“Day 5: Teaching from an empty classroom…
Most teachers are career teachers. This would be especially true in rural Appalachia. Heck, if you’re like Cat Lee, you teach primary for 33 years, then come back for more as a substitute (my mother’s commitment is borderline crazy). All are aware we don’t do it for outstanding pay; it’s definitely not for the once-awesome benefits; and it’s not for the 7-hour work day that spills into the overtime of grading, planning, and coaching (slight cynicism). For real, it isn’t even about those awesome long summers, holidays, and the ever-so-amazing snow day.
It’s about one thing: the student. Career teachers want to make an impact on a life — to change a life, to help mold and positively influence a life — educating, not just class content but how to maybe live better and contribute back to society. Yes, it may seem generic, but it’s the student. That’s what teachers sign up for.
This awesome process of change and education that teachers strive to achieve, occurs best directly face-to-face through real human interaction. You know how it goes: ‘Teachers have eyes in the back of their heads.’ When you are in an engaged teacher’s classroom, they just know. They have some crazy sixth sense, a superhero spider sense, as to who is actively participating and who isn’t — a vibe that only teachers and their students know.
NOW. Oh, boy. Now, is that teacher passion and super power ever being tested. COVID-19 is surely testing us all — no study guide, not even a key.
We got word on Monday. There was a general feeling this was happening, but as in most cases across the nation, there was no time to prepare. Literally none. ’10 days of NTI work by the end of today, we will plan long-term for 30.’ Bam! The corona hammer. NTI stands for Non-Traditional Instruction. It’s a relatively new idea, in which students learn from home through online assignments or ‘packets’ distributed earlier in the school year. It’s been great in instances of light snow for 1-2 days at a time, but 10-30 days…WOW. Gauntlet. I still have anxiety at the thought.
My stand-and-deliver history practice now fades to ‘please read and complete.’ Don’t get me wrong, I love a 1-2 day hiatus. But this? This ‘ain’t it.’ We scramble from the meeting to put together as much as possible in little time, doing our best to avoid an even more serious disruption in the learning process by further delay.
The mission is to salvage as much as possible and make it work: email, Google Classroom, packet pickup, phone calls. Let’s do it. No way we walk away defeated by some virus (albeit a pandemic). We put our nose down, think, innovate, take a new direction toward our goal of educating, molding, and changing.
Results prove much more difficult than ever imagined. The content quandary. How to deliver decent content to a student that cannot come to school? This is especially new to rural high school teachers. The student being delivered said content may, or may not, have internet access (this later brought on interesting debate for ‘access to internet’ as a national right).
Keep in mind, this is the mountains of southeast Kentucky. We are a Title 1 school (look it up). Now, does this mean we are low-class, low IQ, hill-dwellers as much of the world suspects? No. It means some live in areas where there is literally no internet available, and many students are 45-60 minutes travel time away from school campus. The idea of supplying ample classwork to all of our students seems pretty close to impossible. Right?
Wrong. Remember, career superheroes hell-bent on shaping young minds? Also, keep in mind, this a never-before situation, uncharted territory, emergency stuff. Throw up the hail-mary’s. We are going to try.
Okay, Day 1: Survival. Print off work, take to lobby for parent pickup, post similar work to Google Classroom. Pray. The lobby. Oh man, the lobby. We can all agree panic is fair. Do we want it? No. Can we help it? Probably not. I mean, the whole global virus thing. There is a mad rush on packet pickup. It was like we were giving out rolls of TP, a near Wal-Mart Black Friday scenario.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s so encouraging that parents came to secure the week’s work. But it came rushing in like a broken lake dam. No one to fault. No one could’ve been ready. Copiers justly ran out of toner and paper, thousands of paperclips and staples. Day 1 was about survival of the fittest. We survived, proved fit, and headed back to the drawing board to create a better system.
Day 2: Hope. A great dilemma begins to stir as our safety in the building is questioned. Is it safe to have all faculty and staff here? Is it fair to ask certified (salary) to stay home while classified (hourly) are asked to work? What is fair and safe? Further breach of the unknown. Our district calls for teachers to come to the building to assist with packets and assign online work, while many classified staff prepare food to be delivered throughout the county to students in need. Keeping in mind, Title 1, the school provided meals many of our kids count on.
The combined powers of cafeteria staff, custodians, aides, and bus drivers travel home-to-home delivering hot meals to our people. Teachers hold down the fort — thinking, creating, and inventing new ways to reach students across the distance. Packets are neatly organized by subject, grade level, and teacher; packed in manila folders; and boldly labeled. Rotations of 3-4 teachers and administrators take time greeting parents (responsibly following the 6 foot rule) and handing out packets. School secretaries in the trenches, yield the safeguards of wipes and sanitizer.
Day 3: Where no man has gone before. All school employees are now in agreement, school without students is nothing short of… depressing. For lack of a better term, it sucks. It’s awful, straight sad. Somehow, we need to breakthrough further. I have to feel more present. Don’t get me wrong, I have posted plenty selfies (sometimes filtered). I’ve posted cheesy videos, heck, even been on T.V. But educational vids for the world to see? Nah, never. New ground.
In a classroom alone, listening to myself talk, listening to myself teach — it’s so weird. This is refusal to surrender. A 1950’s power point lecture makes for thrilling YouTube content. Let’s give it a shot. Surprise! Students actually respond, send emails, Facebook messages, they begin to talk back. This really could be working. Other teachers are saying they’re having similar experiences. Wheels are turning through the muck of corona.
Day 4: The extra mile. I read a status from a fellow teacher. She had called all 175 of her classroom students, talking directly with 150 of them. She goes on to comment on how students are reaching out, completing work, participating. A miracle! In our efforts to hang on to the learning process, our students also seem to be latching on. School, or at least a sense of its existence, is needed. This, while the world is seemingly shutting down by the second. She is grading packets and online assignments. She is we. We will make this work. We teach. Global disease can’t stop our passion.
Day 5: Settling with teaching from an empty classroom. Now, it seems some smoke has cleared and the picture is seen. This is the way things will be for some time. Just posted my quiz concerning 1950’s content and printed for those picking-up on Monday. Also, checked grades and posted for the grading period. Is this ideal? Perfect? Should be done forever? Absolutely not.
I miss my kids. I miss seeing them light up when learning something new. I miss their laughter, conversation, open and direct discussion of historical topics, varying personalities, and energy. This is obviously not what I had in mind when I decided over 10 years ago to be a career teacher. Our super powers are weakened but are not vanquished forever. We will continue to do what is best for our students, though that may be from a fair distance.
Days ahead? Who knows? What we should all know, is amidst any uncertainty, teachers and other school employees will continue to care, engage, change, innovate, teach, and assist. As businesses close, as there is call for further action, as many become restricted to their homes, teachers will not succumb. Teachers have but one concern, the real reason they signed up: the students.
May the learning process forever continue.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Winston Lee. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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