Crazy COVID Chronicles: Reflecting on a Year of Pandemic Teaching
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, March/April 2023 Issue
By Sarah Abbey
The height of the pandemic brought many moments of upheaval and uncertainty, but amidst the tensions, there were also moments of laughter, especially in a class of third grade students. As time went on, I found myself recording the many unanticipated situations that COVID brought to teaching. Not only did this help keep me sane and provide an outlet for my thoughts and feelings, but I figured that one day I’d want to look back on the unique experiences of this time period, whether with laughter or tears—maybe even both.
I have an all new panic setting in. Not that I’ll get COVID or that I’ll continue to force Amazon customer service into needless conversations, just out of desperate need for social engagement. Instead, my new fear is that my students are going to learn more without me.
I’m watching their progress with a few online programs and I’m starting to worry that I might not be as great a teacher as I think I am. Keeping this in mind, please enjoy some highlights from my online teaching this week…
Today, I taught over Zoom to the following creatures: two bearded dragons, two fish, a few bunnies, multiple cats, multiple dogs, a turtle, and an “invisible dog.” I do not remember any part of my training to involve teaching non-humans.
Teaching over Zoom brings out my inner middle schooler. As I’m doing read-aloud, I’m not actively watching the screens. Every once in a while, I look up, and I swear the kids are making faces to mimic me. I have zero proof to back this up, but I just know it.
These kids have much classier bedrooms than I did at the ripe old age of nine. I find myself getting distracted by the details and furnishings in their rooms, and actually had to catch myself today before I told a kid to get out of my view of her incredible bedroom chandelier. Meanwhile, back at my Teacher/Exhausted Mother hovel, I have clay stuck to my socks, tissue paper glued to my yoga pants, and smudged mascara from trying to rub my eyes with my elbow (as we’re not allowed to touch our faces with our hands).
I just ate boxed mac and cheese straight out of the pot, with a wooden spoon, while on Zoom, with my students. One kid even called me out on it, and I looked at him and said, “You do you, I’ll do me.” I feel like this little “slice of life” moment really highlights my current state of mind.
You know how awkward it is when kids grow out their bangs? They have 27 hair clips trying to make it manageable, and still their hair is in their face? That’s me right now. I have had the same bangs for my entire life. This is my COVID experiment. I am a giant forty-four-year-old who looks like a totally awkward five-year-old. Add in the lack of hair dye, and my head is a hot mess. My favourite is when my students make comments like, “Wow! My little sister wears hair things like that too. Did you buy them at Claire’s?” Yes, yes I did.
The pandemic got real today. One of my students had a minor social hiccup with her friends at recess. She completely fell to pieces: sobbing, shaking, and snotty nosing all over the place.
I chatted with her for a while, and finally she said, “I’m just so sad because normally I would get a hug when I’m feeling so sad, but nobody can hug me now.” Holy moly. I basically took a bath in hand sanitizer and asked her if I could give her a hug. She quickly agreed and after I gave her one, she relaxed, smiled, and returned to music class.
This pandemic is brutal. It is a major bummer to be isolated and not allowed to eat at restaurants. But the toll it is taking on our kids is truly heartbreaking.
For all my teacher friends who are finally returning to the classroom, I’ve been back in person since October, and I have some solid advice for you. I’ve put it into bullet points.
Pants: You now have to wear real pants while you teach. Yes, it’s a drag, but make the transition gradually. Wear yoga pants and tell everyone that you have a circulation condition and the pants are doctor-mandated.
Masks: Yes, teaching in a mask is no fun, but it does make muttering comments to yourself much easier. Nobody can see your mouth, or hear half of what you say, so you’re totally safe. Just remember, masks don’t conceal eye rolling. Oops!
Zooming while in person: This one is tricky. You have kids in the classroom, but you still have kids Zooming in from home. Always be mindful of where the iPad is focused. It is nothing short of a miracle that my distance learners haven’t been blinded, due to several accidental close-ups of my rear end or nostrils.
Hand sanitizer: Just embrace it. It kills germs, but it also removes Sharpie marks and works as a gel when your newly acquired grey hairs become unruly. It’s like the Windex of the pandemic.
Lots of love to my fellow teachers. You’ve got this!
Getting Back to Normal(ish)
This is why I love teaching eight- and nine-year-olds. Today, while reading aloud—my absolute favourite time, because I am an undercover actress who loves making funny voices in front of a captive audience—one of my distance learners came bursting onto the Zoom. This was how that went…
STUDENT: I’m so sorry for missing class today, but I had to go to the doctor.
ME: No worries, we’re glad you’re here now. (I return to reading aloud)
STUDENT: (talking over me with great excitement) I had to go to the doctor because I had a tick in my ear and it pooped!
ME: (clearly realizing that there is no funny voice that can compete with a pooping ear tick, I put down the book) What did you say?
STUDENT: I had a tick in my ear and it pooped!
ME: How in the world did that happen?
STUDENT: The doctor said that people get bugs stuck in their ears all the time. The most common one he sees is the cockroach.
ME: How on earth does somebody get a cockroach in their ear?!
STUDENT: (by now the entire class is losing their minds over this news update) Yeah! He’s seen snails, cockroaches, and even ticks. They had to use a straw connected to a vacuum to suck the poop out of my ear!
ME: (realizing that we are now going to spend the next 20 minutes processing the idea of pooping bugs crawling into our ears) Wow. Twenty-one years of teaching, and this is definitely a first.
STUDENT: (looking very proud) Yep! It was pretty cool.
ME: (sensing that we were ready to move on) Okay then, back to our book…
The best part was that the parents of the kids on Zoom got to listen to this conversation, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Happy to entertain!
The New Normal
Being back in the classroom full time, things are feeling a bit more “normal.” I’m no longer teaching bearded dragons and turtles over Zoom, but I feel like “normal” things are now different. For example:
One of my third graders coughed and the rest of the class all froze. The poor kid instantly began apologizing and talking about her allergies, meanwhile her classmates all looked at her like she was doing something wrong. I quickly reminded students that not every cough and sneeze is COVID; that’s why we wash our hands and use sanitizer. I caught the side-eye from a few kids, but at least my little friend with allergies was off the hook.
Fresh air is our friend. That is my new mantra. The windows are open and air purifiers are blasting. I honestly enjoy seeing how the fashions quickly changed after a week or two of our “fresh air classroom” approach. Gone are the shorts and tank tops. We are now a fashion runway for the newest and best snow wear collections! I did have to draw the line at the earmuffs, though. I don’t think the kids had cold ears, I think they just wanted an excuse to not listen to me. We also eat outside now, in the glorious sunshine. Even when there isn’t glorious sunshine.
Never in my teaching career did I think I would hear myself say, “Please don’t share classroom supplies with your friends.” Talk about mixed messages for these kids! Pre-COVID, third grade was all about sharing—supplies, snacks, you name it. Now, I practically jump over desks when I see an eight-year-old reach into their neighbour’s supply box. I honestly don’t know if sharing supplies is that big of a COVID risk, but you better believe that I’m not going to be the teacher to test that out.
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Overall, this post-COVID (or at least less-COVID) teaching world is definitely a new normal. It keeps us on our toes, but we’re teachers, and that’s what we do best. I feel that we should all wear our COVID teaching experiences as badges of honour. We problem-solved, learned new technologies, ran impromptu therapy sessions during Zoom classes, and came out on the other side. It was challenging, exhausting, and occasionally tear-inducing, but we did it. We’re teachers. That’s what we do.
Sarah Abbey has been a primary school teacher for 23 years in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is grateful for her students and the many stories they provide for her to laugh, smile, and write about.