by Heather Garcia

2020 will forever be known as the pandemic year. It is also the year that initiated the next phase of race dialogue in America. The last twelve weeks of 2020 have been intense, and so much about our lives has changed. As educators, we have learned to adapt to online teaching and virtual meetings and professional development where we never actually see any of our peers in person. We have reevaluated the content of our courses and have listened and researched more than we may have in quite some time. We are learning about online learning, we are learning about race relations in our nation, and we are learning about ourselves. We are learning that we have SO much to learn.

Online learning left many of us in a bind as we changed the way we taught, literally, overnight. Some of us adapted marvelously to this new online version of education; some of us struggled (and we know who we are). Regardless of where we land on the digital-continuum and how much research we are doing to redesign our curriculums to be more inclusive and diverse, teachers are missing something they usually have at the end of each year—a clear end.

At the end of a normal year, I would have had weeks to tidy up my room, enlisting students to help me purge out old books, to clean as we went because a space used by over 160 students each day can get a bit out of shape at the end of the year. By the time summer came, my room would be clean and tidy and ready for next year. Instead, I rushed in wearing a mask sometime after Spring Break and shoved all my teaching materials in bags to bring home. I hauled everything off my teacher desk and crammed it in a cabinet. Files got tossed in a box to be sorted when we return to school, and the janitors moved my completely-full bookcases out into the hallway so they could disinfect my classroom.

At the end of a normal year, I would have a small graduation celebration in class for my seniors who were graduating. We would toss around a cheap “Class of 2020” beach ball that I would have bought at a local party store. Then I would be backstage cheering them on as they prepare to walk across the stage at graduation. I would fix tassels and adjust caps and provide endless bobby pins to hold those darn things in place. Instead, exams were waived, I had an online meeting that only a third of my students attended, and I sent each of my seniors a “Happy Graduation” text. Instead of reading beach books when the year ended, I read countless articles about antiracism and diversifying the literary canon and I watched hundreds of interviews as celebrities passed the mic to people of color on Instagram.

This year, there is no real end, and no real closure. In teaching, we get fresh starts every ten months. But I am noticing that I can’t shut it off at the end of this year. I am feeling unhinged and the year just doesn’t feel complete. I miss all the moments leading up to that feeling of “finished”

I love our dedication in this profession, and we need to continue to research, to think, and to plan, but we also need to allow ourselves a chance to recharge. Nobody has ever been asked to transition the way an entire institution functions as quickly as the education field has been. Nobody has prepared us for how this end of the year should look. Nobody prepared us for the pain and trauma that our students are feeling at this moment. We weren’t prepared. Perhaps we should have been, but so much about 2020 has caught us off guard and has shaken up the norm. We need to be able to set this school year aside at some point. Looking ahead is important, but so is allowing ourselves a minute to think. We need to recharge.

We need to set aside the stress of test scores and online lessons and take a deep breath, celebrate the end of an incredibly challenging year, and embrace the close of that chapter in our lives. Reflecting on the year is a practice that I do every school year, but this year I could write a book of reflections. I implore you to take some time to just BE with your families because I don’t know about you, but quarantine at this teacher’s house was not filled with board games and movie nights. Sure, there were some, but mostly I was teaching my own children when the online system couldn’t do it and I was also teaching ALL of my students. The balance was rough.

So I intend to shut down the school side of my brain for a bit. I am going to continue to read books that force me to stretch beyond my comfort zone. I am going to continue to listen to amazing interviews and to learn, but I am going to stop trying to fit it all into a lesson plan (for now). THEN, after I have refueled a bit, I will start in on some worthwhile professional development. I will break out the legal pad and colored pens and start creating a diverse and engaging set of lessons. Once I can convince my brain that this past year is actually over, THEN I can start thinking about next year and how I intend to create a classroom that is flexible enough to go online in a moment’s notice. THEN I can think about how to prepare my students, remotely, for a full-length AP®  Literature and AP® Language exam—because honestly, we have no idea what next year will bring. THEN I will think about how to take everything I have learned and translate it into a lesson that enriches my students in ways that extend beyond a standardized test. I have time for that. Right now, I need to take the time to process the year that ended so that I can recharge for the one that is coming. I implore my fellow teachers to do the same.

To read more of Heather’s reflections on teaching during a pandemic, click here.

Heather Garcia

Heather Garcia is an English teacher at Charlotte High School, Florida, where she teaches AP English Literature and AP® English Language. She is a professional development leader in her district, running annual new-teacher trainings and is now the Curriculum and Instructional Specialist for her district for grades 6-12. After 16 years of hands-on experience, Heather has developed a series of strategies to help her students navigate challenging texts. Her favorite book is the Steinbeck classic, East of Eden.

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