Anne McConnell Teacher, University Laboratory School, Baton Rouge
At the beginning of this year, I displayed a quote from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden on my bulletin board: “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” I use it to remind students that the idea of perfection is usually imagined. When we relieve ourselves of those expectations, we find the freedom to be who we are.
Amid this pandemic, I have been thinking about the relationship between perfect and good. As it turns out, the perfection in this particular situation is not revealed by our skill as teachers; instead, it comes from our ability to simply be good human beings.
For teachers, this predicament presents the ultimate contradiction. We strive every day for something resembling perfection and rarely settle for average. Creative lessons, flawless delivery, perfectly timed and phrased questioning, total student engagement…all the heavy hitters. We question ourselves after every lesson, wondering how we could have improved and what we might change next time. The nature of teaching requires constant reflection, and we typically define our success by our ability to instill knowledge.
When the quarantine order came, our reality shifted. How do these elements transfer when we are not face to face with our kids?
In theory, the same principles applied as we began planning online instruction. We constructed interactive lessons, projects, activities, videos, chats, the works. If we believed it could facilitate the same learning we achieve in our physical classrooms, we were willing to try it. I remained cautiously optimistic about the virtual learning environment I had created, feeling confident my students could continue to learn.
An “a-ha” moment hit me a few weeks ago during a Google Meet with about twenty-five of my students. I outlined the week for them, explained in detail what they were required to complete, provided deadlines and resources, and fielded a few questions. As far as instruction was concerned, this proved solid and effective. It took about thirty minutes. As a reflective teacher, I felt satisfied.
So when did the session actually end? About twenty minutes later. Why?
They began sharing pictures with me, telling me about their quarantine activities, and asking to see my kids. They commented on the short story we read last week, wondered how much longer this would go on, and complained that they missed their friends and being at school. We giggled, rolled our eyes, and for a little while, engaged in something close to normalcy. I laughed at how many times we tried to end the chat–but failed–in favor of continuing the conversation a little while longer. As I talk to my colleagues, I hear these same experiences echoed over and over again. We miss our kids, and they miss us.
I see this as both remarkable and heartbreaking.
Parents and teachers, it is incredible so many of us have the ability and technology to continue creating online learning opportunities. However, we must acknowledge this is not what education was meant to be. At the end of the day, all the chaos reinforces those core ideals which led us to this profession in the first place. Our true impact comes not only from our lessons, but from our humanity. Maybe more than anything else, our students need to feel connection and empathy. This is nothing groundbreaking; we all miss social interaction these days. But it all serves as a reminder for me as we continue in this current reality.
Years from now, my students may not remember the poems, TED Talks, writing prompts, and short stories we covered (or maybe they will…fingers crossed), but they will recall feeling a sense of community in a time of unpredictability. They will remember how it felt to relate to one another and find common ground in the most unlikely of places. And hopefully, they will continue to learn and carry these lessons with them long after this experience has passed.
To everyone working to teach children virtually in the coming weeks, give yourselves some grace. Feel free to be imperfect, and remind yourselves what is truly important. Let go of the expectations and self-doubt, and just be good. Believe this is what our children need right now. Because it is.