Last January I applied for a new teaching job. I’d been teaching middle school in the same small school for fifteen years, and I was ready for a change and a new challenge. After fifteen years in the same small community school where both of my daughters were students, just applying felt like a huge leap. I have always been someone who lacks confidence, who can raise self-doubt to an art form. In parent teacher conferences, teachers would say I “lacked confidence in my own abilities,” words I’ve written myself on the progress reports of countless students, aware of the echo of time and my own hypocrisy. Leaving the small nurturing community that had held me safe for my early adulthood felt terrifying. But I applied for the job and moved ahead with the process.
And then COVID hit.
Suddenly I was finishing out the school year from home, trying to learn how to teach online while also overseeing the homeschooling of my 7 and 11-year-old. I was learning new technology for the first time—Zoom, Google Hangouts, Google Classroom, Loom, Padlet. Oh, the sweet innocence of never having been on Zoom before and learning to create breakout rooms! It was a strange and disorienting time.
The application process for the new job continued. I submitted lesson plans. I had an interview—on Zoom, in my basement, wearing a nice top and jewelry paired with leggings (why not?). I got a job offer. I wondered about the wisdom of accepting it—would there be enough money in the budget? Would I get laid off before I started? Why was I walking away from stability at such an unstable time? Yet a voice inside urged me on, and I decided to take the risk and accept the job. I told my colleagues I wouldn’t be returning in September through phone calls and Zooms, and I mourned the end of one chapter of my life as I got ready to begin another.
The summer was spent preparing for my new job and the school year began fully remote. I got used to spending an entire day seated at my desk, staring at the computer screen, trying to connect with students and often feeling as if I was the only one in the room. Slowly, through the tiny squares of Zoom, in breakout rooms and in the chat, I got to know my students. When some students began coming into the building and into the classroom, I got used to teaching online while wearing a mask. Then we transitioned to a hybrid model, where some were in the building while others were at home. I learned to teach in a mask, online and in person, using a laptop, a desktop, a smartboard and a headset. The windows were open, the desks were spaced six feet apart, I had to teach from my desk so as not to get too close to anyone, and we needed to build in extra time to sanitize before and after class.
For the teachers out there, nothing I’m describing is surprising. This is a year where we all feel like first-year teachers and new hires. It’s a year where we all lack confidence in our own abilities, a year where we’ve gotten used to feeling unprepared while realizing that there’s really not much you can do to prepare for a pandemic. It’s a year where flexibility and the willingness to wade into unfamiliar situations is paramount. Yet it also feels as if this year there’s a little more gentleness and forgiveness , an unspoken understanding between us and the students, an acknowledgment that this is HARD and we’re all doing the best we can and some days will work better than others. It’s a year of trying new things, making mistakes, and chugging along. Every day I doubt myself. And every day I dust myself off and come back the next morning. And every teacher I know is doing exactly the same thing.
When I think about a future without COVID, naturally I also think about teaching without COVID. The freedom of teaching and learning without a mask, of teaching only “in real life” with the students in front of me. The ability to walk around my classroom without worry, to crouch beside a student’s desk to look at a piece of writing, to organize the tables into a circle for a class discussion. It all sounds so gloriously nostalgic and simple with my rose-colored glasses, even while I know that teaching is rarely simple and there were plenty of hard days in the classroom before COVID. Yet my hope is that the lessons from this year—of taking risks despite the fear—the inevitability—of failure, of the flexibility and enormous dose of patience and humility that this year has required, and the importance of being gentle and understanding with each other while we roll up our sleeves and do what needs to be done—my hope is that these will last long after the masks, finally, come off.