Teaching In A Pandemic: Learning To Unapologetically Set Boundaries

November 02, 2020
Frustrated Teacher

I don’t think there’s a word to adequately sum up the past 8 months. Since I’m an English teacher, I’ll offer an analogy: if teaching in a regular school year is driving on a smooth highway with some good friends, occasionally experiencing mild disturbances (light traffic, a little bit of road kill), then teaching in a pandemic is driving on a bumpy, turbulent, unfamiliar back road.

In the dark, totally alone.

With no GPS.

A few weeks ago, my lovely friend wrote a fantastic piece, praising teachers everywhere for their patience, passion and endurance amid an unprecedented and trying year. I will forever be grateful for the grace she so willingly extends to the teachers in her life. (If you haven’t had a chance to read her piece, take a peek here. It’s amazing).

If you are a fellow teacher, then you can truly understand the NUMEROUS challenges that this pandemic has thrust upon us. Let me illustrate a few of my own personal bumps in the road. If you relate to any, hopefully you can find comfort in knowing you aren’t alone.

1) A Wrong Turn

On March 13th, my district did a “hard close.” Imagine me that morning, clad in my nude wedges and naiveté. I excitedly introduced my students to our next book: a frightening memoir of a Holocaust survivor—a student favorite. I spent that day ambling around the classroom, listening in as groups chatted about what it means to be a victim and to feel hopeless. These were ideas their eager minds were beginning to entertain before we would fully immerse ourselves into the harrowing pages of a book that would shake up their worlds. Indeed their worlds were shaken up, albeit in a very different fashion. At 4 pm that same day, I received the unexpected news that schools would be shutting down until mid-April. Teachers would not be allowed to step foot in our classrooms for the next two weeks.

2) Losing Connection

Right after the close, my district informed us that we couldn’t use Zoom or any other face-to-face platform to resume teaching. So…we sat on our hands, feeling angry and helpless for the better part of two weeks. When we finally received direction, we felt disheartened to hear that no real teaching would occur for the rest of the year. During quarantine, I only heard from a handful of students despite my desperate attempts to connect with them. Everything that was so familiar—my career, my students, my classroom and routines—evaporated into thin air. I felt like I should have held a funeral for the sudden death of the school year. Unfortunately, with everything else to process at that time, I didn’t have a proper second to mourn what was literally ripped away from me.

3) Coming to Terms

Clearly, schools did not reopen in April. Or May. Or June. Which means I never got to read the memoir with my students or have enlightening conversations about hope, forgiveness, and perseverance. Additionally, we never got to act out Twelve Angry Men or make a playlist of our year or analyze that awesome Ashton Kutcher speech. No more First Chapter Fridays. No more turning and talking to side partners. I could only hope that some of my students were intrigued enough to crack open those first few pages of Night and breathe in a little bit of Elie Wiesel’s experiences and wisdom. I silently said goodbye to the 34 brand new books that were out on loan to my 3rd period class, knowing I probably wouldn’t see them again, cursing the fact that so much personal effort and money had gone into building my classroom library that year.

4) Coping With Stress

At the end of summer, information began to trickle in. The stress came slowly at first, and then so fast I felt like I was suddenly riding a high-speed train, desperate but unable to jump off. The anxiety became all-consuming. Emails began pouring in about what the new school year might look like, how teachers would need to prepare for teaching and what would be different. I was pelted with conflicting information and an absurd amount of links to trainings and resources that were supposed to help me prepare for teaching through a screen. Meanwhile, school would be starting in two weeks and I had not a clue how to use Zoom. I felt like a brand new teacher all over again: scared, unprepared and unsupported.

Teachers are not real-life Gumbys, able to twist and bend into whatever position is demanded of us at any given moment

The toxic positivity from administrators didn’t help. It’s as if my district thought that we teachers would happily read their maddening messages and let out a sigh of relief. Thanks, Principal Joe, for that super uplifting email telling me to celebrate the wins; it magically zapped the debilitating pressure and stress weighing on me like a 6-ton elephant. If you are anything like the superintendent of my district, you think teachers are real-life Gumbys, willing and able to twist and bend into whatever position you demand at any given moment. Because that’s what teachers do. That’s who teachers are. I call bullsh*t.

