Zooming In on Middle School Teachers
Read about burnout, back-up plans, and the surprisingly sweet moments of connection teachers have experienced firsthand in our “Zooming In” interview series. In this series, four teachers share their experiences with internet issues, mischievous cats, taking care of their own children, worries about disengaged students, and overcoming new challenges.
Dezere is a language arts teacher in southeast Ohio; she teaches in Meigs county but lives in a bigger city outside the district. It’s been a unique challenge reaching kids who live far out in rural areas, and at first, the district was “blindsided” by the initial adjustments to the pandemic. In her own words, Dezere says she learned that “my job’s harder than maybe even I gave myself credit for…I recognize now that I’m more than just a teacher,” citing times when students showed up for online sessions just because they missed seeing her. Throughout the experience, Dezere has learned new ways to cope and had new opportunities to stretch problem-solving muscles.
One of the biggest challenges for Dezere has been making sure the students she’s not in contact with are able to receive an equitable amount of work: about 50% of her students have not been able to get onto the online learning platform, and for many, it’s because of socioeconomic status. During the first weeks of the pandemic, the school tried to purchase hot spots, but wasn’t able to distribute them. Instead, teachers have had to come up with an alternate curriculum for students who can’t access a reliable internet connection. The district has also reached out to community facilities like churches, some of which have opened up their parking lots for students to use WiFi from laptops and tablets in their cars. The other side of this challenge is “the teacher worry. They’re my kids and I haven’t heard from them.”
Through Google Classroom, Dezere has been holding Google Meet sessions throughout the week that serve as office hours for academics as well as morning sessions where the class plays a game or has a discussion to work on social and emotional learning. She uses Google Stream for students to discuss the books they are reading through comments. One of the things Dezere hoped her students would understand is that the online classroom can still be engaging and that those connections don’t just go away when they’re not in the classroom. Dezere was pleasantly surprised that she has been able to maintain some of that energy and community; she was feeling pretty negative at first while making her lesson plans, but her students have proven to be very resilient. She says, “I still feel a good sense of joy and connectedness with my students that I didn’t expect to feel through this.”
While Dezere is grateful to work in a profession that allows her to work from home, that comes with a lot of other mixed feelings. She spent her last day with her students unaware that it would be their last day together; that she wouldn’t be able to give her students one last hug or help them clean out their locker. “Those are the things that make me sad. You know, you work with these kids for a whole year and you rely on those ceremonies and rituals to really feel like you can let them go off to the next grade level, and so there’s like a sense of unfinished-ness.”
One of the most surreal but memorable moments of this experience was the dog running in while she was helping a student, giving them a good laugh together. “It’s weird to see these two worlds come together…and that’s okay that these two worlds are together right now and they’re functioning and they’re working.” Some of the challenges of teaching online have turned into great opportunities: the reading fair that Dezere organizes every year was successfully shifted to an online platform, and she was impressed with the websites some of her students built.
On her biggest worry or fear during the coronavirus pandemic, Dezere said, “I think that this event, this piece of history that we’re all living through right now is going to change so much more than just the here and now. I don’t think it’s going to be something where it’s over and we’re back and everything’s normal. And I worry about that. I worry that this is going to shift our routines and what school looks like.” She and her fellow teachers are exploring the different ways they might have to adapt their classrooms in the fall and waiting for Ohio Department of Education to provide some direction. Overall, she worries that things might never be the same and the kids might never be the same.
Erin is a 7th grade math teacher in a rural school district in northeast Connecticut with all pre-k through 12 students on one campus. Most students in her area have internet access, but don’t have enough bandwidth to use video on zoom calls. While everyone in her small, tight-knit community is missing their end-of-the-year festivities, they are working together to find alternative ways to celebrate their students and say goodbye for the summer. For instance, parents have started a Facebook page to “adopt” high school seniors, and send them gift baskets. They are planning two end-of-the-year parades for elementary-middle school teachers and high school seniors.
Erin wants administrators and parents to know that even though each teacher will find different solutions for remote learning, they are all giving it 100%. Her math team came up with an ambitious plan they wanted to share with the other teachers, but when their principal told them to “slow down,” they realized that teachers with their own children would have a harder time implementing it. (No one on the math team has their own kids.) According to Erin, “What you’re seeing is teachers working harder than they’ve ever worked before because they had to recreate everything. We’re all working like we’re first-year teachers again.” She also mentioned one science teacher at her school reading passages out loud and recording them for students who have trouble reading.
