The following names have been fictionalized.
What do three minutes in an in-person classroom look like during a pandemic?
Standing at my desk, I say goodbye to the kids from the class that’s just ending while I log into the Google Meet for the two kids in the next class who are at home. As the in-person students file in, I get volunteers to spray and wipe down all the desks while I scramble to get the classroom set up again. Two kids come up to me, complaining about an issue with a member of their group project.
I see that Sarah is online, but Hannah isn’t yet, so I set the computer up in the corner of my desk, shift the camera to point toward the class, and tell Sarah to get her notebook and to tell Hannah to do the same once she gets online. I turn back to Lilly and Caroline to listen to what they’re saying. “That sounds hard,” I tell them. “I think you can handle it by talking to Anna, but if it doesn’t get better, see me tomorrow.”
I look around the room and see that Emily has her mask below her nose. “Emily, mask up!” She gives me the good old teen side-eye and pulls it up. I can tell Mary is chewing gum under her mask. “Mary, gum out,” I direct. She takes her mask off and walks across the room talking loudly and laughing. I yell, “Don’t walk with your mask off!”
Remembering the online girls, I turn to my computer. “Hey, Sarah, have you seen Hannah yet?” No, Hannah hasn’t shown up online. I look at my watch and see we still have one minute. I’m mid-breath to start class when I hear the familiar “pong” of someone logging into the Google Meet. Hannah is finally online. I say, “Hey, Hannah!” conscious that she’s been looking sad lately, hating that she can’t be with her friends in person.
Then, as I prepare to address the class, Margaret’s hand shoots into the air, Mary has her mask down to “drink her water” for the hundredth time in two minutes, Sarah’s internet clearly glitches and she “logs off,” Emily pulls her mask down to bite her fingernails, and Caroline asks at an absurd decibel, “What’s the homework for today?”
A School Year Like No Other For Teachers
Much of this is par for the course when teaching middle school. We constantly fight for our students’ attention. But there are subtleties to these first three minutes of class that have put undue stress on all of us this year.
On a normal day, I wouldn’t have to pay too much attention to Emily — I could just say “Hi” and wink at her, and she would be ‘all in.’ Lilly and Caroline could have found a way to meet with me about their group dynamics in a free time when my whole pod isn’t in the room for our contact tracing protocol. I wouldn’t have to check to see if Hannah and Sarah could hear and see me. Yes, I’d still be telling Mary to spit her gum out, but Hannah likely would be in a better emotional place, and I wouldn’t need to worry if the students had properly cleaned the desks.
I think of myself as an adaptive teacher. I also consider myself a lucky teacher. Although nearly every teacher (and student) I know wants to take a leave of absence in February and March, I have rarely dreaded the drive to school. But the Anxiety Mosquito has never so frequently whispered, “You could always quit, ya know?” as this year.
In August and September, I chalked this up to growing pains — finding a routine in the madness of hybrid teaching. In October and November, the ups and downs of the 2020 election took hold of my classroom, so I attributed the growing buzz in my ear to being a history teacher in a particularly “historical” year. Then, in December and January, I assumed my rising blood pressure to be about the massive uptick in virus counts and the attempted insurrection in Washington, D.C., followed by an oddly familiar but still unusual inauguration.
Come mid-January, however, I could no longer attribute the persistent buzz to growing pains. It was something more, something deeper, something I didn’t yet have the words to describe. Then, somewhere between the storming of the Capitol and the transfer of power in front of it, I heard one news reporter say to another that what we are all experiencing — across the world — is a collective trauma that will have implications for our society for decades to come.
Many Types of Trauma, and Ways to Start to Heal
While I’m familiar with the concept of social trauma, and I teach about traumatic events in history and how societies attempt to recover from those traumas, it was in this “simple” reflection that I found what I had been looking for: teachers — and our students — are experiencing trauma. No matter the manner our schools have chosen to instruct this year, the added complexity of teaching and learning today has taken a toll on our psyches, whether we recognize it or not.
At my school, we have had the ability to “see” most of our kids in the same physical space — really, to see their masked reactions to the material and be able to adjust accordingly. We are fortunate to have had the resources to stay open and as safe as possible under the circumstances. We have had access to our administrators and can talk to other teachers face-to-face. However, we are also living with constant physical constraints that impact not only how we teach content but also how we care for our students and ourselves.
I am writing this essay not simply as a cathartic practice — though, yes, it is that — but also to draw attention to the plight of teachers. In addition to medical professionals and emergency responders who have rightfully been the center of attention due to the direct danger they face every day while trying to keep us all safe and cared for, I’d like for more people to think also about teachers.
Early on in the pandemic, there was some attention paid to teachers and their adaptive strategies. Some companies have even labeled teachers as first responders. But after a full year of pandemic teaching, our jobs have gotten harder, not easier. Many of us have been parenting while working (online or in person); cleaning every 45 minutes; and isolating from families and friends whenever necessary. Educators everywhere are making choices concerning economic trade-offs, morality, and social necessity. We have been forced by circumstance to weigh the price of potential trauma inflicted on students by keeping them at home versus the potential trauma done to teachers by having them teach in person.
How might we begin to reckon with this trauma? We must first acknowledge it before we can process. I recently turned a space in my house into my art studio where I paint on scraps or collage in an old library book for a few minutes a day, attempting to express how my trauma feels in my body. I also occasionally read a short poem, choose a passage that stands out for whatever reason, and write it down and reflect on its connection to my life right now. But above all else, my greatest relief comes from talking to other teachers.
Chances are, if this idea of a “collective” trauma resonates with you, then your colleagues might benefit from your vulnerability in opening up a conversation on pain and isolation, on change and choicelessness. And if you’re feeling so bold, maybe you and your colleagues can discuss ways in which you can process openly with your students to address the pain head-on rather than push it all down to cope with the pain at hand.