A Quarantine Ode to Teachers

I have never been one to take teachers for granted. For me, growing up with a mentally ill parent, teachers were my primary link to sanity and the world at large. School was my safe place and I prided myself in being Teacher’s Pet, even as this often earned me the disdain of my peers. I am a teacher by trade myself, though what I teach is yoga to grownups, which is really not comparable to the mighty work of school teachers.

It took only a few minutes into our first day of “homeschooling” to truly feel the enormous importance of teachers and the impact of their physical absence. I came across and quickly forwarded on the post of a fellow frustrated parent: “Teachers should be paid a billion dollars. Per day.”

My son’s school closed six and a half weeks ago. We were among the first of NYC schools to close. I am proud of this. In the weeks leading up to the closure, our Head of School kept us updated on scenarios that might possibly happen as we all watched the trajectory of the virus. Our teachers immediately started preparing for what remote learning might look like. None of them had experience in this before, not at this scale. Much of our children’s education is not something that can be accomplished on endless worksheets. Our particular school values music and drama as much as it does math and literacy. At the time, I could not fathom how any of it could possibly translate, especially for my young Kindergartner. I figured that the older grades would be getting actual assignments and that those of us with kids in younger grades would, I don’t know, maybe just make some art and trace some letters?

The day before school would close, I received the email from our Head of School. I had already been taking the virus very seriously up to this point, so I wasn’t surprised by the announcement that school was closing, but my heart sank. Partly because the gravity of the larger situation was sinking in more deeply and partly because, what the heck was I doing to do without my kid in school?! But I knew in my bones that it was the right decision.

At the time, I could not have imagined it would be the last in-person day of my son’s Kindergarten year.

I quickly ordered somewhat random reading, writing, and art supplies. I took my son to the Lego store to pick out several sets that would hopefully keep us busy over the coming days (weeks? months?). I stopped in at a grocery store we happened by to pick up some freshly made pasta, and got yelled at by an obviously agitated man for “irresponsibly bringing my child into a shop during this time of Coronavirus.” Through it all, I felt steady, just taking everything one thought, one course of action at a time. But underlying everything was a paramount and unsettling uncertainty of what our immediate future was going to look like.

Over the last few weeks, my family has found a flow. My son understands that Monday-Friday are school days. There is no “recreational” screen time until the end of the day and that’s only when we’ve completed assignments, done some movement, and thought of something creative and imaginative to do. He earns his screen time and we both feel better for it. For the first time since I became a mother, when Friday rolls around, I have a little mental celebratory moment and think — TGIF!!!! This feels confusing and surprising for me because up until the pandemic, it was always the opposite: TGIM! Weekends used to feel much harder because I didn’t have the few hours off while he was in school. It’s funny how relative everything is. Now, weekends are a true reprieve for us all. My husband, who usually travels constantly, is working from home. This means that even though he may not be available on weekdays, we all feel the power of being together in the same space. This also means that he is not traveling or jet-lagged come Saturday and Sunday. We have more family time and the boys have more quality time together. Their favorite activities are hour-long soccer matches and going out to do Jedi training in the forest.

Our weekdays have a good amount of flexible structure. School provides daily assignments that match what the schedule has looked like all year. Our teachers also regularly remind us parents that we need not feel stressed about accomplishing everything. They remind us that when the kids are physically at school, there are a lot of built-in breaks as they walk from one class to the next or sit together for lunch. They acknowledge that it’s not possible to recreate the exact experience our kids had at school. Everything is different, everything is in flux, and we are all working together as best as we can.

My son’s daily class meeting still happens, just virtually via Zoom. Some days, the conversation and assignments focus on the current curriculum: they’ve been studying dinosaurs and next week they will start studying outer space. On Mondays and Wednesdays, their beloved librarian does Storytime and it is completely captivating. At first, I thought it was just the familiarity of routine for my kid, but even I have found myself being drawn into her stories.

Throughout the week, all subjects are covered including Art, Math, Writing, Reading, Gym, Dance, Music, Poetry, and Drama. Some days we opt to skip the Gym lesson and instead play basketball outside, or we skip the Dance lesson and just blast music and freestyle in our kitchen. Sometimes the lessons are taught live to the entire class of 20, sometimes in smaller groups of 10 or 5. All kids get 1:1 time as well, which are about learning but equally about connecting with the teacher and the kids simply having the opportunity to feel heard and seen.

Some lessons don’t include any video but instead ask me to read instructions and work directly with my kid. This initially felt like a burden, but as I’ve watched lightbulbs ding as understanding clicks, it’s come to feel like a gift to be able to see what he’s learning and to be able to support him. I no longer find myself having no idea what he’s done at school; pre-pandemic, on our walks home at the end of the day when I would ask, “How was school today? What did you do?”, my son would always shrug and answer, “I don’t know.”

Don’t get me wrong though. It is by no means always a joy. Sometimes it feels like pulling teeth. Sometimes I want to let the weight of my head drop on the table because it is all so incredibly frustrating. The other day I completely lost my patience and shouted so loudly that the people my husband was having a Zoom call with upstairs heard me. And no, nothing warrants such an extreme and unhinged reaction, but my son had been refusing to do his writing and haughtily exclaimed, “I QUIT!” while proceeding to walk away from me!

I’m only human.

Still, overwhelmingly, what I feel is grateful. For the roof over our heads, the food in our bellies, the health of friends and family. For everyone taking care of one another, whether it’s on the larger scale of our healthcare workers on the frontline or on the smaller scale of loved ones just being there for each other. For our school and our teachers who have been so quick to rise to the challenge of this “unprecedented” time. I never before doubted their sincere commitment to teaching and supporting our children but I get to see it in action now. The rug has been pulled from underneath us all and we are all weary about the state of our own health and the greater public health. But it is clear we are all digging deep, our teachers most of all. I am blown away. Our teachers have had to overhaul and rethink their lesson plans and how they hope to motivate and connect with their students. Their expertise, thoughtfulness, and love are palpable, even from a far distance.

All of us, teachers and parents, have had to be more flexible, patient, and trusting than ever. There is a real feeling of camaraderie and teamwork as we all share the goal of supporting the kids. What I’ve come to realize is that it’s not just about keeping my kid entertained and occupied or making sure he keeps up with basic education. It’s about empowering his belief in himself and his abilities, about encouraging his spirit to keep shining, about applauding his resiliency and adaptability to the sudden and all-encompassing change of circumstances that have overturned his life.

And it’s not just about my kid or an individual family’s kids. It’s about all the kids. The entire younger generation that are the ones that will go forth, the ones that will be inheriting the planet.

Educating children is a huge responsibility. Our present daily reality makes it feel like it’s a long-gone luxury to have been able to drop our kids off at school, entrusting their safety and the expansion of their minds to their teachers. But even with schools being closed, the last few weeks have shown me that I’m not doing it alone. Distance learning is still learning. Our kids’ teachers are still their teachers. School is still happening; it all just looks a little different for the time being.

So thank you, to our teachers and to all teachers everywhere.

I am a mama, writer, yoga teacher, and mental health advocate.
More posts by Leah Kim.

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