Cherry Blossoms and Spring Break

The famous cherry blossoms on the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC reached the peduncle elongation stage last week, then burst into peak bloom several days before expected. The high temperatures and warm sun have brought on the full glory of a DC spring – just in time for local school children to enjoy Spring Break.

Like thousands of blossom watchers, teachers keep their eyes on Board of Education meetings, trying to anticipate when a vote might suddenly change everything. It’s happened so many times during this pandemic year, that almost nothing has been a total surprise for educators who read the signs. However, when Governor Hogan announced suddenly that schools needed to reopen March 1st instead of March 15th, school districts scrambled, loud-mouths bloviated, and unvaccinated teachers panicked. It was the equivalent of rushing from the Green Bud phase to the Fluffy Blossom phase without anything in between and way before the cameras were ready.

With the possible exception of air-traffic controllers, teachers are probably the best multi-taskers in the world. You want us to teach online and in-person at the same time? Sure, no problem! You want us to work on social-emotional health while mitigating “learning loss” with just two hours a week of contact time? Sure! Asynchronous lessons using a new platform and grading program? Got it! Student Learning Objectives posted? Check. Opportunities for one-to-one time and reteaching? Of course! Just come to our “office hours.” Oh, it’s my evaluation year? I can do the dog-and-pony show, too!

Hybrid teaching? No problem!
Doing it all

In my district, 60% of students have opted to remain virtual, but parents and politicians have been pushing hard – very hard – to reopen school buildings before it’s Covid safe. Schools with the most number of parents opting for the return to in-person instruction happen to be in the wealthiest communities. Ironically, they are the ones to argue that it’s for the poor kids, the English Language Learners, and the black and brown students. But the data and my experience says something else.

I teach high school seniors and, even though they’ve been 100% virtual for the past year, less than half are coming back to the building after spring break. My district has had meeting after meeting after meeting about getting kids back into the building – but few resources have been directed to the majority of students who opt to remain at home through the end of the year. It’s a highly emotional issue that’s pitted parents against teachers. The rhetoric has been exhausting.

Spring Break is supposed to be a time of rest and renewal. So far, I’m feeling the pleasure of elongated days, even though I’m spending part of them grading all the late student essays that need feedback. The beautiful DC weather and spectacular cherry blossoms, tulip trees, flowering pears, forsythia, and daffodils make me smile. This weekend, fully vaccinated, I will be able to hug my elderly mother for the first time in more than a year.

High Anxiety

The trees out back are bare and cold rain is drizzling down on the deck. I’m watching a squirrel climb up the railing and attempt to reach the bird feeder. First it shimmies up the narrow metal pole and steps tentatively onto the squirrel-proof “hat” that tilts and swerves under the weight. It tries to lock its feet on the pole and slide belly first down to a perch where seed spills out just two inches from its mouth. The squirrel loses its balance, hangs upside down for a moment, then scrambles back up the pole. It hops gracelessly back to the railing, avoiding a 10-foot drop to the ground. A sparrow flits to the feeder, pecks at the food and flies away. The squirrel tries again and again. 

Teachers in Maryland have been ordered back to school starting on Monday, March 1st. The Governor, the Central Office, and the Board of Education expect that teachers can just fly in like birds to a feeder. But what they’re asking us to do is perform more like the squirrels. Coronavirus has killed more than 8,000 people in Maryland and has infected hundreds of thousands. Teachers have been left completely on their own to find vaccines, competing with each other and those over age 75 for the few scarce resources. 

While other states have rolled out the vaccines effectively, Maryland’s has been confusing and chaotic. Starting on January 18th, when they announced people in the 1B priority group were eligible, I logged in every day, sometimes multiple times per day, trying to register for a vaccine. By the time I finished typing in my contact information, appointments would disappear. Twice I had legitimate appointments confirmed, then cancelled. Colleagues were texting about new doses available – hurry! Teachers were getting turned away from scheduled appointments after waiting in long lines. Teachers were driving three hours to other counties to get vaccinated. I waited in line for two hours at a super center, expecting until the last minute to get turned away. I cried with relief when I finally got that first shot in my arm. 

