Now that the 2019-2020 school year is officially done (as in, "stick a fork in me"), it's time to start reflecting. And here's the thing: Before we left the classroom in March, before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, we really weren't okay.
I've been a teacher since 2001. Aside from the one year I took for maternity leave when I had my son(and the 4 months maternity I took for my daughter), I have been IN IT. I've taught 6th grade, special education, kindergarten and third grade. I deeply care about teaching and growing in my professional skills. I value education and work hard. And....I was utterly drowning.
26 students. Every subject. Differentiating instruction and small groups to plan. One prep a day that could be eaten by a teacher arriving late to pick up her students, a phone call to return, a grade level meeting, a broken photocopy machine (more often than not). Lunch was often wolfed down in the first 10-15 minutes, then back to trying to get the afternoon planned. Bus duty, meetings, tutoring. Then having to dash out of work to get home to take my children to soccer, or acting class, or religion. Homework for them, dinner for everyone, showers, bedtime. Exhaustion. What time was there to look at one of the 26 students' work? What time was there to reflect on the day's teaching to make more thoughtful choices for the next day?
There was none. It was go, go, go and do the best you can. And don't complain that you don't have time to get the work done because, hey- summers off, right? You get to leave at 3:15 each day. The one time I told an administrator I was getting up in the middle of the night to do work, it was kind of like "Yeah- I am up early too."
We are expecting our teachers to be able to thoughtfully and skillfully teach reading, writing, math, science, social studies, technology skills, and character education. We are expecting them to build relationships and deeply know 26 or more students at a time. We are expecting them to to plan and teach multiple small groups a day. We are expecting them to do this with very little planning time.
I know every job has its challenges, but the thing about teaching is the time I am at work I am with children or doing other professional duties almost the entire time. The planning it takes to be prepared for my teaching day is all done on my own time. The grading, the reflecting- it is all done after hours. This was hard when I was a single teacher in my 20's but the truth is it is impossible as a mom to two children in my 40's. I simply don't have the hours to give unless I stop sleeping.
Can we talk about this? Can we talk about the impossible expectations put on teachers? Can we talk about why so many have left the profession to become life coaches who want to help teachers deal with burnout? While we are envisioning a new and better system of education, can we consider that we are expecting the impossible from our teachers and their mental/emotional health is suffering? Every teacher I know (who is tenured and allowed to admit it) has sacrificed physical health, emotional health, family time and more trying to keep up with ever-changing, yet always impossible expectations.
Can we get our teachers off the hamster wheel?
"Here I'm singin' happy birthday
Better think about the about the wish I make
This year gone by ain't been a piece of cake
Everyday's a revolution
Pull it together and it comes undone
Just one more candle and a trip around the sun"
Last year, I turned 40. It was momentous, with a weekend trip with my husband to Boston, wineries with my sister and sisters in law, spa time with a dear friend. 40 was a big milestone and I am now very grateful it came last year when the world was a different place.
41, in times of Covid-19, was a quieter celebration. Dinner out for the first time since early March. Dining in the parking lot which is the makeshift outdoor seating. I was grateful for a family celebration which was impossible a few months before.
I am grateful for birthday greetings from family members, friends past and present, colleagues and even friends I've never met in person but follow online. I am grateful for summer weather and new patio furniture to enjoy. I am grateful for my health. I am grateful for the possibility of days to come.
My head felt so much lighter, and looking at the hair on the floor surrounding my chair, there was good reason. My first hair cut in 4 months felt glorious, but not as glorious as the color that came next! Roots were made lighter and highlights were happily put back into hair that had missed them. No longer black roots with reddish blonde ends. A cut and color made me feel lighter.
Each evening after dinner, I lace up my students and walk around my neighborhood. My goal is to hit 10,000 steps a day and this quarantine lifestyle doesn't make it easy. An extra walk is required to hit that target. I listen to my friends on Voxer or I learn from podcasts. Slowly, every so slowly, the quarantine pounds are starting to shed. My body feels lighter.
The sun goes down later now. It is lighter, pushing bedtime for my children off to after 9. Sometimes 10. Nowhere to rush to usually so an early bedtime is not necessary. I sit in my screened-in porch, next to the sky blue hydrangeas that are on the other side of the screen, and read what I want to read. My workload is lighter.
