A teacher’s perspective on a year like no other

A teacher’s perspective on a year like no other

From left, Yavneh teachers Shira Brandsdorfer, Esther Kook, and Michal Kahan reflect on the last year. (Courtesy Esther Kook)
From left, Yavneh teachers Shira Brandsdorfer, Esther Kook, and Michal Kahan reflect on the last year. (Courtesy Esther Kook)

After this unprecedented roller coaster ride of a year, we’re here, the end of the school year. It’s finally summertime, the season when teachers look forward to reflecting and recharging.

There is much to reflect upon when we look back at the incred-ible ride we took together at Yavneh Academy.

After covid hit in March last year in March, we had months of remote learning on Zoom. Then in September, when all CDC precautions were up and running, and everything was ready for our return to in-school instruction, Yavneh’s teachers and faculty stepped onto the roller coaster ride of a lifetime.

Buckling up with all the precautions for safety’s sake, we took a few deep cleansing breaths, and off we went. It was full steam ahead, slowly and surely up the hill, with so many sharp twists and turns, exciting ups, swooping downs, dizzying to the point of queasiness, but also exhilarating.

Emotions collided; we were joyful and fearful, hopeful and frustrated, nervous and relieved, exhausted and energized. Often we were breathless from lack of oxygen because many of us wore layers of masks and even plastic shields, looking more like astronauts and hazmat workers than teachers. One plastic-shielded teacher quipped, “My husband told me I look like a potted plant.”

We followed the CDC rules to a T, as we disinfected our computers, scrubbed our hands, social distanced, and Zoomed for meetings and to work with students who were quarantined. On the silver-lining side, due to mask wearing, we also ate onions sprinkled liberally into our lunches and drank coffee to our heart’s content, all without popping breath mints for fear of offending our colleagues.

Then, when teachers finally were eligible to be vaccinated, when we all had received two shots, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. We knew that the roller coaster ride was slowly coming to an end.

Now as we look back, many of us feel this past year was probably one of the most difficult, yet the most rewarding and important in our teaching careers. Each day our mission was crystal clear — to keep school open, to keep the children safely in school where they belong, and to maintain all the measures and precautions necessary to accomplish that goal. It was not an easy feat at all. It was uphill from the get-go. Without a doubt it took a diligent and dedicated school village to do so all year long.

Surprisingly, students didn’t complain about all the precautions and mask wearing. Instinctively, they understood these precautions were the tickets back into their school lives and a return to normalcy. Sure, we had to remind them to cover their noses and mouths. Certainly, their masks got sneezed into, and who knows what else got in there, and I shuddered at the thought. But, students rose to the occasion like superheroes, wearing masks dutifully, even brightly and colorfully.

School is an important anchor for children. It’s where the best learning happens, and children also feel a sense of belonging, stability, routine, friendship, and, yes, love. And when life feels chaotic and confusing, as it’s been during this covid pandemic, school provides a source of equilibrium.

Although it all was uncharted terrain, some terminology quickly became a part of our casual conversation. We regularly tossed around words like quarantines, quick tests, pcr tests, and pods. Despite the ups and downs, we were acutely aware of the privilege we had in being back in school, when so many other schools across the country were still only on a virtual or hybrid schedule.

Some of my Yavneh friends and colleagues shared their own personal reflections with me. Michal Kahan teaches fourth grade general studies. “I felt so fortunate, and it was so rewarding to be teaching in person this past year,” she said. “Although we did a great job on Zoom last year, you just can’t compare the caliber of education students receive in person.

“My students really appreciated being back in school, and the overall learning and social experiences were very special, with so much collaboration and deep caring among the students, even with all the precautions. It was difficult and they were sad when our entire class had to be quarantined three times, but we celebrated each reentry back to school.

“When a student was absent, the other students regularly offered to bring over assignments, connect through phone calls, and even reminded me to Zoom with that student. And parents were so appreciative that their children were back in school. We all worked together to make it happen; the administrators, teachers, and our amazing medical team.”

Mrs. Kahan also shared another more personal reflection. “For me, it was stressful that my son, who has special needs, attended another private school where he received little in-person instruction. Since March 2020, the majority of his classes have been conducted online. So, it was difficult for him and for our family to adjust to the erratic online sessions.”

Shira Brandsdorfer, a second grade general studies teacher, said that she too felt that this year was difficult at times, but also very productive. “Our students wanted to be back in school, they needed structure, and the social-emotional growth opportunities that our school provides,” she said. “At times, it took every ounce of my energy to push through the exhaustion. It was draining and dehydrating speaking with a mask on all day.

“My co-teacher and I became cheerleaders, especially when our class was quarantined in only the third week of school. It was important to keep morale up because the students and the parents were upset about being back on Zoom, bringing back memories of the first months of covid and lockdowns. So, we celebrated every milestone that we were still in school, and utilized every part of our day just to make sure our whole curriculum was covered, and we got through it all,” Ms. Brandsdorfer said with a huge, proud smile.

As you can well imagine, as Ms. Brandsdorfer and I spoke during one of our final lunch periods and reminisced about this year, we shared bittersweet moments, shed some tears and even some laughs, and agreed that it was a year like none other.

Esther Kook of Teaneck is a learning specialist at Yavneh Academy in Paramus and a freelance writer.

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