Teaching in a Pandemic: Day 100

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

It has been over 40 days since my last post. Teaching has always been an all-consuming profession. Teaching in a pandemic has tested the will and skill, mental and physical endurance of all educators.

I’m exhausted every single day.

Our school district returned to in-person learning after five weeks of remote learning. It was frustrating and scary to return to the classroom for a number of reasons. I didn’t (and still don’t) fully trust that our schools are safe from COVID-19. Remote teaching was difficult, but after five weeks, my students were responding well: turning in more assignments and projects. The quality of work also improved as compared to being in the classroom. It is no secret that I have a very challenging group of students this year. In fact, these students have really forced me to look inward as an educator and reevaluate whether I can actually make a difference in the lives of students. Many things contribute to the discipline issues I experience every day, but they all seem to stem from a great dissatisfaction with and distrust of public education and teachers in educational system. Being a white male, I have not made much headway to rebuild my students’ trust in the system, especially since I am feeling demoralized by the same system.

Needless to say, it continues to be difficult for all of us.

However, with remote learning, students felt safe in their own homes. I could see students’ faces and smiles and I was beginning to feel like I was connecting with my students. It seems strange, but it took moving to remote learning to feel closer to my students. We were getting into a flow and I was beginning to see progress (both academically and behaviorally) with many of my most vulnerable students.

That only lasted for five weeks.

Returning to the classroom meant returning to all of the restrictive, but absolutely necessary, COVID protocols that keep us all safe. I noticed immediately that students who were engaged and participative online suddenly became silent observers once again. Many of my students regressed both academically and behaviorally, resulting in major conflicts with other adults in the building. It felt like we were all a little bitter about having to return to the classroom.

Each morning, I facilitate a check-in meeting. I ask students to check in with how they are feeling each day. Most Mondays, students rate themselves as a 1 or a 2, stating that they do not want to be at school; they would rather be somewhere else. Mondays are difficult for many of my students, so we have a soft start to the day, spending most of our morning listening to music and reconnecting with each other after the weekend. By the middle of the week, more students rate themselves higher because they know the weekend is approaching and they are starting to get used to being back in school.

I have learned a lot about my students from these morning meetings.

Kids need to eat a good breakfast.

Music helps.

Talking helps.

Students need sleep more than learning. Naps are okay.

There is no urgency to the day’s academic content.

You do not need 90 minutes for an effective Math lesson.

In preparation for this pandemic school year, I made a commitment to myself and my students that I would incorporate Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead work in my pedagogical practice. It is now February and after 100+ days in school, I am beginning to see some burgeoning positive results in using the Braving Inventory.

Boundaries. I still have students testing my boundaries. I am very clear about what is okay and what is unacceptable in my classroom. Many times this leads to some difficult conversations or awkward class lectures, but I think my students are beginning to acknowledge that my boundaries are set and will not change.

Reliability. I am consistent. Our routines are consistent. My messaging is consistent. I say what I am going to do and I follow through every time. I model vulnerability with my students so that they understand my competencies and limitations as an educator, especially during this very stressful school year.

Accountability. I noticed early in the school year that most of my behavioral problems came from students who have been in school for the last six years with very little accountability. During remote learning, I had a few students refuse to do any schoolwork. Since we were remote, I could email parents and chat with students, but it came down to, “You can’t make me.” Very true. Now that we are back in the classroom, I am able to hold students more accountable. Unfortunately, that means missing recess most days, but I believe that students are beginning to see that I will not judge them if they refuse to participate or complete any work, but I will hold them accountable. Also, when I make a mistake (like I do every single day) I own it, apologize, and make amends. It is amazing how far making amends goes with students. I don’t think children are used to seeing adults apologizing and amending for their mistakes.

Vault. This has always been an easy one for me because I very much respect my students’ privacy. What happens in Mr. Neibauer’s classroom, stays in Mr. Neibauer’s classroom unless it puts someone in danger. When students have a tantrum about how much school sucks, we address it and then move on. No one needs to have all of their moments of stress and anxiety used as weapons.

Integrity. This is a huge one for me. I pride myself in my integrity and doing the right thing over the easy thing. I structured my classroom this year around Paul Quinn College and Michael Sorrell’s We Over Me philosophy because I believe that interdependence is what will get us to the other side of this pandemic. We need each other. That is why I have really struggled with students who are continually choosing a path of dishonesty, whether that be disrespect, plagiarism, or bullying others. I try to practice my values every day and when I see students being unkind or dishonest, I call them out on it. I do not shame them, but we are a community and one person’s choices often affects all of us in the classroom.

Nonjudgment. It has taken over 100 days of teaching in this pandemic for me to release the judgement I have felt of my students. Many of my students still support Trump and often tease or question the important social justice work that is currently happening. During the U.S. Capitol insurrection, we had many uncomfortable conversations. I struggled not to argue with ten-year-olds and instead take the advice of a close friend and “continue to model consciousness and elevate the truth.” It is important to be able to talk freely (with respect) about how we feel without judgement.

Generosity. It is difficult to be generous with others if you are not generous with yourself. Throughout this pandemic, I hear people talk about “showing grace” to others and ourselves. I hear school districts communicate ineffectual and flat words of encouragement to teachers to “take care of yourself.” These only seem trite when the messengers don’t seem to actually care. Still, if I am to extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others, then I need to make sure that I am doing that in all aspects of my life. Recently, I noticed that I am starting to feel less frustration with my challenging students. I believe this is because I am really starting to understand my students. When everyone has their armor on (or their guard up), it is difficult to see and interact with the real and vulnerable person sitting in front of you. Many of my students are wearing a ton of thick armor and it has taken over 100 days to slowly take off a few pieces (it is important to note that taking off your armor on Thursday does not mean it will still be off on Friday or Monday). Every day, many of my students put up walls to protect themselves from a school system and a world that has repeatedly shown them that they don’t care. I may show my students that I care about them, but trust takes time and true respect cannot happen without trust and vulnerability.

It seems like every day I fail. Most days are long and stressful. Some weeks seem to drag on forever. Every once in a while, I blink and it is already Friday. I have learned that teaching during this pandemic takes brave educators. It takes boundaries, reliability, accountability, confidentiality, integrity, nonjudgment, and generosity. I would add that teaching during this pandemic also takes a huge amount of vigilance and patience and truth.

I’m not counting any victories yet. My students will probably look back at this school year and think, “Wow! Worst. School. Year. Ever. Mr. Neibauer was such a jerk!” That is the thing about teaching and teachers: we work for the unseen, long-term rewards. I won’t know if I made a difference with this particular group of students. It doesn’t matter if my efforts pay off. What matters is that I try again and again and again. Every. Single. Day.

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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