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The Power of Showing Up

Virtual Education

There is a sign on my classroom door with a line from Ron Swanson: “If you show up on time, speak honestly, and treat everyone with fairness, we will get along just fine.” I love it because it captures, to me, what it takes to learn and grow: show up; tell the truth in all ways, shapes, and forms; and treat everyone well. That’s what it’s all about, this teaching and learning thing.

I love my job. I talk about it incessantly. My students are “my kids.” I think about what and how to teach while I’m watching TV, reading a book, or playing with my toddler.

But this year?

I dread merely ​showing up​ to work, let alone engaging in the mental and emotional work that pandemic teaching necessitates. I wonder: ​Why should I, who dreads each day and frequently considers quitting, write about my pandemic teaching experience?

Maybe I should because it’s important to share how this year has affected someone who cares immensely about what she does and whom she does it for. I’ve sensed a growing resentment toward educators, and I’m not sure it’s warranted. I recently saw a Facebook post about a teacher who drove around on her own time, delivering Valentine’s cards to her students in the midst of heavy snow, and the caption lightheartedly asserted, “This is why teachers deserve more pay!” Heartwarming, right?

Oh, but the comments! “Nice, but it doesn’t mean she deserves more money.” “I wish my kid’s teacher would actually teach, that’s all.” “Our district’s teachers won’t even work!” “Teachers barely deserve what they get now.” “She’s teaching remotely? What a joke! How about they open schools so teachers will ACTUALLY teach?”

I typed, “Y’all really hate teachers, huh?” but quickly deleted it because… well, parents and teachers are on the same side, right? We love kids. We want what’s best for them. But there is so much I want people to know about teaching in a pandemic. It’s hard to hate from up close.

Teachers aren’t fans of remote or hybrid learning. We’re weary of the pandemic, too. We have little say on what the school year looks like; we are along for the terrible, nauseating ride, same as parents and students. We, too, have kids at home. We teach students while we take care of our kids. We, too, long for the day where things feel “normal” again. We’re ​working twice as hard​ in this ​hybrid model​, and we’re missing out on all the fun stuff, too.

So when I hear that teachers need to “go to work and actually teach,” I bristle because I’ve been going to work and teaching since August 5th. Some days I’m at home; some days I’m in my classroom, but every day, I show up and do my job as best I can and care for my students as if they were my own kids.

The response to COVID-19 in my county has been somewhat lackadaisical (“It’s no worse than the flu!”); thus, there is a divide in perspective between some parents and most teachers. Some parents push hard for full in-person learning, and of course, teachers want that, too. But we have asked to wait until we are fully vaccinated in order to avoid chaotic quarantines that disrupt the learning process. That’s been interpreted as “not wanting to do our jobs,” which is so far from the truth. I know at the heart of the tension is a desperation for normalcy and stability. We are all so tired.

Most people are not privy to what our day-to-day looks like, or the information we receive on a daily basis from the district that we have to process on the fly, or the new guidelines we must implement at the last minute. Nor are they privy to what goes through our minds or what we feel in our hearts as we bend over backwards to make this year possible. It’s also become apparent that most people are not aware of the pedagogy of our profession–what it takes to intentionally plan, prep, and pace our curriculum. Throw in a pandemic, and it’s near impossible to execute our jobs to the level we’d like to.

But we keep showing up. Maybe not in the way some people want us to or think we should. But we are.

I’ve never seen teaching as a thankless job until this year. I am burnt out because I care immensely about what I do and who I do it for. I’m burnt out because the way I love to teach is impossible due to protocols and guidelines that are necessary to keep us safe. I’m burnt out because students are burnt out. I’m burnt out from navigating uncharted territory and trying to make wise and informed choices that will protect my loved ones. I’m burnt out because the burden of staying home for almost a year is growing heavy.

I’m burnt out because I’m teaching, mothering, and existing during a global pandemic. My guess is, you’re burnt out, too.

Several of my colleagues across the US have confessed they, like me, have considered quitting this year. My colleagues are talented educators who love what they do and are knowledgeable and passionate about what they teach. Above all, they care about their students. But here we are, talking about quitting, and that is concerning because when good teachers want to quit, we should take note.

The ​Denver Post recently reported that 40% of Colorado teachers​ are considering leaving the profession due to low pay, health/safety concerns (which include the pandemic, gun violence, and mental health), and ever-increasing workload. Society sees public schools as a panacea, a cure for all societal ills, and places immense burdens on them, but when the time comes to fund schools accordingly or equip them to meet those needs, there is a resounding NO!

Public schools and teachers are not a panacea; we are a team of individual humans doing our absolute best to care for, teach, and engage students with the limited resources we have, and every year we are asked to do more with less. We are not miracle-workers; we are as hopelessly human as anyone else.

