Virtual Education: An End to Learned Helplessness?

During my first few years of elementary school, I struggled with reading. I don’t really remember how I learned how to read, but I know that it was difficult for me in first and second grade. Part of that might have been because my home life was in chaos with my parents’ divorce and the fact that I attended three different schools as a second-grader. I don’t know exactly what changed other than an encouraging teacher in third grade, Mrs. Saremi.

My mom tells the story that when I was a baby, the pediatrician told my parents, “Because of the problems she will have with her vision, she might have a difficult time in school.” My parents asked people in our church family for prayer, and other than the first few years of elementary school, I never really struggled in school. Of course, part of that might be because I learned to develop grit – the ability to persevere despite obstacles in life. I became the type of person who wanted to prove people wrong. I thought to myself, “Ok, doc. You think I will struggle in school? Let me prove you wrong.”

This school year is a difficult year for educators, students, and families because of obvious reasons. Educators are trying to figure out how to teach virtually, blended, and a variety of both. We are all brand new teachers, learning new technologies, making more phone calls and sending more emails than ever before, and posting announcements that give the same information over and over again.

Students are learning a new way of learning. They are not used to learning from home with all of the distractions that their home life might bring to their education. And to be honest, some of them are drowning in assignments only four weeks into this new school year because they haven’t learned the power of time management. Yet.

Parents are learning how to best support their children. They are talking to teachers more often than in the past, seeking ways to understand what each teacher wants from their child. And multiply that by the number of children they have at home, learning in this new environment.

There is a psychological theory called learned helplessness that many of us develop when we face trauma. This may cause us to give up in certain situations even if we have the ability to overcome some type of obstacle. Sometimes students learn this behavior if they have difficulty with certain aspects of their education. And unfortunately, some educators and parents have enabled children by providing them with support that they may not always need. The worst example that I saw of this behavior was a tenth grader who would not do his work in my class one day because he did not have a pen or pencil to complete his work. Instead of asking for a pen or pencil or getting up to get one, he waited until an adult in the classroom brought him a pencil. This is learned helplessness in the classroom.

Currently, learned helplessness is a luxury that none of us can afford. Because of the limited access that students have to educators, some students are in need of learning grit. Along with some educators and some parents, they need to unlearn learned helplessness. They need to seek out the resources they have at their disposal. They need to become advocates for their education and their futures. Developing tenacity and perseverance are necessary in overcoming some of the obstacles that we are faced with in life. And right now, we need to be tenacious. We need to persevere. We need to persist in this battle against apathy, depression, anger, frustration, loneliness, and ignorance.

I learned at eight years old that reading made me come alive. It gave me an escape. It gave me hope. It gave me insight. It gave me compassion. It challenged me. It helped me to develop grit.

In elementary school, we had competitions for silent reading throughout the year. We could earn prizes for meeting certain goals in our reading, and I wanted to be the best. I decided that I wanted to read Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, a book that was 384 pages. That’s a lot of pages for an eight year old, but I put my mind to it. I didn’t allow my struggle with reading, my sometimes messy home life, or my own insecurity to stop me from reaching my goal. And when I finished the book, I was so proud of myself for reaching the end. It didn’t matter what the prize was for reading the most pages. In fact, I don’t even remember if I won a prize. The prize for me was reading a book of almost 400 pages at eight years old.

Some people might think that I have learned the power of positivity to overcome obstacles in life. That’s not true. I don’t subscribe to unnecessary positivity because I have found that sometimes positivity becomes toxic if it’s not grounded in reality. I am a realist. I struggle in life. I cry. I yell. I curse. I have moments when life feels fragile, like tissue paper. But I move forward because at a young age, I learned grit.

Grit acknowledges that life is hard, but grit does not allow for learned helplessness. And right now, all of us need some grit. We need to put aside whatever excuses we have. We need to seek the resources that we need to move forward. That doesn’t mean this will be easy. It will be difficult. But it will be worth it in the end.

Teachers are Not Superheroes or Villains

Over the last few weeks, I have heard and seen various opinions about what life is like for teachers returning to teaching after five months away from their classrooms. As usual, some people continue to blame teachers for the complications of virtual and blended learning formats, not taking into consideration the fact that some of us did not receive training on a learning management system until one to two weeks before students “returned” to school. Others think that we feel less stressed out because some of us are teaching to empty classrooms, virtually connecting with our students through various interfaces instead of in-person.

Both are wrong. The problems are not our fault, and no we are not happy to be teaching to empty classrooms.

As usual, others seem to think that they can speak for educators. Bureaucrats and politicians have been doing it for years, so how about everyone else in society?

We need to hear from educators themselves. However, there are reasons why we aren’t talking.

Some of us aren’t talking because we are scared. We are scared that we might offend someone from our school board, our administrator, our HR director. We are scared that if we aren’t having as many difficulties with the new LMS that our co-workers will be angry at us for making this seem like it’s easier than it really is. We are scared that people outside of the classroom will speak for us because they apparently know what’s better for schools than the educators who are on the front lines every day.

To be honest, I’m tired. Just like everyone else during this pandemic, this political nightmare, this social crisis, this natural disaster of a year. I’m tired.

Teachers are just like everyone else. We are not superheroes even though right now we are being tasked with the responsibility of solving problems that are not ours to solve.

We are not trained to solve all of the technology problems that might arise with a new LMS, with bandwidth restrictions, and with remote learners who still don’t have Wi-Fi access even though this is 2020. And yet, on the news, it seems that if a school system is having difficulty with part of this new virtual environment, it must be the fault of educators. We didn’t prepare enough. We didn’t practice all of the things. We didn’t make sure that all of our learners had devices and Wi-Fi. There cannot possibly be any other reason why schools can’t get with the program with reliable and 100% virtual classroom environments for 100% of students.

