BY HANNAH LAWSON, CLASS OF 2021
I vividly remember the first moments I stepped into the school where I would be student teaching. August 14, 2020—what a year to finally begin getting that long-term, hands-on career experience. Most of the lights in the school were off, and many of the doors were closed. It felt more like a ghost town than a school, and it managed to feel that way most of the rest of the semester, even when students finally came back in person for a short time.
The building was cold, and I was tired because my first day of student teaching was also the day my family moved into our new house. Imagine that—a teacher having an exhausting day outside of the classroom. I think many people forget that teachers get really tired, really burnt out. I have only ever heard of teacher burnout talked about in education circles, which is not very helpful because no one really seems to know how to fix the problem. I had a lot of cold and tired days the rest of that semester, and sometimes, I wished my students, parents and coworkers had known that. Teachers are all so tired.
Within the first week of starting, my mentor teacher and I were stacking and rearranging desks to fit the new protocol of six feet apart (which, in a secondary classroom, is actually impossible considering class size), while trying to rush together a plan for online or in-person learning, whichever one the district decided to start with or later transition to. We needed to be ready for anything, and that is exactly how the rest of the semester looked.
We were always rushing to catch up. Because we only had our students for a quarter of the time, no matter what we did, there were gaps, and kids were not getting everything they needed academically because it was impossible for us to do so in only 90 minutes a week. Our team sat much farther apart than the recommended CDC guidelines on four different sides of the classroom during our weekly planning meetings, chipping away at some kind of reasonable schedule for the semester. The same question kept coming up, though, no matter what we were working on: What can we cut?
The question was never what do we need to keep? We couldn’t keep what we needed to keep—not all of it, at least. And so it was always what can our students most afford for us not to teach them this year? Because there were no other questions we could ask; we didn’t have the resources.
We didn’t have the resources for a lot of things, for a lot of students. I taught in the school district I grew up in—a Title One district. It is filled with teachers who care, administrators who are working overtime, staff who are building those important mentor relationships with kids; but, if you do not have the resources, all of the work can only go so far because people can only do so much.
One of my students attempted suicide, another was harshly bullying other kids, another was working to help support their family, another was refusing to keep their mask on, another was arrested, another was responsible for siblings during all the unstructured time they now had outside of school. They were hurting, struggling, and I couldn’t do anything but try to make those 90 minutes a week work for something toward their learning. There was so little time and so much need. Every teacher I worked with verbalized their wish to be able to do more, to help more, to find a better way, but a lack of resources stymied a lot of our efforts to support our students better in the overwhelming need during this global crisis.
I spent a lot of time crying. I questioned whether I should even be a teacher, wondering, “Why does all of this have to be so difficult?”
I didn’t quit, but I did think about it. And I’m glad I stayed.
This pandemic has taken an unimaginable toll on education, which was already a strained and struggling system to begin with. But in the moments where I most wondered if it was really worth it to even try, if anyone was getting anything out of what I was saying, one of my students would say how much they love my class; one of my students would share about their life with me; one of my students would understand and be excited and do better the next time we tested that skill.
And every time there was a little victory, something in me shifted. Our situation did not get any better during the semester I was there. In fact, we actually went back online the last three weeks, and for the students who were struggling already with minimal in-person time, this pushed them over the edge into absolute and total apathy toward school. It was difficult to watch because I cared so much about their success. It was in that recognition of the difficult that came with observing my students struggling so desperately, knowing I was also struggling desperately in this space as both a student and a teacher, that I knew I was where I was supposed to be.
I have seen, both in myself and my peers who have student taught this year, that we all know full well how bad it can get. The number of crises one has to address as a teacher just over the span of a couple of weeks is absolutely astonishing, especially with a deadly pandemic encircling our communities. However, where we have seen the absolute worst from the beginning, we know there is so much good, so much hope, so much learning in store for us, for our students. We have found ourselves, unenthusiastically, in the middle of great turmoil in the education system. Not only did the pandemic bring up questions of how to deal with this better if something happens again, but it also brought about questions of what we need to change at the very core of what is taught in American education. My peers and I have seen how desperately our students need representation in our curriculum, conversation, role models. We have seen how easy it is for students who learn in more nontraditional fashions to fall behind and fix their mindset as incapable. And we never want to see any of our kids slip through the cracks again—there is so much good and wholeness and value wrapped in the life of a single child, and they need to know how loved they are.
Student teaching this year taught me many things, but that is truly the most important takeaway: My students desperately need to know they are loved and valued. As a teacher, if I can show them that this is true, I will have done a greater job than I ever could have hoped for.
Learning only follows feeling safe, seen and respected. Where students know you care more about them than their grades, I have learned the grades will likely follow, especially if you love what you are teaching. Students will be excited about what you are excited about. And if you are excited about them, excited about the value they inherently bring to the table, they will find themselves falling in love with who they are and who they are becoming.
Hannah graduated in May 2021 and is headed to South Korea to teach English as a second language.