When I feel like maybe I’m going to break down (hopefully not ​during​ class, although there have been some close calls), I remind myself of the small joys of a “normal” year:

  • Kids eating lunch in my room. Loud laughter. Telling them to keep it down, ​geez​. Sweet notes left on my desk from kids who stop by to say hi.
  • Students picking the playlist while they work their butts off writing an essay. Giving them high-fives when they’re finished.
  • Seeing a student beam when they see how greatly their writing has improved.
  • And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the free Chick-fil-A and Starbucks kids would bring me.

It’s hard to experience all of that from behind a computer screen, hooked to a mic, in front of a webcam, with Google Meet links full of black squares instead of faces, and silence where there used to be rambunctious learning and conversation.

It is demoralizing to read the comments from people in my community blaming teachers. We all miss in-person learning, and parents have expressed their frustrations during our board meeting’s public comment sessions: “They need to suck it up and do their jobs. If they’re so scared of the virus, they can stay home! They’re lazy and don’t care about students or their learning!”

Lazy? Don’t care about students or learning? ​Ridiculous.

Ridiculous. A colleague recently hand-delivered books to students who were not able to get to the school library to check them out. Another spends an extra hour recording, editing, and uploading all lessons to Canvas every single day in case a student misses class.

Ridiculous. Science teachers are finding ways to do experiments amid COVID protocols, all while teaching half of their kids in person and half of them online.

Ridiculous. Colleagues are creating two different lesson plans per period per day so that students who are at home are as engaged and involved in the class as their in-person peers.

Ridiculous. Student council sponsors and student representatives are working round the clock to ensure our school events are as fun and engaging as possible despite all of the COVID restrictions.

Ridiculous. All day, we send emails: “I noticed you were not in the class Meet today. Is everything okay?” or “It looks like you didn’t finish the reading. Would you like a chance to retake the quiz?” and “Thank you for letting me know you’re struggling. How can I support you? Let’s get you healthy before we worry about missing assignments!”

Ridiculous. I can spend anywhere from 8 to 12 hours of my own time grading essays because I have to use my plan period to set up Canvas for my three courses instead of grading. Sounds easy enough, but it takes me hours because not all of my resources are easily “digitized,” and I have to ensure everything is equally accessible to both in-person and at-home learners for every class period. I often have to change lesson plans because what I do in a normal year won’t work with a hybrid model. Then, the last few minutes are spent setting up tech: the camera, the mic, my Meet link, and the projector screen so that all students can see the same content at the same time.) I’ll spend those 8-12 grading hours providing individualized feedback because that’s what leads to the best learning outcomes, even though it would take half the time just to issue a score and move on.

(Last year, I simply handed students the prompt and their notes and said, “Here’s your prompt! Get out a sheet of paper and begin. Good luck!” I could see their faces and offer help when they looked confused. When they’d finish, we’d chat about how they felt they did and what they’d do over the weekend. The bell would ring. I’d send them on their way and spend my plan period grading. Oh, the luxury! If I had to take some essays home, it’d be only two or three hours’ worth. The good ol’ days.)

All that to say: the pandemic has made our jobs harder, not easier. I know every job has overtime and “unpaid” hours. Teaching is not special in that respect. But until someone has tried their hand at real teaching during a year like this–ALL OF IT, the planning, prep, grading, and tending to students’ needs–I wish they’d hold off on calling teachers lazy.

Normally, teaching has balance and buoyancy in the day and small joys that make the stress manageable. All of that has been eclipsed by the glaring arduousness of preparing for class, anticipating what could go wrong with tech, facilitating discussion between in-person and online learners amid the awkwardness of hybrid learning, and tending to the emotional well-being of students who are struggling more than ever. Add on the fact that we have no idea who will be in person or online because students can choose on any given day, and you can imagine why it feels like my brain has as many tabs open as my Chrome browser. ​So many tabs everywhere. When I close my eyes, I see Chrome tabs, and I hear the Google Meet chat chime in my sleep.

Frequently, I ask questions in class to encourage discussion, only to be met with 20-30 little black, blank squares and total silence. No faces. No expressions.

“Sam, what did you think about the reading?”

Silence.
“Sam?”
Crickets.

“Did anyone do the reading that would like to chime in?”

Silence.

I smile and hold back a harsh tone or tears of frustration. On the fly, I revamp the lesson so it will work even if no one talks. ​Maybe a Jamboard instead of a discussion? I’ll throw one together real quick.

I try not to take it personally that yet another student decided it was not worth his time to attend class, that yet another group has either not done the reading or has deemed it pointless to contribute. ​You cannot save everyone, I tell myself. ​You can only love them​.​ ​These words from Anais Nin are my email signature for a reason because it’s hard not to take things personally in this profession.

