I am pretty sure there were tears in the classroom.
It wasn’t the first time and won’t be the last.
They were real. They were mine.
You know when you are in the middle of your classroom, midway into a lesson, and a thought hits? It was surreal to say the least as it happened on our first day back after another 6+ weeks of lockdown learning due to COVID 19. I was so proud of my students. Suddenly, thoughts of how hard they have worked through all of the ups and downs, changes, models, and separations that have been pieced into this school year.
Is it raining in here?
My students knew something was up because they all became really quiet. They are usually quite vociferous. Not that day. Perhaps the collective breath we had all been holding onto since Dec 18th was simlutaneously exhaled; we were in each other’s presence again. As often is the case, we were in the middle of a conversation about life. This one was about acts of kindness, and I shared a video from Thai Life called Unsung Hero.
The video tells the story of a person who does little acts of kindness for others, and how those simple gestures impact their lives. The narrator reads through the spot saying how the giver will not get anything in return, be richer or become famous. The only reward will come from witnessing the happiness in sharing simple acts of kindness.
It was at some point in the video when I thought about all of the grace and kindness of the students in my class, at my school, and around the world who have had their educational lives disrupted beyond anything in recent memory that could not be attributable to war or natural disasters. Where was their recognition for coping through all of this? I thought about the trust with which so many of the students whom I teach were able to transition to temporary education on-line, show up everyday, engage, continue to learn, and then at the flip of a switch show up for in person classes only having missed a few beats. In that moment I felt such appreciation for all that they have gone through this year all without complaint or disengagement. What kept them coming back with such positivity when there was so much uncertainty?
I thought about all of the students who couldn’t return to in person learning as well. I thought of everyone who struggled and continues struggling to turn their cameras and microphones on everyday for virtual school. Whether it has been the result of inequitable access to technology and reliable WiFi, or that they could not stand to stare into a glass plate for 6 to 8 hours a day any longer. I thought of the students and teachers who are slipping through the cracks because they cannot hold on to emailed messages of “Your mental health matters”, “Stay strong”, “We are here to help”, and “We appreciate you” as their only safety harnesses while dangling over the edge of depression, frustration, and anxiety in the virtual classroom.
I saw how brave my students have been to return with such positive attitudes, knowing that they would be cohorting, masking, sanitizing, listening to lessons muffled by masks and shields, eating lunch with 15 to 20 others at the same time, and trusting that the adults in their lives have made all of the right decisions on their behalf. I knew that these moments were happening in thousands of classrooms at the same time. It was in that moment, I could not help but be proud, humbled, inspired, and worried for them all at the same time. There were tears in my classroom that day.
What caused my brief waterworks could be chocked up to a mix of joy and exhaustion. Joy that we were back in the classroom together. Exhaustion because despite misinformation to the contrary, not only is syncronous learning online physically exhausting, but it comes with the added unjoyment of being mentally exhausting too. Teaching to 20+/- essentially (e)motionless emojis exacts everything of the educators who had to pivot to online learning during this round of lockdowns. Long term syncronous instruction online, in its current iteration, is unsustainable when it comes to the mental health of students and educators.
There has already been an incredible cost to all of this and that bill will need to be paid in full at the expense of the future. I am frightened that it will come at the expense of the social and emotional wellbeing of our communities. I fear what the default model of pandemic learning will do to us all if left in place. I fear it will not only serve as another social divide by widening disparities of equity, opportunity, and privilege, but as a wedge into the longterm wellbeing of families, our youth, and those who teach them.