BY 2019-2020 PA TEACHER OF THE YEAR AND PTAC MEMBER MARILYN PRYLE
While we all try to navigate the new educational landscape we find ourselves in, the most important thing to remember is perhaps the most obvious: It is not the old educational landscape.
This may seem painfully apparent to you right now, but are you really accepting that fact, deep down? As my district begins to move into online learning modes, I, along with several of my colleagues, have wondered how we could pick up the old pace, teach all that needs to be taught, and learn every possible online platform while planning for full lessons.
This is, of course, impossible. The old pace is gone, along with the dreams of what we had planned to cover this year. And we are slowly, stumblingly, finding our way around a website here, a Zoom meeting there. We are stunned, confused, and overwhelmed. And that’s just at the intellectual level. Emotionally, we are heartbroken and terrified.
Everything is different, and we have to learn to let it all go. Samantha Neill, a member of the Kansas Teacher Taskforce, said it best when she visited PTAC last week: “This is not regular ed. It’s emergency ed.” We are not sailing along in the third quarter of our former classrooms. We’re clinging to life rafts in some kind of time-warp.
This is especially difficult for teachers because we absolutely need to be good at our jobs. We became teachers because we know what it means to change lives through helping kids grow. We are passionate, committed professionals. We are experts, both in our content and in our pedagogy. And on top of all this, many of us are perfectionists. We like planning, preparing, organizing, and generally controlling our worlds. It’s what makes us so good. It’s why teaching is such a perfect fit for us.
We’re used to giving 100%, and we’re used to seeing some returns on that effort. We wrote, and rewrote, curriculum. We planned out the space of our classrooms to reflect our educational philosophies and most efficient learning strategies. We had reading corners, math stations, and collaboration tables. We curated books for classroom libraries and created all manner of materials.
And now? The physical space is gone. The curriculum is up in the air. Many of us do not yet have the green light to assign or assess anything. We’re still giving 100%—I’m exhausted at the end of each day—but I’m not sure where or how. And many of us are teaching our own children at home or caring for family members. Everything feels jumbled. Our former lives of defined spaces and predictable bells have disappeared.
We feel robbed of the currency that once defined us—our ability to command a group, to connect one-on-one, to juggle 50 tasks at once, to plan a great lesson and execute it, to attend a meeting and then teach and then grade, to create the space for those quiet, miraculous moments when a student understands something new. This what we were trained to do and what we have honed through experience. True, these things can theoretically happen online, but how? In what form?
I am incredibly sad at the loss of all this. And yet I know I must let it go. I know I must practice compassion as I work through the excruciating acceptance of our new reality, but it’s difficult. I have found myself telling myself, and others, “It’s okay, go slow, go easy on yourself. Lower the bar.” Lower the bar? Go easy on myself? These are thoughts I would have never permitted before March 13th. It pains me to think them.
But this is exactly what we must do. As good as we are, we must scale back. We must let go of the need to control that makes us so effective. It feels unnatural and wrong. It feels like cheating. But we have no choice if we are to care for our students and ourselves in the way that is needed during this scary, agonizing time. This is not regular education; it’s emergency education.
We can perhaps take this time to reflect on our very identity as teachers and people. Now that it feels like we’ve lost everything as teachers, who are we? What kind of teacher am I without my beloved whiteboard and bean bagged reading corner? Who am I without my colored folders and organized bins? When all is taken away, what is left of this teacher-self I have so carefully created? And how can that essential self, stripped of all its bells and whistles, connect with students, who are also feeling incredibly vulnerable and alone?
These are the questions I will be contemplating. For me, the answers have to do with a conviction about how learning creates better human beings, and how literature plays a role in our understanding of ourselves as humans in a long, long line of other humans. It has to do with a belief that reading and writing can save the world. Certainly, we have not lost everything: We have our passion for learning, we have our love for students and humanity. We have each other. And we have every bit of the expertise that we have worked so hard to gain.
We will persevere. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, sad, and mostly ineffective, it’s okay. Go slow. Cut back. Take it easy on yourself and simply be present to your students in whatever way you can. It’s alright if you’re not perfect for a while.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee