The Hope of a New School Year

If you’re a teacher or you know someone who teaches, you know that Covid has multiplied the daily challenges for educators across the globe. In 2020, during our complete shutdown, we experienced a difficult 4th quarter. During this time, we tried to provide classes over Zoom, maintain rapport with our students, and create educational opportunities via the internet. We teachers had not yet lived through a global pandemic, so we were ding the best we could to service our students and keep our own families afloat. Then in the fall of 2020, at least in the elementary school I teach in, we were back at school with very rigid (but in my opinion, important) Covid safety guidelines. We masked; we spaced out; we ate lunch in our classrooms. And though it was hard, we were happy to be back and in person with kids.

Still, teaching in a mask is tough. Kids can’t see your facial expressions, and you can’t project your voice. Keeping kids socially distanced is nearly impossible. For me, a specialist teacher who teaches both library and computer classes, I had to become mobile. I packed my materials (and library books) on a cart, and I pushed into classrooms to teach. My schedule was grueling, as even my principal noted when she subbed a day for me. Homeroom teachers had to move to another room for lesson planning since specials were in their classrooms. Students ate lunch in their classrooms, again booting teachers out of their sacred space, and teachers had to space out during lunch or eat alone. Yes, the 20-21 school year was challenging, yet we were grateful to be back in the building with our students.

Fast forward to the 21-22 school year.  Covid regulations loosened.  Specialists could be back in their classrooms.  Mid-year, masks became optional in my school district, and school was a semblance of normal…finally. However, talk to any teacher in any district, and he or she would say that last year was the toughest year of teaching ever.  This was my experience, yet I don’t really know why.  I suspect, however, that because teachers had been isolated from one another due to workloads and spacing guidelines, we temporarily lost our ability to work together.  We forgot the power of collaboration.

All last year, I felt a plunge in teacher morale, myself included.  Teachers were tired.  As we were working hard to serve our students, some parents decided that we were “indoctrinating” their children and then caused drama via social media and at board meetings.  (Note:  If I were going to indoctrinate my students, the lesson would be to listen quietly and sit still — not any kind of political ideal.)  In the midst of  this challenging period in teaching, many of our Kansas state legislators turned against teachers as well.  Policies were introduced that would add more work to teachers’ already enormous loads or make the daily routine of teaching more laborious.  21-22 felt overwhelming, deflating, and almost untenable.  As the year ended, many teachers retired earlier than planned, and many teachers left the profession altogether.  

I love teaching — even on the hardest days. After all, I have wanted to be a teacher since I was a 4th grader at Robinson Elementary. During the 21-22 school year, I updated my resume and LinkedIn profile and looked for jobs outside of education. I also considered switching positions, schools, and even districts. But then I decided to stay put, and today I’m completely at peace with this decision. Here are four reasons why.

  1. To start with, I’ve always felt grateful to be at my current school.   I pull into town each morning, cross the railroad tracks, cruise through the small downtown area, and feel at home.  Most days, I see students walking to school.  So I roll down my window and say good morning.  I walk into the building and am greeted by staff members I’ve worked with for ages now. If I stop by the community library on my way home, I usually run into some former students.  My school has always felt like a home away from home – even during the challenging Covid years.
  1. I have spent sixteen years building relationships with students and parents.  My book shelver has worked with me for thirteen years now — since her youngest boy was in kindergarten.  I have former students who stop in to see me.  In fact, I have former students who offer to help me with my end of the year inventory and other special projects.  It’s difficult to leave a school where I have such strong connections.
  1. This year I am hopeful that things will improve in my building and in my district.  We have a new district superintendent.  I was lucky to participate in the interview process, and I feel like we’ve selected the right person for this job.  In addition, I feel a change of atmosphere within my school.  I can’t really explain why.  We lost a lot of great teachers and paras last year to job changes and retirement, but yet these positions were filled with new staff members who bring enthusiasm and positivity to the table.  We’re starting the year with a sense of school pride and collaboration.  In fact, I’ve had the best first week of school that I’ve had in several years.  I am sensing that this will be a good school year.
  1. Finally, I just really have a sense of peace about where I am.  I love my students and would be sad to leave them.  I love my content areas.  I recognize that “the grass is not greener” at other schools or in other fields.  After a lifetime as an educator, I tend to think in semesters.  I’m not sure this old gal could assimilate into the business world.  But most of all, I just really like working with kids.  Despite the hardships of teaching, it is still what I choose to do.  

