Teaching in a Pandemic: Race to the Finish

This is my final attempt to document and process returning to the classroom during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

Adrian Neibauer
Age of Awareness
22 min readMay 10, 2021


There are fourteen more days until the end of this school year. This has been the most challenging, frustrating, scary, life-threatening school year in my 20-year career in public education. I have never put more of myself into my students. I have never been this vulnerable. I have never been this scared. I have never felt this helpless. As I race to the finish of this pandemic school year, I feel defeated and exhausted. I know that I did the best I could with the tools I have. I’m a good teacher, but I don’t think I was a good teacher this year.

I’m an introspective person. I can’t help taking time to lay out this year before me and examine it with a critical eye. It is easy to get caught up in the emotional exhaustion of teaching and this year was more emotional and exhausting than ever before. So, here are things I am proud of, definitely NOT proud of, and some final takeaways.

Things I’m proud of

Even though I struggled a lot this year, I still have a few bright spots.

Classroom Community

I could not have survived this pandemic school year without the help of Michael Sorrell and his We Over Me philosophy. Sorrel is the longest-serving President in the 148-year history of Paul Quinn College. Through his remarkable leadership, he rebuilt Paul Quinn and the Quinnite Nation using 4Ls Guiding Principles and an interconnected ethos of We Over Me: The needs of the community supersede the wants of the individual.


LEAVE places better than you found them.

LEAD from wherever you are.

LIVE a life that matters.

LOVE something greater than yourself.

I used these principles to build community in my classroom. I structured my classroom around Michael Sorrell’s We Over Me philosophy because I believe that interdependence is what will get us to the other side of this pandemic. We need to help each other in order to help ourselves. Not all of my students chose to be selfless. Most days, I had students make impulsive or selfish choices around their own wants. However, I am incredibly proud of how I integrated Sorrel’s message throughout the school year. Students left my classroom knowing that I believe in the needs of the community, whether it is our classroom, family, or neighborhood, over the wants of the individuals within that community.

Growth and feedback

This pandemic made me feel like a first-year teacher again. I’ve been teaching long enough to develop a naive sense of confidence in my abilities and craft. This school year has been the most challenging that I have ever experienced. My students were the most challenging group I have ever worked with in the classroom. Some days felt like weeks and most weeks felt like a month. Most teachers complain that not all of their students show as much academic growth as they would like to see in a year. I know for certainty that my students grew. They grew as individuals and as young scholars.


The biggest contributing factor for this was that I always gave my students multiple attempts at all assessments. I gave my students immediate and concrete feedback. I was hard on them and never let up because I knew that they could do better. That meant I sacrificed instructional time for character building. I released my expectations about certain activities and focused instead on the present needs of my students. That does not mean I did not hold my students accountable. I remained firm in my accountability, while simultaneously designing a space where their academic identities were connected to their social and cultural identities. I taught my students that there is no standardized path to personal or academic excellence.


My students and I meditated for 1,200 minutes this year using Andy Puddicombe’s Headspace. We completed 130 sessions over the course of this school year. That is 20 hours of mindfulness, stress relief, and self-awareness. On the first day of school, I knew that my students would benefit from exercises that would improve their mental health. We tried both focused-attention meditation (concentrating on a single object, thought, or visualization) and open-monitoring meditation (broadening our awareness of our environment).

Now, I would love to say that every student meditated with me every day. They didn’t take to meditation at first. I established a routine of meditating after recess in the afternoon. Recess for my students often ended with fighting. Students would come into my classroom primed with either anger, frustration, or just wound up from running around outside. (Remember, due to COVID-19 protocols, students were required to remain seated all day except for hand washing and bathroom breaks. Recess was really the only time of the day where they could take off their masks and run around). After recess, my students were in no mental state for learning. Meditating helped us all recenter and refocus so that we could finish our afternoon strong.


