This post was written by NCTE member Mandie B. Dunn.
I’ve been attending NCTE member gatherings each Tuesday since the meetings began in mid-March. In the first few weeks, teachers from across the country used the meeting space to reflect on the shift to remote learning and share resources. We read poetry as a balm for the places in our hearts that were broken. We offered encouragement to one another.
The tone in meetings has shifted slightly in recent weeks because questions have started arising about the future: we want to know what school will look like in the fall and how we will support our students. When I listen to these conversations I relate to the sense of longing for the way things were: collectively, we want to be in our classrooms with our students as we were before. I also hear resistance to how things were and hope for growth. Many teachers, for example, have emphasized that we cannot return to normal because normal wasn’t working for most kids, and was actively oppressing Black and Brown kids.
Still, this question about what school will look like in the fall feels rushed to me, as though we’ve fast-forwarded through something when we should’ve paused. A pause is an important step in figuring out what comes next.
Teachers, we need to spend some time thinking about and caring for ourselves.
Does that suggestion sound selfish to you?
I know teachers are the first group of people to focus on students and say it’s not about me, it’s about the kids. Yet we need to spend some time on ourselves for two reasons:
- Teachers are human beings who matter, and that’s enough to justify us thinking about and caring for ourselves.
- The work of teaching requires us to build relationships with students, and how we do that will be influenced by our well-being.
I notice a pattern in the way teachers talk: teachers often skip over their personal needs to focus on students. This pattern is particularly prevalent in the interviews I’ve conducted with English teachers all across the nation about their experiences teaching while grieving a death, a project that I began long before the global crisis we now face.
For example, Ann (all names of teachers are pseudonyms), a 6th grade English teacher, told me that she felt guilty about having told her students she was pregnant only to then have to tell them she had lost the baby. I can’t think about this story without a lump swelling in my throat. I admire Ann’s concern for how her news would make her students feel. I am also mad that Ann felt guilty and it bothers me that in Ann’s retelling of her story, her loss is glossed over as she quickly moves to explaining how she handled that loss in the context of work.
Or consider Tara, a high school English teacher, who shared with me how guilty she felt about her teaching the year her mother died. She thought students could sense something was off, though she did not tell them about her mother’s death, and worried she failed to connect with students that year. We talked about her students for probably forty five minutes before she admitted, face ashamed, that she left school each day only to begin sobbing the moment she closed her car door.
Ann and Tara aren’t the only teachers with stories like these. I want to be clear: I don’t blame Ann or Tara for the way they reacted. Teachers are conditioned to focus on students. I feel compassion for Ann and Tara and other teachers I’ve met. I want more attention paid to their stories.
We have to spend time processing and grieving our own losses, especially now. We can think about logistics and student needs, but none of it matters without healthy teachers who can build strong relationships with students. Teachers have lost loved ones, financial security, and health, among other things.
I’ve been thinking about what I’ve lost. Before the pandemic, at the beginning of this school year, I moved from Michigan to Florida. I already felt some pangs of loss from moving. I lost a sense of community because my friends are no longer near. I lost a part of my identity as I shifted from graduate student to faculty member. I lost snow, which sounds small, but for me, it wasn’t.
Then, when my university officially cancelled in person classes, I lost the happiest thing about my Florida life: my face-to-face interactions with students. It’s cliché, but I had some of the best classes of my career this year. My students became my home in a place that has yet to feel like home for me. I’ve been thinking through why these classes are so important to me and exactly what is making me feel so unmoored without them. Guess what? I’m lonely in a new state. Now that I know that, I’m trying to connect with my friends nationwide more regularly. I’m working on not just filling the loneliness with whatever is there, but instead wrapping myself in love.
I’m also reflecting on what it will look like to build relationships with students during the continued crisis. It may be worth considering that we might face barriers in connecting with students in the coming months. We want to think that building relationships with students is the easiest part of our job, but building relationships may be complicated by the trauma we are all experiencing even more so than the logistics of remote learning.
Here are some questions I think we should be asking ourselves:
- What have I lost? How am I doing in processing that loss?
- What aspects of my loss experiences do I want to share with my students and what aspects do I want to keep private?
- What is my motivation for sharing my loss?
- How do I want to share it? In writing? In discussion? Do I want to plan it? Share spontaneously?
- What barriers might I face in connecting with my students?
The answers to these questions will look different for each individual teacher depending on context, but in each case we should remember that we should never expect students to divulge their loss to us. I think it can be too easy in times of crisis to slip into the habit of thinking we are caring for students when really we are pressuring them to share. We should think first and foremost about what of our own story we want to share and that requires us to take some time to focus on ourselves.
Let’s not fast forward to fall just yet. Let’s pause and think about what we’ve lost and consider what that loss means for our well-being and for our relationships with students.
Mandie B. Dunn is assistant professor of English education at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida. Her research addresses the interplay of the relational work of teaching with ELA curriculum.