I’m a Teacher and THIS is What Makes My Job Essential Right Now

I was hosting a Google Meet the other day with one of my students and his mother. He’s been engaging with classes since we began our e-schooling and achieving quite well. I asked him how he’s faring with the online format. He shrugged, rolled his eyes, and said, “I’m getting by, but I have trouble staying focused, staying interested, sustaining effort.” The student is a member of multiple music ensembles and he said he misses those dearly. He expressed feeling kind of disconnected and adrift.

Teachers are “essential” which means we have even more responsibilities now. (Twenty20 @klovestorun)

Parents have concerns about online learning

His mother rolled her eyes and said he sleeps too late, stays up too late, plays video games for hours, and has his head buried in a screen for too much of the day. She said he sometimes logs into the extra helps not because he needs help but just to say hello to his teachers. She said she was terribly disappointed with the amount of work he has to do; she wanted him to have more.

I paused for a second to collect my thoughts. I complimented both of them on the student’s efforts and his ability to take care of things despite the current state of affairs. I said that takes diligence, persistence, motivation, conscientiousness, and dedication. I said to the mom,

Take solace in the fact that your son is so capable and responsible. I’m sure that’s a tribute to his upbringing. But please recognize that more than half of his peers are struggling to engage with classes and keep up to date with their assignments. Please understand that some students live near the poverty line, some have to work to help their family, some live in abusive situations, some have learning or emotional disabilities, and some have lost family members. We cannot sacrifice them or leave them behind during this crisis.

She replied, “Ahh. That makes sense. We are fortunate. Sometimes it’s good to be reminded.”

Being “essential” means caring about the student, not just the learning

Congratulations! We’re essential! I can hear my dad laughing from the Great Beyond. After regaining his composure, he’d tell me, “That’s great, son. You made the big time, but don’t let it go to your head.”

We’re essential, which means we have great responsibility. And you know what they say: “With great responsibility comes great, well … responsibility.”

Our country’s founders believed an educated populace was the lynchpin to a successful democracy and a hundred-something years later, the government made education compulsory. That’s what we do – we educate – because it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. But, we must always educate with understanding, dignity, tolerance, and compassion. Actually, we must educate with unconditional positive regard for our students and guard against academic zealotry. For while we are essential, we must not hold the integrity of our curriculum above the welfare of our students. We need to lead with our heart.

Our students will remember this time for the relationships

Decades from now, these students will not reflect upon these days as a great time to have learned how to calculate the area under a curve. They’ll remember that the curve was actually made up of real people, lots of people – people who got sick and people who died. People they knew.

Our students will not look to their “Memories page” for that 2020 selfie they took posing with their Progressive Era poster board project while wearing a mask. They will remember a time when all of Earth’s smiles were hidden behind those masks, when they couldn’t kiss hello or hug goodbye. They’ll remember they couldn’t congregate with friends, train with teammates, rehearse with the cast, go to the prom, go on vacation, attend a wedding, or grieve at a funeral.

Our kids will remember a period of isolation and separation – but if we do our part right, as an institution, we’ll help them understand there are some things more important than the curriculum. We can help them remember that relationships are more important than things. They will be able to remember the collective sacrifices made by people the world over. They will be able to remember perhaps their only lifetime experience with global solidarity. They will be able to remember unparalleled compassion.

Presently, nearly half our school population isn’t engaging with online learning commensurate with our expectations. Some students haven’t participated at all. We’re frustrated when kids don’t check in, don’t attend the virtual classroom, don’t complete their assessments. We’re frustrated that the energy and time we’ve invested in reaching out to these adolescents and their families, begging, pleading, and cajoling them to simply engage, haven’t yielded the results we want. But not every student is equally ready to engage. Not every student is equally prepared for the new paradigm.

Right now, I am reminded of the blueberry parable. If you don’t recall the story, or have never heard it, it’s well worth your time. It will help you reinforce or re-establish your center. The most important take-away is this:

We can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one!

But, you know what? It’s a whole lot easier to take these blueberries and nurture them in person than it is to water and fertilize and prune these blueberries in a virtual, distant, digital format.

Collectively, over the past several weeks, we’ve emailed, called, Zoomed and “Meet-ed” (is that now a word?) with students who are sequestered with parents who are in the throes of divorce, are quarantined with parents who have lost jobs, are sheltered-in-place while living in abusive situations, are depressed, are anxious, have organizational deficits, have learning and emotional disabilities, are thinking about hurting themselves, lost family members, lost dogs, are worried about the future, are food insecure, don’t have appropriate technology, can’t afford WiFi, are mourning the loss of hobbies, camaraderie, milestones, family events, vacations, and sheer, personal, human interaction.

No one can make it better for them in the moment. There’s no known timeline as to when things will get better.

The most important thing we can give our kids now is compassion

This is the most significant disruption of their 14 – 18 years of life on the planet. It has altered their life in uncountable and significant ways. Some are embarrassed to admit they’re not handling it well. Some feel shame. Some are fighting with their parents, every day, about school. Some don’t want to be visible or speak up in Google Meets. Some wish they could understand the material and wish they could see their teacher at after-school extra help sessions – in person.

Sleep cycles are all out of whack with many students sleeping throughout the day or staying up through the night. Some are working jobs thirty or more hours a week, trying to help with their family finances. Some are taking care of their siblings or grandparents. Some are spending hours and hours on school work. Most are triaging with their assignments, desperately trying to manage their time and meet deadlines. Many lack hope and feel so lost that giving up seems like their best choice. Almost everyone feels unmoored.

We can do our best – no, we have been doing our best, but right now our best will and should pale in comparison to what we do in our classrooms on the daily. We can’t replicate or improve upon all the supports and structures that we have in place in our brick and mortar schools. We can’t replicate or improve upon the teaching and learning that take place in our forty-minute periods, nine period days, five days each week classroom environments. That shouldn’t even be our goal.

Effective education is in-person work, at least through adolescence. It is optimized through face-to-face interaction. We have been charged with making our impromptu best of an inferior, and relatively nascent, medium amidst a whole new world of unprecedented chaos and uncertainty, with no blueprint and no advanced planning and no idea as to how much time is left on the clock.

What is changing in education now

Okay, team, go!

In the past month, colleges across the country are saying they will accept Pass/Fail grades and won’t require SAT or ACT scores. College Board says they’re eliminating 25% of content from their AP tests. IB says they are not going to require tests this year. New York State has eliminated all state testing. They are not letting inferior student performance, during this challenging time, harm students. Let’s be sure to do the same. Everyone is cutting us and our students some slack for these circumstances that are beyond any of our control. We need to cut ourselves, and our students, some slack, too.

We may think we know which students should be well suited for this new paradigm and which ones might require additional support, but when their stability, structure, and safety are stripped away, and are replaced by uncertainty, anxiety, and fear, even the most resilient may not conform to our expectations. We can’t let that hurt them. We are essential, but not because of the 5 or 10 weeks of curriculum we are to provide at this time. We are essential because we model compassion. We are essential because we provide our students opportunities for connectedness. We are essential because we understand and care for all our students.

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Timothy Shea is the father of three children and is a school counselor who has spent the last three decades working in education. He is an avid reader who loves the outdoors and strongly suspects that time was only invented so other people could restrict yours. 

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