I want to go back to school desperately. Online teaching is a poor substitute for in-person learning. Like everyone else, I am concerned about the mental health of students. Since I work with English Language Learners, I am concerned that their language and academic skills have suffered. I am worried that students whose best community is inside a school building are not getting the support they need. I miss my students, the ones I have now and do not really know, and the ones I had last year and don’t see passing in the hallways any more. Teachers long to get “back to normal,” but we won’t do it with wishful thinking.


Getting vaccines for teachers is just the first step in a safe return to school. Adequate CDC measures like PPE and physical distancing, cohorts of no more than 60, and sanitizing shared surfaces is manageable. But coronavirus has airborne transmission. Ventilation is a major concern, especially in older buildings. For many teachers the dread of contracting the virus and bringing it home to vulnerable family members is all-consuming. We don’t even know if those who are vaccinated can spread the disease to others. Why are we rushing back to school buildings before these safety measures are in place? 

About 60 percent of students in my district have opted to remain at home and continue virtual instruction. Teachers are not being given this option. In fact, many have been denied their legitimate ADA requests, giving the school system power over their medical health. The focus has been so strongly on a return to the physical building, but what about the majority of students remaining virtual? How will teachers instruct both virtually and in-person at the same time? Will they be getting less of an education because they remain virtual? 

The Superintendent of Schools was “perplexed” by the union’s No Confidence resolution. Then the principals union sent a letter blasting the reopening plan, and the SEIU paraeducators union joined in. Educators understand how teaching and learning operates, and have thought of every possible scenario. We are not to blame for the pandemic. The Board of Education has succumbed to outside pressure and made decisions without the input of key educators. If we are going back into school buildings, then we need a districtwide plan that allows for common sense, compassion, and competence. 

It’s as if climbing up a metal pole, hanging on with our back feet, and stretching to reach a nearly-impossible target were normal. Teachers are planners, not squirrels.

This is what teachers are being asked to do

This I Believe

In the 1950s, journalist Edward R. Murrow hosted a weekly radio series inviting listeners “to write about the core beliefs that guide your daily life.” In class this week, my students listened to several “This I Believe” recordings (one of my favorites is Be Cool to the Pizza Dude) and answered questions about what each one was really saying.

Inspired by Amanda Gorman’s profoundly moving poem delivered at the Inauguration on Wednesday, we examined several spoken word mentor texts. Students were then tasked to write and record their own pieces.

Below is my own sample “This I Believe” that I gave students:

I believe in the power of trees and nature. Trees change with the seasons even as they stay in one place. They reach for the light while spreading deep roots. A stand of trees is stronger together than a tree standing alone. Just like humans. Trees clean our air. They provide food and shelter for wildlife. They rise strong after adversity. We can learn something from trees. 

I believe in the healing power of outdoor exercise. While rowing on DC’s “forgotten river,” the Anacostia, I can see abundant wildlife: bald eagles, osprey, beavers, turtles, deer, and the great blue heron. This river was once a polluted dumping ground, but now has come back to life with rowers, kayakers, and boaters. The river provides a different perspective of the city I love, and makes my life joyful. The Anacostia River is a story of faith and action. 

Heading outdoors has gotten me through this pandemic. The allure of rowing or hiking motivates me to finish my work, shut down my laptop, and silence my phone. I can visit with old friends outdoors, where we can exercise, walking 6 feet apart. We can sit around a fire pit at night and stay together even though we’re sitting far enough away. Friends outdoors are still friends. 

I believe in democracy, especially these days when it has been under attack. I have faith in people to tell their stories – and in journalists who tell the stories of others. I have faith in family and believe we should help others. I believe music can help soothe us in difficult times and lift up our spirits. 

I choose to go forward in optimism knowing that the sun always rises in the east, trees stand steady in the wind, and rivers flow to the sea. We have a responsibility to preserve our natural environment for future generations. Finally, I believe in the power of nature to heal us. 

