I, Joy Kirr, am a middle school teacher, author, and speaker. My 7th grade ELA (English Language Arts) classes are working to improve their lives through student-directed learning - without marks throughout the year. This is a log of my learning experiences... Want to have me speak with your staff or facilitate a workshop? Here is my PORTFOLIO.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

How are the optimists doing?

Note: This post starts off on a dour note, but it's my intention to write this to help educators through this year. If you keep reading until the end, you may stand a bit taller in the coming weeks. This post is for US.

I heard from a teacher friend as our week ended that I am "a barometer of the school" of sorts. I took it to mean, "If Joy isn't good, what does that mean for me?" I heard whispers of this in January, as well, from another colleague. It took me about a month to recover from January's events. That's when I took the time to write about how I turned the corner - again. We had another blow to our staff this past month, as we thought we were going to continue with one thing that's been working all year, and it was suddenly pulled out from under our feet. I wonder if those that make the decisions realize that if the staff does not do well, the students feel the effects, if not directly. I wonder if they know that with each new decision, teachers need to switch up so much of what they'd planned on doing. Again. And it's no simple matter. And we worry about ALL of our students. And it changes how we teach, not for the better this year. (And PLEASE stop saying, "Our teachers are so flexible.")

So... educators around me are struggling once again, with the newest demand put upon us before this pandemic school year closes. How do I help colleagues? Some have said that it's not my job, and that's true. When I have a colleague who reaches out and says, "Joy, how are YOU holding up?" I feel I need to tell them what I'm doing to keep one arm out of the swamp that is this school year. And now that I'm documenting it one time, I can refer others to what (sometimes) works for me. At the start of this school year, I read Essentialism by Greg McKeown, and since then, I've had ONE priority: My health (mental and physical). Everything I do this year revolves around this. Taking the time to write, organize, and share this post helps me with my mental health, for sure. I truly hopes it helps readers, as well.


I listen. A few tears may collect for both of us. They need to know it's okay to share and cry.

I'm honest. I share that this year is the toughest one I've ever had, too. That I'm also worried about our kids that are remote (and don't respond to invites to participate, emails, or even me staring into the camera calling their name). That I, too, am not able to do all I want with the in-person students who are constantly seeking our attention. That I, too, cannot control students on their games, when they get closer than the three feet the desks are at, or when they complain about the game I chose. I agree that it feels as if hardly any of my plans go well, and the lessons are not as impactful as in the past. I let them know that I, too, see that some come to school to learn, but many students this year come to school just to be around other kids. And I, too, sometimes just let them ... be. That sometimes our mask breaks are a little over the four-minute passing period time. That when I do just let them BE, some classes can't handle it - they get loud and rowdy and obnoxious and forget we're in a pandemic, and I have to backtrack. That some days I feel that nothing went well, and I failed my students.

I've also shared that I'm stricter in some instances - and I say "no" without explanation sometimes. Sometimes I let students know I'm doing something (like playing this particular song) for ME. Sometimes I sit in the hallway (in the middle of classtime) with an upset student who ends up crying and then regrouping. Sometimes I leave the class reading independently - just so I can run to the restroom. Yup. I'm not doing what I've done in the past. And I let my colleagues know that I believe it's okay. No one knows how to do this job better than us this year. We're doing the best we can with what we have. We need to take care of ourselves before we can care for the myriad students that flow in and out of our door each day.

It took me most of this school year, but I am now resigned to the fact that it's okay for me to not be the teacher I've been working so hard to become. This is due to at least these three reasons: 

  1. I'm not the same person I was pre-COVID. I realized last April that I needed to stop worrying about "my kids," because they really are NOT my kids. Some have one parent, some have two, and some even have four. It's the same now. The parent is the first in line to help our students. I only have my students for 80 minutes a day. It's not all on ME. I am NOT the parent. I canNOT do everything.
  2. Teachers have been put into circumstances they never imagined would happen. No one could prepare us for this. Changes come quickly, and we're expected to adapt just as quickly. And we step up and try our best. But... we feel it in our hearts, our minds, and our bodies. We feel it's not enough. The fact is, we're giving it ALL we've got. So it has to be enough. 
  3. We're not in control of what's been put on us. When it feels as if nothing we do or say matters, we get knocked down. Again. And again. It's like an abusive relationship. And we stay in it, because we still love the children.
So it's okay to be where we are. Dejected. Demoralized. Defeated. Knowing this, I know the small wins are all I'm going to get this school year. Once I realized this fact that it's okay to not be a great teacher, I have noticed small wins each day. Just this Friday, I had at least one (pretty big in my eyes) win in each class! I've looked harder for them, stopped to pause during them, and recognized them for what they are. I then take it a step further and thank that student or share what I noticed with the class. It's a pause in my day that helps me feel my teacher heart beating a bit once again.