It didn’t always work. Many students would just sit there and draw or color, but most remained quiet during those ten minutes of mindfulness. Even if they were just watching me with my eyes closed breathing in and out, they still got to hear Andy’s soothing voice guiding us through each of our exercises. I didn’t inspire a class of 10-year old monks, but I did model the importance of staying present, breathing, and focusing on your mental health.

Daring leadership

Being vulnerable in the classroom is not easy. It’s worth it. Early in the school year, I made a commitment to myself and my students that I would incorporate Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead work in my pedagogical practice. Brown’s BRAVING Inventory (Boundaries, Reliability, Accountability, Vault, Integrity, Non-Judgment, Generosity) helped me and my students bring our most authentic selves to the classroom every day. Many of my students have experienced some sort of trauma. Many have completely given up on the public education system. They carry around a heavy set of armor that prevents them from trusting others and being themselves.


I’m proud of how much I modeled Brown’s Leadership Manifesto. I worked to rehumanize the school experience for my students. I showed up every day and I asked my students to show up. Some days it was hard for my students to engage with me or their learning. Still, I persisted to create learning experiences that would help students take risks and grow. We had difficult conversations as a class. I was always honest with my students and gave them feedback that I hoped would strengthen their integrity. I was committed to my students and I expected them to be committed to their learning every day. I modeled being a learning alongside my students and strove to improve every day. As Brené Brown always says, “I’m not here to be right. I’m here to get it right.”


No perfect lesson plan

This pandemic helped me let go of the “perfect” lesson plan or learning experience. There is no such thing. This year really pushed me to let go and just get through the pandemic. I taught both in person and online this school year and there were incredible challenges with both. I spent a lot of time with my students this year just reassuring them and sitting with them.

People outside of education are critical of all aspects of the educational system. Teachers bust their butts for their students. They put forth Herculean levels of effort that only other teachers can fully appreciate. I agree with Brené Brown when she explains how a quote from President Theodore Roosevelt resonated with her:

It’s not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the person who is in the arena. Whose face is marred with dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly … who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…

She uses this quote to form the framework for her book Daring Greatly. Instead of worrying about creating the perfect lesson plan or learning experience and appeasing all of the faceless critics who are not in the classroom with us, I focused this year on holding myself accountable to my students. They are the only ones that matter. In fact, “just because [I] didn’t measure up to some standard of achievement doesn’t mean that [I] don’t possess gifts and talents that only [I] can bring to the world. Just because someone failed to see the value in what [I] can create or achieve doesn’t change its worth or [mine]” (Brown, 2015 p. 83).

This year, I really wanted to be the teacher that took a ton of chances in my classroom in the name of trying to get it right for my students. I failed a lot. Vulnerability is important for building trust and inclusivity. Brené Brown says in her 2019 Netflix special: Call to Courage: “No vulnerability, no creativity. No tolerance for failure, no innovation. If you’re not willing to fail, you can’t innovate. If you’re not willing to build a vulnerable culture, you can’t create.”

I kept a sticky note on the front of my whiteboard that read, This Could Fail. I got this from John Spencer, author of LAUNCH and Vintage Innovation. Spencer says, “every failure is another step closer to success.” This school year may not have felt like a success, but I sure tried and failed a ton in the name of working to create the best learning experiences I could for my students.

Owning it

Most of the behavioral problems this year came from my students who have experienced lowered expectations and prejudice for the last six years of their school experience. Many come from homes where they are alone a lot and have little accountability for their actions. During this school year, I had students refuse to do any schoolwork. I had many conversations about the importance of working hard and being a good student, but it often came down to, “You can’t make me.” True. It took time, but eventually, my students began to see that I would hold them accountable out of love and a belief in their abilities and potential.

I messed up a lot this year. When I made a mistake, I owned it and made amends when necessary. I didn’t handle every difficult student conversation perfectly. I raised my voice a lot. I lectured my students a lot. It’s amazing how far making amends goes with students. I don’t think children are used to seeing adults apologizing and amending for mistakes. It didn’t always change the behavior, but I do believe that it showed my students the importance of integrity and honest conversations rooted in love and support.

