Refusing to Return to “Normal”

Upset and tired boy teenager sitting on the floor keeps hand to cheek looking thoughtfully and hopeless. Stressed student guy feels emotional discomfort, anxiety and mental health problems.

This article originally appeared in the February, 2021 issue of Middle School Journal. AMLE members receive full access to Middle School Journal as a benefit of membership. Explore Middle School Journal. Explore AMLE membership.

Knowing Yourself Before Teaching Others

A Poem by Zachary O’Brien 1

All of the things that an educator should know,

go far beyond content and getting ducks in a row.

Whether it be history, science, math, or art,

content matters little if it does not come from the heart.

You are an individual – mind, heart, body, soul,

and welcoming them all should be one’s true goal.

Further past content teaching requires

getting to know students and their own inner fires.

What pushes them? What inspires them? What gets them to think?

All are necessary questions before having them fill paper with ink.

Content and pedagogy usually come in a pair,

but alone they cannot answer student’s question of “Why should we care?”

Engagement, motivation, the passion inside,

Students yearn to see it; it does not help to hide!

It would be hypocritical asking students to share,

or to feel welcome in the classroom if you’re only half there.

ghost wandering the halls with no emotion or life

shows you have not acknowledged some inner strife.

We are all imperfect, and students should know,

that they don’t need to get things right in the first try or go.

We get angry, we feel scared, feel tired, feel attacked,

model positive coping and show you can always bounce back.

Being vulnerable and showing passion can help shed light

on individuals who have only ever seen school as a fight.

Show passion for your content, connect to students and the things that they do.

Most important of all, acknowledge and keep being you.

For that is how teaching and learning become truer than true

There is no sugar coating it, teaching is hard. And that is in “normal” times when the world is not being ravished by the COVID-19 pandemic. Over these past few months, I have been trying to find a word to describe what teaching has been like during this pandemic– hard does not quite cut it. Erratic? Exhausting? Unpredictable? Impossible? Nothing quite fits; and I refuse to believe that teaching is ever impossible–we are naturally wired to learn, and quite honestly, I have seen amazing teaching and learning happening at all levels despite or in spite of everything happening in the world around us. Maybe teaching is so hard to describe right now because everything is in constant flux, from the very spaces in which we teach to the emotions that form the core of who we are. Every day brings new pain but also new joy and hope.

Hope is certainly more widespread as the first dose of a vaccine was administered in the U.S. yesterday (12/14/20). And while I am gearing up for my teaching this spring to look much like it did in the fall– erratic, exhausting, and unpredictable, I am also, for the first time in months, feeling like I am able to start reflecting on what I do not want to lose sight of when things do return to whatever normal is. In April, Love (2020) wrote,

The alternative ways educators are learning to exist in our new world cannot be lost when we reopen our society because that world only worked for some and was consumed by racism. What was said to be impossible in education is now here, and we must act for it to stay our reality (para. 14).

Right now, two ideas surface as being critical for me to hold on to (although I am sure others will also take hold as I continue to reflect on my teaching and learning since the pandemic began).

The first centers on learners and the ways that we co-construct our teaching and learning together. Throughout the fall, I was regularly hit with emotional waves of incompetence– intense feelings that no matter how many hours I spent planning or preparing, nothing was working; the teacher candidates I worked with seemed utterly disengaged and in my mind could not possibly be learning. When these waves hit, I did what any good teacher was supposed to do– work harder and do more. This cycle continued until finally, about a third of the way through the semester, after planning what I thought was a quite engaging lesson, I discovered nothing but silence in each breakout room. Frustrated, I called all the learners back and shared my observations. What ensued was an honest and vulnerable conversation that led to an overhaul of the structure of the course from changes to how we used class time to the types of assignments learners completed. The teacher candidates were not disengaged, and they were learning, but they were exhausted and overwhelmed, and often lonely. Similar conversations took place in all of my courses that week, and by the end of the week, all of my courses were transformed, and the levels of stress felt by me and the teacher candidates dropped.

I wish I could say that things were perfect after that, but we all know that teaching does not work that way. What did change was that every time I felt that creeping feeling of incompetence, I immediately halted class and engaged the learners in transforming the course again. This happened at least twice in each of my courses during the 15 week semester, and each time it did, it felt phenomenal, like a huge weight had been lifted. Although my courses looked different than I had imagined by the end, the learning was rich and powerful. As I prepare to teach again in the spring, and every semester after that, I plan to do more co-constructing, and more intentional pivoting. Teaching during this time of uncertainty has really taught me the power of centering learners and their social-emotional needs in the very way learning opportunities are constructed and reconstructed.