We are not trained to manage the emotional and social well-being of all students. The very concept of SEL or social-emotional learning has only been around for about twenty-five years. However, most educators have been given little to no training in SEL strategies in the classroom. Even the most well-meaning teachers are not fully qualified to help counsel every student who is experiencing the same trauma as the rest of society in the midst of a pandemic, a contentious political election, rampant social conflict, and terrifying natural disasters.

Thankfully, according to Counseling Today, there is on average one school counselor per 455 students in public schools across the country today which is higher than the recommended ratio from the American School Counselor Association. However, it has taken school shootings and an increase of teen suicides for schools to have access to that many counselors. And now in the midst of the chaos which is 2020, many in the U.S. are proclaiming that sending students back to schools is best for their social and emotional well-being. In preparing K-12 administrators to return to school this fall, the Centers for Disease Control suggested the following:

  • Schools are crucial to the infrastructure of communities, providing a safe and secure environment for children
  • Schools provide critical instruction and academic support
  • Schools provide support for the whole child – emotional, social, psychological, and intellectual

I agree with all of these roles for public and private schools. We are a crucial part of our society as a whole. However, we are often vilified because we do not seem to do enough, or what we are doing is not fitting a particular religious or political worldview.

We are tired. We are under appreciated. We are undervalued. Please don’t speak for us. Please do not blame us for all of the nation’s problems. We are not your scapegoats.

Today, it seems that people either think that educators are superheroes or villains. We are neither. We are human beings with human feelings. We are fallible creatures who do not know all of the ins and outs of all of the new technology. We have families and social lives. We are experiencing the same trauma as everyone else in this messed up COVID world.

And we are unique individuals who have chosen to spend our lives educating our nation’s children. We love your kids. We want the best for them. We want to have them all back in our classrooms. We miss their jokes. We miss their awkward moments. We miss their laughing in the cafeteria. We miss their music in the hallways. We miss their smiles and their tears.

We are not happy that they are at home, learning in this weird environment. We are not less stressed because our classrooms are empty or almost empty.

More than anything, we are tired. Just like everyone else. Please give us grace. Give us patience. Give us time, and we will get this figured out.

But please don’t speak for us. We have voices, just give us time to figure out how to use them again.

Bibliography

Bray, Bethany. “One Counselor Per 455 Students: Nationwide Average Improves.” Counseling Today, American Counseling Association, 10 May 2019. Electronically accessed at https://ct.counseling.org/2019/05/one-school-counselor-per-455-students-nationwide-average-improves/#:~:text=Across%20the%20U.S.%2C%20there%20is,three%20decades%2C%20according%20to%20ASCA.

“History.” Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, 2020. Electronically accessed at https://casel.org/history/

“Preparing K-12 School Administrators for a Safe Return to School in Fall 2020.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26 Aug. 2020. Electronically accessed at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/prepare-safe-return.html

Even Though…

The last five months have been difficult for most of us. Over the last five months, many of us have experienced a trauma that we never expected to experience in our lives. We have undergone different stages of grief because our “normal” lives have been upended. Along with the changes to our “normal” lives, COVID-19 has brought to light inequities that some of us thought no longer existed in our nation. We have been reminded of our nation’s history of racism and classism as some groups of people have experienced lack of medical resources and those who have to work to survive have been shoved to the front lines as essential workers.

Some of us have also experienced personal tragedy during the last five months. Perhaps a family member or close friend has died from complications due to COVID-19. Maybe a loved one has lost a job that has put undue financial stress on the family. Some may have had to say goodbye to a family pet or two during this time. And others of us have struggled with depression or anxiety perhaps for the first time in our lives. Sadly, a few of us have had questions about our faith.

As I was reflecting this morning on the last five months, I felt a weight on my spirit. We are hurting, we are confused, we are lost, we are angry. Some of us are trying to be hopeful, but it is difficult to stay positive when it seems that each day brings another stress or another tragedy. Just this week, millions of people on the East Coast have lost power due to Tropical Storm Isaias, and at this point, many of them will not have power restored for at least a week. In normal circumstances, it can be an irritation to lose power. However, given the last five months, losing power could be the one thing that pushes someone over the edge emotionally and psychologically.

It just so happens that over the last few weeks, my daily Bible readings have come from the exilic period of Biblical history. This includes the Babylonian captivity and the eventual destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem. This includes the prophecies of Jeremiah, most well known as the weeping prophet. To put it mildly, the exilic period of Biblical history can be depressing, especially if our focus is on the tragedy and consequences that the people of God experienced during this time.

This morning, my readings moved to the prophet Habakkuk, one of the lesser known prophets of the Bible. Habakkuk prophesied during the time period before the fall of Jerusalem, when the elite of Judah had been taken as captives into Babylon and the poor had been left behind. During the first two chapters of Habakkuk, the prophet calls out for God’s help, feeling despair that God is not listening. The prophet feels abandoned by a God who said “never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.”

However, in the third chapter of Habakkuk, the prophet is reminded of God’s salvation. He is reminded of God’s goodness and God’s glory. His hope is renewed even though all that he sees around him is desolation.

Habakkuk’s reflection on God’s goodness in Habakkuk 3 is what we need today:

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,

and there are no grapes on the vines;

even though the olive crop fails,

and the fields lie empty and barren;

even though the flocks die in the fields,

and the cattle barns are empty,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord!

