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by Jennifer M. Sierra
I’ve never been a “lunch bunch” kind of teacher. I’ve spent most of my career teaching high school—mostly juniors, a few sophomores, a few seniors. Even now, in my fourth year of teaching middle school, the concept of a lunch bunch is still way too elementary for me. Additionally, it’s completely out of line with my character. I’m a somewhat sarcastic, somewhat jaded, moderately crazy veteran teacher who values my lunch period as a chance to mentally recharge and to knock tasks off my to-do list. However, at the start of my 17th year on the job, I was faced with the task of re-learning everything I knew how to do from behind a screen. The resulting educational isolation was…unprecedented. I didn’t want to use that word, I really didn’t…but these are, after all, inescapably and undeniably unprecedented times.
Even though I don’t ooze maternal warmth in the classroom (or ever, actually), I am firmly grounded in my belief that Maslow absolutely must come before Bloom in all things educational. I cut my teaching teeth in urban high schools in a troubled city. I learned very quickly that if students, particularly those who have experienced trauma, feel safe, valued, respected, and loved, they are far more likely to be open to learning from you. When I left my 11th graders and became a 6th-grade Spanish teacher three years ago, I brought this philosophy with me. It served me well when I was teaching in person, and I dedicated a lot of time to cultivating relationships with my young people before addressing the academic standards.
Then, this year. 2020. 100% virtual instruction.
By the time I started my first Google Meet on September 8th, I was already drowning. My marriage, already shaky, was being buffeted about in the relentless storm of too much togetherness. My children, a uniquely quirky 2nd grader and an angsty preteen, had been in the house since mid-March, cut off from all that was familiar to them at a moment’s notice. As such, they had progressed from “yay, no school” to “um, I’m bored” to a scary place beyond stir-craziness. My house, now constantly inhabited, was constantly a mess. I lost a family member to Covid-19. I was swimming in worry about my aging parents, three hours’ drive away. Random moments of “what if this is the way it’s going to be for the rest of my life” robbed my breath when I least expected them. I stress ate (mostly Funyuns) and stress drank (mostly Tito’s). I gained almost 20 pounds, and my already questionable self-concept plummeted.
My anxiety, usually well-controlled, reduced me to a constant state of taut, fidgety vibration. What hit me the hardest, though, was that I lost my sense of self and purpose when my daily commute to school shortened to walking the length of my living room. I lost the chance to escape to my teacher world, the one aspect of my life in which I am completely sure of myself. School is the place where I feel respected, valued, and even loved. When I’m in my classroom, in the halls, or outside by the buses at dismissal, I’m in my element, and I thrive on it. It’s the one place, for better or for worse, where I feel whole (hey, Maslow before Bloom works for everyone). And it’s gone, indefinitely, and I’m at home watching everything crumble around me. I’m acutely aware that most of this is all very first-world problem-y, to the point that I wasn’t even going to mention most of it. I have a home, a job, and my health—and I’m grateful, I really am.However, gratefulness and grief aren’t mutually exclusive. Click To Tweet
Wait, what? Grief?
Yes, grief. In a recent interview with the Harvard Business Review, David Kessler, a leading expert on grief, confirms that living in a global pandemic has sent many of us on a collective journey through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance, though the order and duration of each, can vary). We’re grieving the loss of normalcy, the loss of our sense of safety, and the loss of human connection. We’re even grieving the forthcoming: Kessler describes “anticipatory grief” as what we feel when we imagine the worst in an uncertain future. He also insists that we give ourselves permission to progress through the stages of grief without comparing the nature of its causes (which might sound very first-world problem-y) to the situations of others. It turns out we’re all grieving. We’re all redefining what matters.If I, at 38, am grieving normalcy and stability and even a basic sense of competence and self-assuredness, what are my 11- and 12-year-olds grieving? Click To Tweet
So if my first-world problem-y grief is valid, what about my students? If I, at 38, am grieving normalcy and stability and even a basic sense of competence and self-assuredness, what are my 11- and 12-year-olds grieving? They’ve all lost the normalcy of the school experience and of life in general. They never got the closure of finishing elementary school or the chance to truly transition to middle school. They’re at the age where they’re just starting to define themselves as independent humans outside of their home and family sphere—and they’re suddenly robbed of that opportunity. They, like the rest of us, have lost so much human connection as a result of this pandemic, but they, unlike us, don’t have a full set of adult executive functioning skills to cope with this loss.
