An End in Sight: Looking back on teaching through a pandemic
I gave my last final exam on Friday, 5/28, at 10:15 am, from my kitchen counter. I passed by the screen to check in on my one student in between trips to the fridge, pantry, and coffee maker. I sat on a kitchen stool with my feet propped against another kitchen stool. Otto started barking and pounding on the living room window, so I had to get up and let him out. Shaking my head in amused dismay, I muted the microphone and apologized to my student.
This was the 2020-21 schoolyear. I spent the entire first semester teaching from home, sometimes in barely-disguised pajamas, sometimes in elaborate costumes, sometimes in the same hoodie I wore the day before. Every day, I started class by logging onto Microsoft Teams and saying, "Hi everyone! How are we doing?"
And the kids were honest. Sometimes, the answer was "I'm okay." Sometimes it was "bad," "not good," or even "I've cried three times today." On those days, we tabled the lesson and talked about some coping strategies. We identified what we could and couldn't control, talked about the importance of mental health and self care, and built ourselves and each other up. As a result, we only got through three of my usual four units this year. I cut several projects and essays, extended deadlines, reopened tests after the windows, and dropped/excused low grades on the regular.
I'm not saying this to garner sympathy or because I think I deserve some kind of award for my compassion. I did these things because we both needed them--the kids and me. Some days, I took a nap instead of eating lunch, even though this year we had an hour off. Some days, I took a seven minute nap between classes. Once, I almost slept through the alarm I set and missed my own class. When I extended a deadline, it was partly because a student couldn't get it done in time and partly because I knew I couldn't get it graded in time. If I ever had a virtual background on instead of showing the pets crossing behind me, chances are good that I was still in bed.
On the first day of virtual classes, I took a bath instead of a shower because i just didn't think I had the energy to stand for that long. I've always loved baths as a form of self-care, but this year, I took baths because I wasn't capable of anything that required more effort. I struggled financially on occasion because of my own impulse purchases. Once, I saw an ad on facebook for a pink stuffed shiba with a microwavable packet inside, something snuggly, cute, and warm. My love language is stuffed animals, so I bought it for myself. This was the year I didn't say no to myself, the year I did whatever my body and brain said I needed. Sometimes, that was multiple naps in a day. Sometimes, it was binge-watching comfort shows or listening to Taylor Swift's Folklore on a loop. Sometimes it was cereal for dinner. I let laundry go completely. I set a goal to clean the bedroom by Christmas, and then I didn't do it.
I tried this year. I did my best. It wasn't my best of all time, and my best was different day-to-day, but it was my pandemic year best. It was my "broken down by the state of things" best. My anxiety best. My "I'm still on submission and can't keep up with anything in my life and everything is falling apart" best. I had great ideas that never came to fruition. I started the year with an elaborate game designed to encourage students to participate and engage--with each other, with me, with the work. And that game crashed and burned around December. Every week since, I've told myself, "I'll dig the game out. I'll start it over. It won't be too hard..." And every week, nothing happened. And I have to accept that. Because I'm sure my students had work they wanted to do, projects they wanted to make just because, things they wanted to say... things that didn't happen either. And that's okay, too. I accept my students for what they brought to the table this year, and I know they've given me the same grace and understanding.
I don't know what some of my students look like. This is partly because I'm moderately face-blind, but it's also because most of the time, all I could see were circles with initials. A picture if I was lucky, sometimes a meme or anime character. And that's fine. They gave me what they could.
Second semester, we went hybrid. I was in the classroom full time, behind a mask (often with an animal face on it so I looked like a cartoon character). I had a max of nine in-person students in a class. Some classes remained empty on certain days. I taught to the kids in desks, from my desk, with a laptop perched between us so the virtual students could tune in as well. I learned to wait through the response delay. I learned to say things like "Raise your virtual hand if you're typing so I'll know to wait for you" and "like this post when you're ready to move on." I started every class with a meme share or a daily interactive question. Sometimes, only a few students answered. I had a handful who would sign on just long enough to say "good morning" and then disappear for the rest of class. They were "present" (in that I could see their initials on the screen) but never answered a question. I gratefully accepted anything they could give to class and to discussions, no matter how much or how little. Some days, I forgot to record the lesson.
This year, I taught from outside a Starbucks. I taught from my car, once because I was on the way home from the vet and knew I wouldn't make it in time, and once because I was locked out of my house. I've taught from my bed, my bedroom floor, my living room couch, my office couch, my desk, my kitchen counter, my dining room table, my kitchen table, and my own classroom.
This year, I've heard it all..
"They should pay you more." Yes, they should. Vote for officials who support this.
"I don't know how you did it." Because I had no choice. Because teachers teach. We don't know any other way.
"You're so resilient." Because I had to be. I don't feel resilient, I feel exhausted and empty.
"Teachers just don't want to go back to work." Please don't talk to me.
"I guess I should get paid like a teacher since I taught my own kid from home this year." Please don't talk to me.
"I choose not to live in fear." Must be nice, Becky, but I have anxiety so I never had that luxury to begin with.
"We can't thank you enough." I don't need to be thanked. We need more support and resources. We needed leadership who took this pandemic seriously so we didn't have to retreat into our houses for as long as we did. We need more mental health support for everyone. We need empathy.
What did I get out of this year? I saw sides of my students and coworkers that I'd never seen. I saw the real-real, the behind-the-scenes rawness of life. I saw colossal indifference. I saw people come together in new and innovative ways to help each other. I saw growth and joy, failure and sorrow. I saw beginnings and endings, a country on its knees, a world in ruins.
I'm going to carry this year with me for a long time, maybe forever. Maybe we always carry a little bit of every year with us anyway. Maybe this is one of many pictures taped inside my scrapbook alongside all the others. There are parts of this picture I hope will fade with time and parts I hope never do.
Every year, I somehow find myself explaining why I continue to teach. Usually, it's because students flat-out ask me why I do this--why anyone would do this. My answer is always the same: Because my students give me hope for the future.
I've never believed that more than I do now.