I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!

The Sovereign Lord is my strength!

He makes me as surefooted as a deer,

able to tread upon the heights.

Habakkuk 3:17-19 New Living Translation

Some of us feel as if the fig trees have no blossoms and that there are no grapes on the vines because we have lost jobs, and we don’t know where the groceries are going to come from. Some of us feel like the fields are empty and barren because we have lost loved ones. Some of us feel like Habakkuk when he cries out, “‘Are we only fish to be caught and killed?” because each day seems to bring on a new tragedy, stress, or irritation.

However, today let us be reminded of God’s provision and protection in our lives. Let us be reminded of another exilic prophet, Jeremiah, who proclaims in Lamentations 3, “The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!'” (Lamentations 3:22-24 NLT). Let us also be reminded of the words of Hosea, a prophet of Israel who warned the people before Israel’s fall to the Assyrians. He calls to the people,

Come, let us return to the Lord.

He has torn us to pieces;

now he will heal us.

He has injured us;

now he will bandage our wounds.

In just a short time he will restore us,

so that we may live in his presence.

Oh, that we might know the Lord!

Let us press on to know him.

He will respond to us as surely as the arrival of dawn

or the coming of rains in early spring.

Hosea 6:1-3 NLT

We are not abandoned. We are not destroyed. We may feel struck down from every side, but our God of salvation is with us. Let us rejoice in the Lord though the fig trees have no blossoms and the olive crops fail.

Why I’m Returning to the Classroom

Over the last few weeks, I have had to make a very difficult decision: do I return to teaching in-person or do I teach virtually? This is the decision that teachers throughout the nation are having to make in light of the widespread cases of COVID-19 across the country. Some teachers with medical concerns have had to make a more difficult decision: do I return to the classroom and put my life in danger or do I resign from teaching or retire early? These are decisions that no one should have to make, but here we are.

Thankfully in my school division, teachers have been given options based on their health as well as their personal preferences: teach in-person, teach virtually but in the school building, or teach virtually from home. Each one of these choices has risks. For teachers who teach in-person, they may be putting their lives in danger by working alongside of students and other educators who may or may not have been exposed to COVID-19. Likewise, students are putting their lives in danger as they are working alongside of others who may or may not have been exposed to COVID-19. For teachers who will teach virtually in the school building, they risk losing the personal connection they may have with their students because their classes may seem artificial as they are teaching remotely while in the same building as their students. For teachers at home, they risk the personal disconnect with students but also the loss of connection with their co-workers and the supportive environment of most school cultures.

None of these options are perfect. None of these options are right for everyone. Each of us are required to make this decision with our specific circumstances in mind: our own health and emotional stability, the health of our family members, the health of community members that we are in close contact with throughout the week. Again, each of these options comes with specific risks.

I have not made my own decision lightly. When I was given the option of choosing what I prefer, my instinct was to say that I wanted to teach virtually outside of the school building like my co-workers with health concerns. I wanted to stand in solidarity with my co-workers who should not go back into a school building until after the virus is under control in my region of the country. I wanted to show that many teachers are uncomfortable teaching in the school building in the hope that my county school board would vote for 100% virtual learning for all students.

But that’s not what happened. My county voted for an opportunity for blended learning for students who want to return to in-person instruction and a 100% virtual opportunity for students who want to remain at home. I will not go into my immediate reaction to the results of the school board vote because at this point, it doesn’t matter. What matters is what I will do this fall as a public high school educator.

It has been almost five months since I have been in a classroom with students. It has been almost five months since I have interacted with my co-workers Monday through Friday. It has been almost five months since I have felt the satisfaction of a lesson well-taught. It has been almost five months since I have seen a lightbulb go off over a student’s head as they have finally “gotten” something. And to be honest, most of me has been very sad about what I have missed.

This school year, I will be entering year 19 as a public school teacher. This school year, I will be entering year 26 as a public school educator, having spent my college years as a classroom aide, writing tutor, and substitute teacher. School is my life. Teaching is who I am.

In Colossians 3:23-24, Paul writes, “Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people.  Remember that the Lord will give you an inheritance as your reward, and that the Master you are serving is Christ.” When I started working in public schools at eighteen years old, I had not yet made the commitment to sacrifice parts of my life for the sake of my students. However, as I began to understand the baggage that my students carried with them and the social context in which I teach, I began to recognize that my role as a Christian public educator was to sacrifice some of myself for them.

When I am in a classroom, I make daily sacrifices. I sacrifice my psychological comfort since I am by nature an introvert and as a teacher, I am constantly “on.” I sacrifice my physical safety since I teach in a society of school violence. I sacrifice my emotional comfort since at times my students suffer tragedy and trauma. I sacrifice my professional integrity since I live in a nation that vilifies teachers. I sacrifice my personal finances since public school have been defunded for at least the last fifteen years.

These are all choices I have made. These are sacrifices that I am willing to make as I work willingly as though I was working for the Lord rather than for people.

So what have I decided to do? Given the choices I have been offered, I want to be in my classroom with my students. Even though this school year will not be the same as it has been in the past with all of the mitigation plans in place like masks, plexiglass barriers, and six-foot social distancing, I miss being in a classroom with students. I miss our interactions. I miss class discussions. I miss their ridiculous jokes. I miss them.

And more than anything, I want to offer them hope. I want to help them feel safe. I want to give them comfort. I want to distract them from the mess that has been the last five months. I want to assure them that things will get better.

Because they will get better.

