The quiet drop outs

It’s not shocking that the December 30th deadline for confirming my National Board Certification candidacy has forced me to ask the right questions. If I’m co-teaching two sections of Honors English 12 and teaching solo two others, which class would be best to film for Component 3? Or should I use my 7th period ELD Seminar class that has only 10 students? Should I certify in English Language Arts (the subject I’m actually teaching) or English as a New Language (my career specialty)?

It turns out that I have to scrap the videos I’ve recorded, delete the written commentary, and wait until next semester when my new schedule includes 51% English Learners in a sheltered Honors English 12 class. Teachers have to pivot all the time. Good thing I checked before spending the rest of the school year completing unscorable components. One thing, however, has come out of this frustrating process that I cannot dismiss.

The data I’ve collected on my students may not be valid for National Board Certification, but it deserves some written commentary. So here it is.

Out of the 106 students in my four classes, 30 have missed 20 or more days of instruction or they have stopped coming to school altogether. Some have withdrawn from school officially, some have switched to “credit recovery” classes online, and one had a baby. Many English Learners are working full time and miss class because they’re exhausted. But where are the other students? Why aren’t they coming to school?

Over and over again, I try to contact the students on my roster. I call home, I send an email to the counselors, administrators follow up, kids get referred to the Wellness Center, I involve the Parent Community Coordinator or the Bilingual Counselor. Some will show up once a week or two. My school and school district have wonderful resources, fully employed. But why aren’t these students coming to class?

Teachers and school staff understand why. These students are suffering from enormous mental health challenges as a result of the pandemic. It’s not just a disengagement. This year’s seniors spent the spring semester of their freshman year and 90% of their 10th grade year online. These are crucial formative years, where adolescents naturally break away from their families and seek peer friendships as they develop independent identities.

Schools have made incredible adjustments to accommodate student needs. But we must keep asking the right questions. How can we better address the experiences of high school students whose natural growth process was stunted? What new programs or new staffing can we put in place to support the whole child? School is not just for academics. We’ve known that for a long time. Why has it taken a public health crisis to begin to address this?

During the pandemic, articles about the “great resignation” began to appear. Workers seeking better jobs jumped at new employment opportunities. Now we hear about “quiet quitting,” where workers are opting out of any extra tasks outside their primary job duties (in the teachers’ union, we call this Work to Rule). High school students are paralleling what companies and employers are seeing in the workforce.

Seniors are doing the absolute bare minimum to meet graduation requirements. It’s a huge problem in the classroom when 30% of the students missed the intro lesson and we can not make progress. I have to completely re-think discussion groups or project-based assignments that require peer collaboration. What social-emotional skills are they also missing?

It’s a quiet drop out crisis. The soft skills that today’s teens will need to be successful members of society are not developing normally. We can help them if every school, every district, and every state begins to ask the right questions, gather data, and reflect on possible solutions. It would help to have a deadline.

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.