For the first 8 years of my teaching career, I was in a middle school classroom. I never actually wanted to teach middle school, but as a mid year graduate, it was the only job I could find, and I kind of got stuck.
In one such classroom, I had a student who I'll call K. K was a wonderful student. One of those that every teacher wants. She studied hard, did her best work, and even asked for do-overs when it wasn't quite up to par. During her 7th grade year when I had her, I also had the honor of directing K in the middle school play. While it was just a minor role, she thoroughly enjoyed it and did an amazing job. At the end of the year, K would move with her family to another county, but that did not mean it was the last I would hear from her. Periodically I still receive emails from K updating me on how her life, now as a junior in high school, has changed over the years. She's even gotten more into acting/musical theatre, and I had the privilege of seeing her play a more major role in a production at her school last year. As a teacher, it makes me happy that I've been able to forge such a connection with a student that they still reach out to let me know how everything is going.
Three years ago I made the decision to finally take the leap and go to a high school. After all, when I first started teaching, that was the dream - to one day be a high school English teacher (well theatre really, but those are hard to come by). At my first high school, I taught a girl who we'll call G. G HATED me as a teacher. She would skip class on days she just wasn't feeling it (which were a few), and on the days that she did deem acceptable, she would come to class but do very little work. It was a rocky relationship to say the least. There were many discussions that took place in the hallway that semester between the two of us. Most of them centered around the idea that G was too smart to be failing my class and needed to get it together before it was too late. She scraped by by the skin of her teeth.
The next year G would move on to a new class. And surprisingly, she would pop into my room almost every day. Sometimes just to say hi, other times to sit and talk. G revealed to me that things at home weren't the best, and that the year before she'd been in a bad place and had taken it out on me. G and I had many conversations that year about life and making ourselves better. At the end of the year when I revealed to G I would be leaving the school for another, she cried. She told me she didn't know what she would do without me in the building to come to when she just needed someone to listen and understand. I told her I'd still be reachable through email, and so that's what she did. She started to email me. We talk to each other a few times a month. Towards the end of the first semester, G invited me to a poetry slam competition she was performing in. I went to cheer her on and was completely caught by surprise when one of her pieces was about me and how I encouraged her and made her feel seen. It truly meant a lot that she would put so much trust and faith in me.
And now we've arrived to this year. In January, A entered my class. It was not a good beginning for us. Any direct conversation was met with push-back and even anger. I finally sat A down with me one day to discuss what was going on. I wanted him to feel comfortable in my class. He revealed that he just didn't like me. I reminded him of someone else in his life that he did not like, and it was just the way he felt. I understood, but asked him anyways what he felt I could change to make the classroom a better environment for him. He told me I was too loud. Many people, family included, will tell you that's the truth. I'm just a naturally loud person. So I worked on that. I tried to be purposefully calmer/quieter when speaking to that class. And I made sure to treat A like I did every other student. I wanted him to understand that even if he didn't like me, I still loved him like I do all my kiddos. I didn't want him thinking his revelation to me would change the way I felt about him.
Now that we've been out of school for over 2 months, A is the ONLY student who has shown up to my online class each and every day. Even on the days when it's 100% optional, A is there. Sometimes there are others; sometimes it's just us. Sometimes we have really great conversations, and sometimes we just sit in companionable silence while he works on his work and I work on mine. But I know that no matter what each day brings, A is going to be there.
This quarantine has been hard for everyone. As a teacher, there are many times when I think about all of the students I HAVEN'T seen and I worry whether or not they're ok. I think about all the families I've reached out that I haven't heard back from and try to figure out what I can do to get those kids more engaged. I've begun to question my abilities as a teacher as I'm sure many of you have as well. Online teaching and learning is certainly a different beast.
This isn't a new feeling though. This is one I have almost every year. Did I do enough? Was I enough? Did my kids learn enough? Did they feel loved and accepted? Are they going to remember the things I taught them? And there are a variety of answers to those questions. And sometimes the answer is no. But in the end, it only takes that 1. That 1 kid who shows up every day. That 1 kid that emails you 5 years after they've left your class to invite you to their play. That 1 kid who holds a graduation ticket for you to come and watch them walk the stage. That 1 kid that shows you that yes, you made a difference.
As I continue in this crazy career, I will try to teach and love all kids as if they were that 1. And I will continue to believe, with all my heart, that if there's only ever 1 each year, it will have been worth it.
Eleven years... that's the amount of time I've spent in classrooms from middle grades to high school. I always joked with fellow teachers about how nice it would be to get to work from home. Sit around in my PJ's all day? Interact with students as needed? Become more of a facilitator than a "sage on the stage"? Sign this introvert up!
A little over 2 weeks ago I finally got my wish. However, it wasn't on my terms. It was someone else's. Like many other districts and states, COVID-19 has sent us scrambling to the safety of our homes with the hope that staying 6 feet or more away from others in society will help slow the rate of the virus and bring us all back together again.
For many, however, this seems to have raised more issues than it's solved. For example, what happens when you send a state full of teachers home only to ask them to continue reaching out to students and furthering their educational journeys? Even with an unlimited number of educational sites now offering free tools, tips, and tricks at our finger tips, we must also fight the battle of equity on an entirely new level. Let's not even for a minute consider the number of students who are now at home without any device or internet to connect them to the outside world, but what about the number of TEACHERS in the same situation? I've seen Twitter friends be quoted $7,000 to simply install a new internet line for a house that is only 500 feet away from another that already has their own set up. And what about those teachers who haven't learned technology simply because they've never really had to? Just because trials by fire work for some doesn't mean it works for others. It breaks my heart to think that there really might be some teachers leaving the workforce because of the amount of stress this new situation has put on us. (But I can't lie and say that I'm not at least a little excited by the prospect of more lessons now being enhanced by the technology people are being forced to use.)
On top of not having the devices or connections, we are also faced with the fact that many sites being used are now seeing unprecedented traffic which leads to failures and even shutting down for (hopefully) brief periods of time. Teachers are literally killing the internet in an effort to bring some semblance of normalcy to the lives of their students.
What has started as joke ("Man, wouldn't it be great to work from home?") has now very much become my reality. And even as someone as well versed in tech as I am (which is to say not nearly as much as others, but a little bit more than some), even I am feeling the fatigue. So my advice to teachers is this: it's not a joke. But let's find some joy in it anyways. Let's bring in the silly. Let's relax the rules a bit. The kids will get there with or without the structure of the classroom. You've done a fantastic job before, and you'll continue doing a fantastic job now. But remember that this is new territory for literally everyone. Even for those of us who've done blended learning and flipped classrooms for years now. Going 100% digital on all levels is not easily done. So don't feel bad if you feel woefully unprepared or if you aren't as strict as you would normally be. That's not what the kids need now anyways.
So in the midst of it all, just know it'll be ok. YOU'LL be ok. And in no time at all, we'll be back in our classrooms... and I'll be back to joking that I need to work from home.