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Being a First Year Teacher During a Pandemic: A Survival Guide

By Crystal Gammon
When I decided to go back to school to obtain my teaching license, I could have never dreamed my first year teaching would be during a global pandemic. Who could have dreamed a year like this? I began my journey after having and raising children, so I am quite a bit older than most first-year teachers. I got my undergraduate degree in Child Development while I ran a preschool in my town. Finally, my children were old enough to allow me to go back to school and pursue a Master’s in Elementary Education. It has always been my dream to teach elementary-age students. I received my Master’s in December 2019 and started a job as a small-group interventionist in a local school district in my state in January 2020. I was hoping to get a contract in the school district once the hiring season began. I could have never predicted what would happen next.
March 13, 2020, will live forever in my memory. I was getting ready to accept a long-term substitute position in the same school I had been working in as an interventionist. Suddenly, we are being told to prepare to send the children home with work and computers. I was going to hiring conventions when the country went into lockdown in an effort to slow the spread of a virus called Covid-19. No one knew that we would not return for the remainder of the year.
While in lockdown, I continued applying for jobs, taking interviews in local school districts via Zoom, and failing miserably to feel professional while I sat in front of my laptop camera at my kitchen table. By some small miracle, I was able to secure an interview which eventually led to a job offer at a small school in a rural mountain town about 40 minutes from my home. I accepted the position with excitement and began to plan my first-year teaching as a third-grade teacher!
The year began in the strangest of ways. I never set foot in the building and was hired from my home before meeting the staff or administration. I was allowed to enter the school in July, just before school began so I can look at my classroom and set my classroom up before the students were due to arrive in August. I worked in the building for about 4 days before I met a single member of my teaching team.
When I imagined my first year as a teacher, I never dreamed I would experience having my entire class go into medical quarantine twice, having to split classes with other teachers on my team because there is a huge substitute shortage, or having to plan lessons completely on my own because my planning partner got sick for 3 weeks with the virus. I never dreamed that we would have to stay in our rooms for specials classes, eat breakfast and lunch in our classrooms, and cancel holiday parties due to a high number of cases in our classrooms. I never thought I would ever feel so lost, alone, and mentally exhausted.
We are being asked to balance the safety of our students, social distance, and still maintain state testing as if this were a normal year. Our student’s scores are all over the place because many of our students have missed a month or more of class due to being exposed to the virus. Yet we are responsible for collecting data and that data is being counted toward judging our effectiveness as educators.
I am officially halfway through my first-year teaching and I have somehow found a way to make room for my mental health and survival. In addition to being a first-year teacher, I am also getting my Doctorate of Education and have spent much of my free time in class online as well as doing research for my upcoming dissertation. I began this journey in February, just one month before the pandemic changed our lives forever.
This year has been full of stress, reading, crying, comforting children, reassuring the families of my students, and balancing work-life and family life to the best of my ability. My students, my co-workers, my husband, and my own children have had various struggles with maintaining good mental health during this very scary time.
As a first-year teacher, I have stumbled, fallen, and fully found my footing this year in my own way. There are many things that I discovered about myself during this time and I would like to share with anyone who could use support after starting a career as a teacher during a global pandemic.
Take time to do the things you love: It is so easy to let work, and stress consumes you even in a normal year. Do not forget to read the types of books you love, do the activities you enjoy, and take time to reflect in whatever ways you did before you began your new teaching career.
Relax: Remember to relax and let go of whatever stress you experienced at work each day. Take a hot bath, meditate, or pray. Whatever you need to do at work, it can wait until tomorrow. Your students need you to be renewed and healthy so that they can get the support they need from you each day.
Do not forget to call your friends and family: It is so easy to let work consume us in even the most normal of school years. Take the time each week to reach out to friends and family and talk about anything other than work.
Leave work at work: I know this is a difficult one, but this one is perhaps the most important one. Take your planning and your early mornings before school and use that time to get all grading completed, record data, and send emails. Do not take this home with you. When you get home, make sure to focus on your family and your mental health and leave all school matters at the school where they belong.
I know these things seem simple, but they will take practice and hard work to be able to master. Teaching is a calling, and we have been called to do it during a very hard time. Take care of your mental health. This will not be easy; teaching was never easy. It is perhaps the most important job in the world. Take care of yourself and have a great first year!

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