A Teacher’s Diary: Rachel Detemple
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - November 26,2020
It is a deep November. The school is darker and quieter than it has ever been.
A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to my students in AP Lit having book group discussions in breakout rooms. To do this, I set up a semi-circle of Chromebooks, all named Big Brother, and I admit all of them to the meeting as though they are students in the class. Then I put each of them into a breakout room, mute myself on all of the screens, and sit in the middle of the ear-like arc of screens to listen to the floods of voices from the various rooms in which students are talking.
I love the days when I get to do this. Listening to so much speaking all at once is the only time I feel like my classroom sounds the way it used to. I lean in closer to one screen and then another, and I chime in sometimes aloud or in the chats. It feels similar to walking around the room and going from table to table to hear what’s being said.
On November 12th, though, in the midst of their discussions, there came an electric clanging alarm from all of those screens. Their phones were buzzing, but not in the usual text-message way. It was a strange and repeated bell of warning. Their chatter stopped for a minute while they checked their phones, heard others go off, and confirmed with each other that they had all gotten an emergency notification from the Governor. I heard my own phone get the alert on the other side of the room.
We watched the video -- an urgent request to take the pandemic seriously, to send employees home, to hunker down voluntarily so that no actual mandate would have to be issued.
“Wait,” one student said, “I thought we were already doing that.” And then some other students laughed. (“Uh, no. People are not doing that. Why do you think we’re not in school?”)
The groups went back to their conversations, and I went back to my listening, responding to my name whenever a group called out a question for me. I couldn’t see how my routine could get more distanced than it already was.
Later that day, though, an email came. The district was sending everyone home who could possibly get their work done remotely. We would be honoring the governor’s request.
I worried a little bit -- I cannot work very well from home. But before the shut-down went into effect, I was delivered a firm permission to keep on coming in to use my classroom. And so I have.
Since then, the hallways have been darker, and only seven pairs of feet have been walking the building. We don’t visit each other, and we go only where we need to go. I sign a GoogleSheet every morning to declare my presence here. The parking lot is very empty.
This hunkering has made November feel more like November, and that’s saying a lot in the life of a teacher.
November is always a time of slowness. Students are tired, and so are we. Deadlines don’t get met with as much regularity because the snowball of assignments that students have pushed back gets so large they have a hard time rolling it at all. I too get behind in some aspects of my work. I work the same hours, but things happen more slowly. I start to feel desperate for a rest. It is harder to find the same delight in the work.
It will come back, though. It always does, and Thanksgiving is the time of the shift. It is a change I rely upon as sturdily as the Solstice. There is more than a vacation I look forward to now.
It occurs to me though, that with quarter-mesters instead of semesters, we will spend half of this quarter-mester in full November. Half. And I realize that is a heavy load.
I have a lot of Fs right now.
Is it more than normal? Somehow it’s hard to remember. I was looking forward to maybe having no F’s this term, but perhaps I’m not adjusting for the increased drag of November. This December bounce might not be an equal force against the heavy November we had this year.
Still, Thanksgiving is upon us. It still means the longest haul is over. We’ll get a little playtime now, and when we return, the end of the term will be in sight. Suddenly, the languor will scatter as the remaining days are actually counted, and the fire in our work will reignite. There will be no more pushing of the snowball because there is nowhere left to push it into.
I have drawn maps for students of this trend before. I always beg them not to slump in November, but it never does any good. They slack off and procrastinate, no matter how much they really ought to know better, no matter how much I warn them their lethargy might later hurt.
We got another email yesterday. Despite the Governor asking for 30 days of increased distance, we’ll go back to “normal” on December 1st. The staff will return along with our small student population working from the library and the rooms for Special Ed.
It’s strange what I now count as being normal.
I was getting used to the solitude, but I’ll admit I’ll welcome there being more movement in the building again -- more noise, more light.
It’s hard to know, though, that in the last two and a half weeks, our case rate has not changed for the better, and I’m not sure what good our compliance exacted. Most people didn’t do anything about COVID that they weren’t already doing. The activity of the town has looked exactly the same, and tomorrow -- Thanksgiving -- people will gather in groups far too large.
All of that feels as reliable as November.
Some human beings just have to learn the hard way. They can’t see that an assignment is important until I put the zero in. They can’t see that putting things off brings trouble until they are in the panic to get out of that trouble. They do not see the larger picture until it comes so close they can no longer look at it without tears.
Some people are not going to understand the seriousness of COVID until they get it themselves, until the hospitals are full, until there are no more ventilators. They will not see the danger until it comes home to them literally; they will not see the harm until their own hearts are damaged beyond repair.
What kind of December can fix that kind of November?
And what will Christmas bring?
November 11, 2020
Good teaching hinges on good assessment. There is a lot of data we must have in order to move forward productively. Data is not always a number, though, and a standardized test is a sluggish, infrequent, and imprecise way of trying to find out how a student is learning, at least from the point of view of someone who is in the active process of teaching. Good teachers measure learning all the time and in a huge variety of minute, ongoing ways. Without being able to read their faces or their body language well, we’ve had to find other ways of knowing. Without being able to see more than a representation of their screens, measuring their true knowledge is a different process.
I’ve never been one who relied much on tests. In English classes, I find they devolve into silly trivia exercises that serve mostly to generate stress and waste a lot of time. But in remote learning, I’ve found it difficult even to do a basic vocabulary quiz. I can’t see them take the test, so how do I know that they really know what they’re claiming they know? Their ability to do actual tasks is how, and that’s what I always trust more than a test. They write. They talk. They participate in lots of ways I’m still discovering and inventing. And you know what? They’re doing okay.
Of course they’ve struggled. Of course they miss their friends and their casual interactions. They miss their regular routines and being surrounded physically by their peers. They are also, in some ways, much better students than they were before. When I got to the end of the last quarter-mester, I struggled with finding a meaningful way to give them a final. Giving a test just seemed so silly. And what would that final tell me about their mastery that I didn’t already, by that point, know?
So I had them write.
I asked them this question: “How have you become stronger this semester? (As a student? As a reader? As a writer? As a thinker? As a communicator? As a human being?)”
Here is what they said. Nearly all of these sentences were written by different students. These sentences represent the most common responses to the question:
This has hands down been one of the strangest high school quarters that I have had.
I never thought that that bell was gonna be the last one I heard that year, still awaiting that last day of school feeling with friends, waiting for something that got cut short.
But we were able to get past issues and help each other learn and keep battling through this weird semester.
Going through these classes has really shown me that I can do more than I thought if given the right circumstances.
You can’t overcome anything if you are always on top.
Previously, I have always been on top of my school work and quite simply, even as a straight-A student never felt accomplished; already, I feel somewhat accomplished and if I can manage to earn a B, it will undoubtedly be the most accomplished school has ever made me feel.
I did better with my communication skills and this was vital to this quarter’s learning.
Amid the craziness of Covid, things can get very confusing and overwhelming and it is important to ask for help when you need it.
