My Name was Supposed to be Elizabeth Ann

— Stories from the Roads (Not) Taken

No teacher training ever covered teaching during a pandemic. 

Since Covid closed schools mid-March 2020, we’ve had to adapt on the fly. Overnight. Constantly. Repeatedly.

My district’s students and staff endured nearly a dozen “first” days of school as our schedules continuously changed, gradually increasing remote instruction time, gradually welcoming more student cohorts into the buildings. 

Late March 2021, we brought students back four days a week. 

Mid-April, five. 

But only half of them. 

The other half still learned from home. And in my small district, teachers had to teach both halves…

AT THE SAME TIME.

Versions of my colleagues’ challenges reverberate throughout our country’s districts, and as we approach the beginning of another Covid school year, the question educators now face is not WHEN will we fully reopen, but HOW. How will we ameliorate the impacts of two interrupted grades?

In other words, returning students to our physical classrooms is the least difficult part of the challenge awaiting educators in fall 2021. 

To find answers, I recently spoke with colleagues at our one-building middle and high school, as well as  the band director at a nearby high school. We discussed the mechanics and challenges of our Covid classrooms and our concerns about  September 2021 when we return to pre-Covid schedules. I asked them, What do you want non-educators to know?

A lot.

Here’s what they said: 

EDUCATION IS NOT TEACHERS VERSUS PARENTS.”

Teachers are parents, too. And spouses, grandparents, caregivers, single parents, working-two-jobs parents. 

March 2020, teachers nationwide were hailed as superheroes. In many districts, ours included, teachers went home one day and transformed their homes into  remote classrooms literally overnight. Like you, we thought (hoped?) the transformation would be short-term. Like you, we had to multitask, subdivide “office” space, share lagging Wifi, and continue to care for the physical, social, emotional, and psychological well-being of those with whom we quarantined.

Maria, a five-year veteran, teaches middle school science and parents four boys whose ages range from middle school to university. Two weeks into quarantine, she broke her driving leg and had a metal rod inserted. When everyone in her family was working and learning from home, “It was tough,” she said. “There was never enough room or quiet,” and her laptop classroom rotated daily from the couch to the dining room to the basement, depending on her recovery and her sons’ schedules. While the older two were more independent, the younger two would sometimes interrupt her lessons needing help. “And you can’t just [stop working]at the end of the day. You still have to be a teacher to your own kids.”

Jamie and Katie S. agree. Their children routinely walked past their husbands to ask Mom for help with tasks as mundane as locating snacks to fixing technology glitches to navigating their own online schedules. Katie, a Spanish teacher with 19 years’ experience, shared her elementary-aged daughters’ frustrations. “None of us had the same schedules. They cried when their chromebooks wouldn’t work. They wandered on screen with PBJ on their faces. My students probably think I’m an awful mom.” Once, her youngest announced mid-Meet a pet fish had died, sobbing on Katie’s lap for the rest of the period. 

Virtual classrooms blurred the boundaries separating everyone’s personal and professional lives. Physical and Health Education teachers Sean and Matt shared space and resources with children and spouses. Lorita, a 27-year veteran, ended the 2019-2020 academic year as a junior English teacher and  began fall 2020 as the facilitator of our district’s program for at-risk students–all the while caring for her elderly mother-in-law. My mother-in-law’s near fatal fall sent me and my husband six hours away from home to care for her. Her home lacked both computer and Internet, so the first month of spring shut-down I taught from her kitchen table using my phone’s hotspot, after which she lived with us and our two young adult children. Four nurses visited twice a week for weeks, a schedule whose timing rarely ran as smoothly as I’d planned or needed.

Then there’s Kate, our grade seven math teacher who, like Maria, entered education as a second career. Mom to her then fourth-grade niece, Kate began online  teaching by creating and distributing color-coded packets to all of her students, many of whom did not have reliable devices or Internet access. And by distribute, I mean she mapped out their homes and drove the packets to their homes–on her time and at her expense.

Early  2021, Kate was diagnosed with breast cancer. In May, she underwent a double mastectomy.

EDUCATION IS NOT MERELY TIME SPENT IN VIRTUAL AND PHYSICAL CLASSROOMS.”

As the nation’s shut-downs continued and fall 2020 loomed, attitudes towards teachers became as ugly as some of the debates regarding masking, social distancing, and vaccines. Many of the  loudest anti-teacher voices supported continuing their own remote offices, arguing that a return to their physical job sites was unsafe and unnecessary. Some blamed teachers unions for continued closures. Some argued that teachers should not be paid while parents “homeschooled” their students. Observing some of their children’s remote lessons, they concluded that teachers didn’t want to reopen schools because remote instruction was easier for them. 

