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Guest Writer: Tamara Sloan Ritchie–7th Grade ELA Teacher, Truman Middle School, Tacoma, WA
Don’t get me wrong. I’m appreciating the quiet. Just before all this happened, I was starting to feel the crispy edges of burnout taking hold. I’d get to school and take a few deep breaths, clearing the morning fog and steeling myself for the onslaught about to happen, wondering how much longer I could continue.
Then the morning bell would shatter my eardrums and soul. The hall would fill. A heard of elephants. On roller-skates. That lost a wheel. The universal sound of the middle school cadence, “OhmygodIcan’tbeliveitdon’tyouidiotshesaidwhatIloveyourshoeswhyareyoumadatmeyou’remyBFFwhateverdon’ttakemybinderrrrrrrrr”. Anyone who’s had the fortune to be around middle school students will know exactly what I’m talking about.
Before schools were shuttered due to Covid-19, like most teachers, I worked hard to make lessons interesting, relevant, relatable, culturally responsive, all while differentiating learning needs, providing scaffolding, while increasing rigor, aligning my success criteria with my learning target, after analyzing the data from formative assessments designed to prioritize standards, and building meaningful relationships with each of my students, managing classroom behavior in a fair and restorative manner, while equitably preparing students for the end-of-year assessments. No sweat.
It was a wonder that the crispy start of burnout feeling didn’t come sooner. But the thing is, any educator, especially any middle school educator, can usually cope with the demands because there is so much that goes right in a day. There is magic in the classroom. It comes from the students.
I miss the live wire kids wearing too much cologne. I miss the girls asking me if they can stay to discuss what to do about a friend that is no longer acting like a friend. I miss the jokester waving at me like his hand’s about to fall off while he stands to yell my name through the door, just as I’m getting the crew before I settled down. I would try to shoo him away, but he could see the smile behind my “stern teacher face” and work it.
I miss the quiet kids who get out their binders and know which page we’re on. I miss those who didn’t realize they needed a binder, or a pencil, or a book, although this was the 4,578th time they’ve been reminded. I miss the kids who enter the room like champion wrestlers, arms up, chin thrust forward, begging for attention. I miss the ones who try so hard not to be seen, almost curling into themselves. I miss finding ways to let them know I see them.
I recall their enthusiasm as we read Walter Dean Myer's “Bad Boy”. “She threw him in the closet? Man, that’s messed up!” I miss seeing them find the rhythm in Nikki Giovanni and watching them create one-pagers with a rose growing from a crack in the concrete and sensing the depth of meaning behind their scratchy drawings.I miss seeing them find the rhythm in Nikki Giovanni and watching them create one-pagers with a rose growing from a crack in the concrete and sensing the depth of meaning behind their scratchy drawings. Click To Tweet
I miss introducing them to incredible authors who helped chip away at the belief that books are more disgusting than maggots. I can still hear them voluntarily chanting to Jason Reynolds For Everyone, “For the Jumpers, for the Jumpers, for the Jumpers!” I miss having to manage the arguments about who would be the next one to read from Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover. I miss the pride that would well up in my heart when that kid, the one who sat angrily in the back and refused to read anything all year, raised his hand and volunteered to read Basketball Rule #8, even after he lost his place and got flustered, and especially when the officious girl who was best at sharing her irritation with him, stomped over to him, and patiently lent him her book so he could do it. I miss the heartbreakingly honest discussions that would evolve around kids having to lean back and fade away in order to get the best shot. I miss having to choke down the catch in my throat when I read aloud pg. 225, five times a day. I miss that moment of silence when they realized what just happened. I miss seeing them hooked into a book, some for the first time in their lives.
My heart breaks that I can’t introduce them to S.E. Hinton and The Outsiders. They’ll not get to walk out of the darkness of the movie house with two things on their mind. I’ll not get to experience the learning that Shakespeare might be a lot of things, but boring he is not. They won’t get a chance to wear my thrift store costumes during the dorky library skits in which every year, some boy wears my blue lace ballgown, and struts about in an overly high falsetto voice quoting, “How now Malvolio!”
When I learned that school was officially closed for the rest of the year, although I saw it coming, it felt like a gut punch. Yes, I was getting a bit crispy, and yes, I am appreciating the silence and the time it’s given me to reflect. I appreciate sleeping in, working, and eating, and moving to my own rhythm and not having to answer 855 questions in the four minutes between class, as I sign passes, reorganize copies, and send an email.
I’m realizing that this distance learning thing is ok. I’m getting better at it, maybe? I can’t tell. I fill in all the silence around me with thoughts of my students. I hear their noise echoing in my mind as I answer emails, respond to the bits of work I am seeing. However, this chance to slow down and catch my breath has made me realize that, because of the students, and their noise, that I truly love this work. I can keep going. Thoughts I had of working in education, but moving to some type of administrative office job, are evaporating as I realize It’s the students that make me love this work. The loud, obnoxious, creative, hilarious, inquisitive seventh grade students make it worth it.
Tamara Sloan Ritchie currently teaches English Language Arts in Tacoma, WA. She has taught for over 23 years in public, private, and, international settings. She’s taught grades K-8, but her heart lies with middle school students. In addition to teaching, Tamara creates social-emotional learning lessons for her school’s advisory lessons and runs an after school drama club. She is the mom of two teenage daughters and they are all surviving “distance learning” as best they can.