Closing Classrooms and Opening New Doors

For me, the shock of all of this has been slow to wear off. But the denial that we are actually teaching amidst a pandemic is finally abating, and now, like so many of you, I am struggling. The pivot from brick and mortar schooling to a fully digital platform, almost overnight, has been difficult – to put it mildly – especially for teachers who were never trained to teach this way, and all of the minutiae of making this happen adds up to loss. So, at least for me, the first thing to do as this unique school year closes is to grieve so that I can eventually accept this and move forward. Because, while the end of this year will forever serve as a historical marker in my memory, a new year is coming, and, with it, the potential for the best of who I am and what I do to leave its own quiet mark on the lives of my future students. 

Teaching seniors is a weird job. When they come to my classroom, I have never taught them before; it takes months of care and intention to connect and build relationship, and then, when it is finally so good that it makes all the rest of the work worth it, they leave. Not down the hall or across the courtyard but to life beyond high school. Likely never to return. Teachers in every classroom, in every grade, in every school in America can relate to this pattern, the ebb and flow of faces, the tide of classes that draws in and then recedes. Like waves trying to find the shore, we build power and current with our students every single day – in every talk, every comment, every lesson, every look in the eye, every question. But this year, we missed it. We missed the peak, the whitecaps of the waves cresting forward, powerfully drawn to the shore, the expected receding – never to be seen the same way again. The magic of what we do, the very best of it, pulled out from underneath us without time or awareness to even say goodbye. And it is a loss to be grieved, not just a problem to be solved. The realization of this loss has been intense but important. After all, how can we expect to get over a loss we can’t recognize or honor?

So, then, what next? How do we deal with this – for us and for them? How do we lead them through the end of this when we aren’t even sure it is the end? How do we captain this forward? For me, this starts with us. The teachers. We can’t help others swim while we drown quietly. Right now, I am trying to focus on what actually matters. This is not homeschool or virtual school; this is crisis schooling. It has not been planned or prepared for; therefore, it cannot do what normal school does. 

We need to give ourselves a break, we need to set boundaries, and we need to be practical. Here are some tangible things I did to allow myself some much needed margin in this season. Maybe you can adopt one or two for your unique situation, if you are still teaching. But bear in mind what someone wise on the internet once said – like two weeks ago: we are NOT all in the same boat; we are all in the SAME storm, but our boats may be very different. So pick what is feasible for you. Here is what I know: refreshment brings capability. What seems impossible now because of your fatigue and exhaustion, will be much more manageable in the short term if you are rested and, in the long term, if you have been refreshed. Grace, patience, and peace need fertile soil to take root in, and no one will water that ground for you. Be intentional in your allowance for boundaries and rest. Even if you are done for this year, many of these could be applicable in any season.

For school: No emails after 3 pm (turn off notifications on your phone). No busy work. No maniacal rush to meet standards of a normal year. No hours of what is essentially self-directed learning for students who do not have the skillset to teach themselves what it took you 16 years of schooling to master. Pick one thing/skill/idea a week that matters, do it well, and let the rest go. 

For you: Take care of you and your family, unapologetically. I am telling you, even though you already know, that you need exercise and fresh air desperately right now. Do anything outside that you can. Read, talk on the phone, write a letter, nap on a blanket, have a snack, take a walk, plant something. Anything that gets you out from behind the light of a screen and into the light of day. Anything that gets you moving and that you enjoy. This isn’t the time to punish yourself with aggressive workouts (unless that is your jam). But it is a time for feeling good about something, accomplishing something not related to work each day. Perhaps you have a hobby that you can spend a few minutes devoted to. Great. But don’t beat yourself up if crafting and baking artisanal bread isn’t your jam. This is not the time for comparison. Just be intentional about finding something that works for you. Also, while sitting in front of the TV bingeing a show you enjoy is mindless and feels good in the moment, it’s a bit like junk food: temporarily satisfying but nutritionally useless. The junk must be moderated. For the health of your mind. It can’t all be Madam Secretary episodes. Finally, forgive yourself. If you fail, if you snap, if you binge, if you gorge, if you break down. Cover it all in grace. Then start again. 

