“I’ve never worked so hard in my life to try to reach students, and yet never felt like such a big failure. That carries a lot of emotional weight. But when we are dismissed to ‘just figure it out’, we’re not actually given credit for all of the incredible work that has happened.”
Those are the words of my guest Pernille Ripp, a 7th grade ELA teacher, author, blogger, keynote speaker, and passionate advocate for education. She is also the founder of The Global Read Aloud, a free global literacy initiative in which over 2 million students across 85 different countries participate in every year.
We are here to hold space for you to process the heaviness of the past year. Pernille illuminates some of the common emotions that come from teaching in a pandemic under the weight of so many expectations and talks about the impact on her own mental health.
We’re offering this conversation to you not as advice and how-to tips, but as a release valve for the pressure that so many educators are feeling. We’re dismantling the narrative that kids have “lost a year of schooling” and are “falling behind,” and examining how teachers have been the easy scapegoats for the systemic problems COVID has exacerbated.
Pernille talks about the challenges of teaching while also supporting her own 4 children in their learning. And, she shares how she creates moments of joy and things to look forward to for herself, her family, and her students.
“I don’t know what the future is going to hold, so I’m not going to prepare for it,” Pernille says. “But I’m going to focus on the things that will continue to sustain me as an educator and as a human being. I’m going to try to be in the best mental state that I can to welcome all of the kids in and to say, ‘Whatever happens, we’re going to meet it together, and I’m going to be by your side, no matter what that looks like’.”
Listen in as Pernille shares what the past year has been like in her experience as a parent and teacher, and what keeps her grounded, focused, and hopeful.
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“The world just stopped”
ANGELA: Can you talk to us about what you and your family’s experience has been like during this past year of the pandemic?
PERNILLE: I think much like everybody else, COVID was something that we were paying attention to, but didn’t really think it was going to affect us until it did.
I’m a mom of four kids between the ages of–well, at the time, 6 through 11–and now they’re ages 7 through 12 because it’s almost been a year. I’m a teacher. I teach seventh grade English in Oregon, Wisconsin, and I’m also the wife to an amazing man who was in the middle of getting his teaching degree when the pandemic hit.
I remember being told at four o’clock on March 13th, 2020, that we were going to need to stay away from our classrooms and that we didn’t really know what it was going to look like. I remember just sitting at home, because I think I had just walked in through my door when I got the email going, “Okay, well, I guess it’s a break.” And then the world just stopped.
Two days later we were standing in the public library filling up on audiobooks, because I told my husband, “I bet you they’re going to close the libraries. We need books for our kids.” When I got the email that we were going to be out, we were not coming back at all, they had told us before that we would have Monday and Tuesday with our students.
I remember I started to cry standing there in the library. My husband kind of looked at me and he said, “What’s going on?” I said, “Well, I didn’t even get a chance to give the kids a book or say take care.” And he’s like, “It’s going to be fine. You’ll see them again in a few weeks.” And then of course it became this incredibly long waiting game where we ended up teaching virtually for 331 days.
I just rephased back in the building with my own students two weeks ago. Meanwhile, my own kids continue to be virtual as their district has not gone back in. The first thought I had when I rephased back in was kind of like, “But I didn’t accomplish anything. I’ve been sitting at home for 331 days, and what do I have to show for it?”
I’ve recognized in that moment that more than anything, that was more trauma speaking than anything else because it wasn’t like we all took a vacation for 331 days and didn’t do anything. We sat in front of our computer screens, desperately trying to reach students that we didn’t hear from anymore while also trying to navigate what it felt like to have your world completely change overnight with your own kids and trying to recognize the feelings that they were bringing in. And also all of a sudden becoming a really terrible substitute teacher to my own kids as we tried to get them to log in and pay attention.
I think about that a lot. We’re lucky, my family. We have a roof over our heads, we have food, we have a job that has continued to pay me compared to so many others. Our trauma from the pandemic has not been in any way significant, and yet it still has impacted us in significant ways. I see it in the mental health of my own kids, in my students, and also in myself.