I'm also learning - a lot. Learning is one of my passions, whether it be on Duolingo, practicing the banjo, or simply reading nonfiction. This means I'm doing something that makes me feel more fulfilled. The most recent bit of learning I've been doing is from the book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. P. Seligman. At heart, I'm an optimist. I know this. Yet when I took the test in the book, the results came out as "moderately pessimistic." !! I keep reading, and I see that maybe I picked up this book for a reason. Maybe it's because right now is a "time of crisis." My score on the "hope" portion was solid, however, and the author says that's very important - that means I can learn optimism more readily. Reading further, according to the next step, I may be "moderately depressed." Depression can come and go, so he said if I felt this was wrong, to take it again in two weeks. (Um... maybe not. Two weeks from when I took it would be tomorrow, and tomorrow is our first Monday not being fully remote. It's gonna be one heck of a week.) The major cause of depression --> "the belief that your actions will be futile." This is what educators are believing / feeling.

This learning moves me forward. 

I tried out their theories of thinking... Optimistic educators would think, "This is temporary. Not permanent." (Permanence) "This is only for my job (career/passion!), not my home life." (Pervasiveness) And, "This isn't due to anything I did. It's due to others." (Personalization)  Here are my notes for the book - so far.

When I keep reading, I realize that staying pessimistic can (and probably will) make me physically sick. My immunity would be lower. When I keep thinking about my actions being futile, I go back to thinking of all I'm grateful for. One thing I'm grateful for is being able to see the "wins" in my days in the classroom with the children. As I said, I've come to accept I won't be the teacher I've been striving to be the last 26 years - so I can notice, recognize, and take the moment to pause and appreciate the small wins in each class. This has helped me KNOW that not EVERYTHING I do is futile. No. We matter. We are important to our students. And they, my friend, are why we're in this profession. Even if we think we suck as teachers (and really, I do think that right now), we still have value, and we are still making a difference in one, two, who knows how many students' minds or hearts? In a typical year, we never know who we've impacted, so in that way, this year is no different. We keep loving the students and doing the best with the situation we are in, while knowing there's no crystal ball where we can see how they're going to do in the future. 

I've been rambling a bit. Let me summarize while adding one last thing I'm trying this year:
  1. It's okay to feel how we do. It's normal during this time. You are not alone. Come talk to me; I'll listen and empathize with you. I've learned how to not bring your problems home with me (secondary traumatic stress).
  2. Do something you love - something that fulfills you - outside of school. Find a passion or hobby or two that you used to do. Something that makes you happy. (Keep your immunity up.)
  3. Know that you matter. Every year. Your love for the children is shining through, no matter how strict you are this year, no matter that you're tethered to the laptop and can't see or hear what's going on in front of you... You matter.
  4. Set one intention for yourself for the next day, week, or month (if it's working well). Multitasking is too difficult right now. What's ONE thing you can do to help yourself?
And this leads me to what I do every week - #4. I set one intention for myself. It's one thing I keep reminding myself of every time I get frustrated, stop to breathe, want to scream or cry... I didn't write them down, but I do remember thinking and using them, because they worked. Here are some that I've tried:

