This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: Teachers during COVID-19 are working harder than ever, but what if our best truly is not enough? What if your online learning strategies are not enough to help children learn? If these thoughts are keeping you up at night, this episode is for you.
As an educator, it often feels like no matter how much you do, it’s not enough, and there’s always something more expected.
And so we say, “I’m doing my best. That’s all I can do. Just do my best each day, give what I can give, and that has to be enough.”
But I want to talk today about what happens when your best isn’t actually enough … when what you have to give is not sufficient. Because I think that is a reality for many teachers right now: what you are capable of doing for your students, given the limitations, is just not enough. Your hands are tied, but the outcome just isn’t going to be great. Some of y’all are in situations in which you’ve been set up to fail — where doing a great job for kids really isn’t possible, while others are just facing an overwhelming learning curve and constant readjustments with little support and training.
For many kids, our best in schools this year is just not going to be good enough. Remote learning is just not going to be good enough for some of them. The hybrid model and safe distanced learning are also not going to be good enough for some of them.
There are ways to do all these things well, of course, and I’m constantly trying to surface these ideas and make them accessible for you — we’re not giving up on educating kids here. More on that in a moment.
I’m just saying that with the limitations most schools are facing in terms of staffing, equipment, wifi, and more … the quality of teaching and learning is going to be compromised in ways that don’t feel good to you. And you will probably be made to feel in many different ways that what you’re doing is not enough.
This is tough to endure when you get into education to make a difference, and then feel disillusioned because you can’t do what you want and need to do for kids.
It’s frustrating because we know what we’re capable of under optimal circumstances, and these are not optimal circumstances or anything close to it. So the only options are to try to single-handedly compensate for all the adverse circumstances and perform at a superhuman level every day, or adjust our expectations.
If these were short-term challenges, I might go for option A and just power through it. But we’re seven months into this pandemic now and our society is still operating on a fundamentally different basis, so we have to switch into a long-term strategy. Working 16 hour days every day for months on end isn’t sustainable.
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So here’s the thing that I want to acknowledge. We’re all experiencing various levels of collective grief right now.
There’s a sense of loss for what we’re missing out on: being close to family and friends, traveling, vacations, and our normal way of life. Some are also grieving deeper losses for any number of reasons, and not being able to process those losses in our normal ways is also painful.
The thing about grief is that we each experience it differently. And, there are many different phases and types of grief which people might cycle through.
Some days, I’m content. I’ve made peace with the limitations I have in my life right now and the things I love that are unavailable to me currently. I feel content and able to embrace my new routines for as long as I need to.
Other days, I’m simply resigned to these new routines. I’m restless and frustrated. Sometimes I’m deeply sad. I have moments when I feel hopelessness and helplessness that won’t ever seem to end.
But that’s the other thing about grief, right? It doesn’t feel the same forever.
The ups and downs are all a natural, expected part of the process.
So if that’s how you’re feeling as the school year begins, know that you are not alone in experiencing those mixed emotions.
My encouragement to you is to avoid dwelling on the losses. Don’t focus on the things you could have done, or wish you had been done differently. Don’t torture yourself by imagining how much better everything would have been if only certain conditions had been different.
Your kids’ learning gains over the next few weeks are probably not going to be an accurate measure of your abilities or theirs.
Their learning (or lack thereof) is NOT reflective of your worth, or theirs.
You’ve been teaching through a crisis. We are still in a crisis in the U.S. Just because we had some lead time to plan for a different way of teaching in the fall doesn’t mean the crisis is over, because this is not what we chose, this social distancing or pivot to remote learning. We’re doing things the way we are right now because we are attempting to find a path forward out of a crisis.
And if you’re listening to this, that means … you’ve made it this far.
That’s worth something. It’s worth a lot, in fact.
I hope you will look back on this spring and these first weeks of school as a test of resilience and fortitude that you have passed.
You did it.
You got through the sudden and unexpected transition from the style of teaching you’re used to, and fully immersed yourself in something completely different and nowhere near ideal for you or your students.
You’ve faced limitations and setbacks and confusion with the best you were able to give at the time.
And now you will continue on with that same determined attitude.
I know we can’t just lie down and roll over. We can still do something great with kids this year. We can look for ways to do something awesome — maybe not everything awesome, but something awesome. Even if we don’t know what that looks like, just the idea of it is motivating. And right now we all need to cling to any thoughts that are energizing.
One thing I know for sure right now is that nothing is for sure. Each day I am practicing what it means to detach from expectations. I am practicing how to let go of projections into the future, and worrying now about what I will and won’t be able to do later.
