There is a story about a farmer’s donkey who falls down a well. The farmer tries to get the donkey out, but decides that the animal is too old to bother saving, and the well needs to be covered up anyway. He and his neighbors start shoveling dirt into the well. At first, the donkey realizes what is happening and starts to cry. But then he quiets down. The farmer looks down at the donkey and is amazed at what he sees. With every shovel of dirt that hits the animal’s back, the donkey shakes it off and takes a step up. Eventually, the donkey reaches the top of the well and trots off.
The moral of the story is that life is going to shovel dirt on you. The trick to getting out of the well is to shake it off and step up. I have been thinking about the challenges that teachers are facing this school year, and this story provides a metaphor to our situation and what we should do in response.
One shovel of dirt being thrown at us is our concern for safety in the midst of this pandemic. We are afraid for our own health, for the health of our coworkers and families, and for the health of our students. Common sense tells us that having many bodies in a small classroom does not allow for proper social distancing, and depending on the age of the students we teach, they may not be able to handle wearing masks all day long. These issues, while concerning, are for the most part out of our control. What we can control is what we do to prevent the spread of disease. We can teach and review hand washing and hygiene procedures with our students. We can sanitize our classrooms, our desks, and our supplies frequently. We can utilize the personal protective equipment given to us by our districts.
Another shovel of dirt is the extra paperwork we are asked to complete to document our efforts to provide meaningful instruction during the pandemic. In my district, we have been asked to complete distance learning plans for students who are opting for that modality. We are required to maintain a daily service delivery log for every student, as well as stay in compliance with IEPs, 504 plans, and student behavior plans. This is twice as much paperwork as we usually manage, and it is overwhelming. We cannot control what school districts ask us to do, but we can make lists of what needs to be done, and we can prioritize tasks by due date. We can cross each item off our list once it is completed. We can keep moving forward.
An additional shovel of dirt is providing both in-person learning and distance learning. If we thought that teaching was hard before, that was nothing compared to what we are being asked to do now. The same activities and classroom assignments that work for in-person learners do not always translate to distance learning. It takes extra time to post and manage distance learning tasks, contact parents, and help families manage technology. For the most part, distance learning is pushed to after school hours or the weekend, as students physically in the classroom demand our attention first. We spend nights and weekends trying to make sure we are giving distance learners the attention they need. We are exhausted. To shake this dirt off, we can work smarter, not harder. We can explore the digital resources provided to us through our districts. District teams have gone to great effort to create drag and drop tasks that we can post to our own digital classrooms. We can learn more about the digital platforms we are using, so that managing these platforms will be easier and require less time. We can utilize para support when available – we can train our paras to teach digital lessons, or they can teach our in-person learners so that we can teach distance learners during regular school hours. We can record our live instruction and post it to our digital classrooms, so distance learners can watch those recordings when they choose.
Finally, the last shovel of dirt is mounting stress. As teachers, we want to manage our work loads well and feel prepared, and that is hard to do this year. We need to build our resilience by setting clear boundaries and sticking to them. We need to leave work at work, and enjoy our time with our families at home. We need to rest. We need to be realistic about our own capabilities and about the expectations that are being placed upon us. We are being asked to work at a non-human pace. We are human, and we get tired and frustrated. We need to give ourselves permission to take a break and not think about our students every minute of the day. If we don’t care for ourselves, we will collapse, and we may not be able to get back up again.
Remember the story? The donkey cried before he figured out what to do to get himself out of the well. If we need to cry, it is ok. Then we need to shake it off, and take a step up. Educators are tough, and we are passionate about what we do because we know we make a difference. Let’s hang in there until we can trot safely out of the well.