History teachers sometimes go off on these flights of fancy, thinking about what it would have been like at various times in history. There were some books about 15 years ago titled “I Wish I’d Been There”…and renowned historians are like "I wish I had seen wAsHiNgToN cRoSsiNg tHe DeLaWaRe" because...we're nerds.
Looking ahead 100 years, I’m imagining my posterity as very handsome and beautiful history teachers looking at 2020-21 and…are they thinking “I wish I’d been there?” Helllll no. Here in Utah, we had the pandemic, but we also had an earthquake, we had a storm with hurricane-force winds, then there's the election, there's an insurrection, my dog got hit by a damn car -- I try to be optimistic, but these are very difficult times. (Lucky made a swift recovery)
Last March 13 is the day the world changed for us here in Utah. The pandemic had already been closing schools in other states, and even though we had only had a handful of cases to that point, we went ahead and shut down for in-person learning. After a week to reorient ourselves and learn how to do (waves hands vaguely) this, we were back to trying to teach kids. Part of it was exciting, part of it was terrifying, all of it was overwhelming and anxiety-inducing.
Fast-Forward to August. Our state and school district was going back to in-person learning. Parents and students in my district could continue to do distance learning, but the majority were coming back face-to-face. Utah was averaging 350-400 new cases per day. We didn't know what to expect, but teachers had exactly zero input into how we were going to be doing this. Fridays were going to be distance learning (and teachers figuring out WTF we were doing) days. Ultimately I had about 150 in-person students and 75 remote students, who I was also responsible for teaching. I was completely overwhelmed and under-equipped and had no training on Zoom or Loom or anything else. I hated my job for the first time in 17 years. I was failing every single day, and feeling like my own health and the health of my family members was in jeopardy because of my job. Utah peaked at about 5,000 new cases per day, with 20% positivity rates, we've had more than 100 cases just in my school, more than 1,000 in the district.All of that is for context. I know many of my teacher friends across the country are just now resuming face-to-face instruction, for the first time in a year or more. And there's a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety, and a lot of resentment. I feel all of that. I'm hoping this post will help allay some of those anxieties, and if nothing else, will help you feel like you're not alone. With alllll of that said, here are my "10 Thoughts for Teachers Resuming In-Person Teaching." It's adapted from a virtual conference keynote in November, but hopefully it will help.
1. It's not okay. None of this is okay. None of this is normal. When someone says "How are you doing?" you don't need to respond with "I'm doing great, I'm swell, I'm operating within normal parameters." You can say "this is really effing hard." (In Utah "effing" is as far as we're allowed to go) It's not okay, and it's okay to feel those feelings.
2. We're still here, and we will get through this. Those of you that have been doing distance learning for the last year, you've gotten through this far, and fought hard and worked harder and suffered your own crises throughout. If you can get through all of that, you're strong enough to get through the last few months.
3. Try something new – of all school years, this is the year where we’re all first year teachers again. Last spring and summer, I learned what Zoom was, I participated in Zoom workshops and classes, but it wasn’t until October that my school said “hey, you’re using Zoom now.” …without training, without teaching our students, without any warning. It wasn't the best month. But with the mindset that we’re all trying something new, and it’s okay to misstep, we’ll get through this. I'm used to teaching with LEGO and graphic novels and hands-on strategies, and I'm not I can’t do all that I want to do. It’s not that kind of year. But I can try something new.
4. Ask for help – colleagues – admin – counselors – students – parents …even though it might often feel like it, we’re not in this alone. I’m fortunate to have a great PLC that I know I can ask anything to and not need to be embarrassed about not knowing how to do it. We have team members who are in their first year of teaching, and some of us…a bit longer. If you don’t have those colleagues in the building, you can cultivate those relationships elsewhere – Twitter, Facebook groups, other platforms. There are people willing to both commiserate and share their own ideas. Let them help you.
5. Forgive yourself for not making it the best year ever. When this all started, I remember thinking “oh wow, I’ll end up with so much free time if the schools close, what will I do with all of that free time? I’M GOING TO WORK ON ME! I’ll start running again, I’ll work on personal projects, I’ll write three more books!" I wasn’t thinking “I bet I can watch all six seasons of Schitts Creek in 4 Days if I really apply myself” I wasn’t thinking “I bet I can cut my own hair” …I feel like this will always be the school year with an asterisk next to it. You may be getting other messages from principals, from parents, from the community, but your colleagues understand. This is my 17th year teaching, and it’s the first year I’ve ever considered quitting. It’s the first year I’ve ever considered changing districts, it’s the first year I’ve ever considered moving out of the state. I never thought I’d feel this way, but…2020. Teachers I’ve known and respected for years, teachers I know are incredible educators are feeling like “I’m not proud of what I’m doing.” If you’re trying to do what you’ve done every year…you’re going to be frustrated.
6. Simplify – start with the relationship with students. That's the core of what we do. Social Emotional Learning has become something of a catchphrase, but I feel like it's always how I've taught. Focus on your students feeling safe and supported, then teach them skills, then teach them content. If it's something they can Google, let them Google it. You're not watering down, you're simplifying. There are times of crisis when school doesn't matter as much as the community of your classroom, and that's now.
7. Do something completely selfish and then call it "Self-Care." Like, November 1st I bought a Sesame Street LEGO Set. Okay, full disclosure, I bought TWO. Because I needed that to get me through my pandemic days. And no matter what Certain Republican Governors think, this pandemic ain't over.
8. Do something completely for someone else. There was an episode of Friends where Joey was telling Phoebe there's no such thing as a completely selfless act, but you can sure try. And hey, if I lived my life according to Friends, I'd still have Chandler's Season 1 Hair and Sweater Vests.9. Have empathy. Most teachers I know have a great ability to be empathetic (I just typed "apathetic," but caught myself). We see the struggles our students go through and we try to help them succeed despite those struggles. This year I have about 1/3 of my students I've never seen in person. The students who are in my classroom, most of their faces is hidden beneath their masks. The shy ones use it as cover to be even more introverted, but all of them still want to be seen, they want to be heard, they want to be reached. In every assignment I try to find something that connects to their lives in 2021. The thing is, kids that are here in person this year--they want to be there. I haven't had a single fight over masks with kids, I haven't had a single kid push back against social distancing. They want to feel that community. As much as this pandemic has been confusing and difficult for me as an adult, it's crushing some of our kids. Try to find some empathy for your admins too -- they're also lifting heavy loads well beyond anything they ever signed on for. I know one of our five admins has become the "Covid Czar" for our school, in charge of parent notification and contact tracing and quarantines. It was his full-time job for most of fall and winter. I don't know how he got through it. (seven of you just said "alcohol" out loud, but remember...Utah...)
10. Wear a mask. Uh...that's it.
(if you're still reading this, you might like MY BOOK Play Like a PIRATE: Engage Students with Toys, Games, and Comics) I made it this far without self-promotion, but hey. Side hustles gotta hustle. I'm available for conferences and keynotes and like, things. Stuff. Junk. Buy ten copies for your school. I'm mostly partially joking. And partially not. Daddy needs a new LEGO set.