Feeling the Pain of a Pandemic School Year

I’m having lunch with a teacher tomorrow. She stopped by my porch to invite me. And we agreed to bring take-out to an outdoor, socially-distanced meal.

“I want to talk about school starting up,” she said, “and her eyes had a wild, darting kind of a look.

I wish I could come to that lunch tomorrow with some gifts—words of wisdom or reassurances or a bag of tricks for this unprecedented school opening.

But I’ve talked with other teachers on walks around town and on Zoom and on the telephone, and they’re all saying the same thing—that nothing seems right for this school year. It feels wrong to bring students back to school and wrong to keep them home and wrong to do a hybrid—to keep them home one day and bring them back the next.

The good teachers I know have always calmed their before-school jitters by preparing and then preparing some more. But this year, teachers don’t know how to get ready for school—except they are quite sure they will need a stock pile of masks and cans of disinfectant. That is, unless they never enter their classroom doors.

Having taught for thirty years, I’m used to sharing what I’ve learned with younger teachers. But this year, I don’t know the answers. This year’s teachers are going where I haven’t been.

What they need from me is not a list of effective techniques, not the steps to solve the problems of a pandemic school year. They don’t need the pressure of my words.

Instead, they need me to listen to this new story in education, to feel the pain of teaching in a pandemic year, to grieve with them, to recognize how hard it is when the old world changes before the new one can be seen.

When Emotions Run High

I’ve seen tempers explode right in the middle of class—hackles up, fists bunched, and bitter words thrown across the room. These high-running emotions always daunted me. After all, most of my students had larger bodies than I did and louder voices and a greater willingness to take a swing. I obviously couldn’t fight might with might.

So how could I keep misdirected passion from hijacking my class?

Here’s a simple series of interventions that worked . . . at least sometimes.

  1. Start with action. Countering emotion with emotion usually escalates emotion. And logical thinking doesn’t work, either. When the amygdala—the emotional part of the brain—is activated, the reasoning brain shuts down. But when action meets emotion, there’s a chance.

I had a list of options I used: Sit down. Meet me in the hall. Take this attendance sheet to the office. Go get a drink.

A student may not be able to control rage. But sitting down or taking a few steps toward the hall. . . maybe.

  1. Continue with thinking. “Here,” I’d say, handing a student paper and pencil. “Write. Tell me what happened.”

And students usually wrote several pages, the first half sheet usually full of a heavy jerking scrawl. Further down, the script often lightened and smoothed out. And the content became more reasonable. I could see evidence of logic flowing through the brain, once again.

  1. End with emotion. Now that blood was flowing through the whole brain, students could express emotion in helpful ways. It was at this point and in private that I tried to draw out emotion.

“How do you feel,” I’d ask, “about what happened back there?”

And students were usually able to articulate with greater clarity and more understanding.

With many old routines upended, with uncertainties about Covid-19, and with new rules about masks and distancing, the start of this year is sure to bring heightened emotion. Perhaps this process of moving from action to thinking to emotion can help.

Tracing the Scars

When I was eight or maybe nine years old, my dad took me to see a centenarian named Mrs. Jackson

“She’s been telling me stories,” Dad said, “that I want you to hear.

My dad was her egg man. Each week, he delivered fresh-farm eggs to Mrs. Jackson’s house near downtown Flint. When she first became an egg customer, they only said good morning to each other as they exchanged money and eggs. After a few weeks they managed to talk about the weather.

But my dad, always looking for a story, began to ask questions. And slowly over the months, she began telling them: how she grew up in the South and how her family moved to Flint to escape old Jim Crow and to find better-paying work in the auto factory.

Being a jittery kind of kid, I was at first impatient the day of our visit with the words that faltered from her lips. And at first, I missed much of her meaning, studying instead the winter-white hair above a face so timeworn, it reminded me of a relief map of the Appalachian Mountains we had made at school.

But then she unfolded her gnarled hands and pointed a bony finger right at me.

“Wasn’t no older than this one,” she said. “When I got curious one day about the lines that crossed my mama’s back.”

Her hands folded again.

“How’d these scars get here?” she had asked her mama, tracing along the raised ridges with her finger.

And that’s when Mrs. Jackson’s mama told her that she had been a slave, beat for too much sass from her mouth.

