It was a Thursday morning, in between my 3rd and 4th period classes, when I received the email. “Dear Mrs. Franks, please excuse Sarah from class for the remainder of the week. Her father unexpectedly passed away. She will make up all the required work when she comes back on Monday.”
My 10-minute break in between periods, which is usually spent fixing my lesson plans and responding to emails, was now devoted to trying to compose myself after that three-sentence email. Instead of getting work done before my next class, I found myself in tears, thinking about Sarah and the well-being of all my other 160 kids.
This almost year-long pandemic has wreaked havoc on so many people. Families and friends have lost loved ones, people have lost their jobs, and everyone is simply living in a state of limbo, isolation, and fear. As much as we keep looking at the bigger picture and focusing on what the future holds, we need to shift our focus on the little ones—on the people who will be moving the future forward. I would go so far to say that right now, our youth are struggling the most.
As a middle school English teacher, my teaching philosophy has been built on the foundation of a single quote I heard during my years in college: “Our students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This year, that quote has been more relevant and as important as ever. The kids in our classes need to know that we are there for them and that we care about them.
Many districts are pushing for schools to continue on as if nothing has changed. State tests are still being mandated and teachers are still expected to teach the same amount of curriculum. Is this really what our kids need right now, though? Is it fair to be shoving the same amount of content down their throats that we did pre-COVID?
When I read the email about Sarah over again, the sentence that really struck me and stuck with me was the last one. She will make up all the required work when she comes back on Monday. All I could think when I read that was that if my dad died today, let alone when I was 12, I don’t think I could pick up the pieces and go on the following week as if nothing had happened.
I responded to the email with my many condolences and a promise that she could take however long she needed to make up any work. I extended grace when needed, and I think that is one thing that teachers need to be doing more of during this time.
After teaching my kids over Zoom for the past five months, here are a few things I have noticed: Our kids are having to babysit their siblings while in class; they’re emotionally and mentally exhausted; they struggle with staring at a screen for six hours; they’ve lost loved ones during this time like Sarah did; they’re experiencing homelessness and/or a parent who has lost their job; they are devoid of social interaction outside of online school; and they have been and are being robbed of their childhood.
The pandemic is hard on everyone, but it is exponentially more devastating for our kids. As an English teacher, I want my students to enjoy reading and writing and analyzing words and the world around them as much as I do, but first and foremost, I need to be making sure my kids are alright.
Our priority as teachers should be making sure our students’ emotional needs are met before we worry about their state test scores. We need to be prioritizing our kids’ mental health during this time because they are dealing with so much more than we know.
When the world starts going back to something resembling normalcy, then we can address going back to our previous school expectations and goals. For now though, our goals need to be on the state of our students’ emotional well-being. We can always make up content that wasn’t covered, but we can’t make up and take back the emotional trauma and stress that is taking place for our kids in these moments.
That quote that drives my teaching is one that everyone in the field of education needs to be living by right now. We need to seriously be addressing our students and their mental states. Their emotional needs need to be met before their educational ones because, as the quote goes, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”