To say the 2021 school year was a unique challenge doesn’t quite tell the story of this school year. I have been a public educator since 2003 and each year has had it’s share of challenges but none of what we were taught prepared us for the challenges of this year. Public educators are some of the most under-appreciated yet extremely vital people in our society. As I end this school year and look back, I think it is time to show some appreciation for my colleagues across the state and country for the sacrifices and struggles that we have endured. Although we say that it was this school year that was different, the reality is that it was just a hair over one and half school years. We began this journey in March of 2020, right before the 2nd semester of the 2019-2020 school year. It began as a 2 week pause and ended up being a 15-month journey.
Back when this all began, we were preparing to get the second half of the year going. Spring break was a month away, kids were finishing by getting ready to submit papers or take midterm exams. Teachers were preparing to shift to second semester mode when it all stopped, and no one knew what to expect.
The reality is when this all happened no one really asked the teachers for input on how to best work with students who were locked into their homes. We all tried different platforms to reach out to our students before many counties made decisions about what they were willing to pay for and what they wanted us to use. Teachers began to adapt lessons that were meant to be presented to classrooms full of smiling children to bite sized chunks that we could give to children through a screen. We began to deal with the reality that everything we were taught and everything we learned would have to be fundamentally changed because we were in an environment we had not been in before. Many people compared what we were doing to flying a plane while building it, but the truth is we weren’t just flying the plane, we were also the cabin crew trying to fulfill everyone’s needs while building the plane. We were getting people their extra pillows, their food and drinks, calming passengers down, all while trying to put the plane together.
When September rolled around, and we began the school year 100% virtual and it was a lonely feeling. We were often trying so hard to connect with students who were intimidated by the camera. They didn’t want to let us peak into their homes for various reasons. Some were struggling with siblings and parents in the same room trying to learn and work at the same time, some were embarrassed by the way their home looked, some were just frustrated and didn’t want us to be able to see that look on their face. It was difficult. My colleagues and I had to find ways to connect with students that we couldn’t see. It was like teaching in a classroom where every student has a black box surrounding their desk and you’re never quite sure if they are actually there or not. Often, we were teaching to a screen filled with black boxes with student names imprinted on them.
When teachers are having a rough time, they normally have other staff they can talk to in order to get some perspective, but that piece was missing because we were all at home. Then came the spring and we were being told we had to go back. Every one of us was afraid of what this would look like, we had heard the stories of teachers dying because schools had opened too soon. The parents who were calling us heroes a year ago were now saying that we should be forced to go back and if we continued to fight the return we should be fired. Morale was low and it didn’t seem to be improving. We did it though, we slowly began to have some in-person classes. They weren’t huge because the majority of parents chose to keep students’ home, but those small interactions made a huge difference. It was still difficult and frightening, but there was a little light.
It is now June and we have made it through the school year. There is still some fear and anxiety about the fall, but it is more manageable. We keep hearing things like “it will be great to return to normal” or “everything will be like it was before the pandemic” but the reality is that we will never be “normal” again. We have to learn from what happened this year and take those lessons and apply them to our future. We have to start looking at how we teach and reach students. It’s comfortable to try and hold on to the past, but we have to let go of some of those things, we have to push ourselves out of our comfort zone and be ready to meet challenges head on. To all my fellow educators out there, society wouldn’t survive without you. Keep pushing and challenging and teaching because that is the only way we can make a difference.