Votive candles floating on a dark sea
Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

I hadn’t cried in so long that I almost didn’t recognize the sound. My tears pushed through the latticework of my fists, momentarily staining the cheap Ikea table supporting my elbows. In a paroxysm of release, my muscles and tendons finally began to accept what my synapses already knew: my career was over.

Over the last four months I had watched with growing fear as the pandemic systematically dismantled the professional career I had spent my adult life building. While I don’t know what will happen in the fall, I do know that it won’t be what I’ve always done.

I’m grieving for the death of my life as a classroom teacher.

No more walking the empty hallways in the morning, breathing in the musty silence of the school building before it’s gotten a chance to wake up. I already miss that distinctive school smell, the comforting combination of decades old sweat and disinfectant that oozes from the pores of every hallway.

I miss shooting the shit with my colleagues at the only copier that’s working. Scrounging for forgotten pencils and pens and notebooks. I grieve for the familiar rhythms of a work day that, even though I haven’t been in school since March 13th, still dictate when my stomach gets hungry and when my bladder needs to use the bathroom.

No longer will I have a classroom that doubles as an overflow room for students in need of sanctuary from the chaos and viciousness of the cafeteria. And no longer will I get to use this time to form the relationships necessary for teaching, learning, and living.

I will miss literally watching children grow. Experiencing that job-defining joy anytime a student “gets it” and the beautiful, generative frustration anytime a student doesn’t. The science and art of orchestrating a full lesson, complete with hook, connections to prior learning, introduction of new content, modeling, independent practice, and reflection, all within a 42 minute time constraint. Okay, so it didn’t always work out perfectly, but that’s part of the beauty of classroom teaching. It’s never perfect, and the journey is the goal.

In All About Love, bell hooks defines love as “…the will to nurture our own and another’s spiritual growth.” With a few light modifications, we can apply this definition to teaching: teachers work to improve the spiritual, cognitive, and emotional lives of their students. This is the educative impulse, the irreducible core of teaching. While the impulse persists, the structures and policies that give it shape have and will continue to change in the coming months and years.

I don’t know what this means for me as a classroom teacher. Like an elaborate sand castle during high tide, the imbricate and serpentine structures I have spent the last decade engaging with have been demolished by the waves of the coronavirus. Class schedules, field trips, cafeteria procedures, back to school nights, back to school shopping, stale coffee in school branded mugs, it’s all been washed away.

Of course we will continue to teach our young people; it will just be different from everything that’s come before. New models, new plans, new requirements, new demands. But trying to imagine what will happen in the fall feels like trying to put together a puzzle while blindfolded and without knowing what the pieces are or what the final product is supposed to look like.

As I pine for the familiarity and stability of what was, I know there is no going back. The writing is on the wall. I read it every time I wake up sweating in the middle of the night and instinctively reach for my phone to refresh the news feed. I feel it in the education groups I’m part of on social media, the battlegrounds where parents and teachers now tear at each other’s throats in an attempt to shape a system that will be unrecognizable to all of us in the fall. Will the skills and dispositions I’ve spent a decade honing be needed? Will I be needed?

Soon I will begin sorting through the wreckage of the last few months in an attempt to salvage something for September. But for now, I grieve.

Closer than you think.

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