Now comes the difficult part.

Things I’m not proud of

I would be remiss if I did not also discuss my regrets. This school year showed me that I am more human than I thought. Under extreme stress, I am not always my best self. I’m not beating myself up over these failures, but I do believe that it is important to recognize them and learn from them; even if I don’t want to write about them.

I failed my students

I was not the best teacher for my students this year. Earlier, I discussed the value in disrupting academics for character building. I stand by that. However, I didn’t teach much academic content this year. I struggled with classroom management. A lot of my lessons fell flat or were hamstrung by COVID-19 restrictions. I had a lot of daily discipline issues. Either a group of boys were physically fighting in the classroom, or a group of girls were insulting each other or more often, both simultaneously. My students complained almost every day. They complained during the morning announcements. They complained when they heard the beginning of a lesson or project. They complained when I put them in groups. They complained when I separated them because they were fighting.

I believe that there is no such thing as a “problem child.” Lelia Schott, founder of Synergy Parenting, says “There are no problem children. There are children with problems who need guidance to overcome the challenges in their lives.” I wish I could say that I handled every bad attitude and student talking back with compassion and understanding. I wish I could share how much I helped students overcome the challenges in their lives. I can’t. I lost my temper. I was hard on my students. I struggled with disrespectful behavior and language. Unfortunately, most days ended in a stern lecture, a plea for better behavior, and no academic learning.

It’s not that I wanted to control my students behavior. I didn’t want compliance for the sake of quiet. I love dynamic discussions about content and when I couldn’t engage my students, or prevent them from disrupting the learning of others, I tried to connect with my students, but often resorted to yelling.

Found on the floor at the end of the day.

This was a stressful school year for all of us. Who knows what my students will have gained? My students will probably look back at this year and think, “Wow! Worst. School. Year. Ever. Mr. Neibauer was such a jerk!” That’s the thing about teaching and teachers: we work for the unseen, long-term rewards. I don’t know if I made a difference with this particular group of students. The only solace I have is knowing that I tried to connect with each and every one of them every day. I showed up with a positive attitude and kept pushing my students to do better and be better people.


I knew on Day 1 that lecturing was not going to work for my students. Normally, I am used to giving a prompt or hook exercise, setting up the rules for engagement, and then turning students loose to collaborate, think, and bond with each other. This year, teaching in a pandemic forced me to keep students seated at all times and at least 3 feet away from each other. Collaborating was difficult. I tried to pivot and instead focused my efforts on storytelling, but I struggled there, as well. It’s difficult to engage 10-year-olds in a story about fractions or long division. Plus, my students didn’t like my stories because they didn’t want to be at school most days.

I facilitated a morning meeting every morning. I would ask students to check in with how they were feeling each day by kicking around a soccer ball and sharing. Most Mondays, students rated themselves as a 1 or a 2, stating that they didn’t want to be at school. They would rather be somewhere else. Mondays were always difficult for my students, so we would have a soft start to the day, spending most of our morning listening to music and reconnecting with each other after the weekend. If it was a good day, most students would perk up by 11:00 AM and I could do a little teaching. By the middle of the week, more students would rate themselves higher because they knew the weekend was closer. Who knows? Maybe they even warmed up to me!

Morning meetings were a great way for me to check in with my students, learn about their lives, and create a classroom community. Unfortunately, by the end of the year, our meetings devolved into another lecture because of students talking over others, criticizing what other students were saying, and fighting with each other. I’m sure that if I were more skilled with facilitating students with severe emotional needs, I could have turned these meetings into more connecting experiences. I hated starting the day yelling at my students.

I survived teaching during a pandemic. I have definitely learned a ton. COVID-19 stripped me of my joy of teaching and made going to school terrifying. It put distance between me and my students and made forming relationships difficult. It added stress and anxiety to daily lessons and interactions. It turned me into a health warden where I micro-managed student behaviors because I was scared that their negligence might get me sick. As I reflect on this crazy pandemic school year, here are a few things I will take with me into my post-pandemic classroom.

