by John Ritchie
I started the 2019-2020 school year--my 20th year in the classroom--with more optimism and excitement than usual. I loved both of my PLCs. The junior PLC was hoping to breathe new life into Miller’s Death of a Salesman by pairing it with Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Second semester, we were ready to roll out (and defend if necessary) The Perks of Being a Wallflower. These literature units would alternate with our renewed pumped up approach to digital literacy and research writing. My senior composition PLC was likewise pushing new citation styles and trying to help students see how and why the different citation styles were applied. Amidst all of this, a friend from Washburn University asked if I would sponsor a future teacher’s observation hours. If all went well, I would mentor ST the following fall during her student teaching semester. I would be open to all of her questions through fall, winter, and spring as we then geared up to an experience none of us could anticipate.
ST’s 2019 fall semester experience went very well. Initially, I would preview the lesson plans for her and then have her come up with questions about anything she observed during her two-hour stay. . Most of the questions were about the classroom layout, why I addressed some behaviors but ignored others, and how the transactions of the day would affect what I did tomorrow. When we got to our junior plays, she knew the classes she was observing well enough to predict that they would hate Biff and Happy (bunch of losers) but love Walter and Beneatha’s spirit. By the end of the semester, she was practicing electronic feedback on essays and creating seating charts based on what she knew about the students. I was pleased with her progress, so I was happy to put in the paperwork to be her mentor for Fall 2020.
I kept in touch with ST throughout the beginning of this past spring semester.. I shared our materials as we put together a tougher research unit than we’d ever done with our juniors. She previewed materials and began to see the delicate balance of creating clear objectives in student-friendly language. When our PLC spent three days wordsmithing a heads up for parents about The Perks of Being a Wallflower, she and I talked through the professional changes the team had made from the first to the final draft. With Part I of Perks completed without controversy just before spring break, I said things would be boring enough that she should focus on her final university classes and check back with me in May.
We all know how quickly things changed during spring break. ST contacted me to ask what we were doing. All I could say was “we’re adapting.” It was tough to keep her informed when my own information seemed to change by the minute. Then came the press conference. All of us in education had an inkling of what would happen, but I doubt any of us believed it. When the words were said, I couldn’t accept it. I jumped as my breaking news alert confirmed it. Dazed, I captured the screenshot for posterity:
Another alert--a text from ST: “Are you watching? What do you think?”
I felt an obligation to be the mentor. A temptation to sit above it all and try to remain objective. But I found I didn’t have the energy or desire. It didn’t feel right. I was watching the press conference blinking back tears because one of the best parts of my life had been taken away for at least the next six months.
“Devastated,” I replied.
As ST continued to check in periodically with me, I wondered how I could continue to offer myself as a mentor to her. I was dealing with Google Meetings that were attended by less than 10% of my classes. Incidents of plagiarism began to spike. It became a vicious cycle of my kids’ motivation dying, which hurt mine, which no doubt hurt my kids, and downward we went. I felt like nothing I did mattered. The assignments and the grading became busy work. What could she learn from someone who no longer felt effective?
I will never be more thankful for my PLC colleagues than I was from March - May 2020. It was easily one of the lowest points of my teaching career, but they helped me survive it. Our weekly meetings were the only confirmation I had that I was not alone, that I was not failing as a professional, and that we were all clawing toward a finish line hoping to have something to be proud of at the end.
As the school year wrapped up, my PLCs made a Google Form reflection for our students that we counted as the last assignment of the semester. We asked students to be honest about what worked for them and, in a worst case scenario, what should change if we had to go through this again next fall. Some of my worst fears were confirmed--the students saw some of what we did as boring busy work--but we also received encouragement saying they thought we did the best we could under the circumstances. One thing I noticed was how many students said they appreciated the ongoing contacts, even if the students did not engage us in return. There were also many genuine messages about how much they enjoyed and missed our class. That helped me realize that any successes we had in the fourth quarter were from the relationships we had built the previous seven months. It also helped me realize that I could continue as a mentor for ST by building off the relationship we had created last year, and by welcoming her as a colleague into our PLC.
It’s now late June. ST has finished her PLT and is beginning to ask questions about the fall. During any other year, we would approach it the same way I usually approach the fall and reflect upon on the previou year: identify what worked and what we can do to improve upon it; identify what bombed and evaluate if it is worth salvaging it,;and identify what new learning has excited me in the past year and where I can implement it. Of course we can still go through this process and build on the foundation created from last year, but the pandemic remains the inescapable elephant in the room. We cannot plan for it. Instead of giving in to the despair I felt earlier, I tell her it is an opportunity to dive deeper into what teachers and students in our district, and across the state, are already using. As we are a Google school, one priority is making sure she is proficient with Google Classroom and Forms. We look at screencast software and search teacher sites for the most user-friendly resources. I give her National Writing Project books and links to sites like KATE and NCTE’s ALAN site. The exchange flows both ways. As someone who is only five or six years older than our students, she is more likely to know what technology will be most engaging to them without seeming forced or, dare I say it, cringe. Part of her job is to suggest whatever she thinks might help us engage our students. She floats the idea of a Tik-Tok for our classes. I am not yet convinced, but I am listening.
Now we get together at least once a week to walk a public trail and talk about the fall. We get past our anxieties by discussing education developments. We joke that our walks in the summer humidity will give us the endurance to teach eight hours while wearing a mask. Many Board of Regents schools have announced that on-campus classes will end with Thanksgiving break. Will that happen to us? We know it’s possible. Based on the 4th quarter, we decided to suggest to the PLC that we put the major work in the 1st quarter. It may be an illusion of control, but the discussions help us acknowledge the challenges that lay ahead. Relationship-building is our top priority. Our first assignment together is to come up with a plan to build connections with students as soon as we are able to contact them, regardless of what that contact might look like.
I still worry whether I’ll be an effective mentor for ST. Even under ideal conditions, student teaching is an unpaid internship with all of the stress of teaching without many of the benefits. She is entering a situation that turned us all into first-year teachers again. This year her questions will often be the questions I’m trying to answer, too. The best that I can do is to acknowledge my own doubts, but show how we push past them through continuous learning and flexibility. I will show her how to enter a career that often thrives on adapting to crises whether it is school violence, sudden changes in curriculum, or even a pandemic.
About the Author
About the author: John Ritchie lives in Topeka where he teaches English 11 and Composition at Washburn Rural High School, and Composition as an adjunct professor at Washburn University. He has been an active member of KATE for 15 years.
Facebook: John Ritchie
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