I remember my first day of teaching in New Haven 33 years ago, when my classroom wasn’t ready and I was left to teach in an auditorium alongside three other classes of students and their teachers. My seventh graders sat in the long rows of theater seating while I stood a couple of rows in front of them trying to keep their attention from drifting to the other groups of students scattered around the auditorium. I was grateful for my colleagues who gave me the confidence I needed to adjust to this unique start to my career.
I remember my first day of teaching in Bolivia in 1990. The room had just been converted from the old PE equipment shed to a classroom adjacent to the gym. There was torrential tropical rain that day, and I could barely hear my own voice as I tried to scream above the echoes of drops hitting the corrugated roof. I had never experienced such an intense and deafening downpour, but to my students this was nothing new. When waterfalls of rain started pouring down the walls inside of the classroom, I rushed the class to the gym and taught in the bleachers. I was grateful for the calmness of my students and the custodians who came to my aide and drained the flooded classroom.
On another first day of school in Pawcatuck, Connecticut, all was going well. The skies were clear, I had a real classroom with plenty of supplies, and I was excited to meet my new students. While reading a story out loud during a morning class, I was struck by a sudden bout of dizziness. With just a few minutes left in the period, I sat on a stool in front of the class, held on with one hand, and finished the class. As students exited the room, I grabbed the stool with both hands while smiling and answering questions, grateful that I had a free period coming up. By the time I made it to the bathroom, I could hardly walk straight and immediately began to throw up. The nurse sent me home where I stayed in bed and vomited the rest of the day. I would miss the first three days of school that year, diagnosed with some unknown virus, but my colleagues checked in on me and took care of my class.
Teaching During Pandemics
I’ve had some interesting first days of school over the years, but what could prepare me for 2020? Face masks, shields, hybrid learning, distance learning, mask breaks, and social distancing are just a few of the obvious challenges I will encounter this year. One of my biggest worries is being effective at teaching two groups of students simultaneously, one online and one in front of me, socially-distanced. How do I keep everyone engaged?
The harder part of going back to school this year, however, is knowing that we are all dealing with more invisible signs of the times we are in. We are in the midst of at least three pandemics. Besides COVID-19, the economic crisis has greatly affected many of my students and their families. And our country has become more aware of the centuries-long pandemic of racism since the killing of George Floyd in May. Some students are suffering the traumatic effects of all three pandemics. How can I make geography relevant when students are worried about whether or not their family can pay the rent or if it’s safe to walk outside?
The students that left school on March 13 will return in the midst of these pandemics having been impacted by them in ways that they might not even understand. This year will be my most challenging year, not because I have to wear a mask or teach via Zoom, but because we are all experiencing trauma from these events.
The Power of Hope
There are so many things to worry about during these times, but there are also so many reasons for hope.
The pandemics have given me opportunities to learn from and connect with educators across the country through webinars, classes, and book clubs. We share successes and failures as we teach during these crises. I have folders on my Google Drive full of great new lessons and resources specific to these times. Our struggles now will make us more effective teachers in the future.
“The greatest glory in living lies not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail.”Nelson Mandela
As in the past first-day challenges, I also have hope because I know my colleagues and I will support each other. The custodians who are keeping the building safe, the cafeteria staff who serve kindness and encouragement along with each meal, the paraprofessionals who often work multiple jobs but still come in each day with a smile, the bus drivers, teachers, administrators, mental health staff – we will all do our best for the students and each other. We will meet our students with mask-covered smiles and work together as we face the unknown while dealing with the trauma of the past.
Tomorrow will be my 34th first day of school as a teacher, and I am confident that my students will help me deal with the trauma of these times just as I will try to help them. The energy and enthusiasm of middle school students is my greatest source of hope. I’m scared and anxious, but I cannot wait to get back in the classroom!