And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us

but what stands before us

Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb” inauguration poem

The Fourth P of 2020

Others are writing more profoundly about the meaning of 2020: Politics, Pandemic, and Protests. I can only write about the 4th P: the Personal. The Personal includes my family, my community, and my experience teaching public high school during the most disruptive year of my professional career. 

I miss my students. People keep asking me how they’re doing. My answer: I don’t know. Most of them attend my Zoom classes most of the time. Most of them turn in assignments most of the time. I don’t see them or hear them. Cameras are off and their microphones are on mute. I teach to little black boxes with names written in white. I teach like I’m a radio dee jay in a sound booth.

It’s the students who don’t attend class and don’t turn in work who worry me. I spend a lot of time reaching out students who have disappeared. I contribute money for PTSA gift cards and support the MCPS Foundation. I post links to food distribution sites and help students navigate the Pandemic-EBT card requirements. I call parents, and I email counselors. I chat with co-teachers and document every outreach effort in our new Synergy system. My ESOL department chair says that we’ve “lost” 11 students so far this year, students who have been withdrawn from school. I’m really worried about what this means going forward. 

I miss my hard drive. In July I spilled a glass of water on my laptop, losing more than two years of creative writing and work. I thought everything was backed up in iCloud, but only my photos were saved (and I am very grateful for that). I lost all of my writing from my year living in Laos. This spring, I was at my most prolific and am publishing my first short story based on this writing. I am devastated by the loss of personal documents. 

I miss my family. Like the rest of the country, I’m in mourning about what we’ve lost this year: 340,000 people to Covid-19, dozens of black lives that matter, countless graduations, proms, weddings, funerals, and homecomings. I haven’t hugged my mother in 10 months. I haven’t seen my son since last Christmas.

My relatives are divided by politics. Those who remain in the Deep South supported the Vulgarian in the White House for a second term. I could not fathom what qualities in him they admired. Then I figured it out. My respect for them has diminished. My siblings are divided by decisions about my mother’s health care and estate management. I am grieving for the togetherness we have lost. 

A crisis does not build character; it reveals character. 2020 has shown who we are as a country. It has shown who my family really is. I still love them. I still love my country. A new year always brings hope. 

2020

Rhythms of virtual teaching

For nineteen of the past twenty years, I have woken up at 5:00 am every school day. By 7:00 am I was in my classroom welcoming early students who needed a place to put their heads down or eat breakfast until the bell for first period rang. High schools in MCPS usually start at 7:45. Not any more, not with Covid-19 keeping us all connected by computer. Most of my professional life has been measured by bells ringing, 10-week marking periods, testing schedules, holiday breaks, and seasons. This year has disrupted the usual rhythm and made me much more aware of what I have lost, and what I have gained. 

My schedule is still segmented into hour-long periods and 10-week quarters, but there are no bells ringing. Just my alarm, which now goes off at a reasonable 6:30 am. This is how I begin my day: yoga stretches, shower, walk in the neighborhood, coffee and breakfast, read emails & news, and talk to my husband. My duty day starts at 8:15, but virtual classes don’t start until 9:00. I begin by checking online work platforms, chatting with co-teachers, checking which students handed in assignments the night before, and planning for the day’s instruction. 

A lot of people don’t understand that teachers working remotely are still teaching. Here’s my weekly schedule:

I teach four hours a day, four days a week, live on Zoom. On Wednesdays, we have meetings from 9:00-10:30, then meet with small groups of students – if they show up – for check ins. My camera is on, the lesson uploaded, and we deliver instruction to groups of 28 at a time. I say we because high school ESOL teachers have moved to a co-teaching model this year, so I support 6-10 English Language Learners in Honors English 10 and Honors English 12. There are no regular English classes (we’re all above average in MCPS).

