Teaching in a Pandemic
By Alexis Mercer
If an Education Professor at Hope College back in 2002 or 2003, or perhaps my supervising teacher at Grandville High School, Susan Peterson, would have told me that in 2020 my job would look drastically different than what I was learning to do at the time, I wonder how I would have reacted.
“You’ll spend nearly three months in the early part of 2020 teaching from home while the country stays home to stay safe.”
“Once you go back to school in late August you’ll be teaching 30% or more of your students virtually and the rest will be in person. Yes, you’ll be responsible for both situations because you’re able to build relationships with them online, too, but it will require that you spend the majority of your summer learning best practice for virtual learning.”
“Your biggest concern and challenge will no longer be whether you can effectively teach them Spanish or complete a yearbook or even coach them to run their fastest times. Your biggest concern now will be doing everything within your power to ensure their mental and emotional health needs are being met.”
Part of me thinks that I would question whether this is actually the profession for me. I will be honest in saying that I have had moments of that feeling over the course of the past six months.
Is this what I signed up for? How can I possibly do all the things I am being asked to do in a day let alone in a month or marking period? Do I want to do all of this?
And yet especially in these last few months as we have navigated the opening of the doors to students and the practices for sports, I have found my answer to be an emphatic yes.
This is what I signed up for. It might “look” completely different from when I started as a newbie fresh out of the gates in 2003. But here is what I have found to be exactly the same:
When I decided to be a teacher and coach I was deciding to dedicate my professional life to caring for and helping my students and athletes become the best version of themselves no matter the circumstances. Yes, I was a “Spanish teacher” or a “Yearbook Adviser” or “Cross Country Coach” by title. But what do those titles actually mean? They mean I am willing to do whatever it takes to empower my students and athletes and give them the best chance at a successful future as is within my own ability.
While that perhaps used to mean they checked out a Spanish textbook, we worked through problems together in class, they repeated after me the verb conjugations for ser, and turned in a physical piece of paper which I then graded and handed back to them immediately, now it looks like me finding creative ways to get them the information instead. I can record myself on Screencastify giving instructions so they are all able to see my face while hearing words that I am saying out loud. They can use Flipgrid to record themselves saying those words back to me. Every student gets the information from an online textbook so that no one has to worry about the virus spreading through a physical object. We can have synchronous lessons completed through online Google Meets and they can turn in assignments to Google Classroom that I can even more quickly comment on or grade and get back to them without paper.
It means assigning work that is 100% individualized to each student. There are electronic task checklists that I give out each week and at the end of the week the students are required to turn in so I can closely monitor each student’s need for individualized help according to the standard he is struggling with.
I get to spend more time than I used to in building connections and relationships with students because I am more focused on the essential need for them to have someone they trust who can listen and if necessary point them in a direction to get more professional help with their mental or emotional needs. Is it always about Spanish? No. Is that a change that is for the better? Yes.
Teaching in a pandemic means taking life one day at a time. Sometimes one hour at a time. It looks like a whole lot of grace for my students, my coworkers, my bosses, the parents of my students, and even for myself. It means looking at each new challenge (and let me tell you there are a LOT of them) that is presented each day and facing it head on with an attitude that says “I might not know exactly what to do but I am going to try my hardest to make sure I figure it out.” It means being brave when I am feeling anxious about everything I have on my plate and remembering that I can only get one thing done at a time.
And isn’t every last one of those items on the list a valuable lesson for my students to learn?
My professional mission has not changed one bit from the first days of teaching all the way back in 2003. I will be here working my hardest to ensure that every single student who I have the honor of teaching gets the very best of me. That I help them to become the very best version of themselves as is possible, however that may look and through whatever method that may happen (here’s looking at you, Google).
It's not easy. In fact I am working harder than I have in all 18 years of my career. But it is a mission that is well worth the effort. Because "Our kids are worth whatever it takes" isn't just a phrase to use that sounds good; it's a mantra of truth. A pandemic doesn't change that.
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