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.

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.

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.