One Teacher’s Ride on the COVID Coaster

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masked teacher and students in classI want to begin with an honest statement: I’m not complaining, and I love what I do. I’ve written about my passion as an educator in previous blog posts (Teacher In Mourning and Destined for Grammar Nerdom) but this, THIS is different. Never in my craziest teacher nightmares could I have come up with the emotional roller coaster I’ve experienced the past few months. This isn’t every educator’s experience, of course, but I thought I’d let you in on my ride on the “COVID Coaster.” 

As soon as back-to-school advertisements started flashing the colorful folders and notebooks on television screens and newspaper flyers this summer, I could feel a small swarm of bees buzzing in my stomach. I had NO idea if or when I was returning to the classroom and students I missed so much. I had walked out of my room on the afternoon of March 17th expecting to be back before the end of the school year. This was just the first of a long list of disappointments that challenged what I had known as normal and constant over the spring and summers. Everything had changed, from graduation to cleaning out my classroom. Thinking about back-to-school lists for my son started sending me into full-on panic attacks. I hadn’t experienced that since I first started teaching, back when I would spend the summer interviewing and wondering where I would be teaching in the fall, and if I would have an income or not. This time around, sixteen-ish years later, I knew what school I would be working at, but I didn’t know when, where, or how. 

Finally, after months of waiting, I learned that my district was one of a few in Minnesota who would be returning to school in the fall fully in-person. I was equally excited as I was anxious. I was eager for my son, a fourth-grader, to be able to BE a kid again, even if it meant wearing a mask, bringing a water bottle, social distancing in the classroom, and having lunch in a new way. I was grateful to offer my 3 ½-year-old a normal morning schedule again. I was also nervous about trying to socially distance myself and students in my classroom, wear a mask all day and still be heard/understood, have time to sanitize my room after each class, as well as make it to the bathroom at least a couple times a day. Later, I learned I would also have to add keeping at-home learners included and engaged as I went about teaching and working with those in the classroom. I knew it would be a lot to juggle, and there would be some real moments of struggle, but I also knew that it would be much better than anything I experienced in the spring. 

Seeing students in the hallways the first few days was invigorating! It felt so good to connect with colleagues I had been missing and students I had been worrying about over the long break. I also quickly learned the struggle of reading students and communicating nonverbal messages back and forth while wearing masks. I had to rise to a whole new level of interpretation, but it was worth it. I started to assign flipgrids (video responses to prompts in class) so I could SEE their full faces, to actually see and hear students in environments they were more comfortable in, and I think I actually squealed with delight as I caught up on grading at my own kitchen table. That immediacy is what really fuels me as a teacher, and I was reminded of how vital that connection really is and how much it had been missing. 

But then, things started to change. Students started to choose full distance learning as COVID scares started in the community. If a student had a minimal number of symptoms, they were expected to stay home. If they came in contact with someone who had tested positive, they were expected to stay home for 14 days as a precaution. Students in the classroom started to decrease, and those joining through Google Meet stated to increase. It was then that I learned what juggling in the classroom really was. But it didn’t stop in the classroom. There was the reaching out to students (and their parents) when grades started to slip or participation wasn’t happening, while also keeping up on the communication coming from my son’s teachers and school. I felt like I was doing the work of two–and sometimes even three–teachers at a time, while still trying to “mom.” Again, I’m not complaining because I knew it was necessary for the success of the students involved, but it was (and is) HARD to keep up.

I learned quickly that for my own sanity and the sake of the relationships I held most dear, that I needed to draw a line. When I left school, I left my work mentally there. I might glance at emails after my kids go to bed, but I try not to respond to them until I am back at work. I learned pretty quickly that students respected this and completely understood needing that separation. They were feeling overwhelmed by balancing school, work, and social lives, too. 

Now there has been another twist on the coaster, another change in schedule: In a week, my district’s secondary buildings will be switching to a hybrid model where about half the students will spend two days in the classroom with teachers and two days participating at home as the other half is in the classroom. I understand a big part of both being a teacher and living during a pandemic is being flexible, but I can only change gears so many times before they just get stuck and stop working properly. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to still teach face-to-face (er, mask-to-mask), even if it is with only a partial portion of my class, but the management of keeping that boat afloat while still being tethered to those at-home learners will not be easy. And then to go home absolutely brain-numb and exhausted and be the best mom and wife I can be will not be easy, either. 

But I’ll do it. I didn’t necessarily prepare for this. There was no class in college or professional development sessions to prepare me for what is to come as I head “into the unknown” like Elsa in Frozen 2, but I’ll do it just that way, Elsa-style. I’ll keep my arms open for the students who need them (metaphorically of course). I’ll hold my head up with confidence (even if I’m not feeling it 100% of the time). And I’ll walk into this with the beaming smile of a Disney princess because, honestly, my students and my family deserve it. No one signed up for these crazy times, but if we walk forward into each new challenge with optimism and the outlook that we want to help each other through it–rather than complain and leave each other floundering–then we just might come out the other side better than when we were when this all started. Here’s hoping, at least. 

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