I’ve had a lot of different jobs since college. I’ve worked in politics, public policy and spent seven years as a classroom teacher. I can say unequivocally that the most difficult job I’ve ever done was my first year as a classroom teacher. There is no amount of training or experience that can prepare you for the experience of managing a classroom, breaking down complex concepts for students, and being on top of all the twists and turns that can interrupt a lesson, test, or activity. Across the country as the school year is coming to a close I want to take a second to talk about the extraordinary work that teachers are doing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and why it’s absolutely essential to prioritize education in the coming months.
Part of the reason the first year of teaching is hard is because it’s new. You are still developing the lessons that will work the best, figuring out your procedures, and finding the rhythm of your classroom. There are dozens of curve balls each week: student emergencies to deal with, a desk or marker that went missing over the weekend creating a new wrinkle for Monday morning, or, my personal Achilles heel, technology that never seems to work the way you want it to.
Which leads me to teaching remotely at a moment’s notice during a pandemic. I still work for an education non-profit so I get to talk to teachers all the time. I’m sure it will shock no one that engaging students online is substantially different than teaching students in person in a classroom. The New York Times had an incredible write up of teachers’ experiences last week. You should read the whole thing, but I wanted to share a couple comments that really resonated with me below:
The first year of teaching is hard enough as I mentioned above. There are days you feel like you are just treading water to try and get a lesson prepped and executed. Introducing a new element like online learning to that process with very little training or resources is exactly like building a plane as you are flying it and just about as dangerous for students in terms of actually mastering content.
I spend large parts of my day trying to figure out where students and teachers are right now so that I can design and provide resources that will help them succeed in this environment, but I think reflecting on Mr. Santoro’s comment above is critically important. There are millions of students in this country who don’t have the ability to just sit in front of a computer for hours of school work each day. There are technical barriers, personal barriers, and honestly students have lost their normalcy and sense of community through all of this.
We need to listen to teachers and really hear what their students are experiencing. Sarah Boyle, an AP Literature, 12th grade English and creative writing teacher summed up the impact of these losses better than anyone I’ve read recently:
I read the internet too much, gobbling up any articles and tweets about how remote learning will work and who it will inevitably leave behind. It should surprise no one that the students who will lose the most are those who already have the least: students living in poverty, students with disabilities, students of color in segregated districts. My students. What will it look like from the inside, these months of lost education? I know all about the education gap and the education debt. But never has it been more clear to me that my students are losing farther, losing faster than my own children, who are white and go to a tony public school in the suburbs. I have already seen people suggesting that any gaps or shortfalls brought on the coronavirus lockdown this year can be remedied in the coming school year. But my students are seniors, and there is no next year for them.
We are just starting to see the impact an abrupt end to the school year will have, to say nothing of an uncertain start to next school year. Many suspect that online learning will need to continue in some areas well into the fall. There are already plans for staggered class schedules to ensure social distancing for students, but I wonder how those schedules will work in districts that are already overcrowded. I am not the only one wondering this, across the country teachers are experiencing the same uncertainty that has increased all of our anxiety during the pandemic:
In the coming weeks critically important decisions will be made about how or if schools can safely open in the fall, to say nothing of how state budget shortfalls will impact education spending across the country. Those decisions will impact how teachers plan over the summer, how they deliver their content in the fall and whether millions of Americans will need to continue to work from home if schools are not open. A generation of students needs us to make the right decisions for their health and their education. I’ll be fighting to ensure their teachers have the resources they need to educate them for the duration of the pandemic.