Reflections on Round Two, Year One

Last year at this time I was in the middle of interviewing with various high schools in the Ann Arbor/Detroit area. Amid the last Spring’s swell of cries for racial justice, my husband I and agreed it was time for me to pursue a return to the classroom. (I wrote all about that journey in a series of blogs starting with this one.) Now, a year later, I’m sitting in my office, sun shining through two corner windows, taking a moment to reflect on my first year back — what an unusual one it was!

Going back to the classroom during a global pandemic might seem like the worst idea in the world. However, the situation — a high need for teachers in light of Covid-related attrition — gave me an opening. I figured I could get my foot in the door to see if I was able to hack the demands given my health concerns. I soon realized that this year would give me only a partial answer to that question. With mostly online instruction, limited behavior management, and a large percentage of time spent working from home, I had the time and bandwidth to get re-acclimated to writing lesson plans, communicating with parents, and meeting deadlines without the long demanding days of managing teenaged bodies within the classroom, without interruptions in the middle of planning, without extra hours attending sporting events, and without the constant posture of supervision that teachers wear in a building teeming with students.

The building, in fact, was the opposite of ‘teeming’.

It was so quiet that every time I walked down the hall to the bathroom, the office staff could hear me coming because of the squeak of my shoes against the tile floor. The former Catholic elementary school that houses Detroit Leadership Academy held around a dozen people on a typical day this past school year. Some instructors worked from home the entire year due to health concerns. Only the custodians, office staff, and a handful of teachers came to the building each day, and we were all isolated from one another in our own classrooms. If I wanted to interact with anyone, I had to be intentional. I started leaving candy on the sign-in table every few days — hoping these treats would draw out the humans. I saw the candy diminish, but I rarely saw who was taking it or, as I had hoped, teachers clustered around the table chatting like I remembered from my pre-Covid teaching days.

Sometime mid-year, after weeks and weeks alone in my classroom, I started doing laps inside the building at lunch time in an effort to get away from the computer screen and get in some steps. I wore a mask, and sometimes I saw a person or two in my path, but never did we stop to talk. I resigned myself to a year of limited contact. Then, one day, after several weeks of lap walking, a colleague stopped by my room.

“I’ve seen you walking,” she said. “I’ve been running laps on the other side of the building. You want to walk with me at lunch time?”

“Yes!” I said, and before we knew it, we had another colleague join, and then another. Our walking club was born.

For the remainder of the year, whenever we were in the building, we walked — first inside, and then outside when it got warmer. We built friendships by chatting about students, the struggles of Zoom instruction, the engagement of one, and the graduate studies of another. It was a slice of collegiality in a sparsely inhabited space. I clung to those friendships like a lifeline, because building relationships with students was even more difficult.

In the beginning of the year, I could convince about 75% of my students to turn on their cameras in the Zoom room. By the end of the second semester, that number dropped to about 10%. I could hardly blame them. Most had been sitting on their beds for an entire school year, logging in to three classes a day, listening to their teachers present information, struggling to stay engaged, and trying to complete at least the minimal number of assignments in order to pass. While teenagers often complain about school, they typically enjoy the perks of seeing their friends, competing in sports, or at least getting away from their homes for several hours a day. This year had none of that.

This year was something different.

Looking back, I see a blur. The first few weeks of orienting my students to the online platform — using a Chromebook every day, checking their email, submitting documents in Google classroom — followed by a big push to get them somewhat ready for the SAT that they had missed at the end of their junior year. The actual testing day on which students I did not recognize came masked to my classroom and sat for six hours listening to instructions, filling in ovals, trying to stay awake, and waiting to be dismissed. The weeks of researching and applying to colleges, attending virtual college visits, and completing the FAFSA, followed by creating resumes, writing college essays, and attempting a virtual peer review.

After Christmas, we started the second semester. My students came to the building for senior photos in their caps and gowns then carried out Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, a composition book, and a set of highlighters. In the following weeks, I tried to engage them in journal writing, joining clauses, and reading Noah’s book — a memoir of growing up in a racist society. We listened to Noah read his book on Audible, and my students completed reading guides, discussion posts, and written paragraphs to communicate their comprehension, their observations, and their processing of what they had read.