And I think that that also is something that I’ve had to come to terms with that we’re all experiencing the pandemic in different ways and some are experiencing it in a much bigger, more urgent way than others. And yet we’re all carrying pains for this and we’re all changed. We’ve all changed throughout this.
Acknowledging our own experience — not minimizing or comparing it to others
I really like what you said about how we’re all experiencing this in different ways. People were saying at the beginning in spring 2020, it’s like we’re all in the same storm but we’re not all in the same boat.
I’ve seen so much reluctance on the part of so many of my friends and people that I care about, teachers that I’m seeing around the world who don’t want to talk about what they’re going through because they just keep thinking, “Well, so many other people have it worse. I don’t want to complain about my job because I’m just lucky that I have a job. Well, I don’t want to complain about teaching from home because so many people don’t have that luxury being able to teach from home, and they’re risking their lives every time they go to work.”
I think it’s so important just to validate that this is not the Suffering Olympics. We don’t have to compare our pain to each other. We don’t have to rank it. We don’t have to make excuses and say, “Well, my situation isn’t really that bad.” Trauma is trauma, and different circumstances impact us in different ways. And just because other people have it harder, that doesn’t invalidate our own struggles that we’ve had.
Right. And I think that when we sit and suffer in silence — because that is the role that we’ve been given as educators anyway. I mean, look at all the other initiatives and things that we’ve had to just navigate through because that’s what we’re supposed to do as teachers. We’re not allowing ourselves to sit in that moment or in that space of going, “This is also impacting me in a really great way.”
I have said to others, I’ve never worked so hard in my life to try to reach students, and yet never felt like such a big failure. And that carries a lot of emotional weight.
And that then impacts our families when we bring that home, and every interaction that we have. Because I feel like in the past almost year, we were just handed this slate of like, “Well, teachers always figure it out, so just figure it out. Do whatever magic it is that you do, and then we’ll get through this crisis together. America’s youth will come out unharmed.”
And yet there is no magic to teaching in that sense. What there is, is countless hours of sitting up way past our bedtime worrying and trying to connect and reach out to others so that we can share ideas. We’re constantly coming together trying to uncover yet one more thing that we can try for the kids where it’s not working.
But when we are dismissed as “we’ll just figure it out”, we’re not actually given credit for all of the incredible work that has happened.
That’s especially true now as we’re looking at people going, “Well, the kids are now behind and it’s been a lost year. That then adds on to the emotional impact we’re carrying from this, because it certainly wasn’t a lost year for me in any way.
I asked my students about it. I said, “What would you say to those adults?” And some kids said, “Yeah, for me, certainly I know I haven’t learned as much as I normally would in school.” And others said, “Yeah, but I’ve learned other things.” If adults can’t recognize that, then they’re not speaking to children.
And so I think about how important it is for us to allow ourselves the space to say, “Okay, wow, I am so grateful that maybe I don’t have these other things that I have to navigate on top of what I’m navigating, but I also need this time to grieve of what my classroom and teaching used to be, to grieve the horror that we have all been steeped in and the uncertainty that we are all still facing, because we’re not out of this yet.”
Because if we don’t, I worry about how this is going to impact us on a long-term basis when we supposedly go back to normal and are just supposed to be teachers again.
Responding to the pressure of “be there for the kids, or else”
That’s a really great summary of just really a fraction of what’s happening. It’s just the tip of the iceberg of everything that’s going on and it reminds me of one of the other things that’s been really hard for me personally is the disparity of people’s reactions to COVID. It’s been really hard seeing other people not take it seriously and not think that it’s a big deal. That kind of adds to the trauma because you just think, “Am I just being too sensitive? Am I making too big a deal of this?”
Right. Are we overreacting when I say I’m scared to be around people or teaching within my building, even with safety precautions?
