Teaching in a Pandemic: Day 45
This is my attempt to document and process returning to the classroom during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.
Today marks the end of the first trimester of this school year. I haven’t written much (aside from evening journaling) in these last couple of months because teaching keeps me busy. Teaching in a pandemic exhausts me beyond comprehension. I come home every evening, a dead man walking, take a shower to decontaminate myself (I’m not sure if this is necessary, but my germ-phobic brain feels relief after I have washed away the day in hot, soapy water), check in with my family (my own kids are doing remote learning, so I usually have a punch list of technology troubleshooting or reteaching), and then start making dinner. I am usually asleep by 9:00 PM every night. Sometimes 8:30 PM. I spent some time today flipping through my journal entries over the last two months and I am positive that I have no more insight now than I did in August. There are some recurring themes.
I’m still struggling
Teaching is a difficult profession. Even with 20 years of experience, overall, it really doesn’t get much easier. Sure, I have become more proficient over the years at the daily juggling of tasks, and I like to think that my pedagogy and craft has improved, but teaching is always a challenge. I always strive to try new things. I redesign my lesson plans, my classroom layout, and my even my instructional approach depending on the day or the student or time of year. At its best, learning is a social act. Student collaboration and discussion are essential elements of an engaging classroom experience and promote deep understanding.
COVID-19 changed all of that. Teaching is not only hard; in fact, now, teaching is too difficult. I don’t say impossible because educators across the nation are doing amazing things, both in-person and remote, to engage their students. I can only speak from my personal experience.
My lessons are falling flat more than they are resonating with students. I can’t seem to engage them in any content. The learning experiences that I’m designing are hamstrung by COVID-19 restrictions. Since I am frequently teaching from our LMS, many students are choosing to open other tabs in their browser and play online games rather than collaborate in a Google Doc or on a Padlet.
I can’t change my classroom layout. Students are not allowed get up out of their seats, but I can’t seem to keep them the required three feet apart from one another. When I have tried physically-distant student groups, students are not interested in collaborating. They would rather socialize.
I’m struggling with classroom management. I have a lot of discipline issues happening every day. Either a group of boys are physically fighting, or a group of girls are insulting each other. There seems to be multiple behavior issues every. single. day.
I don’t feel like I am connecting with my students. There seems to be a huge barrier that is preventing us from bonding (aside from the masks, face shield, and 3-feet of distance). I can’t shake their hands in the morning. I can’t high-five them when they make a new connection to what they are learning. I can’t give them a hug when they are hurting. Just a couple of weeks ago, one of my students was stung by two bees while we were outside in the last minutes of the day before the bell rang. It was first time she had ever been stung by a bee and she was crying. Instinctively, I went to hug her and take her to the nurse. I hesitated and in that second, I wrestled with how I could comfort her. I opted for a hand on her back while I led her to the school nurse. Then I ran to a nearby sink to wash my hands.
I felt sick to my stomach afterwards.
What does this communicate to my students? How can they trust me when I can’t even touch them? How do they know I care about them if I am washing my hands every time I go near them or touch their laptops or desks? I’m not surprised that I’m struggling with classroom management.
We over Me
I was excited to borrow this ideology from Michael Sorrell, President of Paul Quinn College in Dallas, Texas, to use in my classroom. During this pandemic, it is more important than ever to work together to build community and keep us all safe. My actions affect your health and visa versa. Again, this doesn’t seem to be working in my classroom. Building a compassionate and resilient community is proving to be way more difficult than I anticipated. Each day, I address incidents where students are acting in their own self-interests rather than for the benefit of their classmates. For example, when there was a conflict at recess last week, my students surrounded two students who were fighting and encouraged them to FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT! They actually wanted them to get into a physical fight so that they could watch and cheer for their favorite side. WTF?
Fear and more fear
I am scared every day. My teammates are scared every day. Any time a student is absent, we are not told any information about the nature of their absence. I understand the need for student privacy; however, with any potential COVID-19 infection impacting my own health, I feel like I have a right to know something. Are they getting tested for the coronavirus? Is there a concern that they might be infected? Should I be tested again? Instead, my teammates and I know nothing, so we fear the worst. Continual fear makes me feel powerless. The day-to-day stress of teaching in a pandemic is hard enough without the constant fear that I could be exposed to COVID-19 at any time, and I wouldn’t know if I was exposed because I am only getting tested once every two weeks. COVID-19 positivity rates are continuing to rise in our community. I suspect that there are more cases of COVID-19 than are being reported because there just has to be based on available data. If the original metrics to determine whether we would be in-person or remote were being used today, our school district would be closed. Instead, the metrics have changed and we are continuing with in-person learning under misnomer that our schools are safe.
