Teaching in a Pandemic: An open letter to my students

This is my attempt to document and process returning to the classroom during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

Dear students,

In August, we had no idea what it would look like (or feel like) going to school during a global pandemic. I’m sure many of you were hopeful that starting the fifth grade would be similar to starting any new grade level: butterflies in your stomach on the first day of school, meeting a new teacher, seeing old friends, and learning new classroom rules and procedures. Some of you may have been extra nervous because you knew it would be different; you may not have been able to articulate how, but you intuited that this year would be unlike previous years. I was equal parts hopeful and terrified. I was returning to the classroom after six years coaching teachers. I knew that I was a bit rusty, but I was confident that my teaching-muscle memory would return quickly. I was really scared about teaching during a pandemic. I knew it was going to be difficult. In fact, before you entered my classroom on the first day, I knew how difficult it was going to be before you did. I had spent a couple of weeks learning all of the new COVID-19 safety protocols and procedures for school. I met with the principal and other teachers (via Zoom) to discuss how we would handle things we all took for granted pre-COVID: arrival, recess, lunch, seating arrangements, small-group instruction, and dismissal. We came up with a 23-page plan and hoped that it would work, knowing that we would need to make innumerable changes once we tested everything with actual students.

Then, you all came into my classroom. Our classroom. It was different. It looked different. It smelled of disinfectant. We were all wearing masks. We couldn’t touch each other, even though many of you tried. I hate that for some of you, our first interaction was of me telling you to stay six feet away from your best friend and definitely no High-fives. Still, we got through that first beta-test day (Day 0), and you all came back the next week with a certitude that this school year was going to be challenging.

On the official first day of school (Day 1), some of your pent up anxiety and frustration showed. I realize that it was difficult to stay seated and pay attention. I struggled to keep you engaged and you struggled to keep your masks on your faces. This mask mandate was going to be the start of a very long, uphill battle that we are still fighting today. Bit by bit we knew that we would keep moving forward together. I know that many of you were not happy after the first day of school (or the first week), but we kept moving forward.

Original Keep Calm and Carry on Poster at Barter Books, Northumberland, UK

It has been a long time since August. In fact, it has felt like the longest semester. So much has happened in the first 60 days of school. Much has been negative. The coronavirus is worsening and safety protocols are tightening. School has felt, at times, more oppressive than ever, and there has been a lot of complaining. Still, not everything has been horrible and we did celebrate some successes: amazing conversations in class about everything from feelings to fears; laughing and dancing and listening to a ton of music (I quickly realized that, musically, I am much older than I originally thought). The art and stories that you all have shared so far this year have been amazing! I know this is not how you anticipated your last year of Elementary school would be like. It is messy. It is painful. It is fearful. It is irritating and feels hopeless at times. Still, we are still moving forward.

I am reflecting a lot this year; more so than I remember doing in past years. I often worry that we did not bond at the beginning of the school year the way I intended. You won’t know this until you are older (or have children of your own), but feelings of inadequacy are part of being an adult. They don’t go away once you enter adolescence (I’m sorry to say that they get worse), and they certainly don’t disappear when you enter adulthood. Being an adult is full of a thousand different decisions and you are often insecure about 99% of them. Still, you keep moving forward as best as you can. You try to make tomorrow better than today. I have tried to make each and every day in the classroom better than the day before. I know that I have failed more often than not, but I am grateful for the chance to keep trying. As Brené Brown says, “I’m not here to be right. I’m here to get it right.” I will keep trying to get it right all year.

https://brenebrown.com/

Now that we have transitioned to remote learning, many of you are disappointed that you won’t be able to see your friends in person. Some of you are loving virtual classes and online activities that you can do at your own pace. Some of you are struggling with technology. No matter our opinions of remote learning or our strengths and weaknesses, I can say with certainty that we are all safer learning at home than we were learning at school. All of the adults in our district have tried to keep school safe, but the coronavirus is just too pervasive. It is everywhere and we can’t avoid it if we keep meeting in large groups.

Can I tell you a secret? I have actually felt closer to many of you during remote learning than I did in the classroom. It’s crazy, but it took moving to remote learning for me to reconnect with you. I absolutely LOVE chatting with you one-on-one during my instructional support time. Even if you don’t need help, I’m so glad that I get to hang out with you. I still can’t get over being able to see everyone’s faces! I didn’t realize how much I would miss seeing you all smile. It may be from a tiny box on my computer screen, but your smiles light up my home office. I value the time we can spend together virtually. I feel safer and more comfortable at home and I believe that you all feel better, too, even if you are disappointed that you can’t see your friends in person. We have a duty to keep each other safe and look out for each other. We over Me, remember?

We are entering a particularly difficult time this semester. These winter months will be cold and dark and scary because of the ever increasing rates of COVID-19. I know that watching the news (or hearing your parents or guardians discuss the news) can feel overwhelming and anxious. I want to tell you a few things about what to expect this semester. I will do my absolute best to keep the learning experiences engaging and (dare I say, fun?). We need to keep supporting each other online more so than when we were in person. I don’t want anyone to get lost or left behind.

As your teacher, I believe that it is my duty to share with you my values and commitments. These are my promises* to you:

I will privilege care.

Care for your well-being, including your family, is very important. Please take care of yourself first and foremost and let me know how I can best support you and your family this semester.

I will invite your feedback.

I will make mistakes, and as always, I promise to ask for your help so that I can improve the quality and relevance of our learning experiences, assignments, and assessments.

I will listen to your concerns.

I will draw upon your contributions as co-designers of meaningful learning experiences and opportunities. Now, more than ever, is a time for me to be your responsive and respectful partner in learning. I will agree to listen to and think about you in exchange for you doing the same for me.

I will be flexible with expectations.

If you have questions or concerns about assignments, project deadlines, requirements, details, our agreements, technology, or anything else, please ask me. Never hesitate to ask! Always reach out.

I will be reflective.

Just as I hope to foster critical inquiry in our class, so too will I honor the critical need for reflection as we all move forward together.

We will be creative together.

We will pursue human solutions to the messy work of teaching, learning, and our social-emotional and racial well-beings in our class. Our world is ever-changing and creativity will allow us to thrive.

I believe in all of you. I know that this school year has been rocky and scary and irritating and challenging. Remember, we will get to the other side of this pandemic and when we do, we will all be stronger and kinder and more selfless than we were before. Be present and stay engaged so that you get the most out of the work we do together. Step up and share your perspective as often as you feel comfortable. Offer and receive feedback. Be aware of who has an opportunity to speak, to ensure that all voices are heard, and be willing to share your perspective and create space for others who tend to go unheard. Stay curious! We all have different perspectives. Remember to seek to understand more about each other instead of always trying to be right. Recognize that we need each other’s help to become better listeners and learners. If you agree to listen and think about what others say, then they will do the same for you. We are all equally human and deserving of each other’s respect, attention, and engagement as we learn together, whether online or in the classroom. Embrace the fact that I don’t (nor do you!) have all the answers and that we are in this pandemic, remote learning journey together. We need to learn from and with each other in the process of fostering greater equity and more meaningful learning. Finally, this pandemic school year will be filled with tons of emotions, frustrations, and discomfort. I encourage you to take time to slow down and notice the moments when you feel uncomfortable, and lean into any and all opportunities for learning.

I am here for you. Let’s keep moving forward, together!

Sincerely,

Mr. Neibauer

*The original letter was written by some amazing professors at the University of Colorado, Denver.

I am a learning experience designer. I’m an intellectual thinker. I push the boundaries of what’s possible. I have lots stories to tell and change to make.

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