A Dispatch from the Field: Teaching During a Pandemic

On the opening day of the 2020-21 school year last month, the first student who signed into my virtual class was lying down sideways on a bed, hair uncombed, having just woken up and logged in. A few periods later, my entire class took a virtual trip to one student’s bathroom. This young person left the microphone and video on, walked through a living room and into a bathroom, got seated on the toilet and briefly looked around. We could only see the student’s face, but based on the unmistakable sound, it was clear what was happening.

It was then that I realized this year was going to be different.

“Guys,” I texted some friends, “I might not make it.”

The main drag at my school on what would ordinarily be a frenetic day — the day before school started

Mercifully, the video etiquette has improved since that first day, but there have been a host of challenges associated with being 100% virtual this year. The greatest challenge has been instructional. 

I have taught online courses since 2009 for a branch of my district called the Online Campus, so I arrogantly assumed that since I was familiar with the format, I would transition smoothly from full-time face-to-face instruction to virtual classes. However, everything feels different this year and I have found it surprisingly hard. 

One reason is that the circumstances are not the same. My 11 years of online teaching have involved a one-hour evening class each week with a group of students who have opted to take the course, using a platform that easily allowed for interaction with and among students. Now I am sitting at the computer all day with students who are taking online courses for the first time and not by choice, using a platform that has some major holes in its capabilities. 

I have gained a new appreciation for how much information I glean from visual, non-verbal cues. There is no substitute for the simple stuff like having everyone in one room, with the door closed, and being able to glance around and see who is following along. Students are not required to have their video cameras on, and even when they do, I find the multiple screens to be more of a distraction than a help.

There are a number of tools I can access to gauge whether students are “getting it” – I can ask them to type something into a chat window or use one of many other programs to ask them for feedback on their level of understanding, but the fact remains that I often feel I am teaching into a vacuum this year. It just feels like a gap that is hard to bridge. 

My current classroom

One reason for this is undoubtedly that students are distracted. Whereas a classroom setting allows at least some degree of control over cell phones and other outside stimuli, it is clear to me that many of my students are functioning in a beehive of activity. I am often taken aback by the amount of noise they operate through when they do turn on their microphones or cameras. People are walking around, they are in crowded spaces, there is music blaring, etc. I am sometimes amazed they can concentrate at all.

I have found that I have had to keep simplifying what I am asking students to do. Several articles have advised “fewer clicks,” less material, and more direct instruction, and this seems to be good advice. There are hundreds of computer programs available, but I am coming to believe that less truly seems to be more. This obviously suits my general approach to life, but it seems absolutely necessary now in my teaching.

Aside from instructional challenges, I’m deeply concerned about the impact the pandemic has and will have on many of my students. It is heartbreaking to know that Child Protective Services will receive fewer referrals because teachers are less able to see signs of abuse and neglect. And fewer students will have a reliable source of food in the meals that are provided at school.

Horace Mann called education the “great equalizer” and said it was “the balance wheel of the social machinery.” It’s not hyperbole to recognize that this stretch of time is going to serve as a period when the gap grows between the haves and the have nots. I don’t begrudge anyone who is making adjustments to their child’s education by having them participate in a “teaching pod,” where teachers and tutors are hired to supplement or replace the instruction provided by the school system; I simply worry that the others, the group I have been working with almost exclusively for the last 20 years, are going to fall even further behind. 

The simple solution would be to just bring everyone back in, and a lot has been said about opening our schools again. Like many teachers I know, I am almost desperate to go back to school. I want to get back to interacting with the kids in person, I really miss my teacher friends, I like leaving the house every day, my son and I over each other, and the list goes on. But I keep coming back to one thing: it just doesn’t seem safe to open schools fully in person.

The day before schools were shut down in March, I had three students come to class sick. One student had had a fever for two days, but was fever-free that morning so he came to school. Another student arrived at class with a blanket wrapped around her head, saying she hadn’t been feeling well for two weeks. A third student sat in class and coughed and sneezed and looked awful. That is a small sample of the judgement that will (or will not) be exercised when students return to their school buildings en masse.

My district is the 10th largest in the country, with more than 185,000 students. The footprints of most of the school buildings are just not big enough to have everyone present and adequately spread out. In most schools across the country, kids are squeezed into small spaces. I just don’t see how logistically we can have everyone back at the same time and enforce masking and social distancing.

I remember when the drinking age varied from state to state, and in New York it changed several times when I was a teenager. Ultimately, a law was passed raising the minimum age because the statistics clearly indicated that fewer people died when the drinking age was 21. Many people felt it wasn’t fair or logical, but the fact remained that a higher drinking age saved lives. 

I feel the same way about having all schools open fully. No one wants schools to be closed, but I believe bringing everyone back means more people are going to be ill, and some of those people are not going to make it. I don’t envy the administrators of any schools who have to make these decisions; they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. 

In my district, we are starting a phased reopening this week, and my school is currently expected to return full-time at the end of January. In the meantime, I believe there will be an attempt at what they are calling “concurrent instruction” – some kids attend in person, and others watch the class from home on laptops. My teenage relatives who are already learning with this model have given it a hearty thumbs down, but I have a feeling this may be the temporary solution for at least a portion of the year.

