My students and I were riding high in March 2020 after a video we made went viral across social media platforms. As an African-American fifth-grade teacher in a Memphis school of minority students, I created over 250 elaborate handshakes to greet each of my students with the intent of giving them a sense of value. Each student felt significant and special with their own individual greeting.
National news and media outlets were contacting me to conduct interviews, and widely known organizations were requesting partnerships with me. I was even in talks for a feature on The Ellen DeGeneres Show! Little did I know that my world and everyone else’s would soon come crashing down, and life as we once knew it would be forever altered.
In January 2020, the first cases of COVID-19 emerged and began to rapidly increase worldwide. By March, things took a turn for the worse as the number of COVID cases began to rise. I recall sitting in my classroom and receiving notice that school would immediately be canceled to mitigate health risks due to the outbreak. At that point, I had no major concern as I assumed things would be back to normal soon.
About two weeks later, on March 26, 2020, after multiple visits to the emergency room, I was diagnosed with this life-threatening disease. Although my symptoms were light, the emotional, psychological, and mental distress far outweighed my physical ailment. I experienced panic attacks, hallucinations, and anxiety. Even after defeating COVID, I experienced “long hauler” effects. I slipped into a deep depression as it appeared things were getting worse, and all hope was lost.
Even in the state I was in, my students were always my priority because I had developed relationships with them and genuinely cared about their mental and physical well-being. For the first time in my life, I felt powerless, and for a split moment, I believed all hope was lost until I made a conscious decision to focus on what I knew things could be and not what they appeared to be. I discovered hope was still there.
Adjusting to Virtual Learning
Almost immediately, virtual learning was introduced as the new wave for teaching. Both teachers and students were now adjusting to this new norm of remote learning together. The process was daunting as no one really knew what to expect. There would be no more handshakes, no more in-person human interaction, and no gathering around my desk chanting affirmations, and this realization allowed me to really take in the depth of the impact teachers have on their students. The pandemic, though unprecedented, brought to light just how important my role was in my students’ lives.
“The pandemic...brought to light just how important my role was in my students’ life.“
Getting acclimated to virtual training was challenging for me as well as my students. Even high-performing students were not functioning to their capacity due to the challenges presented by the change. The main challenges they faced included not being able to focus, having no quiet place to tune out distractions, and having no support system. I would often have dreams of being back in the school building with my students. I knew I needed to do something to help them stay motivated and get through this difficult time. There were so many additional demands by the school board, including benchmarks and deadlines. Of course, students are often judged by test scores. I wanted to ensure children still had a great learning experience, for I knew this would help them succeed.
I continued my monthly student achievement award, in which I hand-delivered a gift requested by the students to their homes. This motivated students to be alert and attentive during remote learning. It also encouraged students by allowing them to see some of the things they often saw in the classroom, which gave a sense of normalcy. For Christmas, I was back to making a list and checking it twice, giving out gifts to each student to make sure they had a special holiday. This time, however, I implemented the drive-through Christmas giveaway—the students and parents loved it.
Transitioning Back to the Classroom
Just as I was getting accustomed to virtual learning, I was informed we would be transitioning back to the classroom in a hybrid setting. For me, this raised concerns. Was it too soon? Would students consistently follow social distance guidelines? Would anyone contract COVID? I had great uncertainty about returning. I even contemplated a leave of absence. I knew I had to overcome my fears and be there for my students, as I’m sure they had the same concerns. All the teachers came together to encourage and uplift each other.
I knew I could no longer use my famous handshakes of greeting my students, so I created personalized non-contact greetings. I knew how the pandemic affected these children, and I wanted to do something I knew would put a smile on their faces and mend their hearts. It’s easier to build a broken child than it is a broken man. I used this opportunity as a learning experience so the child wouldn’t become a broken man. I discovered you don’t have to physically touch a child to touch a child’s heart. In the past, the education system has focused heavily on curriculum, but I believe because of the pandemic, we will focus more on establishing relationships. Get children excited and vulnerable about learning, and they will succeed at it.
“It’s easier to build a broken child than it is a broken man. I used this opportunity as a learning experience so the child wouldn’t become a broken man.“
It was reassuring and encouraging to observe how we teachers supported each other during the pandemic. We adopted a new routine of daily Zoom check-ins to talk, vent, get advice, and enjoy encouragement from our peers. We often encouraged each other to take mental health days and stepped up to assist with their classroom while they were out. We supported and will continue to support each other through each phase of this pandemic. And now I feel I’ve come full circle in this long, strange year of COVID.
I developed a whole new series of creative, non-contact handshakes, this time from a distance and individualized for each and every student. I’m often asked, “How do you memorize all those handshakes?” My response: “I remember what’s important to me.” These children expect me to remember each greeting because it sends a message to the students that I care and value them. Surprisingly, our new video of our greetings went viral! I was contacted by media, including ABC’s and NBC’s national newscasts and The Kelly Clarkson Show. I realized something important about this year: my students and I were challenged, but we grew together.
“It was reassuring and encouraging to observe how we teachers supported each other during the pandemic.“
Learning Valuable Lessons
One thing is for sure: the pandemic precipitated a major disruption in our educational system, forcing educators into a challenging position. We indeed rose to the occasion. All teachers deserve Teacher of the Year awards. Informal walk-throughs are often done to assess teachers, but during this pandemic only, walk-throughs should be done to check on the teachers’ mental health and commend them for their tenacity and dedication to their students.
All in all, the pandemic has taught me, as an educator, valuable lessons on the power of adaptability, resilience, and implementing new instructional models. Still, my greatest discovery was realizing that building strong relationships with my students is the core of learning and greatly predicts students’ success.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
Associate Partner, ICLE
Dr. Suzanne Jimenez
Director of Academic Planning and Data Analytics at HMH