The End of an Educational Experiment . . .for now

“What a long strange trip it’s been.”–Jerry Garcia

“Dear Ms. Hill,  Thank you for all of your hard work and patience.”

This was a one-sentence thank you note I received from a student in advance of the end of the academic school. I appreciated his sentiment and reflected over what I now think of as the “pandemic years of education”.  These past two academic school years have certainly tested teachers’, students’, and parents’ abilities to practice patience–both within ourselves and with one another in the educational community.  It forced all of the involved stakeholders to work in ways for which we were not prepared, and it stretched us to new limits.

As a middle school, 6-8 Reading Language Arts teacher, I have read countless student journals expressing their feelings of fear and uncertainty when the pandemic first began, their high levels of anxiety as well their feelings of isolation during their time in quarantine, their feelings of frustration during day-upon-day of virtual learning, and their exaperastion when dealing with glitchy/malfunctioning wifi or frozen devices.  Despite all of the pandemic educational vexations, students also wrote of their newfound appreciation for the value of the in-person community that schools foster.  Nonetheless, the scars of this experience, I fear, will remain with many of our students for years to come. 

“Reduced learning time has likely impeded student learning and also affected the development of the whole child.”–Economic Policy Institute

Meanwhile, when reflecting upon this pandemic experience with colleagues, both in the public and private school setting, many reflect upon the multiplicity of issues and/or frustrations, depending upon their unique school community.  Pedagogical adaptations seem to have been one of the major challenges often stated by the educators due to virtual learning, shortened school year, and/or hybrid learning.  Then, there were forced adjustments to instructional delivery in order to balance the engagement of virtual students while simultaneously instructing and attending to the needs of in-person students. This demanded that teachers refine and adapt instructional plans–often on-the-fly if there were wifi issues–in order to best facilitate student learning. Additionally, curriculum was often gleaned to the most essential learning objectives and standards also due to a shortened calendar year and/or class time and, in some cases, to allow for additional time to address the social/emotional needs of the students. Meanwhile, administrative tasks seemed to double with an endless supply of emails, on-line grading, and a multitude of spreadsheets and documentation monitoring student attendance, progress, or lack thereof.

Looking back over this experience, I feel as if I am standing on top of one mountain peak, but I can clearly see there are more summits to climb in the coming academic years.  From my current apex, I can tell you this.  Teachers and students should not judge themselves too harshly as this school year winds down.  Virtual teaching and learning during a pandemic was hard–plain and simple.  Students and teachers alike, across the country, were asked to exit their respective schools on March 13, 2020 with all of their personal/professional supplies and no preparation.  Then, on Monday, March 16, we were exhorted to embark on what would, at this point in my 30-plus years as an educator, be the most dramatic educational paradigm shift I have experienced that continued throughout the summer months of 2020 and on into the 2020-2021 school year for which we are now wrapping up.

One thing is for certain, the pandemic compelled teachers and students alike to establish a strong foundation in the employment of technology for educational purposes. The downside of this is that we also learned that technology is dependent upon access to wifi, devices that work, and equal access for all students to reliable devices and internet access.  While I was blessed to work in a school that offers equal access to devices (although our local wifi provider had MUCH to be desired), that was not the case for all schools.  Additionally, even with working devices, the importance of reliable internet service came to the forefront of the educational world as I witnessed in my own school.  As a teacher who committed to operating paperless during this school year, due to virtual learning, my students and I, very quickly, had to learn how to be incredibly patient when there was no service, certain platforms crashed, or devices simply froze. Which leads me to another lesson.

The last day of school for 1st period, 8th grade, Reading Language Arts students, for 2020-2021, whether in-person or virtual. Eventually, all but one student, returned to the classroom.

“It’s (COVID) taught us that technology can be wonderful, but it will never replace the value of people in safe but rigorous learning spaces talking, playing, and working together.”–Brad Olsen, Senior Fellow in the Center for Universal Education

The importance of local communities, administrators, teachers, students, and parents valuing and supporting one another cannot be overstated. Communities witnessed, very quickly, that not only do schools provide an education for their children, but they are also a reliable source of childcare that keeps children safe, fosters their social development, and supports their emotional and physical well-being.  Meanwhile, administrators, teachers, and students discovered the importance of the synergistic experience that happens with in-person classroom learning. While the remote learning model worked–and will probably continue in certain circumstances–there are real educational, social, and emotional benefits from interacting on-site with one another within the structured periphery of a school setting. 