In our district, we have to record every lesson, which is posted to Canvas (our platform), and self-destructs in 72 hours. Students are not required to turn on their cameras so we teach to a screen of black tiles with the student’s name written across it in bold, white Arial. With so many students and two teachers, everyone has to keep their microphones muted, or the feedback noise distorts our voices. Fortunately, we have the chat feature, and high schoolers know how to use it. Some days we’re lucky if we get even that much participation. We put students in breakout rooms with instructions to discuss a reading, and when we pop in on them, black-tiles and silence. I really miss seeing their faces and hearing their voices.

Co-teaching has been a huge adjustment for me, since every lesson takes twice as much planning and I work with four different teachers across two grade levels. The curriculum is new and has to be pared down to the bare minimum. We are getting the revised curriculum materials just a week before delivering instruction, and there isn’t sufficient time to prepare alternate readings or provide appropriate grammar and language support for English Language Learners during the whole-group meeting. With some of my co-teachers, I play an active role in class. With others, I am a silent observer delivering ESOL support through Zoom chat. Focused Intervention groups are put in place to help the at-risk students, but the neediest ones never show up at that designated time. 

And yet, we have made it through the end of November somehow. What seemed unsustainable in early September has become routine. I’ve learned how to engage in careful dialogue with my peers about instructional materials and methods of delivery. They have learned how to simplify their assignments and the importance of using visuals when speaking. I’ve reached out to struggling students – not just those learning English – and gotten to hear the voices of parents, guardians and the students themselves. Most are really appreciative to have a phone call and a compassionate listener. 

My duty day ends officially at 3:30 pm but I am never off-duty in a virtual world. I constantly check email, Synergy mail, Canvas mail and platforms where students might have questions or submit late work. Every two weeks, I follow up with students who have zeros – sending explicit instructions with live links of how to complete the assignments. Where co-teachers are comfortable with shared responsibility, I grade papers and make comments. I create rubrics and slides to share with colleagues. It’s nonstop, but it’s rewarding. Most students are showing up. Most students seem to be okay.

This year, I have gained a huge appreciation of the natural world around me. I am so lucky to have rowing (even though the season is officially over), and I’m lucky to have the woods near my house. Every morning, I walk through the neighborhood or hike down the path. I listen to the birds, I breathe in smells of damp leaves on the forest floor, I focus on the seasonal changes around me, and enjoy this rare moment to walk in the early-morning sunlight before school starts. 

Unmuting myself

           I haven’t lost any family to COVID-19. My home was not ravaged by floods or blown apart by a hurricane. I did not have to escape a wildfire with just the clothes on my back. My school district has (mostly) listened to teachers and kept students home doing online instruction. I am fully employed. I feel grateful for good health and enough food to eat. But an unsettled feeling of restlessness, tension, and anxiety keeps me tossing and turning at night. 

           The combative tone set by the White House and uncertainty around the November 3 presidential elections permeate every daylight hour. Teachers are working harder than ever – learning new platforms, new apps, new instructional models, adjusting to new schedules, and adapting curriculum. We are juggling our own family responsibilities on top of four+ hours a day of mandated live Zoom meetings, each of which requires additional prep time. Yet we are being torn apart in the media for being “lazy” because we fought to do virtual-only learning until it is safe to go back into school buildings.

Where society is failing, teachers are getting it done. The Board of Education seems to think that regulating our every waking hour will justify our salaries. We are the professionals – we need to determine how our own time is spent. I can guarantee that teachers will put in extra hours to get the job done, no matter what the Board says. Schools are distributing meals, providing mental health counseling, and reaching out to families who need tech support. Schools provide a safe space and a community for the children we teach. Nobody knows better than classroom teachers how important it is to get kids back into the building. Online instruction is far from ideal, but it is better than putting a single life at risk due to COVID-19.