Cynicism and academic apathy
Teaching during this pandemic is turning me into a cynic. I can feel myself caring less and less for playing by the rules of the educational system. Why? Why do I need to assign grades based on content standards? Why do I need to assign homework? Does it really matter if students do anything academic this year? What if I can’t motivate students to meet the grade-level benchmarks? I don’t feel like I have anything external that I can hold over students because so much of this school year feels like a mulligan year. Will grades count? Will there be standardized testing? Unfortunately, all of this cynicism erodes my passion for teaching. I want school and learning to be fun! I want students engaged, not because of fear they will get a poor grade, but because they are excited about the learning and connecting that learning to the real world. The coronavirus has made teaching not only difficult, but miserable. I feel more like a strict babysitter than an inspired educator.
Complain, complain, complain
My students complain all day every day. They complain when they hear the morning announcements and the schedule for the day. They complain when they hear what we will be doing at the beginning of a lesson or project. They complain during the lesson or project. They complain when I put them in groups. They complain when I separate them because they are fighting in their groups. They complain about wearing masks. They complain about sitting all day. They complain about washing their hands. They complain, complain and complain some more.
I get it. We were all thrust into a very difficult situation. I’m still unsure if all of this complaining is unique to my particular students or if it is somehow related to COVID-19. I believe that there has to be some connection to the pandemic because everything is connected to coronavirus in some way. All of our stresses, all of our fears, all of our decisions are now felt and made through the lens of COVID-19.
It is exhausting.
I would love to go back to stay-at-home quarantine and not have to worry about doing anything but staying healthy. Those “stay-at-home” weeks were odd and surreal, terrifying and uncertain, but they were also a time to pause and just look around. There were no responsibilities except for basic needs (groceries, hygiene, etc). Many adults didn’t have to go to work (or could work remotely) and kids didn’t have to go to school.
I can see the appeal for students. No classwork. No homework. No tests. No teachers. Just perpetual Sundays.
I understand that many children had (and continue to have) very stressful home environments. Whether because of abuse, food scarcity, or unemployment, many home lives are filled with more stress than I can fully empathize with as a white, middle-class male. For many students, returning to school is probably a safer and healthier option than staying at home.
Although 20% of students in our school district opted for online learning, most of the students of color in our building chose remote learning. As I look at my classroom and I walk through the hallways, I see a lot of white kids. I know that COVID-19 has affected communities of color more than white communities, so I am not surprised at our in-person demographics. I would love to think that parents chose to send their children to school because they trust that in-person learning is more beneficial than remote learning. I know that parents only want the best for their children and that many believe going back to school is best (both academically and for social-emotional well-being). However, I can’t help but wonder why so many of my students are still complaining about in-person learning instead of trying to make the best out of this unprecedented situation. Are my expectations unfair and unrealistic? Is my white privilege getting in my way? Perhaps I am being myopic and misguided and prejudiced in my wonderings. I do my fair share of complaining; I just wait until I get home. When I am at school, I am busting my ass to make this pandemic learning experience the best possible for all of us.
Every day is a long day. I am exhausted all of the time because I am either changing my plans on-the-fly, or trying to create double the plans (one for in-person learning and one for remote learning). Having to always be at the ready of moving to remote learning is stressful. I wish we could move to remote learning for the entire second trimester. That way, we would have data on one trimester of in-person learning and be able to compare that to one trimester of remote learning. Personally, with many of my student discipline issues in the classroom, I think many of my students might actually enjoy remote learning more than in the classroom. I wouldn’t have to deal with their behavior or complaining; I could just create engaging online content and then evaluate whatever gets turned in. In fact, I wonder if some of my students would perform better online because they would be working at their own pace under the watchful eye of their parents.
In the meantime, I continue to try and take care of myself and not to stress too much. I do my best to empathize with my students and work to connect with them despite the challenges we are all facing. COVID-19 isn’t going away any time soon.
Neither am I.