The Not-Lost Year.

I keep waiting for journalists to write the stories I’ve seen and lived this past year—teachers, students, secretaries, administrators, custodians, cafeteria workers, parents, and anyone else who supports a functioning school—the stories about all these people who have performed the Sisyphean task of keeping schools open during a pandemic.

I keep waiting for journalists to write the stories of kids who showed up in the face of fear of a virus and wrote papers, solved math problems, prepared for AP tests, took college classes, worked jobs, played sports, put on musicals and concerts.

Yet here we are, at the end of the 2020-2021 school year and I see story after story of learning loss.

And while this year has been anything but normal, there are thousands of stories of students and teachers who saw success.

Was it traditional success? Sometimes.

Did some of us redefine what success looked like? Sometimes.

Did every student succeed? Depends on the metric being used.

Here’s what I know: from teaching in person since August 13, every day I saw some success. A kid took a great photo, or wrote a perfect caption. A kid asked a compelling question. A kid created something beautiful. A kid wrote a story that mattered. A kid took a risk and soared.

My classes were smaller than they’ve ever been my entire career, but every single kid succeeded at something—even if some days it was just getting out of bed and hauling themselves through a too-long school day.

Was this a lost year? For some, perhaps. But what truly mattered in my teaching and in my students’ learning was crystallized. What I needed them to know came into sharper focus. I wouldn’t count that as a loss.

Maybe instead of feeding a narrative about a lost year, a stolen year, we can reexamine the metric that shifts the narrative: we survived a pandemic, and kids still learned. We survived a pandemic, and teachers still taught. We survived a pandemic, and teams still won championships.

We survived a pandemic, and my newspaper staff still published a damn paper.

We survived a pandemic, and Stueve’s yearbook staff still published a book.

We survived a pandemic, and our tiny staff still broadcast over 30 live events.

It wasn’t a normal year, not by a long shot. But success stories are out there.

Go find them.

A peek inside my COVID-19 life.

Every ten days or so, I bring home a reusable tote bag stuffed with microfiber cloths. These cloths have been sprayed with a disinfectant and then used to wipe down the mice and keyboards in the lab I share with Mr. Stueve.

We could just spray directly on the keyboards and mice—and we used to—but it leaves a sticky film that irritates the students, so we started cleaning this way, after every class that uses the computers, and haven’t heard many complaints since.

Though maybe they are keeping the complaints to themselves.

Our custodial staff is amazing, and they make sure that we never run out of the cleaners that we need (one for the tech and fabric chairs, a different one for the desks). We have a steady supply of gloves so that our hands don’t have to touch the cleaner. They fog our room every night. They are each performing Herculean sanitizing tasks, and I worry about the toll on their health.

But the smell of the cleaner—it does something to me.

When I put those cloths in my car, I can’t escape the smell, and that’s when I start to glimpse the toll teaching face-to-face in a pandemic has taken on me. I’ve heard that the sense of smell is tied most to memory, and the memories associated with this cleaner aren’t entirely pleasant.

I wash them—twice, to try and rid the stench—and then I use homemade vinegar and lavender oil dryer sheets to try and make a dent. When I fold them, I take a random cloth and see if anything has worked. The scent is more faint, but it’s still there.

On the bright side, it’s a good test for my own efforts to avoid getting COVID-19 (haven’t lost my sense of smell yet).

I’ve seen a lot in my social media feeds in recent weeks about mental health of students who’ve been remote learning now for nearly a year. Groups are clamoring for students to return to the classroom, citing mental health as a key reason.

The stories I’m currently missing, though: what about the mental health of students who returned to face-to-face instruction last August? What about the mental health of their teachers?

Mental health is a public health issue, pandemic notwithstanding. Sending kids and teachers back to school isn’t going to solve it. I’m sad that so many people seem to think it will.

Because I’m here to tell you—when I walk down the hallway to the lab after Mr. Stueve has cleaned it, and the scent of that cleaner permeates two layers of a cloth mask and a five-layer mask filter, my stomach churns. When I open the washing machine full of microfiber cloths and am overpowered with the cleaner odor, my heart starts to race. Those are physiological reactions that I usually associate with my fight or flight response.

I can’t wait to never smell this again, and I worry what will be triggered if I ever do.

If I’m thinking it…

I told a class this week that if they were thinking of a question or comment, chances are that at least two other people were thinking something similar, so they should speak up. In that same spirit, in case you have sneaky moments that untether you from any stronghold you’ve been able to anchor yourself to, here you go.

I figure if I was thinking it, at least one other person out there is too.


Comparison is the thief of joy, so goes the saying, and yet…

We are in a pandemic where I feel I need to give so much grace to my students and yet…

I want someone to pull me aside and tell me it’s all okay, that everything will be okay, and yet…

(Not that I would even listen to or believe them because the evidence feels overwhelming that nothing is okay.)

