All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. – J. R.R. Tolkien
Excitement was in the air! My year of teaching children in small boxes through a computer screen had come to an end, but my wise 8-10 year old students had requested that we try to see each other in-person, at least once. Their parents also shared concerns about a need for some in-person interaction and some closure to a year that had been filled with ups and downs, and changes with classes and teachers. More importantly to me and the students, we would never know how tall we all actually were. Up until this year, my height has always been a popular topic of conversation with elementary school students, because so many of them end up being taller than me, at 4’11” on a good day, by the end of the school year. Most of my students this year, from two different schools, had never had a chance to stand next to me.
So, on the morning of June 11, 2021, we said our last virtual goodbyes, but much of the potential sadness was postponed because we had a plan to meet for a picnic lunch at a park. It was heartwarming to see these smiling (behind masks) faces from the small boxes on my computer in person. They were joined by family members, and even Chico, Z’s dog, came along. After all, Chico, along with other family pets, had become part of our class too! The relief and joy that I felt coming from the parents and children was a perfect ending to the most imperfect school year I have ever experienced. The week prior to this week, I was also able to make a brief visit to the 24 students I taught, also remotely, from August until December. I brought them a small gift to remind them that they were amazing and that I believed in them. They were fifth graders, so there was no doubt that they would be taller than me. I didn’t realize how satisfying it would feel to see them all together, in-person. No regrets from taking the time to go see them in person.
Normally, at the end of the school year, I reflect on the year and begin to plan for the next year. That’s called “best practice” in education. Reflection is a critical skill for teachers so that they can continue to grow in their personal and professional life. The 2019-20 school year ended in such chaos, there was no time for reflection. We were all in survival mode. As I try to reflect back on the school year of 2020-21, it is hard to know where to start. This has been a unique year for everyone due to the pandemic and all of the chaos that came with it, the uncertainty, and the need to turn on a dime over and over and over. It has been a year of nonstop reflection for me.
Between March 2020 and May 2021, I worked in three different schools. It was my decision to make those changes; however, making those changes amidst all of the changes happening in the world presented emotional challenges that I did not anticipate. Each change required reflection in order to make the decision to change again. Making decisions during a pandemic is less than ideal. Pandemic “brain fog” was a reality for me and definitely contributed to putting barriers up for any clear reflection. My reflections were sometimes blurred and caused me to doubt myself and my abilities to make a difference in teaching. I cried. I walked and swam. I tried to write about it, which also proved to be difficult, because it was hard to focus. I talked with family and friends. I could sense worry from friends and family, because this was so far from the norm for me. I tried to keep everything in perspective, but I was just not my usual positive, organized, “good trouble” self.
In May, 2020, I made a decision to leave the school I had been working in since 2017. Our principal had resigned, the pandemic was in its beginning stages, and we had no idea what the outcomes would be from Covid 19. I was in the throes of coordinating fundraising and food deliveries for 75 families from the school. I was trying to figure out what my job really was at this point and what it might look like when and if school started back up in August. My heart felt the need to stay, but my tired brain and body were telling me that it was time to hit the refresh button in hopes of not burning out. It was also crystal clear to me that I was not a good fit for the new administration at the school, so it was time to move on. This meant leaving a teaching staff that I had grown to love and admire, and knowing that we had no idea what was ahead of us with the pandemic. It also meant moving five carloads of my stuff to our house and a storage unit.
I was able to find a job that began in August in a public school in a neighboring county. This was also a difficult decision, considering that I had just campaigned for months to run for school board in my county. My deep concerns about equity and the schools in the city I have lived in for 28 years had not magically disappeared just because I was not elected. I was constantly thinking of ways I could possibly contribute to public education. At the same time, I was also feeling the need to step back from my current school system in general, because I spent months pouring my heart and soul into campaigning and speaking out about the inequities in our school system. When I was not elected, I had to regroup and figure out what was next. I wanted to advocate for the children and teachers, often invisible to the rest of the community, in the school I was working in for three years. My exhaustion from the campaign and the beginning of the pandemic had caught up with me though. I was emotionally drained. On top of that, the pandemic kept bringing doom and gloom and I could not seem to shake off feeling the weight of the world on my weakened shoulders.
