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?

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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. 

Welcome back. Goodbye.

On the last day of instruction for high school seniors, I greeted many for the first time. “Nice to meet you,” I said as student after student took a seat – every other desk remained empty to keep social distancing. Our last hybrid Honors English 12 class began. Does anything encapsulate this disjointed year better than welcoming students and sending them off on the same day? 

“I didn’t want my last memory of senior year to be clicking the ‘Leave Meeting’ button,” said Kaleb. Yet, that’s exactly how 60% of the class of 2021 ended their 13 years of public education in my school district. The students who opted for in-person instruction started returning to the building on April 6, alternating A weeks and B weeks so that we could stay six feet apart in the classrooms. 

The result is that students couldn’t sit with their lifelong friends until the last week of school, when they collapsed the A-B weeks as more community members got vaccinated. Any seniors who wanted to return in-person could do so. Suddenly, 15 students in a class felt jam-packed. It was great to hear their voices again and see those beautiful eyes looking up from their laptops. 

On the way out, Aaron gave me his senior photo, a little wallet-sized memento – the facial hair visible above his lip caused me to smile. I’d never seen his full face. At the Senior Farewell Party earlier in the week, Marta and I posed for a photo outside the football stadium, maskless for the first time. She’s been in my class all year, but I didn’t know she wore braces. Her nose and mouth looked different from how I imagined it. 

Bidding adieu on Zoom was anti-climactic – even though teachers made little speeches about resilience and perseverance. “Does anyone want to turn on their camera to wave goodbye?” A few faces popped up briefly on my screen, but most virtual students just disappeared when class was over. Some have chosen to skip the in-person graduation ceremony in two weeks as well, remaining enigmatic little black boxes in perpetuity. 

It’s too raw to process what this pandemic year has meant for young people. I’m a married woman with decades-long friendships to bolster me throughout the year. However, I’ve been back at school for two months, and have nearly forgotten how to make small talk. Kids will be affected for the rest of their lives in ways we can only imagine – a new kind of PTSD will take hold as a year of social isolation becomes a silent national crisis.

I hope that our school system will examine some of the old policies and procedures. What used to seem so normal — 18-year-olds asking for permission to use the rest room, penalizing kids for missing a due date — already seems antiquated. We will need to teach students how to talk to each other, how to interact as a class. We need to address the deep mental health challenges that will affect teaching and learning.

But the graduating class of 2021 will be on their own to figure it all out, to heal from the traumatic year. I hope that they’ll be okay as we send them off to “the real world.” I hope they’ll teach us all how to be resilient and persevere through hardship. I hope they come back to say hello and introduce themselves again one day. These seniors will remain in my heart forever.

Rowing upstream

To paraphrase a Greek philosopher: “You can never step in the same river twice.”

For the past 13 months the river has sustained me while the rest of the world turned upside down. I’m so lucky to engage in an outdoor sport where social distancing is the norm. My happy place is a single in the middle of the river.

I’ve been rowing and coaching on the Anacostia River in Washington, DC since 2006. Every year, a new group of young people learn how to row. They learn new vocabulary: port, starboard, feather, catch, gunwale, coxswain, oarlock. And they learn sportsmanship and team work. They learn technical skills and how far they can push themselves physically.

Every year, we row the same river, but it’s always a different experience. The winds, the rain, and the currents shift the sand bars regularly. At high tide, we avoid the muddy edges, and steer through bridges carefully, following a known traffic pattern. Students who are too young to drive are guiding a 64-foot rowing shell expertly around kayaks, downed trees, and other teams out practicing. Every year I am amazed at how much students learn and grow.

On a school poster somewhere, a rowing shell heads into the sunset. There’s no I in TEAMWORK, it says. Rowers push themselves hard, and hold each other accountable. This year, I have focused on the novice rowers who are learning the technique and the culture of rowing. We do a distanced team cheer after practice. In a short time, some newcomers will show leadership, and others will come just to socialize with other teens. Some will develop amazing rowing skills and might earn a scholarship to college. Every year a different group of rowers will learn that it’s harder to row upstream than down, and they will figure out how to pace themselves.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, rowing and coaching has buoyed me when I felt hopeless or lost. The smells, sounds, sight, and feel of the river is in my heart and deeply ingrained in my memory. A river is constantly changing even while it remains the same. Everyone should have a place that pulls them like the river pulls me.

I hope everyone can find their river.

High school teams practicing on the Anacostia River, Washington DC.

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.