Be Encouraged: Stand Firm

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, churches around the world needed to find new ways to connect with their community. During the spring and early summer of 2020, my husband and I put together a Bible study for our church members and community members who wanted to continue discussing God’s Word together. Now that our Bible study is over, we wanted to make these materials available for anyone else who wanted to study the books of 1 and 2 Peter.

This is Bible study resource is a compilation of the materials that we put together for our Bible study participants. In the book, you will find daily reflections on different sections of each chapter of 1 and 2 Peter along with daily reflection questions that will help guide your understanding of each section. These questions will also help you to connect Peter’s words with your life today. We encourage you that as you use this resource that you keep notes of your answers to the reflection questions in a journal or notebook. We also encourage you to create the habit of prayer journaling while you study 1 and 2 Peter. It is always encouraging to see the ways that God has answered our prayers throughout our study of His Word.

We hope that this book will bring you comfort and hope as you await Christ’s return, but more importantly that it will encourage you to stand firm in the faith as you face many obstacles as a follower of Jesus Christ.

You can find copies of Be Encouraged: Stand Firm on Amazon in both a digital format and a print format. Follow the link below to the Amazon bookstore.

An Open Letter to the Class of 2021

Dear Class of 2021,

Last spring, the class of 2020 had a very difficult ending to their senior year. They missed their senior trip. They missed prom. They missed graduation practice. They missed senior picnic. They missed a traditional graduation ceremony. They did not get to say good-bye to their favorite teachers and staff members. They did not get a final look over their shoulders as they left the school building as students for the last time. It sucked.

As I think about your senior year of high school, I am anxious about what you may miss out on because of a virus that we still don’t quite understand. The Virginia High School League has already voted to postpone all sports until early winter which means that there won’t be a first home football game this fall. This means that homecoming will look different this year than it has in the past. Because we cannot all meet together for an assembly, the first day of school will not include you walking across the stage after all of the underclassmen have taken their seats in the auditorium. Hopefully, only the beginning of your senior year will look different than what you imagined as you prepared to finish high school. But we cannot guarantee that the end of your senior year will look any different than it was for the class of 2020.

This school year will not be normal. No matter how school starts this year for you, it will not be a normal school year. You will either take my class 100% virtually, or you will take my class with a modified schedule of a few days at school and a few days at home. Both ways are abnormal for most high school seniors.

Sadly, there are things that we will not be able to do as a class because of the way that school will resume this year. I am already trying to decide what the essentials are for my course so that you can get the best senior English experience possible. Trust me, I’m going to do all that I can to make this last year of high school meaningful for you when it comes to the class that I teach.

But unfortunately, I cannot be the teacher that I have always been. At least not right away.

I don’t want to list all of the ways that I will need to change my teaching because I really don’t want you to know what you will miss out on. You are already going to miss out on so many other things that I’m sure you have already thought about. I understand. I am mourning those things with you since my son was a graduate of 2020.

All that I can promise you is that I will do what I can to prepare you for the next stage of your life. When I started teaching senior English fifteen years ago, I understood the responsibility that I was taking on. I accept the fact that I have the privilege of helping my seniors prepare for college, a career, or the military. Not everything that I will teach you this year will seem relevant to you right now. However, I promise that what you will learn will include practical skills but also life lessons about how to be a good human being. I try to instill in all of my students that they have a voice, and my job as an English teacher is to help you to know how to use that voice. Sometimes this means reading things that other people have written as a way to understand how other people use their voices. Sometimes this means writing about your life journey and determining how your life experiences affect who you want to be in the future. Sometimes this means looking at the world around us and identifying things that you want to change.

As we look forward to your senior year, I am hopeful. I hope that our new normal is not too stressful for you. I know that some of you have anxiety disorders or clinical depression. Some of you may be very open about those mental health concerns, and some of you may be hiding them. But they are very real, and I understand.

I know that some of you have physical ailments that may cause you to need to learn remotely for a while. I understand, and I will do all that I can to communicate with you so that you can be successful in my class. I am hopeful that we will develop a strong rapport as teacher to student that will help you to use your voice to advocate for yourself not just now but in the future as well.

I know that some of you may have difficulties in my course for a number of reasons. Some of you have not been successful in an English class before so you already have anxiety starting your senior year, knowing that my class is a graduation requirement. Some of you have learning disabilities that make reading and writing difficult for you. Some of you are still learning English as a language, so reading and responding to academic text is a challenge. I hope that I can help you to overcome the obstacles that will try to get in your way of successfully passing my class.

I know that some of you are angry that your senior year will not be a normal school year. Some of you are angry that you will not be able to play a complete season of the sport your participate in. Some of you are angry that you may not be able to perform in this year’s musical or play, if those are able to happen this year. Some of you are angry that you will not be able to take a specific course this year because COVID-19 has limited our course offerings. Some of you are angry that on top of the expectations that we already have that there will be more, including wearing a mask and keeping your distance from others. I hope that my demeanor will help to calm your anger. I hope that my optimism will help you to see that we can manage things that we cannot control. I’m sorry, but sometimes we cannot control our circumstances. All that we can do is learn how to deal with these situations in ways that are positive and helpful rather than destructive.

Class of 2021, I am hopeful. Let’s all acknowledge that this sucks. However, let’s try to find good things in the midst of this new normal. Let’s learn to communicate with one another so that we can get through this in a way that makes us stronger. Let’s listen to one another rather than blame one another. Let’s promise ourselves that we will try to look at this realistically with a little bit of hope.

