Posted in Teaching

A Year Like No Other

This school year was truly like no other. I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out how to write about it, what to say. Sometimes I wonder if I need to say anything at all. I mean, we know. We all know what a disaster this year has been. I’m tired of talking about the pandemic. Tired of asking, “Pfizer or Moderna?” Tired of answering, “Yeah, we’re starting to go out again but still taking it slow.” Tired of nodding and agreeing and commiserating and rehashing. We all need some new conversation topics. But I also feel like I have to say something about this school year, reflect on it as a whole, for myself if no one else. But how? How to sum up? It can’t be summed up.

My 2020-2021 Teaching Timeline: (Click to enlarge)

* Note: I just realized I left off the two weeks during the second semester when my coworker had to be out unexpectedly to take care of her sick mother, and I had to take on one of her classes. Those were the weeks when I had over 50 students in my 3rd period Zoom classes.

They say the devil is in the details, and it is true of this year. The hardship wasn’t in the accumulation of months; it was in the weekly changes, the daily obstacles, the nightly eye strain, the hourly stress. It was in every minute spent waiting for an invisible student to respond to me in a Zoom breakout room, every second my eyes flitted between my in-person kids, my Zoom camera, my gradebook, my attendance sheet, my inbox, my audio settings, my online grammar workbook, my online monitoring software, my chat, my other chat, my lesson on the shared screen, and back again. It was in the 19 times a day I sanitized my hands and the 29 times I reminded kids to do so. It was in every moment that I smiled extra big at something a student was saying, in hopes that my encouragement would show in my eyes, beyond my mask, through my screen. It was in the times I had to console a crying student via Zoom while speaking quietly and not saying their name to prevent my in-person kids from overhearing our private conversation.

Instructions for Taking Attendance This Year: (Simple, right?)

Like I said, it can’t really be summed up. I think this school year is best told in moments. Here are a few from the past year.

* Haiku Composed During the STAAR Writing Test on April 27th: *

caged children suffer
from lack of fresh air and sun
the answer is D

As difficult as this year was, and as glad as I am to see it come to an end, there were good things about it too. I learned SO many new skills, both technological and socio-emotional. I loved my students, especially the ones I got to meet and the ones who stayed home all year but allowed me to meet them by showing up on Zoom and engaging with me.

While I dealt with more missing work this year than ever before, some of the work that was turned in was outstanding. We read novels in verse and wrote poetry and essays. We shared our post-pandemic hopes and plans. Around spring break when I suddenly had over a dozen people in my classroom for the first time in a year, I rediscovered the joy of having to ask a class to be quiet. Noise. Beautiful noise. I had been missing it. During the last six weeks, I was able to share S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders with my classes again, and some of the projects they turned in about the book were amazing.

Even though there were days/weeks/months when I felt like a terrible teacher, many of my students didn’t see it that way. They were sweet and complimentary in their end-of-year surveys, acknowledging the challenges teachers faced, appreciating what they learned, and thanking me for my support. Some of their messages brought tears to my eyes.

Comments from my end-of-year survey:

  • “I appreciate how understandable Ms. Juettner is especially with how difficult the last year has been. I also enjoyed Ms. Juettners humor and her funny stories.”
  • “I would like to say thank you for an amazing year. Even with covid and the difficult year, you made it easier for us and you were very empathetic towards us.”
  • “I appreciated that she understood how hard it was to learn on zoom and she was always so helpful.”
  • “I enjoyed just joining zoom and Mrs. Juettner always taking about something. She always was super happy and ready to teach it kind of made me more intrigued on what our lesson would be that day.”
  • “One of the main things that I appreciate about Ms. Juettner is that she is very understanding and she has created a safe and friendly evironment in her classroom. Ms. Juettner is always quick to reply to emails and to help you out and she is extremely patient and empathetic.”
  • “Just that I would like you to know we all respect you and the other teachers for powering through this year and somehow teaching zoom kids and people in person at the same time, I recognize that is very difficult to do and I personally think ya’ll did a marvelous job.”

My End-of-Year Letter to My Students: (Click to enlarge)

This school year cannot be summed up, and this post doesn’t come close to truly describing the highs and lows of the past few months. I don’t even know how many people will read it. It’s ok if you don’t. It’s ok if you’re too tired of talking about the pandemic to read about anyone else’s experience. It’s ok if you’re a teacher whose school year ended a month ago, and you’re deep into summer relaxation and don’t want to have a flashback. And if you’re a teacher whose year has not yet ended, I am sending you a big hug. You can do this. I was where you are last week. I made it, and you will, too. So it’s ok if you don’t read this. The point is, I needed to post it, to document—in some messy, unfinished format—what this year was like for me.

And now, I’m ready to move on from it.

Bring on summer.

Posted in Halloween, Life, Teaching, Writing

Reasons to Celebrate

Life is still weird, and some days are hard, so it’s especially nice when you find a few reasons to celebrate. September has gifted me with some good ones.

