End of Year Thoughts 2019-2020

Wow, 2019-2020! Shout out to everyone who’s made it through the 2019-2020 school year, and the last 4 months, and is still standing and pushing forward! Special shout out to all the teachers out there who worried about, instructed, and supported their students during digital emergency learning.  This includes all the parents, guardians, siblings, grandparents, and of course certificated teachers, everyone who contributed to what school looked like at home from March 2020 until June 2020. Students also deserve recognition during this time. At the end of the year, students of mine reflected that they know now that if they put their minds to something, they can accomplish it. They learned that they can be independent learners, something they never tried before. Of course many also felt that distractions were what stood in the way of their success. Lack of motivation, as well as distractions such as their phones and family members at home disrupt their concentration and ability to apply themselves. I’m not sure what school is going to look like in the Fall. I only know that I need to be ready for whatever’s coming down the pipeline, and that students are going to need support to handle what’s coming too.

They make you work for it

It’s always exciting to finish another year. Summer break is a glorious 10 weeks that we teachers talk about all year. Even on the first day of school, during the first break, there’s a teacher in the break room who says, “Welcome back everyone, only 150 more days to go!” Updates continue throughout the year, celebrated with cheers and talks of summer plans.  At one school where I worked, a kind social studies teacher changed the numbers to the countdown daily in the break room. The other teachers cheerfully changed the numbers when he wasn’t at school. That’s real dedication right there. My first week of summer break seems to be making my work-from-home husband a little jealous, but there is so much work and literally blood, sweat, and tears that goes into the full school year before we get to taste the sweet rewards of summer. “They make you work for it,” I always say.  

Just get to Thanksgiving

There’s a couple other things they say that are also true. “Just get to Thanksgiving,” is top of mind.  From mid-August until the end of November, there’s only one day off, which is Labor Day.  This year it was on September 2nd, which is basically three months straight of lesson planning and instruction until 3 days off in November. I get that’s what I signed up for, but during this time students are also at their worst. Don’t let the quiet students you meet on the first few days of school fool you, they are full of excitement and chatter, and they are just getting their bearing before they explode. For me, and many teachers I believe, August until December is pretty exhausting. During this time I am getting to know students and they are getting to know me. Have you ever learned 150 new names and faces in two weeks? I think it’s getting harder each year. This year I had the hardest time with the names of my second period. It was my biggest class, 34, and they were all angels. No one did anything obnoxious or stood out, those names you learn quickly, so it took some time before I could talk to everyone and get to know them enough to remember their names. It was perhaps 8-10 weeks before I truly knew all the names in that class. Even until the end of the year, I would sometimes confuse the names of three very bright, quiet, polite young women!  

You have to go slow to go fast

“You’ve got to go slow to go fast” is another thing they always say.  From August to December, it’s important to practice routines and study skills and get them right, so we can use them throughout the year with success. Anything with paper, picking it up, handing it out, turning it in, collecting it, stapling it, cutting it, gluing it…takes forever and can suck up so much class time. I used notebooks for 3 years, and binders for 1, and I don’t have the perfect solution. But having students practice routines like picking up a copy of the day’s assignments from the counter as they enter, or passing work into the center of the table to be collected, helps streamline the class and saves time. The structure of my lessons is that there’s a warm-up or task for students to do as soon as they enter. This was a routine that I initiated and rehearsed with students from the first day of school. While my period 2 angels caught on quite early and fell into the routine seamlessly, my other periods did not transition as easily from break, lunch, or hallway time to class time. I was fighting over students for their attention, ushering them to their seats, and arguing over their behavior. After several months of this, instead of jumping into the warm-up right away after the bell rang, I gave them a timed “settle in” time. After a few minutes of greeting their classmates, finishing their snacks, and checking their messages, they were ready to begin. The wind down time turned out to be beneficial for all of us. They were ready to learn and I was calm and still excited to see them. So learning routines, and learning about each other are essential to be able to learn in the classroom. “They don’t care what you know, until they know that you care” is something else they say that can apply here. It’s also what makes the first months of the school year the challenge that it is. 

Just get to Christmas

“Just get to Christmas” is something else they always say. It’s a lot like “Just get to Thanksgiving,” but now we’re talking a nice chunk of time off, 3 weeks usually. By now there’s a flow to the class, students know and trust me, and I am getting to know them more as they continue to open up. By winter break a lot of teachers are grateful for the vacation and are feeling burnt out. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but lesson planning is a very time consuming and arduous task. If you aren’t a teacher, maybe you don’t know that whatever takes place in the classroom is 100% the result of the teacher. The content, the delivery, the activities, they are all carefully selected and planned by the teacher. The curriculum and support varies by school and district, so I have found myself creating and implementing curriculum relatively in isolation. This is not fun or easy to do, and I don’t recommend it. Make sure to ask about teacher collaboration and professional development before signing a contract with your next school. My first year teaching 6th grade Earth and Space Science, I stayed up until midnight daily in order to research and plan effective lessons. It got a little easier the next year, teaching the same subject again. The following year, I switched schools and content areas. Not only was I teaching another brand new subject, High School Biology, but also Earth and Space Science. I had always feared double lesson planning, and now that was me. That was by far my hardest year in teaching, after my first year. This past year I taught Biology, and only Biology, which was a relief. I enjoyed immersing myself into the subject and improving upon what I did last year. I must admit though, that I would have tried to do even more new things had I not been so burnt out from the year before.  

