How the grief of the pandemic forced me to be a great teacher

Josh Anderson was the 2007 Kansas Teacher of the Year, a 2007 National Teacher of the Year Finalist and the 2015 National High School Speech and Debate Coach of the Year. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Josh Anderson teaches in the Olathe school district.

“Good grief,” Charlie Brown groused at the end of many Peanuts comic strips. His exasperated exclamation evoked frustration and acceptance. In my first week of teaching virtually to high school students, I, too, said, “good grief” more than a few times. I said some other words, too.

I’ve been an educator for almost a quarter of a century. I am a good teacher; I know that. But the most important lesson I learned this summer was that I was no longer a “great” teacher, despite what I was telling myself.

Years ago, I was a great teacher. I leapt nimbly between bandwagons. I had time, energy, and something to prove. I fluidly spoke three languages: English, teenager and administrator. A decade later, I had become a statistic in what I call Newton’s first law of education: Teachers at rest tend to stay at rest.

It took a global pandemic and a few executive orders by the governor to force me to confront the growing gap between being a good teacher and a great one.

While the rest of the world struggled with masks and protests this summer, I privately mourned the loss of an old friend: my ego. In previous years, the start of the school year meant dusting off those awesome lesson plans from the year before (and the year before that). This year, I looked in my teacher toolbox and saw that none of my rusty, trusty tools would work. I was a Facebook teacher in an Instagram profession with TikTok kids. And suddenly, I’d also be teaching them while there were at home, usually in bed.

Good grief.

All summer, I kept remembering a line from Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451“: “We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”

I believe we need to be bothered every so often. We need to be tossed overboard a few times so we can see our own barnacles dragging us down. This pandemic tossed us all overboard, and we’ve had to jettison the familiar just to stay afloat.

And I learned that my grief wasn’t just good, it was great and necessary. It cleaved a threshold between the old and the new.

Like the hero in any mythic story, my ordinary world had been disrupted. I had no choice but to learn the skills, strategies and tools needed to avoid the unacceptable scenario: sitting on Zoom in 90-minute class periods with no functional tools to teach my students. I had to shift from virtually teaching to teaching virtually.

So, I changed. I built digital escape rooms, designed interactive and immersive activities and gamified learning. I carefully mapped out each class period to maximize engagement. Each hour of class time took three hours of preparation. I built entire websites for an activity designed to last only 10 minutes. The delayed start of the year gave me just enough time to do what needed to be done.

Great grief.

My colleagues all embraced this same challenge. All of us had to undertake our own unique and emotional journey. We all had to mourn the loss of the familiar and get busy doing something we’d never imagined. Nothing like this has ever happened to any of us, and I’m proud of how my profession has responded.

For the past couple of years, our academic focus has been preparing graduates with “soft skills” and “grit.” Few of us could have predicted how existentially valuable these skills would be for teachers as our lifelong careers hit a collective skid.

Necessary grief.

Our week of learning virtually was fun and productive. We worked through glitches, gave ourselves grace, and focused on being together again. I love being back with the kids, and they secretly love being back in a structured environment. It feels new and strange, but it also feels exciting.

What I do not know is how long we will be learning virtually. What I do know is that I’ve learned more in the past three weeks than at any other point in my career. My saw has been sharpened, my toolbox has been upgraded, and I’m doing the sort of things I should have been doing all along.

I still have a long way to go. After all, I’m still writing editorials with cartoon references from the 1970s, but I am working to make myself great again. Somebody’s got to do it.

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