October 19, 2020

2020: The Ultimate Example of Emotional Labor

Todd Schoepflin author photoBy Todd Schoepflin

At 7:50 each weekday morning, my wife heads out the door, off to work at the elementary school where she is a social worker. This year is unlike any of the first ten years she’s worked at the school. There are no children in the building. Our local public school district is currently doing remote learning.

Teachers report to the building and conduct classes from empty classrooms. Staff members continue their daily work to make sure regular functions run smoothly. Social workers and psychologists go to their offices and do the best they can to contribute to the academic and social development of students. “Sad” is the word my wife most commonly uses to describe what it feels like to walk into a quiet school without the hustle and bustle of hundreds of children.

By 9:00am, my 12-year-old and 9-year-old join their first Google Meets of the day. It’s not what they expected for their experiences as 8th and 4th graders. Like all students in the district, they’ve received Chromebooks. Fortunately, the machines are in good working order, and we have reliable WiFi in our home. They can navigate the Chromebooks and their Google Meets without major problems.

They’ve adapted to attending school in this way from the comfort of their bedrooms. On my teaching days, I set up shop across the hall in the bedroom my wife and I share. In what I can only describe as a surreal experience, I close the door and do Google Meets during my scheduled class times with my students. In my twenty years as a college professor I’ve never had a semester like this.

Normally I feel great and refreshed in September. Now, I mainly feel exhausted. There’s something taxing about summoning enthusiasm through your computer screen to engage your students and try to hold their attention. I don’t require them to keep their cameras on. I look at a mix of faces and letters. I admit, I’d like to see more faces. Seeing faces feels more like I’m teaching and helps me connect with students. To look at a letter instead of a person is weird, but I understand there are a variety of reasons students might prefer to leave their camera off.

For the most part, the three of us plug away at work and school, trying to maintain a positive outlook. But we struggle occasionally, like the time my 9-year-old was crying ten minutes before the first Google Meet of the day. He was frustrated by the problems in his Math workbook. I couldn’t calm him down, and wiped tears from his eyes with just a few minutes to spare before his first meet. This happened on a teaching day, so I had to conduct my class hoping my little guy would settle in and that he felt comforted by my promise to help him later. To say there is emotional labor for students and teachers at all school levels this year is an understatement. When class ended, I was relieved to discover he was fine. Sometimes we just need to cry.

My wife has adjusted well to the situation, though she doesn’t like not being at home when the kids are here doing school. She feels self-described “mom guilt” that she isn’t here. I say what I can to be reassuring, but it doesn’t assuage her guilt. We look at the bright side of things: our 9-year-old is developing independence, and both of our kids still get to see their friends when they play baseball and soccer. This is not an ideal situation, but it’s a relatively safe one for our children. And I’m extremely grateful that I get to be home with them. But I am tired.

As I write this I can hear one of my son’s teachers speaking in her best teacher voice. It’s not easy for me to focus on any of the work I have to do, and let’s just say this isn’t a productive stretch of time for me. But I’m glad to be at home to help support them with their schooling, to make sure they eat lunch, and to keep up with household tasks. I can put laundry in the washing machine before my first class, and put it in the dryer before my second class. I’ve never been able to laundry during class time before. In the time that I’d usually be driving to work, I can go to the grocery store. Instead of fighting traffic on the commute home, I can get an early start on making dinner.

I look back at something my 9-year-old wrote in May: “The hardest part of social distancing is wearing masks, not talking for too long and not even seeing anybody.” By then, he was already doing remote learning after school closed in mid-March. You can see what this kid loves in life: baseball and McDonald’s. I’m happy for him that he got to play some baseball this summer, and we get him his preferred comfort food a few times a month. Meanwhile, our 12-year-old approaches life as a teenager with his 13th birthday coming on Halloween. It will be a memorable Halloween this year, to say the least. He has somehow been calm and collected throughout this year. He amazes me, wishing me luck before my Google Meets, and always asking me how they went.

Last semester, one of my students predicted the pandemic would put relationships to the test. I’ve found that prediction to be incredibly insightful. I’m happy to say our family unit has stayed close and we’re beyond fortunate to be healthy, and to have economic security. Others are not so fortunate. Social distancing and economic uncertainty produce immense stress and have made life exceedingly difficult and challenging for many. People are struggling with relationship problems, enduring economic pain, and suffering from racialized health inequities.

The pandemic alone fills people with anxiety and distress, and exacerbates existing inequalities. Concurrent with COVID-19, protests are ongoing to combat racism and anti-blackness, and to affirm that Black lives matter. Scholars help us comprehend the moment with their insight, and lend their analysis to help explain what makes these protests different.

This is a lot to process in any year, but especially in an election year. 2020 has administered the ultimate stress test. Which leads me to ask: How are you holding up? How do you cope? What gives you hope?



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