What is True…What is Noble

Throughout my Christian journey, there have been several scriptures that I have meditated upon as a way to remind myself of God’s promises. As I was recovering from a year of severe anxiety and depression, I memorized Philippians 4:6-7 while at a retreat that I can say changed the way that I interact with God and His Word. I still remember sitting in silence by a stream, magnificent rocks in the background, when I really read Philippians 4 for the first time. Paul’s words have encouraged me in some of the darkest times in my life, especially his promise that we will experience God’s peace “which exceeds anything we can understand” (v. 7 NLT). What a beautiful reminder of the goodness of God!

Today I was reminded of the next exhortation in Philippians 4, an urgency to change the way that we think. Paul says, “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise” (v. 8 NLT). When I was struggling with anxiety and depression twenty-five years ago, these words helped me to change the way that I was thinking about my circumstances. These words also helped me to refocus my life on things that brought glory to God rather than things that added to my anxiety and depression. Just like Paul’s encouragement in v. 6, “Do not be anxious about anything” (NIV), these words reminded me that I did not have to think about things that discouraged me or depressed me. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, I can think about things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy.

Photo by Marina Vitale on Unsplash

In the midst of a global pandemic and the uncertainty that comes with it, it can be difficult to think about such things. Personally, I have been very distracted by the news related to plans to “reopen” schools this fall because my own school division is still making the decision of what we will do: a hybrid model of virtual and in-person instruction or 100% virtual instruction. I can honestly say that I do not know what is right for my community. Recently, there have been news stories that suggest that the positive cases of COVID-19 may not be as high as they are being represented. It is unclear whether or not we need to be as worried about the spread of this virus as schools resume this school year. Despite these news stories, I also know that the effects of this virus can be incredibly taxing on people who have contracted it whether or not they wind up in the hospital. I do not want to be infected, and I do not want to infect my co-workers, my family, or my community, especially my church members who are at risk of complications of COVID-19 that could result in their hospitalization or death.

I can feel myself slipping. If I don’t take the time to step back and listen to the voice of God, I could easily fall into the downward spiral of depression. I am tired of people saying that teachers just want a break from students. I am tired of people vilifying my co-workers. I am tired of people saying that the decision to teach in-person or to teach virtually is a political decision. I am tired of people saying that teachers are hysterical and that we are giving into fear. And I am angry that I really don’t get to have a voice. I am angry that people want to blame teachers for the problems we have. I am angry that we are sometimes the scapegoat. And more than anything, I am sad that school will not be the same this year no matter how we return to instruction.

Photo by Yuris Alhumaydy on Unsplash

So while I am stuck with all of these emotions swirling around in my heart, God is reminding me to trust in Him. A pastor on my district posted this morning, “Beware: your feelings are often not accurate. If unchecked those inaccurate feelings can greatly damage your faith.” I want my faith to be firm and steadfast. I want to reflect Christ’s sacrifice and love in my community. I want to think about things that are true, lovely, admirable, and pure. I want to be guided by the Holy Spirit so that I can be faithful, so that I can be loving, so that I can forgive, and so that I can continue to represent Christ in my family, in my community, and in all of my relationships with others.

Today choose to seek God’s way for your life. If like me, you are feeling overwhelmed by the news, the false information, the confusion, remember to stop and to seek God’s truth. Remember to follow Paul’s advice to fix your thoughts on things that are “true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse” (Philippians 4:8 MSG). Take your thoughts captive today and make them obedient to Christ, the One who is true, the One who is right, the One who is honorable, the One who is beautiful.

#MyCovidStory

A few days ago I participated in a virtual town hall meeting of a teacher’s organization in my state. During the meeting, a professor from Arizona shared statistics about states across the nation who are seeing spikes in their COVID numbers. He explained that each state saw an increase in infections as the state entered a new phase of reopening. His warning was that my own state will more than likely see a large increase in numbers soon since we have not yet seen the effects of our Phase 2 despite the fact that we are already in Phase 3. At the end of his presentation he encouraged educators to share their stories with the hash tag MyCovidStory as a way to bring awareness to the issues that educators are facing as government officials, school boards, city councils, and boards of supervisors are seeking ways to “reopen” schools this fall. So I thought I would reflect on my own COVID story as a way of describing the issues that so many of us are facing today, not just educators.

On March 13th, everything changed. Our normal became nonexistent, just a memory, just a dream. This was the day that schools across the Commonwealth of Virginia were closed for two weeks as a way to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19 before it ravaged our state. As I’ve shared before, there were so many things that I wish I had said to my students on March 12th, so many lessons that I wish I had taught. But my COVID story is not just about my role as a public high school teacher. My story involves so many more aspects of my life as I know it has affected yours.

On March 15th, my husband led our last “normal” worship service of our small church in Culpeper, Virginia. With the help of our church board, we decided that we would close our doors indefinitely until we had more guidance from the governor’s office as well as our denomination’s leadership. For the first few weeks of the pandemic, my husband and I led the services in isolation online, providing opportunities for our people to continue to worship with us. However, there were complications even with that. A few of our people do not have internet access where they live, or they do not have digital devices that allow for them to watch our services live on social media.

So we got to work, trying to find other ways to reach our people. We made phone calls weekly, trying to stay connected with those who could not access our services online. We visited a few at their homes, socially distanced of course, so we could at least have some conversations. We met with our church board, finding ways to continue our ministry in the midst of COVID.

