Back to School Nightmares

The nightmares always roll in like an angry storm system a few weeks before school starts. Students standing on their desks, unexpected observations by the principal, students not listening, being late to school, being unprepared, and angry parents are some of the highlights (or should I say low lights?) of my back to school nightmares each year. I have been teaching long enough now that the nightmares are almost entertaining, and that my teacher self in my dreams can handle these fictitious scenarios like a pro. They certainly do not bother me as much now as they did when I was a new teacher!

But this year the nightmares are different.

One stands out in particular. My nightmare begins with students rolling into the classroom one at a time, with what feels like no rhyme or reason. I am not prepared for this, but I smile brightly and welcome them into the room. I think to myself “Wait, I am wearing a mask. They cannot see my smile. Smile with your eyes! Can they tell I am smiling?”

One by one my students arrive wearing masks, and I help them find their seats among the forest of plastic dividers and floor markers to keep students socially distanced. I smile at all of them and greet them cheerfully as they walk in, and wonder if they can tell that I am smiling. I wonder if they are smiling back at me.

I am not used to taking so long to start the school day. I wonder, “Will they really be able to tell when school begins if they’ve been in the room playing independently for 30 minutes first? Did I already mess things up for the rest of the year?” After what feels like hours, I hold a chaotic class meeting with in-person and online students.

I shuffle my class out for what became the saddest recess I had ever seen in my life. I had to keep my students off the playground and keep them playing in the field with their masks on and no recess equipment. They ran around confusedly for about five minutes when I had to blow the whistle since it was time to go back to class. I do not know who thought the ten-minute recess passed more quickly: my students or myself.

The rest of the nightmare is filled with reminding students as brightly as possible to fix their masks, wash their hands for 20 seconds, keep their hands to themselves, elaborate explanations and demonstrations of how to walk from mark to mark in the hallway and listen to be ready for learning. We try to learn a little bit, but after all the handwashing and reminders of how to be physically distanced at school, little time is left for learning.

I am done with this nightmare, and so is dream teacher me. I pinch my arm to wake myself up, but I cannot wake up. This is not a back to school nightmare; I am awake and at school with my students in real life.

Nobody asked for this nightmare of schooling during a pandemic, but it is our reality now and I am determined to make it less of a nightmare for my students. It may not be able to become the “best dream ever” but I have to at least elevate its status to just a “bad dream”. Maybe it can even turn into a neutral dream, that after enough time passes it will not cause my students, or myself for that matter, to shudder at the thought of going to school.

How can I do this within the COVID guidelines? Here is what I have come up with so far:

  1. Love your students and make sure they know how much you care about them.
  2. Find some games they can play socially distanced and without equipment at recess. Red light- Green light is a favorite of my students’ right now. Ask your P.E. teacher for ideas!
  3. Figure out which classroom procedures and routines can be updated to make better use of time.

I have only been back with students for a week, so I am still adding to this list. How are you making this year less nightmarish for you and your students?


Caitlin Gawlowski

I was born to be a teacher, although I did not realize that teaching was my calling until I began college. I have always loved to write and began college with the mindset of becoming a journalist. Before I began my freshman year of college, I changed my major to Elementary Education on a whim and have never looked back. I graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from Arizona State University and won the Outstanding Student Teacher Award during my student teaching experience in the Cave Creek Unified School District.
I spent 7 years in the Washington Elementary School District teaching 2nd and 3rd grade. I became a National Board Certified Teacher in 2018, and I hold a certificate in Early and Middle Childhood Literacy: Reading/Language Arts. The 2019-2020 school year marks the beginning of my 8th year teaching, where I will be teaching 3rd grade English Language Learners, and supporting other National Board candidates on their journey toward National Board certification.
If I am lucky enough to have free time, you can find me planning my wedding, spending time with my infant son and fiancé, taking group fitness classes, or enjoying a good book.

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