Confessions of a Veteran Educator
Part I: An Apple (Computer) for the Teacher
I have been teaching remotely for a year now, and I give it a resounding thumbs down. I cannot wait to get back into the real classroom.
A pre-Covid-19 teaching day in the life of Ms. Brewer (me) at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle was lively, energetic, people-filled, and active. There were highs and lows, with some days full of mathematical revelation and others diverted by a classroom management challenge. But it was almost always satisfying and fulfilling to teach young people, collaborate with colleagues, and be part of a community working to educate every child. In my math class, a typical period included class discussion, students up at the front to visually share their thinking, work time while I walked around to support groups and individuals, and some off-topic interactions that developed personal connections so that students wanted to learn with me and each other.
A post-Covid teaching day is so different! The same amount of lesson planning goes into it, but it lacks most of the good stuff. The liveliness, energy, people, and activity are missing. To illustrate, let me share a typical day in my remote teaching life:
At 9 a.m., I log on for Mentorship. My co-mentor teacher and I check in with our group of 18 students, who are sophomores now and who meet weekly throughout their four years of high school. The virtual version of Mentorship is 15 minutes each morning of connections and school business as needed. Attendance varies, but the students seem to appreciate having the consistency of the group and while most of them don’t turn on their cameras, they do occasionally unmute themselves to speak aloud.
At 9:20 a.m., I take a deep breath and enter the Microsoft Teams meeting for my first period of the day. I turn on my camera and mic and smile and say good morning to whomever is there. They either don’t respond or they write “Good morning” or “GM” in the chat. Other students drift into the virtual classroom, and one of them, Amir, unmutes to say a verbal “hello” and “how are you?” He always does this, and his seemingly brave act of connection amid the silence makes me very happy. [Student names have been changed for privacy.]
I continue to welcome people and make small talk about hoping they are doing well and that they will get out into the sunshine later today. Did I mention I am talking to a screen of blank boxes? Yes, I am. In one of my three classes this morning, one solitary student, Jalen, will have his camera on throughout the class because he has realized this helps him feel connected and engaged. He is acknowledged by every one of his teachers as the only student who does this consistently. A few other students—Riley, Lila, and Amara—will turn on their cameras for a few seconds before signing off at the end of class, and I will thank them enthusiastically for letting me see their faces. Otherwise, I am teaching a sea of boxes, some with initials and some with pictures of themselves, anime characters, or other images.
At 9:25 a.m., It’s time to start the class officially . I share my screen, and the first slide has our daily agenda along with a funny math cartoon or a Ms. Brewer bitmoji (a personalized animated version of me that I created using an app) in a new pose. Our first activity is a cheesy word problem that pokes fun at Ms. Brewer’s exponential decrease of Instagram followers. This warm-up connects us to what we did the prior class and uses the skills practiced in the homework. Even though we only have live virtual class twice per week and they have had three days to complete the short homework assignment, fewer than half of students have done it, so I don’t know how many of them are successfully completing the warm-up. That said, a few students type their answers to the warm-up in the chat, and I continue to enthusiastically talk to the silent screen as I show how to do the problem and praise the participation that I see.
I then ask students to share one thing that they learned, liked, or had a question about from a video about credit cards and other exponent-related financial math they watched during a prior class. I made the video, a combination of silly but informative skits between me and my son, and interviews with a local ice cream shop owner and the principal of our school. As we wait for students to share their thoughts, I thank each person as they post in the chat. I encourage everyone to write something; it’s open-ended, and I just want students’ ideas and feedback about the video.
After a minute or two, only nine out of 24 students have shared in the chat—37.5%, I point out. Their comments are great, though. Mariana says she liked the skits with my son; Mimi writes that she appreciated the interview with our principal; and Jacob liked learning about how my other interviewee, Molly Moon, financed and developed her first ice cream store and has grown her business into a locally recognized enterprise with multiple shops.
But what about the rest of the class, the ones who didn’t give me any feedback? Here are the possibilities: They logged into class for attendance and then they went to do something else; they are there but playing video games or watching YouTube or sleeping and didn’t hear the question; or they didn’t watch the video despite being given time to do so.
I continue teaching for the remainder of our 50 minutes, and at the end of class I wish students a good day and remind them that I am available during asynchronous support time in the afternoon. They can come ask questions, talk about life, get help catching up, or anything else. In the afternoon, as I work at my computer, one or two students might take advantage of that support time, and I’m happy to help. It’s also okay if it’s quiet, because I can use that time to plan or reach out to individual students and families.
At 10:15 a.m., after first period, I take a moment to walk across the house and back, and then I do the same lesson two more times before lunch, tweaking a few things here and there. After saying goodbye to the third class of the morning two hours later, I exhale deeply and take a walk outside to breathe fresh air and go over the morning’s events in my head. I dialogue with myself about whether it’s fair to judge students for their apathy or families for not being willing or able to influence their children to care and to choose to learn.