  • Drink water.
  • Breathe.
  • I am healthy. Those I love are healthy.
  • I have a job with insurance.
  • I am enough.
  • I am fair, and I am kind.
  • Use a quiet voice. (That way my students will listen more.)
  • Use wait time.
  • Stand up straight. (I slouch WAY too much.)
  • Don't complain.
  • Right here. Right now. Is all that matters.
  • What's good about this right now?
  • Connect with one student.
  • Soak up this moment. Notice all that is around me.
  • No social media.
  • Stop ruminating. Act. Do something for yourself.
  • What am I learning in this moment right now?
  • This is temporary. (This is mine for this coming week.)
My birthday was in January (just before my last breakdown), and my sister had heard me say, "I try one new thought a week." She bought these "mindful marks," which are temporary tattoos. I put a new one on my wrist every week. No matter the design, it reminds me of my intention. This coming week, when I look at my wrist, I will think, "This is temporary. This will end some day. See it for what it is."
No one needs to go buy these. I was able to focus on one intention a week before I received them. A ring can work. A bracelet. A Sharpie mark on the skin. A sticky note. A photo in your classroom. Your keys. You get the idea. No student has asked me about the tattoo, but teachers have. When a teacher asks, I can tell them about my intention for the week, and maybe it will help us both.

Now that you've stuck with me until this point, what's ONE thing - just ONE thing you will take away from this post? ONE thing you can bring into your week (or month, if it's working) that will help you continue? We really can only do ONE thing at a time. After I hit "publish" on this post, I'm not going to ruminate on our current situation - because I'm focusing on the fact that it's temporary. I'm going to do what's good for me right NOW, whether that be a shower, a walk, gardening, snuggling, reading, singing at the top of my lungs... And I will do that ONE thing with gusto. I will soak up every moment of it. When I get back into the classroom tomorrow, I'll do ONE thing at a time. And I'll do that one thing as best as I can under the hand we've been dealt.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Two Good Stories from My Week

Story #1

Our last day all remote, April 12, even though our MOU says our district is staying remote on Mondays... I put my laptop on my raised table, as I stand on our remote days. I am able to sing loudly, dance, and be overall more ME on Mondays, so I use the raised table. Even though I remember to plug in the document camera and the dongle to my other screen, I guess I don't plug in the charger. I only realize this when everything turns off in the middle of my sentence. I lose everyone and everything. I swear (no worries - I'm not in front of any 12-13-year-olds at the moment). I plug it in, turn it on, and the new host (we'll call him Harvey) lets me in right away. I turn on the chat and I see a peer (we'll call him Hank) type in "Do the right thing, [Harvey]." Suddenly I start observing what I didn't even think I should be observing - some fear in some children's eyes, some relief, some confusion... and another student unmutes and asks, "Mrs. Kirr, can you put my camera back on? [Harvey] turned it off." I asked the class if there was something they felt they needed to share with me. I asked for direct messages if something needs to be said, and no one said anything. Harvey had already made me the host, and so we proceeded with the lesson. The next day, I was sure to head over to Harvey and Hank and thank them for whatever they prevented. Such maturity. I'm so proud of them.

Story #2

In one class, I have one student (out of two) who is consistently a minute or two (or more) late to the Zoom. The other was on the absent list. I opened the Zoom, put it half-way over the Jamboard warm up projected on the screen, greeted the in-person students, and waited for the tone to signal this student had arrived. The phone rang - it was the office saying that the one student was trying to get on the Zoom link. I told her it's open, so we'll look for them. Then one student told me to look at the Jamboard. Looking up, the entire thing was covered by a large (virtual) sticky note. It said, "We're trying to get into the Zoom!!" I'd done it. 120+ days into the school year, I'd started the wrong Zoom link. What a great way to get your teacher to know something!! Kudos to those two (yup - the one was suddenly not absent) for their quick thinking!

I love these stories. I had to document them, while still hoping we don't have Zoom open next year.

Thursday, April 15, 2021


Today was traumatic. To my students. To me. I'm learning to recognize trauma. (Oh, what I've learned this year.) I feel the need to document it, so I needed to carve out time to write about it. Today the trauma of teaching in a pandemic (let's compound this with the others) showed up like this:

  • Wanting to cry on my way to school.
  • Wanting to cry before homeroom.
  • Two people with a six-foot long white stick/pvc pipe heading into class saying, "Don't mind me."
  • Students' worry and whispers and blurt outs about who is it? Who's going home? Who sits here next period? What if I go home? Who else will go? What if all my friends are here and I'm home? I have to tell them, "You've just witnessed part of what they call 'contact tracing,'" and that "It's part of what it means to live during a pandemic."
I wrote while the measurements were taking place - I wrote alongside my students and shared with each class.