Teachers, I wish you all a happy, healthy, inspired year of teaching.  I hope that you have fewer challenges than you’ve had during the past three years.  I hope you feel fulfilled and appreciated, and I hope you know that you make a difference every single day.  

 I’ll end with this — a song we sing at my church when the kids go to Worship and Wonder.  It sums up how I feel about the potential of the students I serve.

You have the hands that can open up the doors,

You have the hopes this world is waiting for.

You are my own but you are so much more,

You are tomorrow on the wing, child of mine.

My Word

“For me, words are a form of action, capable of influencing change. Their articulation represents a complete, lived experience.”

—Ingrid Bengis

Every January,  at least for the last several years, I like to choose one word to focus on for the year.  One year it was authenticity; one year it was resilience.  This year I decided upon discernment.  I really like that word.  To me, it means problem solving in a calm and unhurried manner.  It aligns with mindfulness and intention.  And I knew this year would be one where I would need to make some difficult and very intentional decisions.  2020 began and quickly threw the world for a loop; pretty early in the year, I realized that my word should change.  It had changed.  Thus, discernment morphed into connection.  

In March, I began to get outside and walk with friends.  I did this for sanity, health, an excuse to leave my house, human contact.  Connection.  And for a while during this crazy, global pandemic, I had a pretty good walking streak going.  65 days without pause.  65 days of tying my shoes, meeting my friends in the cul de sac, and hitting the side trail where we could space and be together.   During this time, I was experiencing a personal trauma.  I was losing my sweet daughter to cancer.  So this walking, this connection with a small group of neighbors and friends, carried me through a difficult time.  

Since the pandemic began, I’ve experimented with different ways to connect to friends and family.  Zoom.  FaceTime.  Google Meet.  You all know the drill.  Though it’s not the same as in person contact, the purpose is the same — connection.  It is good to talk to loved ones, hear their voices, see their facial expressions.  I’ve zoomed with high school girl friends, my family, book clubs, church moms and more.  These virtual sessions have sustained me.  For me, being with people, even virtually,  fills me up and keeps me going.  

This year, I have also been lucky enough to get to connect at work.  I teach at a Pre-K – 4th grade elementary school, and we are in person with kids.  Yes, there have been adaptations.  I’m masked.  The students are masked.  We distance.  We check temps upon arriving at school.  But folks, I am IN PERSON with kids doing what I do!  (I teach library and computer.)  I get to work with my teacher-friends and teach and laugh and learn and be with people.  And though teaching during this pandemic is both physically and emotionally challenging, I’m just so grateful to be connected to my students, their families and my co-workers.  My connection at work is a gift.

Aside from being a teacher, I’m an outgoing human – an extrovert.  I like and need people.  This global pandemic helps remind me of the importance of connecting with people.  My husband and I have hosted many small, outdoor gatherings, even when the temperature outside dropped, just to be around our friends.  We’ve watched movies on our patio, huddled by fire pits, hit up some restaurants that feature outdoor eating areas just  to be with our people.  Again, connection.

In so many ways, this pandemic has affected us all.  We’ve all struggled, and we’ve all learned a  wealth of lessons.  Like the rest of the world, I’m ready to go back to “normal.”  And yet, I hope we don’t forget the lessons of 2020.  I hope we remember to get outside, as Covid has forced us to do.  I hope we remember how much we missed hugs and to disperse these freely once we can safely do so.  I hope we  remember that we humans are built for connection, companionship, contact.  And I hope we continue to reach out to the people around us.  

Meanwhile, as we embark upon a new year, I encourage you all to think about 2021.  What will the year bring?  What will we learn?  And what will our new word be?  What is the one word that will capture our intentions for a new, hopefully better, year?  I look forward to finding that just-right word.