Classroom Cleanout: The Moment We Realized What We’d Really Lost

We lost the teacher/student bond.

Classroom Cleanout

Typically, teachers look forward to classroom cleanout day at the end of the year with excited anticipation. Summer is coming, students stop by to thank you for the profound impact you’ve had on their year, and you get to find out where those dropped Cheetos from three months ago actually ended up. But this year was different. Across the country, we posted selfies of our masked selves packing up silent classrooms. The loss wasn’t really real until we stepped foot back in the classroom, and finally sensed what we lost.

We lost relationships we’d spent months forming.

The student/teacher bond doesn’t just happen because someone is a “good teacher”. It happens with hard work over months of inquiring about students’ interests, chatting with them before and after the bell about their families, friendships, and sports. Students who we thought would never connect or open up finally starting to when the pandemic hit. The swift change to virtual teaching never really left us time to process what we realized when we entered our empty rooms in May again. We lost the work we put into these students.

This isn’t a loss that matters for the teacher, but rather for the learning that could have happened, but didn’t. We had made it to the sweet spot of the year when the pandemic hit. Students weren’t burnt out and ready for summer. We knew them well. And we were ready to truly teach them in a way that would have a lasting impact. We knew their interests enough to steer them in directions that mattered to them on a personal level. All endeavors that, we now realize, wouldn’t ever come to fruition.

Entering the classroom was almost a bit eerie.

Hard-working custodians had scrubbed the place to become so sterile, it felt more like a hospital. Student belongings piled in a corner. And where I once chuckled and threw a forgetful kid’s hoodie into the lost and found box, I hesitated to touch anything. But most of all, it was the activities and lessons that lay half-completed around the room that really hit me. Lessons I’d planned, taught the framework for, and worked through with kids. The students would never complete them … because virtual learning just wasn’t the same. The true impact of not being able to work with students face to face became obvious once I saw the room without them in it.

I quickly realized I hadn’t allowed myself to feel much about my job—which I’d worked hard at every day for a decade—being quickly stripped away by the pandemic. I had reasoned, in March, that I had it good. My family was safe. My educator husband and I were both still employed and able to work from home. And my students were lucky to have computers and Wi-Fi provided by the district. The district also offered food and the admins went above and beyond to reach every kid to ensure his or her well being. I hadn’t felt the loss of what we were missing, because of these positives, until I went back to the classroom.

I teared up …

At the missing seniors who had been forced to abruptly end their year, without prom, graduation, awards ceremonies, silly last days of school activities with their friends, and goodbyes to their teachers (some of whom they’d worked with for four full years). What a shame. In my empty classroom, I realized what a privilege it had been, not a drudgery, to come to work every day and to teach 30 excited (okay somewhat lethargic but mostly excited) teenagers face to face. Social distancing and tiered cleanout times meant cleaning out the classroom without the usual banter with neighboring teachers. And the missing comradery hit us hard as well. Seeing 150 other staff members weekly on a video chat staff meeting won’t ever replace the teamwork that teachers have to support and encourage each other.

As I turned off the lights and locked the door for another summer, I didn’t feel the pride, the feeling of a job well done and another class being sent off into the world knowing I’d done everything I could. On the contrary, I felt like it wasn’t time yet, and it wasn’t supposed to be over.

What did you feel during classroom cleanout? Share in the comments or on our WeAreTeachers Helpline.

Plus, should we loop with our students next fall?

Classroom Cleanout: The Moment We Realized What We’d Really Lost

Posted by Alexandra Frost

Alex is a freelance journalist and high school publications teacher in Cincinnati, OH. She has three young sons under age four and has been teaching high school for ten years. She encourages her students to develop communication skills, independence, and a passion for writing in their authentic writers' voices.

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