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. 

Am I less valued because I teach low-income students?

I’m re-posting this piece I wrote 3 years ago.

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Time to make noise (again.

Here’s another great voice for the need to support teachers of low socio-economic-status students in this EdWeek article. Bruce Hansen mentions that when he received the “golden apple award” his colleagues assumed that he would pursue an easier job at a school in a high-income district. He may feel guilty, but that’s exactly what he did. “There’s a perception that really good teachers work in schools that cater to students from wealthy families,” he writes. He recommends that teachers get special training “from university educators,” who develop specialized techniques and curricula. But the reason Mr. Hansen left his job has nothing to do with curriculum or training. He left because he did not receive enough support.

I’ve been teaching high-poverty English Language Learners for 15 years and it’s both rewarding and exhausting. When students are so needy every day, it can be emotionally and physically draining. We don’t need more university educators telling us what to do.  We need compassionate administrators who understand what it’s like to “work in the trenches.” We need a network of like-minded teachers and student counselors who can prevent us from being traumatized by the traumas of our students. At the end of the day, I can get in my car and drive back to my leafy suburb. It’s important for teachers of high poverty students to be mentally healthy.

Unfortunately many low-income schools are where new principals get placed to learn the ropes before moving on, where teachers involuntarily transferred land, and where there’s high teacher turnover and little administrative support. I’m proud to say that this practice is not prevalent in my mixed-income school. However, I definitely get a feeling that I count less than teachers of AP and IB students heading to Harvard. My administrator has never set foot in my classroom to give his famous Timeline speech, in spite of my annual plea to come for a visit. However, he is very supportive in other ways. And that makes all the difference.

I also have a union that backs me up at the district level, full access to excellent training resources, and local leadership that listens to teachers and gives priority to education. Now if they could just add back that hour of time that Daylight Savings took away, I could get a lot more done in 24 hours.

 

 

 

Enhanced

Activities this summer are taking on a more profound, urgent sense, like I’m trying to imprint America into my brain before I head overseas. I’ve rowed at sunrise five of the past seven days, biked up the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail with a friend, visited the Hive exhibit at the Smithsonian Building Museum, gone to “The Big Sick” at the new AMC movie theatre, celebrated Denizen Brew Pub’s 3rd anniversary, brunched with a woman I haven’t seen in 20 years, visited Rockland Farms Winery with my husband, and hiked through a blooming sunflower field at McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area. It’s like I’ve pushed the “enhance” button on the video of my life to make my experiences sharper, with more vibrant color and emotion, and everyone’s going along with it. These are the days I will remember and yearn for. These are the days that will contrast brightly with my future lifestyle. These are the good old days.

Like the sunflower blooming, I am open to new experiences. Or maybe old experiences felt more profoundly. Like going to church yesterday. The music made me cry. Even with Father Jacek and Father Mike gone, I felt uplifted by the sermon, the singing, and the multicultural community around me. To my left was an African woman who sang loudly off-key and prayed emphatically with a strong French accent. Five gorgeous stair-step children sat to her left and bent their heads, probably in embarrassment. A few years ago I would have been annoyed by her, but yesterday I smiled to myself and held her hand at the Our Father. To my right was a short Latina grandmother who couldn’t hear the cell phone buzzing constantly in her purse. As her family members crowded late into the pew, I got squeezed between the two women. The piano played, the drum beat, we swayed and clapped together, the choir sang in English, French and Spanish and I was moved to tears. I put my head down as if to pray and wiped away the wet stains on my cheeks. The woman sitting behind me gave me a big hug after mass and told me she’d pray for me. We were in a “Find Your Gifts” workshop together two years ago. What is she projecting on to me? The only thing different is that I’m leaving it all behind for a year. So why does that make my feelings so powerful?

It shouldn’t take an international relocation to reboot one’s life. I wasn’t bright enough to figure out exactly what I wanted until I applied for an English Language Teaching Fellowship. I had only a vague sense that I would like to be a stranger again and I followed that feeling. If I had to give anyone advice, here’s what I would recommend: follow your feelings. It turns out that I’ve gotten exactly what I needed. And I haven’t even left home yet.

Here’s a poem that inspired me. I’ve had it on my bulletin board since January 2015 when I saw it in the Inward Outward blog.

For a New Beginning         

In out of the way places of the heart

Where your thoughts never think to wander

This beginning has been quietly forming

Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

 

For a long time it has watched your desire

Feeling the emptiness grow inside you

Noticing how you willed yourself on

Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

 

It watched you play with the seduction of safety

And the grey promises that sameness whispered

Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent

Wondered would you always live like this.

 

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,

And out you stepped onto new ground,

Your eyes young again with energy and dream

A path of plenitude opening before you.

 

Though your destination is not clear

You can trust the promise of this opening;

Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning

That is one with your life’s desire.

 

Awaken your spirit to adventure

Hold nothing back,

Learn to find ease in risk

Soon you will be home in a new rhythm

For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

 

– John O’Donohue, Bless the Space Between Us