This piece is part of an occasional series featuring educators from across the country and their thoughts on school closure and reopening, the effects of distance learning and tips for surviving it. Read more here: larasandora.com/educator-experience.
Yolanda Beltran began her teaching career in Houston, Texas, via Teach for America. She taught middle school English for two years and has spent the past twenty years as a high school English teacher. She lives in San Diego with her husband, a fellow educator, and their two daughters. Before distance learning, she and her husband were able to teach next door to each other. These days, they put their computers together. Connect with Yolanda on Instagram @beltranbooks.
Every first sentence I write is laced with a kind of grief I’ve only ever felt after losing my mother unexpectedly. But the best thing about a bad first sentence is that a better second one can follow so here goes…Confession: This global pandemic has felt like a death to me. And any of you familiar with the stages of grief know how this story goes.
But I feel guilty for confessing my sadness when so many others have it far, far worse. People have died. People have lost their jobs. People are hungry. People are without safe homes. Grief and loss isn’t a competition, though. Pain is pain, and I don’t think I am alone in feeling unmoored – feeling as if I have suffered a traumatic loss. Am I alone?
One of the main reasons I feel like I’ve experienced a loss in my life is because I’ve been a teacher for 22 years. That’s 22 years of academic calendars ruling my life. 22 years on top of 17 years of my own education. I’ve been going to school either as a student or a teacher for 39 years.
It wasn’t until schools unexpectedly closed in March that I realized how much of my identity is married to my being “Beltran” to my hundreds of students. I never realized how much my soul fed off of the energy of the teenagers I got to interact with each day. I never realized how much joy I felt showing up to my little classroom, coffee in hand, ready to greet my period 1 class.
Mine was the classroom filled to maximum capacity, the classroom packed at lunch, the classroom clubs used to meet, the classroom that housed tears, excitement, laughter, music, fun. In an instant, all of that was gone.
It felt like a death to me. Shock. Numbness. Disbelief. Anger. Fear. A perfect storm that untethered me.
I did try to be a good online teacher, though.. I tried to run Zoom meetings. I tried to prep my kiddos for their AP test. I tried to have conferences. I tried to offer feedback on essays and tests even if it was via google documents.
I tried, and I failed spectacularly because the kind of teacher I was can longer exist. I can’t squeeze through tiny rows, avoiding backpacks and sports gear. I can’t conference at my desk or even let kids at my desk. I can’t sit in small groups and talk about books. I can’t hunch down and whisper some encourgements to a frazzled teen. All these things that I can no longer do…
Yet despite this overwhelming sadness, I still feel sparkles of hope – little “lollipop moments”. Some background: In my class, I use TED talks every Tuesday to supplement my curriculum, and one of the first talks I show each year is Drew Dudley’s “Everyday Leadership”. In it, Dudley claims that each of us has the power and potential to be a “lollipop moment” for someone else with our attention, our care, our kindness.
It can be something as simple as a Post It note left on a desk that says, “Your presentation was glorious. I am so proud of you” or something as small as a hello. The point is that we each hold within us the power to make someone else’s day brighter, to make someone else feel seen. And this notion is what I cling to during these difficult times. I cling to the threads that bind us together. I cling to the knowledge that I can be a lollipop moment for others just as they can be for me.
Though I cannot control my emotions and the sense of loss this virus has created, I can do little things each day that remind my students, my friends, my family, myself, that even when we are apart, we are still connected. Grief is real, pain is real, and we are all fighting our own battles. Be kind to one another and be gentle with yourself. Even though it can sometimes feel like you are all alone, remember that you’re not.
How are you experiencing the effects of distance learning? Please share in the comments below.