Before this year I never used to email my teachers but this year that has changed drastically because I can no longer see them in person so if I have to to be able to get my questions answered.
When you’re in a classroom setting, you are able to notice and focus on things other than their voice -- things such as their demeanor, their body language, and their tone of voice -- I learned how to listen with my whole body.
As a student I feel like my patience has greatly increased because I have had a lot of work to do this semester and not a lot of time and I have managed to not be too frustrated.
I think my efficiency at getting things done has gotten better because of how short the turnaround time between getting assigned something and having to turn it in on time has gotten so much shorter.
This is my first time learning what I’m capable of doing for myself, and through that experience, I’m stronger.
I have grown in my ability to realize I am procrastinating and stop that.
The most important change I think happened this quarter was my true appreciation for school.
As big of a bummer it is not to see my friends and teachers, I’m truly glad precautions were made to keep everyone safe and healthy.
I think the spirit of this school year has been innovation.
It’s been important to make things work because not every situation has been the same for every student and the entire country is adapting for a situation it has never seen before.
I have improved as a human being, due to this quarantine; I have been able to be around the people I love and be there for people who need it.
The distance has made me realize how much the people in my life mean to me.
With the lack of a social construct of actually being in a school, I have found myself finding a new interest and being able to think more deeply about things.
I would say that I have found more of a sense of independence during this time.
I am timid and tend to go with what others will do and say.
Now that we have this solo learning I have to think all for myself.
I’ve had trouble being a vocal person because of anxiousness and never really being that vocal about my opinion, but I’ve come to realize that if my opinion does no harm to myself or others I shouldn’t be ashamed of speaking up and vocalizing myself.
Just because it’s something new and we may not like it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try our hardest, and that’s what I did.
I truly believe that the skills I learned these past few months will change the way I learn the rest of this online period, and even when we get back to school.
I think it will be interesting going back to school when we can do in person classes again because since last spring I have become a much more caring and put together person.
I’ve rarely gotten such meaningful or encouraging data from a final.
The kids might not be living in their favorite time, and their struggles have not been small, but it’s nice to know that the older kids are, for the most part, finding their way. I might not go so far as to say that everyone is fine, but the kids are mostly -- and in important ways -- alright.
October 28, 2020
I have been quarantined. Many things I have feared have now come to pass. I am sitting here at home on my couch trying to teach my classes using only an iPhone signal. I keep getting kicked out of my own classes and having to watch a little blue circle spin around while it tries to connect me again. Each time, I worry that the effort to reconnect will fail.
It’s snowing outside, and it’s a heavy, wet snow -- the kind that always seems to bring down signal strength along with the branches of the trees. I keep disappearing and reappearing, and Zoom is flashing warnings across my screen every few minutes to tell me that my “connection is unstable.”
That’s a good word for this situation.
I have been at home since Wednesday, and I can’t go back to my school building until I have a negative result for a Covid test. I’m hoping that call will come through any minute, and I glance at my phone obsessively to see if some message arrived during a drop in signal. When I’m at home, my phone does not always ring when a call comes through. Sometimes there isn’t enough reception for that.
I am not home because I was exposed or have any real reason to believe I’m infected. I’m home because on Wednesday morning, I woke up spinning.
When I’m upset, I tend to clench my teeth when I sleep, and that’s been happening a lot more lately. It’s been happening a lot more severely, too. I’ve been getting some pretty bad headaches these days, and on Wednesday, I made the mistake of saying so.
I’ll go in a little late, I thought. I should tell someone I might miss the staff meeting, though.
I must have forgotten what year it was.
Immediately, I was told I could not just arrive late -- I would have to stay home and await further instructions. Downtown would have to be contacted. Then I was told I would have to get our clinic to fill out a chronic condition form.
Okay, I thought. I’ll go back to work at noon. Surely we can handle this over the phone. But within a minute of the Teledoc appointment, the doctor told me I’d have to come in physically for an examination.
Okay I thought, I’ll take care of that today and be back at work tomorrow. It’s maybe not so bad to have to take a whole day off. But all of the appointments for Wednesday were taken. The first appointment was for 10:30 on Thursday.
I was prompt for that appointment. And I’m grateful to have had it.
Why am I having so many headaches lately? I’ve been stressed in ways I have never been. There has been stress related to this job, and that has been a heavy load to bear, but there are so many other things to worry about -- so many other people in pain and so many things happening that are frightening and thoroughly outside of my control, so many things to be deeply and justifiably angry about. My frustration has become a grief so heavy that I feel like I have been carrying around a 70-pound kettlebell in place of my heart. My rage and sadness have been unwieldy, and I have tried to feel better by trying not to feel much of anything at all. Pro-Tip: This is not a recipe for joy.
I am not alone in feeling this way, but that does not mean I don’t have to take it seriously that I feel this way.
I asked the practitioner at the clinic for a questionnaire to assess my mental health.
And then they told me that they would not be filling out the chronic condition form.
Covid has blurred the lines between what is personal and what is professional. We bring our worry to work with us, and many of us are working from home. Our health is not so private anymore because it has such consequences to the community, and where to draw the line between the individual right and the greater good has not been an easy geometry. The clinic I have to use because of my employer-provided insurance had ethical issues with being asked to report confidential medical information to that employer. I have to say, while I might not personally mind having that information shared (I’m writing about it, aren’t I?), I agree with the clinic on this one. This is not something they should be asked to do.
And so here I am. On my couch. Unstable.
I had to get a Covid test, and it takes a few days to get results. A desire to go to work two hours late has taken me out for at least four days. This is the world we live in now.
My days at home have done me good. I am more stable, even if my internet connection is not. I’ll probably get to go back to work tomorrow, and I’ll bring a less heavy, more reconnected self to that work when I do. I have ways to get lighter now.
How we feel impacts how we work. Our health affects so much besides ourselves. My students need a teacher who can be all the way there -- whose sentences don’t get interrupted by gaps in technology and whose whole self is not suffering from neglect. Teachers are poor teachers when they become martyrs, and we do poor service to this work when we don’t account for our humanity within it. Yes, we have to be professional and know what we’re doing, but we also have to know how we feel; we also have to feel what we know.
Our bodies can tell us important things.
Even things we can’t change are important to mourn.
Being sidelined is not the end of the game.
A spinning circle can be the way through.
October 14th, 2020
The quarter ends at the end of the week. This is a milestone it feels like it took a really long time to get to. As I write this, I’m imagining an actual milestone -- a literal stone set in the ground to mark a waypoint and announce my location in space. I imagine myself stumbling towards it, falling to my knees, and wrapping my arms around it in gasping thankfulness that I made it this far. But then I look up and see that I’m only a quarter of the way done after all. The starting point is already a continent away.
There may never be a more grueling term in my teaching career than this has been. But I could, of course, be wrong about that. It didn’t really last that many weeks, but the span between now and the beginning of August is a space I can’t quite stretch my imagination across anymore.
