An Ode to Educators During the Crummiest Year Ever
Ilana Garon is a writer, editor, and educator who has taught English (and sometimes math, in emergencies) in New York City, Nashville, and Kansas City. She is the author of “Why Do Only White People Get Abducted by Aliens?”: Teaching Lessons from the Bronx (Skyhorse, 2013). Ilana is a military spouse currently stationed in Washington, DC with her family.
In the very beginning of the pandemic, I was teaching online classes at a Tennessee community college. On the day a major paper was due, I received an email from one of my students. It read, “Ms. Garon, I need an extension because I will be unable to turn in the paper on time. Everyone in my family has the virus, and also, my home has been wrecked by a tornado. And we have no power.”
In any other year, I would have questioned the legitimacy of such an excuse, given the near-Biblical level of hardships this student was describing. Back when I taught high school in the Bronx, NY, my students regularly offered hilariously outlandish excuses. (One time a particularly cheeky 10th-grader informed the entire class that he had to use the bathroom during a quiz because he had “consumption”; when I told him I was pretty sure he’d been vaccinated against TB before starting school, he then changed his mind and announced that he had gout.)
Unfortunately, my community college student’s request was grounded in harsh reality: The pandemic was engulfing the country, and on top of that, Nashville had just experienced a deadly tornado. I immediately granted the extension; it was the least I could do.
In the months afterward, I took a leave from the college due to my spouse deploying during the pandemic, and subsequently, our family making a cross-country move. But I have since thought many times about the seemingly impossible work facing teachers: to not only teach, but keep students from slipping through the cracks, while only being able to connect with them virtually, if at all. It seemed like a Sisyphean task. How could they possibly succeed?
Turning on a Dime
Throughout the pandemic there has been a lot of talk about “essential workers,” the broad category of folks whose job functions are integral to sustaining life as we know it. Teachers are certainly in this group; moreover, their job has required an extraordinary amount of adaptability during the pandemic.
From the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, teachers have had to completely overhaul the entirety of their roles: Instead of coming into school daily to a room full of students, many classrooms are on Zoom and Google Meet; instead of teaching “their” students, some are now teaching a mix of students from several different schools; instead of writing on dry-erase boards, they’re learning to use a host of digital technologies—a process one teacher rather restrainedly described as “time-consuming.”
Yet, somehow, they’ve managed to do it all.
From In-Person, to Hybrid, to Remote, and Back
I spoke to several teachers for this article, all of whom shared that they and their students had responded surprisingly well to the challenge of remote learning. Sharon Mumm, a technology coordinator at a K-6 school in Mountain Brook, Alabama, explained that one way teachers in her school had found success was in being very purposeful about instruction, now that they were juggling students participating in remote, hybrid, and in-person learning. “We had to adapt our instruction and planning to be clear and have meaningful activities,” she says. “We asked ourselves what were the most essential objectives to teach. We also needed to be able to guide parents to help their students. We had office hours on Google Meet to work with students and parents.”
Shannon Descamps, an elementary school teacher in Fraser, Michigan (who cut her teeth teaching 1st grade for a decade and a half), had been teaching 4th grade for three years when the pandemic hit. In fall 2020, she began anew as a 6th grade teacher, first in a hybrid situation, and then entirely virtual. However, that changed in November, when she was switched back to an all new group of 4th graders (from two different schools, no less), again all virtual, for the remainder of the school year.
Despite the ostensible difficulties and upheaval, Descamps reflects that many students have benefited significantly from the framework that she and teachers like her have created. “Some of the 6th graders had struggled in person—but online they were rockstars. They could create their own schedule more, they were in charge of themselves. I have some that are truly thriving,” she says. While Descamps remains clear-eyed about the fact that “some students clearly need to be back in class” (a fact reinforced at a recent parent-teacher conference), she reports that a surprising number of her kids are “doing amazing work. They are ‘on’ and enjoying themselves.”
Keeping Things Interesting
So what wizardry are these teachers wielding to keep their students engaged and learning virtually? The answer, all of them reported, was more method than magic: They’ve given students a significant measure of choice. Heather Burkett, a 4th grade teacher in a Title-1 school in Hampstead, New Hampshire, reported that “choice boards have been a great creative outlet for both my students and me this year. I try to provide nine choices, all of different varieties, so they can choose something that works well for them and that they find fun.” Burkett has her regular “go-to’s,” BrainPOP’s Make-a-Movie, Creative Coding, and Make-a-Map (a concept-mapping tool), and also uses Flipgrid and Jamboard to “get a snapshot of [her] students’ thoughts and ideas.” Mumm also echoed the sentiment that skillful wielding of learning management tools has given students new options to express themselves creatively and demonstrate understanding–and helps teachers keep instruction exciting and fresh.
And sometimes there are hidden benefits to virtual teaching that might even make in-person teachers slightly envious. Burkett explains that she used Zoom to create two teacher profiles, one from her computer, and the other from her phone. This allows her to log in simultaneously as “Mrs. Burkett” and “Mrs. Burkett 2”—and visit two different breakout rooms at the same time. “It’s allowed me to be in two places at once,” she laughs.
For many teachers, the hardest part of teaching virtually has been the difficulty connecting meaningfully with students. So much of a teacher’s interaction with students involves seeing them in class, face-to-face…and noticing if they seem hungry, tired, stressed, or alternately, happy and excited.
Descamps, the teacher whose roster has changed umpteen times during the pandemic, has found that daily 20-minute meetings have been a life-saver for her and her students. Morning meetings “have been huge for making connections with these kids,” she says. She explains they use this time to “check in” about their feelings.
Descamps also tries to give students the personal touch they may be missing: “I try to make sure I notice their haircut, or their new shirt.” Occasionally she uses back-channels to ensure that her students stay engaged and on task. “I have two parents who know their kids log off sometimes, so I text them, ‘Your kid just left the reading group—can you send them back?’ And they’re back in five minutes,” she says. “I feel a different type of reliance between us.”
Burkett shares that scheduling one-on-one conferences with individual students on a rotating two-week basis has helped her stay aware of what’s going on in their lives. Still, she also is conscious that part of the magic of teacher-student relationships is in finding the humor in everyday classroom interactions. One game her students particularly enjoy: “Students type into the chat anonymously what they had for lunch, and the class tries to guess who ate it! It’s incredible…and they get them correct!”
Silver Linings and Gold Medals
With vaccinations on the rise, a sense of cautious optimism that schools might be back fully in-person by fall 2021 has taken hold. Still, the teachers I spoke to were very much grounded in the present, and I was struck by their optimism and joy in the face of the challenges of this year.
“Honestly, I love my virtual class,” Descamps told me. “The kids keep me going. I have 31 kids now, but they’re a lot of fun.”
Mumm shared that one of the silver linings of the pandemic learning experience is improved teacher-parent relationships. “I think the connection between school and home grew stronger during this time because teachers and parents had to communicate in a different way,” she says.
It’s impossible not to notice how sudden and unanticipated many of these hurdles have been. “There was so much I wanted to learn and try, but so little time,” Burkett lamented, despite the fact that—at least from an on-looker’s perspective—she has resourcefully incorporated a slew of new tools and other entertaining practices into her instruction.
And this gets to the crux of their challenge this year: When faced with the impossible directive of, “Take everything you’ve ever done at your job and do it completely differently,” teachers have acquitted themselves not just adequately, but brilliantly.
“As much as it’s been extra work, I don’t regret it at all,” Descamps muses. “It is different. But if I can make the year better for the kids by having fun with them online, and give them the best year possible, I’ll feel like I did my job.”