Teaching in a Pandemic

This is my attempt to document and process returning to the classroom during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

On Day 30 of quarantine, I decided to return to the classroom. I had taken a six-year hiatus to be an instructional coach. I wanted to have a greater impact in my school district, so I left the classroom to mentor teachers and administrators, helping them be more innovative and creative in their classrooms and school buildings. I have taught for 17 years. This global health crisis is giving me the opportunity to reevaluate my mission as a public educator. I value mentoring students and helping them find their voices in order to change schools and society. The unspoken, social contract of public education has been disrupted and I need to be in the classroom with students so that we can redesign the system to be just and equitable for all.

After 160 days of on-again off-again stay-at-home orders, my school district decided to return to in-person learning for the 2020–2021 school year. The first day of school for all students will be on Monday, August 24.

I hope to use this series of blog posts to document and reflect on returning to the classroom to teach during the 2020–2021 academic school year.

On Monday, August 17, I welcomed 21 5th-graders to my classroom as part of what the district is calling a “phase-in week.” This week was negotiated by our union in order to give teachers a chance to slowly re-introduce students to in-person learning after five months out of the building. Each grade level will return to school for one day only to drop off supplies and test out the logistics of going to school with the new COVID-19 procedures and protocols.

It feels like I am a first-year teacher again. Everything is difficult. Things that I took for granted are more difficult. The students can’t hear me through my mask so I yell all day. I can’t hear the students so I have to get closer than the required 3-feet physical distance. Some students do not want to wear their masks. I have a couple of students who are struggling to stay seated throughout the day. I have one student who sleeps most of the day (I wake him to go to PE and then again for lunch. He perks up around 2:30 PM when we are getting to know each other).

I intentionally keep the day structure-free because I want to test out the new protocols for school during a pandemic. I discover very quickly that this particular group of students require more structure; it is not lost on me that students have not had structured in-person schooling since March. I have a lot of “behavior students” meaning that they struggle to be compliant. Since I don’t have much structure throughout the day, they are pushing back all day long. My students struggle to stay 3 feet apart from each other. Lining up is more difficult than I expected because they keep getting too close to each other. I end the day feeling like I wasn’t able to connect with more than two students. In fact, I have never in my career had to discipline or yell at any student on the first day of school. I yelled today.

I am counting today as Day 0, instead of the first day of school, which will be next week. I have 4 days to make tons of adjustments before students arrive on Monday. I have a running list of things I need to tweak or include in order to make this a successful school year.

I have been asked a lot this week what it feels like to return to the classroom after being absent for so long. My knee-jerk metaphor is “just like riding a bike.” This summer, my family and I ventured outside a bit to counter the doldrum of quarantine. We went on a few hikes and bike rides, both new activities for our family. We all know how to ride bicycles. On our first family bike ride, I pulled down my old bicycle, which is actually practically new because I won it in a pet store raffle 15 years ago. I proudly rode it around the block twice and then hung it in the garage where it has remained. It turns out that I still know how to ride a bike. It felt a little funny, but I didn’t fall and I didn’t crash.

Returning to the classroom is like riding a bike. Teaching in a pandemic is like riding a bicycle blindfolded with both arms tied behind my back. I’m doing it, but I am falling down a lot. During the day, when I got going, I felt like I had no idea where I was going. The school day ended at 2:45. It felt like an abrupt stop of this huge beta test when the kids were dismissed.

It’s amazing how many things I had forgotten about teaching in the 6 years since I left the classroom to coach teachers. I forgot about the importance of structure. I like to bend the rules when it comes to almost everything. I had forgotten that you need some structure before you can start bending the structure. You can’t be flexible if you don’t have something to flex. This year, I inherited a group of students that many of my teammates passed onto to me. This realization came to me quickly, the way you notice an accident on the side of the highway. You acknowledge that there is an accident, but you’re driving 70 mph and you can’t stop to gawk or see if you can help. Having a “difficult” class is not new for me. Whether because they “need a male role model” or because teachers just didn’t want to deal with them, I have been given a group of misfit students. I use the term misfit, not in a derogatory manner, but to indicate that many of my students do not fit the traditional white supremacy expectations for public education. They do not want to sit quietly and listen to me lecture all day long. Unfortunately, that is a large requirement for teaching during a pandemic. I am not allowed to have small groups. I cannot sit students at tables where they are closer than 3 feet apart. I cannot have students get up and move around the classroom freely. I cannot have students touch each other. I cannot shake their hands or give them a hug or pat them on the back or give them a high-five.

I can’t do a lot of things.