We are starting to see friends and family. Father's Day was not all alone like Easter and Mother's Day. It feels happy and right to be around people. There is social distancing. There are no hugs. Yet my soul is lighter with these moments of togetherness.
The world is full of light and dark, joyful and painful times. For so long, it felt so bleak, so isolating, so scary. We are not through the woods, but I see a clearing. As the expression goes, there is light at the end of the tunnel. We've been in a tunnel for a long time.
I look to the light. I look for the light. I look to be the light.
I am lighter today.
Last Day of School 2020 Nonet
We wear masks
Students wave, cheer
Teachers cry, blow kiss
Strangest last day of school
Covid-19 changed it all
Presents passed through open windows
Uncertainty in the summer air
This poem was inspired by Irene Latham's book Nine: A Book of Nonet Poems. I am sharing a #classroombookaday each day this summer for books that I would like to read with my third graders. You can follow my reading this summer on my website
or on Instagram @mrssokolowski.
What follows is the letter I composed to my third grade students, to be sent to them on our last day of school.
Dear Third Graders,
It has been an unforgettable year. Many years from now, you will look back on 2020 and your third grade year and realize you lived through a very historic time. I know I will never forget this school year or any of you. Just like I hope I might live in a corner of your memory (and maybe your heart), students leave their marks on teachers, too. I will remember the fun we had while learning together in room 215 and the ways we came together and continued learning through our screens.
It hasn’t been easy.
When we left our classroom on March 13th, I never imagined we would never be back there together as a class. Learning (and teaching!) from home has been full of challenges. Together, we realized that we needed flexibility to try different platforms and programs. We needed persistence to keep going and try a new way when the way we thought it would work...didn’t. We needed resilience to pick ourselves up and try again. We needed empathy to understand that all of us were doing the best we could in very complicated times. Being flexible, persistent, resilient and empathetic are skills that you will use time and again in life. They are lessons you will keep learning over and over again, but they are worth knowing. This year was a crash course in all those skills! I know we are stronger for the lessons we learned.
An important realization I’ve made is that learning happens all the time and everywhere- beyond our classroom walls and even when buildings close. Relationships and caring about each other also continues even when we are not in person together. Whether we were together in our classroom or learning virtually in Google Classroom, I hope you’ve always felt my love for you and my belief in you. I hope you know that I care about each of you deeply and know that you have untold potential. I hope you know that I care about you, your families, your lives. I always will.
There have been many lessons I’ve been asked to teach you this year. My scope and sequence has required me to teach you estimation, multiplication, division, and fractions. I’ve been required to teach you about geography, some history, about government and culture. I’ve taught you how to read the blurb of a book and how to think about the most important thing in a chapter. While not directly on my scope and sequence, I hope I’ve taught you that being a reader can change your life- can teach you, expand your mind, and help inspire new ideas. I hope I’ve taught you that being a writer can change you too and those around you- when you use your words to share your story, show appreciation, question unfairness and advocate for change.
This year, we’ve read countless books on our own and together. We’ve read many picture books and I read aloud 5 chapter books to you. I want to pause and think about the chapter books we read aloud together as a community. Each one has lessons I would like you to remember.
How you treat others matters. Consideration of others wants, needs, and feelings is important.
Your voice matters. Be strong and confident that what you have to say is important. Don’t allow other people to make you feel less worthy.
It’s never too late to make a new start for yourself. Allow others to help you when you need it.
Stories are light in a world that feels dark. Be the light. Understand that all of us have both light and dark inside but do your best to lean towards kindness.
“Once you learn how to do this, you will be forever free.” The answer to that riddle was “READ.” Reading will open countless door for you. The library is a powerful and important resource in your life that allows you access to so many books and new knowledge.
My hope for you is this: That you keep learning. Keep growing. Keep reading. Keep writing. Be kind. Be brave. Be flexible, persistent and empathetic. Our world needs you- your ideas, your perspective, your energy. I know you will do great things. I am counting on you to make our world a better place. I believe in you.
Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski