We are all fumbling around in the dark, the lights are not available for any of us. We are each shining the light on tiny pieces with our own flashlights while feeling shaky about this feeling in our guts. Some people are shining the light on the grief that is occuring universally, some people are shining the light on our identities shifting, some people have been in the dark for a long time waiting for others.
I still fumble when someone asks me what I do. I respond shakily, nervously, “I teach art, I mean, I’m an educator, I mean, I am a coach, I mean, an Instructional coach, I mean, I work with teachers.” How do I illustrate what I do when I can’t even name it clearly? Is this greater, broader position really a way to do the work I care about so deeply? The consequences and ramifications of being an instructional coach are far reaching and yet this pace feels glacially slow.
As a teacher I understood the explicit power dynamic built between teacher and student. I worked hard at flattening and minimizing the distance of power. I expressed early and often how I did not want to be the one in “charge.” I wanted to work and learn side by side with my students. I was loud about wanting them to lead me into new experiences. As a teacher inside my classroom, I was always fully myself. I cried, I laughed hard, I found extreme joy with my students. My superpower is that I believe that students can do anything. I share this emphatically with every student I meet. Ask any student who has ever interacted with me, they’ll tell you I’m wildly enthusiastic and that sometimes I believe in them more than they believe in themselves. (This isn’t a humblebrag but a truth. Teenagers are hard on themselves.) (Writing this paragraph I continuously wrote in the past tense, then fixed it because my experiences with students will never be over.)
It’s been 14 months and my purpose within education still feels gauzy and undefined. As a coach, I am technically still a teacher based on my contract. My proximity to administration creates the distance between me and other teachers. My physical office is next to the principal’s office; I work closely with her and other administrators. The power dynamic is slower to dismantle than with students because of the history of being squeezed as teachers. I actually have less power as a coach than I did as a teacher. As a teacher I could decide which curriculum materials I wanted to use or introduce, while now I can suggest things to teachers or have conversations about whole school book studies. My power looks very different now, something I am settling into. Communicating this lack of power to teachers feels strange and somewhat unnecessary – like convincing someone of something they believe deeply in that doesn’t exist – it just turns into a silent agreement to disagree. I understood the goal and actions of liberation when I was inside the classroom. Transferring that goal and action towards adults in service of kids is complicated in my brain. I do believe that all humans can do anything and yet adults are the source of so much frustration. So the leap into coaching has left me asking many questions.
I’ve been reflecting on my transition and wrote these paragraphs months ago but I return to them in this pandemic. I am constantly reconfiguring my purpose and my identity. And now there’s a pandemic so all of education is reconfiguring itself. I am clarifying my purpose within this pandemic, within education. I am understanding what coaching means daily and how I can coach without proximity. I am redefining what it means to create space for folks when they need it, what it means to listen when I can’t be close, what it means to check in when I can’t stop by.
I want to welcome everyone to this state of grief, chaos, and upside-downness. I’ve been in the darkness for awhile. I have found a dim light to turn on in this space and although it’s not the sunlight we are used to, it’s a start. I have a bit of a head start in the sadness of missing the daily interactions with students – it doesn’t get easier, but the memories and interactions that you hold and have now will get you through. I know it’s not the same. Nothing is the same as the glance from a student when they notice you noticing them. Nothing is the same as when a kid finally understands something and their eyes light up. You now have that email or text or response on Google Classroom, it’s different, but it’s something. Hold onto those moments.
Many of you might be questioning what you are even doing now by pushing out assignments with no clarifying questions or explanations or standing next to a kid as they read it and grasp the idea. You may be questioning if you are even a teacher now. As so many of you have comforted me with the words of “a classroom does not define your identity” I will say the same now. A physical classroom, or even a virtual one for that matter, does not define your purpose. Your heart, your love of kids that defines your identity in relation to students.
As we each are stumbling around in the dimly lit space as we move forward into this current state of education, I want you to remember this sadness, this uncomfortable nature of being apart from your students. I want you to hold on to this whenever we return to the physical schools, not to make you sad but to remember the love you feel when you’re apart from them and to hold on tight to the amazing moments.