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  • journeyswithann

Is there room to breathe?

By early October 2021, I had called my school’s guidance department to escort emotionally upset kids from my classroom five times. The school year had just begun.

I had already surpassed my average yearly total.

As a public high school teacher, every school year is a challenge. But, 2020 was particularly brutal.

  • 80% of my kids come from economically disadvantaged homes,

  • The overwhelming majority of those kids had been online since March of 2020 halfway through their sophomore year.

  • Regardless, many teachers around me continued to call for “tough love” and demand that we “get back to real life.”

My students were falling a-p-a-r-t, and I knew I had to do something different.

I started by greeting each kid at the door and asking simple questions. How are you? How was your weekend?

I wasn’t looking for words; I was listening to their voices and watching their eyes.

Did they mumble a response? Not meet my eyes over their mask?

If so, I’d gently take them aside and check in with them more personally and quietly. If I didn’t have time or was distracted by something, I’d make a mental note to speak with them in class or ask them to step out into the hall.

On a whole-class level, I focused on reducing the stress level. Breaking classes into teams, I introduced content-material Jeopardy games. I encouraged students to share their knowledge of literary lenses, such as Feminist/Gender, Marxist, Queer, and Critical Race Theory.

I used student knowledge to construct student-centric lesson plans, and we applied their knowledge using media the kids were already surrounded by. Students, wanting to know more, created their own high-level questions. The majority of the kids were focused, interested and involved.


By the end of the school year, I was mentally and physically exhausted. I didn’t know if a fraction of what I had done had made any difference whatsoever. Dispirited, I tried to reassure myself that I had at least given my students a safe space in which to broach subjects and address issues they felt strongly about. I hoped I had given my students room to breathe and space to be heard. I hoped they had learned something from one another.

What I did not expect was an end-of-the-year email from one of my brightest and most ambitious students that read: Thank you Ms. Bingham. I appreciate all that you’ve said and done throughout this school year whether it’s just a “good morning,” or a “how are you feeling” when you see that I’m not okay. You could’ve just ignored me and continue[d] on with your day but you didn’t. We need more teachers like you in the education system, teachers like you who make a difference. A big thank you to you once again Ms. Bingham.

Was I right not to have forced my kids to “get back to real life”? Absofuckinglutely.


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