“This is stuff teachers do all the time anyway,” Erin said, “but it’s just even more outside the box now because you don’t have the things you bought from the teacher catalogs in your classroom.” Using a whiteboard app to see students’ math work in real-time has been extremely useful, but teaching geometry remotely has posed its own unique challenges, especially since Erin left about half of her supplies at school. So far she has improvised to teach volume by layering crochet squares on top of each other and pouring water dyed green with food coloring into different shaped containers. Her students had a good laugh when her cat Thaddeus started drinking and playing in the green water.
Breaking up the monotony and making each day different and exciting has been another challenge. Giving students options is important to Erin; she knows that many of them don’t like to see themselves on the screen, so she records her lessons and also teaches live. One day when she was feeling sad, she wore a Ninja Turtle outfit to all of her classes, much to the delight of her students. She’s using a “penguin cup challenge” to keep them connected and interested in school; they earn penguin points for participating in selfie challenges, doing acts of kindness, and trying other silly activities.
Not seeing her students’ faces has been the hardest part of remote learning for Erin. “There’s so much that a face can tell you,” she said, remembering a student in her class who seemed a little off. When she asked what was wrong, she learned that the student’s family had to put their dog down the day before. She laments that teachers have lost the ability to innately know what their students are going through, or at least know when to ask. She has noticed that her kids aren’t counting down to summer the same way they usually do, and she worries about how they will stay happy and engaged over the summer. However, she’s observed that “the kids are more resilient, I think than we are, and so we’re always worried about their health, their mental health, and they’re just like ‘aah, I didn’t do my work!’”
Erin points out that teachers are planners and ultimately concerned with their students’ safety, so not having a plan to keep their kids safe has been really troubling: “Ask any teacher their plan for an intruder and holy crow do they have one. And they’re creative and they’re crazy, but the teacher knows exactly what they would do. And so it’s like situations like this–I don’t know yet what we’re gonna do.”
In preparation for next fall, the 7th grade team is working on transition videos to welcome incoming 6th graders, and teachers will hold office hours for their incoming students before school is out. Depending on what happens in the fall, Erin thinks that meeting students for the first time online will look very different. Right now she can hear her students’ voices through their chat messages, but it won’t be easy to get to know new students virtually. She will have higher expectations for digital participation if that’s the case. If they do go back to school, that will look different too; it’s going to be hard not to give hugs. She adds, “I just think it’s going to be very strange, no matter what happens.” Erin still hasn’t figured out how to handle the last day with her own students, and she’s not looking forward to cleaning out her classroom; “I think there’s still boxes of tissues and chocolate in there, so I’ll be alright.”
Joe is in his 13th year of teaching and has two kids of his own. He was AMLE’s teacher of the year last year and Pennsylvania’s teacher of the year for 2020. Living and working in the same space with no commute to “change gears from teacher to parent” has left Joe with less time to recharge, which sometimes leads to feelings of burnout. He reflects, “I’m just kind of like this dad-teacher-guy right now for my own kids.” When new opportunities come up, Joe asks himself “Can I sustain this and make it meaningful for the audience it’s going to, for myself, for my family, and for my students?” He stresses that content is a secondary worry for educators compared to students’ well-being and a feeling of connection with them. During our interview with him, Joe could see bubbles floating past his window from his kids playing outside.
Joe has heard from a lot of other teachers that they feel like they have never worked harder, but he thinks a big factor in that exhaustion is the delay in feedback: as teachers build up their learning environments in person, they are able to see instantly what’s working and what’s not working for their students. However, in the virtual classroom, that feedback takes longer to come through, and it can be draining.
In response to some headlines he has seen that suggest remote learning practices should be used to save money, Joe warns that “there is nothing that will ever replace a face to face interaction.” Of course, there are some aspects of remote learning that will be adopted going forward because they have real advantages in the classroom. But he notes that “nothing replaces a fist bump in the hallway” or a smile and a “good morning.” As a parent and an educator, Joe believes that authentic face-to-face interactions are vital to any school environment. “I can see a reaction in my own daughter’s eyes when she has something that’s from a book publisher, and then when she hears her own teacher talking through a lesson—completely different reactions.” Another thing Joe has learned during this experience is how important a teacher’s voice is to their students. While we may joke about using “teacher voice,” students do feel comforted when they hear their own teacher’s voice.
One of the advantages of remote learning that Joe has observed is making materials available for students to access all the time. His students have really enjoyed the flexibility to work on their own schedule, but there’s a negative side to that as well: both students and teachers can feel like they need to be “always-on.” According to Joe, “It’s kind of a double-edged sword from a mental health standpoint, from both sides.” Some parents and families are more hesitant to engage with virtual meetings and technology, and balancing between the active families and those who are less engaged has been a big challenge.
