There is no denying that teaching has been a major topic of discussion ever since schools have closed their doors at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Teachers have been called to adapt their pedagogy and curriculum in as few as a couple days in order to design a program fit for distance learning. Teaching distance learning - or “quaranteaching,” if you will - has had mixed reactions from staff, students, and families. Parents and guardians are now tasked with overseeing their child’s schoolwork on top of holding down their own jobs and duties as parents. Teachers are constantly creatively problem solving, trying to make this new reality as user friendly as possible, while maintaining a relationship with their students. Students must acclimate to new technology, new expectations, and new forms of academic communication. We have all been thrust into a limbo-like world where we must adjust to a new way of teaching, learning, and living.
There are the moments when families feel frustrated with the at-home schooling situation and wonder - sometimes to themselves, sometimes on social media - what is it that teachers are doing if parents and guardians are the ones keeping their children on a school schedule? Believe me, we wish we could explain, but we’re a little busy over here.
What follows is one perspective on a distance learning teacher’s typical day in their home office. This by no means accounts for the extra obligations many teachers face who are taking care of their own children, taking their own online classes for higher degrees or certifications, or caring for family who may be sick or elderly. This is one glimpse, one window into a day of a “quaranteacher” delivering lessons digitally.
So, this commute isn’t all that bad. A typical stop on the way to work includes one at the coffee maker, maybe taking an extra minute or so to appreciate the still-hot coffee, one at the dresser to change into your day-time pajamas, and one in the bathroom to freshen up and see if your face is video-conference-ready.
Before students are likely to be up and working, we teachers prepare our material, writing, rewriting, and rereading directions a half dozen times to ensure that instructions are clear. Assignments are described and posted on the preferred school platform, due dates are assigned, material is uploaded, point values are checked and double checked, a daily announcement is crafted and sent out to students, and a friendly meme is posted for good measure.
After the knuckles are cracked, we open our inbox and sift through the dozen or so emails that seemed to have all flooded in overnight. Google Classroom updates are checked, concerned parents and students are responded to, daily and weekly meetings are RSVP'd, and bosses receive our replies.
We stare at our momentarily empty email, relishing that one, pure moment of being caught up.
Then the first email comes in.
“What is this essay about again?”
“Where is this assignment posted?”
“I didn’t read directions; is that score permanent?”
“My computer crashed.”
“What are we supposed to be doing?”
“I just don’t get it.”
We breathe. We smile. We remind ourselves that this is an adjustment for all. We respond with carefully placed smiley faces, a line to check in on their well-being, an encouragement, an answer.
In the case of mass confusion, we quickly put together a screencast lesson, pointing out exactly what students should be doing today. If we’re lucky and can find a quiet space in the house, (and if our district allows), we send out a link to students who are struggling and meet with them virtually to ease their stress and anxiety. We clean the lenses of our blue light glasses and smile when a familiar face pops up on the screen. Our students show up on the other side of the digital world and talk us through their confusion. We share our screens and guide them through some difficult concepts. Many times, we also get introduced to their furry friends and our own hairy coworkers make a quick cameo if they are snoozing nearby.
These are the moments that make us smile. These are the things that we miss. For a moment, things may even seem normal; then our student signs off.
Confession: I giggled the other day when I received an email advising we make sure we’re taking our “proper lunch and prep periods.” I giggled as I ate my hundredth peanut butter pretzel, dipped in Nutella, dipped in anxiety. Then I moved on.
Afternoons are often blocked off for meetings and grading. For some reason, I find I am grading more than ever before. A recent strategy I’ve employed for myself is grading five assignments, then taking a moment to breathe or watch a short video or, let’s be honest, pour another cup of coffee. Repeat.
Grading comes with a new wave of emails to be responded to and followed up on.
Then, the meetings. After shushing the spouse or roommate or child, we find a corner that seems somewhat decent to be filmed and log onto our meeting with our colleagues. Here are more faces that make us smile in our day! We joke about what we would have been doing in our school buildings, how long it has been since we put on real pants, and what totally irrational worries we’ve had while working with minimal social interaction. Then, we get to work. We share our concerns over students who have been outwardly or quietly struggling and work together to come up with new plans to help. We brainstorm ideas on how to build community and make our students feel cared for and important. When we sign off, we give wistful waves and try and find a way to say “see you soon” and mean it.
Things start to settle in: that meeting earlier this week that relayed a change in the state’s teacher expectations hangs over you like a storm cloud. That one student who hasn’t turned in work all quarter is tattooed on your brain. That email that you wrote and rewrote and revised over and over again before finally sending echoes in the recesses of your head. Was it misread? Misinterpreted? Was I too assertive? Your day-to-day unit plan starts to fall to pieces as you see those gaps in understanding and wish to scrap the rest of the unit and start over.
In some sort of strange, possibly telepathic, possibly spiritual connection with the internet, all of your windows are malfunctioning: Google Classroom is on the fritz, BrainPop has gone off the grid, your school platform has slowed to a crawl, and your email will not reload.
Your screen manifests the frenetic state of your brain and mirrors it back to you.
So you take a moment to reset. Refill that coffee. Walk outside for a moment of rejuvenating fresh air. Count the few cars that pass by, and don’t allow yourself to return to your work until you have counted 15.
Then, back on the horse.
The Afternoon Wrap Up
With emails sent, grades submitted, feedback delivered, and meetings adjourned, the afternoon demands a reflection. What went well? What didn’t? What plans need to be changed based on how students are performing? Where do instructions need to be more explicit, and what can be done to differentiate across the cyber-sphere?
We revise plans and check in on our kiddos. We hope that what we have done today was worthwhile. We imagine what might have been in other circumstances, and try not to list the objectives that are simply not feasible at this time. Our posts are prepped, our gradebooks updated, and our reminders are scheduled to send out in the morning.
At last, we close our laptops, determined to try and turn our teacher brains off for the night.
Then an email notification lights up our phones: “Can you please help me?”
And we open our laptops again.
Our daily teaching practices have changed. We are now faced with the more tedious of duties - grading, emailing, record-keeping, digitalizing material - with a significant lack of face time with our students. The conversations and sparks that took place in our classrooms, the very ones that made us fall in love with this crazy profession, have been muted, and we bemoan this loss as we get out of bed each morning and close our computers each night.
No, we are not caring any less for our students than we did before we were tossed into this unthinkable situation. In fact, they’re always on our minds. There is a palpable void in our lives without our learners. Teaching is, at its core, a synergetic act; we give what we can to our students, but they, in return, give us more than they realize. They give us energy - and exhaustion - and purpose. We miss them. We love our pajamas, but we’d much rather shimmy into our work pants and see our students than miss them the way we do now.
Rest assured, we are working hard to make this manageable. We are working hard as we bide our time until we can return to our classroom and high five our students in the hallways. We are here, and we are forging on.