Focusing on My Circles of Concern

Reflections on Teaching During the Fall of 2020

McGraw Hill
Nov 30, 2020 · 8 min read

By Skylar Primm, 6–12 Environmental Educator

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The Hopes & Fears of August

I can’t be the only teacher in the Northern Hemisphere who each August starts to feel a specific kind of nervous energy about the start of the upcoming school year. What will my new students be like? How can I help them feel welcome? Why haven’t I completed all those items on my summer task list? It’s just part of the flow of the year that I’ve developed a feel for in over a decade of teaching, and I assume most other teachers have their own rhythms.

August 2020, though, brought with it a whole new suite of fears. Would my students wear masks? What would we do if (when) one of us catches COVID? How ugly would this election going to get, and how can I maintain my classroom as a safe space? Which natural disaster would hit our country next?

It’s enough to drive one to climb into a dark hole and remain inside for six or nine or 12 months.

For me, August started on a fairly hopeful note. We were finally able to hold our school’s graduation ceremony. It was outdoors at a local park, and we plotted out a grid of 20-foot squares for graduates’ families to occupy. We requested that graduates and families wear masks and limit the number of guests, and braced for controversy. Happily, there was none. Every attendee recognized the need to protect one another so we could safely celebrate our six young graduates.

My experience at graduation — by far the largest gathering I had been a part of since March — gave me hope that the in-person teaching we were scheduled to start in September could turn out to be okay. If we all made it through a hot day outside with masks on, maybe we could make it in an air-conditioned classroom, too?

After that hopeful note, my anxiety slowly crept up over the course of the month, as anxiety is wont to do. As politicians at the state and federal level argued over virtual learning and masks, and my hometown of Madison braced for the return of college students, it felt like there were no good answers to be found.

Face-to-face learning is demonstrably better for most students, but it’s also much less safe than remote learning. Remote learning is a safe alternative, but it’s inequitable, especially in rural school districts like mine. Parents need to work, and kids need to eat. Every answer brings more questions.

I had decision fatigue even before I had to make a single decision. My anxiety reached its apex as August came to a close, but the return of students has been a beacon of hope.

The Joys of September

Our school district, where admittedly the COVID-19 caseloads have remained low (but rising), chose to split the difference by offering face-to-face learning as the default, with remote learning as an alternative for families that chose it. (There is also a full virtual school option, which involves almost no direct teacher interaction.) With a staggered start, our first day with face-to-face students was September 1st.

On that day, our even grades — 6, 8, 10, and 12 — were in attendance. We focused our activities on identity, community, and safety. Our school just added Grade 6, so this was my first time ever teaching students at that age. Their self-confidence and willingness to try new things on day one was truly remarkable, especially as they were joining a community of students who, in the case of some seniors, had already been working together for five years.

Two days later, we repeated the day with our odd grades — 7, 9, and 11. One of my juniors taught herself how to felt over the summer, and brought me a gift of incredibly detailed felted animals and mushrooms. She made sure I turned over the felted turtle to see the pink heart on its chest, which warmed my own heart so much. Small gestures like this are more meaningful than ever when we’re all experiencing challenging times.

During these in-person days, I was proud to learn that our students understood the importance of masking so we can keep the in-person school going.

We were able to talk frankly about how none of us is particularly excited about wearing masks — and the staff is definitely not excited about being the “mask police” — but we are doing it for one another. A couple of weeks later, I’m still reminding students to pull their masks back up over their noses and helping them develop better mask hygiene, but there’s no real pushback or complaining. We really are in this together.

Between our first in-person days, we had a day with only our remote students (at all grade levels). When we launched our first Google Meet of the day, seeing the smiling faces (or avatars) of new and returning students was an immediate pick-me-up. Very quickly, this group of students was sharing stories and being open with one another about their hopes for the school year, their identities, and whatever else came to mind.

Remote teaching is not the same, but it’s still quite possible to build relationships and attend to students’ and teachers’ social-emotional needs there.

Friday, 9/4 was our first hybrid day (what I referred to as “our fourth first day of school”), with all the students in attendance, both remotely and in person. By then, I had a lot of positive moments banked. And it was a good thing, too, because engaging virtual and physical learners at the same time is a major challenge. I was exhausted by the end of the day, but buoyed by my co-teachers observation that we were only going to get better at it with time. And we actually have.

New modalities for teaching require new procedures and rituals. Hugs become air hugs. Talking pieces become individualized. And browser crashes become just a temporary setback to be overcome.

The Routine of October

After those first few days of this school year, when I was looking forward to the uncertain times ahead, I kept coming back to the Stoic philosophical concept of the Dichotomy of Control. Before the start of the school year, when my anxiety was at its worst, I was focused on the things that were very much beyond my control, such as: a global pandemic, national politics, state mandates, and the decisions of others.

Since then, I have been able to experience the simple joy and satisfaction of teaching by focusing on the things that I can control, which include: my classroom, my responses to stress, and the ways I interact with my students and colleagues.

We made it through the entire first quarter of the school year without having to switch to fully remote learning. Over the course of those nine weeks, I learned to embrace our hybrid model of teaching, where my classroom students received the face-to-face connections they so desperately need and my remote students were able to come together through text chats interwoven with silly memes. In class, we all got used to wearing masks and sanitizing our hands, and developed nonverbal cues for simple reminders like “cover your nose.” Online, we navigated extended wait time, microphone issues, and incorrect Google Meet links. Most importantly, we were able to create a shared community of kindness and care before what we assumed was the inevitable shutdown.

November and Beyond

That shutdown finally came for us during the week of the presidential election. Although there still has been no sign of COVID-19 transmission within our schools — thank you, masks, social distancing, and hand sanitizer — there have been students and staff with positive tests, and the number of staff members who were quarantined due to close contacts had become untenable.

The school board chose to switch us all to remote learning through Thanksgiving Break, with a return date of Monday, November 30th. Because I was able to focus on what I could control, I felt confident that we would make this transition successfully. I’m a better remote teacher than I was in the spring, and my students are better remote learners, as well.

These three weeks of remote teaching have run smoothly, with plenty of engagement and connection. In October, one bit of feedback I’d been thinking over was that some of our remote learners felt disconnected from the in-person ones, and a clear benefit from everyone learning remotely has been the development of much stronger connections among all of our students.

Nevertheless, I ache to be physically together again. I am writing now on the cusp of that return, and in stark contrast to my feelings in August, I am filled with excitement over going back to the classroom.

I recognize now more than ever just how much some of my students need that in-person connection and structure. We even have a handful of students transitioning from remote to face-to-face next week after seeing how safe school has been so far. I have no doubt that there will be more periods of fully remote teaching in my future, but if I can maintain my focus on that which I can control, I believe that my students and I will continue to navigate the journey safely, and even with a little bit of joy.

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Skylar L. Primm teaches at High Marq Environmental Charter School, a project-based learning school in Montello, Wisconsin. In 2017, he was the recipient of a Herb Kohl Educational Foundation Fellowship in recognition of his teaching, leadership, and service. He currently serves on the boards of directors for the Human Restoration Project and the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education. He blogs at medium.com/@skylarp, usually for the Greater Madison Writing Project. You may contact Skylar at skylarp@mac.com.

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