Teachers’ Makeover during Pandemic Nothing Short of Miraculous

Friday the 13th marked the end of the 2019-2020 school year and my 31-year career as a high school English and Journalism teacher in any practical sense.

Due to stay-at-home directives, school was out—literally.

When all the books and documentaries about the pandemic of 2020 are published years from now, at least one chapter needs to spotlight the heroics of America’s public school teachers.

All across America, distance or remote learning premiered in the weeks following spring break.

Like sending a man to the moon within a decade was monumental for NASA, to some degree enlisting public school teachers to learn a whole new way of delivering instruction within as little as a week deserves to be on the short list of amazing feats performed in record time.

Yes, Ford and General Motors in a matter of weeks retooled their factories to make masks and ventilators instead of Mustangs and Silverados, quite an achievement.

But imagine a workforce of 3.2 million retooling themselves, learning new online platforms such as Google Classroom and Zoom in a matter of days, not weeks.

With communication limited to emails, teacher training sessions went into emergency overdrive in just a few days, an all-hands-on-deck IT team recording and posting how-to webinars on various synchronous and asynchronous programs to assist faculty.

Lightning quick, schools organized their version of the Marshall Plan, handing out laptops and hot spots by the hundreds with the help of employees donning protective gear, echoing the Leave No Child Behind creed from the start of the century, ensuring that all children have access to virtual classrooms.

The reality that schools would not reopen for the rest of the school year hit district offices like a meteor, stunning them so that they didn’t have time to rollout training gradually.  Instead, they had no alternative but to entrust teachers to pick and choose which learning system they felt most comfortable using.

Once all systems were go, as if learning a whole new of way to teach from home was not challenging enough, teachers had to be creative and compassionate on how to keep students “tuning in” to their virtual classrooms.  It didn’t help that districts decided to freeze grades, i.e., final semester grades would be the third quarter grades unless a student’s grade increased.  Students who did not turn in work via remote learning would not be penalized, and no student would fail a class even if that was the third quarter grade.

The ‘A’ students have no motivation to produce work since they are guaranteed to end up with an ‘A’; the students at the other end of the spectrum have a free ticket as well as they magically will earn credit for doing no work.  In other words, all the work done in the final 25 percent of the school year does not count.

Yet teachers march on—posting videos, screencasting lessons, scheduling live sessions—all while working in the dark, not truly knowing if anyone is paying attention.

In a real classroom, I often have students read an article or watch a video then have them pair up with a partner and share their thoughts which leads to a whole class discussion, ensuring everyone will hear at least something.

In the virtual classroom, I post the material and create an assignment with no guarantee that students did the work themselves.  Even if I have them post comments, I have no idea how many will read their classmates’ thoughts.

Many jobs can be done at home or partially at home, but teaching requires human contact.  In all the ways I imagined how my career would end up, teaching at my dining room table was not a credible scenario.

And while car companies will eventually revert back to manufacturing motor vehicles, teaching may never look like itself again, at least for quite a while.

Already district personnel are holding emergency meetings strategizing how the reopening of schools in August will happen while maintaining social distancing.

Yes, schools will reopen.  No, they will look vastly different especially in the upper grades where students have several teachers in one day.

I often have up to 40 students in a classroom.  Measuring for six feet of separation would result in two empty seats for each occupied one.  So instead there may be 15 students.  Obviously the teacher workforce can’t be doubled in size, so time may be halved, 30-minute periods instead of 60 minutes, or some students attend school on even days, others on odd days, or some in the morning, others in the afternoon.  See the logistical nightmare ahead?

Yet judging how incredible districts quickly adapted on the fly to the challenge of no school, officials should be capable of working out a hybrid of in-person and online learning environments.  Such a model may last the entire 2020-2021 school year if the coronavirus returns in the fall or winter.  This will not please parents who will need to scramble for child care since students will no longer attend school all day, five days a week.

Never before has such an undertaking been done in the history of public schools.  Never before have I been as proud of our profession, one that I am exiting by mid-June.

That is why on May 5, National Teacher Appreciation Day, wherever you may be, stand up and applaud those who take care of America’s future.