Jamie Gillette

Camden Hills Regional High School
Rockport, Maine
Jamie Gillette, High School English Teacher

Carrying the load

I spoke with a colleague recently who took issue with characterizing teachers’ efforts in these COVID-changed times as ‘working tirelessly.’ “Of course we are tired!” she declared. And we are.

Tired from simultaneously taking attendance, remaining socially distanced, managing the snarl of cords and cables, displaying the right tabs, opening up the Zoom meeting for our at-home learners (approximately 11% of our population) at the right time all while still keeping in mind exactly what it is we are teaching today. Tired of adjusting shades to minimize the glare off plexiglass shields and feeling lightheaded after a read aloud with a mask. Tired of scrambling to prepare materials for situations unlike what we’ve done in the past, all the while knowing next week could bring situations unlike what we’re doing in the present, since we’ll need to be ready for that too.

Yet in all that naked exhaustion, I’m able to see intense beauty as well. Our school benefitted from early advantages including a prior-existing 1-to-1 device program, hotspots for students lacking home internet access, and a plan for remote learning during winter storms. We built upon our successes through robust professional development in June and August. Our low local COVID situation has allowed us to resume in-person learning for all who choose it. Staff supported colleagues by creating tutorial screencasts and showing up in rooms for generous personalized assistance. Administrators rallied us compassionately, assuring us that any rotten choices they had to make were less rotten than other options, and to assume good intentions. The theater and athletic departments watched as the Black Box theater and half of the gymnasium were repurposed into a second and third cafeteria space. Custodians set up tents to provide outdoor study and relaxation space—that the tents failed to stand up to the wind did not make their efforts any less well-intentioned. Hardship has unleashed our best capacities: the beautiful can-do attitude, the sheer will to make it work for at least long enough to connect with students. At least we hoped for that.

And then the students arrived! Nervous behind masks and less boisterous than normal, they tentatively relearned the rules: where to sit, how to sanitize desks, what options still existed to bring them joy. They are so hungry to connect, to learn, to return to an activity that they might have considered dreadful in February but now recognize as a pathway to meaning. They’re watching us struggle, newly alert that even teachers have new learning to do.

This isn’t what we trained to do, but we’re making it work. Webcams came last week to provide better visibility to the remote learners—mine at the front shows faces during discussion while a colleague’s at the back improves the view of his board as he solves math problems. Teachers not returning to in-person instruction devise asynchronous classes with weekly Zoom meetings to anchor progress in human contact. My department chair reminds me to take on only what I am capable of and forgive myself for the rest. That’s a challenge for teachers; we are perfectionists, detail-oriented high achievers who know the pleasure of a lesson well-delivered, a resonating teachable moment, a powerful sequence that sticks the landing. Yet while I wouldn’t recognize many of my students maskless, I’ve seen their luminous inner light, rekindling my own.

All of us—teachers alongside ed techs, secretaries, guidance counselors, custodians, food workers, bus drivers, administrators (oh, those decision-making administrators!)—are tired. Very tired.

And very, very beautiful.