Wrong. 

Teachers did not want their workplaces reopened until reopening was safe–for themselves, their families, and their students. Neither did teachers decide whether schools opened nor determine a district’s daily or weekly instructional schedule. Governments, school boards, and administrations decided, and teachers were required to comply.

And we did, even though Covid upended all of our systems for efficiency, interaction, and effectiveness. Regardless of training and experience, we all had to rethink and redesign everything from classroom management to unit pacing, from lesson objectives to lesson resources, from group work to class discussions to how we assessed student progress.  In addition to live Meets, we conducted virtual 1-1 and small group tutoring, contacted parents, attended meetings, filed reports, turn-keyed PD, answered emails, advised clubs, mentored novice teachers, learned new technologies, and graded student work–All of which required  long and uncompensated behind-the-scenes hours. 

Katie S. spent nearly half of every weekend converting content to online formats and conducted regular Spanish conversation groups for students unable or unwilling to participate in live class Meets.  “This has been the hardest year since my first year of teaching,” she said, a sentiment echoed by every educator with whom I spoke. 

Lorita, whose students work on individualized schedules, made herself available to them from 7 AM–9 PM daily. Maria spent six hours per unit converting mini-lessons on collecting and analyzing data into interactive slides. Matt, Sean, and department colleagues Melanie and Aaron had almost no digital content for their gym and health classes and had to reinvent their program to keep kids active and accountable. 

Spring 2020, I  converted three major literature and writing units to digital formats, then had to redo them yet again in spring 2021 because of mandated scheduling changes. Every day I recorded my lessons, and every day I posted those recordings to my message board. I converted my preps to tutoring sessions, gulped lunch at my desk, and invited kids into my Meets to chat about whatever. 

Why did we work such long hours? 

Not because administrators required us to do so. 

Because we required it of ourselves. 

Because Covid stole so much from our kids and we didn’t want education added to that list. 

Because our kids–YOUR kids–deserve our best. 

And we missed them.  

Deb, the band director at a nearby high school, wants parents to know she loves their kids and is not okay with people thinking otherwise. “What I miss most about ‘normal’ teaching is the ability to touch my [students’] instruments if they need fixed…and being able to talk to them about ordinary things. I especially miss being able to take my stars to honors ensembles and have them interact with other like-minded students and professionals. I miss having everyone in front of me so they can see how much I want them there.”

Language Arts teacher Travis agrees. A five-year veteran, he missed building relationships with his sixth-grade students and getting to know them as individuals, especially those who rarely turned on their cameras during meetings. He wonders, “How many won’t I recognize when we bring everyone back?” 

Meanwhile, Kate continued to copy and distribute math packets, a process she winnowed from five hours to three as she learned the quickest routes between houses. After she announced her diagnosis, her students changed their Meet icons to pink ribbons. “I damn near cried,” she said. “It meant so much.”  

EDUCATION IS NOT ONE-SIZE FITS ALL.”

Even pre-Covid, “differentiation” was a pedagogical buzzword recognizing that students learn differently and therefore must be educated differently. Covid highlighted that need for students and teachers both. 

Even teachers struggled with technology. Although our district had provided laptops to  every teacher prior to Covid, digital platforms comprised only part of our instructional strategies. Not only did we have to convert our curricula to those platforms, we first had to learn how to use them before teaching our students how to use them. Sometimes, we were brilliant. Sometimes, we weren’t. And sometimes, Aaron said, “We were all failures on the same day.” Maria described her frustration learning yet another device, an interactive Wacom tablet that facilitates note-taking. “No wonder [some students] feel overwhelmed. Some days I don’t want to learn anything else, and I love to learn.” 

Not everyone struggled, however. Some of us excelled in the virtual classroom–and not necessarily those whom you would expect. Jamie and I have co-taught one section of senior English for over five years. A 23-year veteran of Special Education instruction, she is a differentiation native who marries flexibility with accountability. While some students on our rosters had IEPs and 504s (legal documents mandating learning accommodations), every student needed our specialized expertise with technology and content regardless of their classification. 

Consider Lorita’s experience. Online learning had dramatically different outcomes for her two oldest granddaughters. While some may assume high-functioning students adapted more easily, hers did not. Lacking the interaction and discussion of in-person learning, the honors student’s grades plummeted. Meanwhile, her other granddaughter’s average grades became A’s and B’s because the online classroom lacked the distractions of middle school drama. Lorita noticed a similar pattern in her own students, including a night owl who previously struggled with chronic absenteeism.  That student thrived in a flexible virtual environment–academically and personally.  She worries whether requiring a return to traditional schedules will erase that progress. 

