The End of the 2020 School Year: According to a 5th Grade Teacher

A small population of adults in the world are teachers. So I might seem relevant to only a few people out there, concerning the end of this wacky school year. Conversely, a much larger population of adults in the world are parents, aunts, uncles, or grandparents. Maybe they might be interested to hear what it was like on the other side of Distance Learning. 

This month, schools closed their doors virtually, months after closing them physically. “The COVID-19 crisis has affected nearly every aspect of our students’ lives” is in the running for “Understatement of the Year.” 

If you don’t know me, my name is Mitchell Graham, and I’m a 5th Grade teacher in Salem, Oregon. The following are my quick thoughts about the uninspiring end to the craziest year of school.

The Buildup:

I love teaching 5th grade. It’s such an interesting year of transition for a lot of 10 and 11 year-olds. I tell people “I have 4th graders in October, and Middle Schoolers by May.” And I’m sure parents see that change at home, too!

The learning, the growing, and the teaching are all great. But the real reason why I love being in a 5th grade classroom is we get to do all of the FUN stuff! Field Trips, Science Fair, Winter Workshop, 5th vs. Staff Basketball Game, 5th vs. Staff Soccer Game, Bridge Engineering, Reading Buddies, 5th Grade Promotion, Field Day, 5th Grade Walk, and OUTDOOR SCHOOL! 5th Grade is, by far, the most action-packed elementary grade there is.

But not this year.

Spring Break was on the horizon, and we were just starting our Science Fair packets when the Corona-cations hit the fan. The last words I said in person to some of my students were along the lines of “Think ahead! Don’t just play video games! Start your project over Spring Break! If you do that, you’ll be ready and won’t be running out of time!” 

We had to cancel our Science Fair before Spring Break was halfway over; I didn’t even have one student show me what they were working on. 

And then, week by week, I realized that the awesome, epic events the 5th Grade team pumps up throughout the year would inevitably be canceled. Engineering… Soccer Game… Outdoor School… PROMOTION! The month of May usually feels like a “party” month; this year, it felt more like a wake. 

You see, we teachers work really hard at the beginning of the year to get our students into understanding and performing to our expectations. Using personal relationships and connections, we are able to hold high standards for academics, behavior, classroom systems, and social treatment; the focus is on both intrapersonal and interpersonal growth. Holiday breaks throw small wrenches into the equation, but by March/April, the machine is running smoothly.

So imagine putting in tons of man-hours into a system you believe in — knowing you can get your class to the top of the proverbial mountain because you’ve seen it before — all for it to come to a screeching halt. Talk about feeling “Helpless”. 

That class-wide system built on relationships was now tasked with transferring to a virtual setting. And it was hard. For everyone involved! The hardest part for me was losing the connections that I had built for so many months; and the frail relationships that were able to endure the distance were fractional representations at best.

The Feelings:

I’m a fairly positive person (as you can tell by my lamentation…). So of course there are tons of perks to doing Distance Learning from a personal standpoint: All Day PJs, flexible hours, not managing “boyfriends” and “girlfriends”, missing State Testing, early morning commutes, and constant classroom cleaning to name a few. Oh, and a ton of added time with my infant son! Another bonus for some teachers is if you had a rough class this year, it might have been pretty bomb to take a 10+ week break. (There was a class that I would have welcomed this pandemic with open, gloved hands.)

But in this case, the good did not outweigh the bad. Not by a long shot. I was nearly heartbroken when I heard our huge events would be cancelled; some of my students who have been at our school since Kindergarten expressed that they’ve “waited their whole lives to do the 5th Grade walk.” At first glance, it seems a little bit of hyperbole. But listen to that again: an 11 year-old is saying they’ve been waiting for this since they were 5. I don’t know how good your memory is, but it’s hard for me to recall much before then… 

The cubbies aren’t sure if they’re being used,
or if they’re on summer break…

Yesterday, I went into my classroom. What was once a vibrant, welcoming, Timbers-themed learning location now felt eerily like a ghost town; it’s almost like the Rapture happened and I was walking through a scene in Left Behind. Books were ready to be opened, “Charger Tokens” were saved neatly in pencil boxes, and some cubbies even still hosted jackets that were just waiting to be used during a chilly recess. 