As I walk, I smile remembering positive interactions that happened. But my smile fades as I recall the awkward silence when I waited for Emma to respond to a question and never got a sign of life. She is a 9th grader, so like most of my students, she was new to our school in the fall and doesn’t really know the other students in the class. I have gotten to talk to her a few times during support time, and she has even turned on her camera for me. She seems really kind, and she has told me she was a strong student in middle school and wants to do well in school this year but it’s been hard because she feels isolated and disconnected. She is depressed and anxious sometimes. Because of all that, she doesn’t always wake up in time for her morning classes, or if she is awake, she might log in from her bed and then roll over and go back to sleep. Other times, she tunes in for class and may type something in the chat but hasn’t ever said more than hello aloud. She has done about half of her math assignments, which isn’t helping her with that goal of earning high grades.
I resolve to call or email home to check in on her. How does her mom, who she lives with, think Emma is doing? How can I support her to do some of the assignments she hasn’t completed? Does her mom know that she isn’t consistently engaging in our live classes? I care about Emma and her learning, and I’d like to help her in any way I can.
When I call that afternoon, her mother appreciates that I took the time to call and says that she’ll talk to Emma. She is trying to support her, but this time has been hard for her too, because she works during the day and can’t always check on how her daughter is doing. It’s challenging to maintain a constructive parent-child relationship with a teenager when the parent is struggling too and when the teen wishes she had a little time away from family to be with friends.
On my walk, I remind myself that above all I am worried about my students. I know that this is really hard for them and they are not trying to be rude or apathetic or self-sabotaging. At a time in their lives when they are supposed to be differentiating themselves from their families and developing lifelong relationships with peers at school, engaging in clubs and extracurriculars and passions with like-minded young people and growing their minds with math and history and more, they are stuck at home in front of a screen. In fact, I truly laud the students who do make that daily choice to participate and learn and benefit from the teaching that is happening.
It’s hard for me to maintain my enthusiasm because a teacher’s job is to engage students, and I feel like I’m failing. However, I’ve also decided that I can’t entirely own this failure. The system has not been set up to support us. My school district, Seattle Public Schools, citing legitimate equity reasons --uneven internet bandwidth for all students, anxiety and other conditions, different living situations, and more-- doesn’t require students to turn on their cameras or microphones during class.
While I understand this decision, I wish the district had said that camera use was an expectation while not a requirement. Then most students would turn on their cameras and exceptions would be granted without penalty to those who couldn’t. This approach has been taken in other schools and districts and has worked. Our district has also set grading guidelines that make it very hard to give a student a non-passing grade this year. With an excuse to be invisible on-screen and to do minimal work in order to pass, many students choose simply to meet that incredibly low bar. Students tell me that if their peers were to turn on their cameras, they would as well, but it is a cycle where no one turns on their camera because others aren’t, and so on. Chicken or the egg?
A group of students on the ski bus (an activity not run by the district but with high schoolers from our school, and the one place I have gotten to see students in person this year) readily admitted to me recently that they just aren’t focusing on their classes because there is no incentive. No level of effort by a teacher moves the needle, they said. With this as a backdrop, teachers keep working hard, but we know our efforts aren’t supporting all students, and that’s defeating. Unfortunately, it is the current reality in many schools and districts.
Part II: A Failing Grade for the System
So, yeah, teaching isn’t fun this year. That would be okay if it were just me struggling while students were doing well. Educators can handle a year of this. The problem is that remote teaching is not working for most students.
Students openly tell us they are struggling to find motivation, even if they have been high achievers in the past. Not being at school in person with their teachers and peers is hurting students’ mental health and their academic progress. Some parents and guardians are at a loss for how to help them, and many have had to put their own lives and livelihoods on hold at great expense in order to care for their children.
One of my students, Mingyu, is an example of a student who came into the year with a positive attitude, found silver linings, and made the most of remote learning, but who over time has lost some of that rosy outlook. She still participates in class, and because she communicates her needs with her family and teachers, I know she will make it through this, but she is having a tough time right now.
Mingyu has several siblings and feels like she never has space for herself, but she also wants to meet her teachers and peers. She is able to take walks around her neighborhood and see a friend from her prior school, but otherwise she isn’t getting the social connections she needs, and she worries about her parents who are stressed out due to pandemic life. Mingyu has been one of my most participatory students and often turns on her camera during class, even when others don’t. Lately, she hasn’t been on camera as much because of her depression, but she likes connecting visually when she is feeling up for it, and she knows I appreciate seeing her. She alerts me when she is having a particularly quiet day so that I know she is there but just isn’t speaking up. She is the only student who does this, and it shows caring for herself and for me. She has an extraordinary level of empathy compared to her peers.
