When my co-teacher, Brittani Dugger, and I decided on a cactus theme in our classroom this year, our motto became, “Stick it out when things get prickly!” Only God knew how relevant that would become.

My goal this year as the Gwinnett County Public Schools Teacher of the Year has been to elevate the dignity of our profession, but that has been accomplished by the response of my colleagues’ innovative efforts with Digital Learning during this COVID-19 crisis. While the past two weeks were incredibly challenging, I’ve been so proud of my colleagues who have had to deal with their own family lives and also change everything overnight.

We’ve had to learn how to teach digitally, meet with content teams virtually, continually work out kinks, ensure student engagement, discern how to care for students with extra needs and the ones to whom school was their safe place. All while many organized neighborhood parades!

We hoped to finish the year together. But, while I agree it was the right decision, when I heard the news schools were out for the year, I sobbed. I sobbed for the pre-Kindergarteners, fifth-graders, eighth-graders, and especially our seniors who had been looking forward to finishing spring sports, prom, celebrations, and graduation.

I sobbed for my colleagues who are people-people! We love our classrooms, hallway banter, dressing up for Spirit Days, celebrating graduations, and retirements. We truly enjoy our students, seeing growth from the beginning to the end of the year, and celebrating birthdays as a classroom family.

I sobbed for students who were making great gains in reading or writing but are still in need of a lot of support. I sobbed for parents who are trying to help their children but feel they’re falling short trying to balance screen time, COVID-19 “homeschooling,” working and staying positive so their children don’t feel more stress than they already do, as some are seeing their 8-year-olds deal with anxiety for the first time.

So, Wednesday, I reflected and prayed for wisdom. There are many stages of grief and in this unprecedented time, teachers are having to work through those stages quickly. So, Thursday I woke up with a different mindset. I woke up encouraged by everyone’s resiliency. I thought about my cacti and “sticking it out when things get prickly.”

Thursday, I stopped sobbing and started seeking — seeking opportunities to support and strategize how to finish the year well. Going forward, know that your educators are united in sacrificing time physically together for the greater good and, in this season, there is no greater lesson. When you sacrifice in unity, strength builds. This unified strength allows us to have grace for ourselves and each other.

Going forward, your educators will lead the shift from crisis and chaos, to calming confidence. We will work to teach our subjects with expertise and with an emphasis on wellness, compassion, and reality. Going forward, we will be grateful for the time we had and the time we still have to make an eternally significant impact, never looking at a cactus the same again!

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Rebecca Carlisle is the Gwinnett County Public Schools’ Teacher of the Year. She teaches advanced placement world history to 10th-grade students at North Gwinnett High School in Suwanee.

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