Toni M. Poling
In fifth grade, my friend’s sister died in a car accident. We were ten; she was sixteen. I remember our teachers gathering us together to tell us. I remember the darkness of the auditorium, the abject sadness on the faces on our teachers, and the alienness of the visiting counselors who were there to offer extra support. I can remember the black dress with neon pink hearts (it was the early nineties) that I was wearing.
As an adult rounding out my fourth decade, I can look back and pinpoint this event as the moment I lost my adolescent sense of invincibility. This was when I realized that bad things can happen to those I love, and that they could happen to me. After that, I started to worry, excessively. I would obsessively watch the speedometer in the car when my dad was driving me somewhere. If he was late coming home, I would be anxious until I saw his headlights in the driveway. I would hover over my little sister, doing everything I could to keep her safe (much to her own consternation).
As I sit at my dining room table in this third week of our quarantine, I’ve been thinking a lot about that moment and my subsequent ways of dealing with the fear, anxiety, and paranoia I felt about my inability to protect those I love because it has occurred to me that, for many of my students, this pandemic is their moment – the moment they lose their adolescent sense of invincibility – and we need to help them navigate that path.
Dearest friends, this is not the time for “business as usual”; there is nothing “usual” about this business. This is not the moment to hammer our students with learning standards, vocabulary lessons, or post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction (I will not be assigning my students Station Eleven right now, no matter how much I personally enjoy the text). Rather, this is the time for grace and compassion.
For some of our students, this is the most challenging moment they have faced. They are worried about prom and graduation. They are fearful that they will not get to see their friends or their teachers. For some of our students, this is just the next in a long line of life disappointments, but they share the same worries. They all need the same reassurance: We will be okay.
Check in on your students, not to focus on unfinished assignments, but to let them know you are here for them. Encourage them to read every day. Encourage them to write every day. Encourage them to get outside every day. Remind them that all of their emotions are okay. Be transparent in your feelings; show them how to navigate the situation in the best ways we all know how. Remind them that we are all imperfect by showing them grace.
And friends, I see you. I see how hard you are working to engage your students, tend your own loved ones, and navigate your own worries. I know you are exhausted; I am, too. But so are our students. Let me leave you with one last piece of advice: hula-hoop it. Close your eyes (trust me) and picture a hula hoop. Imagine laying it on the floor and stepping inside of it. All any of us can control is inside of that hula hoop; all we can control is ourselves. We are all doing the best we can, and that’s enough.
WVCTE is wondering: How are you supporting your students’ social-emotional wellbeing during our quarantine?
Toni M. Poling is an award-winning, National Board Certified English teacher in Marion County. For the past 16 years, Mrs. Poling has worked diligently with both student and teachers to improve English Language Arts instruction. Mrs. Poling is the 2017 WV Teacher of the Year.