Teaching in a Pandemic: Day 60

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

We are finally moving to remote learning. After three months of in-person instruction, over 100 students and 50 teachers in our district have been infected with the coronavirus. Daily COVID-19 cases, incidence rates, and daily hospitalizations are all growing exponentially.

It has been one hell of a trimester. I am amazed (and eternally grateful) that I have not contracted the coronavirus. I have had multiple students in my own classroom be exposed because of family members contracting COVID-19. We have had dozens of students in our building either get COVID-19 or have sick family members, forcing multiple cohorts of teachers and students into quarantine. The amount of perpetual stress and anxiety I and my students have felt over these past 60 school days has been overwhelming.

I stopped looking at any scope and sequence weeks ago. There is no point in trying to “keep the pace” with anyone or compare this school year to any other. This year is unprecedented and I have been using these 60 days with my students to focus on their social and emotional well-beings.

Here is what we, as a class, accomplished in these 60 days:

Mediated as a class using the Headspace app for a collective 7 hours

Restorative justice practices including daily circle time (with physical distancing), stress checks, and classroom meetings so that we can make continual adjustments to our learning environment

Listened to music

Told tons of stories

Drew, colored, and doodled

Interviewed each other about formative moments in our lives

Talked about our classroom agreements and values every single day

We have started over in our classroom multiple times throughout these 60 days. We have tried different reward and consequence systems, different protocols and procedures, and even restarted completely when certain lessons or learning experiences failed. It was a gruelling start to this school year and I know that we all have been stressed and angry and scared. Sometimes all three at once. There have been days when we have taken our frustrations and anxieties out on each other. We have struggled together. There have been times when we hurt each other and made amends with each other. We have yelled and cried together, and sometimes we have just sat in silence to collectively focus on our breathing. After 60 days, I can honestly say that I have never felt closer to my students.

Parent conferences affirmed the importance of setting academics aside for social, emotional, and racial healing. Yes, grades were low this trimester. For many of my students, their refusal to participate in any academics because of their disillusionment of public education, resulted in very low benchmark scores. However, in the end, the conversations always came back to how the students are feeling and how I, as their teacher, can help them feel better about school so that they can be successful (based on their definition of success; not mine or the district’s).

When the school district finally made the call to move to remote learning, I braced for my students’ reactions. I had a split: half were thrilled because they have hated coming to school every day and the other half were terrified. Many of my students feared that remote learning would be harder. All of my students are upset about not seeing each other in person. I’m anticipating a very bumpy start to our first week of remote learning. Luckily, I have learned a lot about my students. I have also learned from the countless educators throughout the country who began this pandemic school year with remote learning. I will be taking many of their learnings and creating online learning experiences that I hope my students will enjoy. It is times like these that I am grateful for my social media network of educators who are not only working to engage their students, but also are building each other up other during these very stressful times.

My first week of remote learning was last week. Early LIVE lessons were bumpy and clunky as I struggled to find my flow as an online educator. Teaching from Zoom is still just as exhausting as teaching from the classroom. I had to remind myself throughout the week that Zoom is not a classroom space; it is an online meeting tool. It is a different type of fatigue, though; there is something unique about the specific drain felt after three-hour Zoom classes compared to six hours of classroom teaching. Still, I am safer and happier at home and I believe that my students are benefiting by not having to be perpetually fearful of contracting COVID-19 every day while in class. As with anything new, over time, my teaching rhythm and flow slowly improved. When my misfit students are confined to tiny squares on my computer screen, I have few classroom management issues. When students are empowered to disengage without affecting me or their classmates, I feel like I can get back to actually teaching rather than managing behaviors and helping my students resolve their conflicts. When lessons fail, which they absolutely did this week, I didn’t find myself getting stressed out. These learning experiments informed my methods for future lessons or one-on-one meetings with my students. Here are some of my initial takeaways from my first week of remote learning:

LIVE classes should focus on BIG ideas only.

There is no need to lecture for three hours. Lectures are very taxing on students and difficult to make engaging. Lectures are teacher-focused and I don’t want my students to rely on me for all of their learning. I want to introduce students to large ideas and then have them discuss. I want students to self-direct their learning skills and move at their own pace; not at the pace of my lecture.

More discussion; less practice.

LIVE classes need to have more discussion than individual practice. Asynchronous work time is best for students practicing discrete skills at their own pace. When students come to a LIVE virtual class, they want to talk and share their ideas and be social, and I can now give them that space safely.

Office hours are key!

Having instructional support time (or office hours) throughout the week is vital to strengthening student relationships and helping students practice what they are learning. This week, I really enjoyed hanging out with the students who came to my instructional support time. In one session, I helped a student transfer a photo from her phone to her computer and then upload it to an assignment. It took some time, but the self-satisfied smile on her face was priceless!

Focus on repetition.

Assignments throughout the week will focus on repetition. I want students to practice various skills during the week and then be able to apply them to a larger project later in the week. By creating an application assignment I will have a chance to see students apply their knowledge in various contexts.

The biggest learning I had this week is that I need to be my students’ favorite content creator. I learned this from Toney Jackson, a fourth-grade teacher at Nellie K. Parker School in Hackensack, New Jersey. I had forgotten how much fun I used to have creating learning experiences for my students. COVID-19 and #teachinginapandemic stripped me of my joy of teaching. Coronavirus makes going to school terrifying. It puts distance between me and my students. It adds stress and anxiety to daily lessons and interactions. It turns me into a health warden where I micro-manage student behaviors because I am scared that their negligence might get me sick.

The funny thing is that it took moving to remote learning for me to reconnect with my students. I don’t regret our time in the classroom. I enjoy seeing their beautiful faces, even if they are tiny boxes on my screen. In the classroom, COVID-19 prevented me from authentically connecting with my students because I was scared that I might get sick from my students and it irritated me that students weren’t taking pandemic precautions seriously. I know, now, that this fear-bias prohibited me from enjoying my students fully and enjoying teaching my students.

We may have had a bumpy start to the school year, and whatever our future holds, whether online or in-person, I am confident that these students are the best thing that has ever happened to me as an educator. I needed a big reminder about my purpose and my WHY: to have a positive impact in the lives of students so that I can inspire children to change the world. These children may or may not change the world, but they have definitely changed me. Let’s see what the next 60 days brings #teachinginapandemic. I’m ready.

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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