Note: This is a guest post from a fellow Nederland writer, Anne Upczak-Garcia, who also works as a teacher.
Being an elementary school teacher in the middle of a pandemic has been challenging, frustrating, and enlightening. At the same time, many things haven’t changed. Yesterday, my husband was telling me how he read an op-ed about how all public education should move to online, now that we know it can. I woke up in the middle of the night in a confused daze, wondering, “What the hell is this person thinking?”
One. A Perfect Balance. The fantasy that I wake up, make myself a coffee, and then settle into a luxurious office space to deliver a flawless and fantastic class to my 17 eight-year-olds is just that—a fantasy. Instead, picture this: The alarm goes off, and I jump out of bed, try to get dressed, and pretend like anyone cares what I am wearing or look like. I make my coffee while my computer is booting. The chimes on my phone start going haywire. It’s the parents. It’s 8:00, and class starts at 9:00.
“What’s the code for class?”
“Where is the app to get in?”
“Our internet is out.”
“Pablo is still sleeping so won’t be in class today.”
“Can you send us instructions on how to log on again?” All of this while I’m trying to post the day’s schedule in our Google Classroom. And then there’s my own family…
“Babe, can you make more coffee?”
“Mom, I can’t get into my video call for school!”
“The dogs need to be let out!”
How is it that being locked up in my home has suddenly become more chaotic than everyone going on their way each day? I’m supposed to be bored and going stir crazy, but it’s the opposite. I manage to get everything done, answer texts, and settle in to teach.
Two. Teaching. It’s 9:00, and I open our virtual class meeting. The cacophony of chatter blares through my headset. The kids still haven’t figured out how to mute themselves and in the background, I hear babies crying, pots and pans clashing, mothers yelling for their children to come and eat, music playing, and dogs barking. I mute them all. Quiet.
“Good morning class. Let’s start with our daily read-aloud.”
I share the screen to broadcast the images of the book I’ve chosen as a launching point for today’s lesson.
“I can’t see. It’s blurry,” one kid begins.
“Miss Anne, you’re cutting out!” shouts another.
“It’s freezing up,” a third says.
In a panic, I try to relaunch as the kids holler through their devices that something is wrong and it’s only 9:02.
“I know, I know. Just calm down and wait. Let me see what I can do.”
They try, but their little brains want to help problem solve and they can’t stop giving me advice. What seems like an eternity (and is really only about 45 seconds) passes before I get it up and running correctly. At this point my nerves are fried.
I know how to manage a class full of thirty small children when I’m in front of them, but a grid on my computer screen just doesn’t cut it, and it’s obvious. They are jumping on their beds, playing with their dogs, and talking over one another. Once I’ve finished reading, we try to talk about the book, my students wanting to voice their opinions while interrupting each other.
We’re in the fourth week of instruction and they still haven’t quite gotten the hang of it.
Three. Lack of Experience. The divide between haves and have-nots has really reared its ugly head in these days of Coronavirus. Students who have parents that can work from home can get help with the work they are supposed to access via an online platform. Students who don’t have parents at home during the day struggle to even make our daily meeting.
Families with experience using personal devices at home can more easily troubleshoot when something goes wrong. Families who were just given a device (some had to wait a couple of weeks) struggle more with figuring out how to make things work. The first two weeks, I spent three hours a day on the phone working as an IT person trying to help students and parents understand the system we are using.
Finally, there are the kids who had trouble before we went online. They aren’t even showing up, and I have no way of tracking them down. The chasm grows as they are missing out on what little instruction I can deliver.
Would going 100% online be equitable? Would it give equal access to education to all? It sounds ideal in a utopian kind of world—or does it? For now, families without services are receiving free internet, a borrowed device, books, supplies, and food, but how long can that last? Would the school districts across the country provide every child with fast-speed internet, a high-end, high-quality computer, and personal tutoring throughout the year? Would they develop platforms and curricula across content areas and grade levels so students were all getting access to high-quality instruction?
Four. Human Contact. There is still that lingering question of the importance of personal contact and relationships. What is the idea that people need to interact to learn and understand from one another? We all know what happens when a misunderstanding occurs because of a misinterpreted text.
Face to face is important. It’s important for teachers to get to know students, for students to interact and learn from one another, for communities to help one another. Living in isolation in our homes behind screens so we don’t get sick and die is not living and is not a solution.
Again, society doesn’t seem to get what educating children is about and how hard it is to engage them physically, mentally, and emotionally via a screen.
I can only hope we don’t head down this road and I get back to my classroom where hugs and laughter are at the top of our list for the day.