The good news is that I have a group of students with very low expectations about how school is going to look. I am sure that some will go home utterly disappointed because school is not like they remembered it back in March. I think that today was a harsh realization for a lot of my students; and probably parents, too. Luckily, I don’t have to do much to get them excited about our classroom experiences. I need to train students on how to live in this era of COVID-19. Plus, I have a ton of extra work to do in order to make connections and win them over to my way of doing things. In education, this is often referred to as one’s pedagogical practice. Not many teachers use that term in their vernacular, but most everyone abstractly understands pedagogy. Students definitely understand pedagogy: they know how most teachers run their classrooms. If teachers have been in a building for a long time, their pedagogy is often understood among parents and students in other grade levels. For example, most third-graders know that Ms. Smith is strict and Ms. Jones plays the guitar and Mr. Martin, the PE teacher, is fun.

When students enter my classroom, many of them may have heard about how I run my classroom. They may have even peeked inside and saw my walls plastered with posters of Bob Marley, Martin Luther King Jr., The Beatles, Miles Davis, and Star Wars. On the first day of school (pre-COVID), my students file in and take their seats with that nervous excitement that only comes with the first day of school. They immediately take in the environment and start decoding what they see. Who is Mr. Neibauer? Will he be strict? Am I welcome here? Can I be myself? How are the desks arranged? Rows often indicate more strict, lecture-style teachers. Small groups can indicate more collaboration. In my old classroom, I had huge tables. Students didn’t have their own desk. They could store their supplies in personalized cubbies, but the tables were there to indicate that everyone comes to the table with something of value. All voices are heard and all backgrounds are celebrated. It usually takes about an hour before students begin to understand that my pedagogical practice is different from other teachers. I am not the smartest person in the room. I do not engage in power-dynamic struggles with students. I am vulnerable. I am honest. I take risks and fail often. I expect my students to dare greatly and respect each other. Learning in my classroom is a human experience.

I have always valued authentic engagement over compliant behavior. Now, I have the challenge of designing authentic learning experiences that engage students personally while keeping us all safe from COVID-19 infection.

On Day 0 of teaching in a pandemic, many of the boys in my class are cynical and disengaged. Some of the girls are passively disengaged, fantasizing about what they are going to do when they get home from school. The rest of the class is a healthy mix of students with moderate to severe learning and behavioral needs and quiet, compliant students. I think I may have won over the quiet, compliant students (which makes sense because the new mandatory school protocols requires strict compliant behavior). I have a ton of work to do.

In so many ways, I am starting over. I need to start from the beginning in many aspects of my teaching: classroom management, procedures and classroom flow, community-building, and lesson design. I can’t assume that my students are excited to be in 5th grade because they have been waiting for Mr. Neibauer’s class for the past 5 years. At this school, I am an unknown teacher. No one knows my pedagogy. No one knows what are on my classroom walls. I look like all of the other white teachers that many of my students have judged to be strict or boring or mean or a mix of all three. I’ll admit that it is a bit exciting to be a sleeper teacher, surprising everyone when I come out of seemingly nowhere to create the most amazing school experience this school has ever seen. Most likely, though, I am not winning any battles yet. In fact, I don’t even want to look at this as a battle to win. I want to focus on the community over the individual. I want to teach my students to LEAVE places better than they found them; LEAD from wherever they are; LIVE a life that matters; and LOVE something greater than themselves.

I have a ton of work to do.

Then there is COVID-19. Teaching in a pandemic is akin to cruel and unusual punishment. I am cleaning and disinfecting my classroom more than I am planning and teaching and connecting with my students. I am yelling at kids for being kids. I am scared to get close to my students and I worry that many of my students have parents who did not take COVID-19 seriously and so they do not understand the importance of these new precautions. My initial observations are that I don’t believe many of my students have worn masks for longer than a few minutes, hopefully because they spent most of the summer in quarantine with their family. I am making a wild assumption, but my gut is telling me that many of these students are from families that range from anti-maskers to COVID-conspiracy theorists that believe that COVID is not real to optimistic and hopeful parents who believe that the district’s precautions are enough to prevent outbreaks in our school. I understand that parents are sending their kids to school for many, many reasons. I know that some face-to-face time seems better than no face-to-face time. I need to remind myself that no matter the reasons, they are in my classroom and I am here to teach them, even if that means teaching them to keep their damn masks on their face because COVID is real and could kill me and their family members.

There were some positives today. After lunch, when the kids came inside from 100-degree heat, and I forced them to put their masks back on, I played a 10-minute meditation on Headspace. A lot of students didn’t take it seriously, but for 10 minutes, the room was relatively quiet and I believe it helped cool them off and calm them down a bit. In the afternoon, we were able to get to know each other more, sharing details from our lives with each other. It was probably the most productive part of the day. I’m curious if I can establish a daily meditation routine for my students. I think it would definitely have serious benefits for many of my most impacted and vulnerable students. Plus, I will help me.

Day 0 Takeaways:

I am rusty. I’ve been out of the classroom too long to be cocky about my abilities.

I need to deemphasize student grades and focus instead on actual learning.

Teaching in a pandemic is harder than anything I have ever done before.

I am a learning experience designer. I’m an intellectual thinker. I push the boundaries of what’s possible. I have lots stories to tell and change to make.

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