I just found a stack of last year’s paperwork that students had filled out by hand and submitted on sheets of paper. They were stapled together in the corner and submitted by actual hands. Those hands set the papers down, one on top of another, in a physical tray labeled with a class period I wrote on there with a sharpie. When I opened that drawer today, I stood amazed at the stack of them -- because I regard these papers as unfathomable artifacts now.
They are relics from a time that I clearly feel I will never resurrect.
My most basic routines of more than twenty years -- ones I thought were so elegant and efficient not even a year ago -- are now modes of operation that I can’t help but greet with a smirk and a little tilt of my head. Those stacks of paper that I removed today seemed so quaint and old-fashioned that I couldn’t fully imagine them, even while carrying them to the recycling bin. I’m not really sure why I cleaned out that drawer -- what on earth will I use it for again?
Of course, as much as I’m struggling to imagine the recent past, I’m having serious trouble imagining the future too. Do I honestly believe I will never deal with paper again? At all? Ever? I don’t know. I’ve learned not to look too hard at what’s ahead or put any faith in my assumptions about it. I have been wrong just way too much.
In March, when we first heard that spring break would be extended by two weeks, I believed, at least briefly, that we’d go back to normal after that. But then the picture changed, and it became clear we’d be out the whole spring. Still, though, I tucked myself in for an interesting ride through a season I thought would fade with the snow. The snow receded, but COVID did not, at least not enough to allow any dreams of a normal school start to persist. And now here we are. Our case rate is higher than it’s ever been, and a return to in-person school remains a smoky mirage I can’t even bother to want.
It’s expensive to hope these days. I just don’t have the energy for it.
It’s hard to feel like I’m my favorite self right now -- I don’t make plans that go beyond next week. I don’t do much beyond doing this job and maintaining the basic functions of my life. I go outside, but I don’t go out. I express gratitude as frequently as I can, but I find I don’t express much excitement. So many of my passions have become shrugs or “we’ll see.” I’ve become a strange kind of hedonist.
It’s contrary to my nature to live and think in such a limited temporal space. I am someone who looks forward, dreams big, moves always in pursuit of a goal. I’m leery now of setting any part of my mind into a place I can’t trust.
I know that control and power are not the same thing, and I’m comfortable generally with going with the flow. That is not a new state of mind for me. But I’ve never felt like I had so little say over so many basic facets of my life. There is so little left that can surprise me. This flow is not the steady river it used to be; it’s a storm surge that doesn’t even abide by an expectation to go downhill.
A landscape that’s full of hills requires a longer journey to traverse. I’ve come a long way over this short space. I’m stronger, and I’m much more agile. The weather has toughened and trained me. I can feel I have more aptitude, and there have been lots of times when I literally raised my arms in a V of triumph. But I am also tired. I want a broader horizon again, one that extends beyond the top of the next hill I have to climb. And when I say I’m a quarter of the way through this ordeal, what makes me think I get to be certain about that?
I keep my gaze cast down these days, not looking at anything but the next step forward. There is a kind of peace in this, but I need more refreshment than I’m getting.
I remember flatter ground.
October 7, 2020
The time has come to talk about anger. Teachers are supposed to be perfectly calm, incapable of showing any emotion that might be negative at all no matter what outrageous mistreatment we might encounter, no matter how strong the forces working against our dearest ideals might be. We are expected to exhibit endless patience, circus-worthy flexibility, and of course a voice that is never raised except in enthusiasm.
This is why it is often so genuinely surprising to people when teachers vote to go on strike or write stern letters or gather in groups to protest. It looks an awful lot like anger when we refuse to offer our services smilingly. (Aren’t teachers supposed to be self-sacrificing?)
I find myself very, very angry these days. I don’t get pressed into that emotion easily, at least not to a level at which it requires deliberate or public expression. I’m like a lot of teachers that way.
When teachers get angry, it’s an event worth noting with grave attention.
And my mood is grave today.
I’m angry because the number of COVID cases in my community is spiking to a level as yet unprecedented in the pandemic.
I’m angry that so few people seem to care, at least not the point where it changes their behavior.
I’m angry because so many people in our community are blaming teachers for their kids not being in school.
I’m angry because there are people who insist that teachers don’t want to go back to school because we don’t want to work that hard.
I’m angry because teaching remotely is, in reality, twice the work with half the reward.
I’m angry that people are spouting utter nonsense about how private schools in our community have opened in person “without problems.” There have been shut-downs in some private schools and outbreaks in others without the willingness to shut down. I qualify those as problems indeed.
I’m angry because when I go into Fred Meyer, where there are clear signs at every entrance that masks are required in the store, I still see people in every aisle not wearing masks. And most of those maskless ones have school-aged children in tow.
I’m angry that I’m so angry. All I can think about is what I really want to say to these people. I want to confront them about their utter arrogance. I want them not to get the right to be comfortable violating a space they share with other people -- people, like teachers, who are going to every inconvenience so that other people might stay well. I want to make my displeasure known. I’m tired of looking the other way and pretending that their ignorance is none of my business. Their actions ARE my business. They are affecting my literal business because I can’t do my job safely in person for the foreseeable future. And I am getting the blame for it?
I’m angry that I know that if I do say a single thing, I’ll be considered the inconsiderate one. It will be me who will be asked to leave the store.
I’m angry that so many people in positions of power who had every obvious opportunity to bring our nation and communities together in a unified and effective force against a real but non-human enemy have so utterly squandered it and have thereby made simple acts like mask-wearing seem somehow like a threat to freedom. I’m angry that this widespread lack of leadership has led to the spread and protraction of this pandemic.
I’m angry that schools are paying such a direct price for that now.
I’m angry at how so many of my countrymen define freedom these days -- as an individual possession, as something only valuable when it’s their own; as an idea shouted about with no consideration for responsibility to a free society. Freedom has become a bullying, chortling insistence rather than a hard-won but ultimate state of humanity, one that requires duty and honor and humble sacrifice to maintain. One that requires the work of teachers.
I’m angry because my school board, like so many around the country, decided last night that scientists at the CDC are not as smart or as knowledgable as they are, having clearly not read or understood the Smart Start guidelines really at all. They have voted to deliberately ignore data and carefully considered recommendations and send kids back to secondary schools at 50% capacity rather than the prescribed 25%. They like that number better because it’s bigger, not because it will make teaching more effective. (I am not being unfair in this explanation of their rationale.) As an educator, it is infuriating to be led by people who are deliberately uneducated about things they have an elected duty to become experts about. This year’s situation makes their decisions momentous and dramatic, but this is not unusual thinking for school boards. I’m angry that I’m subject to levels of whimsy I would never get away with in my own role as a teacher. I’m angry that I take it as a given that I have to make hard but ethical decisions all the time, no matter how unpopular they might be. But elected officials often care more for popularity than facts, and the public majority often rewards them for this. Last night’s election was a good case in point.
