“Miss, I am sorry but I can’t attend class tonight. My mom has been out of work and we just got kicked out of our apartment. I don’t know what will happen and we may have to go back to the DR. I am very sorry to miss class again but can you please let me know what work I can do so I do not fall behind?”
I read through the email twice and sighed with frustration. Not frustration at the student but for the student. I knew this nineteen year old’s mom had lost her job because of Covid and while she was trying to find work, her oldest son stayed home during the day to watch his younger siblings and took night school classes in the evenings.
This was not the first such email I had received from a student. They varied in detail but the message was the same: “I am carrying more weight for my family than I have ever carried before, and I don’t know how to make it all work.”
I don’t know anyone whose life over the past two years has been easier than it was before March of 2020. Our daily struggles with loneliness, loss, sickness, financial worries, addiction, and grief have been magnified through months of isolation, disconnection, and uncertainty.
As a teacher I have seen students supporting their families in ways they never expected while still showing up for class. For some students, showing up was all they could do; a black box on my screen that voiced “here” when attendance was taken, and then silence for the next eighty minutes. What could I do? I asked myself that several times a day. I can’t solve their problems, but is there anything that could be done to alleviate their pain and fear as their world of certainties comes crashing down?
Structure - that’s what I can give them. Structure, routine, and maybe even distraction from their lives by teaching history, telling them engaging stories that take them to another time and place.
This didn’t quite seem right. Yes, all of these things are incredibly important in the classroom whether the world is on fire around us or not. It just didn’t seem like the answer I was searching for.
I thought about what I would ask of others in my life. Here I was a grown, educated, professional woman with a strong network of friends and family and yet I was still overwhelmed by the heaviness of my struggles. What could others give me that would make me feel seen and supported?
This single word encompasses so much.
What I Can Offer
I can give them grace, understanding, and the benefit of the doubt. I can assume that each student is doing their best, whatever it looks like at that moment. Of course there will be some who take advantage of this, who are able to do the work, to show up for class, to participate, and still choose not to. But how can I possibly make that judgment call when I don’t know the details of their home lives, of their mental health, or of their support systems?
So that’s what I did. I extended deadlines, I accepted extremely late work, I did not push anyone to use their cameras, I listened when students spoke to me of their lives. I just assumed that everyone was struggling more than usual and needed a little extra humanity more than they needed to learn history.
Helpful Resources for Teachers
Having a unique teacher perspective during the pandemic encouraged me to research what it means to have grace, what self care really is, and how we can give that not just to others, but to ourselves as well. Some of the resources I found to be helpful include this article from Unicef on what self care means in the classroom and how to avoid burnout when you are constantly pouring from an empty cup, something teachers are prone to do. Additionally, it is crucial for school leadership to acknowledge the difficult situation teachers are in as they attempt to navigate a completely new school environment (online, in-person, a hybrid version of the two, and the fact that the pandemic has markedly changed our students and their needs). Edutopia also has useful resources for teachers and administrators to navigate this new world of education. Probably the most helpful for my colleagues and me has been the “informal” networking that has occurred: talking to friends, finding social network groups, finding others in a similar position and listen as you each share your stories of triumphs and struggles in and out of the classroom.
One of the biggest takeaways from my time Covid teaching is the realization that what schools need during a pandemic is actually what schools have needed for a long time: healthy, realistic expectations of teachers and administrators; smaller (and by extension more productive and manageable) class sizes; consistent access to technology for all students; increased pay for teachers; a systemic shift in what education should look like in 21st century America.
And grace. I worked to offer this beyond the classroom. It has not always been easy but it seems more important than ever to reach outside of ourselves and extend a little extra kindness, especially to those we may feel are not always deserving and that includes ourselves.
Sometimes this is all we can give and in a world where we feel increasingly disconnected from one another maybe this is more than enough.
In the end, the student had to move back to the DR with his family, where his internet was inconsistent and weak. I only had contact a couple more times with him that semester during which he did everything he could to complete a few more assignments. Due to circumstances out of his control he was only able to attend about half of the classes, not for lack of trying.
He still passed.