This year has been the ultimate educational experiment. For years the question has loomed: Given a strong curriculum, can students learn just as effectively online as in person? This COVID year has given us an answer: School is so much more than any curriculum. This year has proven that our school system is one of the most vital institutions not only for the health, learning, and well-being of students, and not only for child-care; school is key to a healthy society.
I love teaching. I love the challenge of unlocking excitement for reading in a room full of diverse, middle school, tech-savvy personalities. I love it when they become a community of readers engaged in discussions over something we all read together.
Teaching Through Fear
There always have been challenges to teaching, from angry parents to political pressure to censorship—even to school shootings—but they often felt abstract. I have never been afraid of my students. However, this year has been different, as it has been for so many people. Fear lurks in the background of my thoughts—fear for my students, fear for my colleagues and fear of bringing home a deadly virus to my family every day.
For better or for worse, we returned to onsite, in-person, masked teaching in August. We were given a mask with the school logo and a bottle of disinfectant and told to sanitize between classes. We were not to allow students to share materials (which became a challenge for me as a reading teacher with my one class set of books) and we were to distance students as much as possible inside of our rooms.
I was nervous the first week of classes, but then my teaching muscle memory took over and things seemed almost normal. There was such joy in the classroom! This masked group of large-eyed fifth-graders was a rare group of children who grasped the value of being together after a strange spring semester of forced learning from home. In fact, the biggest challenge was to ward off those students who wanted to hug hello. However, at the end of every day when the room got quiet, I would wonder if this was the day that I caught COVID from one of my sweet, unsuspecting students, and was I about to take it home to my family.
My colleagues and I were trying our best to teach, but instruction was intermittent and quickly became secondary to survival. Students could choose to attend onsite or virtually and would be allowed to change at will. Between students and teachers being quarantined after exposure to the coronavirus, the revolving door of who was and was not supposed to be in the room was exhausting. We were told to simultaneously teach both onsite and virtual students via live video two days a week and traditional in-person lessons the rest of the week, with messaging to our virtual students during our breaks and after school. However, attending the video lesson was optional for the virtual students, so I have students that, despite my best efforts, I have never seen nor heard back from in any form of electronic communication. They occasionally turn in assignments, but mostly they are just names on my roster, and I feel like I have failed them.
Student Wellness and Mental Health
As the year has progressed, a problem has developed with the increased mental health issues of my virtual students. Even my best virtual students are lonely and overwhelmed with trying to keep up with middle school classes and with all the distractions of home.
One of my virtual students, Jackie, was becoming despondent, so we had a private video chat during lunch one day. Jackie said that she was lonely and afraid that she would not have any friends if we ever returned to onsite instruction for everyone. So we brainstormed and came up with “virtual recess.”
One day each week we would have a video chat during lunch/recess where our virtual students and any onsite students who wanted to would join a student-led video chat just about fun stuff—gaming, TikTok, pets, YouTube, sports, music, etc. We crafted a message to send to teachers and a sign-up sheet for our first virtual recess this month. So far 60+ students have signed up! We will see how it goes, but Jackie and I are very excited.
Dealing with the challenges of this new teaching landscape is exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. Even though this is my 28th year of teaching, I feel that there are new obstacles I have never experienced every week.
There have been many good things to come out of this year, too. Our district got an online platform and gave every student a Chromebook and internet hotspot, which puts us a step closer to tech equity. Teachers have more opportunities for online professional development and shorter, more efficient virtual faculty meetings. Parent-teacher conferences are over video chat, which allows me to share student documents and speak with the parents in a more engaged, private setting. Masks have become a fashion accessory. And most importantly, students and parents are expressing an increased appreciation for school.
Kathy Powers has enjoyed 28 years of teaching students in elementary school, middle school, and college, and currently teaches reading and language arts to fifth grade students in Conway, Arkansas. She is a National Board Certified Teacher and a proud member of NNSTOY as the 2011 Arkansas Teacher of the Year.