Ready or Not
Well, here we are.
Traditionally, this is a powerful word for teachers that not only signals the end of summer, but also triggers a flurry of activity. As each summer draws to a close, teachers spend countless hours getting ready for the new year. They excitedly set up their classrooms to create a warm and welcoming atmosphere for a new clutch of nervous (but equally excited) students. They get desks and tables ready; they finalize schedules; they get amazing lesson plans ready to go, then get the materials and resources they will need to teach those lessons. They review and learn the names of their students. They review the files of those students so they can know their strengths and learn about their needs so they can plan accordingly. They organize their classrooms and implement structures to help make the first weeks of school as smooth as possible for their kids. Many teachers even go shopping in August for classroom supplies that their kids will need for the year. With this myriad of tasks well in hand, teachers are ready to go back, brimming with the excitement of another school year.
Except this is not “another school year.“
Not even close.
Don’t get me wrong – there has still been a flurry of activity. More than a flurry actually – more like a blizzard of activity.
But it is a new kind of activity, permeated with trepidation and anxiety.
Many teachers do not feel ready to go back.
It is important to understand here what teachers really mean in late August and early September when they say they’re “ready to go back.” It actually has nothing to do with completing this incredible list of things that must be done before students return. And it certainly has nothing to do with a willingness to work and do their jobs.
It is far deeper than that.
If you really want to understand it, try this: invite 25 of your child’s friends over to your house for the day. I know – who in their right mind would ever do something like that?! So don’t actually do it. Imagine it if you will. Now plan activities for all those kids, and try to get them to learn about something that you already know. In fact, try to get them to learn several somethings. Make sure you pay special attention to the ones who are struggling with the activities (it will be different kids depending on the nature of the activity). Also be aware of those who are not fitting in all that well with the others and find ways to help them so they feel included. At some point in the day, give them a chance to run around and burn off some energy. And remember, if you leave them alone even briefly without proper supervision, something will get broken.
Now do that five days a week for ten months.
No? Not interested?
That’s ok, but if you were ever crazy enough to attempt something like that, you would begin to have insight into teaching (and why we do it). Over the course of those ten months, something incredible would happen: you would get to know all 25 of those kids – almost as well as you know your own. You would figure out what they’re good at, and what they’re not so good at; what they like and don’t like. There would be times when you are frustrated – other times when you would be just beaming with pride. A lot of water would pass under the bridge, and by the end of those ten months, you would be like a family – and yes, you’d probably love every last one of them. Even the one who drove you absolutely bonkers.
But make no mistake - by the end of those ten months you would be completely, categorically, unequivocally, utterly … exhausted. I’d say that your tank would be on empty, but if you ever did this, you’d know that the tank actually falls off sometime during month nine.
Summer isn’t vacation time for teachers. It’s recovery time. After ten months of pouring everything they have into their classes, lessons and students, teachers really need July and August to find that tank, get it fixed, and start
filling it up again. And invariably, through some miraculous process of rejuvenation, by the middle of August, you will begin to hear teachers say “I’m ready to go back now.” If you really listen to them, you’ll also hear them talk about missing their students, about some ideas they got over the summer that can make their classes better, or just general excitement about getting back at it.
This summer was different.
For starters, last year was different. That gas tank of personal energy? It fell off in April. By the end of June, the wheels of that analogous car were flat, the rims were throwing off sparks and the steering was gone. It barely slid into July. By then, teachers were quite simply done.
Everyone was done.
Teachers needed the recovery time. And as the number of active COVID 19 cases got down to 1 for the entire province, it seemed like everyone might get the reprieve they so desperately needed. There was even a glimmer of hope that we might get back to some sense of normalcy in September.
But it wasn’t to be. Our government had to make some difficult decisions about opening up the province, easing up on restrictions, and getting people back to work. The government also had to make some decisions about returning to school, and so they released their Restoring Safe Schools Plan at the end of July. August became busy – maybe the busiest August in the history of public education! School Divisions went to work. Principals gave up a great deal of their own “recovery time” to get plans in place for their schools.
Announcements were followed by discussions, questions and concerns, which in turn were followed by more announcements and more questions: Masks or no masks? Recommended or mandatory? For all students and teachers or just some? On the buses too? Social distancing of one metre with masks or two without? How is it that students who are one metre apart must wear masks, but the same students at the same distance can eat lunch in the same room without their masks? What will trigger the need for self-isolation? Will sick days be lost even if you’re not sick? How will cohorts realistically work?
How in the name of goodness is any of this going to work?
In short, the “recovery time” usually taken in August got hijacked by questions, and although answers came, they were closely followed by more questions. The apparent inconsistencies surrounding masks and social distancing were certainly cause for concern, but the point here is not to offer a verdict on those plans, or to even offer criticism – time will flush that out. The point is that in the midst of this “blizzard of activity,” something has been conspicuously missing.
What am I talking about?
With excitement and anticipation.
Saying “I’m ready to go back!”
Don’t get me wrong. Teachers are prepared for the new reality. Some classrooms have been stripped bare of warm and welcoming furniture to allow proper social distancing. Hand sanitizers are in place and ready to go. Masks have been delivered and are available for students and staff alike. One-way directional arrows have been placed in the hallways. Cleaning solutions are everywhere. In fact, all public health orders and recommendations are ready to go.
Furthermore, teachers are prepared to teach.
Teachers are professionals. They have done the work that needed to be done. And they will continue to do the work that needs to be done.
But like I already said, this year is different.
In previous years, all this work was saturated in excitement and anticipation. This year, the excitement and anticipation are still there, but they’ve been overshadowed. By the worry that they will somehow let their students down. By the concern that students or they themselves may become sick. By the questions that are still unanswered. By the anxiety and overwhelming amount of information that keeps coming.
The task ahead is daunting.
But “ready” or not, here we go.
By Wendell Head