The media is inundated with stories of adults falling apart due to pandemic stress—and these kids are pre-teens. They’re just beginning to ascend the levels of social-emotional development that come with the transition from elementary to middle school, which is already the toughest time in a lot of kids’ lives (I mean, really. Remember middle school? Have any desire to go back? Yeah, I didn’t think so. My early-to-mid 90s self is shuddering at the thought). These kids don’t even know most of their classmates except for an initial in a circle in a black box on Google Meet. Many of them are dealing with home situations we can’t even imagine. Some come from families experiencing poverty. Some come from families impacted by Covid. Some are now caring for younger siblings while their essential employee parents work outside the home. Some are struggling to learn in chaotic spaces with poor internet connectivity. Some are living in the foster care system or the Board of Child Care. Some are in stable, comfortable, even well-off homes, but are still facing the uncertainty of a world experiencing a pandemic and the isolation of quarantine that is hard on most adults.
So how do we—students and teachers alike—cope with this new and collective grief? Kessler asserts that it’s by finding meaning in these hardest of times. He states, “I did not want to stop at acceptance when I experienced some personal grief. I wanted meaning in those darkest hours. And I do believe we find light in those times…I believe we will continue to find meaning now and when this is over.” He believes in this so deeply that he added “meaning” as a sixth stage of grief. It’s what happens after we accept our new reality and try to figure out how to move forward. For me, overwhelmed with grief of all flavors during this most uncertain of times, meaning came in the form of a lunch bunch.
I know, I know. I just said I wasn’t a lunch bunch kind of teacher. I can explain, I promise. Let’s back up a minute and talk about virtual school. In this community, like so many others, in-person school is a safe haven for many kids, for many reasons. For some, it represents the most basic elements of safety and security—food, or maybe an escape from a chaotic or violent home environment. For others, it represents a place of independence and growth. This, now, in this virtual world, is largely gone. As for instruction, we’ve managed to provide them with some semblance of academics, but the daunting task of building relationships and community online hasn’t really gotten a lot of attention. And relationships are essential—remember Maslow before Bloom—if we want our students to learn. As a grade-level team leader, I’ve given this a lot of thought and spend countless hours in online meetings trying to figure it out—fruitlessly, for the most part. It was frustrating. I’m supposed to be a good teacher. I’m a teacher-leader, for heaven’s sake. Why can’t I figure out how to overcome the educational isolation that has become our day-to-day life? (I won’t say “new normal.” I refuse).
It turns out it didn’t need any figuring out. It happened organically, and while I’d love to be able to take credit for it, I can’t—it happened in spite of me, not because of me—the only thing I did was provide the space. It went like this: on the third day of their middle school experience, at the end of my third period, seven or eight kids just didn’t sign off. The next class didn’t start for about half an hour, so I humored them. It’ll be a one-day thing, I thought. It better be, anyway, because I have things to do. So I set my selfishness aside and sat with them, just listening, as they slowly started talking. By the end of 30 minutes, I was transfixed, listening as they compared the role of goat and plantains in the cuisines of Nigeria, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Something possessed me to pull out my phone and snap a picture of the screen, right there in that moment. I didn’t know I was capturing the start of something.
The next day, they stayed. And the day after that. Gradually, the group doubled in size. Largely unaided and unprompted, they have discovered commonalities between Nigerian, Dominican, Haitian, and African-American cultures. They challenged me to learn some Igbo and Yoruba (E kasaan!). I showed them how to use Street View in Google Earth and we explored and compared street markets in Nigeria and Mexico. They took over from me as selectors, creators, and presenters of digital games (Kahoot, Gimkit, and most recently, Blooket) and I gleefully watched their leadership soft skills sneakily develop in the process. I joined the games they led and tried my hardest to beat them in their trivia of choice—company logos, sports, world flags, popular music—sometimes successfully. I shared some digital escape rooms with them and watched them collaborate to solve them faster than I could alone.
They let me use them for trial runs of new resources and activities I’m planning and gave me honest feedback. They tried to teach me how to play Among Us and roared with laughter when I confessed that I didn’t know how to make the little spaceman move (I’ve never felt so old). I provided a space for them to exchange Roblox names and phone numbers in the chat—you know, to make friends by doing something they would normally get the chance to do in the cafeteria, on the bus, or during a change of class. The teacher in me seizes little opportunities to cultivate their ownership of the group and to stimulate thought and discussion by introducing some topics (and of course I set some basic ground rules because I don’t do chaos) but it’s really all theirs. They’ve shared books, music, Tik Tok dances, pets, and favorite video games. They know my biological kids and my cats. I know their siblings, their favorite football teams, and who prefers Takis over Hot Cheetos. And every single one of them, even the ones who started out shakily, earned a passing grade in my class, and none of them ever miss a day of instruction.
In this time of educational isolation (and human isolation), my lunch bunch group remained a constant. My little group of brand-new adolescents, facing the uncertainty of life in a pandemic during what is one of the most confusing and tumultuous times in many adults’ lives. They are my constant, my reminder that there is a human connection in all this, and I hope, when they become adults and look back on this time, that our group—and maybe even I—was something of that sort to them as well.