I’m angry that my community last night decided that sending kids back to school so they could have free childcare was more important than the health of the community. I’m angry that in doing that, they elected two more people who have as a second agenda, a hostility towards diversity in our schools. As someone who believes passionately in diversity, especially when it comes to representation in our literature curriculum, my life as an English teacher might get very difficult soon.
I don’t know all the ramifications of the school board’s decision last night. How will I translate that into how I do my job? A semester I was already teaching in half the normal class time will get cut down by half again because I will see only half of my students at a time -- two days a week in person instead of four online. And what will happen to those kids who are scared to come back or compromised and really can’t be here in person? The official answer is that they should probably do eLearning or homeschool now. In that scenario, I have two choices -- teach online and in person simultaneously, which is not a doable job. Or I can lose those students. And they lose me.
This is where I stop breathing for a minute. This hurts.
I don’t want anyone to tell me this will be okay. Not one bit of it is okay, and I won’t be lulled into saying so.
Anger is useful as an emotion -- it shows the gap between how things are and how they ought to be. The trick with managing anger is to name the gaps and then take action to close them.
But these are not gaps that I alone can close. I am looking at so many chasms now.
Fairbanks, school boards, nation, Alaska: the time has come for you to do better. You have to stop telling teachers all the gaps are all their fault and that all the problems are their problems to solve. You have to take more responsibility for the ideas that you promote and allow. Schools are not your scapegoats or your babysitters, and they deserve as much support as they are expected to give. It’s time to start making people who don’t understand community or freedom or responsibility or empathy really uncomfortable in that viewpoint now.
We have made some great leaps forward. But you’re pushing us way too far.
You’re throwing us over the cliff.
The thing is, though, we won’t go willingly. We aren’t passive little rag dolls who will smile while we’re torn.
We are angry.
Please don’t be surprised if there are times now when we show it.
September 29, 2020
I’m starting to get somewhat confident in my skills as a remote learning teacher. Somewhat. And I’m scared to say the word “confident” out loud. I feel like saying it or even typing that sentiment will definitely mean that something is about to change and send us all back into chaos and uncertainty again. This is how it feels to be a teacher right now. Any competence feels squishy and ephemeral, and there is a vague sense of doom just on the edge of our computer screens.
It is always a teacher’s lot to be governed by large forces that lurk just outside of our classrooms. A weak principal can mean hours of worry about even the slightest negativity from a parent. A weak district administration can mean the expenditure of a lot of personal time and resources because the right support will not be reliably available. A weak union can mean that new exploitations and pressures can always be just an email directive away. Strength and competence in leadership and decision making outside the classroom are vital to strength and competence within it. I feel good right now because I have the requisite faith in the strength that surrounds me-- this is what allows me to have faith in my own.
I feel generally safe and supported right now, but I’m painfully aware of how fragile that feeling can be in this profession. I have taught in other places, and I have taught in other times. The really significant policies in education are made largely by people who have no experience as educators. This is not true in most other professions.
At the national level, we can generally expect that a Surgeon General will have some experience and training as a doctor. We can expect that the Attorney General will have passed some kind of Bar Exam. But in education? We don’t get that kind of respect for expertise.
Elections matter a great deal in the daily lives of teachers and students. Anyone with just a strong (and perhaps uninformed) opinion can get elected to a school board or a state office. As well-intentioned as elected officials can be, a great many of them have open hostility towards the whole concept of public education, and a lot of voters reward them for it with their support.
Election season is upon us now. In my own district, three school board positions will be elected next week. In a normal year, this election would have some significant ramifications, but this year, the stakes are so huge, I’m having a hard time with thinking that goes all the way to next Wednesday. I’m trying just to enjoy what’s going right in the present moment because a lot of what’s making my teaching work right now might be about to disappear.
All my certainty -- as well as my literal safety -- is in the hands of whomever gets elected next week. Don’t even get me started about November.
Even though we’ll maintain most of the same board members, a slight tip in balance can tip my work into the mire. Even now, it is very unclear whether this board will find it important to follow CDC guidelines in the face of parents who need childcare. A couple of people running here on the sole platform of ignoring those guidelines, and a few who are not up for reelection keep showing up to meetings to ask questions that make it clear they haven’t even read them. While teachers and students are expected to do their homework, the same standards don’t apply to elected officials in charge of schooling.
I am hearing awful stories from my teacher friends around the state and the nation who work in districts where those guidelines have been deliberately ignored. Are we about to be told we are going back to in-person school at 100% attendance no matter what our case rate is? And then what is the plan when there are sudden and frequent 10-day shut-downs? Are we about to be told that we’re going back at 50% attendance rather than the recommended 25% for secondary, or that in either case we’ll be teaching remotely and in-person simultaneously? Are they going to care about what alert zone we’re in, or will they at last decide that a red zone (which we’ve been in for quite a while now) is really not much of a concern? As much as teaching in-person would be easier and more rewarding, I can’t get behind a plan that would so likely get so many of us quarantined. Just one disruption would cost me and all of my students the success that comes through routine and reliability.
It’s possible that our board will make very good decisions. They have so far.
But I hope that people will vote and vote carefully.
Voting is always a kind of wishing. But I hope that votes this year will not be a reflection of wishful thinking, devoid of scientific reasoning. I hope facts and practicality and safety will matter. I hope that teachers will matter too.
September 15, 2020
I’ve always said that a big part of the job of being a teacher is engineering ways to trick reluctant students into enjoying the process of learning. Being a good teacher is often a process of outwitting, outmaneuvering, and eliminating excuses before they can be given. It’s a process of benevolent manipulation. In a normal year, I can find some ways to reward good choices with something besides my attention or a grade. I might, for instance, bring the class donuts to prove that they’ve pleased me, give them nerdy stickers, let them have a literature-themed and ridiculous party. It’s the gestures of delight from me that count most for students who don’t normally associate delight with school. But what can I reward them with through a screen? (Somehow I think showing them a donut through Zoom might not have a motivational effect.) Motivation has always been a puzzle for teachers, but this year, a lot of the pieces are missing.
By philosophy, I like to put my focus on the positive -- I tend to get more of whatever I reward with my attention (I’ve learned that lesson a thousand times.) How, though, can I do this in a digital setting? A lot of my tricks aren’t available to me right now. When I’ve asked students this year what would make them feel appreciated, all of their suggestions have been unworkable because they require an in-person element. Anything that I would have to physically deliver to them would create the need to have some students drive half an hour each way to come and get it from the school. That’s a lot of effort for what is essentially a symbolic gesture anyway.
Grades and the vague promise of edification are what I have to offer right now, and anyone who has ever known a student who isn’t wild about school knows that these are not reliable motivators for those students. Yes, graduation should be the motivation, but that’s a goal that lurks too distantly -- especially from all the way back here in September -- to spur unmotivated students into action in the present tense. This is not a new conundrum. For students who struggle, it’s often the relationship with the teacher that keeps a student above the line of failure.
