The Hardest Year of Teaching… So Far (2019-2020)

I haven’t written anything about teaching in a long time. I had a lot to focus on the last few months, and sharing teacher content was the furthest thing from my mind. In fact, the last teacher post in my drafts is about how I grade and lesson plan during the day to leave by 4pm. That seems like a lifetime ago. This year was hard. And the pandemic wasn’t even the hardest part.

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I’ve been putting this off for a long time for myriad reasons. I haven’t really been able to think about the 2019-2020 school year because it’s all a blur. I also haven’t really been able to think about the 2010-2021 because I haven’t processed last year, so how the heck am I supposed to look forward to another year filled with extreme change and uncertainty?

2019-2020 was a painful, confusing, chaotic, closure-less year that started off so well and then kind of just… ended.

Setting the tone to our strange year was textbook adoptions. At the end of the previous year, we received umm… training?… on our new texts and the digital accompaniment, but we didn’t get our teacher editions, see the student copies, or get to spend any meaningful time in the text or digital platform until two days before school started. Not only were we given new books with no time to look them over, but I was teaching classes I’ve never taught before. Again. (So far, I have had a new prep every year. It’s exhausting.) I was thrilled to have freshmen, but I felt a little unprepared, since I had never taught 9th grade. Still, I’ve always wanted to teach freshmen (they have the best books and often the best attitudes) and I was so excited to welcome them into our class.

My first few weeks of school were great. We did norming activities, took personality tests and discussed and shared results, we did a book tasting, we did some baseline assessments, we did stations… we were off to a great start! Except my classes were a bit overloaded… I had to add 4 desks to my classroom because my classes were now 36-39 on average instead of 34-36 like the previous year. Still, if I had to have bigger classes, I’m glad they were freshmen, who wouldn’t be writing as many or as lengthy essays as other grades. Plus, my kids were amazing… haven’t bigger (and louder) classes was definitely a challenge, but we established some pretty good rapport and expectations early on, which allowed us to work hard and have some fun.

For the most part, the first semester was great. We read short stories, figured out the new textbook together, and The House on Mango Street. We studied The Hero’s Journey, various creation myths, and Greek mythology. Even Back To School Night was awesome! We had our routines, we set goals, we were growing and having fun… and then things got weird.

I grew up with lockdown drills. The Columbine shooting happened when I was in middle school, so I started experiencing lockdown drills high school. In the 20 years that I’ve been practicing lockdowns and shelters in place (where you lock the door and don’t let anyone in or out, but you can leave the lights on and continue with class), they’ve always only been a drill. This year, that changed.

We had a shelter in place first. Until this year, I’ve only experienced shelter in place as either a drill or as a weather-related emergency (at my old school, we had a wild storm that knocked out power on campus and we had to shelter in place). This year, we had a shelter in place because an upset guardian was trying to gain access to campus. There was nothing dangerous about the situation and we didn’t even need to stop our lessons, but the shelter in place was issued as a precaution.

A few weeks later, we had a full lockdown stretching from sixth period until after school. It was the most terrifying 45 minutes of my life, huddled with my students in a dark room, urging them to take things seriously and be quiet, hearing the helicopter overheard and shoes (that I later learned were the sheriff’s department) walking past my door. It’s the situation every teacher dreads, and it took all my strength to appear calm while I checked my phone for updates from my administration and texted Chris and my dad and sister. Thankfully, this turned out to be a JROTC student with his weapon — a neighbor saw him and called the school and police. At the time of course, none of us knew this. It’s another day I’ll never forget and I hope I’ll never have to experience anything nearly this terrifying again.

Things got back on track and were fine again until just before finals, when I pinched a nerve in my neck and had to take off three days, which I’ve never done before… when I returned I was still in a lot of pain, but I couldn’t fathom taking more time off. The longest I’d ever been out of the classroom unplanned was a day. I was in pain, but I could drive so I decided to go to work. My kids were so kind as they saw me clearly suffering through the next few weeks. I probably should have stayed home a little longer, but I missed being in my classroom and doing my job, and I felt it was important to prepare them for their finals.