And I think it plays into some of the fears that we’ve already had to encapsulate as educators after every single mass shooting, where we’ve had to go back into our classrooms and realize that as we stand in our doorways, we are looking for weapons to defend ourselves with, we are looking for ways out, and we’re making the decision of whether or not we would sacrifice ourselves in order to save the students that we teach.
I think COVID just compounded that, that once again, so many of us — and not just educators, but anyone who really has been on the frontline was deemed as essential — are also deemed an essential sacrifice to keep everybody going and to keep society from collapsing.
And I feel like for teachers and those within education, the pressure once again to “be there for the kids or else”, it’s killing us literally. You see these horrific news stories of teachers teaching from their hospital beds because either they don’t have leave to take and actually take care of their own health or they’re so worried about the success of their children that they’re still teaching when they should be focused on their own health.
I think about that, I think about how when we then meet people where COVID thankfully hasn’t impacted them, or they had it and it was a minor bout of illness, no big deal, that it’s hard for them to probably understand what it means like to live with fear, and to teach with fear.
Because when I walk into my classroom now, I think about not just who have I been around (which I can tell you the answer is zero besides my own kids and my husband) but who have all of my students been around. When students tell me stories of the trips they’ve taken or how they’ve been on an airplane, or they’ve been to a tournament, I can’t help but think about all the germs that they’ve been exposed to and whether that’s now coming into our community.
That’s a whole new layer that we haven’t had to process before.
I know that for some, they’ve had to live in a way of dismissing it because otherwise it just would become too overwhelming. But I think recognizing that we all have different reactions and that we all have feelings that need to be processed is one thing that has to happen on a community level. Because it’s not just enough to say like, “Oh, we get that you’re scared, but it’ll be fine,” when that’s a guarantee we can’t actually make. It might not be fine.
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Recognizing the impact on our own mental health
How have you personally been coping with the pandemic restrictions, the fears, the things you haven’t been able to do in your life? How has this impacted your own mental health?
It’s impacted in a lot of ways, and I don’t think I recognized it for a while because I threw myself head-on into the work. Once we got that email about “we’re going to kind of pause” (I think we took a week off, like moved up spring break just so we could get our feet under us), I worked the entire time creating modules for my students, setting up support, sending out emails, connecting with others. I wasn’t able to go into my classroom. So I was thinking about the tools I needed to recreate and how could I possibly maintain what we had already built up in the three quarters of the year we’d been together.
But I think that throwing myself into the work that way meant that I was not processing at all what was really happening around us and the magnitude of what was happening around us.
Because then I also became super parent. I was one of those people that had that beautiful color coded schedule that was floating around at the beginning of the pandemic and oh my gosh, all the activities that we were going to do as a family. I think it lasted maybe three days and then I was like, Okay, for me and my husband to survive this as human beings, we’re going to have to let go of some of those rules and expectations of what perfect homeschooling 101 is going to look like, and also recognize that we’re not homeschoolers. We are parents. Homeschooling is a whole other game.
And so I think it really took me a long time to recognize that I needed to work through the emotions that I was carrying with me and the incredible feeling of inadequacy, the worry that I had, and also just the fact that my world screeched to a stop.
Because I’m someone who travels a lot — I train other teachers around the world — and that stopped. And so all of a sudden I was home all the time. And while that was amazing, my kids were kind of like, “What are you doing here all the time?” Like, “Hey, mom’s home.”
And for me, I craved the solitude that sometimes comes with traveling. I’m an introvert, so sitting on an airplane with no one talking to me is one of my favorite things.
So all of a sudden we had kids that were just right in our faces at all times. And so I don’t think the emotions really caught up with me until much later when I started having pretty bad panic attacks. I have not been prone to panic or anxiety before, and it was my husband that kind of recognized it for me.
And it was also him that helped me set some better boundaries. He would come over to me at nine o’clock at night and say, “Aaaaand we’re shutting your computer. You’re not checking your email anymore. That email will be there in the morning.”
