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Introduction to the Article | Isauro M. Escamilla
I met Michelle Palacios in the spring of 2021 when she was a graduate student in the early childhood education master’s program at San Francisco State University. She was a student in a graduate class I was teaching on inquiry and narrative in early education settings. Although the following story was not written for any of our class assignments, it has elements of narrative and reflectivity that intertwine specific aspects of educators’ personal and professional lives.
Drawing from emotions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and that seemed to permeate her world, Michelle takes us on her personal and academic journey that lasted approximately a year. She explores her sense of loss, hopelessness, and, eventually, self-discovery and renewal. Michelle’s story makes us pause and think about what we may have lost and gained in the last year during the height of the pandemic, along with recognizing the struggles experienced by so many early childhood educators who faced the deep uncertainty and fear, intense physical and emotional exhaustion, and ongoing dilemmas of educating and caring for children during the pandemic. More importantly, Michelle makes us reflect about the power of a (holistic) curriculum where children’s and teachers’ emotions and feelings should be given the priority they deserve in educational institutions. This is a call for action on the need to invest more resources to support children’s and teachers’ social and emotional competences. Not as a need, but as a right.
About the Author
Isauro M. Escamilla, MA, is an early childhood educator in a SpanishEnglish dual language early childhood program in the San Francisco Unified School District. He is also a lecturer at San Francisco State University. Isauro has authored several articles and chapters for different books on narrative, inquiry, and documentation of children’s learning. He’s a doctoral candidate in the EdD Educational Leadership Program at San Francisco State University.
My name is Michelle Palacios. I am currently a second-year graduate student at San Francisco State University studying early childhood education. This story is a reflection about my experiences and the lessons I have learned during the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on my academic, professional, and personal life. I hope my story encourages educators feeling stagnant in their lives to keep persevering in their endeavors.
Reflecting on the Hardships of 2020
The year of 2020 felt like a never-ending nightmare. The four walls of my room where I once found comfort became a cage, both mentally and emotionally. It was difficult to distinguish one day from the next, and each day became harder to tolerate. The world seemed to be at a halt. I tried to disguise my honest feelings about 2020. I was concerned about the pain of thousands of people who had a loved one succumb to COVID-19. It was alarming to witness COVID-19 death rates in my community increase by the day. I have to admit it: I was afraid, sad, and anxious. Transitioning to remote classes due to the pandemic had also been difficult. Putting everyone’s needs before mine started to take a toll on my mental health and my professional and academic journey.
In the spring of 2020, I was finishing my final year of my undergraduate program and working with kindergarten and first-grade students at an after-school program. School has always been an escape for me—a place where I have found time for myself. However, that spring semester, I could slowly feel my drive declining while the number of COVID-19 cases kept increasing. I began to feel hopeless. My heart felt heavy. Deep inside, I felt guilty for having those negative emotions, given the life loss, job loss, and daily environments for frontline workers. “They certainly have it worse than me,” I told myself. I remember sitting in my room thinking how unfair it was of me to feel upset about my canceled graduation and not being able to attend classes in person.
However, I put my emotions aside and did not delve deeper to find their roots. Instead, I shifted my focus to what mattered at that time: graduating from my bachelor’s degree program in child and adolescent development and focusing on the well-being of the children in my after-school program. As the after-school program also transitioned to virtual learning, I vowed to stay in contact with my young students through the difficult and uncertain times.
Honestly, I was not fond of the idea of meeting my students via Zoom. It is not that I did not want to see my students—I missed them so much! But I did not always enjoy the scripted curriculum I had to follow. Reflecting on my own emotional state, I realized how important it would be to turn my attention to my students’ mental and emotional health as well. When the program began meeting virtually in April, it was quite emotional seeing my students after over a month apart. A child had tears coming down their face and my tears followed right afterward. I checked in with them to see how they were feeling. Not all the children were coping well during the height of COVID-19 cases while adapting to the demands of distance learning. Most of the children seemed to be doing well, but quite a few felt scared and unsure.
Responding to Children’s Feelings
One way I addressed the children’s feelings was by reading aloud to the entire class. It was the first time I was using Zoom to engage in whole group reading. I felt the irony as I looked back to the time when I told myself that I would never use Zoom to teach, not knowing that in the near future it would become a vital tool for teaching, learning, and connecting with children and families. Now, I explored ways I could read aloud through Zoom. I wanted engaging, quality picture books that were available in both English and Spanish (many of my students were dual language learners). I looked for books with positive messages. I also went online to find videos of quality stories with high-definition images so my students could see the pictures clearer.
One particular story instantly caught my attention: Why We Stay Home: Suzie Learns about Coronavirus. It was an engaging story about the coronavirus. Before viewing the story with the children, I first asked them what they know about the coronavirus. Most children seemed aware of what COVID-19 was. They had comments, questions, and stories to share. Then we watched and listened to the story together. The story broke down what the virus is and its effects. It was easy enough for young children to understand but challenging enough to discover new words (such as quarantine and social distancing) and, more importantly, to learn what actions we can take to stop the spread of the virus (such as washing our hands and covering our mouths when we cough).
A Turning Point
During our staff meeting in June of 2020, my supervisor talked about plans for our upcoming summer program and the new school year. The program director spoke of possible layoffs. I could feel my stomach sink like an anchor in the sea of worries. So I made the difficult decision to find a new job. I felt I had no choice; all my classes in the fall semester would be at the same time as the after-school hours of my work. Although I was heartbroken, I told myself it was time to move on to the next chapter in my professional journey. I didn’t have a chance to say a proper goodbye in person or over Zoom to the children in my class. I would have liked to tell my students what an honor it had been being their teacher. We did not know that when I said, “I’ll see you guys in three weeks. I’ll miss you!” I was saying a final goodbye.