When I interviewed for my new job, I was hired to teach fifth grade Language Arts. Since I had been a Literacy Coach for the past three years, that was appealing to me. It was also a Spanish Dual Language School and a Title I School, so I felt like I could continue to chip away at equity in public schools, just in another county. This is, after all, a nationwide problem. So, I moved my five carloads of books, furniture, and school supplies to my new classroom. Unfortunately, due to Covid19 restrictions, I was not able to set up the classroom or unpack my things. I also learned that I was needed to teach all subjects for the year, not only Language Arts. I took many deep breaths and told myself that I could do it. I told myself that this was a fresh start and it could be exciting. As the year started and I met daily and virtually with my 24 students on Zoom, we plugged along together and tried to do the best we could. Between being virtual and planning for five subjects, I was always feeling like I was on my last leg. I was not sleeping, I was not able to plan as I wanted to (I can be a bit of an overachiever and this clearly was not the year I should have tried to do that), and I was missing interacting in person with these wonderful, yet tired, fifth graders. Every 2-3 weeks, I would spend hours driving to each students home to drop off books and materials, along with a little surprise wrapped up that they would all unwrap together on Zoom. It also allowed me to connect with students who did not come on camera during class, which was a added challenge for relationship building. Although my exhaustion was not going away, I was pushing myself to do everything I possibly could to keep students engaged online and most importantly, to let them know that I cared about them and that they were valued as learners and human beings.
In mid-November, we received unexpected news about my 24 year old daughter, Callie. She had been diagnosed with an unknown kidney disease. I had very little reserve energy at that point, but I had enough to know that her health and well-being were a priority for me. I knew that I could not support her emotionally, if I continued to work in a job that was sucking the life out of me. I had very little time or opportunities to build relationships with the principal or my co-workers, which was also wearing on me. I was also concerned that I would be expected to go back into the school to teach in person before I felt that it was safe to do so. No vaccines yet, and talk of returning to school no matter what. I wanted to be “covid-free” in case Callie needed me to go to Chicago or if she needed to come home. So, once again, I began a job search. Filling out applications, updating my resume, and interviewing, when I barely had time to do anything other than work, proved to be yet another stressor. (Next blog entry will address ageism and the reality of finding a job, or not, when you are over 60.)
I didn’t really know what I was looking for in a job and I was trying to muster up excitement and energy to write letters of interest and prepare for interviews. Fortunately, a new temporary position at a local Quaker school had been created due to the pandemic. Unbelievably, they needed a virtual only teacher, to begin in January, for a group of eight students, ages 8-10. As I interviewed for the job, which included talking over Zoom with many people for two days, I had a sense that this was where I needed to be, at least for now. I learned that there is a Quaker saying “proceed as the way opens.” What this means is that you know some type of change or action needs to take place, but it may not be crystal clear how to make that happen. Well, at this point and time, that described me perfectly. I was offered the job and accepted the offer. I resigned from my other teaching job and moved five carloads of books, furniture and materials back to a storage unit and into our home. Again.
My experience teaching as part of a Quaker school, completely virtual for five months was, I believe, exactly what I needed in order to move forward. I was able to take much better care of myself and I was able to begin to think more clearly again. I don’t doubt that being vaccinated, and knowing that my family friends were also vaccinated, has contributed to feeling less anxious about the pandemic. There are still many ramifications from the pandemic, and I suspect they will continue to present challenges for all of us for quite some time. Apparently, we have not really learned much from being quarantined, or having to close businesses, schools, and churches. Unfortunately, what I am noticing is that as soon as restrictions are lifted, people are rushing back to try to find the old “normal.” It is really disappointing to me, and makes me worry about what lies ahead, but it will not stop me from moving forward.
So that brings me back to reflecting on what I have learned. How will I answer the question of what to do with my time? That remains to be seen. I am going to think positive and dream big. As I reflect back over the past year, I know that I learned to do things I never would have dreamed I could do. Technology skills were not optional, so I definitely improved in that area. Relationship building was still a priority for me, and I made that happen with students and families in both schools that I worked in this past year, during virtual only teaching. I learned that I am still a teacher and that I love literacy more than anything. I still have strong feelings about being antiracist and about equity in schools.
A couple of months ago, as I was slowly feeling more like myself again, I was able to see that I needed to find work that was going to feel exciting to me. I realized that I do not need to leave education, my heart and soul for over 35 years. I do need to be creative. Innovative. Valued. I still want to make a difference for children, families and teachers. I don’t need to be a classroom teacher, but I need to be involved with public schools.
It seems that I need to wait for another opportunity “to proceed as the way opens.”
Well, I think I found it. It’s as if it should have been obvious to me for years. So…time will tell. The time given to me now is the time to be patient and to think positive. It’s going to be great! Not easy, but great. Oh, and that stuff in the storage unit is going to need to be moved again.