By Sue Pezanoski Browne
For me, being a public school art teacher during this time of COVID-19 has meant several different realities, changing almost weekly, if not daily. I should preface this with an acknowledgement of how much the work of teaching morphs throughout a normal school year. September is a joyful reunion, at the end of October we are focused and productive, followed by the fast paced celebrations of the winter holidays. The cold long months of January and February are notoriously the most challenging. By mid-March, school communities are just on the cusp of feeling the year as a whole, and plans for how to successfully finish all that we have started begin to take shape.
That was the moment that life as we knew it came to an alarming halt. It was Friday, March 13th, and my Art Club students had stayed after school to help build a greenhouse on the lawn in front of our school. We were all swimming in ambitious projects, with just enough time in the school year to see them to completion. Full stop.
After a day or two of utter shock, I instinctively bound into action. To teach is to serve, and I know no other way. To not act was to feel helpless. Most teachers did not wait for permission from administrators (that would come five weeks later) to act. In the first few weeks, we busily constructed community and classroom spaces online; places for teaching and learning, for sharing lessons, for parents and teachers to communicate, for sharing resources to meet basic needs for food and financial assistance. We were all operating on instinct and the compulsion to continue to serve the needs of our students. I made an art blog, a Facebook group, and taught myself how to use Zoom, Google Classroom, Meets and more. We worried about the roughly 90% of our students and families that were not joining in our virtual spaces.
So, I made phone calls, sent emails, bought art supplies and delivered them to every corner of our city. I received a stimulus check, then made more deliveries. Four weeks into it, I felt exhausted, depressed and worried. There was a small percentage of students and parents who were showing up and sharing these virtual spaces with us, but exponentially more who were not. I began to think of my work through the metaphor of fishing. I was casting my nets daily with the hope of connecting with students and their families. ¿Que necesitan? ¿Como puedo ayudarle?
Efforts to reach out are slowly taking hold. New patterns are forming. The number of students showing up in my virtual classes are modestly increasing. Wonderful moments abound as we make art using easily available materials. I view students through my laptop screen while they work at their kitchen tables, living room couches, bedrooms and hallways.
We all miss being together. I miss my morning duty greeting students as they enter, all the hugs and smiles because “¡tenemos arte hoy!” Receiving and trying to solve all of the many worries spoken and unspoken, “kids were mean to me on the bus”, “can you fix my broken glasses?” or “I have a stomach ache”.
I miss greeting students at the art room door with, “Hay muchas maneras diferentes podemos decir ‘hola’; con una sonrisa, un abrazo, un saludo, con tu mano o una baila”.
I miss the spanish in my ear and on my tongue.
We are coming to terms with the reality that we tried the best that we could. Much was learned. The school year will end. The summer months will provide more time to regroup and reflect. The needs in our community will continue. COVID-19 will continue, at least for the foreseeable future.
Despite the downsides and all that feels lost, many of us are also appreciating this as a singular opportunity to reimagine what is possible in our educational systems and in our personal lives. Perhaps the pace of our lives was too unsustainable, the standardized testing and curriculum too pointless and burdensome, the failure to meet the basic needs of many children and their families too cruel. Maybe it’s time to abandon the old path and form a new one.
The 2020-21 school year is still an open question. Will there be joyful reunions in September? Productive Octobers? Celebrations of winter holidays?
As we continue to abide by health and safety guidelines, what better ways can we imagine moving forward?