Reason to Celebrate #1: FALL

The official start of fall is still a few days away, but last week the Texas summer took its leave. The temperatures dropped, the oppressive humidity blew away, and we even had a few days of hard rain and thunderstorms. There’s nothing quite like that first burst of cool weather after the long, hot months. I was so happy, I went out and bought my first pumpkin. It won’t be lonely for long.

Reason to Celebrate #2: A SMOOTH-ISH START TO THE SCHOOL YEAR

The drop in temperature coincided with the first day of school for my district. On Tuesday, September 8th, we began online teaching. Despite thunderstorms and power failures and zoom fatigue and even a mass internet outage that affected most of our school’s neighborhoods one day, it was still a successful start to the year. The students arrived ready to learn, and the teachers welcomed them with smiles and reassurances and well-planned virtual lessons.

It’s hard though. The amount of work that goes in behind the scenes to make that smoothness possible is too large for most people who don’t work in education to truly understand, and it means that sometimes dinner looks like this:

But we did it, and we’re still doing it, and we’ll keep doing it to the best of our ability. I’m very proud of my campus and my coworkers and my community. This morning, while walking the trail in my neighborhood, I saw this painted rock, and it felt like such a gift. I’m sending it out to all my fellow teachers.

Reason to Celebrate #3: GHOST STORIES

October is just a few short weeks away, which means ghost story season is almost upon us, so I’m excited that my new book, The Ghostly Tales of New England, is now available! This slim, but spooky volume includes twenty-two true stories of historical haunts in Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island, and it’s the perfect companion to a cup of hot chocolate and a campfire.

A friend of mine read some the stories to her six-year-old daughter, and now she’s writing a scary story of her own! It’s called “The Bodiless Foot,” and it comes with some wicked illustrations.

I think we have a new horror author in the making.

Speaking of writing inspiration, I’m doubly excited because Austin Bat Cave has asked me to teach an online Ghost Stories Workshop on October 17th. If you know a 5th-8th grader with a love of writing and a flair for the macabre, consider signing them up. Space is limited, so reserve your spot soon.

*

I’m grateful for these reasons to celebrate, and I’m always on the lookout for more. Let me know if you find any.

Posted in Life, Teaching

The Beauty of Learning

It’s fun watching learning occur.

My parents have a new kitten. She wandered into their yard, a tiny, scrappy, smart little thing, barely big enough to be away from her mother but somehow surviving on her own. They fed her and sweet-talked her from afar until she got curious enough to come inside the house. Since then, she’s been getting to know them on her terms, venturing out from her hiding spots a little more each day. They named her Spunkie, and it fits.

Kitten
Spunkie

I visited them last weekend and spent hours playing with Spunkie. It was so fun watching her figure things out—how to climb on top of things, how to play with new toys, how to trust. You could practically see her little brain working.

That big cat is so cool! I’m going to follow him and see what he does! Ooh, he growled at me. Ok, I’ll watch from over here. 

Being picked up is scary! But ooh! It comes with pets and belly rubs. Hmm, maybe this isn’t so bad…

By the time I left, she was trying out being a lap cat and eyeing the height of the kitchen counter for a future late-night scouting expedition.

Baby Goat
Leo

My school has a green ag program, complete with chickens and goats. Last week, one of our goats had her first baby—an adorable little buck named Leo. As soon as I could, I made it my mission to go meet him. (New teachers, take note: Make friends with the green ag teachers!)

Leo was six days old when I held his wiggly furry body and watched him frolic around his pen, kicking up his hooves. While I was there, he jumped onto a big rock for the first time. I think it surprised even him! He looked rather proud of himself until he considered how to get down. The little goat walked to the edge, backed up, walked to the edge, backed up, then finally kneeled down on the rock, as if asking himself, Will this get me closer to the ground?

When I left, he was still there, but his mama was with him, and I have no doubt he found his way down eventually, learning all the way.

Baby Goat on Rock

Teachers frequently expound on the joy of watching students “get” something. The look of comprehension, the sigh of relief, and the smile of finally accomplishing a difficult task are the rewards of our profession. But I think I enjoy watching adults learn even more.

Earlier this week, my principal held a meeting with the school leadership team in which she started every other sentence with, “As of this moment in time…” (I feel sorry for our administrators. They are working so hard for us and doing the best they can, but things change daily in the district/state/country, and so much is out of their hands.)

During the meeting, she practiced using various online tools for the first time, figuring things out as she went, working through problems as they came up—modeling for us, showing us she is learning and adapting too, giving us permission to try and fail and try again. I’m thankful for her leadership during this stressful time. Learning something brand new takes courage. Most adults choose to do it in isolation. I will teach myself this skill, and when I am good at it, I will let others see. It takes bravery to learn in front of people.

ScreenShot
Screenshot of me learning I cannot eat while on a zoom chat if my cat is in the room

Regardless of what school or online school or homeschool or no school looks like this fall, learning will occur. Look for it, watch it, and when you see it happening, encourage it. Learning does not require a classroom or a bell schedule. All it takes is a positive attitude, curiosity, and a little courage.

*

What are you learning right now?
What lessons from this time will you carry with you into the future?