I think recognizing, too, that I wasn’t alone in all of this, that so many other educators were trying to just keep their head afloat while also keeping their families afloat … it really helped to reach out to others and starting to talk about it.
I wish I could say to you that it’s all good now, I have it all figured out, but the panic still comes. The overwhelming sense of inadequacy is still very much a shadow that follows me through my work.
I think someone had mentioned to me that it’s like grieving, and I feel like there’s a lot of truth to that, that especially those first few months, we were really grieving the loss of what we knew education and community and being together as human beings really was.
And now we’re adjusting to this weird new sense of being that isn’t normal, and we don’t want it to be normal, but there’s still a lot of emotions that we’re going to need to unpack.
I think about how schools have either been in session, or they’ve been kind of bouncing between being home and being in person in school, or now they’re starting to go back in. And now we’ve really been talking about the mental health of children, but what about the mental health of the adults that are entrusted with the care of these children?
I think about my own kids’ teachers all the time, and I bet they’re feeling a lot of the same feelings I’m carrying, and yet there they are on the screen every single day so excitedly greeting my kids like they are the best thing that’s going to happen to them that day.
And at some point, I think it’s just going to catch up to us all, the exhaustion of keeping it up and being what we’re supposed to be. And I think that’s what is so hard, because when we think about, especially in America — and I can only speak for my American experience because this is the only nation I’ve taught in — but we have this incredible teacher myth of perfection that teachers are just supposed to be able to figure everything out. And if we’re not, well, then we’re not in it for the right reasons. I feel like that’s going to be the death of us all.
Seizing the small joys and creating things to look forward to
And there’s been no time to stop and process everything that’s been happening. There’s been so many balls that teachers have to keep juggling all the time that there really is no space to sit with these feelings and to process them. Have you found any practices that have helped in terms of self-care or prioritizing your mental health or processing and healing from some of the trauma that you’ve experienced over the last year?
I think a big thing that we had to let go of in my house was this chase of what we used to be as far as the rules. Not that we were ever perfect parents, but letting the kids declare another pajama day, or yes, we’re going to watch two movies today, or we’re going to play some sort of computer game for a long time and we’re just going to sit. So I think allowing ourselves to give ourselves grace both as parents but also as educators.
And whenever I do feel inadequate, just asking myself, Is this the best you can do right now?, because almost all of the time, the answer is yes. And I’ll think, Okay, well then, you’re doing the best you can and that’s going to have to be good enough.
So I think there’s been a lot of just internal self-talk of forgiving myself for not being able to be the mom I wish I could be, or the partner I wish I could be, or the teacher I wish I could be, or even the person I know I can be.
But then there’s also the real things that help. I live in Wisconsin and we are under a very cold winter at the moment, but embracing being outside, finding things to do outside that gets us out of the house.
I know that when the initial lockdown — we were locked down for two and a half months here in Wisconsin where pretty much everything was shut down — we would just go outside for a walk.
It wasn’t so much that I needed the exercise. It was that I needed the air to breathe and not feel so enclosed, because the world felt very closed to us.
I think just allowing myself to find the joy in things too, and really trying to now focus on the wonders that have happened in the last 11 months. I’ve gotten to see my kids grow up in a way that I never would have seen, and gotten to see them every single day. And while I know there’s a lot that we grieve and that there are things I wish I could change for them, just being able to sit with them in such a close way is also something that’s giving me a lot of hope and joy.
We were just listening to a podcast and they were talking about the effect of anticipation. My husband and I talked more about that, that there’s been so little to look forward to. All the things that we normally hope for and anticipate have been taken from us, whether it’s spending time with people outside of our household or trips or concerts, or that extra good meal you were going to do, or any of the luxury of access that we get if we have money and financial stability.
And so we need to look forward to other things, and that those anticipations and hopes now are the small things, such as maybe my mom dropping off some homemade cookies for us on Friday afternoon, or knowing that on Monday I’m going to read a really spectacular picture book to my seventh graders and I can’t wait for them to hear it and hopefully react.