Mingyu has an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), meaning that she receives accommodations for learning differences. Mingyu works hard and seeks help when needed. I know her better than I know most of my students precisely because she reaches out often. She typically uses Remind, a texting app used by teachers, to text me about math or about how she is feeling, so we communicate in real time. A few days ago, she texted, “My mental capacity is so low and I’m just not ok. I need help with school but idk what to say to all of my teachers.” I coached her and reassured her that her teachers care about her and will be flexible and understanding. We made a plan about how to communicate with her teachers, and it helped her feel better. A few days later, on March 14th, she texted “Happy Pi Day!” Mingyu has told me that she has had some issues with bullying at prior schools, so remote learning was actually sort of nice for her in the beginning, but now she feels that same exhausted stress that is getting to a lot of us, and she just wants to go back.
I feel for Mingyu and her peers because they don’t have the same coping mechanisms as many adults do. This past year has been very hard for many adults, as we know, and I worry that the impact on teenagers is similar or even higher in some cases. Young people are resilient, but right now they need in-person social, emotional, and academic support.
I should add that there are certainly exceptions to the discouraging picture I’m painting. Some students enter the virtual classroom with a high level of innate motivation and are doing fine. Some students and families have even decided they will not go back to in-person school because the online version of it is working so well for them. I’m glad this experience has been illuminating in that way. However, the data and anecdotal experiences of educators indicate that most students do not have the self-control or the desire to fully focus in virtual classrooms for several hours per day, nor do they have the emotional tools to cope with the continued challenge of a lack of in-person interaction with teachers and peers. For them, let’s follow the lead of schools around the country that have opened safely, and let’s get back into the physical classroom.
Part III: Sounding The Old School Bell
If we had had a larger vision as a nation or within individual schools, this could have been a successful, albeit aberrant, year. We could have had students work on long-term interdisciplinary projects based on their personal interests, where teachers coached holistically and also guided students to seek instruction from different teachers based on their subjects of expertise. Or we could have done a lot more outdoor education and taken advantage of opportunities to get kids outside into nature. I think, though, that the pandemic has been so discombobulating that all people have been able to do is cope with each new development as it came. Many large districts didn’t have the flexibility or vision to figure out how to really make this work.
After a year, I believe that nothing besides in-person school will bring many of our students back into a place where they are excited about learning, motivated to engage, and able to increase their prospects for the future. But although the CDC has said that schools can safely function without the entire staff being vaccinated, many educators have not felt comfortable going back to the classroom until vaccinations are an option. Reasons for the hesitancy? Worry about poor ventilation in some old school buildings, an inability to have safe social distancing in classrooms, lack of a plan by schools or districts for adequate PPE and sanitation, and other safety concerns.
Some people have argued that teachers are essential and therefore should have been teaching in-person all along. I agree that teaching is essential, both for academic and social-emotional learning and because school is where children go while their families work. One difference between teachers being in classrooms and other essential workers continuing their in-person jobs, however, is that teachers are fully responsible for the children in their classes. Many schools have been unable to outline how we can keep students and teachers safe and distanced, especially in large schools with crowded classrooms.
In February, I wrote two personal letters to Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, giving sound arguments why he should prioritize childcare workers and other educators in the vaccine queue along with other essential workers. He never responded to me nor did he budge on his timeline that put many other people ahead of educators. But on February 16 , President Biden instructed states to prioritize educators, and Inslee acquiesced immediately. I’ve gotten my first shot!
I personally would have gone back to the classroom without a vaccine and with adequate protection, but since the vaccine has been a stumbling block for many, it is excellent news that teachers are now prioritized, and more and more each day are getting their first dose of the vaccine. In addition, federal funding is coming to schools to help implement safety precautions for the whole community, especially since few students can get vaccinated yet. By vaccinating childcare workers and educators who are already working in-person with young people, we are acknowledging the essentialness of those who teach and care for children. By vaccinating teachers who aren’t yet back in the classroom, we are getting closer to returning to school.
Happily, it now appears that in the next several weeks, my district and schools around the country will figure out how to open middle and high schools along with elementary schools. The latter are opening more quickly due to the different set-up of classes and ages of children. Some governors, including mine, have mandated reopening because of the current mental health crisis among children. I expect it will be a somewhat bumpy return with all the logistics involved, and with some families choosing to remain completely remote, but I believe opening schools will benefit our entire community, most of all our kids who are struggling and their families who love them and also need them out of the house.
I love teaching, and take student learning very personally. I give a lot of time and energy to my students, both inside and outside of the classroom, because it’s my job and because I know my work makes a difference for my class as a whole and for individual students. In normal years, the energy I put out at school is matched by energy I receive back from students. I am hopeful that soon I will get back to doing the challenging and joyful academic and interpersonal work in person.
Thumbs up to that!
Shira Brewer has been a teacher for 12 years in Seattle, Wash. and in Johannesburg, South Africa.