One positive I took from this is “They don’t know what they’re missing out on,” but even that wasn’t much consolation. 

As another Understatement of the Year candidate: This Corona-Thing was a real bummer.

The Analogy:

I’ve used this analogy when explaining “how it feels” to my friends and family:

In a normal year, the end of school is challenging for me. Throughout the school year, I have spent months living life and connecting with my 28 students 5 out of the 7 days in a week. There are times in the year where I am around my students more than I am around my wife! Hours and hours of time spent with them, learning their likes, dislikes, and what makes them laugh, angry, and do their homework. Then, in June, some arbitrary day decides that I will no longer be around them. Like, ever again. 

It’s honestly a very strange feeling. I usually am a little snappy and irritable for the first few weeks of summer. Why? Because some calendar day decided to take away a large piece of my social world! And not gradually, we’re talking Band-Aid style. So naturally, it’s a little tough to cope and/or get closure for me and a lot of my students. 

It’s more of an amputation than anything else.

But this year, the surgery was moved up 10 weeks. And I didn’t even get a notice! I was “cut off” from my students, right when all of the fun stuff was about to happen. I didn’t have closing remarks, final gifts, parting encouragements, or middle school pep talks.

In this Corona-version of an end-of-the-year surgery, instead of removing the appendage from the operating room, I got to sit with it and look at it via Zoom calls and emails until that predestined June date. Smiling and encouraging my students, knowing that they’ll never get to experience Outdoor School, Promotion, the Science Fair… And even more irritating, I knew that my connection was waning, and that eventually we would part ways — without the fond memories of the end of a year to hang on to. 

I’m sorry if the analogy is maybe too offensive or graphic, but it’s the best I could do to try to communicate the strange sensation of having a fairly significant piece of my life removed, with nothing I could do about it. Maybe I’ll use a “Moving to a New Neighborhood” analogy next time…

The Hopes:

There are a few things, on this teacher’s end, that I hope will come to pass from this COVID experience. The prolonged closures due to the virus this year has made me stop and consider what could be addressed (and hoped for) moving forward.

First, I hope that the world of Education takes this time to truly evaluate our current system: with the wheels no longer spinning, this might be a great time to reform education, from the ground up, and really consider what is best for our kids. Start times? Test expectations? Community or monetary supports? Class sizes/school budgets? Restructuring of subjects/grades/policies? 

What would happen if we made adjustments so more federal money went to domestic schools, instead of foreign policing? What could be accomplished in this time by the ones in charge to bring about effective change for generations of students to come?

Second, I hope that our communities take a moment to understand just how vital our schools are. I teach at a Title I school, with lots of funding, technology supports, a good Parent Committee, and a fair amount of volunteers. We have an awesome team, and an amazing group of students. And yet we still could use a lot of help. I’m sure parents now see that teachers do more than just “Day Care”, and if the village is willing to help, we’re willing to accept! Strong schools are foundational in forming strong communities.

Lastly, I hope that my students never have to go through something like this again. They were forced into a crazy scenario and had to try to take on learning at home, on their own, with little guidance, support, materials, and experience. It could be said that their Band-Aid was bigger, and way worse…

I also hope that my students see this “opportunity” as a trial that made them stronger. My students showed incredible resilience; I can only wish that they use it as a stepping stone – forwarding their personal and academic progress.

The Closure:

As I walked away from my classroom yesterday, I admitted to myself that although I haven’t really enjoyed it, I have learned a lot over these last few months. I know my kids learned as well, just not as much academically as I’d hoped. And that’s what educators preach, right? Learning? I’m just praying that a worldwide pandemic doesn’t become part of my end-of-the-year routine.

Who knows how we’ll start next year! Who knows if we’ll “learn from a distance” again in the near future. September will have plenty of surprises for us all, and I hope that I can start a familiar system, in a familiar place, with a new group of students. 

Those were some thoughts from a 5th Grade Teacher’s perspective. If you’d like any more of my ideas or feelings, don’t try to talk to me about it for a few days — I might be a little cranky.

4 thoughts on “The End of the 2020 School Year: According to a 5th Grade Teacher

  1. You summed up the last few months of teaching so well. This was spot on, exactly how many teachers have felt about this school year.


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