Again, I’m lucky that quite of a few of the students that I’m teaching remotely already have a good relationship with me. It’s helping. I built those relationships carefully a year ago. But still, I don’t really know the students who are new to me. It’s still true that nearly all of them are just not able to have their cameras on during class -- there is not enough bandwidth or data or gigabytes left in their hotspot plan to let me see their faces much at all. I don’t know if they’re smiling or frowning or are focused on something completely other than what I’m aiming to steer their attention to. I can hear their voices in the discussions sometimes or at least see them typing their contributions in the chat, but that’s not much indication of how engaged or motivated they are. From some, the most I can elicit is a digital thumbs up emoji. For others, the only gauge I have for knowing if they’re showing up for the experience of learning is their grades, and that is a cold and distant measure. A line of zeroes, after all, doesn’t measure much curricular skill -- it mostly measures every other factor in student success (connectivity, time availability, organization, parent involvement, ability to focus), which is a lot of things that are hard for me to influence from here.
I am a terrible online student myself. I know that without a rich personal connection to what I’m doing, I know I look for the easy path to the passing grade. I think most of my students are tuning in with excellent engagement, which I’m deeply touched and impressed by. I’m doing what I can to make this process interactive even for students who might have nothing but one fleeting bar of signal and an iPhone. For the most part, I have to say I’m happy with the rate of success -- overjoyed, actually. But there are few kids now that are way behind, and I’m not sure what I can do about it.
I can’t pull kids into the hall in the middle of class to have a private chat about why they showed up unprepared to even try to discuss a reading we did together on Zoom the day before. I can contact their parents, and I have, but I’m not always getting a response. I can recommend that they be on the list to be among the first to get to come back physically to school. But they can’t or won’t always take us up on that offer.
So what now?
I do not control everything. I never do, and that is one of the hardest parts about being a teacher. There are some students who will have issues that are beyond my skill to solve. It’s a hard revelation that starts to come always as the leaves begin to turn and the snow starts to fall. It’s a hard darkness to have to watch growing. Every year, I hope foolishly that I’ll have a perfect record of success. I cannot seem to forego that August delusion. But what are teachers if not professional optimists? It cannot be a part of our jobs to despair. Our ability to enact and complete this sudden total reimagnition of our work this year is testament to our practice and profound proficiency at finding elegant solutions to problems on the fly. Really, this is what we always do.
So that is where my solution lies. The trick has always been in never conceding a permanent defeat. There are answers to this riddle of remote motivation. It took a long time to learn to motivate students when there were here in my classroom in regular school. It might take more than four weeks to learn my answers now.
September 9, 2020
Teaching has always been a difficult job. It’s seasonal work, which is lovely in some ways, but there have been years when I wished desperately I could just work a regular 40-hour week, keep working through the summer, have less vacation time, but never take anything home. If we did our jobs that way, most teachers would work hundreds of hours less over the course of a year. I love what I do, and I’ve chosen this life. But sometimes I wish it was a less time-intensive one.
I was proud of myself last year when I found that I had finally engineered some ways of getting my job done in only 50 hours a week. I wasn’t working on weekends anymore, and I was elated that I had at last achieved such a great work-life balance. To put this in perspective, I’ve spent most of my 23-year career working 60 at a minimum, sometimes 70 or 80. I get paid for 35.
Of course, when I told a friend last winter about my newfound efficiency, she laughed at me. “You’re an English teacher. How many hours a week do you spend reading the books you teach in class?” She was right. I hadn’t added those hours in. “That part doesn’t feel like work,” I said smugly. And anyway, I still felt good about my leisurely weekends.
What a lot of people don’t understand about teaching is how much happens outside the hours of school. What a lot of people don’t understand right now is how much that is especially true right now.
Since the start of this remote learning year, most teachers I know have remarked in some way on how much more tired they are than normal -- how much more there is to do, how much more time it takes to do it.
In our district, our high school students are only in class for 65 minutes per course, only four days a week. They’re taking three classes in each quarter and not the usual six. This means that teachers are also only teaching three classes per term instead of the usual five. I’m very grateful for what a humane choice that reduction of class load has been. But how foolish I was last summer to think for even a minute that this reduced schedule might be easier.
Every morning so far, it’s been a race with the clock to get completely ready for class on time. I still come in at least half an hour before my contract day begins because otherwise, even with an hour and 45 minutes of prep time, I’m pushing the limits of my typing and clicking speed to get everything fully ready for all three lessons I will teach over Zoom that day. That part I can do pretty well now. Teaching is always a life of hard deadlines. The only difference this year is that there are no bells ringing to mark them.
But when the last student has signed out of third period at 1:30, I have hours of work that won’t fit in my afternoon. This year, I have at least four times the amount of emails to answer. And they must be answered promptly. There are students who need help and parents who aren’t sure how something works. Nearly all of this gets addressed in writing. There is usually a technology question I need to research an answer for -- why something didn’t work for someone, what plug-in might work best for tomorrow’s activity, why an assignment uploaded by a student shows absolutely nothing when I click on it.
All of this eats up my hours, and still, I don’t have any grading done. Grading is always the thing I don’t get paid to do. But this year, this burden has become one I’m worried about. It’s true that I no longer spend any time sorting the paper I take out of the bins. I no longer have any no-name papers that need to be claimed. I no longer have to puzzle over jumbles of student handwriting and translate them into a language I can understand. But there are other more time-consuming tasks that make grading everything a black hole for my time.
In order to see a student’s work for just one assignment, I have to click at least three times. Then there usually some scrolling, commenting, awarding of points. But then there are two clicks and pauses while the work and feedback get digitally returned. And then, because Google Classroom doesn’t work with our online grade book, I have to write down the scores -- old school -- on a piece of paper. And then I have to create the assignment fields and record them all in the actual grade book. There is a lot of waiting and extra steps. Grading two class days of work is taking me four or five hours at least. And these are the short assignments. I will soon have a lot more writing to grade.
I’ve promised parents and students that I will update grades on Wednesdays and Sundays. In an accelerated class where we’re doing a whole semester in just a quarter, and students don’t have in-person access to me, no one can afford a lack of information. And I can’t afford to let the work pile up. But look at what I just said -- I will update grades on Sundays. This has to be part of my work life now because there is no other time for that work to be done.
On Labor Day, one of two actual holidays I get to have during the school year, I was here working. I worked seven hours. And all I did was barely keep up. I was not alone in my building, and I know there were lots of teachers working from home.
I do think that all of this will get easier. I’ll find hacks that save ten seconds here and two seconds there, and those seconds will add up into hours. I’ve hacked the teaching life into a manageable one before. And kids are learning -- they’re teaching me and teaching each other. There will be fewer questions that come through my email. Parents and students are doing extra steps too. They’re working their own kind of overtime, and so far, I think we’re all being really good sports about it.
