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