I feel like this is SO the metaphor for this year. None more apparent than when the actual smoke from fires blanketed the whole West Coast over the last few weeks. It rings true as sort of desperate message followed by a resigned hope. A feeling of far off optimism with a deep knowing that we have so much still to get through. The slog, the shit, the unknown devastation and journey through something before we can truly see the other side. It is so out of our control yet we know the feeling of the fresh air is near.
When the smoke clears, literally and figuratively, took over much of September as my daily mantra. Our skies darkened and ash covered the earth along with the rest of the West Coast and people headed inside to hibernate, separate and quarantine even more than they already were. The idea of taking a break and going for a walk or a deep breath of fresh air or even stepping outside to clear one’s head was not an option and not going to happen.
For me, in my work world, the literal smoke started to accumulate when we were about one week into the steep climb of learning to teach online. The smoke, from the memories of an “in person” classroom, were burning embers in my mind.
Let me explain an bit more. Teaching online is a BEAST! It is no picnic for any teacher. We are working harder than ever before. Trust me every teacher you know is working their ass off this year. And while this is the truth for all teachers right now, just before school started, I was thrown another whole class of students. I had the special treat of now teaching a 3rd-4th-5th grade split.
Please don’t get me wrong I LOVE teaching a split. and I love these kids. In fact I have taught a 3rd- 4th split for years by choice. But to add an entire class of 5th graders, onto our roster, 1 week before school started, with little to no curriculum, because oh-I-forgot-to-mention-these-are-highly-capable-kids-that-we-have-already-had-for-two-years-so-they-have-had-our-3rd-and-4th-grade-designed-materials, in a year when we are already at a disadvantage for delivering exceptional teaching and learning experiences, seemed like a cruel joke. GACK!
In a straight grade classroom, meaning one comprised of say only 4th graders, an elementary teacher is responsible for teaching; reading, writing (ELA), math, social studies, science, art and social and emotional lessons, daily. That’s about 5-7 lessons each day. It’s a lot. In a 3rd-4th split it doubles. Still a lot. but I love it. In this new class I now have 3 grades. This means that on any given day I am expected to be creating content upwards of 15-21 lessons (yes per day) to differentiate for my students.
Thankfully, I have a kick ass teaching partner and we divide and conquer, but it still an unattainable expectation and is more than either of us could handle well. We decided to “quaren-team” together in one classroom to make things more bearable. But our anxiety and stress levels had skyrocketed.
Then the actual smoke showed up. An uninvited, unwanted guest to a party that was already a bit of a nightmare. When it came we no longer went outside for brain breaks. We ran from our cars to our classroom and computers and then back out again after purchasing new curriculum with our money, seeking out lessons to support students, pleading for some sort of help all while sitting through unending Zoom calls and trying to assuage parents fears and convince ourselves that we can do hard things.
We had alternating breakdowns in our classroom without any escape to breath deeply, the fresh air we so desperately needed was mired in toxins. We didn’t take our lunches outside for sun therapy, we stayed sequestered inside our classroom, building lesson after lesson and feeling less and less like a teacher. And yet the echo of better things was always there, whispering… when the smoke clears…
The shining light in this dark and smoky situation, that is learning in 2020, is that we have mostly returning kids that we have had for two or three years. We know them, they know us. Our 3rd graders are our only new kiddos and we are working hard to build those relationships. We feel fortunate that we already have a relationships with our returning families. We trust one another to do our best in a hard times, and still I find myself daydreaming of when the smoke clears…
What do I mean by this…
When the smoke clears, I will see the students in person again. We can do school musicals, eat lunch together, see and hear kids playing on the playground. We can be a community again.
When the smoke clears, we will be rid of COVID and have a vaccine.
When the smoke clears, I can ditch all the masks! I can wear lipstick again (a big deal for me). I can see smiles, who has braces who doesn’t, who lost teeth and who is just about to.
When the smoke clears, we will have new leadership.
When the smoke clears, we will remember that people are important to be around, to see, to touch, to communicate with face to face. We will go to weddings, funeral, celebrations. We will hug, we will hold hands, we will dance and we will kiss the ones we love without fear of spreading disease.
When the smoke clears, I will cherish time teaching in person, making connections, building relationships. I will cherish LESS time on the computer. I will be giddy at seeing kids in the classroom raise their actual hands, sit up and share, giggle with their friends, read quietly on the carpet.
When the smoke clears, it will all be different. But when will it clear? Will it be different, better, healthier?
When the smoke clears…
The literal smoke is gone for us in the PNW but the figurative smoke still weighs us down it lingers like a sewage spill. Still there is more smoke on the horizon…
The smoke of the looming election divides us when, in this pandemic, we should be doing everything we can to unite.
The smoke, pulls us in so many different directions for our families, students, children, co-workers, parents, etc. It makes us wear so many hats that our emotional stability is maxed out.
The smoke of COVID has people so fragile and unsure about their health that they are disconnecting from healthy, safe activities to participate in. They are disconnecting from people.
The smoke of online teaching/learning is pulling us further and further away from one another, further from connection, further from understanding, further from being human and kind.
2020 IS FILLED WITH SMOKE, IT IS A DUMPSTER FIRE and it is not going to end and some magical storm that clears it all up while everything returns to “normal”. THERE IS NO NORMAL. Everything is going to be different.
We will not go back to things the way they were because we have changed, things have changed. We have all have learned something new, practiced a new skill set, implemented new routines, gained knowledge and will bring this with us to our new reality.
So I wonder, what will life truly be like when the smoke finally does clear?
To all my family and friends and people I don’t know who were and are literally uprooted, moved from their homes while watching their lives burn to the ground I am… sorry. It does not seem enough. I can not imagine the grief you are dealing with. I grieve with you. But honestly, when will it end? Even today… there are more fires burning, more smoke filling the air, more ash raining down.
What will we do when it does clear? What will we discover or dedicate ourselves to, to make things better. What will we have learned to change the way things were, because frankly that is what was got us into this situation.
What are your plans for when the smoke clears?