We will not be in this state forever. This extra strain can be endured. I’m grateful to get to do work that matters. I’m grateful -- during COVID -- to get to do this work at all. I’ll keep doing this, and I’ll be cheerful about it. But it’s going to be a difficult time because it’s going to be a difficulty OF time. But time passes. And hopefully, our increased efforts will mean that in spite of all this extra trouble, my students will pass their classes. They’ll pass them because of the trouble we take.
September 4, 2020
Since Wednesday night, I have slept more soundly than I have in weeks. Some part of my brain that felt the need to stay vigilant no matter how tired I’ve been has finally been able to forgo its midnight guard. I have at last been able to be fully asleep when I sleep. Physically, I feel restored.
The reason is that there has been good news. Our school board met for nine hours this week, (they had to break the meeting into two different days), and they decided that secondary schools in our district would remain in remote instruction for the rest of the first quarter. Since then, they have also approved a plan to move forward with safely bringing back small groups of kids who especially need to be in the building to succeed – kids with IEPs that be implemented remotely, those who don’t have Internet, and those we know are at a high risk of dropping out and aren’t thriving with remote school. I have not only a firm assurance that some essential things will stay the same – I have some right to hope that things will get better. When was the last time I felt like that?
I know how lucky I am to be able to say all of what I’ve just written. I have a lot of friends who are teachers, and most of their lives are not so predictable or humane as mine is.
Some teachers are on their second shut-down after their districts decided that in-person schooling was safe enough to try. All of the in-person lesson planning had to be suddenly converted to remote delivery. And they don’t know when they might have to shift back again – and again – and again.
Others are teaching some kids in person while others tune in remotely – they’re somehow supposed to manage both groups simultaneously, and it’s not a doable job because it’s a double job.
Still others are on the verge of a strike because their districts refused to consider the fact that teachers might be human beings when they implemented their return-to-school plans. (Why is our humanity a fact we have to work so hard to make known sometimes?)
I know how exactly how lucky I am.
In addition to the decisions made by the school board, I’m also lucky that I do not teach elementary school. I can generally hold the attention of high school students for an hour or so. Elementary students are not so easy to keep engaged. My students know their way around technology and can be very active participants in helping the class discover and navigate new tools. How would a kindergartener even know what all the buttons do? I hear the frustration and genuine sorrow of elementary teachers who have to watch helplessly as their students don’t log in, wander away from their computers, or clearly have their attention engaged with something other than the class in front of them.
I’ve also never been so grateful not to have children of my own. I can be here at work and be fully focused on my professional responsibilities. I’m not responsible for any childcare or for making sure three other people get logged onto their meetings correctly. My life is significantly easier than many lives are because just has fewer moving (squirming, shouting) parts.
What I find myself constantly remarking to myself about is how good it feels to be able to have some trust in the decision makers. I trust my principal. I trust my colleagues on my school’s leadership team. I trust the decisions being made at the community level. Those are not reassurances that all teachers have right now. This feels like dazzling and rare privilege, a state of being worthy of great envy. I wish my good fortune was not so rare.
There are still a huge number of very serious problems, and I have no idea how to solve them. We need a plan that works to keep the community safe AND keeps education consistently available even to the youngest students. We’re not there yet. But at least we’re closer. There is a lot to be grateful for in that.
This pandemic has been a long season of doubt, and it’s nowhere near over. It’s hard for any of us to think even a week into future, and that is an exhausting way to live. Maybe that’s why it felt so good to make a plan today that went into October. When we spend so much time hanging out by our fingernails, we need all the toeholds we can get.
September 1, 2020
It’s Tuesday, and I’ve spent all day thinking on some simmering level about the fact that today, the first of September, is the day when our school board will vote on whether the secondary schools will try to come back to some kind of in-person instruction or whether we will push on with remote learning for all of first quarter.
I know the secondary principals have unanimously recommended that we stay in remote learning, and I’ll admit that when I first heard of their recommendation three weeks ago, my immediate reaction was to crumple right into my gut and sob. I didn’t expect to react that way -- there’s sense in that suggestion -- but I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Losing access to my students for this long is a deep and genuine grief.
Last spring, when it was announced that COVID was officially a national emergency and that our schools would extend spring break by at least two weeks, I sobbed on that day too. I knew in my body that I would not see my seniors again, at least not as a class. And I didn’t. That for me was the first of the losses that have come with this pandemic. There have been so many sudden changes.
I’ve said a lot about how hard this is. Remote instruction is indeed a rough adjustment. But as much as teaching this way has been and will be difficult to do, I know which way I want the board to vote tonight.
I’ve heard the conversations about how much people want us to open up to in-person students, and I understand why that’s appealing. It’s theoretically appealing to me too. Some things would be so much easier for all of us. Parents could have a major stress removed, and I could communicate in much simpler and more familiar ways. I could come to school knowing what I was going to teach and just teach it without having to completely digitize it, load it, fix the glitches, and then teach students to navigate the material. It would be such a relief to see them as their whole and three-dimensional selves.
But how sustainable would that really be?
In cohorts small enough to contain on outbreak, how much class time could I realistically get with each of them? The plan right now for in-person learning is to let secondary students come to the building in halves. I’d see half my students at a time, and they’d switch off every other day. When I looked at that plan on paper this summer, that seemed smart and doable. It felt comfortable because it was somewhat familiar. But now I’m thinking about that possibility in more realistic and practical terms. In remote instruction, we’re already doing classes on quarter-mesters – that means that a whole semester’s worth of material is supposed to be delivered in the calendar time of 9 weeks. Already, I have to do my job in literally half of the interaction time. I’m seeing them for about four hours a week right now. If we went back to in-person, that interaction would shrivel down to about two and half hours a week for each of them. That idea makes me want to either spit out my coffee in a fit sardonic laughter or barf right into my mask. That is not a job I can do.
And then there’s the element of the added danger. Teaching all alone in my room, I appreciate that I’m not constantly looking around the room for potential threats to my health. There is no possibility of contagion through a screen. My students are showing up to the class and doing their work pretty consistently -- they’re not sick or too scared to show up. The teachers who are immune-compromised or who live with family members who are compromised can show up fully to the work of teaching so long as we get to it this way. I’m not sure what would happen if their jobs required more risk next week. Would we really have enough teachers to make that work?
Right now, I don’t have to hound any students about masks, about distancing, about washing their hands because they’re not in a crowd. (How much class time would I lose to those reminders if they were here in person with me?) While I miss my students searingly, I am grateful to teach in a way that gives me a much slimmer chance of missing any of them permanently. I have lost enough students to car accidents and suicides now to know I can’t handle the loss of even one more. When we teach kids, we invest in them personally – and that means they become a kind of kin to us. When they die, these are not losses we recover from. The worries of online teaching are much preferable to worrying my students or their loved ones might not survive our schooling methods.
