The Best Year

I know. How could any teacher say that in honesty? This has been the most challenging, frustrating, and exhausting year to teach. I absolutely agree. I never want to repeat the non-productive struggles of this year. Fortunately, though, we also had productive struggles and by living through them together, we have a unique connection with this year’s students. This may be the hardest year to say goodbye to this group of young people.

Let me back up. We began the year fully digital. We met each class just twice per week for 75 minutes at a time on Zoom. I provided the students take-home science kits at the end of summer, but I did not send home textbooks. I have a class set of Biology textbooks and the same number of digital access copies. However, I was not sure how to determine which student would take one home and which one would use the code, so I just decided I would figure that out later and left out the textbook on pick up day. The science kits were full of fun items like Play-doh, a small microscope, a Jeweler’s Loupe, whiteboard and markers, colored pencils, etc. I knew we had enough “tools” to get started.

I do not live in a large house and I have three children, all of whom were Zooming, too. I taught my lessons from my makeshift office that was a table behind my couch in the living room. It was fine. It was different. It was real. The students saw aspects of my life they never would have seen in the classroom – the dogs going crazy because the door bell rings, the answering machine (yes, we have one) going on and on as a wonderful relative leaves a detailed message, the neighbor boys knocking or ringing until someone answers the door (me) because they desperately want a playmate outside. The students watched me struggle to remember to mute myself during these crazy moments, and then forget to unmute myself when I started teaching again. They were kind with their reminders to keep me on track. In some ways we grew up together through that experience.

My students were patient with me. Having left the textbook off the list of supplies, I decided I wanted to design our learning experiences. I pulled what I already had and made modifications to suit digital learning. But, I also had to create new. In doing so, I was constantly thinking about my goals and limitations, and the different scenarios playing out at my students’ homes. My students were wonderful! They allowed me to make mistakes. They worked with me to make more modifications when needed. They reminded me gently when I had made an oversight about access. We learned to navigate all of this together.

Many of us returned to the classroom in January. A new set of new began. It was awkward and cumbersome, and I could not honestly say “I am so glad to see you” as I heard many colleagues uttering. I was scared and uncomfortable. I felt a huge weight and checklist constantly running through my head about distances and sanitizer and masks and . . . . I would not be surprised if a student saw my eyes tear up. It was difficult and exhausting. The students were feeling some of that fear and uncertainty, too, but they were also excited. They greeted me with enthusiastic and happy tones. They “smiled” when they entered my classroom, and thanked me when I squirted hand sanitizer on their hands. They helped me adjust.

Despite being back in person (though every class period had some students still attending through Zoom), I decided to keep the textbooks in the cabinet. I created new lessons and made them work for in-person and distance learning at the same time. I kept my goals at the forefront of the planning. And guess what? The students learned. The students enjoyed the process of learning. I take them outside and they are on task. We have discussions and they contribute ideas. I ask for their feedback and they give it respectfully. For our final unit, I asked what they wanted to learn and do (we hit the surface of all content areas and had time to either go deeper on a previous subject, or try something that is not part of our general curriculum) and they offered legitimate ideas. Though these responses were anonymous, not a single student wrote “sleep”, “nothing”, “have a party”, or the typical eye-rolling suggestions. They wanted to continue learning.

We have been through a heck of a year. At the end of most years, I am happy to wave good-bye and send kids onto their next adventures. This year, though, the looming exodus is hitting me hard. Really hard. I have truly enjoyed this group of students and I am deeply saddened by the thought of never getting to teach them again. There will never be a year like this one (God, please let that statement be true). And yet, I will miss so much the experiences with these students. What a blessing to have these memories and reflections. I hope they know how much I appreciate the learning we have done together and the incredible support and humanity exhibited this year.

I hope at least some of this rings true for you. May the close of this year bring joy and relief, and plenty to reflect upon 🙂

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