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Teacher's Lounge - Advice for Virtual Instruction: No Comfort Zone

Dear Teacher’s Lounge,

For the past several months, I’ve been living with the uncomfortable feeling that I have no idea what I’m doing. This feeling is especially difficult because I’ve been a teacher for a very long time, so it feels awful to think so little of my professional abilities right now. I’ve been telling myself that I would feel better once I was back in front of kids in my classroom, but everything is different. We’re behind masks, the kids have to be on computers, and I can’t really do the same job I did before. I’m wondering if I will always feel like I can’t get ahead of the curve, or if this might mean it’s time to contemplate a career change. Other people seem to be getting it. Why can’t I?

                                                                                                                        ~No Comfort Zone

Dear No Comfort Zone,

At moments like this, I really wish I could reach through my screen and have a conversation with you. What I would say is that your uncomfortable feeling, while pervasive, is also the strongest sign that you care enough about being an effective teacher that you are willing to consider giving up a profession you love. And here I am, begging you not to listen to that voice inside your head. We have lost enough talented teachers this past year, and the consequences for children are vast.

Yes, we’ve all been put through the ringer, and it’s not likely to normalize soon. Last week I taught my class with two laptops set up, one with faulty video and one with faulty sound, so that my class could still see and hear me. As I toggled frantically from one mode to another, trying to both share materials while seeing everybody’s face, part of me wanted to give into the sadness I felt in that moment. I remember the dynamism of a physical classroom, how body language or even subtle facial expressions played into how I read the room, how spontaneity occurred organically and led to something wonderful. It is so easy to remember those times and get trapped in regret.

But then once my class ended and I took a deep breath, I pulled out my gratitude journal. Over the past several months, whenever I feel beleaguered, I’ve been forcing myself to put a grateful spin on whatever bothers me. In this case, I wrote about something funny a student put into the chat that made me laugh, and how lucky we are to still be able to have those moments, even if they’re fewer and farther between. I wrote about the importance of choice. I can choose to do my best in a limited teaching space, I can choose to be all right with the conditions that exist, and I can choose to continue working this way as long as it’s needed. When I’m in a building providing in-person instruction, I can choose to keep wearing two masks and figure out other ways to be dynamic without sacrificing my safety. I can also choose to accept that this process will be bumpy, fraught, and frustrating.

The question is, do we love teaching enough to stick with it as it undergoes some unpleasant alterations over the next year or so? Each month brings us one step closer to the classroom experience we once knew, and we have to decide whether to forgive ourselves for not loving the way things are and move forward anyway, or whether to pursue another path. Either choice is legitimate, but only if we know in our hearts that we really want to leave. If the problem is rooted in conditions that will change, I would encourage anyone to stick it out. If there’s a deeper-seated doubt that is making teaching appear like a less likely long-term career, now is probably the time to start thinking about next steps.

In your case, the frustration you express appears to be based on circumstances beyond your control. It’s not that you are burned out on teaching; in fact, you say that you’ve been doing this for a long time. Anyone who has lasted beyond the statistical 3-5 years that sends most teachers running for the hills needs to give the long-term future some serious consideration. You say that you can’t “get ahead of the curve,” but there is no curve to beat. Maybe some of our teaching colleagues are faking it better than others, or maybe some of them are just more naturally suited to adapt quickly to changes that involve a heavy use of technology in flexible spaces. Either way, we can never measure our own successes by fixating on what other people do. Just as each teacher has a distinct style of instruction that should not be imitated, the same holds true for our approach to adapting that style through myriad shifts in circumstance. In other words, just because someone else seems like they’re sailing through something, that doesn’t mean anyone else is failing or somehow behind.

Bottom line? Go easy on yourself, and think about putting off serious decisions about your career until things are a lot more stable. Right now, we are all doing jobs that we never imagined doing, and most of us are not that crazy about it. It might not be the best time to give something up that we used to love. Instead, this is a great time to reflect and to be grateful that even while we hate a lot about how we teach right now, there is also plenty to appreciate. True, most of us want to throw our laptops out the window and never log onto Zoom again, but we are fortunate to have ways to do our jobs. If we’re back in buildings, we can be thankful that the pandemic does not currently seem to affect school infection rates significantly, and that we have safety measures in place (plus a vaccine on the horizon) to help mitigate the fear. Above all, we have the ability to keep learning and responding to a world that changes quickly, and how we react is our choice. And choice, after all, is a beautiful thing to have.

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Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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