But even if no one died, if we went back to in-person school, we’d have a much greater chance of having to quarantine at home if there was a case discovered in our school. Quarantining at home is something I am actively afraid of now. Like many people here, I don’t have internet at home -- and I have no option to get it. How would I keep teaching if I had to do it with only one inconsistent bar of phone signal? How long would I have to do that? How many times? I know I have students in that situation right now. But at least when I have good internet, I can help them around their lack of it.
You’ll notice I’m not saying anything about what would happen if I got sick myself. I don’t know how someone would sub for me.
What I hope for is that we can open up some safe, socially-distanced study spaces in our schools for a few kids who truly need to be here in order to succeed – those with Special Education needs, those without connectivity, those kids who we already know don’t make progress without consistent nudges to keep them going in the right direction. If we do that, we can maintain it. We can be safe and effective and get everyone the basics of what they need. And that, I think, is the best we can do.
I don’t know what will happen tonight. I don’t know what this teaching life will be like in a week. I’ll be listening tonight, and then, as usual, I’ll try to get my head around whatever is coming next. All I can do is hope for the best.
August 28, 2020:
I keep having flashbacks to what my teaching life looked like a year ago. The hallways were bright, noisy places full of colors, motion and laughter. We used to shake hands and gather blithely in the gym, cramming into a pack on bleachers, everyone’s face on full unmasked display. It’s hard to imagine how we took our physical proximity for granted.
In comparison, I feel now like I’m living in The Matrix – not the sunny parts in the digital world, so I guess not the Matrix – the parts in the grungy underground where things are gritty and real. I’m on the Nebuchadnezzer. Really. There are a lot of similarities. When I hear a student with not enough signal try to talk to the class over Zoom, the sound that comes through is the exact noise that Neo makes after he takes that red pill. I’m surrounded by five screens when I teach now – one to host from, and four to drop into the breakout rooms so I can hear what’s happening in there. (I don’t even see the code anymore.) And that scene where Trinity learns to fly the helicopter as she’s walking to the helicopter? That’s what it feels like to get ready for class.
I’m not surprised I’m mentally comparing myself to characters in action films right now – I need to feel like I’m going to win, that I started this story strong enough for the struggle.
Things are definitely strange right now, and I find myself longing to go back to normal, but I also know there’s no unswallowing this pill. Much has been revealed by the closure of in-person schools that we will not be able to conceal again. I can’t help but hope that this current discomfort might at least bring us to a more honest accounting of who we really are.
It has become painfully obvious (and frequently expressed) that a lot of what we grade is privilege right now. Now that we’re at the end of the first full week, it’s clear that I have students who really can’t turn in assignments digitally no matter how hard they try. I have students who are getting tired of only hearing half of what gets said in class because they just can’t stay connected that long. Of course we are hurriedly mitigating the inequities created by connectivity issues. I’ll be spending a good chunk of my weekend making paper packets for those who can’t learn through a screen. But I have to say -- weren’t there always inequities? Wasn’t privilege always a factor in academic success?
I’m trying very consciously these days not to spend too much time dwelling on the things I have no control over -- I just don’t have that energy to waste right now. Perhaps it was never my job to solve the problems of homelessness, lack of access to healthcare, abuse, neglect, mental illness, or poverty. But it used to be understood that schools were places where these issues would be somewhat reliably noticed and where important alarms would be sounded by teachers and staff. Now that the schools can’t do that as well, who is out there subbing for us in that capacity?
Always, there have been some students whose needs were not being met. We knew that. Now that we can’t see kids in school buildings, it seems there is more national worry about the services in addition to education that kids might not be getting right now. I’m glad to see more people concerned about the full well-being of students, but I wonder why schools have been relied on like caped avengers to swoop in and save the day for so long. A society that needs superheroism to function isn’t a very strong society.
I’m increasingly anxious that so much is out of my control as a teacher right now. Yes, I know my influence on kids can be larger than I imagine sometimes and that I shouldn’t discount it even now. For teachers, it is the relentlessness of our kindness than can be our most important strength. But isn’t that true for everyone?
I’m uplifted by the organizations and entities that have stepped up to help students who might be struggling right now. I hope, though, those extra supports won’t go away the minute schools open their doors again. We have always needed more help than we’ve gotten.
In the end, I want a job that is actually possible to do. I want students who come to school strong and intact and healthy in every way. I want kids with support networks that go way beyond their family, friends, and teachers. I want policies that work. I want politicians to stop talking about teachers like we’re greedy leeches that drain society rather than people who actively build it. I want kids to stop being held permanently responsible for disadvantages they did not create.
We can all do better than we’ve done in the past. We can all be the one who saves the day.
August 24, 2020:
It’s Monday. The day is almost over, and to my relief, I notice that at three days in, I am starting to establish patterns and routines. This is comforting and encouraging. Last week’s bright, fizzing anxiety is starting to dim.
Every hour of class makes me more confident that I will find my way.
Unfortunately, though, one the of the new realities of my teaching life is the constant darkness I have to deal with.
My lights are on a motion sensor, and if there isn’t enough movement in my classroom, the lights turn themselves off after a time. My presence is not enough to keep them on, and I have to move in very large ways to get them to come back on again. This feels to me like a metaphor.
My classroom isn’t so much a room right now – its active area has been reduced to a little table in a corner with two floor lamps and a ring light that peer down at it like they’re trying to cheer it up. I don’t have windows that face the outdoors -- just a row of glass squares at the top of one wall that look out, viewless, on a hallway outside. But with no one out there retrieving something forgotten a locker, no one quietly hustling because they’re late for class, no one going to the bathroom or to get water, those lights in the hall are turning off all the time now too.
During the teacher work days before the school year began, all of the teachers were in the building. It was bolstering to know they were there, even if our non-Zoom conversations had to take place across hallways and through doorways. But now a fair number have arranged to work from home because there is no other solution to their childcare issues. Those of us who remain have our noses firmly pointed into our laptops all the time just trying to digitize one more thing, trying to make sure it’s loaded in all the right places. I find myself in semi-darkness and relative quiet all the time. It feels post-apocalyptic. I find myself looking for excuses to wander down to the office between classes just to see a three-dimensional face again.
It’s gone very quiet here, but I know I’m really lucky to teach in a small school. A lot of my students this year are ones I got to teach last year, and so I can recognize them no matter how fuzzy or fleeting their images are. My first period class seems excited to talk to me and to each other – their cameras are, for the most part, very happily on. My third period class, though, is all kids who don’t know me at all. They probably recognize me, and I would easily know them as Hutch students if I saw them in public out in the real world (does the real world still exist?), but online, they are shy and blank right now. For the most part, their screens stay dark, and their mics stay muted. I’ve said already how difficult it is to read students I can’t see in person. But what I did I not quite account for until now is how difficult it’s going to be for them to read each other. Even if I can overcome the barrier of the screen to charm them, coax them, trick them into some kind of camaraderie with me, how on earth can I bring about that same trust with each other?