    The principal and the nurse.
    They walked in with a pole.
    THE pole.
    Six feet long.
    I want to cry.
        This means more students at home.
        This means group work for those students in all their classes - is out the window.
        This means more isolation.
        This means more worry.
        This means back to double-masking for some.
        This means it's still out there.
        This means... oh crap.
    I'm tired of all of this.
    I'm tired of getting hopeful, and then getting punched in the gut once again.
    I'm sick of the sickness... and the deaths... and the violence... and the racism... and my own feelings from day to day.
        I'm working on myself.
        I'm aware this is temporary,
            even if we're in our second year of a pandemic.
        I'm aware that I've felt this way before, and I'll feel this way again.
    Maybe this afternoon will be better.
    Every minute is a fresh start.
    I'm going to put on my good attitude now. This minute.
        Are you with me?
    Let's stay socially distanced as much as possible,
        let's not cluster together at home or in the classroom,
        let's keep our masks over our mouth and nose, and
        let's stay positive 
            about trying to stay negative 
            for COVID.
  • A colleague with their head in their hands before eating lunch.
  • After lunch, eight of my students are at home with their cameras off - instead of two.
  • A phone call during class - three more students are going home.
  • Red faces, cries of "Why me?!" and then collection of belongings.
  • "What? Aw, man!"
  • Me saying, "It's a pandemic. You are resilient," then needing to explain "resilient," using a rubber band that BROKE when I stretched it a bit! Oh, the eyes above their masks showing their shock... Great job, Joy.
  • Me, also saying, "You'll be fine. You've done this before, you can do it again. We'll get through this. You'll be home. You're good." Part of me thinking, "This is what we get for being three feet apart. Back to hybrid."
  • The rest of us walk around the school. We growl and scream. We come back in the building, and I show them where, on my Bitmoji classroom, our "stress reducers" are. I hadn't needed to show them until today. Students chose - look at the sand, the seeds growing, and the breathing videos. We practiced relaxing for ten minutes.
  • I then did a check in with my students, using the mood meter we use every Monday. Many students at home said, "annoyed," and I validated everyone's feelings.
  • One of my students started sharing, someone interrupted, I finally got back to her, and then she said, "No, I'm done sharing. May I go take a break?" I was heartbroken.
  • I got the rest of the class reading (it's ELA, you know), letting them know that reading is also a stress-reducer, should you have a good book. 
  • I waited by the door for her to come back. I waited a long time. When she got back, I had her sit on the floor in the hallway next to me. She started crying. She feels alone in most of her classes since her schedule change (months ago), she feels as if she doesn't know what anyone's talking about (I was able to understand that!), and she says she feels ignored. I listened as good as I ever have. When she stopped talking, she stopped crying. I finally said, "I see you. I hear you. You matter. And I know that the others are louder than you are. They get more of my attention. But when YOU speak, I get so excited, and I really want to hear what you say." I don't remember much else, except that she said, "I feel better now," (Bless her!!), and I told her we could sit in the hall ANY day.
Today was one more piece of trauma from this school year like no other.
Educators are taking care of the children. Like we always do. 
The lessons learned aren't all academic in nature. Like always. 

Our students are learning resilience, patience, time management, love, and that actions = consequences... I'm learning how to teach two classes at the same time, survive over a year in a pandemic, pick myself up (again and again), support colleagues better, recognize inequities, consider others' perspectives, and ride the waves of stress. It's just so difficult. I'm not comparing it to others; I'm simply sharing this one day in my career.

I'm thankful for all I still have. I'm thankful for those small, precious quality moments with my students. I'll write about those another day.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Day 394 - Random Thoughts

Such feelings this school year. 
Such a sad year for so many people.
Nurses, doctors, parents, children, minorities, those without choices...
At day 394, I'm in a slump. 
I've been here before, and I'll be here again.
I'm am a very privileged person, so I'm trying not to complain.
I'll just add some recent sights and thoughts and leave it at that today.
I'm not okay, yet I know I'll be okay.

Principals speaking up for educators.