The last day of school for my 8th grade, second period, Reading Language Arts class for 2020-2021, at times, many were virtual, and by the end of the year, all were in-person

“COVID-19 highlighted the essential role of child care for children, families, and the economy, and our serious underinvestment in the care sector.”–Daphna Bassok, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Brown Center on Education Policy

While I have no doubt, next year will bring the educational system continued challenges from the lingering effects of this pandemic, I believe, overall, we have the ability to face them with an even greater capacity of compassion and empathy if we heed its many lessons.  The pandemic, it seems to me, has reinforced why it is crucial for the community at large to listen to the needs of educators, parents, and students.  It has given local leaders an opportunity to reflect upon the critical role of childcare and its contribution to the fiscal wellbeing of its community.  Likewise, the educational system must continue to rethink and adapt instruction in order to better facilitate student learning while continuing to cultivate ways to meet the emotional and physical needs of children, caregivers, and educators.  One-size does not fit all when it comes to technology, education, and childcare, but all affect and influence the successful functioning of the communities at large.  

In the end, I circle back to what my student simply wrote.  Thank you to the many who extended me patience through what has been one, if not the most, challenging 15 months of my career.  Many have granted me grace in moments of extreme stress and emotional duress, and for those unnamed moments, I am eternally grateful.  Here’s to summer break, and a fresh start on the coming school year.  May schools blessedly remain open.

First period class clowning around on their last day of school which was also a dress down day for their last day of 8th grade.
Second period, 8th grade, striking a pose on their last day of 8th grade which was also a dress down day.

We all need a little patience

“In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future.”–Eric Hoffer

“Change is only felt when it is drastic.”–Lailah Gifty Akita

Dedicated to the teachers with whom I work, and all the other educators, near and far.

As I step into the warm shower, pulsating water beats down on my tight neck, my low back is still dully throbbing from the previous day’s efforts, and my feet, my heavens, my feet, they are pulsating from the constant pounding of walking on concrete.  

It’s Friday.  You can do this.  Everyone is feeling similar aches–it’s not just you.  Yes, but most others are a heckuva lot younger!  You can do this; you’ve done this before–albeit, not so drastic . . . or was it?

Students working at school in the age of COVID and an era of paperless (as close to it as possible) education.

I remember following the Special Education Coordinator of the county school district in which I had first been hired fresh out of college.  I felt proud, excited, and eager.  The clipped, rhythmic pace of her heels as they click-clacked across the tiled floor resounded–even more so when she continued on into the gym.  At the time I couldn’t understand why we were in the gym when she was supposed to be taking me to my classroom.  

Tables cleaned and sanitized well before 7:30 am when the students begin arriving to homeroom.

Eventually we made our way to the opposite side from which we entered, walked up some steps, and began walking under one side of the gym’s bleachers.  Clickety-clack, clackety-click, past what looked like one semi-formed classroom through another vaguely formed classroom until we reached the end.  This was to be my so-called classroom with not a single window.  No textbooks.  No materials.  Broken desks.  Dirty teacher desk.  Not even real walls for two sides–just the underside of bleachers, a rolling chalkboard, one concrete wall, and metal, padded locked door with Junior ROTC weapons stowed away behind it.  All 4’11’’ of me would be serving 15-25, 9-12 grades students in this space, the majority of which were lanky, long males who did not want to be there.

Gone were those meticulous lesson plans and the abundant, never ending resources of Ohio University.  The colorful, bright, window-lined classrooms arranged, organized, and utilized based upon the current, best educational practices were nowhere to be seen.  It was 1987, so there was no internet, certainly no cell phones, and those education journals to which I had been advised by academia to subscribe were certainly not going to be of help in this unbelievable setting.  This was a drastic change, and yet, I somehow found a way to make it work for two years before facing my next challenge . . . 

Moving on to another district, I was assigned to teach twelve, K-5 grade level students with severe behavior and emotional issues that often required restraint, in a metal portable classroom isolated from the rest of the school.  I was young and foolish enough to think this was a good idea–a good move for my career.  Certainly, it was financially speaking, but after one day of passive restraint training, I began to wonder.  

Although this classroom had four walls, it was empty and bare, save for a few tables and desks.  Then, there was the challenge of all those different age ranges.  Developmentally, a kindergartener is miles apart from a fifth grader.  The challenges and changes I faced over the next seven years, the unbelievable behaviors I witnessed, and the most heart-wrenching stories–seriously, seriously horrible–still haunt me to this day.  No child should undergo what those children went through.  Baby bottles filled with beer, children sexually abused, parents addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, older children responsible for numerous younger siblings while mom did tricks for drugs . . . the gut wrenching stories never seemed to have an end.  On top of all of this depravity, it was the early 90s, autism was not clearly understood and accurately identified as it is now.  Therefore, I also had several autistic students, mistakenly identified as “behavior disordered” alongside students who were often prone to violent outbursts.  Given the combination of all of these factors, I honestly do not know how I made it work–and yet, somehow Divine Providence helped me through it all.