Mrs. Jackson sat for a moment staring.

“And that’s when she told me,” Mrs. Jackson said, “that I, too, had been born in slavery.”

Mrs. Jackson had my attention, for sure.

She hadn’t been in slavery long, my dad told me later, having been born just before the end of the Civil War.

That visit with Mrs. Jackson heightened my wonder as I studied in school about the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation and Jim Crow and the great northern migration.

History, I could see, was a string of the stories about people. As the civil rights movement was playing out around me, an old woman had pointed a finger my way, the same finger that had traced the scars on her mama’s back, marks laid there by a whip before the Civil War.

Fast Twitch or Slow Twitch?

Think about it, my brother said the other day, most people are either high-twitch or low-twitch. I had never heard this way of analyzing people. And I must have raised my eyebrow, because he went on to explain. Usually, he admitted, fast-twitch and slow-twitch refer to muscles, each with different functions.

Slow-twitch muscles work for the long haul. They are fatigue-resistant and good for marathons and distance swimming and endurance training. But when slow-twitch muscles can’t generate the needed energy, fast-twitch muscles come into play.

Fast-twitch muscles are good for short bursts of power. They rise to peak force quickly, even though they don’t sustain this energy for long periods. Sprinters and power lifters use fast-twitch muscles.

“It’s not so much a matter of intelligence,” my brother said, “as style.”

My brother got me to thinking about my students. And as their faces filed through my mind, I found myself ticking them off—slow-twitch . . . fast-twitch . . . slow-twitch.

And it came to me that my fast-twitch students were, perhaps, the most vulnerable.

Take Lemuel, for example. He was the intellectual sprinter, the fastest and most intuitive mind in the class. But the brain that gave him bursts of insight also gave him the capacity to overwhelm himself—to become so emotionally fatigued he couldn’t function. Consumed with geometry, for example, he’d solve five complex proofs in one evening. But the next day he’d go into a funk, withdrawing from his friends, refusing lunch, and melting down over an essay. His explosive energy worked for him and against him.

And then there was Rachel, slow-twitch, for sure. Not instinctive like Lemuel, she worked step-by-step, plodding away, thoughtful and accurate. Rachel could hang in for the long haul—unless she was under the pressure of a timed test or an unexpected challenge. With these pressures, she often froze. But in the normal, work-a-day world, she was certainly more stable than Lemuel.

Unlike muscles with distinct purposes, students need to cross-train for both long hauls and short spurts. To maintain balance, Lemuel had needed variety and comfort. His friends had brought these to him—strong-arming him to the ball field, cajoling him into eating, and joking him out of a mood.  What Rachel needed was spark–to become curiously absorbed in a topic. And it was Lemuel who often lifted her imagination.

“Take a look at this, Rachel,” he’d say. And he’d persist until he could tell she had caught some spirit.”

While Lemuel livened our class with intellectual verve. Rachel made us thoughtful and preserved our sanity.

Fast-twitch and slow-twitch—they each bring their gifts.

Sparring Students and an Amish Story

All through grade school, Alexis and Seth detested each other—at least that’s what they said. And it’s how they acted. I watched bemused as they drew angry sparks each time they passed in the aisle during the half-dozen years they were in my gifted class. During discussions, they instinctively championed opposite views and then rolled their eyes as the other spoke. Lunch time entertainment for their classmates was listening to Seth and Alexis spar.

At the end of my wits one day, I told them a story.

“Long ago and far away,” I said, “my mother taught at an Amish school. And she told me about a couple of her students who remind me of the two of you—always arguing.”

When my mother left that school to raise a family, those two students were still squabbling. But a decade later and far from the Amish community, my mom answered her doorbell. And standing on her front porch in Flint, Michigan, were two Amish people with their children.

The grimaces and disavowals came before I could even finish my story. But I had found a way to silence the animosity. All I had to do was recite the first few words of the story.

But one day in the last month of the last year I taught Alexis and Seth, a student came into my room with a cryptic message: Watch this.

 And it didn’t take me long to see.  Goodwill had replaced the enmity between Alexis and Seth. Through their high school years, their classmates kept me updated.

“They’re still together, Mrs. Swartz,” they’d say when they saw me in town.