I don’t want my class to be a lonely place for anyone. There are always students who try to be invisible. But in person, I can still see them. Other students might learn to overlook them, but they can still see them too. This year, that disappearance will not be in plain sight – it will be a black square labeled with a name to which no voice or image is ever attached. In a normal year, I’d be making note of the names I still don’t know. This year, I’m taking note of the kids about whom I only know a name.
It’s clear that I have to outsmart this tendency to stillness. Tomorrow, I’ll try some new strategies to break the lines between their rectangles. Some of them, of course, are trying to get their voices and faces through, but their bandwidth just isn’t large enough to accommodate them smoothly. A power outage this morning on the east side of town took some of my students away for a while. This will happen. I have ways already to get them around a broken connection. But there is clearly more than one kind of connectivity issue.
I know now how to get ready for digital class. I know how to instruct through a screen. But there’s a hurdle ahead that is just as vital to overcome.
I have to find a lot more paths through the dark.
August 20, 2020:
A little while ago, I finished my first digital day of school. I’m so glad it’s over. I feel as boneless and heavy as a shark out of water. I could happily curl up here on an empty table in my empty classroom and fall immediately asleep.
I lived. I did what I set out to do, and as far as I know, no one is irrevocably mad at me. This is cause for celebration.
This teaching day did not last very long, but it was a serious journey. When I woke up suddenly this morning at 3am, my stomach ached. I didn’t breathe right all morning, and I rehearsed every little thing I could. I set-dressed the corner of the room that is now my Zoom studio and then rearranged it three times. I rehearsed talking into the camera. The whole time, I was obsessive about checking the clock, paranoid I’d miss the start of a class period by getting distracted by preparation.
I envisioned so much going wrong. I could vividly imagine my own horrified face staring back at me from my own computer as some tiny gaff in technology made even the simplest online interaction a glitchy catastrophe. I saw myself potentially committing all kinds of hideous FERPA violations if I pushed the wrong button and suddenly screen-shared a whole tab of confidential student information. (Is this at last how I lose my job?)
But instead I’m here at the end of the day crowing to my colleagues that today went well.
Of course, that’s a relative term. What I really mean is that this day exceeded my abysmally low expectations. (Is this the secret to job satisfaction now?)
I was expecting I’d spend most of class today troubleshooting and talking students through basic connection issues while the rest got bored. I didn’t. Most of them showed up in their Zoom meetings without help, correctly labeled with their names right on time or even early. I was delighted to see them there. To my surprise, I delivered actual content today. I teared up a little bit in first period because it felt so downright miraculous.
This is not to say that there were no issues. Some students indeed did not succeed in showing up today. I’ll have to find out what happened to them. One student had to get in his car and drive down a hill to find enough signal to be able to get in at all. There were other students who had to be admitted to class half a dozen times when their cell signals failed for half a second. I hope I noticed everyone in the digital waiting room every time and let them in immediately. (Did I? How do I know?) I know quite a few of my high school students are the closest thing to adults in the house during the day, which puts them in charge of getting younger kids into their Zoom meetings and then keeping them there at the screen. Several have told me already that they don’t know how they will be able to guarantee the engagement of their siblings and also be able to do the same for themselves. Not every day might look like today.
I’m giddy in my relief, and I’m thoroughly proud of how many disasters I was able to avert. I’m also aware of how much time I spent getting ready for this one day.
Today went well because I was as prepared as it was possible to be. I imagined. I tested. I rehearsed. It took hours of set-up and careful review. It’s fifteen minutes past the end of my contract day, and I still have all of Friday to prepare for.
I’d better get back to work.
August 18, 2020:
It’s 11:15, and I haven’t cried yet today. This is how I’m measuring my teaching life right now. Yesterday, I was in tears twice before 8am. So… progress?
It’s not that anything is just so wrong anymore – many things have been figured out, and I’ve found a little bit of footing in what was a complete sea a week ago. But I’ve been at work for a little over a week, and I feel like it’s April already. I’ve been navigating a boulder field of heartache and relief, hope and despair, decisiveness and crushing disappointment – sometimes all in the same hour. I’m exhausted by 2 pm every day, so I’m a little fragile right now. We’re all there. I’ve never cried this much or seen so many of my colleagues cry when someone wasn’t dead. But we burst into laughter a whole lot too. It might be nervous, sarcastic, or maniacal laughter, but it’s good to laugh all the same.
Change is good, especially in education, but it’s devastating when so many changes are so enormous, so sudden, so hard to turn in a positive direction. Half of our normal tools for good teaching have been yanked away or have become too unreliable to count on. We’re trying to get ready to teach – to assume our roles of knowledge and authority -- in a situation where “I don’t know” just might be the permanent answer.
In the Fairbanks Northstar Borough School District, kids will come to school on Thursday. They won’t be here in person. We will, at best, meet our students through screens and hope that technology will be the least of our worries. It’s Tuesday. Class schedules are still changing. We don’t know how to take attendance (does sending me an email count as being present?). And really, how should we use that time in the first Zoom lesson on the first day, because how many kids will be there, and how long will it take to get everyone in? How many will have come to the school to get materials? And how are they, anyway? Are they hopeful, fragile, trepidatious, giddy to get back to some form of normalcy – all of that? Like I am? Will a minor glitch send them into tears of frustration I can’t talk them down from? Will they be angry to have had so much taken from them? Are they much, much stronger than they thought they were? I expect all of those things. But they’ll surprise me, too.
Last spring, we teachers came to understand just how hard to it is to teach people we can’t read. I never understood before how much I use facial expressions and body language as gauges for what students were understanding. If I can’t read that, I’m flying a plane in fog without instruments. I know I have to account for my missing data, and that’s going to require that I ask deliberately for feedback, that I have lots of ways to get it, and that students get really good at communication of all kinds. I have to plan the time for that, yet there’s so much less class time to work with already.
In the end, I know these adjustments we’re making will empower us all. We will never return to exactly how things were before – because we will find that we don’t want to. Digital meetings are a reality of their working futures now, and we will figure out together what professionalism looks like in this new format. If it’s hard to learn much else, at least they’ll learn that. So I’m hopeful and excited, and I’m proud to be an engineer in this great leap we’re making. I’m drinking from a technology firehose right now; I’m also gaming out ways to make my classes more engaging, more personalized, more meaningful than they’ve ever been before. Because of COVID-19, I will be a stronger teacher forever. Some kids will thrive who have never thrived before. There is a lot to be happy about.
But it hurts right now. It’s hard right now. I feel like I’m falling down all the time right now.
I’ve done really hard things before. I know the mountain will be climbed, and I know I find ways day by day to bring all of my students with me if I can.
I’m so worried, though, for the ones I just can’t reach. I’m worried for the ones who will never show up, who will respond with silence too many times to the emails, the invites, the phone calls, the ones who are already too burdened with the realities of their lives to take on the challenge of change. We would struggle to help those kids in normal year, but this feels so much worse. I feel hamstrung and helpless this year.
How do I connect to a kid I’ve never met?
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