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.