When I was in the military, we referred to people who intended to serve until they retired as “lifers.” I became a teacher about five years after I got out of the military and I considered myself a “lifer.” I had finally found a job I loved: I loved being in control of my own classroom without reporting to anyone (for the day-to-day decisions, anyway), I loved creating my own lessons, and I never — not once in 3½ years — had the Sunday scaries.
But when the pandemic happened, educators were told that we would never go back to normal as we knew it. We were told that kids were significantly behind. Then we were told to stop looking at kids as if they were behind, that they were exactly where they should be (which is behind).
School began in September, and nothing had changed. Although we were not back to normal, we were continuing as if we were. Schools are now still using the same district-mandated rubrics to assess student skills that we were using before the pandemic. Rubrics that are based on Washington state standards that we were using before the pandemic. It was business as usual, despite being reassured it would not be. But why? If we are acknowledging that students are “where they are at,” which is (to no fault of their own) not where they would normally be at this point in their academic career, why are we still holding them to these same standards and expectations?
I am now sounding the alarm, because none of this makes any sense to me and I am a classroom educator. I am at Ground Zero. And I’ll tell you that after a year of giving “Pass” or “Fail” in place of letter grades — with many of them receiving “Fail” — this lack of discussion around changing Washington state standards really feels like the state only cares about grades and achievement rather than students’ well-being.
There is a pressing urgency that educators are currently feeling as we are facing the toughest year we have ever had. We are looking for life rafts. We need Washington state standards to be adjusted to meet student needs. To meet them where they are at, exactly where they should be as a result of a pandemic. Although I hate using the term “behind,” we do not have the language created yet that addresses what the students have experienced without using deficiency-based language. Students are just where they are, and the state needs to readjust, therefore acknowledging that they are where they need to be as a result of a year and a half of not being inside a school building.
Whether this means a separate set of emergency standards for students in crisis … I don’t know. This is above my paygrade because I make a measly teacher’s salary which is half of what it should be given that society found out last year educators are literally upholding our children’s futures. But moving on …
A significant number of students are also struggling not only because of the high academic expectations, but because they have been deprived of crucial social interaction. During the pandemic, most parents and guardians were working and trying to make a living to support their families through this crisis. Like most of us, they were in survival mode. But what this means is that students have been returned to us starving for attention as many have been cut off from their friends and extended family members. Not to mention, students also become more independent from their parents during high school and seek attention from other authority figures, such as their teachers, who were not as available to them during this past year. Which leaves us educators with the sacred job of filling this enormous void.
My days have been spent ensuring my students feel loved and seen and heard. The level of neediness from my students has left me feeling energy deficient and working at maximum capacity. I struggle to give my 8-year-old son the love and attention he seeks because I feel emotionally depleted by my students. Currently, the majority of my students are trying to fulfill their socioemotional needs no matter how much I insist they need my class to earn high school credit (I teach core English). I am seeing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs being played out before my very eyes as students are struggling to show any interest in academics while they are still managing their mental health. And as they should be, because the pandemic is not over.
For many, the reality is that school is their safe space, not just a place to obtain credits. So many of them come to my class to feed their soul, without doing a single assignment for that day, and leave. And as many parents and guardians have discovered during online pandemic school, getting a teenager to complete work they simply do not want to do is not as easy as one may think. As a result of this neediness, I feel as though I have become a mother to 127 students. I teach them basic problem-solving skills that they have not received yet that they usually learn in school, not usually from their parents. It took about four weeks before my students stopped reporting to me that their laptops were dead because they did not charge the battery at home the night before and they did not know what to do. All the while saying this while holding the laptop charger in their hands.
The intense helplessness makes me feel overwhelmed because my heart so desperately wants to help every single one of them to the level they need, but I can’t because I am drowning. Because of the toll on my own socioemotional health, I am not sure if I will make it to teaching another year after I survive this one. If teachers can only be effective if they are taking care of themselves first, and we are always giving to our students to the point of depletion, what else can we do but leave the profession to save ourselves? When is the state going to step in and acknowledge what is happening to our educators and our kids?
Joan King is a high school teacher in the Kent School District. She formerly served in the United States Air Force, and lives in Covington with her husband, son and two dogs.