COVID: A teacher’s perspective

Jamee Robinson | Guest writer

puzzle
Balancing act: Robinson finds the “new norm” with a conglomeration of schoolwork, coffee, homeschooling, and puzzles.

7:15 a.m. is when I hear the whistle of the kettle on the stove. This signals to me that coffee will occur within 5 minutes and it is safe to go downstairs. This is definitely one of the few bright spots of quarantine, as a typical school day would start around 5:55 a.m.

I plod downstairs where my husband awaits with my coffee and my newspaper. Yes. A REAL newspaper. Made of dead trees. Prior to school closure, I decided to subscribe to my local paper, both to be supportive of this dying industry and because newspapers make for great garden mulch. I’m glad I did as gardening is one of the view activities I can still participate in. I skim the headlines – as of Saturday, my state of Maryland will be requiring us to wear face masks when patronizing essential businesses. The stock market tanked. Again. I linger over the obituaries, wondering how many may have been affected by COVID-19. Most of them note that services will be held virtually, or at a later date, and I ache for those families.

As I scan the headlines, I think about all of the lost teaching opportunities. As a Government teacher, COVID-19 is bringing together so many teachable themes: the power play between state and local governments; the balance between liberty and order as governors order distancing measures; checks and balances as the various branches of government coordinate a response. As I sip my coffee, I wonder how much of this should I bring into my distance learning lesson plans. These are amazing opportunities to really show students how government interacts with their lives, but do I really want kids to log into Google Classroom and see assignments surrounding Coronavirus when they may have sick family members at home? When they are maybe sick themselves? When they or their parents may have lost their jobs due to COVID-19? As the teacher of seniors, do I really want to remind them of the reason they have been robbed of their senior year? The caffeine hasn’t kicked in yet, and it’s too much for me to handle. I decide to attack the crossword puzzle instead.

8:30 means I have to take my dog Jack on the first of his many walks. He is going to be so disappointed come August when the number of his walks decrease. Back for a 9:00 Google Meet. Mass confusion. How will final grades be calculated? How will we celebrate our seniors? What about the kids who are not logging on? I think back to an article I saw in the newspaper this morning that participation in distance learning is disproportionately affecting low-income students. My mind wanders to another article I saw about how California is preparing for the fall. They are considering requiring students to wear masks, having staggered arrival times, a hybrid of distance and conventional learning…Again, too much, but now I’m out of coffee. Fortunately, my Internet goes out and I decide it is a signal that the meeting is over. Living out in the country has its benefits.

My 9th grader plods downstairs, snags a muffin, and heads to go back upstairs to do her own distance learning. She has been assigned to do An Hour of Code and mumbles that this is evidently elementary material. It is obvious this teacher is filling a void, because this is not even related to the class she is taking. She complains her English teacher is assigning way too much work, most related to current events, which she really doesn’t want to think about right now. I hear her. But I will still make her do it. Her real focus is on her AP US History class. Yesterday morning, she spent 3 hours collaborating with her classmates on history notes and has been able to keep up with her grades successfully. And why not? She has supportive parents with stable jobs and plenty of food in the house. I hope she knows how fortunate she is. Again, my mind wanders to the kids I haven’t heard from.

10:00 AM. The 4th grader, the true teenager of the household, is still asleep. I think she may be having the worst experience of us all. We live in a small town, a village really, and she doesn’t have anyone to play with. There is a playground that we can see from our house, but it is currently cordoned off with caution tape. In between her own distance learning, she has been playing Roblox with her friends constantly. I feel guilty about letting her play so many video games, but it is one of the few ways she can connect with her friends nowadays. And besides, as I type, it is currently snowing. SNOWING. In April. Gah!

I check emails. I sent out emails to approximately 300 parents and students yesterday, laying out how I am going to proceed with learning for the rest of the year. I have gotten approximately two responses. As I parent myself, I get emails from my daughter’s 4th grade teachers that I find wholly confusing. Some are using Google Classroom, while some are just sending random links embedded in emails. I am not sure what is due when. I use her gradebook to keep track of essential assignments, and think about the few emails I have received from students and parents since shutdown. They are mostly about grades. And here, COVID-19 has unveiled yet another systemic problem with our society.

School is not about grades. It’s not about whether you got an 88% or a 94%. I’m sorry that we as a society have fed you this lie and perpetuated it. School is one of many gateways towards understanding the world around you. You don’t learn Algebra because you might be assaulted by slope-intercept form on the way to work – you learn math to teach you logic and reasoning. You learn English to know how to read various sources to keep yourself intelligently informed and to write to know how to intelligently respond. You learn history to examine and compare current events to historical ones and you learn government to evaluate how well your elected officials can respond to a crisis. You learn science to be able to peer past misinformation and to create solutions. You learn the arts to create ways to communicate your experiences with others and, frankly, to entertain yourself. You learn languages to expand your world beyond your country’s borders and you engage in technical education to learn how to build things. You learn physical education to keep yourself healthy and finance and economics to keep yourself fiscally healthy. If there is one thing I wish we as a society will change when we go “back to normal” it is to deemphasize or even eliminate this emphasis on grades. Teachers should be like coaches – guiding you, watching you perform, giving you feedback; repeat. Because in 20 years, no one is going to remember or care what score you got on your Unit 3 test. What we will care about is whether you have the information you need to navigate your life with the goal of living the best life possible.

I know you are stressed. I’m stressed. Things are fluid. We have to constantly adapt. My work space right now is a dining room table I share with my husband and a partially completed 1000 piece puzzle (which possesses most of this prized real estate). I am distracted by his many conference calls, but this is the best place in the house to get a WiFi signal. Kids stream in and out, asking for food, help with homework, bickering over whose turn it is to feed the chickens. The dog suddenly barks at a neighbor walking their own pooch. It’s hard to concentrate. I may have forgotten to take a shower. The floors are perpetually dirty. The husband quietly mutters something about our toilet paper inventory and suspiciously looks at the children. This is why planning a lesson has gone from taking 2 hours to taking 4 hours. And despite the effort I am putting into paring down my lessons to give students the essential information they need to function in this society, many of my students can’t or won’t log in to complete them. And frankly…that is just fine by me. If there is anything history teaches us, it’s that we will get through this. As a nation and a world, we have survived pandemics and economic downturns before. We will do it again. So do your best with your learning and I will try to do my best with my teaching. But both you and I need to put our mental and physical health first and remember the goal of learning is not that grade, but understanding this world we live in. And we will get there.