I think finding things that give us hope in a much smaller scale has also been something that has done me a lot of good.
And then there’s the stupid stuff, right? Drinking too much tea and eating chocolate. I play PlayStation quite a bit and get into games like Tomb Raider. Allowing myself to do those things without feeling like I’m somehow slacking off has been really important.
The scape-goating of teachers and erasure of educator expertise
I think that’s so true. One thing that’s been frustrating for me is seeing folks outside of the education sphere talking about reopening schools as like a magic solution, when everything that I’ve heard from teachers who are teaching face to face right now is that this did not actually solve the mental health crisis for our students. This is not the kind of schooling that we want to be doing. This is not what kids need. We’re still having to keep distance. We’re having to do masks. We’re having to do all of these other things that really make it a not ideal situation. And it’s been so hard because there really is no ideal situation. There’s challenges with reopening, there’s challenges with remote learning, and there’s not going to be one approach that meets the needs of all kids.
It’s been so hard to see this criticism of teachers who just want safe working conditions, and to see school buildings being pushed to reopen as if schools haven’t been open this whole time. As you said, teachers have been working their butts off. But when I see all of the CDC recommendations for reopening–like universal mask wearing, proper ventilation, safe distancing,–these are things that many schools are in no way prepared to implement at this point. I see teachers getting scapegoated for not wanting to go into unsafe schools and being held responsible for problems they didn’t create and they can’t solve. What’s your take on that?
Well, I think once again we’re so easy to blame. They can blame our union or they can blame the local community teachers and say, “Oh, they’re not really in it for the right reasons because if they were, then they would know that being in the building with the kids is always going to be the best solution.”
But it’s not always going to be the best solution when we then are carrying the fear of contamination to each other, but also when it’s not what it used to be. Again, we’re just band-aiding the solution, and I think it’s just so easy then to dismiss the voices of teachers.
I think about districts where teachers have not had a voice in the reopening plans or where their voices have been completely dismissed in favor of outsiders who think that they know best. And those outsiders are typically people with a lot of wealth that come in and say, “Well, it is best for MY kids.” And then they use disenfranchised populations or marginalized populations to push their agenda.
I think once again, it just shows the dismissal outright of educators as experts within their field, that we have this notion of “you’re good enough to teach the children, but no one else is really supposed to be listening to you because that’s not what your expertise is. You are really just a vessel to make sure that kids do what they’re supposed to do.”
There are so many people who don’t see the craft that goes into what we do on a daily basis, and how we are constantly asked to just fold in the cheese, to quote Schitt’s Creek. Like we’re just supposed to fold in the cheese over and over. They don’t understand that that takes an incredibly creative mindset and energy that we have had depleted for the last couple of months.
Here’s the video clip Pernille’s referring to — it’s hilarious and spot on
I think that that’s what’s been so hard about this, because I want to be in building with my students. I want to make sure that every single child that I have in front of me feels seen, valued, accepted, and the work that we’re doing is going to help them accomplish their wildest dreams … maybe dreams that they haven’t even thought about yet.
And yet I’m running on empty. And so now that the worry is also laid on top of us of that we’re going to be back in building, and when we look at school funding around the nation and we see that some schools don’t even have air conditioning and now they’re supposed to have proper ventilation, it just feels like once again a huge slap in the face.
So I wish that we saw a more concerted effort to recognize that in order to reopen schools, it’s not just about wearing a mask. It’s about looking at our public school funding formula and going, “Which schools are simply not in a place safety-wise to do this?” because this is going to impact budgets for years.
And it’s once again also showing the incredible inequity there is within our funding formula because which schools are able to safely open? The ones that have the funding to do it. The ones that have enough to do the things to keep people safe. And the ones that don’t, they’re the ones that get forced to open. And then we see teachers getting sick and students getting sick because the safety measures are not there.
