Teacher in Mourning

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broken heartConfession: I’ve been trying to write this post for over a week. I’ve sat down at least five times in front of my Chromebook committed to completing this post, and each time the lump in my throat got too big to ignore, and my welling eyes made a wavy mess on the screen. Here’s hoping the three-year-old gobbling down some butter noodles across the table from me helps me keep my composure this time. 

Why the emotional mess you might be wondering? Let me give it to you straight, just like I do my students: I’m a teacher in mourning. I’ve experienced so much grief in the last few weeks and absolutely no closure. I teach 11th and 12th graders, and I know it’s hard to believe, but the last few weeks of school with seniors is actually quite magical. My desk is showered with graduation open house invites and thank you notes; walks in the hallway between classes are filled with high fives, fist bumps, and hugs. The barriers come down, and a new level of comfort seems to blanket the seniors. Sure, there are often teary good-byes and good lucks, too, but even those moments have their magic. Had I known on March 17th that I wouldn’t see some of these seniors ever again face-to-face, I would have lived the day much differently. As a senior advisor, I’m also missing out on the senior class trip to Whitewater where I have some of my favorite candid and often less-censored conversations with the seniors before they graduate and head off to continue their life journeys. There are no hugs or pictures after graduation in the sea of blue hats and robes this year. Instead, I have to settle with live videos, flipgrid posts, Zoom, Google Meets, and interactions through email. None of these do a darn thing to warm my heart like actually being with my students.  

What I’m mourning most as a teacher are the personal moments with students: the funny stories, the vents from an especially frustrating work shift or sibling, the suggestion for a show on Netflix or recipe to bake, the nerding-out over a good book or song, the giggles over a new Tik Tok video gone viral, and especially the derailments from the lesson at hand that build relationships while learning is still happening. I miss the nonverbals: the head nods, the smirks, the winks, the smiles, the ah-ha moments when you know a student just “got it” after struggling for a while. Sure, I have had some conversations with students through email and Google Hangout, but it’s not the same. It is NOT the same at all. It makes my day when a student sends a picture or posts a Flipgrid video because I can SEE them and be reminded of all that we’ve shared together this quarter or this semester and that I’m not just working in a digital world. I got into this career for the people, not the docs.  

I miss my students, so much so that sometimes I’m flat-out overwhelmed. I ran into a local gas station recently for eggs, and the cashier was a previous student of mine. She asked how I was doing, how I was really doing (because she knew firsthand “how much I thrive on human interaction,” her words), and I said I was lonely and miserable during the school day. What takes me five minutes to assess in a classroom face-to-face takes me literally hours to plan and assess online. I could feel the tears coming as we were visiting, so I thanked her for the chat and walked away pulling my sunglasses from the top of my messy-bun-topped head before I left the store so no one would see me crying. Yesterday while playing outside in my yard with my children, a senior stopped and got out to give me one of his signature fist bumps, something I was used to getting at least three times a day and have gone without for over a month.  If we weren’t still social distancing, I would have asked for a hug because that one gesture, that physical interaction made my day. 

Teachers do thrive on student interaction. It’s what gives us energy, more than the mugs of magic bean juice we guzzle as the school year gets closer to its end. We aren’t in the business just for our love of reading, writing, numbers, history, and the natural world. We are in the business of developing human beings, creating relationships, and hoping some of our passion for our subject matter rubs off every now and then. It’s not about the ACT and MCA scores; it’s about offering students a safe place where they feel they can be themselves and build some lasting relationships along the way. Those relationships are NOT the same through a computer screen.

If you know a teacher, please check on them. Seriously. Not like the silly memes that float around social media, but really check on them. We are each going through our own stages of grief and mourning without our end-of-the-year traditions and daily interactions with “our kids.” Our life’s work, our careers, our callings have all been flipped completely upside down, and no college class or professional development sessions could have prepared us for distance learning at this level, the extra work, and the emotional roller coaster ride that has gone along with the change. We all feel like first-year teachers again, and trust us when we say, those are NOT easy years. We’ve had to accept the changes, roll with unexpected updates and technology issues, and continue to do what we know is best for the students, but without them. We’ve all lost a piece of ourselves in this transition, and we’re all in different levels of acceptance and mourning. We live each day not knowing what the future will bring, but we continue to pour everything we have into this profession for what matters most to us: our students. 

Phew! I made it! It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t sniffle-free or dry-eyed, but I made it. Now back to grading essays…