migrants, how Africans experienced forced immigration, how the only people who were always here are indigenous people, and about how not everyone knows their own story (and that is an opportunity to find out someone else's). We talk about using the term “movement story” instead of immigration.
It is already week 5, year #18 in this school, and year #29 teaching, and I am constantly struck with how quickly time went by, and yet how every year has me feeling like I am a new teacher, with the worries, anxieties, and hours of preparation.
I don’t remember my very first day of teaching, but I know I must have been queasy with anticipation. I was only 8 years older than my oldest students, and 13 years older than my youngest students. I remember that every day I would go home and prepare for 2-3 hours for the next day, until I finally got the hang of it and learned to prepare for a whole week, and then sketch out plans for the whole month. I taught 5 different levels of French, with 0 educator preparation classes, 0 hours of student teaching, but a high level of French thanks to a few years living in Paris, and also, some pretty good instincts.
That first teaching experience was transformative, difficult and wonderful. I’ve written in other blog posts about my mentors at that school and how they helped me develop as a teacher. A big part of what made it so transformative, though, was meeting Claire Lecomte DuNouy.
Claire started as a part-time French teacher during my second year at our independent school. Shewas static with energy, in nonstop motion and hysterically funny. Complete opposites, Claire and I quickly became friends. Claire had an incredible knack for teaching and was the perfect person for middle school. She could be funny and goofy and get on their level, but also could explain things in a way they would understand. Neither of us really remembers, but I have a faint memory that I was assigned as a mentor to her. However, I think I learned more from her than she did from me.
One year, Claire and I were both teaching 5th grade French sections. Though we each had our own class, it morphed organically into a coteaching situation. We planned together and often brought our 2 sections together for activities. Claire excelled at anything performance-related, and I shied away from it. She loved to play guitar and lead the class in games and skits. Being half French, she was familiar with French children’s songs and games, and though I had been a nanny in France for two years, I didn’t know all the songs and games she did. So, when we were going to include one of them in our lesson, we would unite the classes and she would take the lead teaching them the song or game. I still remember the words to one that would probably no longer be allowed, but that was the 90’s:
Promenons-nous dans le bois, pendant que le loup n’y est pas. Si le loup y était, il nous mangerait, mais comme il n’y est pas, il nous mangera pas” (Let’s take a walk in the woods, while the wolf isn’t around, If the wolf were there, he would eat us, but since he isn’t, he won’t)
As I would watch Claire leading the students in this and other games, I would marvel at how she was so genuine, playful, and sometimes even a little crazy with the students. They adored her, of course. Class was fun with her, as it should be when learning French as a 5th grader. Our job, as I see it now, was to introduce them to the language and get them hooked so that they would continue studying it. Claire did not ascribe to the “don’t let them see you smile until Christmas” school of thought. She was more “let them see you be yourself and laugh raucously with them sometimes” school of thought, and that rang more true for me. Observing Claire helped me see that I could also be more genuinely me, but also playful, with the students. Claire helped me let go of some of my timidness and reserved nature by modeling it unknowingly.
When we were in the faculty workroom, Claire's jokes and antics were so outrageously funny that she had our other teacher friends and me literally rolling on the floor laughing sometimes. I am 100% positive that if I were one of the older teachers in the room at the same time, I would have been super annoyed! But for us it was about community and stress-release.
After way too many years of not seeing each other, Claire and I recently got together with two of our other original colleagues from those years. When I say that I laughed so much I spurted out my drink, I am not exaggerating. My cheeks hurt from laughing and I could barely catch a breath. It was as if no time had passed, and we were still those late twenty-somethings embarking on our teaching careers. We laughed as we reminisced about one student we had who really struggled with -er verb conjugation. She just could not seem to get it, no matter how we explained it. Then one day, correcting quizzes the class had taken, we were ecstatic! She finally got it! Well, sort of. Though she had conjugated a noun (table), she got all the endings correct: je table, tu tables, il/elle table, etc. We gave her the credit for it, and I imagine we explained that table was a noun, not a verb – but who cared! We finally got through to her.
If my father’s death last December taught me anything, it is to love, appreciate and spend time with your family and friends right now. Not later. Not in “we should see each other soons” or “let’s get together sometimes”. The other thing that has stayed with me is to tell people I love them, appreciate them, or am thankful for them. When my dad was dying, I told him I loved him all the time, even when he could no longer answer with words. I spent as much time with him as I could. I knew if I didn’t, I would have many regrets.