I think about the systems that have been highlighted as far as why we’re not able to reach kids and that those things were already there but they were so much easier to dismiss before because they weren’t playing out in the grand scale and they were only affecting some kids.
And so when I think about what COVID has revealed in education, I think once again that the tools of human proximity and the weight and power that they carry has been amplified. I think about how right now with being with my students and not being able to be close to them, how much I feel cut off from them because we’re not able to sit together and have a conversation, or we’re not able to sit in groups.
But I also think about the kids where proximity was used as a tool of power and as a tool of making them feel unsafe at school. And so I wonder, how do we re-envision school? And I don’t mean in a, “Oh, we should definitely have online school for all kids because of course some kids are thriving in that.” We knew that already.
But more in what is most important within the human facets of education and how are we going to change this constant chase of curricular standards that drive us into standardized testing and really create schools, again, that are meant to liberate.
I think about the Black Panther tradition of the freedom schools and liberation schools. I think about how we’ve gotten so far away from schools as a place to build up human curiosity and connection and really make schools into a place where students can become activists in whichever way they want to be in their world. We’ve just been so focused on creating perfect test takers, and then we have not cared about the collateral damage that we have done to kids along the way.
And so I hope, but I also worry about this. I hope that when we come out of this, schools will take a hard look around and go, “Okay, what are the practices that we have to get rid of? How are we impacting kids’ emotional health in the academic practices that we have? How can we make sure that our entire community is represented within our schools?”
Because we have so much work that we were already doing before this, but COVID has just amplified all of the irregularities, all of the inequities and all of the things that we really have just tried to either bandaid our way out of, or shoved under the carpet or whatever, and just pretended that they weren’t an issue.
Countering the superteacher myth by talking about our fears and imperfections
What do you think teachers most need to understand right now about what they’re feeling and experiencing (both on a human level and on what they’re experiencing in school)?
That it’s okay to have these feelings. And I say this as someone who’s not an expert in trauma in any way, but I know that I felt really guilty for having feelings about not feeling safe at school or not feeling like I was enough, because we don’t talk about our imperfection and our fears enough.
We don’t talk about our failures enough. And I get it: no one wants to hear a teacher talk about how they didn’t do as well as they had hoped. And yet what that creates is this perfection myth of “teachers will just figure it out.” You’re not allowed to have feelings because you’re supposed to be the adult here, and you’re not supposed to share your own feelings, but that leads us to completely cutting our own feelings off.
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I think that if we don’t allow ourselves to sit and process, and we don’t find safe ways to sit and talk to others and say, “Here’s what I tried. I’m running into this wall” or “I don’t know what to do with these emotions,” then we’re going to carry them with us and they’re going to compound in us. I think it’s just going to make us all sick, whether stress or an actual disease or just burnout.
Because it’s not like teaching was easy before COVID. It’s not like it went from super easy, no big deal to really hard. Teaching was hard, but often in the best of ways. There was complex problem solving where we were trying to reach every kid, turning over other rocks, and reaching out to other people so that we could maybe make this better for this one kid who we didn’t seem to be jiving with or grooving with yet.
It’s so much more complex now. And I think it’s so important that we have community and that we allow ourselves to feel these feelings and not feel bad for sharing that maybe we don’t feel like we’re the best that we can be right now.
Yes. I don’t know any teachers right now who feel… Well, I shouldn’t say any. I would say maybe 1% of teachers right now feel like they’re really rocking it. They feel like they’re on top of things. They know where all their kids are academically and socio-emotionally. They feel like they’re putting in a reasonable amount of work hours and it’s paying off in ways that really move the needle for kids. I mean, teachers feeling inadequate has been a long running problem because of the magnitude of the job and the lack of resources and support. But this year it has reached an astronomical level and I just think it’s so important for teachers to know, if you’re feeling that way, you are not alone.
Yeah. And I think we need to talk about that.