 Just this week, Alexis tagged me in a Facebook post. And here’s what I read:

I recently read a book written by Phyllis Swartz, who was a grade school teacher of ours that always teased us that we would end up married someday. ♥️

In her book, she shares this beautiful reflection about young love.

“There’s a wholesome simplicity in marrying your first love. We built our lives together rather than merge them, entwining our histories early. We saw each other in our most awkward, and most exhilarating moves into adulthood.”

Sharing our first wedding anniversary today, complete with the cake we cut that special day, is yet another moment in my life that I can’t imagine celebrating with anyone else by my side.

One of my other students made a comment: Does she mail you a “told-you-so” card every so often?

I’m thinking about it!

How Miss Merkle Saved My Life

Miss Merkle saved my life. At least that’s what I thought in third grade. You can read in my memoir 𝘠𝘰𝘥𝘦𝘳 𝘚𝘤𝘩𝘰𝘰𝘭, about how I longed to get out of the city of Flint and go back home—to the mountains of western Maryland and my friend Gertrude and my cousins and grandparents. I wanted to drink spring water again and see the stars at night. But, to my homesick way of thinking, I was stuck in Flint. That is until Miss Merkle, the school librarian, helped me escape.

She set me free with books, by breaking the library rule of two check-outs per student per week. She must have seen my yearning for books because one day she called me into the library.

“How many books a week could you read?” she asked.

When I said twenty, she gulped and told me to stop by after school each day for more books. But, she told me, don’t tell the other kids.

In this way, Miss Merkle offered me a way out of Flint. And I traveled to other worlds. Only these worlds were safer, more like I was looking through a window. I didn’t have to talk to anyone. No one heard my mountain accent. It didn’t matter that I was wearing plain, Mennonite clothes. No one could see me. And I didn’t have to drink their water. For a few hours I could forget my yearning for what was familiar. I could dismiss the feeling of not fitting in.

But Miss Merkle’s books also offered me a way into Flint. My reading simulated emotions in me, giving me the chance to recognize and understand my feelings.  In the book Heidi, for example, Mr. Sesemenn says of the orphan who is sent away from the mountains to live in the city, “She is not fashioned for life among strangers.”

Me, either, I thought with passion, me either.

But I took quick note when Mr. Sesemenn went on to say that in the city Heidi had made some true friends, who were never so happy as when they were with her.

And this put the question before me—could I, too, make friends in the city?

Reading Miss Merkle’s books also gave me courage to understand those whose stories were different from mine. Empathy is an exercise in imagination. And practicing on characters in books helped me with the characters around me in Flint.

Fiction is, after all, about what it means to be human. And in my transition between two worlds, this was exactly what I was trying to understand.

Reaching Through the Computer to My Students

I never dreamed I’d teach a class by Zoom. Not after thirty years of pulling stools next to student desks and patting shoulders and telling, it seemed, by the very air we breathed together whether the rhythms of the classroom were working. But I was teaching a college class as an adjunct when Covid-19 crashed into education. And like teachers around the world, I was thrust into a completely different venue.

I found that on Zoom I couldn’t read the room. And I realized how much I had come to depend on the collective signals students gave me in a face-to-face classroom. Was there a restless shuffling or an alive, reflective silence? Were students tilting their heads in wonderment or gazing off into the weekend? On Zoom I couldn’t quite tell.

What perplexed me even more was how to create memorable moments. Emotion makes students care, and it anchors concepts into long-term memories. Students recall peaks and valleys, but on Zoom, I seemed to be leading them along a straight, flat line.

My feelings of inadequacy took me back, way back to my first years in the classroom. In those years, I found it hard to come out from behind my podium. But it was only when I moved into student territory that I made meaningful connections with students.

