By Taylor Clarke, a first-grade teacher at Lake Harriet Community School - Lower Campus. She is the union steward for her site, as well as the school's strike captain for the current MFT 59 teacher and ESP strike.
Looking back at the last two years, teaching amidst the pandemic has been incredibly challenging. It’s hard to believe educators and students have been doing this for almost two years now. I’ll never forget the last “normal” day in March 2020. It wasn’t even a normal day because some families chose to keep their kiddos at home on the Monday that we essentially said goodbye. Of course, we didn’t know it was goodbye at the time. We thought we would return to school after spring break. It was gut-wrenching to have the conversation with my class that we actually weren’t going to go back to school for the rest of the year. It was a lack of closure that was hard to explain. I still think about that group of students. It happened so fast, and we were just in survival mode.
When the 2019-20 school year ended, I remember taking a big sigh of relief, thinking we’d made it through the hard part. Never in a million years did I think we’d actually start the following school year in distance learning. I was wrong. The decision was made in mid-August, just before staff were to report back to school. It was a scramble to learn how to use Seesaw, the classroom app Minneapolis Public Schools uses for online lessons and activities. There were so many logistical details to figure out in such a short amount of time. I remember that my anxiety was at an all-time high.
There were some hiccups as we started the 2020-21 school year in distance learning, but eventually, just like if we’d been in-person, we found our groove. It was a bit surprising how easy it was to get to know my students through a computer screen. It was relatively natural to establish a classroom community while not actually being physically together. I never thought I’d teach reading, phonics, and writing through online recordings and Google Meet. It felt foreign at first but quickly became the norm. We trucked along through the fall and beginning of winter. We even had a virtual Fall Harvest Party and Winter Party. It took a lot of effort to bring a sense of normalcy to a situation that was new to all.
I vividly remember receiving the email from the district in early January 2021 that I was to report back to school at the beginning of February. I was terrified. I wasn’t vaccinated yet, COVID-19 was still very scary, and it was hard to imagine teaching with a mask on all day. I had so many questions.
How are students going to social distance? What if a student refuses to wear a face mask? How close should I get to students? Should I let kids play and work with each other? Is it safe for students to eat breakfast and lunch together? What if there is a positive COVID-19 case? The list of questions went on and on.
Luckily, I was able to get my first vaccine before students arrived for their first day back. Families could choose to send their child back to school or keep them in distance learning, so this created a shift in everyone’s classroom makeup. I gained six new students in the middle of the school year. Students of mine that remained in distance learning were transitioned to a different classroom. It felt messy and I questioned if it was best practice. It was unreal to be in-person again. It was emotional for me to be back in the classroom after almost a year of distance learning.
We took it day by day. I made sure to incorporate time to process everything we’d been through together as a class. It was strange to practice routines and rituals in the middle of the school year instead of at the beginning.
Students practiced social distancing to the best of their ability and we made the most of our time together. Once I was fully vaccinated, I definitely felt more comfortable being at work around students and other staff members. At that time, students weren’t contracting COVID-19, so absences weren’t really an issue. By the end of the school year, it felt normal to have a face mask on all day. It was a relief to end the school year together in-person. We were even able to have an outdoor end-of-the-school year party with all of the first grade classrooms. Things were starting to feel a bit more normal.
Fast forward to the fall of 2021. Students were entering first grade having completed half of their kindergarten year online. There were a handful of students in my class who did all of kindergarten online, meaning they had never stepped foot into a school before.
The most challenging part of the 2021-22 school year so far has been students going in and out of quarantine. There was a point earlier in the school year when I didn’t have my entire class in-person for about six weeks due to students having to quarantine. When a student is in quarantine, I am responsible for providing them with learning materials. This is an immense amount of work. There are not enough minutes in the school day to complete all of the tasks on my to-do list. Student absences have gone down since the beginning of February, which has created more consistency within my classroom.
Being a teacher right now isn’t easy. There are days when it’s really hard to put on a happy face for the students and families. The way in which schools are functioning right now is not sustainable. We don’t have enough adult bodies in the building, there is a severe substitute teacher shortage across the district, and students aren’t receiving the quality education they deserve. There are students who need interventions that aren’t receiving them simply because we don’t have enough support staff to provide those services.
Teachers are leaving MPS for suburban districts that pay better. Teachers are even leaving the profession altogether because it has caused too much stress, and they can get paid more for doing another job that isn’t as mentally taxing.
I became a teacher because I care deeply about the well-being of children. I believe that school should be a place where students are excited and happy. I want my classroom to be a calm, accepting, and inclusive environment where learning has no limits.
To witness the growth that occurs in first grade specifically is remarkable, particularly in students' reading abilities. It’s by far my favorite part. To be the person who gets to teach, encourage, and foster students' love of learning is such a joy.
My mom is an adapted physical education teacher in Edina Public Schools and I have fond memories of going to school with her as a kid. Watching her interact with her students had a profound impact on me while growing up. She is currently in her 36th year of teaching and loves her job so much. She inspires me to see the beauty in each day as an educator.
Overall, my kids have been resilient. I am continuously impressed by their ability to adapt and go with the flow. I think it’s important to be honest and open with my students that things are difficult for me, too. I want them to know that they are not in this alone. Together, we can do hard things. My classes over the past couple of years have been through a lot together. The pandemic has reinforced to me just how important classrooms and schools are to students within the community.