By Adrin Fisher
Thirty-two days ago, on March 13, 2020, my world changed.
Your world did too. That was the day that our governor closed schools. If you were like me, you made a trip to the grocery store, got a pair of duck boots at the mall, filled up the gas tank. You checked email and watched the news obsessively. You didn’t sleep. Effective Monday, teachers and administrators, cooks and bus drivers, custodians and secretaries—parents and students—were thrown into the deep end of remote learning.
In the weeks since that change, our world has contracted. Policies and procedures have changed and changed again, and then again. Parties, conferences, and appointments have evaporated. Stores now have tape arrows marking the one-way path through the aisle. Many shelves in our favorite supermarket are empty, and typed notices limit our purchases. People are jumpy; you can almost see hackles rise if you venture too close. A face mask is not just a prop for a bank robber.
If you were like me, the first couple of weeks were full of anxiety and grief. I call it the panic-time. It shocked me, really, how sad I am to not be at school. This is not normal, this COVID-19 interlude. In a normal summer break, I don’t feel much responsibility to my students: I start planning and prepping for the fall, but I am not overly concerned about my students’ welfare. I haven’t even met most of them. Today’s situation is the opposite. I know my students pretty well, all one hundred fourteen of them. I know what kind of music they like and what kinds of things they do in their free time. I know what I can reasonably expect them to do without me as their guide and coach, without me to check and prod. And I know they’re not all doing well. I haven’t heard from some at all. I sit in front of the computer and cry sometimes, when I finally hear back from a kid—just relieved that they’re still with me, somehow.
Well, I could go on and on in this vein, but we’re all tired of this whole mess.
So, instead, I will tell you some things that I have learned in the Pandemic of 2020.
- Spring unfolds slowly. I saw my peonies emerge red and crinkly from the bare dirt. They’ll bloom in May. I can tell you the date that Eastern Redbuds bloomed (it was last Wednesday). Springtime colors in the forest trees are not the pinks and whites of orchards, but red and orange and pale yellow. I learned this because my kids and I walk in nearby woods every single day.
- Food delivery has become one of the most important functions of public schools. My husband is riding the bus to deliver food to his elementary students. He’s knocking on apartment doors to make sure kids get the food they would eat on a school day. He’s talking to parents who are without paychecks and without options.
- Technology must become more central in my classroom. When I began teaching, I was married to my overhead projector. Prior to March 13, I was in a committed relationship with my document camera. But now I see that my early panic could have been checked by a different, online system. I invented a system at 3:21 am on March 18, and it’s functioning, but it’s not flawless.
- I must make some personal changes in my teaching—specifically about the way I give feedback on essays and written work. I’ve been advised for years by other English teachers (and my husband) to not spend 15-20 minutes correcting each essay, but I’ve always felt that my feedback was invaluable. Now that I have a stack of essays, which I marked during the panic-time, that I may or may not be able to give back to my students for revision, I get it. It’s not invaluable; it’s arrogance.
- My expectations for myself must bend. Every day I have to get up and say, this is not what I would do, but it’s ok. And it’s ok to feel this feeling. It’s enough to do this thing. To give a photo of a reading log 20 points out of 20 and shoot an email back to say I’ve read that same book. To ask students to peer edit in post-panic Teams. To not get all the grades put in the grade book today. To spend four hours preparing a YouTube video for each class. To get out for a walk. These changes don’t say I’ve given up. They don’t say I’m a bad teacher or a lazy person. They simply say I’m working the best, most compassionate way I can during a world-wide crisis.
- And, finally, I must improve my work-life balance. I overheard my teenager tell his out-of-state grandparents, “Mom hasn’t had any time to help me because she’s working all the time.” My kids pick up on my worry and they see me frustrated and exhausted and on the hamster wheel. Pre-pandemic, I normally spent a whole weekend day on school work, plus some early mornings and evenings during the week. What if I can be a good teacher and still have some time for myself and my family? What if I can manage my expectations of myself? What if I can breathe a little slower and walk in the woods a little more?
I’m sure that this experience is teaching you as well. Please write it down.
In March 2020, I wrote this blog about three challenges that our students face: motivation to learn, unrealistic expectations demanded by social media, and positive mental health. In a way I could never have predicted, those challenges have multiplied and magnified.
Some students have been sick. Some have lost loved ones, and had to bury them without a funeral. Some have been alone and scared. Some have been the adult to younger children or older grandparents. Some have fallen into the lobster trap of social media. Some have worked hard to study and keep learning. Some have decided not to bother. Some couldn’t do school even if they wanted to because they lack access or equity or Wi-Fi.
For this time, we practice social distance. We move family dinners to “drive-and-drop” and watch each other eat on Skype. We don’t hug grandparents and nieces, even though it hurts. We forsake the fellowship of believers. We wave at strangers we pass in the park. We obey the orders; we follow the rules. We do the best we can for our families. And we bear it with tears and TV and puzzles and prayers for those alone, those suffering, those working, those worrying, those hungering.
But I refuse to accept this situation as the “new normal.”
My Great-Aunt Francis always said, “This too shall pass.”
And it will. It may pass slowly—the way spring comes to West Virginia—but it will pass.
When we eventually return to school, our students will be bringing their baggage from the COVID-19 break. And so will the adults. It will be our challenge to support each other in learning content and re-learning how to do school—as expected—but also in grace, and in compassion, and in empathy.
So, teacher-friend, maybe we can be a little softer on ourselves. Maybe we can remember the lessons we’ve learned here and now, at great cost. And maybe the world will be just a little better when we get back.
Courage, dear heart.
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Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you light and courage. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher in the middle of a global crisis and currently working with seniors in co-teaches and dual-credit classes, and honors-level sophomores. When she’s not planning her next career as a YouTuber, you can find her calling “Hello!” to strangers, tree bathing in the woods with her kids, or writing in drips and drabs. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin