In early March, on what seemed to be the first sunny day in weeks, I stood at the front of my eighth-grade multimedia class excited about the content and the lesson for the day. We were doing something with video, likely a documentary clip and lesson, though the exact details I can’t remember.
The unit included watching documentaries — edgy ones, ones that require permission slips. The content isn’t anything more than my students have lived through — a parent in jail, the occasional use of the F-bomb, a parent who lives in the U.S. undocumented, a death in the family.
These are stories of real life humans, pieced together by real life journalists who have a powerful way with words, images and sounds. And, typically, it gets students talking. They share their me too experiences, they open up to share some of their vulnerabilities, and they talk about storytelling with a depth new to that particular semester with that particular class.
But this day was different.
No one said a thing. Literally, nothing.
I asked a question. I waited for someone to raise their hand. Nada. I re-phrased the question. Waited again. Nope.
Something was off. This often spry, talkative, highly social eighth-grade class was silent and their eyes spoke of weariness, nearing exhaustion.
I paused and told them to take their five-minute break, which often becomes an unruly only-chance-to-socialize, get-it-all-out, talk-over-each-other, sometimes-sit-on-each-other chaos fest. On a normal day, they move about the room, sit on the cubes, chit-chat with their peers, flirt (even though they deny this hardcore), wrestle, punch each other, play music, ask me questions, scramble to get last minute homework done for other classes, get a drink of water, go to the bathroom, eat a snack, etc. in those 300 seconds of reprieve from their 80-minute class period.
They didn’t get out of their seats. Or talk. They sat in their assigned seats and waited for class to continue in an almost “if we just keep going, the day will end sooner” kind of way.
So, I stopped, pulled up a stool, sat down and said, “OK, let’s have a real conversation. It seems like something is going on and I want to know how you are doing. Talk to me about what is going on. It can be about school, homework, life stuff, whatever you want to share.”
One hand shot up. Then another, and another, and another.
“I didn’t sleep at all last night.”
“I have a ton of projects due this week.”
“I’m freaking out about high school.”
“Things are not good at home right now.”
“I’m totally overwhelmed.”
They fed off each other, agreeing, applauding, supporting each other in their comments. The whole class breathed together in one collective sigh of this is too much, everything is too much right now — home, school, social, all of it.
I let them keep going until everyone felt heard, acknowledged and supported, not necessarily by me, but by each other as well. Then, we left everything in the classroom, radioed the office, locked the door, and went on a walk outside for the rest of the class period.
The smiles came back, the energy lifted, there was a sense of play that emerged. Students who always interact, engaged. Students who never engage, interacted. Genuine questions jumped back and forth, and the life of the class normalized in a very real, very human sort of way.
That is one of my favorite memories from teaching this year. It has nothing to do with my content, nothing to do with a particular lesson or unit, and nothing to do with grades. It has everything to do with the vocation of teaching and the power of being in the classroom with my students. I was able to read their emotions, feel the weight of their suffering and empathize with their need to feel loved and be heard.
Now, more than ever, I feel the pain of that absence.
Teaching during the pandemic has zero resemblance to teaching in a classroom — and I will go head-to-head with anyone who argues that.
I prep weekly lessons, put them in nice, neat, color-coded folders on my class website, record some kind of dumb video of myself either explaining the lesson or saying “hi” to the kids (which feels totally unnatural and fake), wait to answer their questions, give feedback, grade the assignments, track how many kids participated in engagement spreadsheets, and then do it all over again the next week.
Do I enjoy wearing yoga pants each day? Sure. Is it nice to put lessons together at 5 in the morning on a Monday or 11 at night on a Sunday, knowing I can set my own schedule? You bet. Is it easier to deliver content with a guarantee the kids won’t see you screw it up live? Yep.
But teaching is not about comfort, ease or lack of embarrassment. It’s about knowing that you play a critical role in a young person’s life for 45, 60, 80, 120 minutes of a day. And, that you may be the one person they look forward to seeing or the one point of stability in their otherwise chaotic, traumatic or less-than-ideal life situation.
It is about being there with them in the good moments and the really sucky ones. It’s about being able to absorb the energy of the room and pivot instruction to meet the social and emotional needs of the kids on that particular day. And, it is absolutely, 100 percent about making a complete idiot of yourself, so that kids know it’s OK to screw up sometimes.
With the loss of in-person learning this year, we are losing much more than achievement. We are losing the precious psychosocial development of the 13-year-old brain, which needs a safe space to test out what does and doesn’t work in relationships with others and with the world.
Middle school sucks, right? Rarely do you hear someone say, “I would definitely go back to re-live my middle school years,” with all the acne, hormones, awkwardness, etc. that comes with it. But, we all need middle school precisely for those reasons.
We get through the awkwardness. We develop troves of embarrassing moments to later share with our kids when they reach that stage. We learn how it feels, emotionally and physically, for our bodies to change. We navigate the space of wanting to be a grown up and still needing our parents and guardians (though, never in a million years admitting it).
Do you remember who was there to help you through middle school? I would bet at least one teacher’s name comes to mind.
I can think of plenty of teachers, coaches and youth group leaders who filled that role for me. They sought me out. They read my emotions when I couldn’t, for the life of me, make sense of them. They let us eat lunch in their classroom and talk about boys. They encouraged me to try new things, to put myself out there, and to believe that things would get better on the bad days.
I became a teacher to help kids navigate the muck of the world. We are in the muck — deep, deep muck — and I can’t be in the classroom with my kids to gauge their well-being, provide counsel on how to get through the dark nights, or simply to say, “Enough for today. Let’s go for a walk.”
So, I write this as a teacher who is not at their best and who does not really know how to navigate this “new normal” — I hate that term — away from the classroom. My hope is that if you are one of those teachers who also feels this way, you can find comfort in the fact that you are not alone.
This is hard and will likely continue to be hard for the next several weeks, months, and possibly — though I pray to God, not — years. We will all likely experience some form of PTSD as a result of a trauma that impacted our vocation in a completely unexpected way. Our vision for our classrooms will likely change, our pedagogy and planning will likely change, and heck, our grading may as well change too.
What I hope doesn’t change is your true north, the core of your being, the part of you that says, “This is why I became a teacher.” Believe that that is important, maybe now more than ever, and find a way to talk about it with your colleagues, your families and friends, and, most importantly your students.
They need to hear it. We need to share it.
Let’s go for a walk.
Autumn Jones teaches robotics, journalism and technology in SVVSD in Longmont, Colorado. She can be found on Twitter and Medium via @faithful_writer.