As far as like the mindful messages that are coming out, I think it’s also okay to say we’re going to recognize right now that this is really hard, and then not just dismiss it really quickly with a followup of like, “But we’re going to get through this together.”
I don’t need platitudes. I need someone to say like, “Man, what you’re doing right now is really hard and I appreciate the fact that you’re still showing up and coming every day.”
And I don’t mean it like I need a card or someone to like stand and clap in front of a building, but I think — just like for so many others right now during COVID — that there needs to be a recognition of this is really hard work. Getting some sort of platitude answers is not going to help me in any way.
And so when I think about the work that needs to happen, we need to be allowed to feel our emotions and we need to also have safe places to express those emotions.
And then we need to start picking each other back up and saying, “Okay, we did it. We got our emotions out. We’re going to sit in this, but now we’re going to kind of move on.” Not as a dismissal, but as a way to survive, because we can’t also sit in those emotions all the time because that is going to lead to despair.
It’s going to be interesting to see just like teacher retention rates, how that’s going to change, because I have a feeling that a lot of people are looking for new professions, and that hurts my heart because we’re going to lose a lot of expertise.
Inviting students into the conversation about our experiences
I think you’re so right about having this space to process emotions and have compassion for ourselves and a true understanding of what we’re experiencing, because if you can’t give that to yourself, it’s extremely difficult to give it to others, and students need that right now. What do you think teachers need to understand about what their students are experiencing?
I think they need to start conversations with students about what’s going on.
One of the things that I have loved the most in the last almost 12 months has been we do a weekly survey in my classroom that checks in on their reading, but also what they need. I just ask them different questions, but it’s basically a safe way for kids to let me know what’s going on or what they need. I think just having a simple way where kids know on the regular that someone is looking out for them and they have a chance to ask for a check-in with a teacher or with a counselor, or they have a chance to share some news whether good or bad that’s happening in their life, has been really important for all of my students. And it’s been important for me as well, because it continues our human connection and not just our academic connection.
So I think it’s really important that now more than ever — and I’ve said this for many years — that we include children in the conversation, whether they’re young or old, that we give them back the space to speak up. And when we talk about re-envisioning school, we need to bring kids into that conversation.
Now that we have tried all of these extremes — all of these different models of school in however many months — what were the good parts, what were the bad?
It’s been funny because I’ve been asking my students a lot like, “How can I be a better teacher for you?” or “How can I help you feel safe to engage?” And most of my students are also kind of at the point where they’re like, “I don’t know. It just is what it is right now.” But that’s not going to stop me from asking, because maybe one day they’ll have some sort of idea.
I think we’re quick to dismiss kids’ voices because they don’t give us a profound answer right away, when we don’t realize that maybe they just haven’t yet thought about it. And so providing them with an opportunity to do so often allows kids to think deeply and then come to us with something when they have something to share.
Rejecting the narrative of students “losing a year” and “falling behind”
I want to circle back to something we touched on just briefly earlier that I think deserves an even deeper dive, and that is this narrative that kids are losing a year of schooling and that they’re going to be “behind”, whatever that means. What’s your take on that?
I think the whole notion of behind was created by companies selling standardized tests. We had to have a measuring stick to hold kids up against, which is why we have statistics that show us that kids are behind before they’ve even started school, which is really, really detrimental and hard to fathom.
But what are we behind in? Because, of course, there are things that we have not been able to accomplish. And the things that we’re probably behind in is like the content that kids have been exposed to as far as like the facts. Like when I look at my own curriculum, we haven’t covered as much content as we would have normally.
But we have developed critical thinking skills on a whole different plane. We have developed executive functioning skills that I think my students are going to carry into their adulthood and carry them through.
I think about how we have really dove into units rather than going at a rapid pace hoping that everybody could keep up, but instead really sat in things and had kids bring up hard conversations and hard thoughts as they made connections between things.
And so it’s too easy to dismiss it as a lost year. Lost to whom? To the people whose tests we’re not taking?
