Let me begin by saying that I will be okay. I am not okay today, but I am also not worried about this state of disequilibrium lasting for the rest of my career or lifetime. I do wish though, with all of my heart, that I could be okay today. I have been teaching for a long, long time. Really. My first year teaching was 1984. It was an incredible experience with ten middle school students who required special education services. They were with me all day in the same classroom, along with Nancy, an amazing instructional assistant. It was a magical year for all of us. Since that year, I have had twenty more “first weeks of school” working directly in schools. An additional fifteen “first weeks of school” as a parent.
My first week of school this year, 2020, this perplexing, exhausting and emotional year, cannot be compared to anything I have ever experienced. I have attempted, several times, to write about what I have been experiencing recently, but I find that I cannot focus long enough to complete sentences or sustain a stream of thoughts that even make sense. So, while swimming laps last night, I came up with the thought that I would write in short blurbs instead. That is exactly how my brain is currently functioning. I think I need to get those disjointed thoughts down on paper so that I can move forward. I have a feeling that there are many others who read this will relate to it, especially teachers, and it may be a relief to only have to digest short blurbs because most of us are in a state of mental and emotional fatigue.
It’s Time To Wear Shoes Again
Not really. About 25 years ago, I wrote an article for a local parenting magazine titled, “It’s Time to Wear Shoes Again.” I was working as a Family Support Consultant at the time. It was an article offering parenting advice for preparing children to get ready for the first week of school. I advised getting back into bedtime routines, morning routines, and other inevitable changes that occur when we transition from summer to the first week of school. And it was time to wear shoes again. New school shoes. A highlight for many children and teens (and teachers) as they switched from summer bare feet and flip flops to their new school shoes. I grew up in a family owned shoe store. Business was booming in late August every year. This year, the year of nothing normal, we are doing school from home. No new shoes required, for students or teachers. Silver lining: no blisters?
New Levels of First Week Jitters for Teachers
I have a terrible feeling that these jitters may be hanging around for the rest of the year. In over 30 years, I never started a school year without feeling nervous about being ready for my new students, or as an instructional coach, ready for my new teachers. There is always something new to learn about or something new to try, and I looked forward to it. I had new students and families or teachers to build relationships with. New challenges to help push myself just a little bit more. This year is different. The level of stress is through the roof. For me, and I know for other teachers and parents as well, the learning curve is beyond steep. We could not have been prepared for a pandemic, and therefore, we are not prepared for school to begin this year. My “To Do” list is out of control. I currently have over 20 items on my list, with 10 marked as a priority that need to be completed by Monday. Each of those ten requires a minimum of 2 hours of my focused attention. That is not humanly possible.
Does Crying Help?
We are often told that crying is good for you. It is cleansing. There are hundreds of quotes about crying. Here’s one: ” You know that a good, long session of weeping can often make you feel better, even if your circumstances have not changed one bit”, from Lemony Snicket. Another, from Eileen Mayhew, “Let your tears come. Let them water your soul.” C.S. Lewis puts a different spin on it, “Crying is all right in its way while it lasts. But you have to stop sooner or later, and then you still have to decide what to do.” I know I am not alone when I say that I have cried more in the past six months than I have cried in my lifetime (61 years if you are wondering). The problem is not the crying, it is what C.S. Lewis said that is nagging at me every day, all day. I still have to decide what to do. I still have to go on. As someone who did not cry often, prior to the pandemic, I don’t really know what to do with all of the crying. It annoys me. This grieving process is real, and I am getting tired of it. I know I am grieving the loss of so many things from my now former “normal” life, and yet I am so fortunate during this time compared to many others. It’s confusing. It’s tiring. It is frustrating. So, I cry. Morning, noon and night. Some days are worse than others. I never really know when it will hit me, but I know that I have to continue to decide what to do.
Frustration Having to Reinvent…Everything!
Relationships. That’s what I do best as an educator. It’s a non-negotiable for me. Frustration for me includes not being able to build relationships with my new students and new colleagues in person. ( I changed school districts and schools this year) So I took the advice of C.S. Lewis and I decided what to do. I spent a good amount of time driving around this first week of school to meet as many of my students as possible. I visited them safely outside of their homes. For others, I was able to drop off a surprise bag of goodies (thanks to donations form my amazing friends) to their front door. (Monday we will all open one of the wrapped gifts together!) I know it will pay off in the end, but that also meant that I did not have much time to learn and practice online teaching skills. That will haunt me the entire second week of school. I know, in my heart, that it is okay. Yet, it is still tiring and frustrating to only see students on a computer screen. Frustration for me includes changing from the person that others relied upon for information and guidance at work, to the person who knows the least. Teaching online is like learning a second language to me. Learning a second language requires practice. A lot of practice. I have no time to practice, and yet I need to be teaching this new language to my students, with confidence. They are depending on me. Their parents are depending on me. Frustration for me also includes having a huge set of skills that seem useless now. My toolbox used to be overflowing, and it is now near empty. I am learning a new school and new curriculum. I am learning to teach in ways I don’t think are what’s best for children. I am frustrated, but I am, learning to refill my toolbox. Slowly, but surely.
Self Care: Let’s Stop Pretending This is Normal
It’s a pandemic. Still. Self Care needs to stop being the new buzz word. It is right up there with “synchronous” and “asynchronous” as stress causing words for me. It stresses me out more to think that I am not taking care of myself or that I am the cause of someone else not taking care of themselves when I ask for help. How are parents with school age children supposed to take care of themselves? Are we really expecting parents to find it natural to set up a learning space for their children at home? Monitor their children ALL day to make sure they are logged in, focusing on online classes and meetings? Feed their children ALL day? Are we really expecting teachers to be in front of a computer screen, ALL day, while juggling answering texts and emails and phone calls from parents and colleagues who need help? What about the teachers who are also expected to manage their own children who are supposed to be in front of a screen all day? I want to scream to someone (besides my poor husband) that it is not healthy for any child or teacher to be in front of a screen ALL day! I do not have the solutions to make this better instantly, but I can tell you that the way we are doing this, full steam ahead, is not the answer. We, meaning students, teachers and parents/families, are all going to crash sooner than later. Then what? I met a mom last night during one of my home visits who was fired from her job yesterday because she needed to be home with her child the first week of school to help him (he has a disability). She does not have the luxury of working from home for her type of job. This is honestly, just wrong. In March, we heard a lot about “the new normal”, but we seem to be forgetting that we are still not close to finding a new normal that works for everyone. Let’s stop pretending that we are all okay. What is happening in schools (at home) is not even remotely acceptable. Pun intended.
Now more than ever, kindness matters. I can’t believe how kind and patient the parents and families of my new students have been to me so far. Between my tears (offline), the kindness from parents, friends and colleagues, past and current, and my family, has kept me going this first week of school. My fifth grade students have been amazing. If we learn anything this year, I hope it will be that we must treat each other with kindness. I know that I will be told to treat myself with kindness too, but honestly, that is easier said than done. My expectations for myself are high. I don’t know how to just settle. It’s not in my blood. The learning curve is steep for me on many levels this new school year. I am trying to be realistic, yet hopeful. I will be okay. I’m not so great right now, but I know I will find a way to make peace with this new way of teaching. I will learn, I will grow. I will have more gray hair. I will have more e-tools in my toolbox. I will be okay…and so will you.