Posted in Reflections At Mid-Life

A Hat, Compassion Fatigue, and Trying to Be Enough

On November 11, 2020, my husband surprised me with a Happy Half Birthday gift. It was a baseball hat with the word Hero and the symbol, a circle with a small cross underneath, that represents female or girl power. He told me that he read about the meaning behind the design of the hat and it reminded him of me,so he bought one for me. It stands for those who wear their heart on their sleeve, and women who run for office or for sport (it is made by Saucony, a popular footwear and apparel company.) That gift brought many thoughts to mind and I found myself reflecting on the past eleven months.

In March 2020, along with thousands or even millions of other educators across the world, I fell into a trap and I have been fighting to try to survive ever since.

That may sound dramatic, but it is truly how I feel. I am finding that this feeling is common amongst educators, for different reasons and at varying levels of intensity, but never the less, it is there. There are a variety of teaching settings happening now, which, I feel, adds to the problem. The inequities are glaring. The feelings of inadequacy are hard to ignore. The need for some sense of what used to be normalcy and routine are palpable.

While I continue to push myself to be the best I can be for my work, my friends and family, I can’t help but feel like a part of me is disappearing. The part that was thinking non-stop about ways to teach and to advocate for equity in public schools. The part of me that had high expectations for myself. The part of me that felt like my work should be valued and respected. Those have all disappeared. Could it be that almost a year ago I was campaigning to run for school board? And that almost ten months ago I raised $20,000 for a spur of the moment idea to start an Adopt A Family program, that provided over 75 families with food for four months, at the beginning of the pandemic? But now, I find that instead, every night, I work really hard at convincing myself that what I am doing is enough or that it even matters. I wonder if our students and teachers will be okay when a vaccine for COVID19 is accessible to everyone and we will have a chance to truly connect with one another again? Connect as humans, not only through screens.

Surrounding those thoughts, I also realize that I am one of the lucky ones. My family, friends and I remain healthy. Far too many friends have lost loved ones over the past 8 months, many not directly related to coronavirus. I do wonder, though, how many people have left this world due to the stresses, the anxiety and the confusing and often disappointing environment we have been living in for the past few years. Perhaps their bodies and souls decided that they had enough and their work on earth was finished for now?

At the end of last school year, I made the decision to go back to the classroom and teach fifth grade. Like most other teachers, I knew there was a chance, but hoped that I would not need to teach remotely for most of this school year. Well, here I am, three months later and looking at a minimum of three more months teaching through a screen. While some schools across the country have returned to in-person teaching (for now), I can only speak to being in a remote only teaching situation. While I have painstakingly established new routines in order to teach from a bedroom in our house (thanks to Callie for loaning me her room while she is away in grad school) every day, all day, they are not serving the purpose a routine usually serves. For most people, especially, children, having a routine and sense of predictability are critical. They relieve anxiety, give one a sense of control, and provide one way to find calm in an otherwise chaotic world. I work hard at providing routine for my class of 24 fifth graders, because I know it will benefit them. I want them be able to experience some moments of joy, some aha moments and maybe even some inkling of being a confident learner. That will not happen unless they are feeling safe, understood and valued.

And yet, even after 3 months, new routines still feel contrived and uncomfortable. I am unable to find the balance between doing too much and not enough. Teaching in a room in your home, alone, without being able to read body language, facial expressions or even to know that a student is squirming or fidgeting or tapping a pencil or leaning back and sitting dangerously on only two legs of the chair, is lonely. I want the students I am charged with teaching during this stressful time to have the same opportunities they would have if we were in person, sharing a classroom. That is, of course, impossible. One thing I have at this point in my career in education is wisdom. Added to my wisdom, I have always had good instincts as a teacher. I know that it is ridiculous to even think that teaching and learning will take place in a way that feels acceptable to me. My priority has always been to put social and emotional growth first, both for students, as a classroom teacher, and for teachers when I was a coach and mentor. That remains the same, and in fact, is more important now than ever before. I know that there are some teachers out there who are managing to teach content more than others, and there are some students who are succeeding more in an online setting than in a classroom. Without a doubt, I know that I am definitely on the end of the continuum where I am working hard at helping students feel capable and secure, and doing a little bit of teaching in between. I am trying to be at peace with that, but it does change my world as I have known it for over 35 years.

Unless you are a teacher, or you belong to education related Facebook pages, instagram or twitter accounts, then you most likely do not see the many memes, posts and comments from teachers across the world that are shared daily documenting this time in history. It is difficult to try to describe what it feels like to be a teacher, or school staff member, over the past eight months. If you are a parent or caregiver of school-aged children, you may get a glimpse of teachers desperately trying to help students connect through computers. You may hear us repeating the same requests over and over to try to find a way to attempt to actually teach them something. The stress while attempting to teach online is one thing, but for me, it is the additional 30 hours per week (I am not exaggerating) trying to plan that causes frustration. Behind the scenes, very little sleep, frantic planning and trying to find ways to keep up with online assignments, learning the latest online platforms, finding resources and keeping up with emails and text messages are a bottomless pit. Not to mention, rearranging my home weekly, bringing more and more books and materials home from school as they slowly but surely take over rooms that were not meant to be classrooms or storage closets. I am now reading my old Feng Shui books to see what I can do to make our home still feel like a home and not a workplace that I can never get away from. And if you really care about me, do not tell me about self-care. I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got, but it is not nearly enough and it will not be enough for quite some time.

Perhaps the most emotionally wrenching part of all of this is the messages we get that it is good enough that we are not reaching all of our students during this seemingly never-ending pandemic. When every child returns to in-person school, eventually, we will have two lists of names. One list will be those who had resources and home environments, or attention spans and stamina that allowed them to learn something since March 2020. The other list, which grows longer and longer with each day passing, will be the children who are falling off the radar of teachers, schools, communities and decision makers. I am not blaming anyone; I am merely stating a fact. We are all tired. We hear about pandemic fatigue and people not wearing masks or putting parties and their own needs and social life ahead of the greater good, but I recently heard a nurse name something she is seeing in the medical profession as Coronavirus numbers increase again. She called it compassion fatigue. I was driving at the time, and I wanted to roll down my window and shout it out to the world! “That’s it! Compassion fatigue!” For many of us, it’s the same feeling in education. Working hours and hours and watching students become less and less motivated to learn, as we try harder and harder, at the expense of our own health. Six months ago, I said that the way public education was handling the pandemic was not going to be sustainable. I wish I had been wrong. I wish all of the talk about having the opportunity to “rethink education” and make meaningful changes that would address inequities, was actually happening. It has, instead, gotten worse. Do you remember all of the news stories, social media posts, elected officials profusely thanking teachers for being so wonderful? Where is that gratitude now? Sending teachers back to school to see who can be the one who does not get COVID so that employers, parents and government officials can feel better about children being out of their homes? What about teachers who are also parents? What about their children?

Education is changing, but it needs to slam on the brakes and make a U-turn before we lose all of the teachers and administrators who will, in the end, be the only ones who can get things back on track, We need to get out of survival mode and use some common sense. If not, eventually, that compassion fatigue is going to win and our children, our future, are going to lose.

I guess that Hero hat dredged up quite a whirlwind of emotion for me. I wonder if I tap it on my head three times if it will take me back to a more comforting and recognizable world. I mean it worked for Dorothy with those ruby red slippers, right?