By Amy T. Andersen, 2018 NJ Teacher of the year and National Finalist

Is everybody doing okay? 

Probably a silly question but I really wanted to check-in on my ASL students. It was Day 3 of no school, no friends, no teachers, no routine life as we know it. The new virtual, on-line reality was starting to sink in and at 47, I knew I was struggling to adjust, so how could my 15, 16, and 17 year-old students be feeling?

Immediately, the responses flooded my screen.  

 I feel way more stressed and overwhelmed with this than regular school. 

I didn’t know that was possible.

Agreed. My mental health is kinda suffering right now I’m so overwhelmed  with everything and I think everyone can relate with me right now.

Yeah I completely agree, I feel so isolated from everyone it’s really taking its toll.  It was so sudden and that’s why it’s hit me so hard. 

It’s not super taxing work per se but its definitely not doing me any favors in terms of mental health… it just feels like busy work and I would rather interact with my teachers and classmates directly than through assignments.

Yeah, I just really need my teachers right now. 

As teachers, we worry about our students and that worry happens long after 3 p.m. when we leave our school buildings. We’re not worrying about whether or not they handed in the recent assignment on time or completed their projects. Those issues are important, don’t get me wrong, and our mission is to teach and find out if our students have learned. But the kind of worry that keeps us up at night is about our students as people. The whole person and all of the unique burdens, anxiety, and feelings of insecurity that are attached to each of our students. I’ll admit that often my focused brainstorming is more about how I can help my students feel connected, good enough, important, and cherished than about how to perfect their ASL syntax.   

Worry.   

I don’t know if it’s worry as much as it is caring, really caring. But now, things have changed. Suddenly, we don’t see each other every day. There are no more lunches together filled with laughter, the latest stories about this or that, and the ever-present Tik Tok performances that I personally love to photo-bomb. Without warning, it came to a screeching halt.  

Yeah, I really just need my teachers right now.

That means I need the human side of my teacher, the person who lifts my spirits, who makes me feel valued and loved, the person who helps me navigate the crazy world of being a teenager. That means I need human interaction, face to face, and the reassurance that we are all still in this together.

In fairness, teachers are passionate and teachers love to teach. That’s why we do this every day, because we love it. When the world stopped and suddenly we all landed on-line, I know I felt immediate guilt. How would my students keep learning American Sign Language? How would they be ready to go on to the next level if they just missed months of learning now? I woke up at 7 a.m. and made sure I was on my computer and available all day, typically forgetting to stop and eat lunch. I forged ahead trying to figure out ways to deliver instruction visually and how I would really assess their skill level moving forward – in this abstract world of online, virtual reality. 

And then I started getting nervous emails from my students. “My wifi wasn’t working all day, can I still hand in my assignment even though it’s an hour late?” “I don’t understand how to use the new online ASL program but I want to get you my work.”   The stress of deadlines and figuring out new ways to learn ASL with new programs was adding a level of anxiety for my students that was so unnecessary right now. What do my students need? As the 2018 NJ Teacher of the Year, my platform was that EVERY voice matters, every child, every battle for equity. I needed to stop worrying about what I was giving in terms of “content” and step back, take a breath and listen.  

I thought about how every morning, in that time right in between being asleep and being awake, I felt the same wave of “something really scary is going on right now,” and I physically felt my heart and stomach drop. I thought about my seniors. 

For 15 years, I have been the only ASL teacher in my high school, which means I have some of the same students for three years. We are truly a family by that third year. No matter how different everyone in the class is, we cherish one another. 

I felt dire sadness at the realization that I may not see my seniors again this year. I may have lost four months of time with them. I already wasn’t ready to see them graduate and go on to universities across the country, but losing the last four months, unimaginable? 

From my students’ perspective as seniors, they may possibly be losing so much more; their prom, walking at graduation, that four months with their friends they were counting on. For my ASL students, it may mean losing our annual ASL Show that students have been working on since last summer. It’s devastating. Their feelings of sadness and loss are valid, and they are real. 

Back to the moment I asked how everyone was doing. It was 7 p.m. at night and I was worrying. Nothing new. I took a breath and I listened – with my eyes. 

Me: I’m opening my computer right now.  Let’s set up our accounts. I’m hosting a meeting so stay tuned for the login thingy or whatever it’s called. 

Student: YAY I WANNA ZOOM!

Student: I think I’m in Zoom already!

Student: My mom and I are on who can see us? 

We laughed for an hour and a half. We shared stories. We signed so I even got some of that ASL syntax work in there and for a short time we forgot that the world was upside down. I know this because they told me and I listened.

 Students:

I’m speaking for myself, I know I personally really needed that little chat but I think it’s safe to say we all needed it. 

It definitely made my night!

Me too, 100%

 I missed you guys : ( 

Haven’t genuinely laughed like I just did in a long time. Love you guys.

My heart was full and I felt like maybe everything was going to be okay. If my students felt the same, then, as their teacher, I taught them the most valuable lesson, the lesson they really needed right now. As teachers, we know we are more than “just teachers” and our students need us right now more than we realize. They need what we can offer so they continue learning, indeed, but let’s not forget what they need most of all is our love, reassurance, and understanding. And I know for sure, we need them too. 

Amy T. Andersen found her passion in American Sign Language and her inspiration as an educator in the Deaf Community. In 2004, Amy founded the American Sign Language program at Ocean City High School with 42 students. With Amy’s leadership, the district now offers ASL 1 – 4 to over 200  students.  Amy, the 2018 NJ Teacher of the Year and National Finalist is also a National Board Certified teacher. She has been recognized by the National Education Association, the American Sign Language Teachers Association and was honored with the 2018 Evangelina Menendez Trailblazer Award. Amy has been instrumental in promoting state legislation to ensure language accessibility for Deaf children in NJ.

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