What Am I Doing? Coronavirus and the Teaching Unknown

We are in a global pandemic and everything has changed. Cortisol has flood my synapses. My neck, shoulders, and back feel like they’ve been fused together in a painful patchwork of rigor mortis. Some of this anxiety isn’t new; I’m always on edge. It’s in my guts.

That’s one of the many things I love about teaching. It harnesses and channels my anxiety. It shapes my nervous energy into a recognizable form that I’m intimately familiar with. It powers my lesson planning, classroom management, and entire teacher persona. It pushes me past the torpor that begins setting in anytime I’m directionless.

I’ve had a lot of time to feel directionless this week. The traditional boundaries that I’ve hewn to over the last decade have dissolved. My anxiety has nowhere to go. And in the closed network that is my neurological system, anxiety has to go SOMEWHERE. Otherwise it’s just a corrosive lake eating away at my insides.

Like many others, I hate being trapped in the gray, in those indeterminate spaces where options and vectors spin out. This is why I get extra antsy on snow days. As soon as it starts snowing, I become consumed with figuring out whether or not I’ll have to go into work the next day. It’s not the job that I hate (I LOVE TEACHING!), it’s the unknowing. Snow day anxiety is nothing compared to this.

Because I know what to do with a snow day. I play with my daughter. Watch movies. Bounce around the house stuffing my face with the heavenly cookies my wife bakes whenever inclimate weather strikes.

But this isn’t a snow day.  It’s an unprecedented global pandemic that has upended the social and professional fabric of my life and the lives of my students.

Last Friday we were instructed to pack up our stuff and not come back until the middle of April. Four weeks. The guidelines for teachers in my district are anemic at best. We can post work, but it has to be review. Nothing new. And nothing can be graded. That’s it. These guidelines make sense, and I take no umbrage with them. I mean, what else am I supposed to be doing?

Well, based on the posts clogging my various teacher social media feeds, I should be downloading Zoom, holding video conferences with students, designing passion projects, etc. These things all sound great, but I’m not trained to do any of them. Distance learning is a legitimate subcategory of pedagogy with its own thought leaders, philosophical debates, and learning curve.

You don’t just start “doing” distance learning the same way you don’t just start teaching. Any teaching is serious, and anything serious requires intentional study and practice.

I’ve dipped my toes in and put some stuff online for my students. They have an online Coronavirus Notebook to help them keep track of their experiences throughout this historical moment. I give them daily focus questions and prompts. Insert a video time capsule where you record yourself talking about everything you’re eating, drinking, watching, feeling, and doing. Use a Creative Commons website to find an image that symbolizes your week and write about it. Etc.

So is this all I’m supposed to be doing for the next three weeks? Let’s say that it is. That plugs up one stream of anxiety while opening up another. What am I supposed to do when I get back from these four weeks? Should it be new? Should it pick up where we left off with some minor modifications? What role should the Coronavirus play? How does my moral and professional duty as a teacher intersect with an unprecedented public health crisis?

I created a flowchart to capture the manic sequence that’s hamster-wheeling in my brain. Here it is.


It’s an endless loop. A recursive cycle that folds into itself the the more I try to pin it down. The second I stumble upon a fruitful avenue (maybe I could do a unit on X!), my anxiety barges in like a toddler, picking everything up and depositing it somewhere else. While screaming.

I can’t really think of a conclusion for this post, just like I can’t come to a conclusion about what’s going to happen in the coming days and weeks. The key for me is to avoid the analysis/paralysis that often results from trying to think about too many things from too many angles at once. So I’m going to stand up right now and make a sandwich.


  1. Kasia

    I so understand your brain spins. I am discovering that this isolation is tremendously difficult for those of us, who rely on work for human interaction. My serotonin levels spiked today just because I went to Target and exchanged a few words with some employees/customers.
    I can’t have my grandkids around every day because I don’t have a partner here to occupy them when I provide feedback to students and answer e-mails from anxious parents, and the little ones don’t have a pause button.
    So I’m restricted to myself for long periods of time, and it’s depressing. My dreams are becoming more fantastical and most of the day I feel like fish suspended in aspic.


  2. katlynhbennett

    The unknown is the worst. I, too, suffer from analysis paralysis. Something flipped in me yesterday- I deleted facebook from my phone (yes, good, highly recommend this) and realized that if I don’t limit my focus to the things within my locus of control, I’ll spin out and be helpful to no one. So I’m trying to keep myself grounded in each individual day. Doing what feels right for today. That’s all I feel like we can do! It’s HARD.


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