And then we got to work connecting to our community outside of our church membership so that when we could reopen our doors, we might have new people join us. So, we updated our church website, posting current worship services, hoping that people would be able to access services that way. We got in touch with an organization that provides free apps for churches, and we worked on designing our app with our church members and community in mind, hoping that those who had devices would use this new technology to connect with one another and with us. We started a Youtube channel, posting services and encouragement videos so that our people could have some spiritual guidance in the midst of this pandemic. We reached out to other church leadership to see if there were other ways we could connect, so we started burning DVDs of our services and providing them for our members who do not have internet access or digital devices. We started an online Bible study for our people, hoping that more would connect even if it was through their phones each week.

It’s been a struggle to stay connected to people in our community who do not use technology in the ways that it is available. And now, we are facing another possibility of needing to keep our doors closed as I face returning to school next month. Most of our people are in high risk groups of having severe cases of COVID-19. I’m not sure what we will do. It is depressing to see my husband who has worked so tirelessly to connect with the community just to see that his efforts sometimes go unnoticed and seemingly unfruitful. Before COVID, we had a drive to start new ways of connecting with our community, but with so many closures around the area, we just don’t know how long we can keep going. We are hopeful, and we will keep moving.

Photo by Beccy McGlinchy

However, what a difference COVID makes in some of the most important aspects of our lives like keeping our church from dying.

In early May, my stepfather had a fall at home that caused him to be hospitalized and evaluated. The doctors determined that he needed a quadruple bypass surgery as a way to prevent a massive heart attack from taking his life. In the midst of COVID, this was difficult for my mother to be able to visit him in the hospital or for any of our family members to be there as he healed. Thankfully, a few of my siblings risked traveling to be with him and my mother, sacrificing their time and health to support our loved ones. However, for three of us, we faced the decision of how we would travel out of state with such a mess of COVID cases surrounding us. Do we fly? Do we take a train? Do we drive? If we drive, where do we stay along the way? What about restroom breaks and food breaks? What are all of the rules in the states we will drive through?

For me and my family, we had other issues to consider. Our son is 19; however, he is on the Autism spectrum, so leaving him home for an extended period of time was a concern. We also needed to consider how he would get to work while we were gone since he does not have a car or a license. Along with that, we had a dog who had just developed a mass in his mouth days before we had planned on leaving to help my parents. There were a multitude of questions and concerns to consider. Finally, my husband and I decided to go spend three weeks with my parents, trusting our son to find a way to and from work each day.

However, what a difference COVID makes in some of the most logistic aspects of our lives like planning a trip across the country to help support our families.

Two days before we left to help my parents, we had to put our dog to sleep. The vet’s offices in our area are still practicing strict social distancing which includes handing off pets to veterinary technicians while family members wait to talk to the vet about their pet. The vet counseled us to put Buddy to sleep because the mass in his mouth was more than likely malignant melanoma. There was no way we could take him with us across the country for three weeks with a mass growing in his mouth, and we could not leave him home with our son to take care of him.

We could not come into the vet’s office to put Buddy to sleep. However, our vet arranged for us to sit outside in the grass with Buddy behind the vet’s office while we said our goodbyes. A few workers from the nearby restaurants smoked outside while we tearfully said our goodbyes. It was surreal that we were living in this world where we could not have the decency of being inside a building, in private, with our beloved dog while he breathed his last breath in our arms. It was still wonderful to be able to say goodbye to him and to tell him that he was such a good boy.

Photo by Beccy McGlinchy

However, what a difference COVID-19 makes in some of the most sensitive aspects of our lives like euthanizing a pet.

A day before we left to help my parents, our son had his socially distanced high school graduation ceremony. My husband and I were the only ones present because his grandmother did not feel that it would be safe to travel to Virginia because of her severe health problems. We stopped at each station with him, providing information for future contact, dropping off his school laptop, putting his senior picture in a box for a Class of 2020 time capsule, posing for pictures in prearranged places, and watching him walk across the stage without the applause and shouts of his friends and family members. We enjoyed the moments.

However, what a difference COVID-19 makes in some of the most joyful aspects of our lives like our child’s high school graduation.

Today, I am facing two huge stresses. Yesterday, we took our youngest dog to the vet. He has a mass that has affected his front shoulder to the extent that it is separating bone and causing him to limp at times. Thankfully, he does not seem to be in pain, he continues to eat, and he is still playful. However, we only have a few months with him before the cancer will cause him too much pain and too much weight gain. We are facing another death of a pet in this COVID world where we will probably sit on the grass behind our vet’s office as restaurant workers smoke on their break and we tell Zero what a good dog he is while he breathes his last breath in our arms.

What a difference COVID makes in some of the most heart wrenching aspects of our lives like putting yet another dog to sleep.

In a few weeks, I will be returning to school. I don’t know yet how all of the details will fall into place. I know that I need to be there in person, despite the risks I will take for my own health, the health of my husband and our son, and the health of our church members. I know that I need to be there in-person to provide a smiling face, to instill hope, to try to establish some normalcy for my students. I would much rather be safe at home just like I would rather all of my students to be safe at home, learning virtually. However, I know that there are too many factors that make that improbable. Lack of financial support for child care, lack of internet access for students in remote parts of my county, lack of a safe and stable environment for students to learn, lack of social interaction and emotional support for students who are lonely, depressed, anxious, or neglected at home.

Photo by Andy Falconer on Unsplash

What a difference COVID makes in some of the most necessary aspects of our lives, like educating our children and providing them with a safe and supportive environment in which to learn.

I have not contracted COVID, and thankfully no one in my family has either. I don’t know anyone directly who has been infected by this virus. My COVID story does not involve hospital stays, weeks on a ventilator, blinding headaches, violent vomiting, spiking fevers, or severe muscle aches. However, it has affected so much of my life, my sense of normalcy, the practical aspects of my life, and the emotional aspects of my life.