Somehow, I realized, I had to reach through the computer to my Zoom students. I’m sure there’s lots for me to learn, but here are a few ways I found to reach toward students:

  • Drop by breakout rooms. I often introduced a concept and then sent students to breakout rooms to discuss it or generate questions about it or apply it in a case study. As students worked I rotated through the rooms, partly to check their progress but also to make more personal connections with them.
  • Draw out introverts. In a Zoom classroom, introverts can hide, so set them up to speak. I ask students to write a response to a question I asked. Then I sent them to breakout rooms to read responses to each other and asked each group to select one response to read when the class rejoined. This activity and others—like the chat tool and thumbs up or down button—helped the class hear more voices.
  • Ask students not to mute. This goes against every Zoom etiquette list I’ve seen, but I found that muted students tend to be more passive and more apt to multitask. And the natural sounds of the classroom—clicking keys, pencils scratching across paper, throat clearing, and even the bark of a dog or the wail of a siren—made us seem like real people together in one space. Unmuted, students were more likely to make impromptu interjections of agreement or confusion or dispute. They were also more likely to interact with each other. And we actually began to discuss.
  • Change positions. I’m taking my computer to my rocker, I’d tell students, to read you a story of a student with autism. So change your seat, too. Get comfortable while you listen.
  • Linger after class. I learned not to end class, just to stick around as students gradually said goodbye. Often a student or two would stay—to ask a question or tell me what they didn’t want the whole class to hear.

I’m hoping to open a classroom door next year. But if I’m still teaching by Zoom, I hope to find more ways to reach through the computer to my students.

Bunch of Kids Sawing in the Cloakroom

No teacher, just a bunch of kids sawing and hammering in the cloakroom—that is one of my dad’s favorite memories from Yoder School. And this was three-quarters of a century before the makerspace movement brought DIY and school together.

“We built tractors,” my dad told me, his voice warming to the memory. “cutting the designs out of plywood with a coping saw”

They even devised a way to make steering wheels work—connecting them to tractor wheels with insulation they stripped from electric wires.

There, under the straw hats hanging from wall hooks and lunch buckets lined on shelves, they also built bird houses and, while they waited a turn with the coping saw, used a handloom to make potholders for their mothers. The cloakroom was open at recess and lunch and anytime students had completed an assignment. At Yoder School there was no restless drumming of the fingers, waiting for the rest of the class to finish.

Like today’s makerspace initiatives, the cloakroom of Yoder School was more than a space. Makerspaces are a way of thinking. More than a shop, where you learned to use a hammer, they are an invitation for kids to stop consuming and start producing. Not subject-specific, makerspaces are more about a creative, problem-solving mindset.

So what happens when kids work with raw materials, not pre-assembled kits? What’s the good of kids working alone, without handholding? Making gives kids the chance to think independently, to self-direct, to take risks, and to learn to fail.

For many people, hands are the brain’s best friend. When hands are busy putting something together, the brain is engaged. This hand-brain connection also increases mental health, reducing stress hormones and increasing dopamine, the feel-good hormone.

So I’m glad schools are filling spaces with wood and cloth and wire and cardboard and paper. I hope they keep turning kids lose to move beyond consuming to creating. Because, for most of us, studying comes easier after the hands have engaged the brain.

 

What Have I Failed to Hear?

“What have I failed to hear?”

This was the question I didn’t ask often enough during my first years in the classroom. Back then, I was too busy writing demerits and assigning detentions. All I could see was kids stomping from the room and overturning chairs and carving nasty words into desks.

So I exerted my power to squash insurrection and hoped for peace. Sometimes I managed to send resentment underground and achieve an uneasy ceasefire. But it didn’t last, because there is always something behind anger. And as long as the cause remains, frustration is sure to roil up again.

Sometimes I needed to change—to become less heavy handed with rules, less strident with my voice, or more skilled with classroom management. But often students brought rage into the classroom from the hallway or the bus or home or the courtroom.

Whatever the cause, the way through the anger in my classroom was for students to be heard and for me to learn from what they said.

“How can I be a better teacher for you?” I began to ask fuming students.

When they saw I actually wanted to know, they’d tell me. And after they saw me change, they’d often tell me plenty more besides—the raw deals of their lives, the torments of their minds, and how they felt caught in systems broken with poverty and racism and substance abuse. Hearing the anguish behind the anger almost always propelled me toward empathy and sometimes into advocacy.

At the ends of these talks, anger remained. But it was diminished. Someone was listening and responding. What they said mattered, actually made a difference.

Looking under anger to find what needs to be heard—this was perhaps my greatest weakness as a beginning teacher. But each time I managed to listen carefully, I was better able to reach past rules into relationship.