New York City schools have been open for hybrid learning since September, and teachers are facing lack of staffing, rising covid-19 numbers, unhappy parents and bursting class sizes. There has never been a more stressful time to be in this profession — and as a former teacher of almost 15 years, I can attest that even pre-covid-19, teaching in New York City was beyond challenging. But every morning, my daughter’s kindergarten teacher’s sweet voice rings through our computer speakers: “Good morning, friends!”
All summer I agonized over the idea of my 5-year-old daughter missing out on a true, in-person kindergarten experience. When deciding whether to send her to school or keep her home, the choice was clear but not easy. My husband has health complications, so we need to limit our exposure, and I knew that because he works nights, he could be with her during the day. It felt like the safer and more stable choice. But the sadness of what is happening to students and teachers and parents around the world is heavy. Childhood is such a short time, and it feels like our kids are being robbed of the normalcy we always took for granted. I knew Allie wouldn’t get to tell secrets to friends, to line up by height, to have that space she deserves to develop into herself without her mom and dad close by.
Even more surprising than how well Ms. G manages remote kindergarten: Allie isn’t the only one learning lessons here. Spending these past few weeks listening to the way my daughter’s kindergarten teacher talks and interacts with her during their live sessions has affected me in a different way than I imagined.
It’s made me into a better mom.
So each morning, after feeding and dressing and cleaning and getting her ready (she makes me do her hair in a perfect, slicked-back ponytail and takes her time picking out a “fancy” outfit), I sit on the couch nearby with a cup of coffee as class begins. As Allie practices her letters, I practice watching the way that Ms. G speaks to her and the rest of her classmates, with her silly tone of voice, her stuffed owls “Echo” and “Baby Echo.” I am reminded of how a 5-year-old deserves and loves to be treated.
After spending every waking minute with my children during the pandemic, one day bleeding into the next, we became partners in survival. I didn’t realize that I had only been seeing Allie as my daughter, someone whose needs I was responsible for, and not seeing her clearly as her own person, a 5-year-old kid among a couple dozen other 5-year-old kids. How could I? The stress of this pandemic has been immense. But it’s been eye-opening watching how Allie reacts to someone taking such careful time with her. Talking to her patiently, using silence as opportunity for encouragement. “Keep trying, friend!” Ms. G will say if Allie gets stuck. Cheering her on, even if she makes a mistake, using a much more theatrical voice than my own. Being silly in ways I wouldn’t: “Kiss your hand and put it on your head to give your brain some love!” Ms. G will say, and Allie follows.
These small moments of enthusiasm and positivity give my daughter something that I’ve been holding back, something that she deserves.
I can tell in her body language, the way she sits up straight, the way her small frame settles into her desk, that she feels completely engaged and seen. I watch her little fingers holding a pencil and trying to write a perfect E. She seems so little, so innocent in the mess of what’s going on in the world today, and it shifts my heart in a different way.
And even though Ms. G tells the kids how “happy” she is each day, I’m not naive enough to think she isn’t struggling. Yes, I have experience in being a stressed-out teacher, teaching public high school for almost 15 years. But this is nothing compared with what teachers right now are feeling. Kindergarten is hard enough to manage in person, let alone virtually. I know Ms. G has to deal with ballooning class sizes and disappointed parents, with long hours tied to technology, nights prerecording her lessons so that the students she isn’t seeing live can watch them on their own. And then the actual teaching through a screen — in small and large groups — all day long. To do all that seems unbelievably hard, and to do it well? It seems impossible. Yet here we are.
That in itself has been another lesson to me. No matter what Ms. G is going through, she maintains that space for Allie and her classmates. That space where she can be silly and laugh and give a 5-year-old the environment he or she deserves.
My hope for this year was that Allie would enjoy school, that she’d be able to learn. But there are lessons for all of us if we pay attention to what teachers are doing. In my case, I’ve found myself able to zoom out and see my child in a new way, treat her with more care and tenderness, less as just my daughter and more as who she is at heart. I’m still far from perfect, quite a mess actually, and by each night, I’m almost back to my old ways. I see a child who needs to be fed, needs to be bathed, needs to be loved. Sometimes, her needs put me into full-on parenting mode and distract me from seeing her for who she is.
But then each morning, we wake up, we do our hair, we brush our teeth. Ms. G shows up, not just for Allie, but for both of us. “Good morning, friends!” her silly singsong voice rings out, and brings each of us somewhere else — or really, back to where we need to be.
Emily James is a writer in New York City.