Student connections are more important than teaching

It doesn’t matter how difficult it is to form an authentic relationship with a student. You may struggle because you don’t understand your students and their histories. You may struggle to empathize with them because you have a different lived experience then they do.

It doesn’t matter.

Make an effort to connect with your students. Every. Single. Day. You can fail all year to connect with a particular student, but that doesn’t mean you stop trying. You keep working at it even if you don’t see a connection forming. You may never know if you made a difference. It doesn’t matter if your efforts pay off. What matters is that you try again and again and again.

Every. Single. Day.

Learning experiences should focus on BIG ideas

I can’t lecture for three hours. I am not a skilled lecturer who can command attention and engagement for long stretches of time.

I believe that all students crave academic experiences that mirror their everyday lives. Students have a desire to feel efficacious with regards to their cultural and academic identities. Therefore, it is up to teachers and other school leaders to connect learning to students’ lives both inside and outside of the classroom. Using human-centered design thinking is a great way to create learning experiences in the classroom that engage students in experiential learning and contribute to their development of content knowledge. Learning experiences, not lesson plans, help students connect their culture, race, ethnicity, gender, and academic abilities to the world around them. Students want to feel that their academic pursuits and hard work mean something and are worth their time and effort. Rigorous and challenging learning experiences promote deep learning. Not lectures.

There is always be time for things that matter

I never liked jumping into the academic content right away. I want to get to know my students and build relationships with them. The only way to do that effectively is to take time and make personal connections with each of my students, both individually and as a classroom community. I know that if I can connect with my students on a deep level, then when the time comes for me to push their thinking and their abilities, they are more likely to work hard. I want them to be authentic and vulnerable in their learning, so I make damn sure that I work to create a space where they can do that. This is my authentic and vulnerable promise to students: if I share my story as a teacher with you, and let you push my thinking, then I want you to share your story with me and let me push your thinking. I will make time for you. I agree to listen to you and think about you in exchange for you doing the same for me.

The importance of empathy

Designers are taught to empathize with their end user. When designing a learning experience, there are no shortcuts. Effective teachers know their students. Instead of teaching what you think your students need, if you really know your students (and all of the identity intersections that make up your students), then you see their schooling experience through their eyes. Empathy takes time and energy to build, but it is time well spent. Knowing your students will help you gain new insights into their educational needs.

Public education is all about big data. Students have become data points instead of children. The great news is that having a strong sense of empathy does not conflict with “big data.” Researchers have developed a “hybrid-insights” approach that “integrates quantitative research into human-centered design thinking. “Hybrid insights allow us to embed stories in the data, bringing the data to life” (Kelley, 2013, p. 89). Being an effective teacher does not mean that you have to separate your students from their data. When you empathize with your students, you leave behind your preconceived ideas and outmoded ways of thinking and begin to grasp the context and complexities of their lives. Every student has a story and those stories provide latent needs for their educational experiences.

Embrace ambiguity

Teachers are taught to avoid risk and ambiguity. This pandemic has forced all humans on the planet to sit in discomfort with the unknown. What will tomorrow look like? Will I be able to see my family? Will I get COVID-19?

When John Spencer asks: Am I sure this will work? what he is really asking is Am I comfortable with taking a risk? Unfortunately, for most of our teachers, the answer is no. Teachers like to know things. They like to know what to expect and what students will learn when they deliver a planned lesson. However, many teachers have what professors Bob Sutton and Jeffrey Pfeffer call a “knowing-doing gap: the space between what we know we should do and what we actually do” (Kelley, 2013, p. 119). They know that they should make learning more engaging and personalized, but they actually just follow the prescribed curriculum map because it is less risky. They often become paralyzed with fear because ambiguity is uncomfortable.