What a difference a virus makes in such a short amount of time. I encourage you to share your COVID-19 story even if it doesn’t involve illness. You have been affected by this virus just like me.

Public Schools As Hostages

I am a public school teacher for many different reasons, one of which being my commitment to free, equitable, and quality education for all. Over the last few years, I have felt an unmistakable attack against the public school system in the United States. I can’t explain where that feeling has come from, but it feels like an undefinable evil pressing down around me when I think about the state of public education in America. There are those who would love nothing more than to see public schools dismantled because they pose a threat to those who are in power. Public education can be the great equalizer, providing opportunities for children who otherwise do not have access to enrichment and development of knowledge and skills necessary to progress successfully in our society.

(Photo by Jeff Gritchen/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Say what you will about conspiracy theories and what not. There is a clear attack in the United States against public schools and the educators who have committed their lives to the advancement of students around the nation. And now that attack has become even more volatile as schools are looking to “reopen” in August and September after being “closed” due to COVID-19.

First, we need to correct the misinformation that has been presented in the media. Schools never closed.

From March 17th until May 20th, educators in Culpeper County, Virginia continued to provide educational opportunities for their students. Teachers hosted lessons and discussions through Google Meet, sent out packets of activities for students with limited or no internet access, and sent out messages to students and parents, ensuring that everyone was doing ok. Paraprofessionals checked in on their students through email and phone calls, making sure that their students had the support they needed to continue their education. Special education case managers rewrote IEPs, making sure that each student had a specialized plan for their virtual education and made contact with their students regularly. Counselors emailed and called parents and students, making sure that they were accessing the materials they needed to continue the school year and providing counseling services if needed. Administrators continued to monitor student success in classrooms, observing lessons while teachers and students met online through various platforms. Food service workers continued to provide breakfast and lunch to the students every Monday through Friday. Custodians helped to pack up abandoned classrooms and did a deep cleaning of each of the schools, preparing for the return to in-person school. And countless others in the public school system did countless other things, crucial to schools continuing to provide free, equitable, quality education for all students.

This reality was not isolated to Culpeper, VA. Throughout the United States, educators and those who support students continued to work for the advancement of all students. Schools did not fail. Schools did not flounder. Schools continued to thrive, despite the obstacles thrown their way. And most importantly, schools did not “close.”

Photo by Rhonda Simmons

If schools did not close, then saying that they need to reopen is unnecessary. Along with that, saying that schools need to be fully operational in the fall is also unnecessary. Regardless of the way that the school year resumes this fall, schools will be fully operational. Whether all students are in the school building at a time or all students are learning virtually from home or in the community, schools will be fully operational. Educators and those who support learning will continue to work for the advancement of all students in the United States.

So if the issue is not whether schools need to reopen or whether schools need to be fully operational, what are the issues that public education faces today?

One of the major issues in public education in the United States today is that public schools continue to face defunding. This is a complicated issue that I do not completely understand, so I cannot begin to explain all of the intricacies of each public school’s budget or how money is allocated to each school division in the nation. However, I do know that schools were already facing budget deficiencies before COVID-19 caused in-person learning to cease for the school year. And now, schools are being held as financial hostages as the federal government has threatened to cut federal funding if schools do not “reopen” in the fall.

What does this look like for our most vulnerable students? This means that public schools may not have the resources necessary to resume in-person education safely such as personal protective equipment, cleaned and updated ventilation systems, access to nurses for health screenings, and simple supplies like hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes. The federal government has already worked to funnel money from the CARES Act to private and charter schools even though Congress intended for aid to go to schools most in need financially in resuming in-person education. Congress earmarked $13.2 billion in aid for students from low-income families in the CARES Act. However, the U.S. Department of Education has misinterpreted how that money is to be distributed and is “allow[ing] private schools to get funds based on their total student population, leading tens of millions of dollars to be diverted from public schools in the poorest districts to private institutions with tuition similar to that charged by private colleges” (Rodriguez and Eggert). All schools are not equal. Some schools will need more aid to provide the best resources so that students and staff can safely resume in-person education. However, the Secretary of Education has proven time and time again that she is more concerned with advancing private and charter schools than defending and supporting public education in the United States.

Sadly, the threat against funding for public education goes beyond the CARES Act. The federal government provides funding for the most vulnerable students in the United States through the Every Student Succeeds Act (formerly the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). ESSA provides funding for schools based on social-economic status of students through Title I funding. The federal government also provides funding for public schools through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which supports the education of students with disabilities. The federal government also provides funding for free school lunches through the U.S. Department of Agriculture for students from households with income at or below 130 percent poverty and reduced priced lunches for students from households with incomes between 130 and 185 percent poverty (“National School Lunch Program”).

So I wonder what funding the federal government will cut if schools do not “reopen” in the fall? Will the federal government cut funding for students in poverty, funding for students with disabilities, or funding for school lunches?

Again, the public education system in the United States is being put in jeopardy physically, economically, psychologically, and emotionally. And I wonder why? Why risk the lives and well-being of over 3.5 million public school teachers in the United States? Why risk the lives and well-being of millions of support personnel from public schools in the United States? Why risk the lives and well-being of millions of family members of educators and those who support education in the United States? And why risk the lives and well-being of millions of children and their families throughout the United States?

I’m still waiting for the answers, and I’m afraid the answers will come when it’s too late.

Works Cited

“National School Lunch Program.” United States Department of Agriculture, 20 Aug 2019. Electronically accessed at https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/child-nutrition-programs/national-school-lunch-program/#:~:text=Any%20student%20in%20a%20participating,below%20130%20percent%20of%20poverty, 13 Jul 2020.

