Teachers, If You're Not OK Right Now, You're Not Alone
I had to accept I can't fix everything for my students
Before my school adjourned for spring break, I had been following the news closely and sensed a big change was coming. Coronavirus was on the mind and in the classroom. My student-teacher, a Chinese national, had given lessons on the coronavirus. She had also engaged the class in thoughtful discussions about subsequent hate crimes inflicted upon Asians around the world following the outbreak. In the weeks leading up to our spring break, my 4th grade students had enjoyed giving the lower grades presentations on “The Five Steps of Proper Handwashing.”
As I bid farewell to my students on March 13, I wasn’t sure what to say to them as they walked out the door for spring break, possibly for the last time as my students.
“Have a nice break.”
“Stay safe and remember to wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds.”
“See you in a week, maybe?”
Since then, spring break has been extended by four weeks with the situation evolving by the minute. This is truly an unprecedented situation. If you asked me six months ago to imagine a time where I would be mandated to stay home for weeks, away from my students, I would have said you’re nuts. And yet, here we are.
For me, everything has changed. Previously always in a rush, I have suddenly found myself at home indefinitely with my family. My two daughters’ regimented schedule of after-school activities ceased to exist. Piano lessons, swimming practice, and tutoring are on hold. My parents’ upcoming visit to see us in Honolulu has been postponed. My daughter’s 7th birthday party, which she was desperately looking forward to, has been canceled.
And my students, what has changed for them? They are no longer able to greet me every morning at the door of the classroom with a handshake or a hug. They will not anxiously enter the room to find out their weekly job. They will not be taking attendance, lunch count, or reading daily reminders to their classmates. Nor will they be sitting in our classroom’s community circle, listening to each other every morning. No longer will they secretly be passing notes to each other during lessons. Horsing around at recess with each other has also come to an end.
But I am a teacher. I had been enticed nearly two decades ago to join the profession with romantic slogans such as “Teaching is my superpower, what’s yours?” and “Real heroes don’t wear capes, they teach.” I knew that teachers are selfless heroes equipped with boundless energy, infinite care, and unending optimism. When first embarking on remote teaching during this crisis, I was ready to make everything OK for all my students, because that is what teachers do.
Despite the massive changes, it initially seemed that things were going to stay the same in some ways. I was still waking up every morning thinking about my students. I was still eager to see their faces, only in different ways via Padlet or Zoom meetings. I was still spending my days creating activities to keep students excited about learning and interacting with our classroom community. I communicated with their parents via email, text, and phone. I had a classroom with charts, whiteboards, and Expo Markers, except it was in my living room. I was collaborating with my colleagues. I even stepped outside my comfort zone with new technology.
Judging from the responses on our classroom chat board, some things stayed the same for students, too. They still looked forward to seeing each other in our virtual meetups. They were as eager to participate as they had been during our in-person discussions. They craved togetherness. Just like me, they missed our community.
As I desperately attempted to be a “teacher hero” and preserve some sense of normalcy for myself and my students, I gradually came to realize that I had underestimated the gravity of the moment.
Just a few weeks in, cracks began to surface in my anxious energy and unrelenting optimism. After days of staying up into the wee hours of the night to adapt lesson plans, waking up early for back-to-back Zoom meetings, and then home schooling my two daughters while my husband worked remotely at our kitchen counter, I found myself bone tired with a sink full of dirty dishes. In the course of 24 hours, I would experience joy, stress, fear, boredom, and anxiety. My days were beginning to leave me overwhelmed and just plain exhausted. I began to question how I could maintain normalcy for my students in a time when nothing is normal.
My initial urge to swoop in with my superhero teacher cape and make everything better with amazing online resources and innovative ways of connecting was very strong, almost instinctual. However, after several weeks of teaching remotely and staying at home, I have accepted that I can’t.
For me, living and teaching during the coronavirus pandemic has been a roller coaster of emotions. I realized minimizing them or ignoring them is not healthy. By embracing where I am (or am not), I hope to show my students and my family that I am not a superhero, I am just human. Like many, I am grieving the loss of my freedom. I am fearful for my health and the health of my family. At the same time, I am happy about the new ways I have found to connect with my students. I miss going to school, but I am also grateful for this golden time spent with my own family.
As uncomfortable as it feels, I am slowly starting to accept that I have no choice but to sit in this moment with my students. There are no clear solutions or quick fixes. I can’t minimize the gravity of this unprecedented crisis for them or myself. For now, the best I can do for my students and myself is to accept that right now, it’s OK to not be OK.