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Or I grapple with my role as an educator

I’m about to wrap up my first year of teaching, and I can honestly say that everything they tell you about your first year is true. No matter how knowledgeable you may be, how excited you may feel, or how prepared you think you are, you will constantly be riding the struggle bus during your first year as a teacher. I think I’ll save my stories from September through early March for another post, though, because today I want to focus on some of my experiences with “distance learning.”

Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic has been completely horrific. The lives lost, the people affected in various ways — especially here in the greater New York area — it’s just insane and devastating when you really sit down and think about it. But honestly, I’d be lying if I said my own experience has been all that negative. While so many have lost their jobs/been furloughed (my boyfriend included), I’ve maintained my steady income and amazing benefits. While so many who thrive on spending their evenings and weekends out and about were now feeling suffocated by the confines of their homes, I was perfectly happy pouring hours into playing Animal Crossing and finally catching up on the various shows and podcasts I love. While so many have been struggling with being around their children/family members 24/7, I’ve been perfectly content in my quiet apartment with my cat and boyfriend (who spend most of their time sleeping).

Prior to the quarantine, the biggest struggle for me as a new teacher was, without a doubt, classroom management. I taught three classes of 30 kids ranging from the ages of 12–15 in a large, echoey classroom. Those of you who know me personally know that 1) My voice does NOT carry very well in a loud space, 2) I’m only 5’3”, and 3) I’m a young-looking 25. None of these things work in your favor when you’re faced with a group of 30 young teenagers, especially after they’ve just had lunch, gym, or a class where they were forced to be silent. This is actually a problem experienced by many English teachers, regardless of voice, stature, or age; our subject is the most “fluid” and creative of the major subjects, and our classrooms are often the one place kids really get to express themselves (aka act like crazy people). Where I teach, the kids only have their art and music classes once a week each, so this is especially true.

Guess how much classroom management I’ve had to do since March 13…that’s right, NONE! And what a beautiful thing that is. That’s where things get complicated, though. While classroom management may be one of the most difficult parts of teaching for me, my absolute favorite part is getting to have positive interactions and discussions with my students, both during and after class. Call me crazy, but I love working with teenagers more than just about anything else. Their energy is intoxicating to me, and seeing them actually learn, grow, and change before my eyes is endlessly rewarding.

So it’s a double-edged sword. By March, I was feeling very overwhelmed by the bad behavior of some of my students, by pressure from administrators, and by the fear that I simply couldn’t complete all the work I needed to do and have time for other hobbies and a social life. In that sense, the closing of the schools created a lot of relief in my life. However, it also stripped me of my desire to actually…do my job. Without the payoff of regularly seeing and talking to the kids in a meaningful way, nearly all of my passion for teaching dissipated. While my grade 8 ELA team members worked tirelessly to shift our curriculum to an online-friendly platform and to keep lessons engaging, I helped in small ways and truly just did the bare minimum. I effectively became the kind of person I always despised: a person getting paid well for doing next to nothing. A freeloader.

But y’all, the burnout was so real. Up until May 2019, I had been a student for 19 consecutive years. That’s six years of elementary school, three years of middle school, four years of high school, my five year BA/MA program at St. John’s, and another one year MA program at Adelphi. I never really gave myself a break. I had already started feeling the burnout at some point in my last year or two at St. John’s, but I continued to push myself into another accelerateddegree program and then right into a full-time teaching job. My goals were met, and I probably impressed some people back home via social media, but inside, I was losing it. I needed a chance to catch my breath…which, ironically and horribly, finally happened during the mass outbreak of a respiratory virus.

On May 18, after two full months of remote teaching, I sent this text to two of my friends: “I think I’m kind of starting to actually want to do my job again? So that’s exciting lmao.” And I was excited! I was putting more of myself into my assignments, keeping better track of student performance, and contributing more to departmental tasks. I had gotten to a point where I felt like I deserved the money I was making. I felt like a real teacher again — well, a real virtual teacher. (Oxymoron? Maybe).

And then George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis. The world was in uproar, and the Black Lives Matter movement was operating in full force. A call to action was firmly put into place, and I…I was at a loss of what to do. Actually, I still am. This is far from over, but I’m still here feeling like a coward for taking so little action. As a teacher, I have a natural role to play here: EDUCATE THE YOUTH. Last year, when I student taught two classes of ninth graders, I spent months with them on a unit centered around The Hate U Give and the Black Lives Matter movement. I was literally talking about police brutality and the history of systemic racism in America every day, teaching my students while also learning so much myself. One of the first things I did when everything really got crazy a couple weeks ago was check out the Instagram stories of some of those kids I student taught last year (yes, I let some of them follow me). I was beyond proud to see that nearly every single one of them had shared something related to the BLM movement, and I sent a clapping emoji to let each of them know. But then, what did I do? Frankly, not much.

I taught To Kill a Mockingbird to my eighth graders earlier this year, but it’s much easier for kids (and parents) to handle discussions of racism in the 1930s than discussions of racism that’s happening right now. Honestly, I don’t know how to open one of those discussions with my current classes. My coworkers have expressed similar sentiments, which I guess is a bit of a relief. Some have done more than others, but all of us seem to agree that we’d be much better equipped to handle conversations on this topic with our students in our physical classrooms. Whether we wanted to talk about it or not, actually, our kids would definitely be asking questions if we were all in the building together right now. But just because we aren’t, does that exempt us from talking about it? If a student asked me a question about what’s going on, I know that I would do everything I could to provide them with an answer that is both honest and understandable to them. But just because no kid has asked me a question, does that exempt me from talking about it? I hate that I’m afraid of a parent overhearing/reading something I’ve said on the matter and taking issue with it, and then escalating it to my AP or principal. I’m a brand new teacher without tenure, so I feel fragile. I know that the APs and especially the principal — a black woman — would likely agree with whatever I said, but would they choose to appease the parent instead? Would I face consequences? Again, I just feel like a coward. Yes I’ve donated, yes I’ve had lots of productive conversations with peers, but I’ve largely avoided using the most important platform I have to speak, and that’s hard for me to digest.

I’m not really sure how to end this on a more “uplifting note,” and I’m also not really sure that I should. We’re dealing with a pandemic and a serious human rights issue all at the same time, which — even for the most privileged of us — is difficult. Actually, “difficult” is a gross understatement for so many impacted by either or both of these crises. So here’s what I’ll say: education is key. It’s not always easy, but educating ourselves and others — on any topic or issue — is always one of the most important things we can do.

Originally published on June 10, 2020



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