This year, for high school ESOL teachers in my district, there’s an added layer of complexity to our jobs. Instead of small, self-contained ESOL classrooms, we are now coteaching Honors English classes – we have no on-level English courses. My English Language Learners (ELLs) are now in classes with 29 students. Am I supposed to deliver ESOL services via Zoom chat while the regular teacher is talking? I’m struggling with this model. Coteaching is really hard. So much harder than teaching alone. It requires patience, diplomacy, careful dialogue, and mutual respect. I appreciate that my colleagues are so open-minded and hope that I am not stepping on their toes or pushing my ideas on them too much. It’s supposed to be a collaboration, but I feel marginalized. Just like my students.

All I want is for our leaders to recognize how hard it is to be a teacher right now. The students are showing up for class, ready and willing to learn. They need the structure and the opportunity to engage with peers. Even though I rarely see the students’ faces on Zoom or hear their voices, I know they are participating in this new way of doing school. When I lose sleep over the workload or the direction of the country, I remember the students. And I feel grateful for the best job in the world.

Jump! How high?

Teachers are by nature long-range planners. So when the school district says “Jump!” they usually respond, “How high? How far? How often? By what measure? Where do we record our progress? Using what platform? When is it due?” But this year is different. In the state of Maryland, Governor Hogan announced that buildings could reopen – two days before school started. Teachers are asking, “Why?” and not getting good answers back. So we have taken to collective action to protest the reopening physical schools, and I’m happy that it seems to be working.

In my district, teachers wrote thousands of letters to the Board of Education before their vote. One member said she’d never felt so much pressure. Good! How can administrators, politicians, parents, and Board members fail to think about teachers when they make decisions to reopen schools? Nobody wants to teach to a computer screen full of little black tiles with microphones muted and cameras turned off. We all want schools to reopen – but it has to be safe. School officials must address teachers’ “what if” questions. 

What if students refuse to wear their masks? What if a student gets sick? What if a teacher gets sick? What if she has no more sick leave? What if we teach Special Education and have to help students with personal care? What happens during lunch when students take off their masks to eat? Who cleans the classroom? What if the ventilation is 40 years old and inadequate in the best of times?

We just finished the first week of online school and I’ve been inspired by my colleagues. We’re adapting to the virtual world like superheroes! In the last few weeks, teachers have turned spare corners into classrooms with professional lighting, microphones, sound systems, and props. Teachers have become the stage crew for their own superhero productions. I think some of my colleagues have even mastered CGI special effects. 

Those in my professional learning community have shown the power of collaboration — helping one another implement a new instructional model, master a dozen new apps, use a new platform, navigate a new database and grading system, adapt a new curriculum, and a live a new schedule. We’ve got multiple laptops open, countless training hours logged, we’ve prepped and met, and it was all worth it, even if we couldn’t really see the students. I have never appreciated my colleagues more.

Everyone wants to get back to school – we yearn for the relationships developed in person. I miss my students so much, and I know they miss school. But here we are, teaching and learning in a global health pandemic, working harder than we’ve ever worked before, doing the best we can.

When politicians make decisions about my working conditions without considering our legitimate health concerns, I just have one final question: what if none of the teachers agree to go back to school? 

Lost and Found

So many people are mourning their losses this spring and summer. A killer virus lurks around every corner – or every person not wearing a face mask – and we have lost the ability to do almost anything normal. We can no longer go to work, gather in large crowds, sit indoors at restaurants, or attend parties. Virtual cocktail hours have replaced the real thing. Political divisions and raw emotion have replaced civil discourse. When I most need a friendly hug or a collegial conversation, the best I get now is an elbow bump or Zoom. I miss my colleagues, my students, and my friends. I miss my mother.

With almost at 150,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the US, I think about Mum sitting alone in her assisted living apartment, safe from the pandemic for now. She is recovering from hip surgery and will probably never walk again, due to her advanced dementia and the fact that no physical therapists are allowed into the facility. She can barely hear, so a phone call is frustrating. I feel like I’m losing my mother bit by bit. However, I know that she is still here physically, and am thankful for that small grace, when others have not been so lucky.

