As an ultrarunner, I often use the phrase, “relentless forward progress” during a long run as a reminder that I need to keep moving towards that finish line, no matter how hard things get or how much I want to quit. I’ve found myself thinking “relentless forward progress” regarding teaching these past months. This has been like an ultramarathon – running 100 miles at a time – full of ups and downs, tears, joy, smiles and laughter, feelings of hopelessness and feelings of great success. This is hard. So very, very hard. But we keep moving forward. Each day gets a little better. More kids log on to the Meet. More kids talk and share. I watch webinar after webinar trying to figure out different ways of doing this virtual crisis teaching. I cry. I reach out to friends going through this same experience. I reach out to my families. I reach out to my kids. I live for the laughter and joy that comes from seeing their beautiful faces twice a day on a screen. I sing and play drums and dance and wear silly hats. I try new things each week to engage and connect. Lunch bunch, virtual play dates and small groups. Some go better than others, but we are all relentlessly moving forward, hopefully with more joy, love and connection than despair and sadness. It’s a rollercoaster and we are doing whatever we can to take care of the little humans we love so much.
But now the conversations are turning towards what’s next. What happens in fall? How will school look when a new school year starts? And this is when I get gripped with fear. The conversations I’ve listened to suggest taped off areas of a classroom and playground. Keeping children 6 feet apart at all times. Wearing masks. Having children stay in their own 6 foot tape bubble all day – in a desk. Not allowing children to play with each other in the classroom or playground. Not allowing them to share supplies or toys. These thoughts and questions keep me up at night. And there are no answers…yet. I struggle to see possibility in this “new reality”. I hear talk of returning to school while social distancing and wearing masks and I just can’t see how this can be done without school becoming a traumatic experience for young children.
I teach 4 and 5 year olds. Many of these children don’t speak English yet. For many of them, this is their first school experience. So what do I do on that first day and week of school when the inevitable tears start? When children need to be hugged or passed off from their families with a gentle hand hold? When families need to be comforted as they send their little one off to school? When children are scared and need to be comforted with a smile and a hug? When they fall and need a band-aid? When we have to huddle together for the Lockdown Drill or exit the building quickly for a fire drill – and children need to be comforted through these experiences? When they need help blowing their nose? When they need their shoes tied? When they miss their families and need to sit in my lap? When they need to lean on my leg, just because? When they need to see the pictures in the book I’m reading? When they need to talk to a friend? When they excitedly come in and want to hug me and tell me a story? When former students see me in the hall and run to give me a hug? When they are drawn to the other child who speaks their language and they need to just play with blocks together? When they want to run on the playground and forget they can’t go close to others? When they look expectantly at the adults for reassurance that this thing called “school” will be ok, and all they see are our eyes – trying desperately to communicate that this will all be ok when we are so fearful ourselves?
Love, connection, relationship, community and play are the foundation in which we build our classroom each fall. It is this foundation that makes the academic piece possible. If children don’t feel safe, loved and connected, the reading, writing, math and science just can’t happen. So I’m struggling with the possibility of a “new reality” of constantly telling children they can’t touch me or other children – and they have to stay 6 feet away (six feet is very, very far when you are a tiny four year old). With verbally pushing them away constantly. With thoughts of saying “no, you can’t do that” and redirecting them to keep distance all day long. With fear being a constant cloak in our classroom space.
I don’t have answers. But I do know that the people making decisions about how to proceed in the fall need to invite us to the conversation and listen to the early childhood teachers and the families of our youngest learners. And if we aren’t invited, we need to share our thoughts and concerns through email and phone calls. We need to make sure our voices are heard. I do think we can get to a space of possibility in all of this. We can do hard things. And I do think we can come up with some answers with our collective wisdom and love for young children. Pre-K and kindergarten are unique. So very, very unique. The decisions made for elementary, middle and high school students have to be different for our youngest learners. It is my hope that we have a seat at this table, or create one by reaching out via email, and that our expertise working with young children is listened to, honored and respected. And, that the small human beings we get to start a new class with next year are listened to, honored and respected. They deserve it.
Sending love and health to all of you. Know that you are doing incredible work right now. And it’s hard. But we got this.