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by Michelle Sandoval Villegas, 2020 Texas Secondary Teacher of the Year

Today is September 8, 2020, and I am sitting at my home desk with my fingers on the keyboard trying to find the right words to describe how I am feeling, how my students are feeling, their families, my school administrators, and my school district. We are going into week four of virtual learning in El Paso’s Ysleta ISD, and COVID-19 robbed so much of how the beginning of the year should have been. I miss my campus, the sounds, the smiles and the energy I would get on day one even if it was my 12th year teaching.

I know the safety of all named above is so much more important, and I know that educators across Texas serving millions of students rose to the challenge of starting a new year online. I never in a million years thought I would meet my new students through a screen from my home and see mixed feelings of happiness to simply make a connection and see their friends in a 2-by-2 quadrant on Google Meet, and some somberness to not be with their peers and teachers.

Day one of virtual learning was a mixture of the following: “You’re on mute,” “Your camera is off, sweetheart,” “I think you need to close that tab,” and “OMG, I am so HAPPY to see you all!” Teachers and students had bittersweet feelings on day one in Ysleta ISD and across Texas because this pandemic shifted the world of education as we knew it. Things would never be the same and this was an historical moment in teaching … we have come to face with a new normal.

This new normal is not one-size-fits-all. This new change is not a decision that makes everyone happy. There is no right answer. Our school district has done everything in its power to reach all families during this time to provide the safest, most loving, caring and “normal” environment possible for our students. I do not envy the decision-makers during this difficult time, as we cannot make the “shoe fit” for everyone during virtual learning. In El Paso, we have low income families facing the grave digital divide that affects so many across Texas. The district has done its best to provide hot spots for families in need and make sure they are safe and healthy in the process. To keep our students and families safe, our district has decided on a return date in October, while some families and students yearn for it to be tomorrow if it could.

I have learned a couple of things over four weeks of virtual learning. I am a new teacher once again. I am learning so many different technology platforms. I am being pushed, challenged and faced with the fact that I must do better and be better for my students. My mantra has always been, “Never stop learning.” COVID-19 made this into a reality not only for students, but for educators. Teachers across the state are resigning due to stress; new teachers are coming on board; teachers are seeking additional income … teachers are going through it. It saddens me to know a couple of people who have left the profession. More than ever, teachers need to be valued and families supporting their children need to be valued at all costs.

I have always been a firm believer that teachers are the foundation of all. We are teaching ourselves to take risks, try new things and be bold during virtual learning. I, like so many educators, am incredibly tired, worn out, and, simply put, stressed out; but, I can personally attest, that this does not stop us. We work countless hours in front of our computers to make sure our lessons are engaging and will reach our students. We spend countless days making connections and building relationships for the day that we return. We are working through this pandemic. I AM A TEACHER DURING A PANDEMIC.

I give gratitude and blessings to teachers who have returned to campus fearing for their safety and doing everything in their power to make education whole again, like my fellow Texas Teacher of the Year, Karen Sams. I honor every educator across Texas, their parents, families, administrators and school staff. A million thank yous cannot do you justice.

Above all, I want everyone to remember one thing. This pandemic may have shifted us, but we will be stronger when we bounce back. We must remember that every child during this ever-changing time in education has a story and has a reason why their camera may be off. We must have grace during this time in education and always remind ourselves, “Grace before grades.”

Parents, I understand how hard this is for you and I am here for you. Just know, we appreciate you. I hope we continue to grow during this time and be better … for a better tomorrow. Until we can fist bump in the hallways again, students ….