I have experienced numerous changes in education since those first nine years of my careers, many of which were drastic, and all created unique circumstances for which I was ill-prepared, but none can compare to the combination of educating in the midst of COVID while simultaneously teaching both in-person and virtual students at the exact same time.  As an educator, my colleagues and I are tasked with keeping kids safe from a pandemic-worthy virus, care for their emotional well-being, and educate them in the socially distanced manner of their parents’ choosing–at school or from home–attending a regular schedule of classes through the technological wonders of the imperfect internet.

Each morning begins well before sunrise, in order to begin planning, organizing, and posting from home.  Arrival at school for teachers starts well before 7:00, as each teacher must mix fresh bottles of both disinfectant and sanitizer that is used before and after every class change.  Students begin arriving in our classrooms by 7:30 after going through a routine check of health questions, temperature check, and hand sanitizing procedures.  Classes officially begin by 8:10 after morning announcements, prayer, and pledge.  As students enter my classroom, they must wait until all tables are sanitized.  Then, I must quickly log in and connect my chromebook with my virtual students for that class period.  While I am doing this, in-person students set up their tri-fold, clear plastic dividers and log onto Google Classroom.  We are all masked, and by the end of the day, my voice, and those of my peers, are hoarse from projecting through the barrier of the material covering our mouths and noses.

The day begins mixing fresh batches of both disinfectant and sanitizer. Tables, light switches, door handles, class counters, and sink area all clean well before the 7:30 arrival of students.

While offering instruction, I am simultaneously monitoring, engaging, and facilitating with students within my classroom and those at home.  This also means I must work hard to be as paperless as possible for the benefit of all students, but especially those who are participating virtually.  Then, there are the technological glitches that can cause delays, interruptions, and malfunctions with both groups of students.  Additionally, I am trying to learn, assemble, and implement a multitude of on-line educational platforms to enhance, streamline, and engage all levels of students.  By the day’s end, my Fitbit watch consistently reveals that I have taken anywhere from 15,000-20,000 steps with minimum time spent outside of my classroom walls.  

If the first week is any indication, my work day will consist of a constant stream of decisions, sanitizing, and juggling–juggling in my mind to best meet the needs of both in-person and virtual learners–as I work to redefine the art of facilitating instruction.  Never in my previous educational training did I ever receive training on how to engage and instruct students in a meaningful way during a pandemic.  Nor have I ever seen so many of my fellow teachers experience such high levels of anxiety, stress, and discomfort as I have in one week of school.  The emails from students and parents never end, and it feels as if there is not enough time, nor enough of each teacher to go around. 

And yet, that experience of my early years tells me that we will all adapt, grow, and learn from this.  Educators are a formidable, flexible force driven by the passion to educate and care for all of those entrusted into our care.  However, educators, parents, and students all need extra doses of patience with one another, the ever-evolving educational technological tools, and with ourselves.  The type of drastic change we are undergoing requires much patience, tolerance, and a new level of understanding. Educators and educational institutions are all trying to rapidly respond to a situation for which there has been no previous experience.  There are bound to be countless bumps along this new educational trail which we are currently blazing.

Personally speaking, I am stepping out of my comfort zone, stepping up my game, and stepping into a new role that feels very uncomfortable.  I have never been the most technologically savvy person, but I am learning—some of it on my own through trial and error, but most of it from my professional peers as well as my students  Therefore, I implore parents of students, far and wide, please be patient with teachers and schools.  We want to educate and care for your child as badly as you do, but cutting remarks, critical emails, and sensationalized social media posts only undermine our efforts and morale.  Instead, kind words, thoughtful notes, and genuine appreciation for our efforts can go a long way in supporting our new role within your child’s life. We understand this isn’t easy for you as many of us are parents too.  We understand that you are your child’s number one advocate, and you want what is best for them, but so do we.  We want to keep everyone safe and healthy, both emotionally and physically, including ourselves.

In conclusion, let us focus on what connects us–the well-being and education of children.  Let us, as a community, be supportive of one another as we forge together through this brave new educational world; so that, one day, we can look back on this, as I do on my early years in education, and proudly declare, “We did it; we really did it.  Look how far we’ve come!”