“I dropped out of college early and got married. Honestly, I just wanted to be a mom (and the idea of no more finals or cafeteria food also played into this decision heavily). Everyone told me to wait and finish my bachelor’s degree, but I was barely 20 years old. Point blank: I was young and thought I knew it all. Education just wasn’t my jam.
A year after we got married, I got pregnant with our first child. Every 3 years after, I got pregnant again until we had 4 beautiful children. I stayed at home with them and eventually began homeschooling, mostly to save money on their private school tuition, but then eventually because I became passionate about teaching. I even enrolled in courses at university to finish my Bachelor’s in Elementary Education. I would have finals, yes, but at least no cafeteria food.
All day, I would teach my children and all night I would stay up to study. After 5 years of homeschooling, I began to feel the itch to have a classroom of my own. I was learning so much and I really felt I could contribute something to the larger world of education. My kids were excited about the possibility too, so we dived in and I began to apply for teaching positions. By this point, I was working on my Master’s in education as well. This was totally not the plan, but I was somehow thrilled for this new chapter in a way I couldn’t put into words.
One day, I got a call from a sweet little private school in Southern Oregon and they asked me to come in for an interview. They hired me, I enrolled my children, and I spent the entire summer on my living room floor into the wee hours of the night prepping, dreaming, and praying for the little 2nd graders I would have coming Autumn. I almost couldn’t sleep at night because I HAD A CLASSROOM OF MY OWN! I am going to be someone’s teacher! I imagine most first-year teachers are this giddy, no?
Autumn quickly approached and I was able to finally meet my students at our annual Back to School Night. It was like an amazing blind date, (Is that a thing?) I was nervous, they were nervous, but it was so much fun! I felt like we instantly connected. They became ‘my kids.’
I cannot explain to you how students become like your very own children. There’s this fierce love that takes over and you just settle into a sort of mama/teacher bear mode. These kids very quickly stole giant parts of my heart the way you tear gobs of cotton candy from a stick at a carnival. Happy, sticky, and sweet. Those were my 2nd graders.
We began each day with a morning meeting on the carpet. We did pledges, calendar, and read aloud. However, my hidden motive was to create this beautiful space every morning where I could regularly remind them someone loves them, someone is listening to them, and someone understands them. My intention was to have a consistent message seared in their heart for 180 days. This is a place where I am loved unconditionally. This is a place where I am safe.
When you spend every day with students you learn about them, you know their quirks, you know their needs, you know their hurts. They tell you everything, sometimes things you never needed to know and sometimes things that break your heart in ways that keep you up at night and make you pray for the weekend to go by quickly so you can check in with them again.
My own son was in my class this year which was especially sweet since it was his first time in real, traditional school. For fun, I would often ask him in front of the class to come and give me a hug. He would always pretend to be embarrassed and subsequently turn me down, which would result in many of my other students running out of their desks to give me hugs that would almost knock me over. ‘Mrs. Odell, I’ll give you a hug,’ and would line up to give me all the love. 2nd graders are the sweet spot in elementary school, I think. They are independent enough to do things like tie their own shoes and they are clever enough to understand sarcasm and laugh at your jokes. They are also not too cool to draw you pictures with lots of hearts and are never embarrassed when they accidentally call you mom.
It was March and I started to feel the school year winding down and the lump in my throat growing. I would have to say goodbye to these guys soon and I don’t know how I would do it. I would often remind them they were halfway to being 3rd graders now. They hated when I reminded them it was almost time for 3rd grade and begged me to teach them next year too. Still, I would tell them how very proud I was of all the ways they’ve grown and how ready they are to be big kids in the school. I would remind them about the first week of school when we had our first ticket raffle. Students could earn tickets for good behavior, being kind, getting caught following the rules, etc. On Fridays, we would put those tickets in a raffle roller and choose 2 winners for a scratch-off card that could earn them a fun prize such as wearing their PJs to school or using smelly markers to do their work for the day. Many of the students that first week that did not win sobbed at their desks. I had to sit them all down and talk about being a good sport and cheering for our peers and each week I would compliment them on how they improved.
By the time we got to March, my students were cheering for people to win besides themselves just because they felt that person deserved it most. One little girl who cried the most that first week became the class encourager telling everyone ‘good job’ and ‘you’ve got this.’ Another student used to cross his fingers behind his back when apologizing to another student. Now, he offers apologies on his own with sincere eyes. The growth that happens over the months is the most rewarding part of the job, hands down. Getting to be a part of their daily lives and helping them to learn to problem-solve, become a better friend, experiencing the lightbulb moments when they are struggling and then finally understand a concept, are the rewards.
Just recently, I put an app on my phone counting down how many more days I had with them. Not because I was looking forward to summer, but because I wanted to make each day I had left with them count. I didn’t want to forget our time was short and unraveling. Little did I know it was shorter than I could have ever imagined.
Just weeks later, the coronavirus shut down our school, and without warning, I had to tell my 2nd graders goodbye. To be honest, we didn’t even get to say goodbye properly, just one day we were together and the next we weren’t. Teaching remotely has kept us connected, but it’s not been the same. It feels like a deep loss. I miss their smiling little mischievous faces. I miss our long talks on the morning meeting carpet. It has been so hard being separated from them. What keeps me going is the videos they send to me saying hello and showing me something they did that day. It’s how we connect now.
I dream of the day the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, and I can plan a day at the park to see them and embrace them! But for now, I am struggling through my days trying to figure out distance learning, navigating teaching on new platforms I’ve never been trained in, and not allowing it all to get to me.
Life is quite overwhelming for teachers right now. Many aren’t being paid, most feel sorely incompetent, confused, and sad. Some days, we feel like we are doing too much, some days we feel like we aren’t doing enough. We worry about students’ mental health. We are aware many have lost their only safe place. We carry heavy burdens. We need reminders we are enough, not to overwork or overthink, and we are still making a difference. These things truly become our inner voices during these tumultuous and emotional days.
If you know a teacher, encourage them! Tell them you’re proud of them for jumping into this new unknown with little support and being strong for the students that look up to them for security and a reassuring smile. Remind them to take deep breaths, drink their water, exercise, and practice self-care. We are not okay (no one is, really), but we will be eventually.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Kristin Odell of Ashland, Oregan. You can follow her journey on Instagram and Twitter. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
Read Kristin’s backstory here:
‘I received the call at 3 a.m. ‘Your father passed from COVID-19.’ We never got to say goodbye. I didn’t get to hold his hand as he passed from this life to the next.’: Woman shares ode to father lost to coronavirus, ‘I will make him proud’
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