I once cared a lot about setting boundaries between my home life and classroom life. I teach theater arts at a public high school in the greater Boston area, and before the pandemic, when I lived in the same city where I worked, seeing my students in the supermarket or the gym was not unusual. It was awkward to be spotted buying a basket full of ice cream in a ratty sweatshirt or grooving a little too vigorously to "Danza Kuduro" while amping up for my next set. In the classroom, I was more reserved: hair tucked into a low bun, nails polished, a stylish yet comfortable shoe. Students could glimpse my personality through liberal posters hanging on the walls, and in the discussions we had about "The Office," but I kept them at arm's length, intent on maintaining my status as a role model and authority figure.
Since schools closed last March, I have never tried harder to be the perfect teacher. Many nights, I cried myself to sleep, frustrated that my lessons weren't engaging enough to induce all my students to keep their cameras turned on. And all the while, my students were seeing me as a person — a decidedly imperfect one — for the first time.
Virtually inviting students into my home via video meant I had to obliterate the boundaries I once held dear. My students saw me at my most comfortable: no makeup — vying instead for an extra hour of sleep — a new puppy barking at my side. At first, my husband ducked out of view, but after he answered their request to come on camera, "just to see what he looked like," his appearances became a regular occurrence. Within weeks, students were shouting his last name in the middle of class, begging him to ditch his allegiance to Xbox and join the throngs of PlayStation gamers.
My students also saw me at my most vulnerable — in that same ratty sweatshirt, puffy-eyed and crying, after a terrible miscarriage. After I was absent for several days, students overwhelmed me with questions about whether I had contracted the coronavirus, worried I had been seriously ill. In the past, I would have told a white lie to protect my privacy and quickly moved on to the day's work. But the fear in their eyes was real, and I felt compelled to tell the truth. The chat quickly overflowed with condolences and offers to drop off my favorite sweets. One student put her hands up to the camera and said, "Ms., I'm giving you the biggest hug right now." They cradled my brokenness, and though I couldn't physically feel their embrace, their warmth lifted my spirits.
Last year, this would have felt claustrophobic, invasive, even inappropriate. But if remote learning has been good for one thing, it has closed that gap between authoritative teacher and abiding student.
I once greeted each student walking into my classroom by issuing a basic "Hey, what's up?" But as many of my students and their family members became ill, long daily check-ins became a must. These conversations allowed students to compare symptoms with one another; other times, the talks gave them space to mourn the loss of a loved one or offer empathy and support. Afterward, we sometimes got to the material I'd planned to cover, sometimes not. But unlike before, I didn't berate myself for not hitting all my curriculum targets for the day. Some lessons could wait; these could not.
Knowing what these kids were dealing with — caring for sick family members, babysitting younger siblings, using their own money to keep food on the table — I worked to become more flexible. I used to invest a lot of importance in arbitrary deadlines and make-or-break exams to establish high academic standards. These days, I've let go of many of my old notions about penalties for late or missing work; I no longer give students one way, and one way only, to show mastery of a skill. In the past, for example, my theater arts class would have to perform a song and dance from a musical we'd watched and critiqued together. Now, students chose a song and dance that was culturally important to them (and that sometimes inspired their family members to join the performance).
I used to judge my students for not completing an assignment to my satisfaction, even after multiple opportunities to do so. I'd lament to my husband about their questionable priorities. This was harder now that I'd learned so much about their lives: One kid was living alone after his family moved to California to be closer to their relatives; another worked in a nursing home, where residents kept contracting the virus and dying; countless students battled anxiety and depression, with many turning to substances in an attempt to manage these feelings.
I have never paid closer attention to my students' mental and physical health, or devoted so much time to hearing their struggles and giving them resources to help manage their anxiety. Such conversations used to be saved for designated occasions like "Self Care Week," or the aftermath of a school shooting. But seeing my students' faces up close — not behind the cover of a textbook or staring down at their phones — I saw the dark circles under their eyes, chapped lips, unkempt hair. Students were inhaling and exhaling trauma. Together, we allowed one another into our lives and made that breathing a little easier.
Perhaps the biggest transformation was this: I accepted the fact that I was not the single most important person in my students' lives, and my assignments weren't their most important tasks. I am no longer the authoritarian at the front of the classroom, asserting rules that benefit me and me alone. This might once have struck me as lenient — undisciplined, even — but the fluidity has produced a higher level of respect and a better quality of work than I've seen in quite some time.
Our schools are racing to return to "normal," and although I fret about whether we'll have proper personal protective equipment, when I'll be vaccinated and how I'll protect everyone's health in a windowless classroom where 1970s insulation falls from the ceiling, another worry has plagued my mind: What if I go back to being the teacher I used to be?
I have always seen them as humans first — but perhaps for the first time, I allowed them to see me in the same way. I once feared that seeming human, more myself, would undermine my authority and make me a worse teacher; now I've realized that our most valuable interactions come from sharing our vulnerability. Whenever we return to seeing one another in person, that is something I never want to forget.
Sarah Chaves is a writer and educator based in Boston. She is at work on a book about how to build strong relationships with students through difficult conversations. This piece was written for The Washington Post.