When I saw Claire, I told her what a huge influence she had had on my teaching practice, and how our time together still shows up in my teaching, especially in the moments I allow myself to be silly or more myself with my students. It might sound cliché, but life is fleeting and unpredictable! I hope to keep my intention of appreciating and loving the people in mine.
Je t'aime, Claire Lecomte DuNouy!
My blog has been put on the back burner, but not forgotten. This year, it is all I can do to just make it through the days, and the days are A LOT. There is preparing and teaching, working with my student teacher, completing my work for the graduate course in my PhD program, my family, not to mention keeping up with healthy life habits and so on.
I had been lucky in my life to not experience too much grief until December of 2021, when my father died. The pain I felt was unlike anything I have ever felt. It was searing, painful, brutal, huge. My tears were endless, my heart physically ached. Almost 5 months later, it feels a little duller – but by no means is it gone. I realize that it will, in fact, always be present, surging at unexpected moments, taking over when I think everything is fine.
In school, it has been interesting to deal with my grief. Like most teachers, I have gotten pretty good at compartmentalizing my life. Home things stay in one section so that I can focus on school. When I came back to school after my dad’s death, the sadness was such a part of me that I found I couldn’t separate it in the same way I had separated my emotions in the past. I couldn’t even imagine having to face my students and engage in the day to day of school. I knew that I had adults I could rely on if I needed to cry, get a hug, or take a break, and that helped. I thought I didn’t want to talk about my dad, but it turned out that’s exactly what I did want and what was helpful for me.
I decided to be upfront with my students, who are in 7th and 8th grade. They knew that my dad was sick, because I had told them. A lot of them knew that he had died, since I asked some of my colleagues who covered my classes to tell them. At the beginning of each class, I told them that, as they knew, my dad had been sick all fall, and that he died on December 18. I decided not to use the term “passed away” because as beginner English learners, that might not be a familiar term, and in any case, I prefer to say it plainly as well. I worried about how they would take it, but I shouldn’t have. They looked sad for me, and some even said “Sorry.” And then, in typical middle school fashion, they moved on to asking me about a completely different topic. I let my more advanced English learners know that I was sad, and that my father and I were very close, and I gave them a few minutes to ask questions if they wanted to. I can’t remember what they asked, but I felt good about starting class by acknowledging and normalizing my grief. Once that was out of the way, I could move on with the business of teaching and being present for my students.
Our society does not allow for the time or space needed to grieve. In New England’s protestant-influenced society, grief is best expressed in private, and publicly people are expected to “get over it” quickly. In my district, we are allowed 4 bereavement days. 4 days? It will take me a lifetime to work through this deep grief.
My school is very close to the cemetery where my father is buried in his plain pine coffin that is biodegradable (a natural burial). It is a beautiful, park-like place with paths, woods, natural stone headstones, and hills. I can walk there in 6 minutes, and once in a while during my prep period, I go visit. It feels comforting that my dad is close by. His birthday was 2 days ago; the grass is starting to grow on the earth that is over him, and my family and I spread flowers around his grave.
Though I know that compartmentalizing is essential for me to do my job, I have also learned that sometimes, I can’t keep my two worlds completely apart, and that is also okay. It's also okay to rely on my friends and colleagues for support. It's okay to allow my students to see a more authentic me. When it comes to grief, I am learning, it's all okay.
Sometimes a student asks you for help putting his unruly curls in an elastic because he doesn't know how. So you do it. And then you give the kid a packet of natural hair conditioner from your classroom toiletry station to help with the dryness.
Sometimes a student tells you that they want to "fail" their yearly ELL test so they can stay in your class.
Sometimes a student says "Can you adopt me?", and even though you know they're joking, it touches your heart.
Sometimes you are sad to have a student teacher only because it means you will be teaching less and you love that part of your day.
Sometimes your students make you laugh even though you know you shouldn't laugh.
Sometimes you connect with colleagues in the parking lot of your school and laugh a lot, and it's just what you needed that day.
Sometimes your student hand crafts tiny paper baskets and fills them with candy, one for each student in the class, for Valentine's Day.
Sometimes a student says to you, "You look great! Really great!" and makes you smile. That same student, who cried every day for the first week of school in a country new to him, now says "This is the BEST school."
Sometimes your work spouse gives you a stuffed Snoopy that you put by your desk and smile every time you look at it.
Most of the time, your students make you forget your deep sadness with their all-consuming energy, and you are grateful for them.
