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Teachers, You're Doing a Better Job Than You Think

—Image courtesy of Meridith Aki
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Teachers are the moms of public education. We’re at the heart of children’s daily world. We give them our time, love, and wisdom. Like mothers, we rarely get credit when things go well and are the target of blame when they don’t. When we believe we’ve fallen short, we’re brutally hard on ourselves.

That has been especially true during the pandemic and this bizarre, build-the-plane-while-you-fly-it version of school we’ve all been experiencing these past couple of months.

I was talking recently with Meridith Aki, one of the greatest teachers I have ever known. She meets with her kindergarten class on Google Meet every morning so her students can retain their shared sense of community. When California schools shut down, Meridith went to every child’s home and talked with their families from a safe distance, to answer their questions and to explain what she could. For Teacher Appreciation Week, the kids sent her life-size drawings of themselves with their arms spread wide, giving her the only kind of hugs they can right now.

When I expressed amazement at all she’s doing with her class, while taking care of her own son and daughter, too, Meridith shook her head and said, “But it’s not effective.”

So much of the way she teaches is to get students into groups with a purposeful task, then set them loose while she walks from group to group and guides their learning. She can’t do that with a class of 5-year-olds now that they’re all in their separate homes, watching her digital face talk to them from a screen.

Like many of us, Meridith is teaching heroically in daunting conditions, yet to her it doesn’t feel like enough.

Why These “School” Days Are So Hard

During these hard, strange days, many of us have felt inadequate. Sometimes we plan a class Zoom session, and only four kids show up. We finally connect with a child we haven’t seen in weeks, but they’re rendered mute because they can’t get the sound on their computer to work. We send out a compendium of online resources, then discover that some kids only have internet access once their mom or dad comes home from work with their cellphone.

We know how much our kids need from us, and we’re painfully aware that we’re only meeting a fraction of that need for a fraction of our students.

As the end of this school year approaches, we feel the gap between our reach and our grasp, that painful difference between everything we wanted to give our students and what we were actually able to give them.

The end of this year will be hard. We all have our rituals for those final days of school, when a class of strangers that has become a kind of family is about to go their separate ways. We put a lot of thought and intentionality into planning that last week.

We want the kids to have a chance to reflect on how far they have come as readers, writers, scientists, mathematicians, and human beings. We kindle a little nostalgia, reminding them of that field trip we took to the botanical gardens or the day before winter break when we all wore our pajamas and watched “The Polar Express” while sipping cocoa like the kids on the train.

But the last days of this year will look really different. We won’t be able to give each child that final hug to last them—and us—all summer.

Given these losses, I worry that for many teachers, the familiar end-of-the-year feeling of exhausted fulfillment will be replaced this year by a nagging sense of self-doubt and incompletion. We can’t succumb to the pull of that cruel tide.

We have to hold two ideas in our minds at once. First, the inescapable truth that the loss of learning this year has cut deep. A child only gets one chance at kindergarten, 6th grade, or senior year. The pandemic has taken its toll on every student’s education, and for some of our most vulnerable children, that toll has been devastating.

Yet we also have to acknowledge a second truth: Handed a Herculean task, teachers have risen to meet the crisis with a degree of dedication, talent, and love for our students that is nothing short of heroic. Instead of focusing on all the things we haven’t been able to provide the kids in our care, we need to flip that script and take stock of the many things we have done for them, both before and after schools shut down.

What We Have Done

In the most extraordinary of crises, we have continued to convey to our students every day that we care about them. We have provided a little normalcy in a time that is far from normal. We’ve reminded them that we are still their teacher, and they are still a class. We’ve created the conditions for moments of joy, reflection, connection, and meaning. We have loved them from afar.

Many of us were given almost no time to prepare for this pandemic version of teaching. As a school board member in South Carolina wrote on Facebook, “We gave educators almost no notice. We asked them to completely redesign what school looks like and in about 24 hours local administrators and teachers ‘Apollo 13’ed’ the problem and fixed it. Kids learning, children being fed, needs being met in the midst of a global crisis.”

Many of us have also been doing two full-time jobs each day: teaching our students remotely while making sure our own children’s emotional, physical, and academic needs are met. We plan virtual read-alouds while clearing the breakfast dishes. We facilitate Zoom calls while fielding our sons’ and daughters’ questions about their schoolwork.

And we do all this while dealing with our own psychological adjustment to a global catastrophe none of us could have fully prepared for. The trauma of the pandemic has now been multiplied by a second trauma, which hits teachers of color in a particularly deep and brutal way: the killing of George Floyd in police custody on May 25.

So teachers, as we stumble and sprint toward the final day of the strangest school year any of us is likely to experience, try to do for yourselves what you do each day for every child in your class: Show yourselves a little grace. Take a clear look at your gifts instead of your flaws, your strengths instead of your shortcomings.

Remember the faces of the students who told you through your computer screen how much they miss you, the families who thanked you for all you have done for their child, the kids who made you burst out laughing in the middle of a pandemic.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” During this hard end to a hard year, you have done more than you know to help your students get through it.

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