Yesterday I found a little moment of happiness when I went to visit her. I expected to sit outside her window and communicate through the glass. Instead, the Activities Director wheeled her out to the front porch, all bundled up in a blanket, and allowed us a precious 30-minute visit. Just hearing her voice was a salve to my heart. She reminisced about her life as an Army nurse during World War II, about how they gave her so much responsibility, even though she was very young. I wanted desperately to hug her and warm her hands in mine.

Small moments of success like this take on new meaning during a global pandemic. My mother is a fighter, and she has passed down that optimism to me. In spite of the mounting losses in the world, I can feel grateful for this brief human connection.

 

Little Black Boxes

Each black square represents a student who has logged in to our ESOL 5 Zoom class. Their video is turned off and the microphone is muted. I stare at my face in its own little box as I pose the circle question to get started. “If you could create the ideal society, what would you be sure to include?” One at a time they unmute their microphones and speak. “Free health care for everyone, equal opportunity, no race discrimination, free university, and free food.” We were reading a short dystopian fiction piece, and I was pleased with their thoughtful responses. It was before George Floyd and the marches for racial justice. It was in late April, a long time ago, and students were worried about COVID-19 and getting their next meal. They were still engaged in online learning. I was still wearing lipstick and earrings to class.

Now school is finished and I’m heartbroken that it was so anti-climactic. I didn’t get to return their Reflection writing from the first week of school and have them comment on their goals. We didn’t have a party. I didn’t get to send the seniors off with a final celebration or watch them march across the stage to Pomp and Circumstance. I didn’t get to remind the ESOL 1 students how much their English has improved. We didn’t talk about summer plans. I’ve been so focused on getting to the finish line, that I didn’t expect the rush of emotion that came with the slow fade out.

As frustrating as it was to conduct classes with my computer screen, I relished every single contact I had with students. Breaking with my 15-year policy of not sharing my personal cell phone, this spring I routinely gave my number to every student. I cringed in anticipation of abuse, but it never came. Students were super respectful of this new relationship and never contacted me too early or too late. On Sunday I got a message in Spanish from a newcomer: Are we finished with school? I think you said yes. Another student asked for a second supermarket gift card for her family. A third student wanted to confirm his new address so that he could get his diploma mailed there. These are not normally things I would have to address.

Some students fell off a cliff after March 13th and I never really heard from them again. I spent hours trying to reach them, documenting every call, every email, every U.S. Mail letter that I sent. Bilingual counselors got involved. Administrators followed up. Three students moved back to their countries. I logged every contact in the system. I excused missing assignments and graded with compassion, assuming hardship. When students turned in work, I found something positive to say. When students showed up for Zoom, I talked about my cat, my neighbor, my son, or what I was reading before I reviewed the week’s work. I never “wasted time” like that before, and it felt like a much-needed mindshift.

If there’s anything good that came out of this COVID-19 crisis teaching, it’s that I’ve built new relationships with students. I feel much closer to the ones who stayed active. We know each other better in a different way than we would in a classroom. I know who has noisy little siblings and who has tension with her parents. In spite of this, the ESOL students have given thoughtful, mature, philosophical answers to questions that I posed for discussion. In part, it’s because they’re well-rested and there’s little else for them to focus on. Another part is that they actually crave a connection to school and learning.

School’s out for summer, but I’m not naïve enough to think that we won’t be using some form of online instruction in the fall. I know now that I will have to work hard at building real relationships with students from the very beginning – that means learning about their families, their culture, their thoughts and feelings, their music, hobbies, and interests. It means sharing more of myself with them, creating a safe environment where they can open up, and encouraging genuine reflection.

If I could create the ideal classroom, every student would have equal opportunity, free food, and universal health care. There would be no discrimination by race, gender, or other indicator. I’m optimistic that the dystopian nightmare we are living through will one day end, and my students will show up ready and eager to learn. I will have engaging, meaningful lessons matched perfectly to their interests and abilities. In the meantime, I’ll be reading, reflecting, and reaching out to colleagues this summer, hoping to rebuild a routine in the fall. I will have a new haircut and nobody will notice because we’ll all just be so happy to see each other in person.