Filed Away

by Eva K. Sullivan

During the last week of school, I stared at the gray, four-drawer, metal filing cabinet in the corner of the classroom. In the last fifteen months, I hadn’t opened a single drawer even once. We’d been back in person since April, but everything I needed was inside the four-pound laptop that I carried everywhere. Thirty years of well-loved teaching materials now seemed like a burden. It was time. Most teachers my age wait until they’re retired to clean out their folders. But the pandemic changed forever how I will look at stacks of paper.

As a high school teacher of Multilingual Learners, I never knew what level I would be teaching from year to year. The carefully labelled folders ranged from Phonics/Vowel Sounds to Argument and Research. Before Covid-19 forced school closures in March 2020, I taught two sections of Developmental Reading for immigrant students with interrupted formal education. Most were reading at a kindergarten level. Even without a global pandemic, it’s hard to find appropriate reading material – no baby books – for teens learning to read English! So my curated collection represented hundreds of hours of valuable prep time.

This year we piloted a new districtwide coteaching model. All juniors and seniors are now enrolled in Honors English classes, and I’ve moved to a supporting role. All my Beginner English files are in the trash and I’m not even wistful. Teachers never throw anything out, so this feels momentous, a tectonic shift. 

I filled a recycling bin with The OdysseyRun-On SentencesExistentialismSurvival Project, and Subject-Verb Agreement. I found overhead projector film carefully preserved with the original copy next to it for reference. Grammar games on laminated index cards. I didn’t bother to ask if any new, younger colleagues want them this year. All those things are gone. Paper worksheets may be a thing of the past. 

A friend who retired in 2020 asked if I carried my materials from room to room on a cart this year, as I have in the past. I laughed. Nope, all I carry now is a laptop. Every student has a Chromebook preloaded with Zoom, Canvas Instructure and Synergy platforms. Even 5-year-olds in kindergarten know how to do school on a computer. 

When we left the building in March 2020, we gathered food from our desks and cleaned out the refrigerators, but left everything else as is. It was the first time for teachers to just walk away. We had no time to take down bulletin boards, put away pencils, or erase the white boards. We thought we’d be out two weeks.  

The way we’ve taught during the pandemic has permanently changed how educators understand school. As I eyed my fat folders containing emergency substitute plans, I asked a colleague if I should throw them out. “Ha, ha! They’ll probably make us teach via Zoom when we’re out sick!” she replied. I felt nostalgic as I looked at my neatly-outlined notes on top of 30-page sets, a large binder clip holding everything together. I had to wait in line for the photocopier to make those worksheets. Do subs know how to use our new technology? I decided to keep the emergency plans. 

Pandemic mode is forever etched in our memory. Like any good survival story, we escaped from danger with what we could carry – plants, photos, whatever we were currently working on. We reinvented teaching every day, learning and teaching new new apps (Kami, Peardeck, Nearpod), new platforms (Zoom, Canvas, Synergy), new instructional models (coteaching), new virtual curriculum (no textbooks), and new ways of interacting with students (mute black screens in a breakout room). We made it work because there was no choice. In my three decades in the classroom, it was by far the most stressful year that I have ever taught. 

I already miss handwriting. I miss hands-on assignments with physical items that students need to manipulate. I hope those aren’t gone forever. The Romeo and Juliet speed dating activity was so much fun! The Socratic Seminar, the Bicycle Chain activity. Partner work. I don’t need paper for that. Maybe next year?

 Text, letter

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Will school ever look like this again?

Teaching to a computer screen from the corner of my bedroom for a year has made me realize that I don’t need paper to create relationships with students. When you take away all the extraneous details of teaching – the great experiment of the 2020-2021 school year – it boils down to building a community in a classroom. 

This past year, I shared more of my personal life than I’d ever intended – like when the cat brought a live chipmunk into my lesson and the whole class heard me scream. I used humor, music, catchy visuals. I lowered the affective filter with silly stories. I called home when students didn’t show up. I invited them to participate in activities any way they felt comfortable – unmuting and calling out, typing in the chat, or participating in an electronic discussion board. 

Many students thrived in the flexible online classroom. I was amazed by some of the profound, philosophical, mature responses that they shared. All these lived lessons from the past year are filed away in our collective memory – not a four-drawer cabinet – and can be pulled out to help plan for next. But first we need a summer vacation to figure out what it all means.  

Will we ever need to photocopy packets of work again? It’s a rhetorical question. That folder got thrown out too. 

Published by

evaksullivan

Eva K. Sullivan teaches English Language Learners in Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland. She was an English Language Fellow with U.S. Department of State during the 2017-2018 school year, working with the Ministry of Education in Laos, Southeast Asia. She writes short stories, personal essays, and has completed a memoir about her experiences as an expat in West Africa in the 1990s.

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