In July of 2020, I began a new position as a bilingual residential counselor at a transitional housing program for pregnant and postpartum mothers. I was still working with families, but I missed planning engaging and playful lessons with and for my young bilingual students. My current job consists primarily of working with families, specifically with adults. Instead of planning engaging activities for children, I now design activities for a group that I facilitate called “Mommy Circle.” In this group, I talk with young mothers about child development and demonstrate with hands-on activities what they can do to stimulate and interact with their babies. In a sense, I feel like I’m facilitating a child development class, which is an incredible feeling since this is the profession I would like to pursue later in my professional life.
Despite the excitement of a new job, I felt discouraged to continue my master’s program by December 2020. I felt my energy burnt out from the demands of a new job and the rigorous coursework. I attempted to keep a positive attitude, but sadness grew within me. By the end of fall 2020, I made a decision that seemed indefinite at the time. I let my academic advisor know I would not return to classes for the spring semester. I knew I was not doing well academically, even though the academic counselor encouraged me to not give up. Feeling like a failure, I told my family and close friends about my decision. They were lost for words.
Finding a Way Forward
During the 2020 winter break, one question stuck with me. “How could someone like me, who had gone through so much adversity and made it this far, stop now?” I thought about the thousands of people who had lost their lives due to COVID-19. I was alive, and I had a chance to pursue my dreams. This was the time when I had to seriously pause and reflect on what I wanted to do next.
With a mix of fear and courage, I decided to stay in school and continue my educational journey. Those moments of self-reflection made me re-evaluate the last 12 months to try to understand what I had lost and gained. I realized that throughout the pandemic in 2020, I simultaneously gained and lost so much! I obtained a bachelor of arts degree in child and adolescent development, but I lost the ceremony that went with graduation. I left the teaching job I loved with my kindergarteners and first graders, but I landed a new job that offered new experiences. I advanced in my professional journey to become a child life specialist, but lost progress because the children’s hospital where I was going to do my internship suspended its volunteer program. I gained the term “Dean’s List” on my transcripts in my undergraduate studies, but I lost it and gained instead the label “Academic Probation” in my master’s program—one of the hardest blows to my ego as a student.
In the spring of 2021, I finally reflected on the negative feelings I had been experiencing. I remember thinking “I don’t feel like myself when I feel this way. How can I shift this mindset?” I recalled the strategies I used to shift the mindsets of my kindergarten and first-grade students, when they expressed strong emotions that resulted in frustration, loneliness and isolation. I always felt it was important to explore with children how to identify and name their emotions. Looking back, I made sure that the children’s emotions were heard and acknowledged. I always told my students that it was okay to feel those emotions and not hide them. I had tried to hide my own feelings, and it didn’t work.
And then it hit me. Perhaps the activities and strategies on self-regulation and feelings acknowledgment I had been teaching my students all this time should also apply to me and my own experiences as a teacher and human being too. In this sense, I was learning a valuable lesson from them.
I feel that a narrative and inquiry course I took, with its emphasis on self-reflection and storytelling, helped me cope with my emotions in regard to COVID-19. I also developed a few strategies that I think could help both children and educators to understand their emotions. They include:
- Draw a picture with the current emotion you feel and explain the drawing to better understand why you are experiencing those feelings.
- Write short poems and stories pertaining to the drawing.
- Take pictures to represent a feeling and a person’s point of view. This is one of my favorite forms of documentation because photography offers opportunities to express so much and even tell a story without saying a word.
- Ask children open-ended questions, such as “What do you think you can do to feel better or happy again?” or “What do you think is making you feel this way” and “How can I support you, as your teacher and friend?”
Now, a year has passed since beginning the master’s program. Returning to school in spring 2021 was like a rollercoaster. It was a collage of highs and lows and interconnected loops of emotions. In February of 2021, I visited my old job, where I used to teach and work with my kindergarten and first-grade children. I certainly miss being there, but I understood that the school had to close for everyone’s safety.
As I looked over the empty university campus, an epiphany of how far I had come academically fueled the drive I almost lost. I made it my mission to pass my classes and get off academic probation. And I did just that. For the first time in a long time, I had tears of joy instead of sadness. At times, I had felt stagnant in my academic and professional journey. The only thing that kept me going was the bright sun I call my baby brother. “You’re so inspirational, Michelle. I’m so proud of all you’ve accomplished!” he said to me one day. For him, and all the other children in my community, I’ll keep going until I earn my master’s degree. My heart feels lighter now. When I feel down, I think of the wise words of Desmond Tutu, “Hope is being able to see that there is light, despite all of the darkness” (Solomon 2010). By writing and sharing this story, I start to see the light at the end of this COVID-19 tunnel.
Photos by Michelle Palacios
Solomon, D. 2010. "The Priest: Questions for Archbishop Desmond Tutu." The New York Times Magazine. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/magazine/07fob-q4-t.html.
Michelle Palacios has a BA in child and adolescent development and has recently worked as a bilingual residential counselor of Jenlani House, a transitional housing program for at risk pregnant and postpartum mothers in San Francisco, California. She started a new position as lead preschool teacher of the Little Montessori International School in El Cerrito, California this January 2022. Throughout Michelle’s professional work, her focus has always been on the social and emotional well-being of children and families.