Year of Wonders: Lessons from Teaching in a Pandemic

This has truly been a year of wonders. Not sure what I mean by that? Check out this post about lessons from teaching in a pandemic.

I drove to work every day during the 2020-2021 school year (except for the total of 10 days that my family spent in quarantine). Something was different in the first semester. A small thing. I listened to music every morning in my car.

That’s something I haven’t done in the 20 years that I’ve been teaching.

I always listen to the news–generally, NPR. I love their stories, and it really helps this busy social studies teacher to stay up-to-date on current events (no–it’s not my only news source by far, but it provides a lot of context and makes my commute productive).

But I just couldn’t listen during semester one. I couldn’t take the news. I was feeling fragile (ick, I hate that word, but there it is).

Then winter break came and I checked out. My work piled up. DoorDash sustained my family. I read eight novels. Eight.

When semester two began, I found myself ready to listen to the news again.

On a beautiful mid-May afternoon, I listened to a story about people’s post-pandemic concerns (it was a nice reprieve in May that we were all talking like it was over). The format was that people from around the U.S. asked questions about navigating post-pandemic life. A doctor and a theologian answered them. One part of it stood out to me–this answer from the theologian:

“How do you just get over and forgive people for not taking the pandemic as seriously as you?” — Gaby Markley, Los Angeles

Uwan: Instead of turning to judgment … I think that we need to turn to wonder. What is the information or the disinformation that they’re imbibing, that’s shaping they’re [sic] thinking? And I know that’s hard to do, to be able to extend grace, to give some liberty and to give some latitude. But I do think we have to turn to wonder — even just for your own peace and sanity, if nothing else. (Shapiro, NPR)

That response made me pause. Wonder’s a powerful word. It evokes so many thoughts. Imagination. Mystery. Curiosity. Fantasy. Amazement. Admiration.

What the word never evoked in my mind before, though, is what I think’s at its heart. Empathy.

Wonder’s a noun in this context, right? An idea we’re turning to. But we’re also choosing to take action. We’re putting our views aside and asking what someone else is going through.

A few years ago I read a book, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, by Geraldine Brooks. It’s about the 1665-1666 bubonic plague outbreak in England.

I enjoyed the book, but I didn’t understand its title back in 2001.

What’s so wondrous about the misery of an epidemic? I didn’t get it until I lived through one myself. I have to wonder at Brooks’s imagination to choose that title.

I’ve felt beaten, inadequate, joyous–all the feelings–through this year as a teacher. I’ve been wondering, what are other teachers feeling? How are they processing all this change? We’ve had a shared experience, but we won’t react to it identically.

I reached out to a bunch of teachers around the world via email out of wonder. How were they feeling? What did they learn? For better or worse, the 2020/2021 pandemic forced us to build a wondrous school year. I think we’ll be discussing it for a while.

Here’s what I learned:

I contacted a few thousand teachers and got responses from around 50. That’s not a lot. I think many of us aren’t ready to talk about it, don’t want to talk about it, or are too busy to talk about it. Most of the teachers didn’t want me to mention their names or locations, but some gave me permission. Some didn’t even want me to share their responses. I respect that.

The majority of responses came from the U.S., followed by Canada, and then South Asia (there was one outlier in Ukraine–her response was simply, “I’ve changed”).

First, I wondered how many felt like the school year has permanently changed their approach to teaching. 93% agreed that it did.

If they answered that it did change their approach, I asked them to elaborate on that.

Finally, I asked everyone what their biggest takeaways from the 2020/2021 school year were.

The results were diverse, but I noticed some commonalities among them.

Technology:

It’s no surprise that technology was a big issue for a lot of teachers. We’ve spent our careers teaching one way and had to do a 360 overnight. It was stressful, but it was also empowering. Many of us learned that we can adapt. Technological availability also brought issues of equity to light, and finally, it definitely increased our workload.

Jess, who teaches in Minnesota, verbalized a feeling of empowerment echoed by many of the teachers: Teaching in the pandemic “[i]ncreased my tech-savviness, less fear of failure (so much was trial and error…developed a more go with the flow attitude), better decisions about what was important and what was not important…”

But for all of the teachers who felt empowered, others felt lost. Colleen from North Carolina expressed a common feeling on this point: “I felt like quitting repeatedly. I am not a click-and-submit teacher. I do everything in my classroom hands-on.”

Lisa from South Carolina feels good about her new skill set and sees the value of integrating technology with more traditional methods in the future: “I have learned so much about how to integrate technology into my classroom but also technology is not the be all end all. The kids need time away from the screen.”

Another common thread? Technology enabled a situation that was necessary but also created a burden on teachers and students–concurrent teaching. This is when some students are in the classroom while other students are attending class virtually at the same time.