Sometimes you have to remind yourself to find the wins and remember that they are, in fact, wins.

Sometimes you have to wear metaphorical horse blinders, you just cannot look around at what others are doing, how you perceive others are succeeding while you feel you are failing, and instead ask yourself, “is today just incrementally better than yesterday?”

Sometimes you have to write the advice you’d give if someone came to you distraught, despondent, discouraged, and remind them–and yourself:

You’re doing the best you can.

Perception is rarely reality

The people who matter are on your side.

It’s all okay, everything will be okay.

Hi, October.

“How many of you thought we’d still be in school on October 1?” I asked my first class during the break we take in our 100 minute time together; twice as long as usual to minimize passing periods in hopes of managing the spread of coronavirus.

No one raised a hand, and several students slowly shook their heads.

Apparently, not many of us expected we would still be in school. So I asked a second question.

“How many of you started school thinking it would last about two weeks and then you’d be home again?”

Again, no hands went up but several heads nodded.

“Me too. I didn’t think we would make it this far. And I think that’s why we might be feeling a little off. Anyone else feeling bad vibes when they’re here?”

Nodding heads.

And then I told them—I think we all need a paradigm shift.

I know I started the year without my usual plans or excitement. The new protocols are mostly manageable, but are exhausting at times. I told myself I could handle things “until we go remote,” thinking it would happen within the first month.

Yet today, I made folders in my Google Drive for Week 8 of lesson plans.

We’re here, pals. And for what looks like the duration.

September felt incredibly bleak for me. The inconsistent weather, the “will-we-or-won’t-we” undercurrent regarding staying in school, not seeing friends or family because who knows what I’m carrying around on my skin, wondering if every cough or general malaise meant a 14-day quarantine—just bleak.

But there is something about seeing the calendar flip to a new month that always makes me feel some motivation to change. To shift the paradigm set by the previous month.

So that’s what I plan to do.

I think I’ve shared the Action for Happiness people before, but I’m sharing it again. If you’re pulling yourself out of similar doldrums, check out their app or their calendar, which has small things to do every day that might make your October a bit brighter.

Today’s action is write down your most important goals for the month. So here goes.

  1. Stop waiting for a shut down that might never happen (a.k.a. set up your damn desk finally).
  2. Revisit the “rewirements” from the Science of Well-Being class. Implement at least 3 a day.
  3. Do the daily mindfulness challenges from the Educator’s Health Alliance.

And because I didn’t want to lose my initial momentum, I went ahead and set up my damn desk today.

The desk in one of my classrooms. I hesitated to set it up for two months. Figured it was time.

Grieving.

I woke up this morning to lots of dread. The days of me being able to control my exposure to Covid-19 are waning, and that reality is starting to hit me. After a summer of trying really hard to err on the side of positivity, of hoping leaders will do what’s best, I broke. I sat in my bed and sobbed.

Lately on Sundays, I have a bit of a different worship routine—I listen to one of Kate Bowler’s podcasts, followed by an episode of the Evolving Faith podcast, before tuning into church on Facebook Live. I’m behind on Bowler’s podcasts, and realized this morning I had missed one from last May, not long after Rachel Held Evans died. The topic was grief and her guest, Reverend Dr. Susan Dunlap, reminded listeners of disenfranchised grief.

I wrote about such grief a couple of years ago, as it relates to grieving the children I would never raise, but this morning it took on a different meaning. There is no societal recognition of the grief I feel facing down an unknown school year. There is no societal recognition of the grief I feel knowing my class sizes will be smaller, knowing that there is a possibility my colleagues and students might get sick—and not fully understanding the long-term consequences of such an illness. And no societal recognition of the grief I feel for how much my job is changing this school year.

Two hours after I listened to Bowler’s podcast, I tuned in to church, and the sermon was about grief.

(God is something else, amirite?)

Today’s sermon was delivered by Rev. Debra McKnight, and her words about grief reminded me that grief is a necessary human reaction that shouldn’t be reserved for losing a loved one. Paraphrasing here: she reminded me that we can grieve loss, tension, and life just being difficult. And grief is something we must honor and give its place if we want to move forward into healing.

I start back to school this week, first with schedule pickup, then my first full day of work time on Friday. Next Monday is the first day with all staff. We are moving forward with a plan that has unknown outcomes. The unknown is hard, this moment is hard, and if grieving helps me—or my students, friends, parents, colleagues—move forward, then please don’t deny that grief. Don’t default to toxic positivity and inundate us with platitudes. Don’t tell us to “get over it.” Sit with those educators and students in your life that right now might be feeling grief. Acknowledge their fear of the unknown. Support them how they need to be supported—which looks different for everyone. (For me, it’s usually memes and potatoes in any form.)

But I agree with the reverend: to move toward healing, we must first give place for the grief.