This internet meme has it right

On a lighter note, there have been some small benefits to working from home full-time. I don’t spend an hour in my car every day driving to and from school. Also, as my co-teacher pointed out the other day, discipline is not really an issue these days. The students who have showed up have been very polite and respectful on the whole. 

Meeting Face

I am also happier attending meetings from the comfort of my own home. I have developed a reputation for impatience with meetings that run long, so much so that my friend and colleague sent me this sketch several years ago that bears an uncanny resemblance to my face and attitude. However, it’s a lot easier to be patient when I am not waiting to leave the building at the end of a long day.

We are all trying to cope with a surreal set of circumstances that are unpredictable and largely out of our control. The one thing I do know is that the teachers I am working with are working extremely hard to figure out how to help students get as much as possible from this strange period of their education.

Taken from my school’s Facebook page (photo credit: Cecilia Carr)

A Wider Perspective

I found myself uncertain when I was deciding what to write about this week.  My plan for the next few blog posts was to follow up last week’s entry by talking about things in my life that I was grateful for.  This week was going to be about my career as a high school English teacher.

There are a thousand things I could say about teaching, but I decided to focus only on one aspect of why I’m glad that I’m a teacher.

I am grateful for the perspective and empathy that I have gained from working with students from a wide variety of backgrounds over the past 26 years.

For the last 11 years, I have been a teacher at small alternative high school.  Our student body is heterogeneous; students come from all over the world and from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds.  Some students have chosen to attend our school because of our smaller student body, and some have been sent to us for disciplinary reasons. 

Being a teacher has allowed me to meet and develop empathy for others whose experiences I will never share.  I was raised in a town that is multicultural and diverse in a number of ways. As I began my career, I didn’t think I had everything figured out, but I did assume I was relatively accepting of all people. However, my work as a teacher has taught me that my perspective was not nearly as broad as I thought it was. 

During my first year of teaching, a ninth grade student brought her sonogram in to show the class.  I watched her struggle with her pregnancy for the remainder of the school year.  Another of my students showed up for school after being badly beaten by her boyfriend.  My stomach turned when I went to talk with her in the nurse’s office and saw the bruises on her face. 

In more recent years, I had to hold back tears as I listened to the personal narrative of one of my students from Central America.  She described one day in her childhood where she sensed something was wrong with her mother and made the heartbreaking discovery later that day that she and her sibling were being left with a relative they didn’t know very well while their mother made the journey to the United States so she could find work and support the family financially. 

A number of students have shared their dangerous and painful experiences of making the journey from their countries to this country on foot.

Another student’s personal narrative detailed how she was sent to work as a child and was not able to fully access education.  After coming to this country, she worked for several years before she was able to enroll in school.  She talked about how she has not taken any of her education for granted.

While I was never personally faced with teen pregnancy, dating violence, racial prejudice, family separation, immigrating to another country, or having to fight to get an education, learning about those experiences from students I have come to know and care about has certainly given me a much broader frame of reference.

I’m also grateful that being a teacher allows me the daily opportunity to do meaningful work that is relevant to what is going on in the world.

This past week I’ve been thinking a lot about a unit I did with a couple of my classes four years ago.  With the help of our school librarian, we looked at well-known incidents of bigotry from the last hundred years or so that were connected to religion, race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, and disability.  Some of the topics we covered included the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement, the Nanking Massacre, the Women’s Rights Movement, Matthew Shepard, and Temple Grandin.  We were looking for the root of the bigotry in each historical example.  “Why is there bigotry?” was our essential question.

There is obviously not one correct or simple answer to this complex question, but a common thread that my students recognized was relatively straightforward: people tend to be uncomfortable with others who are different from them.  Often this discomfort leads to disliking those who look, think, worship, etc. differently, and sometimes it leads people to the point of violence against those they view as “other.”

Jean Kilbourne articulates this point well in her film Killing Us Softly.  “Turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step towards justifying violence against that person.  We see this with racism, we see it with homophobia, we see it with terrorism.  It’s almost always the same process.  The person is dehumanized and violence then becomes inevitable.”

I would never claim to know what the solution is for eliminating prejudice, but my experiences as a teacher have led me to believe that exposure helps to counter the urge to see someone as other and set down the road to dehumanize.

Final discussion for the bigotry unit

The culminating conversation I had with students at the end of our bigotry unit was extremely interesting, especially in one class, where students came from several other continents.  One student said his big takeaway was that “the uneducated are easy to control.”  Another student, who is from a war-torn region of the world, said of atrocities connected to bigotry, “It keeps happening.  It’s like a routine.”  A third student had very thoughtful questions about why bystanders do nothing to intervene.  Based on their comments in this discussion and a number of others throughout the unit, I felt my students had also made progress towards being understanding and able to examine their own biases.  This was gratifying to see.

The events of the past few weeks have opened my eyes to things I thought I was already aware of. I have certainly learned a lot from my students, but I know I still have more to learn.

It’s worth saying that my profession has cultivated in me a greater sense of humility and gratitude over the years.  I recall a student from 15 years ago.  In spite of significant physical disabilities that brought her daily challenges, she was upbeat and positive, participated in class, and was eager to learn.  She was transferred out of the class because of a schedule change sometime around Valentine’s Day.  Before she left, she gave me this mug filled with candy and a card thanking me for being her teacher.  I still have the mug.  Every time I look at it, I am reminded of all I have to be thankful for and all that I have gained as a teacher.