When I started teaching 6 years ago, I never would have believed you if you had told me that I was going to be teaching 5th graders from my house.
Yet here we are, over a year since the initial shutdowns that seemed to stop the world in its tracks, slowly phasing back into in-person learning and trying to make it to the end of the year.
Any teacher will tell you that the last couple of months after Spring Break is a long and trying time. Everyone - teachers, students, parents, administrators - start to feel tired and burnt out. There are few breaks, save a professional day here and there to complete grading or other tasks, and Memorial Day. State testing looms. But this year has added another layer.
At the end of last year, the focus was on keeping the students engaged in something during the school day. Efforts were made to give students computers and wifi routers so that they could connect with their teachers every day. But it wasn't a full day of school. We focused on the core subjects (reading and math) on alternating days and were only really online for a few hours. Grading was on a pass/fail system (for elementary, we were extremely lenient). Basically, we were trying to look out for our kids while trying to look out for ourselves as we disinfected everything in sight and made our own masks.
This year, however, has been much different.
As we engaged in our beginning of the year teacher meetings, we learned that we would be trying to mimic a full school experience. All subjects almost every day (Social Studies and Science being the notable exceptions).
Time would be allotted for brain/stretch breaks, "student support," and Social-Emotional Lessons; we are, after all, still in a pandemic. We were to extend grace to our students, giving extra time to complete assignments (though grading was absolutely a thing again and students who did not complete work would receive an "m" for missing). We were also to do all that we could to reach out to the families of those students not logging in to ensure that they were safe and had the technology needed to connect. Schools extended the food programs that had been hastily put together in the Spring, coming up with safe, efficient processes to make sure that our students who would normally eat two meals at school would still be able to eat.
There was a lot of discussion from teachers at the beginning of the year of the appropriateness of some of these measures. A full day of school? Nearly 7 hours in front of a computer screen? It seemed excessive for both students and teachers. But let no one say that teachers weren't up to the challenge. We got into this field to help students, after all; though we may not have seen a pandemic coming, we were still going to teach.
The beginning of the year was completely virtual in my school district, so making sure that all of our students were getting the support that they needed was an interesting puzzle. But students and teachers were excited to have some semblance of normalcy in our lives.
The first hitch? Our curriculums for math and reading were both brand new and not designed for virtual learning. Countless hours have been spent (and are still being spent) on adjusting lessons and materials so that our students could access everything online.
The second hitch? We had a brand new learning platform that came with a steep learning curve for both teachers and students. Rather than simply making copies or quick online documents, multiple steps were now involved in assigning work to students and receiving and grading their submissions. Though we eventually became grateful for the many features that the new platform provided, the first few months were rough.
And the biggest hitch, one that is looming over our heads again at this moment, is testing. Though the official state tests have been cancelled, we have still been required to give our students an adaptive test on two separate occasions, with another one coming up as we round out the year. The intent is justified; we want to know where our students are academically so that we can make plans to meet their needs as the year progresses and beyond. But, pandemic or not, teachers have always been concerned with the necessity of state testing. We work with these students daily, and can often tell you easily the child's strengths and areas where they need support. Now there is the added concern that the tests may not be valid because the majority of our students are still at home and have access to internet search machines or even family members trying to be helpful.
Some of our students in my school district are back in the building; due to safety guidelines, however, many of them are still at home. It's nothing like school used to be; everyone still has to log into the teacher's zoom and view and submit their work online. There's no working together in small groups, and precious little time for students to talk to each other (many of them still don't like unmuting to talk, even if they are in the building). Teachers are forced to spend their time at their desks so that they are not ignoring the students logging in from home while simultaneously keeping an eye on students in the room.
Honestly, it's quite depressing.
We've also reached that burn-out time of the year, so some students who used to speak up have gone mostly silent. Fewer assignments are being turned in. Some students have stopped logging in altogether, leading to teachers and school counselors having to scramble and try to reach out to families again to find out why the child isn't connecting. Miscommunications concerning school programs and, for 5th graders in my district, information for moving to middle school next year, cause frustration.
Throughout this whole ordeal, I've learned a few valuable lessons - many of them as I teach them to my students. Positive self-talk, grace, showing kindness to yourself (and others!), and giving yourself permission to rest have been discoveries of mine this year. I stopped working after a certain hour to preserve my life/work balance (and my sanity). I don't work on Saturdays at all, and that used to be a regular occurrence. I'm doing my best to work smarter, not harder, utilizing my few breaks from teaching during the day to complete my other work tasks. I remind myself to be kind when a lesson doesn't go as I planned or the students just aren't participating that day; we're collectively going through a traumatic event, and that takes its toll on people in different ways.
The biggest lesson - one that has been hardest for me to grasp - is that things won't always be perfect. You never know when the internet will crash, or someone's computer is going to die, or when the online platform won't let students complete their work. The perfectionist in me will try her best to make sure that every piece of this distance (and in-person) learning puzzle fits together perfectly, and that's just not realistic. And that's okay.
I look forward to returning to some measure of normalcy next school year - this half in, half out thing is wearing me out! I will, however, be grateful for the lessons that pandemic teaching has taught me; I can only hope that my students learned something as well.