By Derek Burtch
This semester was a weird one. I mean, last year was weird, but everyone acknowledged that. This year was different. So many teachers/administrators were ready to “go back to normal,” but the fact remains that we are still in a pandemic. Things are not the same, and they won’t be. It is not normal, if it ever was. This week, I listened to a panel discussion presented by the Brookings Institute and the words of Lauren Camera, a senior writer for US News and World Report, struck a chord of empathy inside me, like someone outside education understood what we are going through, “We were already asking a lot of schools, and the pandemic dialed that up.”
Our world has changed, and there has been a concerted effort to deny this fact throughout all levels of education. Setting aside the issue of consistent attendance caused by quarantines, students’ mental health is still suffering from the social isolation and life interruption caused by the pandemic. Teachers’ mental health is still suffering. Schools everywhere are constantly one step away from a collective mental breakdown. No one in school is okay, but we’re supposed to be. Structures demand that we go back to “the way things were done before” without acknowledging that we are all different in this new world. We are different individually and it impacts how we show up together. Not acknowledging these facts of our present existence is damaging to young people and to us, teachers.
I was talking with my therapist about the experience of teaching this year. I told him that it felt very similar to my second year teaching (I am in year 14). I have all this experience, but it comes from a time that doesn’t translate to where we are now. I told him, “My students are slower than normal, I’m slower than normal. It’s a struggle just to read essays and give feedback. I’m so tired. They’re so tired.” What he said next just about made me melt from the recognition of my experience and the student experience to which I have bore witness. He said, “It sounds like they’re stuck in peanut butter. And you are too.” All of a sudden, I felt okay not being okay. Like I realized the peanut butter all around me, slowing me down, getting stuck to me, tiring me out from struggling against it. COVID fatigue is real, and recognizing it, to give ourselves and our students some grace, is part of finding our way out. Moving faster or at the same speed as before just deepens our stuckness.
As the semester comes to a close, I offer you an opportunity to see the peanut butter: the thin, unseen layer of the pandemic that has impacted our lives beyond masks and hospital visits, death and sickness. And maybe it’s not so thin as Camera phrased it, “Layer on top of all of [the logistics of pandemic schooling], this national reckoning with systemic racism and inequality spurred by the death of George Floyd and so many others. [Plus] the politics of the pandemic, so you’re talking masking, testing, vaccinations, and now in our third pandemic school year, this intense COVID fatigue.”
We live in a different world, and I believe that when we realize that and acknowledge it on a daily basis, we are one step closer to getting out of the peanut butter and helping our students discover their own way out.
I hope you all take time to enjoy life and slow down during winter break.
*If you get a chance, check out the recording of the Brookings panel. It's interesting enough and is validating to hear other people outside K12 education recognize the issues we deal with on a daily basis.
Michael Ward is a senior at Olentangy Orange High School. He is passionate about social justice and has been active in different movements from the summer of 2020 on.