On Friday the 13th of March, we left everything as it was, student work in the turn in bin, agenda written on the board, and student binders in the cabinets, and we went home

By March I was fully enjoying the students in my class, even the naughty boys and girls. We had been learning about protein synthesis but took a break to learn about the Coronavirus. In February we watched an ABC News Documentary, which followed the breakout and quarantine in Wuhan, China. Students made eerie comparisons between what they saw in the documentary, and later what was happening in our own country and cities, to the Movie Contagion.  We watched it earlier in the year in October when we studied the immune system and infectious diseases. If you haven’t seen it in a few years, watch it again! It is very accurate to say the least. The week before the school closing in March, a memo was circulated that a staff member at an elementary school about 5 miles away had tested positive for the virus. The staff member had been self quarantining for two weeks out of an abundance of caution, so out of more caution they closed the elementary school. Several days later, we were abruptly informed that the rest of the schools in our district would be closed until further notice. On Friday the 13th of March, we left everything as it was, student work in the turn in bin, agenda written on the board, and student binders in the cabinets, and we went home.  

That weekend was a little hysteric as our thoughts and worries swirled in many directions. My husband and I worried about our older parents on the east coast. The east coast was several weeks behind California in regards to shelter in place and social distancing orders, and concern did not seem high in places other than California and a few other states. By the first weeks in March my husband was told to work from home. I was waiting for more information.  We have 1:1 Chromebooks at our school, and in my mind I thought, surely school won’t remain closed for more than a couple of weeks, right? Will I still have a job? The next week we had “off,” to plan for digital learning for the foreseeable future.  We didn’t know at the time that digital learning would last the rest of the school year, and that even monumental life events like high school graduation would be attacked by the virus.

Digital learning went pretty well overall

Digital learning went pretty well overall. I had 90% participation, although some were D’s which showed very little effort over the 10 weeks of the last quarter of Spring 2020. Many students were motivated and checking in frequently and posting their work. If we are to continue digital learning in the fall or for any portion of next year, then I definitely have some lessons learned from this experience. I can write about my experience of digital learning during a pandemic in a future post. Students felt accomplished at the end of the school year. Many felt empowered by the knowledge they had at the fingertips, and dove in, completing more than they did during regular class time. Sadly, many long for the days in the classroom doing labs and working together. Students feel isolated and although most of the time they can figure things out, there’s no one to turn to when they really need the help. While it was easier not having a commute from March until June, teaching was a lot harder through a computer screen. I really missed the daily interactions with the students. Their personalities and questions are what make the lessons and projects interesting. Lesson planning took even more time because we were finding and using more online resources like YouTube, and creating digital worksheets and assessments in Google Docs and Google Forms. Grading was also tedious in that it required additional hours in front of the computer screen.  Adding personal feedback required additional time, but it was worth it when students said “thanks,” and just to know that I was making a personal connection with them. Whether those comments and emails went straight to their unchecked Gmail, I don’t know. 

Whether it’s hard, overwhelming, or not your greatest, as long as you show up and do your best, then you’re doing a great job

This year was one of the best I’ve had so far as a teacher. Although it may have had a rocky start and some challenging trials, I learned to relax a lot more and be in the moment, which led to greater enjoyment. Next year will be my fifth year as a teacher, and my 6th in the classroom. Because of Coronavirus and the unanticipated time home for 4 months, I don’t feel drained and exhausted as I usually do at this time. It usually takes me several weeks to recuperate from the school year. Lots of naps, sleeping in, and generally resting. The last week of school I had to pack up my classroom belongings because I’m moving back to the east coast. Even with all of that, I’m still feeling pretty good. I’m writing this blog post. Last week we went to Yosemite National Park and hiked all day, and we have another trip to Yosemite coming up in July. I’m looking forward to this summer, whatever that looks like.  Things are opening up, and thankfully we’re able to do some traveling in California before our big move back east. I’ll be working on my lesson plans for next year, and planning for at least some digital learning in the school year, maybe starting as early as August. With Coronavirus, what will school look like? So many questions, so many uncertainties. Whatever happens we will deal with it, and what I learned this year is that we can and did adapt to the situation.  Whether it’s hard, overwhelming, or not your greatest, as long as you show up and do your best, then you’re doing a great job. Keep it up!

Published by How She Teaches

I teach Biology and Earth and Space Science in high school and middle school. I want to share my personal experiences and teaching milestones with anyone who wants to learn.

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