5) Going At It Alone

The most arduous part of the journey was the week leading up to school and the first couple weeks in. Learning how to work Zoom solely by zooming? Not ideal. At least a brand new teacher has a mentor—a guide to help her through the unique challenges that inevitably pop up throughout the year. Steering through distance learning in those beginning weeks felt like being plopped into a room all by myself and told to solve a mystery using only a few random pieces of evidence and no context whatsoever. And if I needed to ask for help? Well—only through Zoom of course.

6) Learning Hard Lessons

Beyond that, I was becoming acutely aware of a real lack of leadership and blatant disregard for teacher input within my district. To avoid sounding like a broken record (honestly because I’m sick of talking about it), I’ll simply say this: you can fight, beg, plead, protest, fill out surveys, complain, email the higher-ups, raise your voice again and again and guess what. The hard truth is that sometimes IT. WILL. NOT. MATTER. I’m not saying we shouldn’t fight for what we believe in, because we most definitely should. Like many frustrated teachers, I have attended two different protesting events in hopes of making my voice heard.

Teachers are often pawns in a chess game, and the power-hungry players are bathing in their own ignorance, oblivious and apathetic to the challenges and needs of the stakeholders

But a fair warning: do not continually put your faith into incompetent leaders and a system that doesn’t value its workers. All it will do is deplete your energy and turn you bitter. Fighting for a schedule change was my top priority when school started, but it didn’t seem to matter what the experts (teachers) thought. We are pawns in a chess game, and the power-hungry players are bathing in their own ignorance, oblivious and apathetic to the challenges and needs of the stakeholders. When you’re dealing with inept, prideful individuals whose main motives are money and saving face, you have no chance. Learning this lesson has been exhausting, but necessary.

7) Navigating The Trenches

The first month of teaching in this new setting brought endless questions that constantly plagued me. It seemed like nobody had answers. How will I take roll? What if students have their cameras off? How do I best help my deaf student? How many assignments do I give my students each week? What are breakout rooms? Do I make students take notes? Do they even have paper?? What if I hear a parent cussing in the background? How do I get students to interact with me and each other? Do I take points off for late work? Should I just be happy they turn anything in at all?? How am I supposed to teach my students AND my own children at the same time?!

I was literally being buried under burdens that were not mine to carry

Peardeck, Nearpod, Schoology, Flipgrid, Kahoot, iReady, Quizlet, Padlet, Screencastify: these are just a few of the bajillion learning platforms and programs that were suddenly ramming into me like angry killer bees. I didn’t want them there but I couldn’t escape them. It was all enough to make my head spin, figuring out how to utilize these programs in real time, not even one step ahead of my students. I had never felt so lost, so inadequate, so completely and utterly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information smothering me every hour of the day. I was literally being buried under burdens that were not mine to carry.

Did I mention I have a one year-old?

Facing A New Reality

And now, here I am. Eleven weeks in. Twelve? Every day I log on to Zoom and pretend to like my job. But I don’t like my job because I’m not actually doing my job. I didn’t attend college to sit at my kitchen table and talk to my computer. By the time I “teach” my last class of the day, I am checked out, as are my students.

Every day I feel like a robot droning on and in desperate need of a recharge. Little black squares are my audience; if I’m lucky, I see a face looking back at me. Usually during a break I will check Google Classroom to catch up on grading and see approximately 4 out of 28 assignments turned in. And this is usually after reminding students multiple times to not forget to do their ONE assignment for the week. Yep, that’s right: ONE. I significantly decreased the workload in hopes that grades would spike a bit. It’s the amount of work, I would tell myself. They aren’t used to doing so much work at home and that’s why half of them are failing.

Remote learning is the complete unraveling of a system that was already, at times, hanging by a thread.

