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“You sound like my mom.” If I had a dollar for every time a student said that to me, I would probably be rich enough to retire early! I used to laugh when students called me a “Mama Bear”, and smile at some who still call me “Auntie” to this day. These days, I embrace those titles with a greater sense of pride and adoration.

Urban dictionary defines a “Mama Bear” as “a mom who can be cuddly and lovable but also has a ferocious side when it’s necessary to protect her cubs” ( Post-pandemic, my Mama Bear instincts have been heightened to a level that has me adopting an entirely new form of overprotectiveness, and a new title to go with it. 

I have now become a self-proclaimed Teacher Bear!

Covid protocols have made it so that I have had to curb my usual “cuddles” and replace them with fist bumps, sanitized high fives, and air hugs. But, I’d be falling into the slippery slope of blatant lies if I didn’t admit to sneaking in a few quick cuddles, masked and followed by washed hands and sanitizing sprays of course. I am finding it harder and harder to keep this Teacher Bear in check. My students’ eyes beckon the inner Teacher Bear instincts to pour out of me. Only being able to see my students’ eyes behind those masks may seem to create a greater sense of anonymity, but for me, their eyes implore me to embrace my inner Teacher Bear even more.

Having only their eyes and body language to read has made me pay much closer attention to every flicker, squint, eyebrow raise or furrow, hand gesture, twitch, and even unconscious shoulder slump or slouch. And then, I move back to those revealing eyes.  I see their joy, pain, and apprehensions glaring at me through those “windows to their souls”, and all I want to do is fiercely protect them at all costs.

Obviously, I have had to find other ways to express my fierce love, devotion, and passion for my students.  My newly fueled Teacher Bear mentality has encouraged me to take going above and beyond to higher level as well. Some items I have been blessed to have been gifted or received from grants, and others I felt compelled to purchase.  Snacks, drinks, supplies, and other essential items seem like such small gestures, but the genuine appreciation my students have expressed has been so heartfelt. The unforeseen result has been establishing an even greater rapport than I have always tried to cultivate with my students.

While not everyone has the means to provide tangible items, I would encourage all teachers to think about what we can offer for free. As the Mama Bear “ferociously protects her cubs”, Teacher Bears can ferociously amplify student’s voice, ferociously encourage student advocacy, and ferociously fight for the right for all students to feel safe and protected within our classroom walls. These free items arguably can hold a much more long-term value, and have a much more impactful influence, than anything we could purchase.

Someone once said, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” (Anonymous).

There is nothing more important than a teacher making a student feel like you actually care! Feeling cared for provides that parent/child relationship that some students tell me is one of the reasons they fell in love with school in the first place. A sense of actual caring, amplified by a genuine expression of wanting to ensure students are protected, brings a level of comfort that taps into the desire to make students feel safe at all costs. The Teacher Bear inside me is making me want to give them anything and everything I can provide them with to help them feel as comfortable as possible.

The level of uncertainty and discomfort in post-pandemic in-person education that permeates every class is almost stifling. Waiting for test results, the incessant interruptions of shifts or clarifications in seeming ever-changing protocol, and the boundless issues with communication, or lack thereof, is anxiety-inducing to say the least. So, what can we, as Teacher Bears, do when we are feeling as uneasy as our students? Acknowledge their concerns, admit our own, and be as transparent about the reality that we could be thrown back into distance education at any moment. What do we cling to? Enjoying each day in-person together as much as we can, for as long as we can.  

We all have a Teacher Bear inside us.

It’s the simplicity of wanting the best for our students that many see as vital part of what makes up our identity as educators. Many teachers provide school supplies to those who may not have the means, take that extra time to make lessons and activities be full of rigor, engagement, and fun, or purchase extra sanitization and cleansing items to keep our classrooms as safe as possible. We are learning not to rely on external factors to make our classrooms the safe place our students often are drawn to. Perhaps most importantly, we now have accepted that reality that while we may not always feel like we can control the external safety of our students, we can tap into our inner Teacher Bear to make our students feel as loved, protected, and comfortable as possible, doing whatever we can to create these internal safe spaces ourselves.

Michele Lamons-Raiford is a hearing American Sign Language (ASL) and English teacher at Pinole Valley...

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