One Year of Pandemic Teaching

Remembering the Losses and the Gains

Photo by Yan Berthemy on Unsplash

It’s been one year since many schools in our country closed their doors due to COVID-19. One year since news of coronavirus spread through the streets and schoolchildren were told to pack up their backpacks, board yellow school buses, and head for home.

After School play dates were canceled; this was no time to play.

photo by Alissa Alteri Shea

Ask any teacher where they were on Friday, March 13, 2020, and chances are they’ll remember. For many, it was the last day they taught their students in person, in a school building full of loud, laughing children.

For me, the sad story is I wasn’t even with my students on the last day of school. I wasn’t there to help them pack up those backpacks for the last time.

On March 11, I was getting ready to leave town with my husband to celebrate our 15th anniversary. We had planned this getaway for a long time, and pandemic brewing or not, we were going.

I frantically checked the CDC website for signs of needing to cancel but didn’t find any. At least not yet. I had 2 ½ personal days off from school to take the trip. The plan was for me to leave school early so we could hop on a late afternoon flight to Florida and get away from it all.

I remember hurriedly writing out sub plans for the substitute teacher who would be with my class. I remember the comfortable jeans and striped t-shirt I was wearing that felt like springtime. I remember the child I struggled with all morning who didn’t want to complete his assignments and how distracted I was.

I remember walking away from my students while they were working, waving goodbye, and leaving my classroom behind without a care in the world.

What I didn’t know was that I wouldn’t see that class in person again for the rest of the school year.

What I didn’t know was that I was walking away from classroom teaching as I had known and loved it for many years.

I also didn’t know I was walking away from a school building where children were allowed to work and play together closely, whispering side by side.

Those are things I would not be returning to for a very long time.

Unsurprisingly, our vacation was cut short. Days passed, and it was clear the pandemic was only getting worse. News came that schools across the country were closing down, and stay-at-home orders were issued. We flew home early. This did not feel like a time to celebrate. My husband and I, both teachers, worried about what lied ahead.

photo by Alissa Alteri Shea

When it was clear we were not returning to in-person school anytime soon; teachers were told to turn their daily curriculum into a remote learning model for students using only their laptops from their living rooms. None of us ever could have imagined something like that was possible. But we did it.

Many, many teachers turned themselves into remote educators overnight, some having never used a Google Meet before in their lives. Now it was the only way to reach our kids — the kids who mattered so much to us.

We all thought this was temporary. We had to believe that. But when cancellations everywhere kept coming, we all began to wonder. How am I going to keep this up? How do I reach into the computer and engage my students? What am I doing? What tech tool should I learn today?

Eventually, I had to go back into my classroom alone to pick up some teaching materials and teach a few of my Google Meet lessons from there. The first time I walked into the building, I was struck by the silence.

Wandering the dark, empty halls, my thoughts began to echo- I teach in a school with no children. Where did they go? I would return to my classroom and see they were all in the computer. This can’t be happening. It feels like a terrible dream that won’t end.

Somehow teachers kept moving forward as we stumbled upon ways to make remote learning work. Some days we even found success. Some days we did not. None of us were prepared to take on such a challenge.

News of virus numbers continued to rise. More closings kept coming. School is closed for two weeks…for one more week… It all kept changing. We never knew what to expect next.

One day, I had a conference call with one of my students’ parents. The dad said to me, “If you need to reschedule this call, we understand, given the news that just came out.”

“News? What news? Has there been another disaster?” I asked.

“No,” he responded, “but the governor just announced that schools would be closed for the rest of the school year. We are not going back.”

Silence.

I did not know how to respond. I took a moment to catch my breath. I couldn’t let the emotions rise in me. Not right then. This news was not unexpected, but the finality of it overwhelmed me.

Yet, at that moment, I had a conference call to complete, and these parents were eager to hear how they could help their daughter at home with her schoolwork. I had strategies written out on a piece of paper in front of me. My eyes focused on them as I stumbled over my words.

“No, that’s okay. We can continue,” I said.

When the call was over, I sat alone for a while to let it all soak in. This was a loss that could not easily be understood or put into words.