When class is over, I double check attendance before my next class arrives, and I try not to be frustrated by the trends I see.

Sara has missed class everyday this week. I should check in.
Marco logged on for only ten minutes.
Samantha didn’t turn in the assignment. Five assignments in a row. Jeremy left 30 minutes early. He missed half the lesson!

Class ends. I do it all over again.

When I get home, I try not to think about the lesson that flopped or how few students turned in their work or how many students need more support that I don’t have the means to give. I could spend every evening working because there is always something more to be done, but I tell myself: ​This year of all years, no. You can’t fill from any empty cup.​ I talk with my husband, and I play with my son. I am many things in addition to ​teacher.

But when it’s time to go to sleep, there’s a gnawing pit in my stomach. ​I don’t think I can do this again tomorrow. I​ turn on a sleep meditation, take some deep breaths, and remind myself that thus far, I’ve made it through every rough day of this weird and weary year.

As hard as we try to make it so, this year is not normal. It’s not my fault, it’s not teachers’ fault—it just is. The sooner we accept this is our present but temporary reality, the sooner we can lean into the ebb and flow of this chaotic year and stop swimming against the current.

Teaching and learning are not linear. Sure, we have state standards and standardized tests and a “scope and sequence,” but it’s more complicated than that. It’s about dialogue and conversation,laughter, sarcasm, relationships based on trust and mutual respect, and learning from one another through trial and error, failures, mistakes, critical thinking, and asking the hard questions. When I reflect on the year, and when I breathe deeply enough to push aside the anxiety and the fatigue, I realize:

None of that good stuff is missing from this weird and weary year. It’s just harder to see.

Is it as fun as a normal year? No. As efficacious? No. Is it harder in every way for students, parents, teachers, and administrators? Definitely.

But the dialogue and conversation, the laughter, trust, mistakes, and hard questions… it’s all there. Learning is happening. Teaching is happening. There is so much out of my control–the pandemic, politics, public opinion about what teachers are or are not. But at the end of the day, my students are learning, and so am I.

After 8th period one day, a student stayed after class on the Meet and said, “Mrs. Faletra, I just wanted to say thank you.”

“Oh! For what?”

“For this lesson and choosing this text. It’s fascinating, and I’m learning so much! I wanted to thank you for picking something that is relevant to us.”

Reader, I cried.​ I don’t know if he sensed I needed encouragement or if it was just serendipity. I had chosen the text at the eleventh hour after another teacher had posted it in an online teacher group. I read it, was immediately engrossed, and decided to change my unit plans to fit around it. It was risky—a challenging text that would either fully engage them or fully turn them off. If they could grapple with the complexity, it just might invigorate those of us who’d fallen into a funk.

I showed up, and I hoped students would, too. And they did!

My student reminded me what happens when we show up, even when we don’t know how it’s going to go. He showed up; he learned. He showed up again when he took the time to say ​thank you​ to a tired teacher who needed to be reminded why she loves her job.

So I’ll show up. Even if I need a day off to rest, I’ll show up tomorrow.

I’ll show up weary, but I’ll show up.
I’ll show up and teach a mediocre lesson, but I’ll show up.
I’ll show up a bit grumpy, but I’ll show up.
I’ll show up and deal with tech issues, quarantine chaos, ever-changing schedules, and WiFi woes, but I’ll show up. Students will show up and miss assignments, but they’ll show up.

A kid will log in the Meet and fall asleep or go play video games instead of engaging in class, there’s no doubt–but for every one of those students, there are ten that’ll show up and say, “Hi, Mrs. Faletra! How are you?” and “Thank you!” on their way out.

For every student who doesn’t do the reading, there are ten who do and will learn something new.

For every student who struggles to show up and engage, there’s a story, and I can choose to show up for them in whatever way I can.

Most nights, I still feel the pit in my stomach hollow and deepen, and I don’t feel I can show up in the way I need to. I’m still burnt out. I’m still tired of the uncertainty and the lack of control I have. That is my reality, and I accept it and will tend to it.

And for every night that I think, ​I don’t think I can do this again,​ I can follow it up with,​But I’ll show up in whatever way I can.

AUTHOR: Kelsey Faletra

Kelsey Faletra is a high school English/Language Arts teacher living in Colorado with her husband of 10 years and their almost two-year-old son. She is passionate about literacy, education, and empowering students to think critically about what they see and what they read and helping them find balance and peace in an unbalanced, chaotic world. When she is not teaching or thinking about teaching, she loves yoga, reading, writing, bingeing her favorite shows, and basking in the Colorado sunshine.

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