Teacher takeaways from a COVID classroom
When I tell you I thought I made a terrible mistake in career choice my first year of teaching, I’m being generous. A lot of factors played a role in this. I was 24, it was my first teaching job, in a new city, living on my own, in a brand-new environment—and like a sick deer, the vultures were circling almost upon arrival.
“Is this your first teaching job?” one of my fifth graders asked. I should have known my cover was blown then and there, but I wasn’t ready to give up the charade just yet.
“No, I worked a year at another school in New York before this,” I lied, blatantly withholding that I was both a teaching assistant and the New York I was referring to was upstate, not the city.
“You don’t look like you did,” my student replied.
Now, I don’t know what a year of teaching experience looks like, but I learned that my face didn’t have it.
I proceeded to learn that unless you have an inexplicable gift for teaching, handed out once in a generation by the Ticonderoga No. 2 Gods, this indescribable experience is a necessary requisite for success in urban education.
So that whole first year I told my parents and friends how great school was. I loved it. The kids were amazing. I was having a blast. In reality, I was barely keeping my head above water, struggling through a battlefield of behavior management and best test strategies.
But I made it through my first year, now battle-tested and ready for my next deployment. And to my surprise, year two was nothing like year one—I loved it.
“You better be kind to my teacher,” said one of my most difficult students from the year prior to a room of quiet and eagerly expectant new students.
“You had my brother last year,” said one of my new scholars. I smiled and said yes.
“I was hoping I got you this year,” she said.
Each year of teaching in my seven years of experience has been easier than the last. Each year presents new challenges of course, but I’ve found myself with a toolbox of tricks and techniques to tackle these issues much better with each trip around the sun. Until this year.
This is the first year where I find myself feeling like a first-year teacher all over again, trying to reinvent myself in ways I thought I no longer had to.
Beginning the year I feared it was just me. Perhaps the pandemic and a year of teaching virtually had dulled my abilities. But as I checked in with other teachers, some with far more years under their belts than me, I found the same story.
This year has been arduous for everyone. I’ve seen more teachers leave the profession or search for different schools and greener pastures than ever before. Philly schools and urban education has always had a high turnover rate, and my own school is no different. But this year is something else entirely.
The easy answer is the pandemic and the stress it’s brought about but I think it goes deeper than that. Talking with colleagues and those far smarter than me, I began to believe one thing to be true, something that has made this year more difficult than the rest.
Not the masks. Not the economic and political stressors of our world leaking into the classroom. I believe teachers of all grades, from top to bottom, have started this year as kindergarten teachers.
What I mean to say is, this past (nearly) two years of the pandemic has done so much, taken so much, and asked so much of us. The structure and stability of school was one of those things. There is a phenomenon in education called the “Summer Slide” which describes students losing some of what they learned over the course of the year in the mere two months of vacation.
The “Pandemic Plunge™” as I have termed it (dibs on this term, although I will kindly allow others to use it with appropriate accreditation), has students not only losing some of their academics, but a general loss of what it means to be in school. I have found myself in 4th grade, teaching more social skills, and retraining students on how to act within a school than I ever have had to do in the past.
I’ve never taught kindergarten, but I know that before you can teach letter sounds, the procedures of a classroom need to be in place. This is true in any grade, but the timeline has been off this year. It seems to have taken many, many long months—months which have been far from normal in their own right, to get this routine back in place.
When people talk about a return to normalcy, and bouncing back from the pandemic, I think we need to start thinking of classrooms like the economy—the ramifications of this pandemic and the pandemic plunge™ are going to be felt for years to come.
Teaching is one of the greatest gifts in the world—stressful, difficult, and rewarding—just as all meaningful pursuits are.
What I ask from those on the outside of education looking in is for a little grace and compassion—the same grace and compassion that we teachers are asked to employ every single day. It’s a strenuous and glorious job—one that we have chosen—but lately it’s not been quite what we signed up for.
It will return to normal eventually, but until then, I hope more people can take the stance of my fifth grader returning to my classroom my second year.
“You better be kind to my teacher.”