There are absolutely kids where yes, their decoding skills in reading or their writing skills have not been developed in the way that we would like it to, but then we have to shift our lens and go, “Okay, we will pick up the pieces when we are able to, because that’s what we do every single year.” We pick up the pieces.
When the kids show up, those are the kids that we start with, and we go to them wherever they are in their journey and then we move them forward.
But I think we also need to collectively recognize the things we have gained. I don’t mean that COVID is something that is great and look at all the things we have learned from it and it’s so positive, but there ARE very essential skills that we have gained out of necessity that I think will shape all of us for years to come.
I think about my own kids and how my seven-year-old first grader, the computer savviness that she has is kind of scary at times. But also at the same time, how she has been able to implement and manage her time. But again, that is also because I sit in a privileged position of where I sit in a home with heat and food and two adults that can — well, now it’s on my husband’s shoulders — but one adult that can sit there with them.
And so I think about if we’re going to talk about loss, then we need to look at who had the greatest loss, and then how are we as a society going to come in and help them not catch up, but make sure that that never happens again, because that’s really what loss speaks to me. It amplified those who had little — once again, they were on the losing end in many ways.
So I also think that most people who say that we’ve lost a year are outside of education, and they’re looking at the wrong measurements. I mean, this is like all the experts that are trying to tell us how to do our jobs. And there are many experts that are very, very helpful, but there are also some where it’s like, you are so far removed from reality, you should not have a platform to stand on.
What to focus on when the future is uncertain
Yeah. I think there’s a lot of speculation right now, a lot of fear and concern thinking about a mass exodus of teachers. We’ve already lost quite a few of the school year and there’s a lot of unknowns for next school year. What will normal look like at that point in our society, in our schools? And so, I mean, obviously neither one of us can predict the future and we don’t know for sure, but I wonder what vision for the future you are working toward.
I don’t have a good answer to tell you, because I think every time I’ve sat down and thought about the fall, which is always kind of fun, like here in the spring we start thinking about the next school year and what it’s going to look like. But this year, I feel the earth move below my feet because I feel like we still stand on very unsolid ground.
And so I think for me, when I think of the future of education, I just hope that the conversations that have been amplified this year as far as inequity, as far as the impact of trauma on both students but also on educational staff, and how we’ve looked at funding, our public school system, etc., I hope that those continue. Because I know that whatever my normal will look like in the future, in the fall, I’m still going to show up to work every single day working on the same mission, which is that every child feels safe, valued, and accepted within our community, and that my school becomes a place that they can see will impact their future and their now in a positive way.
And so part of me is also like, I don’t know what the future is going to hold, so I’m not going to prepare for it, but I’m going to focus on the things that will continue to sustain me as an educator and as a human being. And I’m going to try to be in the best mental state that I can to welcome all of the kids in and to say, “Whatever happens, we’re going to meet it together and I’m going to be by your side no matter what that looks like.”
This was so good and so validating. Pernille, thank you so much for sharing your heart here and being so transparent with us.
Yeah, absolutely. I think we need more conversations like this, so I’m glad that you’re inviting these conversations, and the recognition that COVID has impacted people in so many ways. My story is one story and there’s millions of them. I envy those people who have been able to float through it without it really impacting them. And yet at the same time too, there’s just going to be so many pieces that we pick up as a society and as a community in the years to come.
I like to close off every interview with a takeaway truth, something important for teachers to reflect on and remember in the week ahead. What is something that you wish every teacher understood about their role in our profession at this moment in time?
I think for me, it’s that you’re not alone, that while you may be the only adult in the room, you’re sitting surrounded by kids who also have words to share and really profound truths to share; we are so much better when we allow them into the planning and the control of our classroom and the vision for our classroom. And know that whatever you’re feeling, they are probably feeling it, as well. So, being able to be vulnerable — in a professional manner — but bringing them into your journey will allow you to be brought into theirs.