An anonymous teacher noted that this was the biggest challenge: “Double-teaming – teaching in-person and online and trying to do a great job at both (and feeling like I failed miserably).”

And that feeling of failure was central to most replies about concurrent teaching.

Curriculum:

The curriculum’s the great beast of education. There’s so much of it and so little time. A common lesson from teaching in a pandemic is that the world won’t end if we pare it down (now let’s get that through to the testing overlords).

Elizabeth from Michigan put it beautifully:

“I thought that it would be my actual teaching, which of course has changed, but what I really think has changed was my ability to be able to say “You know what? It’s okay that we didn’t cover all the aspects of (fill in the blank) or we didn’t get to analyze (fill in the blank)” and say instead “Let’s take a minute and listen to each other and how we are doing as a classroom community.” and ” It’s okay if you didn’t read last night’s assignment because you had to babysit your sister.” Teaching in a pandemic has taught all of us that we need to be okay with deviating from the written curriculum and supporting our students with “life curriculum” and just because it isn’t on a standardized test, that’s okay because that, in the long run, is more important.”

An anonymous respondent said, “[the pandemic] has forced me to really think about what is vital to their learning…and how to best do it.”

Relationships:

Nothing’s more important in the classroom than building relationships. Many teachers felt ineffective in trying to do that over Zoom.

This statement from one teacher encapsulates what many of us were feeling: “It has made me more aware of the need to build relationships with students as quickly as I can. I went through a stage of slight depression because of the lack of connection I had with students when everyone in our district was full virtual.”

Sheetal from India noted that “to connect with students on an individual level” was her biggest challenge. The individual connection was practically non-existent in the virtual realm.

Carroll from New Jersey, a music teacher frustrated by teaching music without being able to sing or play instruments said, “I forgot the joy of interaction with students and became very negative. Want to retire.”

Support:

The feeling of a lack of support for teachers was a common theme among the respondents. Lack of support was expressed from respective administrations, parents, and the community. Teachers noted a disconnect between what they were asked to do and the reality of being able to accomplish it.

One teacher said, “my students this year were all or nothing. They were happy to be back or mad that they had to be here. I struggled with time management and the frustration of teaching twice as much (twice the prep) and making the same salary. We don’t do this for the money, clearly, but how much are we to take on with no more compensation? A little appreciation goes a long way.”

Melissa from South Dakota noted that “Toxic positivity is a real thing. Admin kept pushing t.p. without listening to us, the teachers, saying we are drowning in all that has been heaped on us.”

Julie from Louisiana wrote this as her biggest takeaway: “Families and teachers and administrators HAVE to work together. This year was so much harder on the kids who didn’t have support at home and teachers who didn’t have support at school.”

Another teacher said, “I used to love my job. I was enthusiastic. This year I am totally burnt out and am thinking about quitting. I am going to give it one more year because I know this year has been crazy, but if I don’t get my mojo back I am giving it up. I am a grumpy teacher right now and the students don’t deserve that. I want to be a good teacher and it just isn’t in me right now.”

Many of us found ourselves working around the clock (technology never sleeps). Kim from the U.S. is taking action to support herself: “I am definitely going to be very careful about my own personal time and my need to take care of my mental health. I am a special education teacher so I am very tuned into SEL for students but this year I have realized I am in need of SEL and positive mental health resources for myself and fellow educators.”

And Now This…

Many of us have recently walked into a new school year, exhilarated by the prospect of a return to normalcy, only to be faced with the reality of the Delta Variant. It’s disappointing but it doesn’t have to be disheartening.

Several teachers noted positive takeaways about themselves from our collective difficult experience. They pointed to traits such as “flexibility,” “tenacity,” and “resiliency.”

I think Amanda from Georgia said it best when responding to her biggest takeaway from teaching in a pandemic: “That I am more resilient than I thought! It has been a roller coaster year, but I pushed through and managed the new things thrown at me.”

And we are resilient.

I’m not trying to throw toxic positivity your way, but we’ve all endured an emotionally draining experience. And we’ve all learned lessons from teaching in this pandemic.

I just want to take a minute to be grateful. And to thank you for sharing my wonder.

Sources:
Shapiro, Ari, et al. “Feeling Anxious About Returning To Post-Pandemic Society? You’re Not Alone.” NPR, NPR, 19 May 2021, www.npr.org/2021/05/19/998313384/after-a-year-at-home-listeners-ask-us-how-to-human-again.

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Year of Wonders: Lessons from Teaching in a Pandemic

I drove to work every day during the 2020-2021 school year (except for the total of 10 days that my family spent in quarantine). Something was different in the first semester. A small thing. I listened to music every morning in my car. That’s something I haven’t done in the 20 years that I’ve been

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