Friday, February 19, 2021

Reflections on Apocalypse Teaching

I have an accommodation this year, so this picture describes me well. My classroom, since March, has been our dining room. We don't use it much, generally. Our little family can eat in the kitchen.

So our dining room table becomes a storage area, except on the rare occasions when we have company. Since COVID hit, we haven't had more than one outside visitor at a time.

When my students see me, they see a clean area with a painting hanging on the wall. What I see is a mountain of papers, books, and a few violins for good measure. I frequently have to hustle to find the materials on which we're working, as I misplace them religiously. 

It's symbolic, though, of the times we're facing. Everything is fine, we tell or show the kids. But as they know, and as we all know, everything is a perpetual shitstorm. Were that not the case, we'd be in school seeing and talking to one another, as opposed to viewing one another over Zoom, or whatever platform we happen to be using. 

I was extremely lucky this year, in that I was assigned to teach a level up from where I taught last year. This left me with a lot of students I already know well. I have gotten to know some of my new students well, particularly those who are extroverted, but they represent a distinct minority. Those who are shy, and a whole lot of newcomers are shy, take a long time to cross my radar.

There are a lot of people out there advocating for student privacy, and for them that includes the right to not display their faces online. About half of my students are now exercising that right. I need to frequently call on them to make sure they are actually there. About 25% of the time, they aren't. This represents an enormous waste of class time. Were we in the building, they would likely be absent and I wouldn't need to check. Or perhaps they'd be inattentive and I'd rouse them into at least pretending otherwise.  A constant frustration for me is that I've become someone I'm not--a teacher who sits at the desk and has little to no idea what's going on in the classroom. 

I don't know about every teacher, but this is not what I signed up for, and it's not what I love to do. I was once sitting in a lounge with a very frustrated colleague, who was complaining about the kids, the administration, and the general unfair nature of his life. 

"Do you like teaching?" I asked him.

"It's a job," he said.

He didn't last long. 

I remember when I first started, my first day, in fact, that several grizzled vets told me to get out of the system before I got stuck in it. I decided, right at that moment, though my new job was seriously overwhelming, that I never wanted to be like that. I'm proud to say I've managed to avoid it, and that I've been constantly inspired and surprised by my newcomer students. 

It's different online. I'd never have lasted in a job as an online teacher. We do more than provide instruction for kids. We are soundboards. We are role models. We can get involved. Students can tell us directly why they aren't able to pay attention. Now, they hide behind avatars and who knows what the hell is going on?

It's not learning loss that concerns me. They can learn English next year. They can take tests next year, if they absolutely have to.

The big question is whether we'll be able to be full face to face schools next year. A month or two ago, I'd have said yes. Now, with the uncertainty of vaccine distribution, and the understandable community lack of faith in our ability to maintain safety at acceptable levels, I just don't know. 

That's very sad. No matter how many misguided zealots try to put Humpty Dumpty together again, it's going to be very tough for communities to trust the system again. I hope I'm wrong, but I have little reason to think so now.

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