I’ve sat down at least 6 times in the last month to write this blog. For some reason, I never get past the first paragraph. The urge to write is there, but the focus is absent, as is the ability to organize my thoughts and feelings about teaching in September and October. A lot of this has to do with my father’s declining health (he was diagnosed with congestive heart disease over the summer) and different events in my childrens’ lives, but it is also related to school.
Statements I keep hearing and reading from teachers this fall:
“It’s only October and I feel like it’s May”
“I’ve never been so tired in my life”
“I’m more tired this year than any other year”
“I go home and collapse on the couch/bed”
“I can’t read anymore, I just zone out watching stupid tv/videos”
We know many students are not okay, but many teachers are also not okay. What is happening this year that makes it feel unlike any other? I can’t quite put my finger on one cause but I can speak about some of what I am experiencing.
Teaching with a mask on
I fully support mask mandates to keep us all safe. However, having a mask on all day while teaching English to new English speakers is exhausting. It’s hard for them to hear me, so I have to speak louder than usual. It’s hard for me to hear them, so I strain to listen or ask them to repeat often. It doesn’t help that the radiator in my room makes a loud and annoying rat-tat-tat sound (still waiting for someone to come look at it).
Lack of community
At my school, we have traditionally been a friendly and open staff. This year, a number of factors have interfered with that. We can’t meet in person yet; most of our meetings, unless they are small, are virtual. We have a bunch of new staff, too, so this means that many teachers don’t really know each other yet. Teaching is already somewhat isolating, and for me, as an ELL teacher not attached to any of our teams, I rarely interact with other teachers unless they come into my classroom. There is also a fear of sharing common spaces still, which with lower COVID numbers will probably improve.
Because we can’t meet in person, communication happens online, and there is definitely not enough of it. A new administration that began during remote teaching and then came back to full in person this fall has not quite adjusted to the challenges of having students in the building again. Guidelines, protocols and systems we have had in the past are slow to roll out this year, meaning there is a disconnect between our expectations of students and their behavior in school. This creates friction between students, teachers, and paras; students take it personally when asked to pull their mask up or to not run in the hallway because the directives are coming from teachers and not from a set of stated expectations.
I have seen references made to this all over the country: the shortage of substitute teachers. It is a low pay/high stress job that goes unappreciated. On a daily basis, we read or hear our administrative assistant’s pleas for people to cover classes, but many teachers are already feeling overwhelmed and have little time to prepare or grade. Even though it’s not my responsibility to find coverage for classes, for some reason hearing the pleas for help really stresses me out - I can’t imagine how the administrative assistant feels every day.
The outside world
The continuing racial strife, coverage of the capital riot, COVID news, the different crises around the world all creep into our lives even if we try to avoid watching or listening to the news. It’s good to be aware, but it does add a level of anxiety for a lot of people - including our students.
I’m not going to lie, my students are amazing this year. I am grateful for my small classes and being able to foster relationships with them and hopefully create a safe space in my classroom for some. However, I am alarmed at some of the behaviors I see in the hallway - pushing, mean behaviors, congregating in bathrooms (and the TikTok trend of vandalizing bathrooms), disregard of adults, and also just a lack of awareness. I also see less focus and behaviors I would attribute to younger students in class sometimes. I know students have not had a “normal” year in a while so it shouldn't be surprising. The "learning loss" we keep hearing about to me is manifesting itself this way - the gap in a routine, a schedule, meaningful learning, and connections.
While I find a lot of things challenging and exhausting about this school year, I look to my students for moments of hope and happiness. Little things such as watching 7th and 8th grade students play on a playground with abandon during a field trip; seeing them engage in a lesson with focus and willingness; hearing their shouts of joy when they get ahead during a game of Kahoot; taking mask breaks outside, and playing ball or picking up gorgeous fallen leaves as we walk around the school; teaching about el Dia de los Muertos. And thankfully there are people and moments that help. Laughing with my “work wife” as we glued smarties to scrubs for our “Smarty-pants” Halloween outfits; knowing I can rely on the para that works in my classroom to ably assist students; a teacher friend who kindly subs for me when I need to take sick time to help my parents; teacher friends checking in with me about my dad’s health and letting me know they are there to support me. I let everything else fall away, and stick with these people and moments to help me keep going. This is also a form of the “self-care” teachers continuously hear about (but are waiting to really see in some concrete form).
I feel better already having written this. It’s my 27th year of teaching, and I still love what I do. There is a lot I don’t love about it, but it’s never the students. Teacher friends who have retired can confirm that the only thing they miss about it is the students (and their teacher friends).
Hang in there, my teacher friends and community. Let’s support each other and hold on to the joy from our practice and our students as much as we can.