And then, all of a sudden, we were having a senior pinning ceremony, prom, and graduation rehearsal. In the blink of an eye, they lined up alphabetically, clad in caps and gowns, processed into the sanctuary to Pomp and Circumstance, stood in unison, moved their tassels, and walked out of the building, diplomas in hand.

Just like that, it was over.

Do I sound sad? I think I am sad — sad that I didn’t get to know these people a little better, sad that we couldn’t give them a little more — more contact, more encouragement, more content, more support, more everything. I am sad, but I am also impressed by these students who showed up, opted in, worked hard, and finished as strong as they could having had to walk a path that none of us had ever walked before.

And as I reflect on all that we did — together and apart — I am already looking forward to the next round. I am wondering how we might make the experience different for next year’s seniors. We’ll be in person — at least that’s the plan — so I’ll be entering phase two of my journey back to the classroom — all the stuff I did last year, plus bodies in the building, butts in seats.

It’ll be a transition for me to manage up to 30 students in a classroom at a time, but it’ll be a transition for them, too. They haven’t had their butts in seats since early March 2020. They’ve been logging in to Zoom rooms, on time or not. They’ve been joining class in their pajamas, hair combed or not. They’ve been at home, following house rules or not. And now, they are going to have to put on some clothes, get themselves to school on time, and follow school rules. We’re all in for some change, and it might not be easy.

So, for the seven weeks that I will not be in my classroom, I will be preparing for that change. I am going to start with some rest — some self care, some family time, some writing, and some sleep. I am going to sprinkle in some high quality instructional planning, and I plan to do some deep reading on educational equity, building a classroom culture, and fostering group trust, because that is where we need to start.

After the trauma of this pandemic — the loss of loved ones, the fear of contagion, the isolation, and whatever else my students have experienced in the last sixteen months — they are going to need some support, some anchors, some structure, some intentionality, some consistency..

I am not sure what that will look like, but our whole team is talking about it. We’re committed to giving our students what they need, which is likely very similar to what we all need — some grace, some time, some understanding, and some love.

Love one another.

John 13:34

Coronavirus Diary #24: Setting Intentions for 2021

As I was getting ready to write this post, I looked at back last year’s New Year’s blog post (link to post here) — what was I hoping for as I said goodbye to 2019 and looked forward into 2020?

I was fresh off the holidays. All of our people had gathered, and though we had had our tense moments, we had also had moments of mundane togetherness, laughter, and even joy. We were nearing the end of a long, long season of grief, and wanting to move forward differently, I took the year 2020 (20/20) as an invitation to think about vision and sight. I was praying to see things differently. I had missed so much in the soldiering years. Moving forward, I wanted to see — to really see.

I wrote:

In 2020, I’m praying for new sight. I’m praying that I’ll see what’s important, that I’ll notice what’s essential, and that I’ll comprehend what has meaning. I’m praying that I won’t focus so hard on potential danger but that I’ll keep my eyes wide open to possibility.

“Ask and ye shall receive.”

If 2020 offered us anything, it was an opportunity to notice the essential and to comprehend the meaningful. Yes, it’s been a year full of imminent danger, but if we dare, we can also see all kinds of possibility.

Remember how we were plodding through January and February, business as usual, unaware of the depth of the disruption that was about to occur? Remember how we grumbled about getting up early to scrape the ice off the car, about the extra slow commute, and about the coworker who just couldn’t seem to respect our personal space?

Remember how we would run to the grocery store over lunch hour and munch on a snack we’d just purchased on our way out the door? Remember how we offered an open bag of chips to a colleague who enthusiastically grabbed a handful and shared with the person standing next to her? Remember how normal this was?

And look at us now — even when we are wearing our masks, we find ourselves reflexively moving back to allow for six feet of space, we bump elbows if we dare to touch at all, and we glance at each other with suspicion, wondering if either is unknowingly carrying the virus, if this will be the interaction that makes us sick.

Why? Because we’ve seen like we’ve never seen before.