The start of every school year (and in fact, the start of every single day, especially during a pandemic) is a new chance to start from a place of not knowing the answer. What will this group of students need today? Even though it was not comfortable, sitting in discomfort allows me to open up creatively, to pursue lots of different ideas, and to arrive at unexpected solutions. By embracing that ambiguity, and by trusting that the human-centered design process will guide me toward an innovative answer, I began to give permission to be fantastically creative. This year, I recorded podcasts, a docuseries, and incredible videos with my students. Embracing the ambiguity of this school year, freed me up to design learning experiences that pursued answers that I couldn’t initially imagine before the pandemic. Ambiguity put me on the path toward more routine innovation and lasting impact (I hope) with my students.

Learn from failure

I have discussed failing and failure a lot in this post. John Spencer encourages us to see that failing is temporary and should be encouraged in a creative classroom. When you (or any of your students) think of yourself as a failure, you see it as a permanent character flaw. This stops learning, which stops innovative thinking. In my classroom, I have been known to use the acronym F.A.I.L. (First Attempt in Learning) with students as a way for them to understand the importance of failing forward. Astro Teller believes that failing, when seen properly, is just a recognition of accelerated learning. Tim Brown from IDEO redefines the word altogether: “Don’t think of it as failure, think of it as designing experiments through which you’re going to learn” (Brown & Kātz, 2019, p. 23). At IDEO they often say, “Fail early to succeed sooner.”

Failure is an incredibly powerful tool for learning for both teachers and students. Designing learning experiments, prototypes, and interactions and then testing them is at the heart of human-centered design. Up front, there is an understanding that not all of your ideas are going to work. It is important to discover the Achilles’ heel of any learning experience as quickly as possible so that you can pivot or move onto something else. COVID-19 disrupted traditional classroom practices this year. As teachers, we were forced to be innovative with more constraints. I got used to my learning experiences failing. The key was that I tried to learn something from every failure.

Public education needs a new relationship with experimentation and failure. “When experimentation is seen as necessary and productive, not as a frustrating waste of time, people will enjoy their work — even when it is confounding them” (Catmull, 2014, p. 113). Students can be confounding! Instead of getting frustrated and complaining, human-centered design thinking allows us to get excited when we are confronted with a challenge (sometimes this is easier said than done). Experiments become fact-finding missions that are celebrated. Instead of relying on the traditional “best practices” of the past, teachers should be trusted to take risks. At Pixar, Ed Catmull understands the importance of establishing a culture of trust. “The antidote to fear is trust. There will always be plenty to be afraid of, especially when you are doing something new. Trusting others doesn’t mean that they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do (or if you do), you trust they will act to help solve it. Fear can be created quickly; trust can’t” (Catmull, 2014, p. 125). Teachers must be trusted to do their jobs and do them well, especially during a global pandemic. Teaching is a vulnerable profession and teachers have dedicated their lives to the craft of teaching students. This year, especially, many teachers felt that their professional opinions, health and wellness were not valued.

This needs to change.

This year should not be seen as a failure. It should be valued for exposing all of the inequities in our public education system. They have always been there, but now there is no ignoring them. It is time to use what we have learned to redesign a more equitable system for all of our teachers and students.


It is difficult to be optimistic about public education today. There are so many nay-sayers about how things are run and how the system is broken. This pandemic exposed a lot of cracks in education. There is tons of room for improvement.

Now is the time to disrupt!

Make no mistake, our American educational system isn’t designed for every child to be successful. The problems in our educational systems are complex in nature: American schools were not designed to authentically educate students of color. Instead, schools in the United States marginalize and under-educate children of color. In order to address issues of disproportionality and racial predictability in the lowest and highest achieving students, teachers must “engage in narratives that compel [them] to synthesize [their] knowledge and transform it into direct and measurable action” (Singleton & Comer, 2013, p. 7). In order to design equitable learning experiences that support traditionally underperforming students of color, we, as educational leaders, need to develop adequate indicators for the capacity of schools to close inequity gaps. Teachers should be trained using anti-racist pedagogical frameworks that support marginalized students and accurately measure their success. The current metrics used, which determine the efficacy of pedagogical practices to close equity gaps, are not sufficient.

