“I don’t know if I can make it through this year.”
I said those words to myself in the mirror last Sunday. I was trying to smile, because they say if you smile while you’re sad, it helps fight the negative feelings, and I need all the positivity I can get.
It was the night before my first day back to work as a special-education teacher for the School District of Philadelphia and for the second year in a row of my 37 years alive, I am not excited to be going back to school. I mention my age because I’ve always been that weirdo excited for school to start. I loved going to school and I consider myself a proud nerd. Even as an adult, I have always been excited to return after summer break.
However, this year I am nowhere near ready.
I’ve yet to process the trauma of last year’s virtual teaching and COVID-19.
I’ve always been awkward with adults, but never with kids. For the first time I’m unsure on my strategy to foster positive relationships. There is a fine line to walk when working with students in which you are not quite their mother, nor quite their friend, but an amalgamation of many figures wrapped into one. Navigating that balance feels harder, and strange, when going back to the building full time and seeing students after staring at my computer hoping to see a face. How do I connect to students and other teachers after having only seen the top half of them with minimal conversations all year? What do you say to people you know, but don’t really know? I don’t know what my relationships look like this year.
Also I was forced by the district to transfer from my high school and choose an elementary school in a different part of the city. This means all new students and staff, so I have to build new relationships with everyone. I will miss not seeing kids from my school as I walked to the store or while driving around my neighborhood.
Then there’s Black Lives Matter. Yes, for many people of color it’s still a major part of our everyday lives and something I’m personally still processing. Seeing people who look like my students, my children, and myself be snuffed out for simply existing in brown skin is something you can never accept, never forget, or get over. When meeting new teachers who are white, I can never feel safe wondering if they have Karen tendencies, or something they say will be a trigger. I feel as if I’m on guard and have to be mindful of everything I say and do.
Plus there’s still COVID-19, and I’m a single parent. The fact that I will be around kids who do not understand personal space means it’s not if but when someone gets sick. Despite all the encouragement to wash your hands, and to stay home if you’re sick, I’ve witnessed an entire school being affected by a serious cold.
With COVID-19 and germs comes the politicization of wearing a mask. I understand and do not argue against those who have medical and health conditions that make wearing them uncomfortable, nor children who simply have had enough. But having to worry about that one parent who makes it their holy mission to remind me of their God-given rights is not something I’m sure I have the willpower to cope with.
Then there is the issue of child care, something I cannot afford. As a teacher, my salary is above the federal guidelines, so I don’t qualify for any government assistance. I support both children on my salary alone, despite having been married for 14 years. For a while I had a thriving side hustle as an artist and jeweler, but that takes time I no longer have.
Through all this, I’ve yet to have an actual summer break. People in other professions may turn their noses up at the supposed “three months off” that teachers get, but we deeply need that time after each school year to prepare for the next, especially after what we’ve experienced through COVID-19. As someone who came into teaching from another field — I worked as an after-school program coordinator — I’ve had to go back to school to obtain the standard teaching certificate in special education. Despite the world crashing, my coursework has not stopped. During the summer, my course was squeezed into one month, giving us teachers two weeks of graduate-level work each week.
So where does all this leave me as September approaches?
My mental health is in shambles. I am on anxiety and depression medication. I suffer from weekly panic attacks and have been subsisting on fruits and vegetables because of stomach issues for the last week. I cry daily and I’m always behind on something: schoolwork, bills, or being a better mom. I haven’t sat and watched TV without multitasking since before COVID-19 hit, and I see no light at the end of this tunnel.
As the first day of school with students approaches, I don’t know if I’m going to make it through the year. But I’m going to smile into my mirror and try.
Shayla Amenra is a teacher in the School District of Philadelphia.