A Good Friday follow-up reflection: Why I get triggered by the phrase “returning to normal” as a teacher

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You can listen to the podcast version of this post here:

When I think of “pre-Covid” in my teaching career, I think of the short 2.5 years of prolonged pain, traumatizing classroom management, and meaningful molding in the hands of God.

I think of my very first week of teaching as an 8th grade English teacher at my school where the caffeine coursing through my body, combined with heightened anxiety, froze my throat, or most specifically, the “orbicularis oris,” whenever I tried to speak to my students.

I think of the nightmares I had every night for the first 8 months of teaching, where I would forget my lesson plans, where students are running amok in the classroom, where students keep talking over me.

I think of the two—no three times—that I completely lost control of my students and myself in the classroom. Everything is a blur now, but I could not stop the tears spilling from my eyes. I felt weak and humiliated. Unfortunately, these were only public tears. Many more days of private tears followed me in the first year.

And on the year when school closed down, I think of the fight that broke out between two students in my homeroom, where observing students observed me observing the fight. I think of the laughter that followed as broken fake nails littered the floor in the aftermath.

Then, I think of the few weeks right before school closed, where I stood between two students arguing with each other, wanting to fight. One of them unintentionally pushed me slightly to try to get to the other student.

And lastly, on the week before school closed, I caught a bad cold and called in sick for the second time of my teaching career.

So, when I hear “can’t wait to return back to normal,” I think back to all this. And I get triggered. And overwhelmed with so many bad memories. This is what “normal” is to me, pre-Covid. And it is especially more sad when I hear that there are other schools and teachers who have experienced worse.

Is this the “normal” I want to return to?

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When I started teaching online during the last few months when school closed in the year of 2020, I regained my love of teaching. Even though I did not see the “faces” of most my students, the few that did show up to my “office hours” were very keen on meeting up with me and engaging with online learning activities. I honestly felt that God was giving me a break, to finally rest and regain my (acquired) joy of teaching.

As the next school year rolled around, in the school year, 2020-2021, we officially started the year online and then ended with a wonky schedule of bringing some students back on campus, with different groups at a time. For the first time, I experienced what it felt like to just teach a few students at a time in a public school setting during “regular” school hours. Even though it was a little awkward in the beginning, where one student automatically just sent me a message in the same room instead of just raising her hand and talking to me directly, I really got to know my students who showed up in person, without the baggage of managing over 30 students at time in-person and having to deal with disrespectful behaviors constantly.

Now, the school year of 2021-2022 is a mixture of positive relationship building and healing, while still bringing back piercing headaches of messy student behavior. In many ways, I have grown stronger and more vulnerable at the same time. I feel like I am still in the middle of bridging my rekindled love of teaching from online learning to my traumatic experience as a newbie teacher together. My classroom management and relationship building skills have improved, but they could be better. Additionally, I still struggle with the concept of “consistency,” which is even harder to grasp when paralleled with “normal.” It’s so easy to conflate “being consistent” to almost being a robot. It is as if, as a teacher, I am programmed to do this, and not do that, no matter what circumstance—we are to consistently sacrifice. One metaphor that I have heard admin say five years ago was “building the airplane as we fly,” meaning our school is trying to operate while still being under construction in many ways. I guess this year is no different, and I feel that this is a “normal” cycle that will never stop.

So what kind of normal do we really want to return to?

In reality, I have come to the conclusion that there is really no “normal.” When I keep hearing people wanting school to “return to normal,” I believe they are just referencing shedding the inconvenience and extra costs of wearing masks, managing social distancing, and weekly Covid-testing on campus, at least at my school. The pandemic definitely shook up society, and education has been sacrificed immensely. But education has always been on the chopping block. And it seems like government leaders only thought of funding public schools more because the pandemic hit.

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Unexpectedly, I believe the pandemic has done education a huge favor by shaking it away from “normal.” In a recent Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s article, “11 Education Trends to Watch in 2022,” there were a total of 11 good predictions forecasted for the education world, but these three predictions stand out to me the most:

  1. Team Teaching Is the Future of Education.
  2. Social and Emotional Support for Teachers Is Increasing.
  3. EdTech Will Free Up Teachers’ Time.

They all sound good, but implementing these predictions to keep it (financially) sustainable is the question.

“The one-teacher, one-classroom model is not sustainable anymore. We shouldn’t accept that new teachers are definitely going to be crying in their car at the end of the day. That’s ridiculous. Teachers can no longer go it alone, given the wide disparities across grade levels and the need to personalize learning. “

Carole Basile, Dean of the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University

I cannot say it better than Dr. Carole Basile. Currently, I have two Special Education teachers who support me in two my class periods. However, there is not much time or sustained discussion in how to best “team teach” in the most effective way. And unfortunately, I cannot always count on them being there if there is a shortage of substitutes or if they have IEP meetings or extra paperwork to complete. Nevertheless, this is a good start, moving away from “normal.”

I’ve been wanting to venture on the route of “personalized learning” since last year, which led me to obtaining the micro-credential in “Planning for Modern Classroom Instruction” and studying part time for an Educational Technology masters program. However, it is extremely hard to be the only teacher doing it in the school. Ideally, I want to create lesson videos for students to learn from at their own pace for each unit of study, so I can work with students in small groups. But the reality is, I do not have enough support and stamina at the moment to create an environment where students can independently do this without getting distracted. Even though this is my fifth year teaching, 1.5 years of my experience was remote teaching, a completely different ball game than teaching in person. So really, I feel like I am more of a 3.5 year teacher, where I still need to focus on finetuning my classroom management where students can follow clear routines consistently and respect me as a teacher.

Personally, I’m not sure what social or emotional support I have received specifically this year. I still feel bombarded with many tasks, from lesson planning, subbing for other teachers, to planning for department meetings and attending staff PDs. In this area, I would say it is “business like usual.”

At the moment, I have not been able to fully utilize educational technology tools to the point of “freeing up my time” in the classroom, other than no longer needing to run off to the copy room and worry about whether the copy machines are even working without constant paper jams.

So, I want to move away from “normal.” I no longer want to sacrifice my personal and mental health to complete a plethora of unsustainable tasks that are demanded of a single teacher managing over 30 students at a time.

Instead, let’s sacrifice and let go of the concept, “returning to normal.”

Let’s move forward into a new chapter of welcoming in the “New Normal.”

Thank you for stopping by Haunting Comforts, where I share teaching, faith, and life through stories, reflections, and analyses. Subscribe & follow me on Instagram for more updates!

5 thoughts on “A Good Friday follow-up reflection: Why I get triggered by the phrase “returning to normal” as a teacher

Add yours

  1. Ahh that’s understandable! It’s good some more social/emotional support will be coming to teachers. Maybe think of the return as a fresh start??

  2. I enjoyed reading your insight into the catch phrase ‘return to normal,’ and the thought on ‘the new normal’ now that we are on the tail end of COVID… I also listened to your podcast offering additional information as you slipped of script… Thank you…!

      1. It is too early to form a definitive decision… we are still in shock mode… with time, urban and rural thought processes will even out… and we shall slowly go back the future…!

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