Two weeks later, the day before finals started, I woke up to a flat tire and wasn’t able to be there to review with my students. This sent me into a complete meltdown, crying that I was a bad teacher and I was failing my students. Bless Chris because honestly, being a teacher’s partner must be really hard… I wish I could say a meltdown like this has never happened before and never will again (because honestly, it was so stupid when I look back on it), but if I’m being transparent, these meltdown occur 1-2 times each year… they occur more frequently during Distance Learning. I can’t tell you how much I cried and for how many stupid “I suck at this” moments I had. Teachers are so empathetic toward everyone, but we forget to give some of that empathy to ourselves.

Once finals were underway later that week, the staff received the heartbreaking news that a student committed suicide. I never taught this student, but inevitably, many of my colleagues and friends did, and a handful of my students knew this person. Because of the details surrounding the incident, there was a lot of confusion, and it wasn’t until the last day before the break that we got the news that the students passed and, because of the timing, it fell on the teachers to break this news to our students. Again, this is something I knew I’d one day face as a teacher, and I know there’s a chance that one day I may experience an even more personal loss, but delivering this news to my sweet students was gut-wrenching.

After a much-needed winter break, we returned to school, ready to hit the ground running in preparation for 10th grade (yay!). We read Fahrenheit 451 and had some amazing discussions and my students wrote some stellar essays. During our Fahrenheit 451 unit, at home we were preparing for Chris’ surgery. In October, he injured his shoulder, then in November he tore his ACL and meniscus. He couldn’t get surgery before the holidays, so in January he was finally having surgery on his knee (we’ll be going back in August for his shoulder surgery). He was on medical leave, and when he was able to go back in early February, he got really sick with a fever, chills, the worst aches and pains he’s ever had, a complete loss of appetite and taste, and a mild cough. He was in bed with a fever for 3 days, and this is a man who never gets sick. Then I got sick. Not nearly as badly, but I had a mild fever, aches and pains, and a cough that just went away, 5 months later. Then all my students started getting sick. There were days when I would have 10-12 students out in a single day. I had students absent for anywhere between 2-10 days, and most of them were still sick when they returned.

Despite all that was going on personally and professionally in the winter, I hit a huge professional milestone: I complete my induction program (it’s like teacher finishing school) and cleared my credential. With that, came the knowledge that I was officially done with my formal teaching education, I was a highly qualified teacher (that’s what the state calls us when we’re cleared), and I got a tiny little pay bump. We were going to celebrate, but then the world stopped.

On March 13th, we had a minimum day. It was the end of the quarter and we were heading to spring break. My students were handing in their Fahrenheit 451 essays, and it was a pretty laid-back day. All week long I’d heard my kids joke about “corona,” talking about who had it and who didn’t. Everyone was talking about songs to wash your hands to. Things were weird and I didn’t fully understand what this virus was. No one did. We thought it was a nasty flu. By 5th period on a minimum day (so, still morning), we were being told to tell our students to take home anything they might need in case we didn’t come back for a week or two after the break. By the time school was over, we were all wiping things down, baking away from each other, and wondering if we should take our plants and laptops home.

By the end of spring break, we were told we’d be going digital for a week or two after break. Teachers were given a week to plan and prep while students took an extra week for break. We were asked to plan for 2-3 weeks of distance learning. Then another week or two… then campus closed for the remainder of the year… and now the foreseeable future.

Distance learning… was hard because there was no closure… we just left one day and didn’t go back.

I’m still not fully ready to break down distance learning. I’m still not 100% sure what worked best for my students and myself, but I know that I worked harder during those last few months that I ever have. Distance learning was a challenge for so many reasons. It was hard not seeing my students. It was hard to teach live since we live in a one-bedroom apartment with no desk, no space, and two of us working from the living room, and doing so would violate FERPA laws. It was hard trying to explain this to my students. It was hard trying to keep track of my 170 students’ academic performance and, more importantly, their mental and physical wellbeing. It was hard taking care of my own mental and physical wellbeing. It was hard because nothing I’ve ever been taught or have taught myself prepared me for online classroom management or gave me the tools I needed to facilitate meaningful discussions and learning. It was hard because I was planning from scratch, grading took longer, and there were no protocols in place for a pandemic. It was hard because I thought of the first class I ever taught at this school and all that these now-seniors were missing. It was hard because there was no closure… we just left one day and didn’t go back. Whatever angle you looked at this from, it was hard. For everyone.

