What a Summer of Doing Nothing Has Taught Me

This is not a story about the trauma of teaching during COVID-19—at least not directly. But my burnout from this past school year led me to do nothing this summer—no professional development, classes, or workshops. Instead, I turned to books I have long wanted to read but have not been quiet enough in mind and heart to do so. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer was one of them.

It is destined to be (or already is) a modern classic of environmental writing, but if asked how to describe the author, I would call Kimmerer a poet first and then a botanist. As I was reading about the gift of maple trees, the science of strawberries, and the relationship between wild salmon and the indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest, I felt a kindred sense of humanity, healing, medicine, and as poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, “liv[ing] the questions” that I find when I read poetry.  

I have a feeling that this month when we return to our classrooms, one of the questions teachers will reflect on is related to what we learned about teaching during the pandemic, and as a result, “What will we change about our practice?” I could list all the ways I want to change (I don’t want to bring back the mindless hustle, my lack of perspective, my lack of gratitude for my body, my American hubris, teaching from a place of personal insecurity and comparison…the list goes on). But, I would rather explore some of the questions I am always living as an educator, and the insights that have come through the pandemic and my summer of reading.

How Can I Avoid Comparing Myself to Other Teachers?

I have always looked for the holes in myself—what do other people have that makes me admire them? I hear the chatter about what is going on in my colleagues’ classrooms, and I always feel I could be doing more. I think it is also fair to say that every educator in the world might have had at least several moments this year when they felt like the worst version of themselves, both in and out of the classroom. So, how do we reconnect to our own gifts?

After reading Braiding Sweetgrass, I reconnected to my spiritual core, which inspired me to consider spending more time this year taking care of myself by focusing on what I do well, which might require more of me than obsessing on what I don’t do right. Rather than cling to my perceived deficits or how I think others perceive me, I must use my strengths to create and build my post-pandemic teaching craft and know that not all learning will happen in my classroom alone. We are all working together as a community, cultivating the growth of our students. 

How Can I Use Technology in the Classroom?

In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer proposes rethinking the relationship between humans and the Earth. We often think of the negative: humans taking from, hurting, and pillaging the Earth. We assume the relationship is detrimental to the planet because we have done so much one-sided damage to our ecosystem. We were taught to consume to be successful, and therefore, happy. But she makes the case that we need a mind shift. How can we focus on what we can contribute in our relationship with nature?

This mind shift can be applied across my life, I’ve started to notice—from my gardening and love of the wild to my self-image and the way I see myself as an educator. s Teaching online and in a hybrid classroom was challenging for me; I have always worried that technology and screens would create a barrier between me and my students. However, during the pandemic, technology was the only way I could continue teaching from a distance, so I was forced to rethink how I value technology as a teaching tool, and not a potential barrier to building relationships. I have been wondering: Can my relationship with technology be reciprocal, in that I receive benefits from technology, but also bring my own creativity and ideas to the conversations around technology, especially ways that technology helps make teaching easier and more engaging? How can I shift my mindset from “I am overwhelmed by technology” to “I have something to contribute to the way technology is used in my classroom”? How can I still be myself and ask students to journal on paper and use their drawing pens, while simultaneously encouraging discussions of technology? What if I view technology as a gift and let go of some of the tension and fear in my heart about embracing technology?

Is It Important to Teach and Assess Well-Being as an Academic Competency?

While researching and developing well-being competencies for my English curriculum last year, I worried that my colleagues might think these skills don’t belong in an academic classroom. To explicitly teach these competencies through literature and then assess them through the writing process might seem like veering from essential content. I wondered if I had lost my way and/or mind.

But the context of surviving a pandemic reinforced why studying empathy, resilience, growth mindsets, and voice are essential in every classroom, alongside content. We still learned the technical pieces of writing, such as drafting effective thesis statements and citing textual evidence, but in reflection, many of my students cited empathy and resilience as the largest take-aways from the course.

Doing this research and work during a pandemic gave me the perspective to remember our goal as educators. Students are living complicated lives that are likely to increase in complexity, so skills learned in my English class later will help them advocate for themselves, empathize with others, grow as humans, and seek help when they need it. Teaching these competencies are essential.

How Can Rest Impact my Craft as a Teacher?

Students respond best to authenticity and know when teachers aren’t being themselves. But, at age 42, I am still on a journey to understand who I am. Our lives are difficult, and we all pass through seasons of fear, poor health, family conflict, and so on. Even for the happiest and most gifted teacher, it is sometimes excruciating to perform on the classroom stage.

A lot has been written about “self-care.” In my world, it used to be synonymous with binging Netflix, sleeping in, taking a bubble bath, and drinking a bottle of Chardonnay. Lately, I’ve noticed a pivot, after the year we’ve all been through, to a richer discussion of boundary-setting, sleep, exercise, and mental-health care. The discussions among people of different genders, races, and socioeconomic classes will be different, but I think a commonality is the need to completely step away from our daily routine, whatever it may be.

After a year in which I learned to hold sacred my body’s ability to survive and fend off disease, I know I need to take rest seriously this next school year. To teach with a full heart, we must be in tune with our heart, which requires continual reflection and rest. Through meditation and prayer, I know I will be ready for the year ahead.
Braiding Sweetgrass reintroduced me to my soul—I haven’t stopped carrying the book with me, and I plan to reread each vignette, slowly, over the years, to remember. I will certainly be a better English teacher next year thanks to devoting my whole self and attention to its wisdom this summer. As Kimmerer reflects: “A teacher comes, they say, when you are ready. And if you ignore its presence, it will speak more loudly. But you have to be quiet to hear.”
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Kate Schenck

Kate Schenck is an English teacher at Ursuline Academy of Dallas in Dallas, Texas.