Silver Linings in a Pandemic

Fall 2020

By Hannah Army

I stood in my living room approximately three weeks into the switch to distance learning, sobbing; all the fear, pain, and loss streaming out of me. I recognized some  time that week that we were in distance learning for the long haul. I was mourning the loss of my normal; this was not what I had signed on for when I became a teacher. We were notified on a Friday and expected to have a wholly new upper elementary program up and running by the next Monday for 20 nine- to 12-year-olds. At that time, my students were one week away from their production of The Tempest and three weeks away from their Ancient Civilization History Fair. Then we were sent home. My students had worked very hard on these projects but now might never see them come to fruition. Their pain and disappointment were as palpable as my own.

There is no getting around how arduous the 14 weeks of distance learning were. But in all that hard work, there were also some wonderful moments and some entirely unexpected silver linings. As always, my students helped me see the shine in the middle of the mess.

Inspired by a parent-teacher conference, I asked my students what silver linings they had found amid all the newness and difficulty we were going through together. I heard some expected but also some unexpected responses. Several said it was nice to eat when they wanted and what they wanted, some commented on the joy of having their pets with them for lessons and meetings, some loved the extra sleep. Getting to take breaks and be outside more was also a common response. One student said:

I appreciated how independent I could be during distance learning. The Montessori method is usually very interactive, with lots of group work. Going online helped me learn how to take charge of my education. Even though it was tough at first, I’m grateful to have figured out how to work on my own and how to ask for assistance.
 
This response was eye-opening for me. I was reminded to shift my perspective and to look past superficial successes for deeper, more lasting lessons.

My first silver lining is the way the relationships within my community evolved. The shutdown forced our community to communicate differently and more clearly than ever before. At first, I found the endless trail of emails, phone calls, and Zoom meetings exhausting, but, when pushed to shift my perspective, I realized this heightened communication had changed and re-shaped my relationship with my students’ parents. I invited them into my home (on Zoom), shared my personal cell phone number, and tried to be accessible to all their needs. Parents heard day-to-day in their homes the lessons I was giving and the interactions their children had with their peers and teachers. This opened their eyes and gave them a new perspective: They gained insight into their child’s learning and friendships they did not previously have. In return, they invited me into their homes, often sitting in on the lessons, taking part in tearful conversations while their son or daughter told me how much they were struggling and privately sharing their own personal struggles and fears. The result was stronger relationships, a new and profound understanding of each other, and deeper trust and compassion for what each parent, student, and teacher was struggling with.

The second silver lining was that remote learning not only changed my relationship with parents, it also drastically changed my relationship with my students. As their teacher, I tried to emphasize their social and emotional welfare throughout the shutdown and let go of some of the push for academic progress. In the letting go of former ways and previous expectations, I saw new and different aspects of their characters and personalities. There were more jokes and storytelling, more sharing of skills and talents and hopes and fears, and many more terrific pet stories than the busy academic day had previously allowed. For some students, negotiating the social dynamics of the classroom was overwhelming and anxiety provoking. When that distraction was removed, I was able to see their gifts and vulnerabilities, their growing edges in a new light.

Before the pandemic we had several students who found the social dynamics of group work and lessons challenging, but within the world of distance learning these obstacle were removed, and many students were better able to focus and work with more independence. Happily, these students had more academic success than I had previously seen.

I focused so much effort on keeping the senior students connected and feeling celebrated in the accomplishments of their final year that I walked away more bonded to them than I think I would have been otherwise. I feel that these relationships are a gift, and when I look back at this time, these unexpected and truly amazing glimpses into their personal lives and innermost thoughts will be the things I remember. The time of shutdown shaped my relationships with my students in ways I could never have imagined or contrived.

My third silver lining is that the shutdown forced me to become a better, more creative, and confident teacher. I had to rethink and find creative ways to continue a quality Montessori education all through computers. I had none of my usual tools, the tools I have spent years collecting. I did not have my beloved and deliberately prepared environment, and all the plans I had so carefully crafted had to be scrapped or adjusted. When I was in the middle of it, everything felt hard, and I fretted daily that I was letting my students down, but when my head of school solicited information from my classroom about the positive things in distance learning, it was all the new things I was so unsure of that were the biggest successes with my students. This shutdown helped me refresh my lessons and follow-up work; it forced me to overhaul tried-and-true plans and, quite possibly, stale assignments. This experience revitalized my confidence in my own skills. As it turned out, it took a pandemic to remind me what I can actually do when I have no choice but to improvise.

I believe that in the midst of this challenging time, my community has been strengthened, my students’ parents have a new understanding of and appreciation for their children as learners, and my students have gained invaluable lessons about themselves and the knack and commitment of working through adversity. I have also grown as a teacher in this format, and although I look forward to the return to in-person teaching, I will carry the many essential and unlikely lessons that I learned in my living room back into the classroom. I cannot imagine that this has been easy for anyone, and I sincerely doubt that I am the only teacher who had a complete meltdown, ate too many snacks, worried all the time, and spent too much energy doubting myself. Despite all the anguish and challenges, I invite and encourage my fellow teachers to reflect on this experience and look for the silver linings buried in the mess of what it means to be a human and a devoted teacher of extraordinary children in a time of pandemic.
Hannah Army

Hannah Army (hannah21@gmail.com) is a certified Upper Elementary Montessori teacher and is currently working with The American Montessori Society as a member of the Emerging Leaders Fellowship. Currently, she teaches at Oak Grove Montessori School in Mansfield, CT.