Finding the Sweet Spot Between Passion and Powerlessness (As a Teacher and a Mom In the Time of Covid)

I write today with some heaviness on my heart, feeling equal parts passionate and powerless. This is because I’m a teacher (and a mother) in the time of Covid-19. I am coming up on my fourteenth year of teaching, and I truly cannot imagine being in any other profession. But with all of the uncertainty swirling around me at this confusing time, I cannot easily pinpoint my feelings regarding what will most likely transpire in the fall. All I know is that I feel a lot like a snow globe; just when my feelings start to settle and I make peace with what is, I read or hear something that shakes me to my core, and I have to work super hard to find my equilibrium all over again. (Recently I purchased the book Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday just so I can learn and implement some of the tips and wisdom he offers about training your mind like the Stoics did. Heaven knows I can use some new tricks, because the anxiety that plagues me each night as I try my best to fall asleep, and then again in the morning while I am waking up, cannot be my new normal.) Humans aren’t made to operate in a climate of confusion with all of our control settings turned off, so it’s no wonder I and so many others are focusing extra hard on leaning into regulating our thought patterns while working against such an unreliable force. This stuff is NOT for the faint of heart, and I know I am not alone in how I feel.

Despite the constant criticism or offhand remarks teachers receive regarding our profession, we carry on like warriors in the trenches because we care, and we put up with a lot of crap because deep down we know that the sacrifices we are making are more than worth the hardships we face in a broken education system.

Earlier today I read something that got me all sorts of fired up; thus, the passion I currently feel. It was an open letter written by a teacher in Texas illustrating all the ways she felt teachers are undervalued and underpaid, and yet are constantly making sacrifices for students because nobody else will. I found myself nodding in agreement as I consumed her words, understanding that teachers do these things because we see our students every day and therefore we KNOW them. Despite the constant criticism or offhand remarks teachers receive regarding our profession, we carry on like warriors in the trenches because we care, and we put up with a lot of crap because deep down we know that the sacrifices we are making are more than worth the hardships we face in a broken education system. The problem, as this teacher went onto explain, is that all of a sudden politicians and parents are pushing for school to reopen in the fall without regard for the very people who keep school running and functioning effectively—the teachers. Suddenly, teachers are feeling endangered and afraid for their own health, and this time they can’t so easily accept that their sacrifices will be worth it as they have regarding other matters in the past. Now, teachers are being asked to literally sacrifice themselves. Although I myself am one who would like return to in-person teaching and learning, I deeply empathize with the many teachers who don’t feel safe and therefore aren’t comfortable bending to the demands that are currently being placed upon them, at least not without a fight. And no, it’s not because they are lazy or want to get out of doing their job while still getting paid. The fact of the matter is, we are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic with an uptick of cases surging across the nation. Nobody is immune and nobody knows what’s right; we are all just doing the best we can with the circumstances we have been dealt. But the argument is that kids need to go back to school, right? (YES!) So obviously teachers need to be the ones to willingly stick out their necks for the good of all. (Wait what? NO!)

My question is: what happens when all the teachers disappear?

After a little bit of time, it seems that hopelessness always overpowers my passion. It’s like I’m on a rollercoaster, and at the peak of the ride is when I feel allll the feelings. It could be anger, frustration, curiosity, even hope. Whatever specific emotion reveals itself on the outer layer, passion is always at the core because I feel myself caring very much. Sometimes this manifests itself in physical ways: I start to sweat, my heart starts to pound, I feel myself shaking, and most commonly, I run to my husband and start loudly venting or asking random questions that seem to catch him totally off guard. This is not a new phenomenon for me; for years I have raged with fiery fury at the many injustices, hardships, and just plain annoyances I and many other teachers have consistently dealt with through the span of our careers. It doesn’t last long though, because reality always sinks in and reminds me that schools are run by “the man,” and therefore teachers’ voices are not and never will be valued. This is when my powerlessness makes its appearance and the temporary high wears off. The rollercoaster ends, my passion fades away, and I accept that it’s me against an invisible and very powerful force (that looks a lot like men in suits somewhere in Sacramento). My colleagues and I learn to accept this feeling and we always move on, quietly returning to our classrooms, shutting the doors, and keeping afloat through the mere will to make a difference. When nobody is in our sacred space breathing down our necks, some of the hopeless feelings fall away, and we find comfort in our students, trusting ourselves to continue doing the work that is so often flippantly disregarded by the people “out there.” That is how we are able to keep treading.

But now, my hopelessness has reached an all time low. Before I could smile and nod and then return to the haven that the four walls of my classroom offered me; now there is no retreat, no escape from unfair demands and frankly, pure chaos unfolding everywhere I turn. I am no longer simply at the mercy of administrators and politicians. I am, in fact, at the mercy of a harsh and relentless virus that is literally forcing governance and institutions to fall on their knees or completely crumble away. Beyond that, being a mother of three small children (two school-aged) means that often these hopeless feelings wiggle their way into the corners of my brain, forcing me to surrender to the “what-ifs” and “I-wish’s” that have always been my foundation. It takes a lot of effort to shake away the perfect portrait of how I envisioned this school year to look for my children and me. Because I have no say in what I desperately want for them, I feel helpless and sad.

When nobody is in our sacred space breathing down our necks, some of the hopeless feelings fall away, and we find comfort in our students, trusting ourselves to continue doing the work that is so often flippantly disregarded by the people “out there.” That is how we are able to keep treading.

I feel like we are all just little blind mice, skittering this way and that as we try to find some safety and security amidst a terrible storm, but as we try desperately to locate refuge, we keep bumping into each other, knocking each other down and becoming more and more tired and annoyed in our manic efforts to simply find peace, stay calm, and make sense of our surroundings. We are literally running in circles, getting nowhere fast. We feel aimless and forlorn, wishing more than anything that we could receive some clear guidance about our next right moves. It is downright painful to be a human right now, let alone a teacher and a mother (whom also happens to be deeply sensitive and empathetic.)

So clearly, my emotions are all over the board. While I feel much trepidation walking into a new school year that will look very different from what I’m used to, all while trying to imagine how I will maintain my sanity as I navigate homeschooling yet again (except this time everything actually counts), the ONLY thing I can do right now is breathe, focus on the present, and choose joy. Spending a lot of time in my head, inviting in noise and opinions of the world, and obsessively worrying about the future do nothing except rob me of the present, and the present is truly all I have. If I relent to my fear, I lose control. On the other hand, if I wade through these murky waters with the goal to stay afloat, I can concentrate solely on placing one foot in front of the other, choosing to be hopeful that I’ll come out on the other side a stronger person simply for crossing the river.

I pray that we all keep this perspective while we work to find the wonderful sweet spot between heated passion and utter powerlessness—I think it looks something like simply being. Here’s to learning what life looks like when we merely exist in the moment and trust that our souls have everything it takes to endure to the glorious end.  Pandemic or not, we can do hard things.

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