“Please keep your masks on at all times,” the PA on the subway reminded me every morning on my way to work. Sitting on the cranky, orange seats of the subway for forty-five minutes every day gave me plenty of time to ponder and plan lessons. However, the questions that were really on my mind were both bigger and more difficult to answer: what were and would be the effects of the pandemic on us as educators and on our students? 

After arriving at my station and checking to make sure my mask was properly covering my mouth and nose, I swiped my ID badge to enter my school building for the first time after six months of teaching online. It felt like the first day of school. The emotions and jitters were real, but I could not name the feelings that were emerging with every different step I took. My classroom felt like a distant space no longer recognizable to me. I could only imagine what it would feel like for my students. I unmasked for the time being and began uncovering the shelves and reorganizing the supplies for the students who were about to walk in. 

Welcoming Students, With a New Trepidation

At multiple times and even though I was alone, though, I felt myself reaching for my mask to cover my emotions as I tried to digest and make sense of what this classroom now symbolized. Colleagues would walk in and ask, “Hi! How are you doing?” I’m worried, I thought. I’m frustrated. I’m excited to see my students again. I’m sad. I’m hopeful. Yet, my response was the cookie cutter expected response: “I’m great, and you? It’s great to see you.” Raised as a “third-culture” kid, constantly moving around from place to place, embracing various cultures and learning different languages, hoping to quickly adapt and belong to a new community, I never had the time, tools, or words to express or think about the feelings that emerged from those experiences.

A student’s voice brought me back to my senses as I turned and smiled, trying hard for my happiness to be felt through the fabric of my mask. I found myself welcoming the students into the classroom with the same question that had sparked so many emotions in me. “How are you doing? It’s great to see you.” Another student entered the room, gave me a 6-feet-apart hug, and I asked yet again, “How are you doing? Come on in!”

Why was I even asking them this question? Their responses were robotic and rehearsed, “Good,” and “I’m fine.” How could they be fine, good, okay? How could students be coming back in the midst of a pandemic that disrupted their lives and be good? 

After my students came and sat in their usual circle spots for Morning Meeting, I looked at them, looked into their eyes. Things simply seemed different. They were quieter than usual, and harder to read. We started Morning Meeting, trying to get to know each other again, to uncover who was really hidden behind our masks. I noticed one student had not shared or participated in our meeting at all. As we started some independent work, I walked over to her, and I asked her, “How are you doing?” 

I noticed her rolling her eyes and blinking more slowly. Upon some insistence, she said something that made all the puzzle pieces finally fall into place. She looked at me intently and whispered, “I don’t even know how I am doing. I don’t know how I am feeling.”

I don’t know how I am feeling. I don’t know how I am feeling. Her words echoed in my mind for the rest of the day and pointed me towards Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart book sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be opened. According to Brown, “those who are able to distinguish between a range of various emotions ‘do much, much better at managing the ups and downs of ordinary existence than those who see everything in black and white.’” Brown says that language shapes emotion, and as educators, helping students develop this language can invariably support them in developing strategies to self-regulate throughout the school day.

Through continuous inner reflection the next couple of days, I found myself trying to identify the precise language to finally unmask myself and name my own emotions. 

Creating Brave Spaces for Learning and Thriving

We need to transform our classrooms into brave spaces where we give time for students to reflect and develop the language to understand their emotions, spaces where we honor students’ feelings as a way to help them connect with each other and build skills to help them cope with ever-changing situations. 

We need to also rebuild ourselves. The ability to label emotional experience and develop a wide range of emotional vocabulary is directly related to greater emotional regulation and psychological well-being. Given the recent need to literally and figuratively hide behind different constraints, social emotional awareness and development in schools has become increasingly important. Our masks need to be lifted, and emotions need to be normalized in and out of the school setting. In my classroom today, I begin with daily mental health check-in routines for students that invite them to assess how they are showing up to school each day, and name emotions.

Through my own reflection and my work with students, I have come to appreciate the extent to which this work of unmasking language helps us to understand ourselves, to self-regular, and to learn. We need to amplify social-emotional learning in all learning spaces so that students can unmask themselves, learn, and thrive.