There was sudden sadness for the classroom community I had worked so hard to create, who I now knew would not gather again in my classroom. The favorite dance songs we danced to, the newly painted group projects waiting to be hung on the walls, the field trip planned to the mountain. They would all have to wait for another class, for another season. Not this class whom I had grown to love so much.

photo by Alissa Alteri Shea

Teachers decided to have a “wave parade.” They were happening all over the country, where a parade of teachers’ cars would drive through a community waving to students, who waited in front of their homes to cheer on their teachers. The smiles and joy of seeing each other again were overwhelming. We were still a community even if we were apart.

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

Somehow my first graders and I managed to bring our joyful classroom community online last spring, and we finished the year with grace, learning, and acceptance of the shocking pandemic we were living in.

Every time I logged onto Google Meet and saw their little faces pop up on the screen, there was joy.

Every time they leaned in close to show me a newly lost tooth, there was joy.

And that was what kept us going.

I learned remote learning was possible. It brought us together as a community, but it wasn’t something sustainable I could do for long with young children.

When August 2020 rolled around, and it was clear there were still no easy answers, teachers again were asked to adjust their teaching to fit one of the ever-changing learning models put out before us- All remote learning, hybrid learning, some combo of remote and hybrid learning, outdoor classrooms, full in-person classrooms… The list of questions and conundrums was endless and ever changing-

Obtaining enough PPE, creating safety protocols, checking ventilation, creating new hybrid schedules, watching virus numbers rising, going back to remote, battling the mute button, trying out synchronous and asynchronous learning, having a remote snow day, getting teachers vaccinated, being ready to pivot….here we go again and again and again.

My head was always spinning, and I never knew what day it was, really. Nothing felt right; nothing felt certain. We all struggled to make the best of what we had for ourselves and our students.

Doing this daily was exhausting. Superintendents and School Committees kept making difficult decisions, and teachers carried them out.

This year has been full of many losses for all of us- including teachers. Personally, professionally, and collectively we’ve mourned losses every day.

The loss of teaching the way we once knew it.

The loss of classrooms we worked so hard to create.

The loss of confidence in what we do as we struggled to reinvent teaching methods and learn new technology to create new learning environments.

The loss of relationships with colleagues who we now rarely saw and whose ideas did not always align when emotions were high, opinions were fierce, and even teachers did not always agree.

The losses were real.

And yet, I think this has also been a year of tremendous growth for educators.

I’ve seen my colleagues be innovative like never before, learning how to use technology in new ways to instruct and reach out to students — or learning how to create their own outdoor classrooms to safely bring students back to school.

We’ve been community builders. Opening our Google Meet classrooms to children, parents, caregivers, grandparents, daycare providers, siblings, and family pets. They were all welcome, and they all showed up. We were the ones who introduced them to remote learning and taught them how it would work when we barely knew how to do it ourselves.

Photo by Alireza Attari on Unsplash

We’ve been therapists, showing up in living rooms every day to reach out to our students and encourage them along the way. We were a consistent adult presence in their lives. We were there to ask important questions like, How are you feeling? How can I help? Is your family alright? You can do this.

We’ve been advocates. Actively involved in decision making about education and advocating for what would work best for our students, knowing we were the ones on the front lines who would have to make it work.

We’ve acted as public health experts, interpreting data to create and implement safety protocols for our schools to keep us all safe. We took the safety guidelines handed to us and made sure they kept children safe.

Of course, we’ve also been educators, continually discovering new ways to teach our students and help them make academic growth as best they could, even when living in a challenging pandemic that was keeping us apart from each other.

The losses this past year were real, but so were the gains. Teachers everywhere have been challenged and have grown as professionals like never before.

As we come upon the one-year anniversary since schools closed their doors for the first time, let’s take a moment to honor the many losses and challenges we have faced this year.

Let’s take a deep breath and acknowledge the toll it has taken on us all.

Let’s also recognize teachers’ resilience and perseverance to keep moving and striving to find new ways to bring joy, learning, and connection to our students even in the worst of times.

Let’s hope with more people being vaccinated every day, more schools will be able to once again fully open their doors so teachers and students everywhere can safely go back to what they do well- teaching, learning, and growing together as a community at school.

Now that would be an anniversary to hope for.

Photo by LinkedIn Sales Navigator on Unsplash

Bank Street College graduate, Montessori trained educator, working to bring joy, connection, and learning to our public schools through outdoor education.

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