Thursday, March 18, 2021

A Letter To My Students

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash
Dear Students,

Oh how I have missed you! I've missed your noise and your chaos and your smiles which are hidden behind masks, and your laughter and your hard work, and even your frustrations and tears. I have missed your creativity and how you never cease to amaze me with it. I have missed your fearlessness and your fearfulness, your good choices and your not-so-good ones. I have missed you because without you, there is no school. 

Many people who don't know much about what you and I do together call you 'lost'. But, you are not lost. Far from it! All of you who have diligently showed up on Zoom every day have been working so hard learning how to use computers and software in ways we teachers never imagined. You've been taking more responsibility for your learning, working independently, and learning from this global experience! 

Some of you have really struggled with this, and I want you to know that you are not alone. So many other students and, yes, even teachers (myself included), are struggling too. This is not easy work we are doing. It's really hard sitting in front of a computer for hours on end, not being able to talk to friends or eat together in the cafeteria or enjoy assemblies or play at recess.

And to those of you who have not been with us, you are not 'lost' either. You have always been in our hearts. You have always been on our minds. We have always been searching for you, and hoping to see your face once again. We've been reaching out to you. We've been trying our best to find you and bring you back. We know you've been home, we know you've been struggling. We know your families have been struggling, too. This is all so hard

But you will survive—all of you will. In fact, you will do more than just survive. You will thrive because we, your teachers, will help you, because that's our job.

We will not let you fall. We will hold you up and lift you up and support you in any way we can. And just like any child who has suffered from a debilitating, devastating disease—one so terrible that they couldn't even work with a tutor—you will come back. And you will be strong and you will be healthy and you will be knowledgeable. You will know how to read and write and do math. You will know how to make art and music and play sports. You will know how to speak another language—maybe not fluently, but you will learn. You will know how to do all the things you hope and dream to do. You just have to believe in yourself, believe that we will help you, and be willing to put in the effort.

You know, for a long time, those people who don't know much about what we do have been trying to stuff your heads with all sorts of information that maybe you're just not ready for yet. They want you to read and write and do math and take tests before many of you even know how to tie your shoes! That's crazy! Maybe the one good thing that will come out of this pandemic is that they will stop trying to force-feed you and just let us, your teachers, meet you where you are. 

We are almost done with this crazy school year, and many of you will be coming back to school before the end of this month! I am so excited! We will get through this together. There will be laughter, fun, excitement and learning. You will see your friends and share your experiences, and little by little, we will leave that nasty Covid-19 in the dust. If you're feeling stressed, anxious or worried, know that you are not alone and you will have a lot of support. You are stronger than you realize and braver than you think. And I am so proud of you!


Ms. Corfield

Saturday, March 13, 2021

The 'New' Normal Post-Covid - Are YOU Ready?

If you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out. If you put a frog in tepid water and slowly raise the heat, it will boil to death. - Unknown

Photo Credit: Nick Fewings

Covid-19 has been raising the heat on all of us for a year. Stress, depression and anxiety have paralyzed millions. Personally, I've battled all three. As someone who lived much of my life in a state of chronic stress, I very quickly became that frog again and didn't realize it until I was almost ready to be served as an appetizer. I was sleeping either too much or too little, watching the same ten pounds turn my bathroom scale into a seesaw, and despite having almost twenty years of teaching experience under my belt, there were days when I just burst into tears because virtual teaching is just. so. hard. Even though I had Covid-19 and its accompanying brain fog, I've also had what Ellen Cushing, writing in The Atlanticcalls the Covid "fog of forgetting" that has crept into our brains simply from living in quasi-isolation for so long:

Everywhere I turn, the fog of forgetting has crept in. A friend of mine recently confessed that the morning routine he’d comfortably maintained for a decade—wake up before 7, shower, dress, get on the subway—now feels unimaginable on a literal level: He cannot put himself back there. Another has forgotten how to tie a tie. A co-worker isn’t sure her toddler remembers what it’s like to go shopping in a store... 
“We’re all walking around with some mild cognitive impairment,” said Mike Yassa, a neuroscientist at UC Irvine. “Based on everything we know about the brain, two of the things that are really good for it are physical activity and novelty. A thing that’s very bad for it is chronic and perpetual stress.” Living through a pandemic—even for those who are doing so in relative comfort—“is exposing people to microdoses of unpredictable stress all the time,” said Georgia Tech neuroscientist Tina Franklin, whose research has shown that stress changes the brain regions that control executive function, learning, and memory. 
That stress doesn’t necessarily feel like a panic attack or a bender or a sleepless night, though of course it can. Sometimes it feels like nothing at all. “It’s like a heaviness, like you’re waking up to more of the same, and it’s never going to change,” [Community College Professor Jen] George told me, when I asked what her pandemic anxiety felt like. “Like wading through something thicker than water. Maybe a tar pit.” She misses the sound of voices. 
“We’re trapped in our dollhouses,” said Rachel Kowert, a research psychologist from Ottawa, who studies video games. “It’s just about surviving, not thriving. No one is working at their highest capacity.” (emphasis mine)

I've only written six blog posts in the past year. My brain just hasn't been functioning the way it used to. I've been too tired, too overwhelmed. I would start to write, but lose interest. Couldn't put a complete thought together. All I wanted to do was get in bed and binge-watch... anything. 

But, life is changing! The winter of our discontent will soon be over. With vaccines rolling out in ever-increasing numbers, we will soon be dining indoors, gathering in large crowds—and hugging! A return to normal? No. There will never be a 'return'; only a moving forward to create the new normal. And that process is bound to stir up all sorts of new fears as well. 

In her March 9th opinion piece in The Washington Post, Dr. Lucy McBride calls this FONO—Fear of Normal:

Trauma has a way of doing that to us. We’ve lost more than 500,000 lives in this country alone. We’ve suffered unprecedented economic, social and emotional upheaval. And regardless of our individual pandemic experience, each of us has faced some level of loss, grief and despair...
But now that we’ve adjusted to pandemic life — with its inherent struggle, stress, social isolation, emotional toll and hidden silver linings — it’s understandable to experience emotional whiplash even as trauma recedes.

When patients come to her with these symptoms, she helps them assemble a toolkit to help them cope which can include "breathing techniques, guided meditation, regular exercise, prioritizing sleep and spending time in nature, all of which tamp down stress hormones." 

My district is going back to full in-person teaching and learning later this month. I sometimes catch myself wondering, Have I forgotten how to teach? Will I be able to do it?  Yes, I tell myself, you will! It's like riding a bicycle. But while my mind knows this, my emotions are sending up flares and I have to pay attention. 

Instead of trying to fight the stress, anxiety and fear, I leaned in. I didn't berate myself for sleeping more, scrolling through Facebook more, watching more TV, and yes, eating more. But, I also started to read books more, meditate more and spend more time in nature, and slowly but surely, the fog has started to lift. Pounds can be lost, exercise can be done, activity can ramp up in a time that is right and gentle. There is no stopwatch, no one is breathing down my neck to 'fix' everything that went 'wrong' in this past year—except me.

While flinging open all our doors and having big parties just as the warm weather arrives sure sounds a lot more exciting and fun than meditating, we must remember that those tools help build and support the infrastructure that is our physical and emotional wellbeing, without which, we are running on pure adrenaline. And once that adrenaline is gone, we are left feeling shaky and weak. 

So, ease into this new normal. Be gentle with yourself in the coming months. As tragic as this past year has been, we are being given an opportunity to redefine what we want our futures to be. How will you write yours?

Photo Credit: Alfred Schrock