“We Need to Be People Again”: Educator Moms Reflect on Lessons Learned During the Pandemic
Ilana Garon is a writer, editor, and educator who has taught English (and sometimes math, in emergencies) in New York City, Nashville, and Kansas City. She is the author of “Why Do Only White People Get Abducted by Aliens?”: Teaching Lessons from the Bronx (Skyhorse, 2013). Ilana is a military spouse currently stationed in Washington, DC with her family.
I left a 17-year teaching career in the beginning of the pandemic. In March 2020, I had just had a baby, and was teaching online courses at a college where I was previously a full-time English instructor, before the army moved our family to a different state. I did not particularly enjoy online teaching: In the absence of face-to-face interaction, I found it difficult to build the general rapport, let alone meaningful relationships, that I was accustomed to developing with students. That month, when the lockdowns began and a major tornado hit the metro area where the college was located, my students were overwhelmed by these concurrent disasters. Many withdrew from their studies mid-semester, and from several states away, I felt powerless to help.
Simultaneously, my spouse was deployed to a different state for a few months to join the U.S. Army coronavirus task force. As we knew almost no one, and had no family in the area where we were stationed, his departure left me isolated and completely alone with a young baby. So, when I had the opportunity to teach more online classes during the next term, I simply declined, turning to remote writing work instead—and walked away from teaching for the first time since 2003.
Making Hard Choices
Looking back, I know things could have been worse for our family. As incredibly lonely as I was—there were several weeks where the only people the baby and I saw in person were the checkout clerks in our local grocery store—I didn’t have to make the hard choices that many educators who are also moms faced at the time: “Do I stay in the classroom, and risk exposure to 150 students a day while I have vulnerable family members at home?” Or, “Do I walk away from a job that is the primary source of income for my family, because of the health risks?”
So, when I had the chance to talk to a group of fellow educator moms, I was both interested and awed to hear how they juggled their many professional and personal responsibilities. Their responses were innovative, understandable, occasionally amusing, and often surprising—and showed that moms and teachers (both groups that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, according to numerous experts) are basically superheroes… though it would be nice if they didn’t have to be.
A Precarious Balancing Act
“To put it bluntly, there was no balance,” says Patricia Boguslaw, a mom and technology instructional specialist in Illinois. “I am lucky that my children were so resilient and understanding during remote learning, because they certainly bore the majority of the burden of my lack of time and resources during pandemic virtual learning. The work-life balance was nonexistent.”
Boguslaw also recalls trying to be “a clown or entertainer” all day to compete with students’ cell phones, video games, or other toys while they were in Zoom classes. That also involved revising her entire curriculum on the fly to deliver it online—a process that required her to spend, by her estimation, 12 to 14 hours a day working.
“It was a perpetual feeling of never doing enough, never being enough for everyone who needed me,” Boguslaw recalls. “Especially for my own children, I felt like they were never getting my best—they were getting what I had left over.”
Sarah Mondestin, a former school principal and teacher for over 20 years, was already homeschooling her own child, with her husband acting as the primary homeschool teacher, when the pandemic hit. Suddenly, she found her work-life balance in flux again.
“We were faced with the challenge of all being in the same space at the same time,” she says. “As an educator, I was excited about getting the chance to be at home and teach my daughter, but I still had to prepare for and teach virtual classes for a full school day each day. There was still no time to spend with my family in the way that I had imagined.”
Mondestin, like many of us, felt confused (and a bit irked) by the persistent social messaging that working moms were somehow supposed to balance all these tasks seamlessly. “I remember hearing about these amazing women who were now working from home and learning how to bake banana bread during the pandemic, and I thought to myself, ‘When do I get to do that?’” she recalls. “Instead, our days were filled with busy and inconsistent schedules, more work than ever before, and the constant butting of heads.”
Sharing the Load
Rebecca Gratz, a K–5 instructional facilitator of computer science in Northern Virginia, recalls that in the early days of the pandemic, she and her husband were “very strict about exposure and quarantine, so we didn’t reach out to anyone for help. My husband and I modified our working times and planned that he would be on calls when I was independently working, in case the kids needed us, and vice versa.”
