Updated: May 7
Written by Kimberley Willeford
“Teaching in the Time of COVID”, sounds like the title to some sappy romance novel doesn’t it? If only that were the case. In reality, it’s more like the title to a post-apocalyptic novel.
Over the course of 2 years everything we knew about society, education and the teaching profession was turned on its head. All the old tricks and “best practices” no longer worked. While veteran teachers had a substantial toolbox of knowledge to draw from, new teachers were left out in the cold, because, of course, “How to Teach in a Global Pandemic” isn’t something that is covered in the teaching programs.
It was in this chaos that I started cutting my ‘teaching teeth’. Initially, I thought I was at a disadvantage compared to veteran teachers, but as the weeks turned into months, and the months into years, I learned that being a “young” teacher was actually a strength.
I wasn’t accustomed to normal, I didn’t have years of routine of “what worked” and “best practices”. Therefore I was able to adapt to the ever changing situation. Now, 3 years in, I feel like I have the skillset and the stamina to take on whatever life will throw at me in the course of this career.
So, to all you new teachers out there (or soon to be teachers), here are my words of wisdom for how to teach during a global pandemic and beyond.
Set boundaries with your work
Now more than ever, we as teachers need to set boundaries. For far too long we have been asked to go “above and beyond” for the “sake of the children”. For years we have done this and it’s resulted in teacher burnout.
This became even more evident during the first 2 years of the pandemic. Teachers were asked to plan for hybrid, online, and in person education. We were asked to enforce masking rules, social distancing, and to always be alert for signs of distress in our children.
In the span of a few months, we were asked to go from teaching to counseling, to social support, to public health enforcer, and much more. All of the “extra” duties ate into time we would normally spend doing our grading, parent contacts, lesson planning, and time with our own families. It forced us to eat up our personal time to accomplish all these tasks and resulted in swarms of teachers having mental health issues or leaving the profession altogether. Recent reports from NPR show that approximately 55% of all teachers are leaving the profession due to the stress of pandemic teaching.
So, new teacher, repeat after me, “I will set hard boundaries and honor my time. I will NOT work at the expense of my mental health and happiness”.
Don’t get me wrong, this took me a few years to master. Three years into pandemic teaching I have finally developed a system that works. I work my contract hours during the week, and dedicate 3 hours on the weekend (TOTAL) in order to do planning for the upcoming week. Does this mean I have to prioritize what I take grades on? Yes. Do I have to leave some things undone at the end of day? Yes. Do I have to sometimes say no to administration, parents, coworkers, and students when they ask me to “be a team player” and “take on extra duties” for the “sake of the children”? HECK YES. Has this negatively impacted my ability as a teacher to convey information and form relationships with my students? Absolutely NOT.
In fact, I am a better teacher/mentor now because I am no longer pouring from an empty cup. I am modeling to my students what healthy boundaries are so that they don’t fall into the same trap.
Your Students will be Behind- They will NOT Meet Grade Level Expectations and That’s OK!
Yup. I said it. (Gasps!). Education policy makers and state lawmakers everywhere are up in arms, but I’m just stating the obvious here. I mean, after 2 years of being unschooled, how could we expect students to be at grade level?
During the pre-pandemic days, schools were having difficulties getting students to meet the state mandated metrics. It’s not outlandish to think that the pandemic would have significantly impacted a student’s ability to now meet these metrics, especially for our youngest students.
Now, does this mean we throw our hands up and give up? No. Does it mean that we need to be gracious with ourselves and our students and set reasonable expectations? Absolutely. Will we still be expected to teach to state standards? Yes, but we should not take our students’ “failure” to meet the standards as an indication that we as teachers have failed.
Just teach the best you can, that’s all we can do and trust that things will get better over the coming years. Kids are fantastically resilient. Right now they are learning how to engage with people again. Next year they will start meeting and exceeding our standards. Like all good things, it takes time. We as teachers need to realize that and be patient with them, and ourselves.
This Year Focus on Building Relationships and Teaching Life Skills
I know this sounds weird but hear me out. Kids have largely been left alone and asked to figure out how to teach themselves through a computer for 2 years. For the older teens, this was a good lesson in self-sufficiency and honestly, was a good replication of what colleges and jobs will expect. However, for our younger students, this task was the equivalent of throwing them out in the middle of the ocean and asking them to swim to shore. We left them with no tools, and no skills. Now we are reaping the consequences.
Kids today don’t know how to engage with each other in a meaningful and peaceful way. They don’t know how to hold themselves accountable for their actions or how to meet deadlines. Basically, they don’t know how to “do life” in any meaningful way.
Now, we can argue that parents should be teaching this, but that’s a moot point. As teachers, we should be teaching not only our content, but also basic life skills such as conflict resolution, time management, and responsibility. After all, when you look back on your school years, what stuck with you more: how to do calculus proofs, or how to stick to a deadline so you didn’t fail your project?
At the end of the day, we should strive to graduate students who have the basic skills to succeed at life. As a mentor told me, “Your goal is to teach life skills. You just use your specific content and subject as a vehicle for teaching those skills”.
So new teacher, if you feel overwhelmed at what you’re teaching and what students are getting out of it, step back and reflect on your goal: Are you trying to teach them to memorize some obscure content, or are you wanting them to come out with the skills to be a semi-functioning adult? Let your response guide you to how you teach your content.
Dear New Teacher
I know the past 3 years have been overwhelming. I know you have spent many nights stressed and crying wondering how you’re going to make it through the next day. I know you’ve wondered how you can bring students who are so academically deficient to passing in one year.
It’s a lot, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t or that I had it all figured out. I don’t, and likely no one does. I hope though that these tips will allow you to reframe your expectations, under your responsibilities, and provide you with some meaningful advice that you can apply to your day to day life. Remember, you didn’t create the pandemic or all the academic chaos. You alone are not responsible for fixing it. It will require us as a nation to come together, reevaluate what we expect from education, and work together to accomplish it.
Until that time though, know that you’re doing a great job, and no matter how big or small your impact, you ARE making an impact on your students’ lives.
About the Author
Kimberly is a 3rd-year middle school science teacher in North Texas. She lives with her husband and two “sweet, but mischievous” boys. She has a dream of one day changing the world by working in ocean conservation. Until then, she’s really enjoying impacting the lives of her students. In her spare time, she likes to read, sleep, and watch the occasional soccer game or track meet.