As a high school English teacher, I spent most of this past summer worrying about the approaching school year. What would it look like? Would it be safe for students and staff to return to the building? Could I learn enough about technology to effectively teach online?
Would all my students have good internet access? Would they show up for class?
Should I retire early and walk away from this job I love so much? Will going to work make me or my family sick?
Like teachers everywhere, I always prepare for the start of school during the summer months. But this year, my preparations included updating my will and checking my life insurance policies. It also included researching and purchasing face masks and face shields. Schools are not like physician’s offices and hospitals. We don’t have a budget line for PPE.
A few weeks into school I’ve learned so much
Now, just a few weeks into school starting in my district, I’ve already learned so much.
In my county, school officials are working closely with the health department to determine gating criteria for reopening school buildings. Currently, the virus positivity rate is hovering at a number that signals distance learning for the middle and high school students and in-person learning in small pods for masked elementary students.
Is this the perfect scenario for keeping people safe and educated at the same time? We don’t know. Nobody really knows. None of us have any experience with this.
After the announcement was made that we’d start school online, I joined my colleagues for three weeks of intensive work, learning not only how to use various tech tools, but also how to engage students who aren’t physically in my classroom. I know that the relationship between students and teachers is critical to learning.
Some high school students are self-motivated to the point that they’d willingly do any task I put before them. But most students need my guidance, my encouragement, my absolute belief in them and their ability to learn. How could I do this through a screen?
Remote learning is still school
What I’ve learned this week is that remote school is strange in many ways, but it’s still school. It does require a commitment from families to help their students wade through the mass of emails crowding their inbox to find the important ones that tell when and how to log into class. It requires internet access and a quiet place to work. My district provided the devices and the tech trouble-shooting, but I absolutely realize what an extra stress this is on families.
But I’m choosing to focus on what is working and going well.
My students showed up, nearly all of them. I’d already used Zoom as a meeting tool for a few years, so I was quite comfortable with it, but I could tell it was a new experience for most of them. We spent the first day practicing with the technology, trying out a few tools, playing a few games. This is not unlike what we do in-person during the first day of school. Building community and rapport is critical to a successful school year.
There were hiccups, of course. I forgot to change the access from “private” to “public” on the first form I wanted the students to complete. Some students found that they needed to shut their video off when they wanted to speak, or else the rest of us couldn’t hear them. There were a few frustrations, mainly around technology, but there were also smiles. Even the students who aren’t crazy about English class seemed happy to be back in school.
My role this year is bigger than teaching English
I realize that my role this year goes beyond teaching English. My first priority is to make the students feel calm, accepted, secure. They have been through so much, I want to give them as much normality as possible. If this means I teach my heart out with animation in my voice and expressions on my face to a rectangular box on my desk, then so be it.
And the students voiced what they needed. When I placed one group into breakout rooms so they could brainstorm norms for class, they came back with a list.
“We want to do breakout rooms a lot with different people each time,” one girl confidently announced. “We want to see each other and talk to each other.”
One of my favorite moments of the week occurred in AP Literature. As seniors, these students knew each other well, having struggled through many hours of class and homework together. I watched their excitement as their classmates’ faces popped one by one onto the screen. Realizing the significance of the moment. I told them to unmute themselves and chat for a while. I shut off my audio, pretended to be busy taking roll, and just observed their sheer joy at seeing each other.
“This is great,” one student said. “Today makes me feel normal again.”
I don’t know what the next weeks will hold. I don’t know if next month I will see the students in person or continue to see them on the screen. It might be a combination of both. But I, like teachers everywhere, will continue to show up, managing whatever is thrown our way, trying to stay safe, and trying our best to make school and life feel as normal as possible for our students.
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