While Gratz and her spouse found a workable balance, she acknowledges certain concessions: “We also gave up on screen time limits. I did try and make sure that the kids viewed educational things, for the most part, but honestly we were in survival mode.”
Still, Gratz reflects that they were fortunate in many ways, despite these challenges. “We took every opportunity to be thankful in the moment, and just adopted the motto that there is no such thing as normal.”
Boguslaw expresses gratitude that she and her husband were able to work together to mindfully balance responsibilities. She never felt like she was “parenting alone.”
“My husband and I really worked out schedules on our workdays to shift primary childcare duties around meetings and classes when we were all home together—it involved a lot of communication, but we really relied on each other for support,” she says.
Mondestin reflects on how roles shifted during the pandemic. Despite occasional hiccups, she and her husband ultimately found their rhythm: “We’re both educators, so my husband and I were stepping on each other’s toes at first. But after we sat down and evaluated our strengths and weaknesses, it felt so much better, and we fell into our roles more comfortably.” Mondestin and her husband divided up instruction for their daughter based on their own personal skills and interests—enabling one parent to homeschool and one parent to do other work. “As we learned to lean on each other, our family grew stronger,” she says.
Unexpected Silver Linings
Despite the challenge of navigating so many responsibilities at once, the past two years did bring some pleasant surprises for these educator moms.
Boguslaw developed a closer relationship with her students. “There was a really strong sense of camaraderie with my students, especially when everything shut down in March of 2020,” she recalls. “We were all let into each others’ homes and home lives for the first time, and it was a new experience for everyone. We were all figuring it out and working together, and there really was a sense of collaboration.”
She also found innovative ways to connect with students, despite not seeing them in-person. “I really loved being able to hold office hours every day while remote teaching,” she says. “This is not something that we typically are able to offer in K–8 school, but it was so nice for students to be able to drop in when they needed extra help, or just wanted to talk. It is definitely something I miss now that we are back to full in-person learning.”
Mondestin had a rare opportunity to see her husband in action homeschooling their daughter. “I gained a new appreciation for him as a father and teacher,” she reflects.
Gratz reflects that, surprisingly, the pandemic was her “favorite time I can remember as a mom.” She elaborates: “I held a lot of roles during this time with my three, then four kids (because I decided to add to the chaos with baby number four).” Gratz “loved being able to be at home with my kids and husband. At lunch, we would play, or take a walk, or go for a swim. I was able to be present, and not worry about commuting.”
Gratz acknowledges that it helped that her children were already “very self-sufficient.” That fact, along with a lot of collaboration with her husband, made virtual learning a more enjoyable period than she would have expected. “I was actually sad when the year and a half ended,” she says.
But for many educator moms, the support of their families, and often their schools as well, has not been enough.
Mondestin ultimately transitioned out of the classroom during the pandemic, and today works as a content and community manager at BrainPOP. “The school at which I was teaching was doing so well, but there were just so many demands in the education system that it was taking a toll on my health and my family,” she says. “I finally decided to leave after my first year of pandemic teaching. My family needed me, and I needed them. I miss my students and my teacher colleagues, but I actually get to unplug completely, and spend time with family without worrying about grading or planning lessons,” she says.
The last two years have been a delicate balancing act, as we juggled teaching, parenting, and personal well-being—and more often than not, struggled to avoid dropping any balls. This begs a larger question about what society can do to retain teachers, let alone bring in new ones, when many feel under-appreciated and burned out.
On this point, Gratz—who has stayed in the classroom—is philosophical. “I think the pandemic gave us time to internalize things a whole lot more,” she says. “I wonder sometimes if society has forgotten that we are humans too, and we are all dealing with the effects of the past two years. I wish everyone would open up their minds to new and evolving ideas and, honestly, adopt a mantra of kindness—I think we forgot what that is over the last several years. We need to be people again.”