But, unfortunately, after redirecting the ship, grades didn’t budge. It was at that point that I realized for the majority of students, distance learning isn’t working. It’s just not. We can’t blame the kids for their lack of work ethic because it’s not the kids; it’s the methods. Remote learning is the complete unraveling of a system that was already, at times, hanging by a thread.

Admitting Defeat

And you know what? I’m just gonna go ahead and say it: I reached my breaking point last week. After getting my hopes up for the umpteenth time about a potential schedule change…after countless hours outside of my contract spent planning, grading, emailing and trying to keep up with the constant demands forced upon me…after learning and re-learning an absurd amount of new platforms and procedures…and after realizing that I was breaking my back in hopes that someone, ANYONE, would meet me halfway…I hit a wall. I realized that I’m just a small fish in a BIG sea of sharks, grasping the harsh truth that I had been barely holding on as I tried to do everything and be everything for my family, my students, myself. And the payoff was non-existent.

I realized that I’m just a small fish in a BIG sea of sharks

When apathy took hold, I didn’t fight it. I didn’t even really question it. The realization came to me that maybe this is the point in the story where the heroine learns the REAL lesson. It’s a completely different one than what she thought she’d learn when she took that first shaky step into the unknown. I greeted rebellion, understanding for the first time that I could use it to my advantage, and that it’s ok to tell the toxic positivity to EFF OFF. Let’s face it, sometimes those little woodland animals do more harm than good.

Rerouting

My original plan was to keep my chin up, keep fighting, not give up. All well and good until that plan took an inevitable nosedive; I’m only a human being after all.

My new plan is to stick it to the man. To remind myself every day that I AM JUST ONE PERSON. To stop screaming into the void hoping someone will hear me and come save me.

This year is a wash, ya’ll, and I’m FINALLY admitting it. A lot of Ben & Jerry’s helped me get to this point.

Finding My Way

Will I keep showing up for my students? Yes. Will I continue to be a force for good in their lives, providing them with tough love and encouragement? Absolutely. Will I put my best effort into my lesson plans, even if they are a measly version of the real thing? YES. I can rise up to these tasks because they are woven into me as a teacher. THESE are the duties outlined in my job description. THIS is what I went to college for.

I will no longer break my back trying to stay in a game that doesn’t even make sense

But all the other stuff? The heavy, unnecessary and often tedious burdens that I tricked myself into believing were mine to carry? Peace out. Going forward in this current climate we are living in, I’m a bare minimum kind of gal: the girl who accepts that done is better than good, the teacher who shows up at 8:20 am and then disappears the second I tell my students “see ya next week.” I will no longer work on my precious weekends, stay up late grading half-assed assignments, feel guilty for not having the cutest bitmoji classroom, or repeatedly break my back trying to stay in a game that doesn’t even make sense.

Moving Forward

I’m not real-life Gumby or a pawn in a chess game, and I’m most definitely not a mom/wife/teacher with multi-tasking super-powers, happy to juggle a million balls in the air while dancing on a tightrope. I will no longer keep shrugging off negativity so that I can be seen as someone who’s “adaptable” and “go- with-the-flow.”

No.

When it comes down to it, I’m just a girl setting boundaries, learning her limits, and admitting that she ain’t cut out for this current reality. And honestly? I dig her.

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3 Comments

  1. Crystal Schiller

    I dig you too! You have far more important things to invest your time in besides a politically controlled system that cares nothing of the pawns in the game they control. Just another lesson in forgiveness. We are much greater than the system. It’s not who we are and truly has no affect on us. Maybe enough people will become fed up and the circumstances will change but I see a more important shift in heart taking place in our nation and a return to peace that is intensely spiritual and personal. Nothing on the outside is answering our hearts longing. It may be a time of great suffering on the outside but it is a time of greater awakening on the inside. Peace to you, sweet Lindsay!!!!

    Reply
    • Autumn

      Amen! Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I totally agree that the bigger issues lie with individuals working on themselves and inspiring/encouraging each other to do the same. You are such an example of that! “We are much greater than the system”…love that so much! YES WE ARE.

      Reply
  2. izle

    I really liked your article. Much thanks again. Really Cool.

    Reply

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