Rodriguez, Olga R. and David Eggert. “States Sue Department of Education Over Pandemic Relief Funds Being Diverted to Private Schools.” Time, Time USA, 7 July 2020. Electronically accessed at https://time.com/5863903/department-of-education-lawsuit-coronavirus-relief-funds/, 13 Jul 2020.

Suggested Reading

Cohen, Seth. “Betsy DeVos And The School Reopening Directives That Could Kill America’s Teachers.” Forbes, 12 Jul 2020. Electronically accessed at https://www.forbes.com/sites/sethcohen/2020/07/12/betsy-devos-and-the-school-opening-directives-that-could-kill-americas-teachers/#4630ba252852, 13 Jul 2020.

Preserving the Story of Black Women

The preservation of the past is one of the most important aspects of remembering and honoring cultural identity. This may include uncovering artifacts, discovering cultural norms, or retelling folk stories. Remembering and honoring the past is one of the important responsibilities of an anthropologist, and more specifically, the responsibility of an ethnographer.  Zora Neale Hurston spent her life’s work seeking to preserve and honor the past, specifically through the collection and retelling of folk tales.  Even though at times she faced a conflict between her academic and scientific endeavors and her desire to be a storyteller, she was successful in preserving the language of Black Americans and their ancestors through her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.  Hurston preserves and honors the cultural conflict for black women through her use of Black English vernacular and the symbolism of the porch in her novel.

Through the dialogue of her characters, Hurston tells the cultural history of the female descendants of slaves in the United States. When Janie discovers her sexuality, her grandmother is concerned that she will be just like her mother, a wanderer looking for someone to love.  For Nanny, she wants Janie to have a better life and so she reveals to her the place of black women, according to her own understanding.  She tells Janie, “‘de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up.  He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it.  He hand it to his womenfolks.  De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see’” (14).  Through this story, Nanny reveals that black women are the backbone of black households because they really do not have a choice, since white men gave the work to black men to do, but black men passed on the burden to black women. Nanny wants to break this cultural norm for Janie by marrying her off to Logan Killicks.  Instead of remaining as a beast of burden, Nanny wants Janie to live a life up on the porch, watching the world go by. Nanny furthers this cultural history of black women when she tells Janie, “‘You know, honey, us colored folks is branches without roots and that makes things come round in queer ways’” (16), highlighting the fact that descendants of slaves do not really have a history of their own, separate from whites, which makes it difficult for black women, especially, to find a place for themselves.  

from Goodreads.com

Along with highlighting the cultural history of black women in the United States, Hurston uses the porch throughout the novel to highlight the difference between black men and women. For Janie, she did not have any place of her own when she was married to Joe Starks. This is emphasized when she is not able to participate in the porch conversations in front of her husband’s store.  The porch is preserved for the men of the community, including her husband. For the men of the town, the porch is a place to complain about the mayor and to express their concerns about the way that Joe treats Janie.  One of the men says, “‘Ah often wonder how dat lil wife uh hisn makes out wid him, ‘cause he’s uh man dat changes everything, but nothin’ don’t change him’” (49).  This conversation occurs separate from the women in the town, including Janie, but demonstrates the fact that the men could talk openly about the women, but that women were not part of the discussion.  When Janie finally does participate in the men’s conversation, she winds up embarrassing her husband in front of the men . When speaking about Mrs. Tony, who the men believe embarasses her husband by seeking food from Joe’s store, the men talk about how Tony could correct his wife through beating her. For once, Janie breaks into the men’s conversation by publicly stating, “‘Sometimes God gits familiar wid us womenfolks too and talks His inside business. He told me how surprised He was ‘bout y’all turning out so smart after Him makin’ yuh different; and how surprised y’all is goin’ tuh be if you ever find out you don’t know half as much ‘bout us as you think you do’” (75). This highlights the conflict that Janie, and other black women, faced because she wanted to be up on the porch when she was married to Logan Killicks, not weighed down with labor, but that she wanted to be part of the porch community while she was married to Joe Starks. 

Zora Neale Hurston uses the language of women and men through her novel to highlight the cultural struggles that black women faced in the aftermath of Emancipation and Reconstruction. Nanny’s wisdom, although limiting for Janie, highlights the desire that some women had to be treated not as beasts of burdens but as beautiful things to be cherished and admired from up on the porch. The conversations on the porch demonstrated for Janie a separation between men and women that was not remedied until after Joe Starks was gone. It is not until Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake that she is able to be a part of the narrative of the lives of Black Americans that Hurston is seeking to preserve in her novel. As her patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason advised her, “‘In all that you do, Zora, remember that it is vital to your people that you should not rob your books, which must stand as a lasting monument’” (Frydman 110). Through the use of Black English vernacular and the separation of men and women on the porch in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston does not just preserve the cultural integrity of black Americans, but, more importantly, she shows the struggle for black women seeking to be up on the porch, sharing life with community and loved ones.

Works Cited

Frydman, Jason.  “Zora Neale Hurston, Biographical Criticism, and African Diasporic Vernacular Culture.” MELUS, Vol. 34, No. 4, Translation and Alternative Forms of Literacy (Winter 2009), pp. 99-118. Electronically accessed at www.jstor.org/stable/20618102, Mar. 20 2018.

Hurston, Zora Neale.  Their Eyes Were Watching God.  Harper Perennial, 2013.

If you are interested in reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, follow the link below for a digital copy of the novel.