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  • Writer's pictureErin

The new school

We all know it's been a rough year. Rough for everyone, no doubt, but worse for some. The people I feel the most empathy for are the ones who would normally be sitting in this room.

The 2020-2021 school year is my very first as a full time English teacher. I did my Bachelors in English and my Masters in Secondary Education, various practicums and student teaching experiences, prepped and read books and substitute taught for five years, all the steps I could possibly take in the interest of highest success for the career I've wanted and worked for since the fourth grade - the highest experience and knowledge. Three days into my high school student teaching experience, however...everything shut down. That was a year and three days ago to this very day.

And we all know that the first days and weeks of this whole thing sort of felt like an extended vacation - it's privileged to say so, but I was a little excited to finally have a break to do yard work, start the garden my mom and I had been planning, and invite in a little extra time for rest and self-care. School had been cancelled for two weeks initially, in an attempt to give the board some time to figure out the most effective mode of what we now refer to as "crisis teaching." Truthfully, I think they'd hoped everything would blow over in those two weeks. (Ha). So I was off the hook for that amount of time, but I still kept in touch with my host teacher and assured her that I would be there to help with anything she felt willing to let me. She essentially handed over her tenth grade class to me, and from spring break to early May, only about a month, I walked them through Lord of the Flies via virtual worksheets and discussion questions. The ten kids out of about thirty who were still on board did surprisingly well. The other twenty, I never heard from again.

But I graduated with no problem, and began the infamous job search. My university professors had always promised us that relatively local schools loved and absolutely fought over our grads to fill up their teams. I had been conditioned to think that getting a teaching job as soon as I applied for one would be a-snap-of-the-fingers easy. And maybe it would have, but...pandemics. I applied to my old high school, where I knew all the English teachers and guidance counselors and admin, and had been subbing with routinely for years. I applied twice and was rejected twice. Onto other schools in the county, dozens of them, who were never able to offer interviews. I got antsy and considered moving back to my college town despite how much I hated living there. I stayed, and picked up a winery job and picked up all the shifts I could possibly cover. I would come home sweaty and dirty and too exhausted to even muster the energy to speak, wake up, have a cup of coffee, and do it all over again. I kept looking for jobs, though I had considered just working my butt off at the winery for a full year until I could educate myself even more, and hopefully pick it back up when things got easier; the winery was tough, hot work, but I did genuinely love it.

Alas, my host teacher from the high school vouched hard for me, set up an interview, and I was welcomed aboard in late August, roughly three weeks before school started for the year. Huzzah! The first hurdle of many was taken care of. But, ultimately, this is not about me or my hurdles.

The amount of preparation in the form of books, graduate classes, reports, research, and practica for how to teach high school obviously never prepared anyone for how to teach high school during a global pandemic. We already knew students were going to be jaded from the royal fuck-up that was their fourth quarter, and therefore extremely wary of how similar the entire next school year would be. We thought we might have security issues with Google Meet, or that the internet would completely shut down due to high traffic across the district, or that students would unmute themselves and scream or show something inappropriate on camera, or that they just wouldn't show up at all, period. At least in my district, we had vowed from the start that we would not be entering a hybrid setting until at least the second semester, or January 2021 - so we were preparing for the worst, for the long-haul. There were just so many things that an individual teacher, student, principal, etc. could not control. It required a new realm of trust and flexibility from everyone.

So I was pleasantly shocked and overwhelmed at the serenity of the first few weeks. Sure, no one turned their cameras on, and the only way I had to configure a mental image of my 130 students was a tiny school picture on their attendance, several years outdated. But there were no strange intruders trying to hack into my classes, no spasms of loud noises coming from my students aside from the first day when they tried to see what sort of reaction they could get (the answer: none at all), and no rogue students to track down or call home to. They were respectful, albeit curious and a bit anxious; I didn't blame them one bit. I reminded them that so much of this year was going to be a process of trial-and-error, and that we were going to have to work off of a mutual trust and patience. It wasn't going to be perfect - not even pretty at times - but we were going to get through it.

Of course there have been a lot of not-pretty things over the course of the seven months we've been in school. I have nearly cried over how many of my kids were getting F's because, no matter how hard I tried to reach out to them or their parents, they would not do a single thing. But, again, this isn't really about me. What's even worse - and, truly, what I wanted to focus on for this post - is knowing how deeply most of the kids are struggling mentally and emotionally with the layout of this school year. No joke, I just checked my email and read a message from one of my eleventh graders asking her teachers to "please be patient," as her mental health has severely declined. She's not even close to the first student who has come to me with a similar concern for themselves; imagine how many are staying silent about it. On the other hand, I have kids who are openly, loudly critical of the way distance- and hybrid-learning have been handled. I feel all sides of their pain and try to remind them: I was in high school only six years ago. If it were me having to do school from home, I would have been absolutely miserable too.

What's going to happen next year, when school is (hopefully 🤞🤞) fully back to in-person? Are the school boards going to usher the students right along, tell them, "well, you're a senior now, and there's no time to waste. You have to learn the senior curriculum." Are we just going to have to play along like none of this ever happened? I fear that too many want this to be the way it goes. But the reality is, of course, COVID did happen, and it knocked all of us on our asses for a year, and it's not over yet. No one better dare tell my students that they need to suck it up and keep it moving. They missed homecoming, they missed the football games, they're about to miss prom. Last year's seniors didn't even have a real graduation. Let alone, they missed all the mornings catching up with friends in the halls, walking home together before and after the bells ring, figuring themselves out amidst their peers. Maybe I'm romanticizing high school to a degree, in some opinions, but I stand by the importance of these events in one's life. They're missing it, and there's a very slim chance for most of them that they'll get to try it again. Call it what you want, but it's going to leave a mark on the lot of them.

Being a friend as well as a teacher is often frowned upon from the educator's perspective. We don't want to come off too friendly or approachable for a number of reasons; namely, so that we don't cross any boundaries or set ourselves in a position to be overruled or taken advantage of. Sure. In a normal year, sure. But this is not normal, and the kids need a fucking friend. I don't care if that tarnishes my credibility or makes me look unprofessional. Friendship in a time of mass isolation is sacred. Genuine connection through a screen is nearly impossible, but specs of light come through every once in a while, and it makes all the difference in the world on both ends. I swear it does.

The school opened its doors to hybrid learners just last week, and as of right now, I have anywhere from three to ten students coming in per day. The wide majority of them have said they're enjoying it, which was really surprising to me. After all, the cafeteria implemented classroom desks for each student to sit six feet apart, all in the same direction; there is flimsy plastic guarding three sides of every desk in the school; they have to file down the hallway like an assembly line going only one way; it's overall sterile. But seeing people, seeing their friends, is more than reason enough for them to put up with the weirdness of it all. I've been trying to relay this to the kids at home in the hopes that more of them will want to come back. In a perfect world, I would hug each of them at the door when they arrive and let them know how truly amazing it is to witness them in-person.

But, this is not a perfect world. And, again, this isn't about me.

If you know a high schooler, or really any young person affected by their pandemic education experience, hold them in presence and let them know they are seen and loved. Have conversations that allow them to express how they're really feeling, especially if you fear that they may not be doing so well. I fear for the ones like the girl who emailed me just now, but I'm scared to even think of how many wouldn't advocate for themselves like that in the first place. Kids are not immune to the woes of adulthood. They see it, and those the age of my students fully understand it. Let them know they're loved. Let them feel held and supported. I hope that when things do go "back to normal," that we will finally make more time for conversations like this, and especially open up the floor to our younger voices. They are the focal point here, and they need to be heard. I have a feeling they'd make some big, beautiful changes, long overdue.

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