Teaching in 2020: A Year of Self-sacrifice and Disconnect

Last year, I took this picture on my walk home from work. Fall is magical here, and though I’m impatient by nature, the season urges me to pay attention. I remember reaching for an especially vibrant-colored leaf when I heard the release of the school bus door. By the time I got my phone out and knelt to take a picture, the bus was rounding the corner. I love this shot because brisk walks, Pennsylvania leaves, October air, and teaching are some of my favorite things. But not this year.

Though October is still haunting in its beauty and the smell of fallen leaves puts me in a meditative state, teaching is a frenetic black hole of monotony and disconnect. Our district is operating in a multimodal hybrid model where teachers are working with in-person students while simultaneously instructing remote students. For some, whose classes are lecture-based, it may not be so bad. But for those of us who teach younger students, it’s a nightmare.

My classes typically involve mini-lessons followed by group work; individual and small group conferences; movement; writing; and sharing. We spread out to corners of the room where we dialogue about current events, make book recommendations, tear up old magazines and share sharpies to create blackout poetry. None of this can happen now. The students are masked, I am masked, we are distanced, and I sit at my desk, fracturing myself between the students in front of me and those at home. I take attendance, first for those who are in person and then I wait for remote learners to log on. As you can imagine, this happens in waves.

Once I think I have everyone logged in virtually and physically, I pull up a slideshow, ready to begin our mini-lesson. I share my screen with the students at home, making sure it’s visible on the projector for those physically in the classroom. Sometimes, I’m on the second slide before a voice at home interrupts to remind me to unmute myself. So I back up to slide one and restart. After the mini lesson, I give instructions for the activity and ask if there are any questions. There rarely are. Students begin working, but invariably, a faceless voice will ask me what’s going on because they had to go to the bathroom or their younger sister just spilled yogurt on their keyboard.

During the independent activity, a student in the room cannot figure out how to access a document. I stand six feet away pointing to a tab, coaching, “That one. No not that one, the one to the right. Yep, that’s it.” Someone at home needs my attention because the course link is not working for them. Often, I am not able to solve their tech issues.

A student gets up to show a friend something that’s made them laugh. They are no longer six feet apart, and I have to remind them not to do what we humans are programmed to do: interact in the same space. Their shoulders slump and they flop back into their seat where they remain for the rest of the period.

I speak more than I ever have. I’m used to guiding discussion, keeping things on track while students fill most of the air time. But now, everyday feels like the first day of school: students sitting uncomfortably apart from their peers, each desk an island, like we are set up for a full day of state testing. The whole arrangement makes it difficult to feel connected.

Though masks are a necessity, they symbolize the crush of silence that pervades the room and our computer screens. Like a piece of duct tape stretched across their mouth, the mask dampens the desire to speak and limits their ability to be heard. When they do speak, I often ask them to repeat themselves, “A bit louder please.” It’s easier, they eventually decide, to not say anything at all.

And on my computer, most remote learners hide behind disabled cameras. Some teachers demand the cameras stay on, but I cannot bring myself to do this. I remember not wanting to look at myself in the mirror when I was thirteen. What’s it like for someone that age to know their face is being projected on the classroom screen for an hour? What or who might emerge in the background to humiliate them? Though a camera-on-smiling-face can make my day, I understand the resistance.

I will pose a question that, during a typical year, would set off a solid half hour of dialogue and debate. Now, in this model, crickets. I rephrase my question, wondering about possible answers, until someone chimes in with a thought of their own. Hope soars as I believe this will set things in motion. But the mics remain muted, and the masked faces in front of me drop their gaze, hoping I will not ask them to speak.

Breakout rooms offer an option for small group conversation. I ask students to work together to reflect on a reading or generate a slideshow. I bounce from room to room, checking in. Occasionally, there will be some chatter, but mostly there is silence, and when I ask “how’s it going?” they say, “fine.” They’ve already communicated via chat, assigned one another tasks, and are working independently. When we are all back together, they muddle through our whole-group sharing session, offering a bare bones summary of their work.

Earlier in the school year, we were all fully remote for about two weeks. During this time, we were gaining momentum, building community. Some still kept their video off, but there was genuine participation. I heard voices, I saw maskless smiles, and I heard laughter. We were all in different locations, but we were not functioning in a hybrid model that fractured our focus, that created a masked/unmasked inequity, that required me to multitask in painfully unhealthy ways.

When the district implemented the hybrid model, some students were just so happy to get out of the house, they didn’t mind the masks, the distancing, the awkwardness of it all. Others, however, realized that the in-person learning was more arduous than working from home, and chose to become fully remote. As teachers, we don’t have that choice.

I understand that our district, like so many others, is in a no-win situation. Every option is a bad one. But, I can honestly say that this multimodal hybrid approach is not sustainable. It really is asking us to do two jobs at once, and as a result, my health is deteriorating. So, now I am faced with a choice; act with my feet and find a new career, or fight through the slog, and try to make it to the end of a tunnel that currently sheds no light. If I choose the latter, I’m worried about the long-term implications on my mental and physical health.

Everyone experiences these stressors differently; the grade level we teach matters. Our pedagogy and methods of delivery matter; The value we place on self-care vs self-sacrifice matters. I know teachers who feel we need to do whatever is asked “for the kids.” Frankly, this makes me angry, because when I bring myself into the physical or virtual classroom, I bring myself every day for the kids–no doubt. But, what happens when the person I’m bringing into the classroom is not ok? When toughing it out is no longer an option? When I’m doing more harm than good?

I have a friend–a recently retired teacher–whose wisdom I value. He encouraged me to accept less this year– less from myself, less from the students. Take the pressure off and just accept that this year is just not going to be very productive. I understand his advice, but if I just assign tasks, sit back and wait for it all to be over, I feel like I’m failing the students, failing myself. One-hundred-eighty school days of waiting for it all to be over doesn’t feel acceptable.

What I do know is that something has to give. I cannot continue to carry on as is, powering through, waking up at 2AM to jot down ideas that just might work in this teaching model. Maybe I’ll let go and accept, as my friend suggested, that I need to stop trying to invent, create, and bend my world to fit what has become, for me, an impossible model. Maybe I’ll find a new job. maybe I’ll take a leave of absence. Whatever happens, I’ve learned that I can teach in-person with a mask, I can teach remotely, but this multimodal hybrid model is a sure-fire recipe for sabotaging my teaching career.

This fall, my walk home is slow, and I take long, healthy breaths for the first time in eight hours. The leaves are dazzling, the breeze is refreshing, and sometimes I take an extra lap around my block before walking through my front door. Because once I do, the cycle of prepping, assessing, and wondering how I can make it better will begin again.