“In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future.”–Eric Hoffer
“Change is only felt when it is drastic.”–Lailah Gifty Akita
Dedicated to the teachers with whom I work, and all the other educators, near and far.
As I step into the warm shower, pulsating water beats down on my tight neck, my low back is still dully throbbing from the previous day’s efforts, and my feet, my heavens, my feet, they are pulsating from the constant pounding of walking on concrete.
It’s Friday. You can do this. Everyone is feeling similar aches–it’s not just you. Yes, but most others are a heckuva lot younger! You can do this; you’ve done this before–albeit, not so drastic . . . or was it?
I remember following the Special Education Coordinator of the county school district in which I had first been hired fresh out of college. I felt proud, excited, and eager. The clipped, rhythmic pace of her heels as they click-clacked across the tiled floor resounded–even more so when she continued on into the gym. At the time I couldn’t understand why we were in the gym when she was supposed to be taking me to my classroom.
Eventually we made our way to the opposite side from which we entered, walked up some steps, and began walking under one side of the gym’s bleachers. Clickety-clack, clackety-click, past what looked like one semi-formed classroom through another vaguely formed classroom until we reached the end. This was to be my so-called classroom with not a single window. No textbooks. No materials. Broken desks. Dirty teacher desk. Not even real walls for two sides–just the underside of bleachers, a rolling chalkboard, one concrete wall, and metal, padded locked door with Junior ROTC weapons stowed away behind it. All 4’11’’ of me would be serving 15-25, 9-12 grades students in this space, the majority of which were lanky, long males who did not want to be there.
Gone were those meticulous lesson plans and the abundant, never ending resources of Ohio University. The colorful, bright, window-lined classrooms arranged, organized, and utilized based upon the current, best educational practices were nowhere to be seen. It was 1987, so there was no internet, certainly no cell phones, and those education journals to which I had been advised by academia to subscribe were certainly not going to be of help in this unbelievable setting. This was a drastic change, and yet, I somehow found a way to make it work for two years before facing my next challenge . . .
Moving on to another district, I was assigned to teach twelve, K-5 grade level students with severe behavior and emotional issues that often required restraint, in a metal portable classroom isolated from the rest of the school. I was young and foolish enough to think this was a good idea–a good move for my career. Certainly, it was financially speaking, but after one day of passive restraint training, I began to wonder.
Although this classroom had four walls, it was empty and bare, save for a few tables and desks. Then, there was the challenge of all those different age ranges. Developmentally, a kindergartener is miles apart from a fifth grader. The challenges and changes I faced over the next seven years, the unbelievable behaviors I witnessed, and the most heart-wrenching stories–seriously, seriously horrible–still haunt me to this day. No child should undergo what those children went through. Baby bottles filled with beer, children sexually abused, parents addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, older children responsible for numerous younger siblings while mom did tricks for drugs . . . the gut wrenching stories never seemed to have an end. On top of all of this depravity, it was the early 90s, autism was not clearly understood and accurately identified as it is now. Therefore, I also had several autistic students, mistakenly identified as “behavior disordered” alongside students who were often prone to violent outbursts. Given the combination of all of these factors, I honestly do not know how I made it work–and yet, somehow Divine Providence helped me through it all.
I have experienced numerous changes in education since those first nine years of my careers, many of which were drastic, and all created unique circumstances for which I was ill-prepared, but none can compare to the combination of educating in the midst of COVID while simultaneously teaching both in-person and virtual students at the exact same time. As an educator, my colleagues and I are tasked with keeping kids safe from a pandemic-worthy virus, care for their emotional well-being, and educate them in the socially distanced manner of their parents’ choosing–at school or from home–attending a regular schedule of classes through the technological wonders of the imperfect internet.
Each morning begins well before sunrise, in order to begin planning, organizing, and posting from home. Arrival at school for teachers starts well before 7:00, as each teacher must mix fresh bottles of both disinfectant and sanitizer that is used before and after every class change. Students begin arriving in our classrooms by 7:30 after going through a routine check of health questions, temperature check, and hand sanitizing procedures. Classes officially begin by 8:10 after morning announcements, prayer, and pledge. As students enter my classroom, they must wait until all tables are sanitized. Then, I must quickly log in and connect my chromebook with my virtual students for that class period. While I am doing this, in-person students set up their tri-fold, clear plastic dividers and log onto Google Classroom. We are all masked, and by the end of the day, my voice, and those of my peers, are hoarse from projecting through the barrier of the material covering our mouths and noses.
While offering instruction, I am simultaneously monitoring, engaging, and facilitating with students within my classroom and those at home. This also means I must work hard to be as paperless as possible for the benefit of all students, but especially those who are participating virtually. Then, there are the technological glitches that can cause delays, interruptions, and malfunctions with both groups of students. Additionally, I am trying to learn, assemble, and implement a multitude of on-line educational platforms to enhance, streamline, and engage all levels of students. By the day’s end, my Fitbit watch consistently reveals that I have taken anywhere from 15,000-20,000 steps with minimum time spent outside of my classroom walls.
If the first week is any indication, my work day will consist of a constant stream of decisions, sanitizing, and juggling–juggling in my mind to best meet the needs of both in-person and virtual learners–as I work to redefine the art of facilitating instruction. Never in my previous educational training did I ever receive training on how to engage and instruct students in a meaningful way during a pandemic. Nor have I ever seen so many of my fellow teachers experience such high levels of anxiety, stress, and discomfort as I have in one week of school. The emails from students and parents never end, and it feels as if there is not enough time, nor enough of each teacher to go around.
And yet, that experience of my early years tells me that we will all adapt, grow, and learn from this. Educators are a formidable, flexible force driven by the passion to educate and care for all of those entrusted into our care. However, educators, parents, and students all need extra doses of patience with one another, the ever-evolving educational technological tools, and with ourselves. The type of drastic change we are undergoing requires much patience, tolerance, and a new level of understanding. Educators and educational institutions are all trying to rapidly respond to a situation for which there has been no previous experience. There are bound to be countless bumps along this new educational trail which we are currently blazing.
Personally speaking, I am stepping out of my comfort zone, stepping up my game, and stepping into a new role that feels very uncomfortable. I have never been the most technologically savvy person, but I am learning—some of it on my own through trial and error, but most of it from my professional peers as well as my students Therefore, I implore parents of students, far and wide, please be patient with teachers and schools. We want to educate and care for your child as badly as you do, but cutting remarks, critical emails, and sensationalized social media posts only undermine our efforts and morale. Instead, kind words, thoughtful notes, and genuine appreciation for our efforts can go a long way in supporting our new role within your child’s life. We understand this isn’t easy for you as many of us are parents too. We understand that you are your child’s number one advocate, and you want what is best for them, but so do we. We want to keep everyone safe and healthy, both emotionally and physically, including ourselves.
In conclusion, let us focus on what connects us–the well-being and education of children. Let us, as a community, be supportive of one another as we forge together through this brave new educational world; so that, one day, we can look back on this, as I do on my early years in education, and proudly declare, “We did it; we really did it. Look how far we’ve come!”