Take a deep breath. In and out. Open your eyes to everything around you. What do you notice? What do you hear? How do you feel?
I notice several things. The U.S. in disarray as it deals with the coronavirus outbreak. The Blackfeet community suffering from a drastic spike in COVID-19 cases. My students stressed with online school, yearning to be with each other, and the heartbreak of being in a prolonged reservation-wide lockdown. The deep disappointment and loss is real. I notice it, and I feel it.
As a second-year Lasallian Volunteer at De La Salle Blackfeet School in Browning, Montana, I feel the weight of the consequences we are forced to endure due to the pandemic and the changes we have experienced at our school. So much is different compared to my first year. This year, we are without a principal. While this may seem like a very unusual experience, the senior teachers at the school have come together to form a leadership team and share the principal’s responsibilities. To say this has been wonderful would be minimizing its effects. The collaboration, mentorship and communication has been stellar and given teachers more control over how the school is run. Our common mission to provide the best education to the students on the Blackfeet Reservation is on the forefront of all our minds and is channeled with a new passion. Along with this first change to leadership in the school, our school also made the hard, but safest choice to begin the school year, continuing remote learning from the spring.
I will not lie; online teaching has been challenging. The amount of screen time is exhausting. Motivating students to be on camera and to follow along amidst distractions at home is a constant battle. Ensuring that students complete their work and providing the adequate support to each individual student is straining. Remote learning is a whole new experience, for the first-year teacher and the most experienced teacher alike. It is definitely not ideal. I’ve had to sacrifice content because my teaching time has been cut in half. I’ve poured out my energy into creating new units that are technology and online-friendly. I’ve been forced to be creative and learn new ways of engaging students. Yet, despite all of these disappointments, I have found great confidence, peace and a new normal.
While COVID-19 has completely turned my life upside down, it’s also introduced unimaginable graces. Never in my life have I been as cared for and supported or witnessed the resilience of people like I have during these trying times. My fellow colleagues and I have joined forces like never before. We are ALL learning how to teach online and provide the best education for our students. The collaboration we have shared so far this year compared to my first year is drastically better. Not only are we communicating and working together, we are also holding one another accountable to mental health goals and work/home boundaries. I am constantly in awe of the people I work with and am so grateful for this small, but mighty community I get to serve with. It has made all the difference in my LV experience.
In addition to those exterior graces, I have been gifted and challenged interiorly. With our remote learning schedule, school via Google Meet begins at 9:30 a.m. and ends at 2:00 p.m. Then from 2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m., students work independently with one-on-one support available as needed. In comparison with my first year, where school started at 7:30 a.m. and went until 4:30 p.m., the time I have now is glorious. And I have taken and guarded this time to do the things that I enjoy as to not completely succumb to the demands of work. With my newly found time, I have been able to spend more time in prayer and even begin spiritual accompaniment with a fellow teacher. While I am far from my home in Minnesota, I can honestly say I feel more connected to family and friends because of how regularly I am able to join FaceTime and group calls. And due to the closing of many places and limited travel on the reservation, my community members and I have been basking in the beauty of nature around us and exploring new places.
COVID-19 is on all of our minds and is raging. But I have not and will not let it control my life. Instead of allowing myself to be weighed down by the disappointments and demands of online teaching, I have been very intentional about caring for myself so that I can be ready for my students. It’s truly strange to believe that this pandemic has challenged me to live a more balanced and empowered life, but it has. I have created a new normal where my schedule, demands and passions receive equal attention.
Every weeknight, we gather as a community for prayer, and we center ourselves with a burning candle. On the side of this candle, it reads “God has chosen you to do His work.” I love this quote by Saint John Baptist de La Salle, and I am reminded each and every day that I have been called to do God’s work. It makes me step back and realize again and again that the Lasallian mission to educate youth experiencing poverty is not my mission, but that this is God’s mission that I am aiding for a short time. And it so happens that I am given an extra opportunity to use my gifts to be creative and meet the needs of the students entrusted to my care in new ways, just like Saint John Baptist de La Salle did years ago.
How are you responding to the times right now? What choices can you make to live a more balanced life? In what ways can you engage in new and creative ways to live out the Lasallian mission?
Don’t let COVID-19 have the final say! You have been called to do God’s work. Rise, find the beauty in the chaos, and adapt to a new normal.
Jessica Bauer is a second-year volunteer at De La Salle Blackfeet School in Browning, Montana. She is a 2019 graduate of Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota with a degree in elementary education.