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Fireflies in the Dark: Reinventing Work During COVID

Updated: Feb 16, 2023

Armed with a little jar with holes cut in the top, a small set of wiggly flip flops, and a child-like sense of excitement, I waited. Evening was just around the corner and it was August, my favorite month. August evenings weren’t frightening; they were exhilarating. Soon, our small yard teemed with undulating waves of light - flickering and bouncing fireflies filled the air. I flicked off my flip-flops and bounded after them.

Ordinarily, as child, I was afraid of the dark. I had a whole set of ridiculous steps I took to reach the bathroom when it was dark. I timed each jump so I could hit the light switch at just the right time. Summer evenings laid this ridiculousness to rest. Though it was dark, the thrill and wonder of seeing the blinking galactic waves fly through August evening made the dark seem like an opportunity for a new adventure.

COVID-19, at least in some ways, has been like these August evenings – and bounding after fireflies in the dark.

No question – COVID has brought dark times.

When March 2021 hit, COVID began a waiting game for us all. What would the CDC recommend? What would our state mandate? What would our child’s school direct for staff and students? What would work look like? What would freedom look like?

Like many families, our family made decisions that crossed from work, to home, and back again as we adjusted to each new change.

Our family has risk factors. We’ve always had risk factors. Immune issues. Asthma issues. Food issues. Older relatives. Right before COVID, we were in the middle of testing one of our children for significant and ongoing lung issues with a local pediatrician and a growing list of specialists.

And I was teaching. I loved teaching, I loved my subject area, and I even loved the fact my school was tech heavy. I enjoyed teaching writing, literature, and logic at a North Carolina private school close to home. Fortunately (or unfortunately), loving my job made decision making even harder. Like many teachers at the beginning of 2020, I transitioned to remote teaching in March. Lots of hours. Lots of planning. Lots of learning.

When my teaching contract came up for renewal in the summer of 2020, I hoped (and prayed) there would be a way I could continue remotely. So I waited. Our school administration polled parents, and did their best to make decisions that served both students, parents, and staff. When the decision from administrators came – it wasn’t good. At least not for us. Our school chose to serve families both remotely and in person, with no option of remote work for teachers, but with a choice for remote or in-person for students.

I just couldn’t. Not with someone at home with such significant risk. I resigned. Well, actually, I resigned in tears, but we won’t get into that.

Then, I waited for night. And instead of making ridiculous choices to try to find the light switch, I began to catch fireflies. And it’s been a joy – of sorts.

I applied to new contracting jobs day and night. No joke. Day and night. And I garnered contracts program managing at an educational startup, I picked up tutoring with a company I’ve partnered with locally, I added adult training and worked on designing custom curriculum (something I had done prior to teaching). I created a website. I wrote web content. I joined a team as a Learning Designer to help with maintenance curriculum. I taught writing, book clubs, and public speaking workshops. I partnered with another startup to coach kids with ADD.

I trained, taught, wrote, managed, edited, and coached. And I made a choice – with so many independent contracts, why not be a small business? So that’s what I did. I started my own small company called Nelson Notes LLC, and my goal is to provide every student (of every age) customized educational outcomes delivered virtually in engaging ways, and reinforced with high-quality resources.

I wish I could say that everything has been wonderful and perfect, and that I’m just rocking it, but that’s just not how it has worked. I have had my ups and downs – more ups than downs. Some things have been great fits, and some not so much.

One memorable challenge was the all-time worst training experience I have ever had. It was replete with delayed feedback, the most unclear objectives I’ve faced in over twenty-five years of professional experience, and disconnected training. Fortunately, this was over just one brief contract, and I had other simultaneous contracts that made this less painful.

Another challenge as a contractor was while working as a program manager for an educational startup. I was asked to intervene with an employee who was so unhappy with the choices another coworker made that she was screaming and crying (which I did my best to handle both professionally, empathetically, and compassionately because it felt like COVID made us all want to scream and cry at some level).

But even these negative experiences remind me of something I remind myself of often – there’s always a little light to be found in dark days.

The little lights I have discovered in the midst of a pandemic include working with incredibly dedicated people, projects that almost always include elements of something new to learn, and a vision for service that keeps me going on hard days.

So, these are the fireflies - the amazing people, the interesting projects, and the ability to keep learning and growing in a way that I wouldn’t have made any other way except by being thrust into the COVID unknown.

