Eighty-four (84) days ago I was shaking hands and hugging thousands of people as they stood in line waiting to vote in the primaries. I was there because I was on the ballot for our local school board election. While I have so many distinct memories and images etched in my brain from that day, it all seems so distant now. Ten days following the election, our schools shut down due to the impending COVID-19 pandemic. My days quickly transformed into a “new normal”, although there is almost nothing normal about my days right now.
As the days go by, seventy three (73), to be exact, more and more articles, tweets, blogs, and podcasts are being written about the many ways that the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way we work, play and live. Writing is one way of processing my emotions, and in late March I thought I would be writing daily, or at least weekly as I tried to navigate this pandemic. That made perfect sense at the time because I could not imagine being quarantined in our home for a few weeks with time to fill.
Biggest lesson learned so far: nothing makes perfect sense any more.
Not only have I not written daily or weekly, but three weeks has turned into almost three months, with a forecast for many more to follow, including a strong chance that all of this staying at home, mask wearing, and contactless living in public, is not going away for many. many months (I am avoiding saying years, because that is too much to think about right now.)
One thing that has not changed is that I have children and teachers heavy on my mind. As every profession has been tossed into the whirlwind of change and are spending hours daily trying to function from new places and perspectives, I have watched, listened and lived through two months of total mayhem in public education. In particular, my life has been tossed around within the world of elementary school mayhem, which looks and feels a bit the same, but definitely very different from high school and college level education.
Two weeks ago, I celebrated my sixty-first birthday. Over half of those years I have been working in public education. I started my career teaching middle school, then high school, then elementary school. I started teaching at the college level twenty five years ago. Besides the obvious difference of ages of the students, there are vast differences in the learning environments, based not only on the students, but on the teachers. The adults in these environments are different as night and day, so the fact that this pandemic is being handled differently in each educational environment, is of no surprise to me. In fact, I believe that the solutions for each needs to look different as we move forward.
In the elementary school world, like other places, there are waves of emotions that keep coming at us, often without warning. The feeling of being inadequate is constantly there. Teaching, especially elementary school age children, for most of us, relies on face-to-face contact. Proximity is a key factor in learning for many students. Being able to speak quietly and gently to a child who needs reassurance or calming requires being close to them and giving reassuring smiles and eyes that show genuine care. Some of us are having a hard time thinking about ways to do that part of teaching differently. We were already concerned about the screen time children had during the day, and now that is what we are relying on to make contact with them. If you have no way of connecting virtually with a student, then it’s as if they dropped off the face of the earth. Many sleepless nights for teachers now can be attributed to that factor alone. I hear from teachers who feel as if they should be doing more. While I tell them that they are doing plenty, and they are doing enough, I can’t change their teaching instincts and how they are feeling, solely by reassuring them…remotely.
March and April are usually the time of year when you see the fruits of your labor in a classroom. Everything you have been trying to teach your students starts to come together, children mature, and things just start to click. It’s the reason we all change from our December, “I can’t do this anymore” mantra to sharing success stories day after day in the springtime. By mid-May, we usually begin to prepare for the end of the year. There are celebrations, awards, assessments, end-of-year checklists. Packing up the classroom. Saying good-bye for the summer break, with some sadness and some relief, to students and co-workers. Our heads already full of ideas for “next year” and reflections on what worked and all the new things we learned and we want to try in the new school year.
This year, our 2020 hindsight is different. Our brains are still full, but moving at rapid speed and there seems to be no end in sight. We have very little idea how to “re-imagine school”, which is becoming a common term in the education world. As teachers, we also know that odds are slim that anyone will actually ask us to be part of the proposed solutions. We already have almost no control over COVID-19, but in our world, we also, usually, have very little control over the decisions being made that will impact us directly in the coming months.
Truth be told. I’m tired.
Since the pandemic hit NC, my typical week, for the last 10 weeks, switched from going to work in an elementary school to coordinating food deliveries for families from our school. This is my new normal, which I fully expect to change again, as “summer break” approaches:
Sunday: Prepare food delivery list, assign gift cards, assign teams to families, print out groups with family names and addresses. Send an email to teacher volunteers to confirm that they are all able to help deliver meals and gift cards (and books and masks) to families on Monday to 50 families.
Monday: Respond to emails, texts, phone calls from colleagues. Attend virtual meetings, go pick up food at the district food warehouse. Take food to school parking lot to meet 14 volunteers. Sort food, pack up cars, hand out lists and gift cards, deliver food. Go home. Respond to emails, texts, phone calls from colleagues. Attend virtual meetings.
Wednesday: Respond to emails, texts, phone calls from colleagues. Attend virtual meetings. Work on online PD for staff. Attend virtual meetings. Go to local food bank to pick-up more food for families for Thursday/Friday deliveries. Confirm with teacher volunteers for deliveries to be made to 15-20 families.
Thursday-Friday: Sort food at home and prepare boxes for teachers to pick up for families. Respond to emails, texts, phone calls from colleagues. Attend virtual meetings.
Everyday: Check in with teachers by phone, texts, emails. Attend virtual meetings. Work on list of tasks for school, including updating Adopt-A Family student lists and donor lists. Attend virtual meetings. Go for a walk and listen to books on audible or podcasts.
Some days: Go to the bank (drive-thru) to deposit checks from donors. Go grocery shopping, with mask and gloves. Work on online PD for staff. Watch webinars for my own learning. Call my 90 year old mom in Ohio, who has been self-isolating since March and is “getting tired of this whole thing.” Work on jigsaw puzzles with my daughter, who came home from Chicago in March, who is attending grad school from home temporarily.
Nobody really knows what the next seventy days will look like. Nor the seventy days that follow those. I know that I will slowly, but surely, develop my new normal, and give what I can to others as we try to figure this all out together. I know that I will continue to have days that go by quickly and feel productive, and days when I begin to cry for what seems like no reason at all. I first experienced loss when I was 13 years old. My friend, Mike, from Junior High (Middle School) died from Leukemia, then my grandmother died from a brain tumor, then my 27 year old uncle died from cancer. All within a few months of each other. Since then I have felt that emptiness and those mysterious emotions over and over when young friends died, my dad passed away, I got divorced, I moved to a new state, or I changed jobs. This pandemic has stirred up all of the same emotions, over and over. I know that I pushed through in the past, and I will push through this too. The unknown is the biggest challenge, but I do know that this pandemic is causing more unknown than usual. I am going to push through the next seventy days with what I know: kindness, patience and common sense. Mid-August will be here before we know it. No need to change what has worked for me in the past. I hope that others will join me.