I Loved Being A Classroom Teacher. COVID-19 Stole That From Me.

At 64 and with underlying health issues, continuing to teach was too much of a risk for me.
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As I write this, our world has been living in a pandemic for over 10 months. This virus has seeped into every aspect of life as we knew it and, with its viciousness, has stolen so much from so many.

Given that my family and I have been healthy with a roof over our heads and food on our table, I know that it’s unfair to complain about what I’ve lost during this time. I know that millions of people all over the world have lost so much more: loved ones, homes, jobs, coping abilities. I know that my losses are insignificant compared to those of so many. But COVID stole from me, too.

I’m a teacher, or until July 24, I was a classroom teacher. That’s the day I told my principal I would not be returning to my classroom for this school year. After learning in mid-July that my school was planning to start the year in person five days a week, I spent several weeks vacillating about what to do.

At 64 and with underlying health issues, my family felt it was too much risk for me. Some days I agreed with them, and some days I felt like it was all manageable, provided I was careful.

The emotional tug of war continued until finally, I consulted my doctor, and he advised me to not return to the classroom if I could afford not to.

I was shocked. I really thought he would tell me to be careful and sanitize frequently and keep socially distant as much as possible and wear my mask and I would be fine. At that point, I was out of ammunition with which to fight my family, so I called my principal and told him that I wouldn’t be coming back. I was ― and still am ― devastated.

Again, I know how lucky I am, this is not me having a full-out pity party. I don’t need you to get me cheese for my whine. We can get by on my husband’s salary, we will be OK, we are all still COVID-free, I wasn’t going to teach forever.

“I miss the kids. I miss my colleagues. I miss the pieces of literature I used to teach, and I miss getting eighth graders ready for writing papers in high school.”

But I was heartbroken to not be in my classroom this year, especially after the fourth quarter of last year was completely virtual. I didn’t get to tell anyone goodbye. I packed up my classroom alone in an empty building in early August, just before my teaching colleagues would return to open up their classrooms and get ready for a new school year. I didn’t get closure.

For months after my tearful phone call to my principal, I was unable to say the word “retired.” I didn’t post it on my social media platforms, and I only told people if it was unavoidable. Even now, after more than five months of being home 24/7, I am still reluctant to admit I’m retired.

From March to June, like hundreds of thousands of teachers like me, I taught virtually to finish out the school year with my seventh and eighth graders. While not ideal, I made it work. Luckily, I had started using Google Classroom in January 2020 for my two English classes; adding my four literature classes was not that much of a stretch. Redoing my lesson plans and units that for 13 years worked so well in the classroom was a bit more of a challenge.

I had to slow things down quite a bit and, in the interest of the mental health of my teens and tweens, ease off on some of my classroom policies and expectations. I had to learn what worked and didn’t work on Zoom, and had to add new apps like Kahoot! to try to engage with them more effectively.

It was especially tough to motivate my eighth graders because they were missing out on all the fun activities that come at the end of their middle school journey just before they graduate and leave for high school.

Then it was late fall and my favorite time of the year. I love the cooler weather and I love wearing sweaters; I love making soup and decorating for Halloween and Thanksgiving. I love knitting scarves and hats and cuddling under a blanket to watch TV.

But, as a teacher, I also loved ending that first quarter of the new school year, completing report cards, preparing for parent-teacher conferences. I loved attending our school’s winter band concert and the Christmas pageant and the choir concert.

Sure, there have been some silver linings to the pandemic, like more time with my family, more time to read, more time to write, and more time to indulge my love of cooking and baking. I admit I don’t miss the stress of Sundays when I haven’t finished lesson planning for the week and I still have a stack of research papers to grade.

But I miss the kids. I miss my colleagues. I miss the pieces of literature I used to teach, and I miss getting eighth graders ready for writing papers in high school. I miss the time “between the bells” when, every 40 minutes, I did a soft reboot and started over with a fresh group of faces. I missed the hard reboot and total reset every summer when I prepared for the new school year and new literature units.

My modest upbringing didn’t give me lots of new clothes or fun vacations, but it did give me a solid work ethic. Both of my parents instilled in me the importance of doing a good job, of completing a task, of doing my best at everything.

I worked full-time from just after college graduation until July 24, 2020, with the exception of the two years my family lived overseas for my husband’s work. Even then, when I could have done just about anything I wanted with my time, I was bored and frustrated at not having a real job. I ended up becoming a fixture at my daughters’ school, volunteering as a teaching assistant, library aide and substitute teacher. Those two years opened a window for me, and subsequently led to a career change from the legal field to education.

Thanks to COVID, I feel cheated at not having had more time in my second career. And, while I am 64, I don’t feel like I’ve earned the right to be retired yet.

“I’m mad I had to be told to quit teaching, not to retire when I was ready. I’m mad I didn’t get to tell my students goodbye. I’m just so mad.”

Spring gave way to summer and fall, and now winter is upon us. I should have been counting down the days until every teacher’s favorite time: the long school break between Christmas and New Year’s. I should have been stocking up on library books to read over break and rushing to get essays graded so I could relax over the holidays.

And, most poignantly, I should have been decorating my house and planning menus for when both daughters would be home and we would all be together as a family. Since we made a family decision in early December that our younger daughter would not fly home from California for the holidays, it was our first Christmas ever where we were not together, and I am so sad about it.

Once again, I know how fortunate I am, how blessed we are to all be COVID-free, how much worse our lives could be financially right now. But no matter how hard I try to be positive and appreciative of all of that, I am mad.

I’m mad at COVID for entering our world. I’m mad at our government for not being better prepared to combat the spread of this virus. I’m mad at those who continue to gallivant about in a cavalier manner: shopping and running unnecessary errands, not wearing a mask, having large family gatherings. I’m mad every time I log on to Facebook and see others standing shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm, hugging and enjoying their families and friends. I’m mad I had to be told to quit teaching, not to retire when I was ready. I’m mad I didn’t get to tell my students goodbye. I’m just so mad.

Christmas and New Year’s came and went. Winter snows will fall and melt away. Essential workers are having their turn to get a COVID vaccine and after, I’ll be in line for mine. I want to prove that COVID has me down right now, but not out.

While our world and the way we interact in it may not be normal again for a long time, I look forward to the day when I can return to the classroom as a substitute or part-time teacher, when I can travel to see my daughter, when my husband and I can finally celebrate our 30th anniversary, whenever and wherever that may be. I look forward to the day when I’m not mad anymore.

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