Welcome to the 2020-2021 school year. Here you will find: rules that change on an hourly basis, not enough PPE for staff and students, continued interrupted internet connection, and limited time to use the restroom. The first two months of our hybrid model have been a whirlwind. When asked how school is this year, I often respond with, “you know when you drive to work, and you show up in the parking lot and you’re not really sure how you got there, what was on the radio, or if you blew through any stop signs? That’s how school is this year”. I get to the end of my day at 3:00 p.m. wondering, “what happened in the middle of the day, and did I really look like this ALL-DAY LONG?!”
It’s par for the course for the first few weeks to months of school. Teachers are always run ragged trying to get back into the swing of a new year. We’re working countless extra hours at school and at home. We’re trying to hold it together to make sure all of the beginning of the year deadlines are being met, meetings are attended, classes are supported, IEP documentation is up to date, etc, never-ending, until November.
In the Beginning
The beginning of this year feels a bit more scattered and wildly exhausting in comparison with the last 10 years I’ve taught public high school. As a special education teacher, we needed to conduct reentry meetings with our student’s parents to go over how we were going to meet our student’s needs on their IEPs during the virtual or hybrid model. And with every meeting in special education, there comes the paperwork. So, we added that to the ever-growing list of beginning of the year excitement in our district.
We also threw in: learning new technology, recording our lessons while teaching, and live streaming our classes so we’re not just teaching to students physically in front of us, but on our computer screen as well. In special education, we have a number of the beginning of the year checklist items which puts us in a constant state of waking up at 3:00 a.m. in a cold sweat wondering if we missed a paperwork deadline. These are all real-life stories, ask any special educator you may know. However, the other thing that my special education colleagues and I have going for us is…we’re killing our PLC.
PLC: The New “It Girl”
That’s right, I work for a district that has implemented PLCs (professional learning communities) over the past few years. The concept behind PLC’s is that the teachers within a discipline work together to create similar assignments, assessments, look at data, and work as a team. A year ago, our administration went all-in on this concept and gave our entire school a facelift. English moved to the third floor, Math the second floor, History the first floor, and Science, Arts, Health, and Technology were all moved to be close to one another.
What about our Special Education department? We all moved IN with each other. I’m talking seven desks lined up in what was previously our Principal’s office. Picture walking down the aisle of an airplane. That was our office. We were close, and I don’t mean buddies. We shared teaching spaces and often had to search for a quiet place or buy a good set of headphones to focus during our planning and make confidential phone calls.
The difference between our PLC and other departments is that not only did we have our official PLC meetings every other week, but we saw each other every single day. It was a lot of together time at the beginning of last year. It was an adjustment for all of us, especially me who came from her own teaching space after nine years of teaching. As last fall continued, the teachers in my space became close, and I don’t mean just in proximity. We became friends, confidantes, and daily support for one another. We began to depend upon one another and truly enjoy seeing each other every day.
Feeling the Loss
When COVID-19 hit and the school shut down in March, there was a genuine sense of loss when we could no longer see each other daily. We even met for a virtual happy hour every Friday to decompress from the week. Now, I’m not sure that this is what my administrators had in mind when they grouped us for PLC, but our PLC is one of the strongest in the building (at least in my opinion).
Right now, the word of the year is “space”. We are no longer piled on top of each other in that tiny office because of COVID and I’m feeling the loss of my close colleagues. We are now spread across the first floor and have to make a conscious effort to check-in with each other, but I could not have gotten through these first two months without them. The team that we have become over the past year is solid. We continue to be there for each other to share materials, ideas and be safe spaces for when we need to vent or cry. I’ve worked in three school districts at this point in my career and know that it is not a common occurrence to have these connections with so many people in your department. I am blessed to have this group of colleagues in my corner as we continue through this bumpy time together.
As does every new school year, this one has brought a new team member into our crew. Although we are all “first-year teachers” again this year, we have a true new teacher whose first year is unlike one we’ve ever experienced. I’ve been honored to be a mentor to our newest teacher to join our ranks and welcome her into our PLC. Being a first-time mentor during pandemic teaching had me a little worried when I received the phone call from my administrator. So many things to remember to show her! I started a checklist for my type A personality and made sure to go month by month and write down everything that needs to be done. I created a shared Google Keep so we can record questions we have on the fly or things we need to check in about. I created a shared plan book, I shared my Google Classroom, we work together daily…but oh my goodness am I doing enough so she feels confident and part of this team?? The answer I found out last week was, yes. She came into my room and shared with me how she felt prepared and confident and not nearly as stressed as she had in her long-term sub positions and it was because of us, our team.
We did it! Two months into this crazy new normal and our first-year teacher felt supported, uplifted, and heard. Our team is powerful. No amount of Covid can derail us. We don’t always see eye to eye and sometimes we need a break from one another, but we know we have each other in our corner when needed. If you are an educator reading this, I urge you at this time to find your teacher crew. Our friends and families outside of school can listen and support, but they will never feel what we’re facing day today. During this time, as educators, we need to support one another and become teammates.