Business Propositions –Not (Just) About Profit

Each of these experiences, each of the contracts I have begun since COVID have reinforced what Robin Williams once said ““Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” I could not agree more, and today is a great day to be kind. Always.

One important aspect of being kind is recognizing that people who build compassion and care into their lives, their brands, and their projects can make a difference. Bryan Stevenson, in his TED Talk “Let’s Talk about Justice,” commented (and I paraphrase) that great teachers and doctors can make a difference, but compassionate teachers and caring doctors make a bigger difference. It’s as if compassion and care are amplifiers for meaningful work.

Thus, those who conduct their jobs in the shadow of COVID with empathy and compassion have made the biggest difference in my professional experience.

I’ve had the distinct privilege of meeting amazing people who are making a difference every day in little ways, and they may not even realize the light they bring into these dark times. In very general terms, these are some of the partners I’ve met who make each day a little brighter:

A Senior Director of Training at our local junior college, Wake Tech, connects entrepreneurs with local companies for strategic training. Despite a hurt wrist, and learning new tech skills in the midst of a busy schedule, she manages to tackle each new problem with a disarming kindness, humor, and extraordinary competence.

A fellow teacher and curriculum writer was so cheerful and flexible that she was willing to improve her curriculum multiple times and even worked while crossing from Oregon to North Carolina (She worked at a series of hotels while traveling across the country as a result of fires that threatened her home in Oregon). I connected with her at the beginning of the pandemic, and her commitment to flexibility despite personal trial demonstrates a professional commitment to excellence that is rare.

A fellow trainer and small business owner set up monthly meetings to "huddle up" and learn from other industry professionals and provide a warm, encouraging online meeting to learn and grow in the midst of a pandemic.

An amazing team of coaches who care about kids succeeding advertised their startup business in the midst of COVID. They put together a robust training including links to coaching resources, scientifically based education methods, and cutting-edge strategies to help grow a team of caring coaches who help kids remotely in the evening to succeed during the pandemic.

Two wonderful program directors for an online school and a robust academic after-school program who take time to follow up individually with parents and provide detailed feedback to help students in the midst of a pandemic grow and improve despite the challenges of virtual learning. The online school director has found ways to engage her team with custom curriculum, strategic encouragement, and genuine compassion despite facing challenging family health challenges. The other after-school program director makes it her job to provide real-time and detailed feedback to make parents aware of what their children are learning and how they are growing. Both of these wonderful directors makes them people parents and students can truly trust. Friends! From Florida to Oregon, from Texas to Ohio to North Carolina, I have not just partners, but new friends. I’ve spent Zoom calls connecting and laughing and learning and growing with old friends and new friends and this would not have happened if I weren’t a remote business. AND, I’ve kept in touch with some of the wonderful teachers I worked with prior to COVID, and met with friends near and far for “Zoom dates,” neighborhood book clubs, and so much more.

So, how’s it going?

I’m still small. I’m still a startup. I’m still growing my business. But I am learning and improving and growing. And that, really, is my company’s value proposition. A value proposition is a fancy way of saying that my vision and my mission is to provide a meaningful service that has a value to THEM. I’ve met great companies, great agencies, and great people, and many people who want to invest not just in education but also in really reaching the next generation for good.

When I started my small company, I knew that good education is more than just impersonal connections and automating solutions. Good education doesn’t forget the plot. Education is not about the trainer, the teacher, the tutor, or the coach - it’s about the student.

I know that every objective I have needs to dial into the details of what individual students needs to learn, how the student needs to improve, and what strategies best help the student grow. This is just as true for adult training in a professional or corporate setting as it is in the K-12 arena.

So, educating one individual at a time, and laboring to find just the right connections is what I do. That’s actually what I’ve been doing for a long time, but now I have a new set of strategies to catch fireflies, and the dark nights seem to last longer.

But at least I get to pick my jar – I get to offer services that aim at empathy, and strategy, and connection - and even compassion - in a way that reflects what’s important. I get to pick my delivery method – instead of wiggly flip-flops I deliver training remotely. And, finally, I have the thrill of finding fireflies in the dark.

I hope you join me, and that no matter how dark it gets, we join together to find ways to do whatever we do with compassion and care to chase fireflies in the dark.

Carol Nelson is the owner of Nelson Notes LLC, an educational startup in North Carolina dedicated to helping people of every age learn, improve and grow.

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