Like their students, teachers responded differently to working remotely. Spring 2020, my district’s students and staff worked entirely from home. Fall, we worked a hybrid remote/in-building schedule that varied according to transmission rates and CDC cleaning requirements. Melanie and Travis felt more productive in the building, while Fraulein Katie D.’s anxiety receded at home. “I could focus on teaching only, without all the distractions,” she explained.

An introvert, I did not mind the enforced isolation as much as some of my peers because working from home meant fewer distractions and less wasted time. We had made the difficult decision to place my ailing mother-in-law in a care facility, and most days my family left the house for their own jobs. I replaced my 1.5 hour round-trip commute with a short walk to my desk and devoted my energies to teaching — designing, implementing, and assessing student learning rather than hall duty and writing passes or referrals. Time I would have spent on non-teaching tasks I spent meeting 1-1 with my students.

Kate considers herself fortunate that her niece did not struggle as much as some of her students did. A more independent self-starter, D. hated remote instruction but was able to participate and excel at her classwork with minimal assistance from her aunt. Both were thrilled to return to their physical classrooms, even though doing so increased Kate’s workload and stress, much like her colleagues’.

Why? 

Because differentiation only works when student cohorts are small AND when their classroom populations contain no more than three distinct ability levels– Neither of which describes the reality of our Covid classrooms.

Think about it.

How do you meet the needs of every student when every student in each and every class struggles with different issues in different ways? 

When there are no predictable patterns to how and why every student struggles academically, emotionally, and psychologically? 

When everyone’s clock is different and everyone logs in at different times? 

When half of your students are at home, the other half in your room, and they don’t turn on their cameras or they can’t take off their masks? 

When you can’t see their screens? 

When they don’t know how to present their screens?

When they do know how to present but Google is glitchy and Zoom…doesn’t?

When you can’t lean over their desks to review their work because COVID?

When you can’t lean over their desks to review their work because then you’re away from your mic and your camera, and those at home can neither see nor hear you?

When there are still only 24 hours in a day, even when you work weekends and arrive early and stay late and ….?

EDUCATION REQUIRES HUMOR, PATIENCE, COMMUNICATION, AND TEAMWORK.” 

Despite the chaos and long hours, teaching in our Covid classrooms had its welcome bright spots. 

Like our students, we exited our comfort zones and learned invaluable new skills, technologies, and practices.  

Like our students, we talked while muted, suffered pet camera bombs, accidentally deleted our files, and learned obstacles are overcome much easier with humor and patience.

Like our students, we isolated behind masks and screens, missed our school friends, felt adrift, and learned we share much in common and can help each other when we communicate our concerns. 

Like our students, we survived, thrived, and overcame when we acted like teammates. 

Just ask Kate.

I spoke with her over the phone during her post-surgery leave. Pain punctuated her sentences. The Friday prior, she’d returned to watch her students participate in our outdoor Spirit Games and left worn out by the exertion. She didn’t regret it, though. “I just needed to see them being kids again,” she said. 

Pre-diagnosis, she had volunteered as an assistant girls’ softball coach for our varsity team. Karen, a math colleague, offered to teach Kate’s classes during her leave in addition to her own. Ken, history teacher and varsity softball coach, organized a visual display of support.  The day before Kate’s surgery, staff greeted her arrival wearing matching pink shirts. Her student athletes wore coordinating designs. 

TEAM KATE, they all read.

Before we ended our call, I recalled her tutu and face paint from our fall 2019 games and asked whether she still had people at school and home taking care of her. “Oh my god, yes,” she said. “A lot of people have helped.” 

I credited her remarkable attitude. She credited her supporters, then laughed. “I’m wearing my tutu next year,” she promised.

As I write, next year begins in eight days.

TEAM KATE

*****

Earlier this summer, New Jersey’s governor announced a statewide, schoolwide mask mandate, regardless of vaccination status. August 23, he issued an executive order requiring vaccinations or regular testing for all school personnel. Districts across the state, including my own, are working to ensure the safety of those who enter our buildings.  In my building, every student will attend in person, five days a week, and follow our pre-Covid bell schedule. 

Last week, I learned my teaching schedule. 

This week, I’m trying to prepare. 

Except I can’t. Not really. 

Because “normal” student progress has definitely been impacted. 

To what extent? No one knows.

Yet while that uncertainty troubles me and other educators, we remain optimistic.

We remain confident that we can rise to the challenge of the next ten months just as we did the past eighteen.

One day at a time, one day after another.

Together.

*****

This is dedicated to all the education heroes serving our children and families. THANK YOU!!!

Have your own QuaranTale? I’d love to hear it! Share your stories below.

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