There are seven portables in a horseshoe shape around a patch of overgrown grass and two basketball courts with chain-link nets. Approaching the front gate, there are students checking in with security who say hello to me as I pass by. In the first portable is the front office, I spend my mornings here chatting with the receptionist and the other teachers who float in and out before the first bell. When it rings, I head to room 7 where my students are waiting outside of the door for me to let them in. As we go in, we are hit by the overactive AC which keeps the room quite cold even when it is blistering outside. I will spend all day with various students: joking with them, finding out what is going on in their life, teaching and having them work, and calling a couple of my coworkers during prep to complain about a student or discuss a new idea for the school. This was a typical day at work before the pandemic closed schools and left the fall semester as nothing more than a question mark.
I have spent this entire summer mourning.
This mourning has been for the uncertainty of the fall, for all of the chaos in the country, for my students who rely on our support and resources, and for myself. I teach at an alternative high school where the stakes are even higher when we do not return in the fall. Almost every student in my school receives a free or reduced lunch, and my campus provides an unbelievable amount of services for kids and their families. Despite our tiny size of fewer than 100 students, we provide interventions day to day that rival the schools with thousands of students. The students who come to my school are there because they have challenges with self-regulation; they may have been to juvie, are currently navigating the court system, have mental health diagnoses, are severely behind in school work, and/or have learning disabilities that require more one-on-one support.
I know my students need us, but they also need to be safe – my school will be doing remote learning this fall.
As for myself, I had plenty to look forward to this year. I am going to be in my third year teaching and finally felt like I got a good handle on my classroom management, content knowledge, and personal library of instructional materials. In the spring, I came up with an idea for an all-day event my campus would implement to build community and address many of the challenges my students face – it was set for the end of March and was canceled, then set for the fall before being canceled again. Last year I completely overhauled my school’s ISS room and practices, which is now irrelevant for remote learning. In February, I connected with a local university and was set to implement a new mentor program for my students that would encourage them to graduate and seek higher education. Recently, I was made chair of a campus-wide committee and completely restructured and updated the goals of the committee, much of which cannot be fully implemented in a virtual environment.
But after a summer of utter disappointment about the “less than” experience this fall will bring, I find myself ready to reject that mindset. Now, this is only possible because I have already gone through the seven stages of grief and I am ready to move on to what is next: positivity.
The fall will look different as a teacher whether we love it or hate it, accept it or despise it, dwell on the bad or look for the good. I am a big believer in the idea that I shouldn’t let things outside of my zone of control ruin my mental and emotional well-being, and for many of us educators, the majority of what framework of the fall semester will look like is out of our zone of control. Make no mistake, I still support striking for better treatment if you are being forced to teach in person and do not feel safe doing so. This message is for those who are dreading remote learning or are happy to be back in the classroom but are upset they cannot do centers, assemblies, and events, or other collaborative activities.
While I keep the reality of our situation in the back of my head, I will not let the negative consume my outlook. Doing so will certainly burn me out, make me hate the only job I have ever loved, and result in me being even less effective as a teacher. Instead, I am going to shift my mindset into one that is optimistic for this fall – because I will get to be working with my kids again! They may not physically be in front of me, but I will be working with them. While many of my plans for the 2020-21 school year have been undone or canceled, there is still plenty of opportunity in the new reality. This fall will give me a chance to get creative about my teaching – and when we go back in person I will be more prepared to implement technology into my classroom or even a fully blended model.
My school created a new outreach group to ensure our unique population is provided the resources they need and to increase parental involvement, and I get to be a part of that team. Personally, I am really excited to resume teaching and go back to being busy – I have missed working while on summer break. Additionally, after a lot of thought, I feel great about the way the first week of remote learning is going to look for my classes. Lastly, I think of my students who just graduated, some of whom are off to community college. While it will look different, I also think about how for some of them it will be more accessible now that classes are online, since not all of them can secure reliable transportation to campus.
While I wish I were clever enough to come up with an analogy for finding light in the dark, instead I will quote someone who’s determination is always inspiring, Lemony Snicket: “At times the world may seem an unfriendly and sinister place, but believe that there is much more good in it than bad. All you have to do is look hard enough. and what might seem to be a series of unfortunate events may in fact be the first steps of a journey.”
This year is going to be different for everyone, we are all in the same boat – we’re basically first-year teachers again. Maybe if we also bring back that bright-eyed and bushy-tailed fervor we started with, we can find ways to enjoy this journey.
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