And we need to give our students a break, too. Think of how exhausted you are. How you wake up everyday sort of dreading what is coming. The pale doppelganger of the year you planned creeping around your laptop, lurking in the early light of day. So obviously broken and wrong but all that there is. Your students feel the same. Except they don’t have the autonomy to say they are mentally exhausted or need a break or don’t self-direct well or that the distractions at home make it nearly impossible to concentrate. They are ZOOM-fatigued (it’s an actual thing); they are worried about next year, and they have lost any passion that real classrooms nurture. Can we all just agree that next year will start a little differently? Try a few things to manage all that you are feeling and all that you have lost and then extend those same feelings to your students.

For students: Ask how they are, with no agenda. In normal times, when we remember our favorite teachers, it is often not a specific lesson they taught us but a way that they treated us that resonates. Commiserate with them. It is so helpful, especially for Generation Z, to see you authentically struggle. These kids need to know that you relate and that you care about them more than any assignment. And, speaking of assignments, try some holistically graded options. Pouring over hours of grading is unhealthy for you and not really helpful for them. Cut them some slack. And don’t assign them articles on pandemics or policy; they are saturated with information that is scary. Just do something anchored in what you might normally do. Also, try one-on-one video check-ins for 5 minutes, as opposed to whole class lessons that almost always end futilely. It is shocking how good it is to look at someone in the face and have a conversation. This is a great time to tell them how valuable they are, where their strengths lie, what you have enjoyed about having them. You may not have time to drive to the home of every student you teach or the energy to send every student a handwritten note, but you can probably handle a few minutes on a video call or on the phone. What a positive and affirming way to send your students forth. It could be the most impactful thing you do this year. 

For next year: Start a list of important things you feel like you couldn’t cover well-enough in this time or that your students will need a review for. Once it is on paper, it is out of your head, often reducing anxiety that you may or may not even be aware of. These final days and weeks may not be the best time to reach out to the teachers of the grade above you, but there will come a day when you and your team will be evaluating the reality of all this. It will feel good to have prepared for that conversation. Plus, the relief you will feel when this is over may erase some of the minutiae of the trauma. Grief has a funny way of drawing stressful times in broad strokes in our minds. You’ll want to remember what you are observing now, but it may not be that simple to recall it. Also, do not go immediately from at home digital teaching to planning for next year. If  at all possible, physically close down the space you used as an office during this time. Tangibly, put an end to this season, and then take a break. We teachers are the worst at this. We love what we do so much, we are so passionate for the cause that we justify the martyrdom of our personal lives to see it through. This is unhealthy, unnecessary, and, actually, illogical. Take a month off. Then, you can hit up Hobby Lobby, browse Pinterest, make a room schematic, read pedagogy books, do it all. But first, rest.  

At some point, you will finally reach a moment of acceptance. There is no way to know when that will be, because there is no way to know when all of this will end. Like me, you probably have a hunch that, at least in some capacity, the effects of this will linger in infinite, as yet unquantifiable, ways. But really, isn’t that kind of similar to every year? Do we not always stand on the shore, watching as the wave pulls out to sea, as it is designed to do, wondering where it will go next, what it will look like when it gets there, how it will feel, how it will have changed? We are sad to see it go, but we accept it. It’s part of life. And then, a moment’s breath before the next wave swells up on the horizon, racing towards us. The excitement of that, the anticipation of that. The joy of a new room filled with faces you have never seen. The potential of every conversation to lead off track in the most wonderful way. The thrill of teaching people something new, something they thought they could never do. I mean that’s why we all do this; that’s why we are so special. We rose up in a time of crushing. We persevered; we figured it out; we made it work. We rode the wave. And maybe that’s what will make next year so special.