Another positive thing Joe has observed is that virtual meetings are opening up new possibilities for efficiency. For instance, using a zoom webinar for morning announcements could allow the entire school to “visit” each classroom and create a sense of community at the beginning of the day, and some short in-person meetings could be held virtually to save time.
Joe’s administrators have been really supportive and understanding. They recognize that, much like the students, every teacher is coming into this with their own situation at home and their own strengths. For instance, while one teacher may be really comfortable with calling students on the phone every day, another teacher might make really great videos for their class instead. He views remote learning as an opportunity to highlight those differences and individual talents while allowing teachers to be leaders for others with similar talents.
While Joe believes this situation has been traumatic for his students, the feeling he’s experiencing himself is a sense of grief. “You get so used to these months, and this is when students, interpersonally—they blossom. This is when that trust that you’ve developed as a class all year, really, it’s almost indescribable to convey how students…open up, and you have that family now.” Having grown closer over the past several months, Joe and his students are trying to recreate their end-of-year traditions and celebrations, but he recognizes that they are not the same. The challenge here is to figure out how to honor those traditions that have been lost while still moving forward and focusing on the future. Having a lot of extra time to think right now has been good in some ways and dangerous in others. Moving forward into the summer, he worries about students feeling alone or isolated, dealing with difficult questions, and ultimately remaining engaged when there’s no routine.
Surprisingly, an online game night with his academic team, their families, and their students that had nothing to do with school was the most normal they had all felt in a long time. “When it boils down to what makes effective teachers effective, it’s that…when you can emotionally connect on some level with a student and make them feel welcome, and you’re basically dropping all of those protective barriers…there’s the adage don’t let the student see you smile until after the new year; I don’t subscribe to that. But you are shedding that guard completely.” Joe felt that seeing the inside of his students’ homes (and vice-versa) helped them connect as people with real emotions outside their roles as teacher and student. Joe has been amazed at the resiliency of some of his students remaining engaged while fighting their own battles: “I know they’re at home and their parents are both essential workers, yet they’re staying right there with you. They’re in every Zoom call, they are smiling, they’re still bringing energy.”
Kristen is an English teacher in a low-income school district outside Cleveland. She is in her 4th year of teaching and has an 18 month old daughter. “I’ve seen a lot of…’why are we still paying the teachers?’ online,” Kristen said, “and that’s really discouraging because we’re putting in so much time and effort, so I hope they know that…we’re not always going to get it right, but we’re not going to give up.” Kristen wants parents and the broader country to know that educators are trying as hard as they can to make this as seamless as possible for the students. Her message to them is that “We’re all in this together like everybody keeps saying, and we’re still going to show up no matter what.” This experience has taught her a new level of patients for parents, students, administrators, and colleagues.
The biggest challenge for Kristen has been continuing to connect with students when she can’t see them everyday. Collaborating with other teachers throughout the transition to remote learning has been extremely helpful. As an English teacher, she has surprised herself a bit with her own ability to pick up new technology and use it to recreate her lessons online. However, assigning work on Google Classroom does not carry the excitement that passing out physical assignments or talking through them together in person does. Not being able to physically see her students means she can’t really tell if they are following along and understanding the lesson at hand, which has contributed to a feeling of burnout, and when the “aha” moments do happen on Zoom, they are not as satisfying.
These feelings come in waves for Kristen: “Some days I feel more helpless than other days. I feel happy that we are moving into the summer, but at the same time I feel nervous and worried for my students, that I haven’t been able to give them a proper goodbye. And kind of just unsure of the future.” She hopes her students know how much their effort is appreciated. So many of them have been very patient and dove in head first with new programs, which she is thankful for. “Some of these students are doing better online than they were in the actual classroom,” Kristen said, “and it just kind of shows that there’s no one-size-fits-all for education.” It’s always a pleasant surprise when students who didn’t “show up” in the classroom show up for class online.
Thinking ahead to this summer and what things will look like when school starts up again in August, Kristen is worried about the emotional trauma her students will continue to experience and their physical appearance and well-being: “Teaching in a low income district, my biggest worry and fear is that my students are going to come back weighing less, with lower self esteem because oftentimes we were their safe haven.”
Kristen hopes her administrators know how hard it’s been for teachers to balance family, teaching, grading, and still turn the computer off at night. She shared a story about one morning when she had 15 minutes to get her daughter changed, fed and put down for a nap before a Zoom call and got it all done in a mad scramble. She keeps her daughter entertained during staff meetings at home by watching a lot of Fancy Nancy on Disney Channel.