We’ve seen the destructive path of the coronavirus — the death toll in the United States above 330,000, hospitals across the country at capacity, refrigerated trucks serving as morgues.

We’ve seen, in the midst of this health crisis, the comorbidities of archaic infrastructure, financial instability, and centuries-old systemic racism. We’ve seen how quickly our supply chain can be disrupted, leaving us all wondering why we are out of toilet paper, flour, and personal protective equipment. We’ve seen the financial devastation as millions across the country apply for unemployment, wait in line all day to get food, and face imminent eviction. In contrast, we’ve seen the financial excess of our nation’s billionaires who’ve actually “increased their total net worth $637 billion during the COVID-19 pandemic so far” (Business Insider). We’ve seen people of color not only disproportionately impacted by this disease (Harvard Medical School) but less likely to get quality care and much more likely to be living in poverty, targeted by law enforcement, and incarcerated for the same crimes than white people.

If our eyes were opened in 2020, if our vision cleared, then what we saw was a country that has a lot more to worry about than the deadly virus that has traversed the globe. We’ve asked ourselves about the integrity of the news media and the reliability of science. We’ve wondered how much we value our health care workers, our teachers, our postal workers, and our other essential personnel. We’ve become more aware of how the structures of our country have shaped our ideologies, and we’re beginning to see our racism, our bias, and the ways that we ourselves perpetuate these systems and these beliefs.

And now that we have seen, what will we do? That, for me, is the question of 2021.

What do we intend to do about the things that we have seen?

This morning, as we have done most Sunday mornings since March, my husband and I logged into a Zoom room on one laptop while we streamed our church’s worship service on another. Members of our small group community meet in the Zoom room every Sunday to “go” to church. We sit in our own living rooms watching the service, singing, and praying “together.” Then, after the service, we unmute ourselves and chat over “coffee” as we would if we were physically meeting together.

Today’s conversation ranged from how was your Christmas to how are we managing the weather to when do we think we will get the vaccine. Finally, we landed on how we were feeling about life post-Covid. What will work look like? and church? and social gatherings? Will we go back to what we were doing before? or will we change based on the lessons we’ve learned over the last many months?

I sat listening for a few moments, and then I thought out loud, “unless we are intentional, we won’t change. We’ve got to be making thoughtful decisions right now about how we are going to be on the other side of this.” I think we were mostly talking about whether people will continue to work from home, whether we’ll be comfortable physically re-entering our social circles, and how we’ll interact with medicine and business, but I think we need to also think — right now — about how we can intentionally start to shift our culture.

What is it that we’ve seen that we’d like to change? Are we comfortable continuing on the course that we are on?

If, having seen our weaknesses, our broken systems, our inequities, we do not intentionally make moves to right our ship, we will continue to head the same direction we have been heading. If we continue to turn a blind eye to the lack of freedoms in the land of the free and the fear-based decisions made in the home of the brave, we will remain a country that benefits the few at the cost of the many.

It took us a long time to get here, and we won’t immediately change course. We are all going to have to lean hard into the turn, pull on all the ropes we can grasp, and keep our eyes firmly fixed on the world we hope to create. And we’re going to have to hold that position for quite some time.

If we really want a society in which all men, women, and children are treated equally, afforded the same respect and consideration, and endowed with certain unalienable rights, it’s going to look different around here. And it’s going to feel uncomfortable. We’re going to have to make decisions we never thought we’d have to make — about our homes, about our jobs, about our politics, and about our money. And if any of those things seems too dear to us, that’s probably where we need to start.

I invite you to think back with me over the last several months, what did you see that didn’t sit right? What possibilities can you imagine? Are you willing to set an intention that will enable change? Are you willing to discuss your intentions with a friend?

Can you imagine what we might do if we, the people, would be willing to intentionally move forward together? What a more perfect union we might form? What justice we might establish? What common defense we might provide? What domestic tranquility we might ensure? What general welfare we might promote? What blessings of liberty we might ensure? Not only for us, but for those who come after us?

Are we willing to be transformed?

What are your intentions?

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12: 2