The second is an altered understanding of self-care, and a firm commitment to both integrating it into my work with pre-service teachers and a greater focus on it for myself and my colleagues. At numerous points over the past few months, the stress of pandemic teaching, the challenge of having my own kids learning remotely, and the secondary-trauma I experience as an educator, were just too much. I was often irritable and could not sleep. While the ways this stress manifested for me may not be universal, I think I would be hard-pressed to find an educator who was not feeling this in some capacity in recent months. In August 2020 I had the opportunity to hear Dena Simmons speak about self-care. She shared, “Care is not distributed equally in our world” and, “A stressed and burnt-out teaching force is an equity issue”. These statements have stayed with me as I have engaged in conversations with other educators this school year. In “normal” times we are called upon to go beyond constantly, often at the expense of our own health and well-being, and this, like so many other things, has been escalated by the pandemic.

Prior to the pandemic, my definition of self-care was what I have now come to understand as self-soothing– making time on occasion for exercise or eating “right” (read that as consuming as much sugar as possible). These are actions one can take in a stressful moment to immediately feel better, but they do nothing to change things long-term. Self-care, on the other hand, is about changing habits to achieve long-term benefits (Rintamaa & Howell, 2020). As a result of my evolving understanding, I began to have conversations with my students about self-care, using the following quote from Audre Lorde as the centerpiece, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” I would be remiss not to acknowledge that Audre Lorde’s focus on radical self-care was an act of Black resistance and community building stemming from racial injustice and oppression. As a white woman, my need for self-care cannot be compared to that of BIPOC folx living amidst the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racism. As with so many things, my racial and class privilege shelter me from the harshest impacts of both. What I can do is use my privilege and power to facilitate conversations about and model self-care, encouraging us as a profession to value and practice it more. In having these conversations about self-care publicly, I found myself able to make big changes to both my personal routines (going to bed earlier every night; taking the time to actually eat lunch, off of a screen, each day) and classroom routines (taking time to start each class by reviewing a set of agreed upon touchstones; building time for the informal conversations learners were so craving). I have a long way to go when it comes to self-care, but I am learning to not feel guilty prioritizing myself more, and I am recognizing that in doing so I am more emotionally available for others, and most importantly, I feel truer to myself and confident in the decisions I am making as a person and a professional.

As you turn the corner of this indescribable school year, sit with the words shared from Bettina Love, Audre Lorde, and Dena Simmons, and consider the following three questions. You owe it to your students and to yourself.

  1. How are you co-constructing learning with your students who are also balancing their own personal, family, and social stressors?
  2. How are you prioritizing self-care so that we as a profession can better learn to support ourselves and each other?
  3. What new realizations or ideas do you want to hold onto when things return to “normal”?


Zachary O’Brien is a teacher candidate at Northern Vermont University. This poem was written in December 2020 as part of a final reflection for one of his education courses.


  1. Love, B. (2020, April). Teachers, we cannot go back to the way things were. EdWeek .
  2. Rintamaa, M. , & Howell, P. (2020, October 23) Teacher candidates’ perception of self-care [Paper presentation]. Annual Meeting of the Association for Middle Level Education, Virtual Conference.
  3. Simmons, D. (2020, August 5). SRI summer virtual meeting 2020 opening keynote [Keynote presentation]. School Reform Initiative Summer Virtual Meeting.


  1. Hello!

    I really like how this article addressed how many of us are feeling: incompetent. We have never gone through anything like this before, where we were teaching students completely in-person one day, completely online the next, and then the introduction of a hybrid model hit us. As a preservice teacher during the pandemic, I really have learned SO MUCH but it really is exhausting. However, I have learned to make the best of it and truly document this time in my life because, eventually, I will be teaching the COVID-19 pandemic in a history class one day.

  2. The poem by Zachary O’Brien, was so beautifully written and true. In order to understand what our purpose is in teaching, we have to be willing to alter our course and listen and learn to love each and every one of our students in their own way. Teaching is hard and the pandemic certainly hasn’t made it any easier but developing these strategies as mentioned in the article will help the students and teachers grow together.

  3. This article makes so many needed points! This poem is so well written and does a great job of showing just how tough teaching has been in our current environment. While COVID 19 has definitely not been kind to teachers, it has allowed for so many new strategies to be brought into the classroom. Many of these are ones that I believe should not and will not be going away any time soon.

  4. Reading the title of this article, I assumed it would discuss how COVID has changed teaching as we progress technologically. However, it was refreshing to read this poem and your experience teaching during this pandemic and working with student teachers like myself. You note how we should not go back to how things were, considering them to be normal given all of the social issues we are facing and working to overcome as a country. As you have said, teaching is hard and many times I have seen defeat in the eyes of teachers and not just during the pandemic. It is wondering if you are really getting through to students. This pandemic should help us to prioritize taking care of each other before content can ever stick.