In the midst of all of this despair, there was some joy. I looked for ward to department meetings and informal Zoom collaborations. Seeing my friends and colleagues for an hour each week made me light up, even if all it meant was being dressed from the waist up to sit on a video call and chat and share ideas over a cup of coffee. It almost felt normal. I also received the Masonic Award, an award given to exemplary teachers. My colleagues nominated me, and although there was no in-person ceremony this year, I teared up seeing my photo displayed alongside other winners during the streamed board meeting.

Since we coulnd’t have a ceremony in person, the winners were asked to send in photos of them holding their awards.

Thankfully, things looked a little better around June as far as the virus spread was concerned, so we were able to have a graduation ceremony for our seniors. We had a drive-through ceremony that wasn’t quite the same with students walking down the sidewalk with their gowns and masks on, their parents driving alongside them in the street, no audience, no speeches, and no hugs, but it was so good to see and celebrate with my former students. These kids didn’t get a prom, to sign yearbooks, or any kind of proper goodbye and closure. They deserved, at the very least, a makeshift graduation ceremony. It was incredible to celebrate with them and to stand near my friends and colleagues, cheering our kids on. Those three hours did something for my heart and soul that I desperately needed.

I’m hurting right now. I’ve been hurting since March. I’ve been anxious about my family, my friends, my health, my job… everything is unknown right now, and I try to stay positive, but sometimes it’s hard. I haven’t wanted to talk about or process this year because it’s been a painful one. I hoped I could sweep this year’s struggles under the rug, go back to my classroom (which I haven’t seen since March) in August, clean up, and prepare to start new with new students. But I can’t. My joy is in my classroom with my students. My joy is watching them struggle through something and seeing the satisfaction when they get it right or have a lightbulb moment. I don’t get that through distance learning. Distance learning is a lot more work for far less reward.

Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely think we need to hold school via distance learning right now. It’s the best way to keep our kids, our families, and ourselves safe. It’s our best hope of slowing the spread so we can reopen the economy. I’m just selfish. I both want to sty safe and be able to teach the way I know how. I’m still exhausted from last year, and now this year is starting a week early (although I’m extremely grateful for the week of paid training to help us prepare) and I’ve spent the summer riddled with anxiety over the pandemic, mine and Chris’ jobs, and the upcoming school year, when normally I’d be taking time to recharge.

What I’m realizing now is that things are going to keep getting harder before they get better. All I can do is what I’ve always done in the classroom: my best for my kids. I have no idea what that will look like. I don’t even know where I’ll be teaching from. But I know it will be another hard year.

Check on your teacher friends. We struggle often, but we’re having a particularly hard tome right now. And it looks like we will be for a while.

Thanks for reading. I hope you and your family are staying well, and I look forward to bringing you something more cherry soon ❤️

4 comments on “The Hardest Year of Teaching… So Far (2019-2020)”

  1. Wow! Karissa! You are an angel!!! I definitely don’t know the half of all that teachers do and I never will, but we are so lucky to have such incredible teachers like you in the school system! This last year has definitely been like no other. I’m so sorry to hear about everything else you’d faced with your class. I can’t imagine how hard that must have been. Just know I am sending you the biggest hug, and here’s to hoping we can get back to some normalcy by 2021! ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Karissa, thank you so much for sharing! You are amazing! First of all, I am a teacher but I teach 2nd graders. I am always impressed with high school teachers! I can’t imagine having more than 30 students and managing all of them! Go you! Second, you are not alone! Having meltdowns is okay! You are a human and sometimes with teaching and life, it becomes too much! From a lockdown to not getting closure, I can’t imagine how hard this year was for you! You are not alone and by sharing your experiences this year, it helps others feel that they aren’t alone either (i.e. me!). I hope you get to relax a little before school starts! Best wishes!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your kindness and support! And thank you for teaching our little kiddos! I hope you’re having a relaxing summer and getting some rest before the school year starts again too. Good luck as we head into the unknown this fall! ☺️❤️

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