A Veteran Teacher Weighs in on the Remote Learning vs Open-the-Schools Debate
By Shira Brewer
Teaching my ninth grade Algebra 1 students this spring in Seattle, the original epicenter of the pandemic, was far from ideal. Have you ever been in the middle of online teaching in your living room and turned around only to realize that your son is trying to sell his younger sister on the shopping network? I have. Granted, it was a spoof. But that’s how I at times engaged my restless students, stuck in their own living rooms during our video calls.
I was optimistic that this was a limited moment in time and we would be back in the classroom in the fall. I knew that online teaching and learning were not ideal for anyone and were in many ways detrimental to students, but I was comforted by the fact that we in Washington State and other states were taking measures to flatten the curve. I assumed we would only have to contend with about three months of very inconsistent learning for our students.
I am a National Board-certified math teacher and have been teaching for over ten years. I just completed my fifth year at Nathan Hale, a public high school in Seattle. The reasons I love teaching are myriad: the daily interactions with students, the vibrant school atmosphere, the diversity of our community and the evolution of relationships that we are able to create with individual students and classes over the course of each year. Add to that the interactions and collaboration with my thoughtful and dedicated colleagues.
Teaching is also challenging. Classroom management is hard and takes years to master. Students have complex lives outside the classroom that impact their attention and motivation to learn. Meeting the needs of every student takes innovation and creativity because skill levels can vary hugely in a single class. And as many parents and caregivers have learned in the past few months of sheltering in place, patience is key.
This spring, I shifted to teaching from home through various virtual platforms, including leading live online lessons. I found I was often talking to a bunch of digital black rectangles because most of my ninth graders felt too sheepish to show themselves online. Despite pulling out all the stops to teach from my house, I only succeeded in that with about half of my students. The other half checked out for a variety of reasons: lack of internal or external motivation, family instability, lack of necessary technology, or having to babysit younger siblings and otherwise support their families.
A colleague of mine says that pandemic educators are “building the plane while flying it,” and I think that is a perfect metaphor. There is a lot we can do remotely; online learning has its place, and in many cases, it is an excellent alternative. That said, there are many reasons society has chosen to have young people interact face-to-face with teachers and peers in school. In addition to the practicality of children being cared for out of the house during the weekday while adults work (no small thing, as we have all realized), the personal connection between teachers and students is vital. We know that engagement is significantly impacted by how much students feel valued by and connected with their teachers.
The past few months have made abundantly clear that when at home, some students can't or won't engage, but when they are at school our chances of involving them are much better. Additionally, equity for all requires in-person teaching and learning. Many students have learning needs that cause them especially to benefit from in-person instruction and to suffer academically and emotionally without it. This group includes special education students and English language learners, but also encompasses many other students who need the stability and safety of a school setting to have a chance of an equitable education.
Here is my idealistic proposal for going back to school during the pandemic: Teachers will be considered essential workers and students will be considered our precious charges. As such, school staff and students will be provided excellent PPE and other protective measures to keep us as safe as possible from getting sick. The federal government will fund this effort because our youth are the future and need an education and because in order for the rest of the economy to function well, children need a place to go during the day.
In addition to frequently cleaned facilities and hand sanitizer, masks, possibly face shields, and small class sizes so that physical distancing is possible, every teacher needs a headset microphone so that we don’t permanently injure our voices by continually straining them as we try to talk through a mask to a room full of students. In my ideal world, our masks would be specially made to show our mouths, either through a clear layer or with a face shield that provides sufficient protection. So much is communicated through our facial expressions, and it helps students (especially hearing-impaired students) to see our mouths.
Alas, we know that such a plan is not happening. The federal government has not shown that it values schools. As a consequence, more and more school districts are announcing that that they will be going back to remote learning in the fall. Seattle just made that call as well this week. This is disappointing; while I desperately want students and families to be served by in-person school, we of course need to keep students and school staff safe. If we can’t sufficiently minimize risk, we must be remote.
If the national decision about teaching in person were up to me, I would struggle with whether to go back in this current climate. As a classroom teacher, I would be scared about getting sick, and of course I would worry about the health and safety of all staff and students. It would also mean a significant personal family impact: being more exposed at work would require taking important precautions at home, including making the tough call to keep my parents away from their grandchildren. Until now, we have been able to continue close contact with all the grandparents because our relative isolation makes that safe, but it would not be safe to continue that if I were exposed to hundreds of people per day, even masked.
That said, my indecision is because of the very real and lasting negative academic and emotional impacts of remote teaching that we have already experienced and because of desperate families. What are parents and guardians supposed to do if they don’t have care for their children during the day? Families somehow have made it work until now, but it has been extremely challenging for most.
School is a critical part of our daily lives and continuing to do it remotely causes significant damage to mental, physical, and financial health of millions of families. I am not suggesting that these struggles override the risk of losing lives to coronavirus, but the trade-offs are very real. I so wish there were a way to make in-person teaching work without such serious risks, and I believe we could do it with enough support. The months-long Trump-led failure here is undeniable and devastating.
So, what do we do now? It is so important to develop some trust and connection with my students in order for them to learn successfully with me remotely. They need to know that I am a real person, and we need to truly see each other and make eye contact, which isn’t really possible via a screen. One of the reasons that learning actually happened this spring was because I already had established a relationship with students.
To support the creation of real-world bonds, even if they need to be formed more quickly than in a normal school year, I propose that we do the following during the first couple of weeks of school: In safe numbers, students and families come to the school athletic field or other outdoor venue on assigned days to meet their teachers in person. They engage in getting-to-know-you activities with each of their teachers and a few other students and discuss remote learning expectations. This will at least create an initial connection until a deeper one can develop.
When we are ready to transition back to in-person school, even if we have to ease into it and use masks and physical distancing before returning to the “normal” we all so desperately want, I believe that people will adapt and use what we have learned during this time to improve teaching for all students. When we do go back, even seeing my students once or twice a week, faces half-covered, will be a welcome joy. I’ve missed them.
Postscript: One silver lining of virtual teaching this past spring was that my 11-year-old son, Rafi, who loves technology, delighted in helping me create and edit math videos. Here is one such video:
If you watch at minute 6:10, you’ll see Rafi’s attempted sale of Aziza, his 7-year-old sister.
Shira Brewer was born and raised in Seattle, Washington by her Insider parents, D'vorah Kost and Brian Grant. She has lived and taught in France and South Africa but the Pacific Northwest remains her home, and she currently teaches high school math in Seattle. Shira lives with her husband, Matt Brewer, and her two children, Rafael and Aziza, who are doted upon by their grandparents. In her free time, Shira enjoys eating chocolate and other good food, jumping on the trampoline with the kids, listening to NPR, running and other outdoor activities, baking, singing, and laughing with friends.