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By T Michele Walker
It’s September and we all know what that means: “pumpkin spice” everything, back to school specials, shopping for new clothes and for those of us with children or grandchildren, photos of the first day of school. Oh wait! That was last year and every year leading up to now.
I teach music and theater arts in a small, private K-8 school in Florida. After teaching around the country for 30 years, I am fully aware that I am navigating my final months as an educator. I would have never dreamed that my closing days would look like this.
It was last March 2020, and I was sitting in a staff meeting. Talks of COVID-19 were already being whispered about, when our vice principal called a sudden early 10:30 am lunch break. When we reconvened, we learned that school was closing immediately, we were going home. We would receive an email later that day as to how things would proceed.
Since that time, I have learned to navigate Zoom meetings, Google classrooms, teaching virtual music (just so you know, there is a sound delay making it impossible to teach in the traditional sense) and have grown accustomed to the joys of muting students. I admit, it’s a guilty pleasure.
During my Zoom teaching days, I was teaching one of my second grade classes and we were working together to write a new version of our welcome song to reflect our new circumstances. One of my students asked to be un-muted and with tears in her eyes, “Do we have to rewrite our welcome song? I don’t like this and I don’t want to change our song.”
Back to school this year consists of reinventing the wheel on an hourly basis. Stress looms large. Classrooms must allow for social distancing and classes that used to hold between 16 to 22 children now hold approximately 9 to 12 students. Lunch is in the classroom, not in the lunchroom, which now serves as a classroom. All children are wearing masks and face shields along with a hollow-shocked look in their eyes.
My educational goals have been streamlined this year. Far less focused on creating fun ways to teach rhythm, solfege and music, I am now focused on providing a safe haven for my students, an environment for expression and healing, some fun and laughter and then if we learn about quarter notes, that’s good, too.
Did I mention that I don’t have a classroom this year? For the first time in my career, I now teach from a cart. My teaching-mobile-of-love (as I like to call it) is blinged out with flashing lights and a speaker that plays my brand new welcome song, which is based on Gloria Estefan’s “Conga.” The class hears me coming before I make it to their threshold.
Now, let’s cut to the chase and talk about the safety. That is the most important thing: safety. Safety for the children and for the teachers who are growing older and possibly immune-compromised. Luckily, I am in great shape and healthier than ever, but I did get my flu shot and pneumonia vaccine early this year, along with taking every supplement under the sun, exercising and eating super clean. I do wear two masks at school and added a hand washing song to every music class so that we all stay sanitized. I wear a Purell necklace.
Inside scoop: even in the best of situations and top of the line social distanced classrooms, keeping children off of each other is impossible. Maintaining mask wearing is a daunting task and takes full time focus.
I’ll be honest with you, the temptation loomed large to retire early. I don’t want to be attached to a respirator and think back, “If only I had retired this year.” I might end up kicking myself, but now that I’m in the classroom, I feel a strong calling to finish out this school year. All of my skills, experience and training have been leading me to just this situation. The children need me.
Because we’re unable to sing or play instruments, I have been asked to focus more on theater and drama, which has been a life saver for the children. We’re creating superhero characters, which is empowering for them and gives them a window into what’s going on under the surface. We’re creating monologues and scenes and exploring our super powers and dancing to Superhero songs. We are all finding ways to be a superhero in our everyday lives by wearing masks, social distancing and spreading love. We talk about what we’re thankful for, and for the first time, young children are saying, “I am thankful for being here, at school.”
I don’t have any answers. I am like everyone else, I want my loved ones and for me to be safe. My loved ones happen to include the 250 children at my school and our teachers and staff.
This pandemic will pass one day, but the changes we’ve experienced will remain with us for the rest of our lives.
I teach in a Hebrew school and there is a term, “Gam Zu L’Tova.” Gam means also, Zu means this and L’Tova means for the good. In other words, “Also, this is for the good,” or “this too is for the good.”
It is important in life to find the blessings or lessons in what challenges us. I strive to find the joy in change, even though it might be terrifying. Even in this COVID-19, there are opportunities for growth and even some joy in the midst of this tragedy. “Gam Zu L’Tova” to you all.