As school starts back, we have a whole new essential workforce hitting the frontline in the pandemic. Teachers were labeled critical workers by the POTUS. And that is as it should be. We are willing and able to meet the challenges ahead — especially with a dedicated and conscientious school system supporting us.
But I’m here to call attention to another group of critical workers out there — a group vital to the core function of society and the entire future of our great nation. A group of young, unsung heroes willing to do whatever it takes to succeed under strange and difficult demands.
I’m talking about our students.
The changes these kids are facing — and embracing — are enough to rattle the steadiest of veterans. Our school has opened on a hybrid schedule, leaving us at half capacity inside our walls, with kids reporting both in person and virtually at different times throughout the week. The hallways and stairwells have one-way signs, there are hand sanitizer stations every fifty feet, lunches are eaten inside classrooms, masks are worn when social distancing isn’t possible, and desks face one direction and sit six feet apart.
But these kids of ours — these superhero Gen-Z go-getters — they are taking all these hurdles in stride just to be here and be educated in far-from-ideal and so-far-from- normal conditions.
And they’re doing it with smiles on their faces. Not that I can see their mouths, thanks to the masks they wear so willingly — but I can see those smiles in their eyes. And they can see mine. Or I truly hope so. Because I love being with them again, interacting, forging relationships, watching light bulbs click on, discussions unfold, learning ignite.
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s far from easy peasy Lysol squeezy. Despite our school system creating one of the best re-opening plans I’ve seen out there, I’m not gonna lie, things feel weird. Because being socially distanced to keep us all together is messing with the normally exaggerated and wide-open personalities of my teen students.
I’m sure some of it has to do with the trauma of the past four months — the PTSD of losing classrooms and classmates and social lives literally overnight. And I’m sure a large part also has to do with the smaller class sizes and the masks we wear.
But y’all… I’m used to kids who like to talk. Who, if anything, talk too much most of the time. They’re teenagers. On the cusp of adulthood. It’s a confusing stage under normal circumstances. So they talk through their confusion in class A LOT… way more than they do at home. They feel freer to vocalize thoughts, feelings, dreams, and fears. And through their persistent chatter, formal class discussions, and best-friend heart-to-hearts, they learn who they are, what they know, what they believe, and where they stand in life. And I love that about teenagers.
Like, really. I’m not lying. Some teachers love it when their students are silent. But me, I love it when they’re not. When they feel comfortable and safe enough to give voice to their rapidly-evolving thoughts and feelings.
But this year, they are quiet. Eerily so — as if the masks are acting as mufflers.
And not just for them. Me too.
I teach because I love to make connections, to share literature and love and learning with young people so they know and understand their worth and potential. My goal is always to make a positive impact.
But this year, my impact feels muffled, like my best efforts are falling on… not quite deaf ears, but more like mute mouths. Our kids, I think, feel vulnerable and isolated and self-conscious.
But then, these kids are also brave. Brave and here. At school. In a brick and mortar building. Present and determined. They make me prouder than they’ll ever know.
I wish I could put into words how much I love them. How far I am willing to go to help them succeed. How much they inspire me to be the best possible teacher — because they deserve only the very best.
As our superintendent says, this school year should be seen not as a challenge, but as an opportunity. An opportunity to grow and become better at our craft. I want to be a better communicator and a better teacher — to bridge the social distancing distance and reach my students. And teach my students. And see them grow.
I will rise to that opportunity, and I will seize it with both hands (well-sanitized, of course).
Because my students are willing to do the same.