Yes, I'm vaccinated. No, I'm still not eating inside restaurants.
Yes, I can still catch and carry the virus, or a new strain of it.

The value of teachers

The vilification of teachers

Pulled Apart

Stretched Thin - Almost Breaking

July - Our school district is going full in. I bought scrubs and got advice from my older cousin who's a surgeon. August - Nope. Our school district will begin remotely. AND... we're not changing a thing. We'll teach the new curriculum we were going to, have a time schedule just like "regular" school. AND... be sure to provide screen breaks. AND... just love the kids. September 1-4, 2020 = the hardest week of my 25+ years of teaching. How can I teach children I don't know through a screen? End of September - I'm getting into a groove. I know most of my students. I'm using the technology learned to do things I could NOT do during a typical school year. October 12 = The start of hybrid. This means these things have to be done simultaneously: Take temperatures at the door, let in remote students, make sure students at home and at school can see and hear the lesson, clean the tables each period, don't get close to the students, monitor the hallways, make sure students are six feet apart, have engaging activities for home and at school, take mask breaks while staying at least six feet apart... We were told #1 is safety. #2 is connection. #3 is instruction. Um, yeah. 'Cuz we CAN'T DO ANY MORE. Mondays remotely became my favorite day of the week, as I could check in on kids 1:1 without other students listening. Kids could send me direct messages - and I'd SEE them. December 2 in the afternoon - my middle school will be remote until December 15th. Then we'll went back to hybrid for four days before the two week winter break. Woops! Remote again until January 19th. OH! And then "all in" January 21st on. Except for the 18% at my school who are remote still. Why not change ONE MORE TIME?! Mondays will not not be remote starting the week of April 26. 

Meanwhile, my inbox is full of student emails. Even though they were just in class with me.

Throughout all this, my students... Some I cannot reach via direct message or verbally. Some are always there, asking questions and sharing stories. When some get to school and give me grief, I am much stricter than I've ever been, because I will not let them add that to my plate. All are caring and respectful most times. Overall, it's a sweet group - that really just wants to socialize. It's very tough to get instruction in, but I do hope we learn at least one lesson every period. 

Throughout all this, sprinkles of emails from parents thanking me for all I'm doing. Telling me to stay safe. I had a hard time holding back tears during parent conferences when a parent would ask me, "How are YOU doing?" Not good. But no worries - I'll still love your child. I'm still putting on my show and doing my very best. Sprinkles of students sharing with me - letting me know they know I believe they matter. Sprinkles of good notes to students, thanking them for all their contributions to class.

One parent - Remote learning is too difficult for my child.

Another parent - How are you challenging my child?

Another parent - My child needs to go to school to socialize with peers. 

Administration - Safety and connection come first. 

Parent - Why isn't my child doing more work?

BoE - Let's bring in 18-year-olds who want jobs to supervise classrooms.

Nation - Yes, we'll have standardized testing this year. (Who used last year's data to drive instruction this year? No one. And who will be at fault when scores aren't improved from last year? Educators.)

And then there's this. More truth.

From Chanea

I learned this term doing required professional development - on my own time.

I'm tired.

I'm sad.

My voice is not being listened to. Twenty six years of experience doesn't matter. Being a National Board Certified teacher doesn't matter. Caring about my students doesn't seem to matter. (Hopefully it matters to them.) If I stop sharing my views, does that mean "they" won? I'm done fighting for now. They must know I can't keep up the fight. My resources are depleted. Even getting these random thoughts down has drained me emotionally. I need to be there for my family, and then be there tomorrow for my students.

I'm going to stay off social media, where we see parents posting how they "can add 4th grade teacher to my resume." No. No you can't. I have no clue what you're going through, and you have no clue what I'm going through. I'm going to read to gather more perspectives, and I'm going to keep my focus on your children, so that they can learn to love and be compassionate towards one another.

Let's all love one another. That means listening to one another and trying to work together. I can do that without sharing it for all to see. If you need me, you know how to find me. Reach out, and I'll do what I can. I'll be doing what I can for my 75 students in the room and at home, and when I get my energy back, I'll do what I can for the future of our nation.

If you've read this far, please check out my newest (2018) LiveBinder to help make a difference in our world: tinyurl.com/AntiracistLB