By Nagla Bedir
As a teacher, I am grieving. The loss of being physically in the classroom with my students cannot be overstated. It is devastating. It is heartbreaking. And the only way to explain how I’m feeling (like many other teachers) is to describe it as grief.
The world has turned even more upside down since this pandemic began. Schools have rightfully closed to protect students and staff and to maintain the social distancing that health authorities express is crucial for the well being of the masses. Knowing it was the right thing to do doesn’t make this any easier, and I’m feeling it even more as we wrap up “teacher appreciation week” in empty schools across the country this week.
Screenshot of Nagla Bedir as she does a weekly check in with one of her students.
I miss literally everything about physically being in my school, where I teach International Diplomacy and World History at a high school in New Jersey. I miss the bright, beautiful smiles of my students’ faces. I miss greeting every single class, every single day (yes, the afternoon ones too) with “Good Morning SUNSHINES!” and hearing them respond with a chuckle because it’s our routine.
I miss our classroom and all of our inside jokes. I miss getting mad at them for being too rowdy and standing on a chair to teach when I felt like it. I miss making them sit in a circle with me on the floor for our discussions, and I miss them yelling at me for being 2.5 seconds late to class.
I miss having deep conversations about life and pulling students outside into the hallway when they are having an off day to check on their well being. I miss singing to them even when they covered their ears in (pretend) agony (because I have an AMAZING voice). I miss all of their questions. I miss them roasting me about my forehead, and I miss their hugs.
I miss my kids.
How Do You Foster Relationships Online?
It is difficult to express with words the sanctity of a classroom and what it means to both the students and the teachers. My classroom is a space where we grow together; where we have difficult conversations and uplifting ones. It is where there are post-its in the front of the classroom on a board that says “Take What You Need,” with positive affirmations for anyone who is having a bad day. It is a space where there is unbelievable comfort for both the students and for me.
I have always said that the classroom is where I am the most myself. It is where I feel simultaneously most comfortable in my skin and most vulnerable. And though I am teaching and connecting with my students through virtual learning, there is no online platform that can capture any of that. And, that is devastating. Prematurely leaving that space makes me feel like I also lost part of me. It feels like I was robbed.
I firmly believe that the foundation of any classroom is the relationship that is built with the students. Research has shown time and time again that students learn better when they feel safe, comfortable and loved in the classroom. How a teacher expresses their love can widely vary, but it is the fundamental driving force of any classroom.
Right now, I am banking on the relationship I was already able to build with my students before this pandemic. Because how can I keep building relationships virtually? It’s just not my forte, and I am struggling. I have Google meet check ins with groups of students and sometimes individually to ensure that they are okay. Their safety and mental well being is my primary concern – the content is secondary.
There are many teachers who are utilizing technology and having live sessions with their students on a daily basis. I cannot get myself to do that. For me teaching is an art form that is rooted in the physical presence of my students. But in our current state, I would argue that building and implementing what Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve calls “radical compassion” could sustain those relationships. Displaying empathy and compassion and prioritizing the well being of those students solidify and potentially build newer and more sustained relationships with students.
The Inequity of Education in Quarantine
My teaching philosophy is rooted in anti-racist, culturally responsive and socially just teaching. How do we ensure that we are being anti-oppressive in an online space? I am still working on figuring this out. The inequity in all of education right now is outstanding – even more pronounced than before this pandemic.
My school district has distributed laptops or some form of technology to pretty much every student in the district. But while the access to the technology has been addressed, the issue of time, mental health and the inequity of access to all other types of necessities hasn’t been fully addressed – anywhere.
Some of my students are still working. Some of them are living in unhealthy environments in their homes. Some of them rely on the food distributed by the district for wholesome meals. Some of them no longer have access to the safety that the school building provided for them. Some of them cannot readily reach their therapists. All of them, as well as their teachers, are experiencing a pandemic for the first time.
Prioritizing the students’ basic needs means constantly reflecting on how we’re addressing those needs and asking for the input of the students. When we first transitioned to distance learning, I hit the ground running and assigned something every day for the first week. It was too much for them and for me, and I changed it in the second week to two assignments per week with one full day to catch up on any work from any class.
There was a learning curve, but after surveying my classes in the fifth week of distance learning, it seems they are much more comfortable with the setup of the class and the time in between assignments.
Ramadan Lessons Lost
I am mourning one more loss unique to myself and those who share my faith, and that is the loss of “Teaching While Muslim during Ramadan.” I was looking forward to teaching during the month of Ramadan this year. I wanted to share some of the Ramadan spirit with my students. My students love asking me questions about my culture and religion – I wrote last year about the impact of having a Muslim teacher.
I find the comfort they feel in asking difficult questions beautiful. Distance learning doesn’t allow my students and I that close knit space anymore. It doesn’t allow for natural teachable moments that are critical in any classroom.
I have always loved interacting with my students. I have always felt a deep connection to them and always used my classroom to cultivate that connection. At the very start of this quarantining situation, I had hoped that we would be back together in the classroom before the end of the year. That hope was crushed a few days ago when the governor of New Jersey announced that schools would remain online for the rest of the year.
I think we’ll be lucky if we’re able to go back in September, but I’m not holding my breath. Maybe by then I’ll have figured out how to be a more effective teacher at a distance. Here’s to hoping.
As always, some of the most important teachers in my life have been my students. They are teaching me to be patient with this process and teaching me the true meaning of resilience. I am grateful to all of the teachers who left a deep impact on who I am and the type of teacher I have become. This year’s Teacher Appreciation Week has a completely different feel to it.
Shout out to all the teachers fighting to maintain their connections with their students. Shout out to the teachers that are fighting for equity in their districts for their students. Shout out to the teachers who are allowing themselves to just be in this pandemic. Shout out to all the teachers for being thrown into this transition and trying to do everything they can to make it work.
Shout out to teachers!
Nagla Bedir is the founder and executive director of Teaching While Muslim. She is a high school social studies teacher in New Jersey. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in History and Psychology from Rutgers University, a Master’s Degree in Social Studies Education from the Graduate School of Education – Rutgers University, and a Master’s Degree in Educational Administration from Grand Canyon University.