Restructuring our educational system so that all children reach their full academic potential is not an easy task. In fact, “thinking our way toward progress or taking action as a single individual is not likely to make any great impact on the powerful systems of oppression we face as teachers” and as students of color face in their classrooms (Gutierrez, 2016, p. 274). Does this mean that all hope is lost? That we should just abandon optimism and resign ourselves for a pessimistic reality?

Absolutely not!

As John Bielenberg, co-founder of Future Partners says, “Optimism is the thing that drives you forward.” I believe in the power to improve public education for all students. I believe that human-centered design thinking is inherently optimistic. To take on a big challenge, especially one as large and intractable as disrupting the status quo and redesigning for a equitable and anti-racist public education system, we have to believe that progress is an option. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t even try. Optimism is the embrace of possibility, the idea that even if we don’t know the answer, that it’s out there and that we can find it together.


Human-centered teachers that design with their students in mind, are persistently focused on what could be, not the countless obstacles that may get in the way. Constraints are inevitable (especially during a pandemic), and often they push teachers toward unexpected solutions. But it’s our core animating belief that shows just how deeply optimistic human-centered designers are: Every problem is solvable. This is moonshot thinking. I believe that we have failed to redesign public education not because we don’t know what or how to change, but because we only focus on making small gains. Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots at Google X, knows that “when you are working to make things only 10 percent better, you inevitably focus on the existing tools, structures, and assumptions, and then build on top of those existing solutions. Such incremental progress is driven by extra effort, extra money, and extra resources.” Sound familiar?


Teller explains that “when you aim for a 10x gain, you lean instead on bravery and creativity — the kind that, literally and metaphorically, can put a man on the moon. You’ve all heard the story before: Without a clear path to success when we started, we accomplished in less than a decade a dream several generations in the making.” This is the origin of the term moonshot thinking. Thinking big requires optimism. An abundance of optimism. I tried to be optimistic this school year. It was very difficult. The size of the COVID-19 pandemic made me feel helpless most days. However, I arrived to school each day optimistic about helping my students navigate this school year.


I never thought I would see the tide shift in public education in my lifetime. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced an entire planet to rethink how we, as humans, respond to all aspects of our society. From racial justice to health care to government to public education, we are all called to be responsive in how we move forward. Teaching during this pandemic almost broke me. I will need time this summer to grieve my former pre-COVID self and reflect on my current teacher identity and what that looks like teaching in a post-pandemic classroom and school system. I will need to time to heal and recover. Going back to the status quo is impossible, but I am prepared that many of our current systems will attempt to right themselves as soon as stakeholders deem it is safe to do so. I am already reading about and discussing what next school year will look like. At the end of this school year, sitting alone in my quiet classroom, I reflect on how much I have changed this year and remind myself that I am the system and if I want the system to change, I need start with me.

That is how I will be starting the next school year.


Brown, Brené. (2015). Rising strong: The reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution. New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau.

Brown Brené. (2018). Dare to lead: bold work, tough conversations, whole hearts. Vermilion.

Brown, T., & Kātz, B. (2019). Change by design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. New York, NY, NY: HarperBusiness.

Catmull, E. (2014). Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. New York, NY: Random House.

Gutierrez, R. (2016). Nesting in nepantla: The importance of maintaining tensions in our work. In Interrogating whiteness and relinquishing power: White faculty’s commitment to racial consciousness in STEM classrooms (Vol. 1, pp. 253–281). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.

Kelley, D. (2013). Creative confidence: Unleashing the creative potential within us all. New York, NY: Crown Business.

Seeling, T. (2009). What I wish I knew when I was 20. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Singleton, G. E., & Comer, J. P. (2013). More courageous conversations about race. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.



Adrian Neibauer
Age of Awareness

I am a learning experience designer. I’m an intellectual thinker. I push the boundaries of what’s possible. I have lots stories to tell and change to make.