It’s the last week of 2020, and this seemingly endless year is finally coming to a close. Although this is usually the season for retrospection and reflection, it’s honestly hard to even put myself back into my January mindset. Looking at photos from the first few months of this year seem to be windows into a distant past — I half expect to see outrageous fashion trends and outdated technology. Was it really only nine months ago that I was shaking hands with strangers and hugging my friends? It seems impossible, just as it would have seemed impossible pre-COVID to imagine what our life would look like now.
The day before Winter Break, I asked my students to share some New Year’s resolutions in our Zoom chat. After they’d shared, I asked them to think of some resolutions that they wished their teachers would make for 2021. Some of the suggestions ascribed too much power to the teachers (“Open the schools back up!”), others demonstrated typical teenage snark (“No more work… ever!”). Others were sincere requests for more understanding, more flexibility, and more empathy from the adults in their lives.
I realized, while talking to my students, that there’s a lot that we still don’t know about 2021. We’ve been very eager to turn the page on this calendar year, but there are many difficult transitions yet to come. We have at least another two months of distance learning, and then, hopefully, a return to campus in March. We’ll have another round of year-end activities that will be modified or cancelled to adjust for this new world. But, even after we finish off this school year, we have no way of knowing what the world will look like when school starts again in the fall.
I know that resolutions made in a Zoom chat box are not legally binding, so there’s not necessarily a reason for me to still be mulling over the conversation, all these days later. But I found it hard to imagine how I might improve myself in 2021 when I have no real idea of what 2021 will bring. So I decided to tweak the question. Rather than asking “What commitments will I make for 2021?” I started to think instead: “What lessons from 2020 can I take with me to help me face whatever 2021 might bring?”
• Connections are just as important as content. As teachers, we tell ourselves and each other this all the time. But often we use it as a means to an end — studies show that students learn better and achieve more when they feel connected to their class and their teachers. But if the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that the connection is worth building for its own sake, not just because it might translate into higher assessment scores. For some students, an enthusiastic greeting at the beginning of class might make the difference in a day that is otherwise spent feeling isolated and alone.
• Check in frequently. Besides the daily check-ins at the beginning of class to get a quick emotional dipstick for the class, I’ve also been jotting down notes on my roll sheets — whose families are worried about a potential COVID exposure, who’s traveling, who’s just having a bad day. It’s such a simple thing, to send a private Zoom message the next class period to see how everyone is doing. Such a simple thing, but it helps my students feel seen, like they’re not alone, but part of a larger community of people who care.
• Be a person. I learned early in my teaching career that I work best when I’m not pretending to be someone other than myself. This year, I’ve re-learned the importance of being authentic and real with my students. I’ve invited them to laugh with me when the unexpected, unscripted moments call for it. I’ve apologized when I’ve been wrong, or when I’ve accidentally made things harder than they needed to be. I’ve shared my frustrations and I’ve been as honest as I can be about the realities of our situation. And, like it always does, it’s helped me build stronger connections with my students, even with the limits of technology and distance.
• Don’t take resilience for granted. I’ve written before in this space about the hardships that my students, and students across the country, are going through. It’s easy to forget, because they are weathering it so stoically, that teenagers are undergoing the same traumatic experience that we adults are, but with much less of the control that makes life bearable for us. Just because my students are heroic doesn’t mean that they don’t have a breaking point. It costs me absolutely nothing to be kind.
• Be grateful for this life. In pre-COVID years, I always took a few moments of class time before Winter Break to wish my students a happy holiday season and, specifically, to ask them to be safe so they would return in January refreshed, restored, and healthy. This year, I took a few extra moments to express my gratitude. Because of my job, I get to have six classes of amazing young people in my life whom I otherwise never would have met. It’s not that every day is fun — I get frustrated, I get overwhelmed, I get angry — but it is one of the great joys of my life to be a teacher at Jordan High School, whether in my bungalow on campus or in my own home. Whatever 2021 brings, I know I won’t forget that.