The truth is that none of us know for sure what the winter or spring will be like yet. So there’s no point in depressing ourselves by assuming that certain problems or obstacles will still present themselves in the future.
There’s also no point in getting our hearts set on something happening that might not. Remember what you thought last March was going to be like. And remember what you thought was going to happen in June? And what you thought the first week of school would be like?
2020 is not a year for predictions or planning ahead. It’s a time to learn to be present in each moment as it comes.
This is a practice. We have to choose this perspective and feeling in each moment of each day.
And there is comfort in not knowing, because it means the problems you’re anticipating may not happen. You really don’t know what next month is going to be like and it could be exponentially better than what you thought. Or, one specific thing might be different, and that will change the whole experience, and open new possibilities you can’t even imagine right now with the current limitations.
I shared in Episode 204 — about new opportunities for meeting kids’ individual needs — that there’s a guiding question that has been helpful for me.
What else is possible now that wouldn’t haven’t been possible in a normal school year?
Instead of just looking at what we CAN’T do, let’s ask a better question, and think about what we CAN do that was beyond the realm of possibility before COVID.
I want to share another question I have been returning to again and again since March:
Who do I want to BE on the other side of this pandemic?
When all of this is over and we have no more restrictions on travel or crowds of people or anything else due to the virus … who do I want to be?
What kind of person do I want this experience to be shaping me into?
I want to look back on 2020 and not think about all the things I couldn’t do or all the experiences I missed out on. That’s part of it, for sure. But I want to look back and think,
“I learned to finally be present in each moment because I no longer held the illusion of control or the ability to plan ahead. I learned not to rush my life away waiting for the next thing to happen. I practiced contentment on a daily basis, finding the small wins and little joys and making them feel bigger than the obstacles.”
“I didn’t waste 2020 thinking about all the stuff I couldn’t do. I showed up each day without expectation, detached from any beliefs about what the day SHOULD be like or how things are SUPPOSED to go. I practiced radical acceptance toward what actually is, and this made me a stronger person.”
I want to look back and say, “This experience was a refining fire: it burned away the parts of me that weren’t serving me well, and left a purer, stronger, version of me. I am a better person now because of what I experienced in 2020.”
This is a time for patience and flexibility. It’s a chance to learn to be soft-hearted toward ourselves and others when our basic instincts want to flare into anger and indignation at having to deal with problems we never signed up for.
I know this is a time for going inward — to stop looking for validation from outside sources, to stop seeking out others’ approval — and make peace within ourselves.
It’s a time to let go of regrets and “could-have-should-have” anxiety. I am working on this, too. We have to forgive ourselves for the missteps. Open yourself up to repairing the harm done via honest conversations and apologies where needed. Make peace in every way with what’s already done, so you can have a fresh start moving forward.
I am no longer surprised or irritated with myself when I make a mistake or forget something. My brain’s in a constant fog these days, so why should I be surprised I didn’t do something to my usual standard? Instead of berating myself for forgetting, I’m congratulating myself when I remember. “You forgot to get X at the store, Angela, but of course you did, your mind is elsewhere. You DID remember to get Y and Z and that’s pretty awesome.”
This kinder, gentler self-talk makes a big difference. If you don’t think it matters, imagine someone following you around all day pointing out everything you do wrong, and how that would make you feel, versus someone standing over your shoulder and noticing every positive thing you do.
This is what our self-talk does: it’s a story we tell ourselves, it’s a constant narration that most of us have in our minds all the time, and bringing our awareness to it is so important. I have a pretty kind internal narration now after years of shaping it, but I have taken it to a new level now with COVID.
I am proud of myself for doing really basic things on a daily basis that I used to take for granted.
I celebrate the small stuff instead of focusing on all the things I didn’t do.
I have relaxed my expectations for myself and there is a peace to be found in that.
Because when I can show grace toward myself, I can show it to those around me. This is a time for more humility and patience and understanding than ever before.
We’re all experiencing various levels of collective grief right now. Grief is different for everyone and everybody experiences ups and downs. If that’s how you’re feeling as the school year begins, know that you are not alone in experiencing those mixed emotions. Your kids’ learning gains over the next few weeks are probably not going to be an accurate measure of your abilities or theirs. Their learning (or lack thereof) is NOT reflective of your worth, or theirs. Look back on this spring and these first weeks of school as a test of resilience and fortitude that you have passed. You did it. This is a time for going inward — to stop looking for validation from outside sources, to stop seeking out others’ approval — and make peace within ourselves.