Support, Tech, and Barely Getting Through (Teaching in a Time of Covid Pt. 2: 2020-2021 School Year Reflection)

This is the second installment of what will hopefully only be three posts. If you are interested in how the Covid epidemic smacked teachers in the face in its first year, read the previous post here. These posts are opinion/editorial.

The school I work for is a small Christian school. With the demographics there, and the nature of private school, it’s little wonder that my school tried its best to open up and stay open all year.

Demographics

Let’s start with the demographics of my school, which are fairly indicative of Christian schools around the US: it’s overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly Republican. Obviously, given that it is a Christian school, most students are from a Christian home, with a heavy majority from some kind of evangelical background. This means that it has been a task since Covid started to make statements which discuss the legitimacy of Covid as most are hearing misinformation from elsewhere.

Teaching during the first full school year of Covid was like a never-ending bad sitcom in which the main premise had be explained at the beginning of every episode. Over and over again. What made this particularly frustrating: it was like the main characters of the sitcom wanted to refute the recap every time it came up. This was also the first year in which I taught my unit on media bias and fake news and heard from home that I was playing a partisan democrat. For teaching that bias exists. And that right now America has a news problem.

I’ve never felt like the political sphere entered my classroom in such an unwelcome way.

The Nature of Private School

As opposed to public education, private education markets education as a product. This means that instead of a social good, the private school is trying to use the service to make money and keep the doors open.

Often, in most private schools, this is where the private school accepts only the brightest, best behaved, and those with heafty wallets. The reason private schools are “safe” is because students who make it unsafe don’t remain. The reason private schools are “high achieving” is because those who don’t look like they would perform academically (and therefore get into presigious colleges and win high amounts of scholarship money) are weeded out as early as possible.

I’d argue that it’s overall for the better that my school doesn’t necessarily stick with that methodology for choosing and keeping students. We’re by no means unsafe, and our academics aren’t as high as they could be if we followed the methodologies of other private schools. Students are given chances and there is an emphasis on spiritual education (which is the top priority for the consumer-parent who sends their student to my school).

My school suffered an overwhelming numbers drop in the first full year of Covid education. Those few who took Covid seriously didn’t appreciate the school’s push to open up and remain open as much as possible. They thought (correctly) that it would put their students (and them) at risk for exposure. So they pulled their students out entirely for the online education provided by local public schools for free or chose to leave their children at home for remote learning with my school. (This was easier for parents early on in the year, as most parents were still home from work which had gone remote as well.)

But the overall parent expectation, due especially to the demographic our school is selling to, was that we would stay open. Much like the students I would discuss with throughout the year, parents refuted the legitimacy of the Covid pandemic and scoffed at nearly every attempt to mitigate it (felt most by our administrators).

Thankfully, the drop in students meant that it was fairly easy to social distance desks and keep a space for myself at the front of the room when we were in person. One of the best benefits of teaching in any private school, mine included, are the small (read: reasonable) class sizes. They became even smaller; it enabled a greater degree of relationship building and meeting the gap created by missing the last quarter of the 2019-2020 school year.

Administration Support

One of the best parts of last school year was that the administrators, from my experience and from what I hear from other educators, understood how monumental a task Covid had made education. For the first time in my career as an educator, I didn’t feel like my principal was just “my boss,” an ambiguously powerful figure whose entire job seems to be to tell teachers that they should be doing better, but our leader– a person on the frontlines with us, trying to find their way through as much as we are. There was a mutual understanding unlike what I’ve seen or felt before that we were all in this together.

Things that didn’t really matter, such as testing, fell by the wayside. Lesson plans were assumed to be especially flexible since we would often not know whether we would be in-person from day to day. Extra support was given to teachers who needed help, not penalties.

As a bit of foreshadowing: many administrators did not realize during the 2020-21 school year that this was the level of support we need pretty much all the time.

Support from the Church

Public support waxed and waned for educators depending on who you talked with and which posts you listened to. Parents were thankful that teachers were there, or thought teachers were the worst because they weren’t teaching things they would prefer.

Thankfully, some people of my church had the foresight that teachers would need some extra love. Before the 2020-2021 year started, I was asked (along with all the other teachers of the congregation) to fill out a survey describing my likes, dislikes, what I went through and what I thought I would go through in the coming year.

I was brutally honest: I am a person with high depression who had lived mostly in isolation since the start of the first lockdown and knew that my mental health was especially a concern. I’m also the kind of person who is not great at going out of my way to do something good for me when I’m in such a headspace. (I hear this is not unique to me.)

I was adopted by a community group. They prayed for me. They sent me encouraging notes. They sent my support packages and goodies.

While I cannot lie and say that my depression simply went away or that the year was magically easy, it was a beautiful experience. I don’t know how they knew, if they did, but I recieved their notes or gifts almost exactly when I was at a low point. I never felt better cared for by my church before. (One of my favorite goodies from them was a Star Wars t-shirt with “Yoda Best Teacher” on it– with Yoda leaping into action across the front.)

In, Out, Students In, Students Out

Following the requirements set out by our state government, at certain points my school has to close down.

Some of this was mitigated by our general policies for containment:

1. Students had to sit at least four feet apart and were intended to be between four and six feet apart at all times.

2. Students had to wear masks when out of their seats.

3. Students could not use their lockers (which, as an aside, really hurt a lot of backs as books had to be carried in backpacks).

4. Students had to sit in the same assigned seat for class; their class before lunch was the same classroom they took lunch in. (This pushed the boundaries of teachers getting a duty-free lunch, but it was an understood aspect of keeping the school open. While it was a challenge, I also had students that I enjoyed talking with.)

Even with these in place, the school would have entire classes out at the same time within an afternoon. Senior class, gone. Freshmen, gone.

This meant that a class that was originally planned to be in-person became online in an evening. Sometimes with less notice. One of the funniest moments was when I had a single student who had already been quarantined return on the day their entire class had been quarantined– effectively turning it into a one person class.

Ultimately, the first semester was frought with most of these quarantines and we could not return to in-person school between Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks.

Photo by Vanessa Garcia on Pexels.com

Teaching Online, Teaching In-Person

I’ll be honest: I enjoyed teaching online.

Further honesty: there is nothing worse than having a “mixed” classroom of some students present, the rest online.

Some more honesty: having no framework to know whether certain classes would be in-person or at home day-to-day was one of the most anxiety inducing experiences around all of my time in any school as a teacher or as a student.

These are my three truths about teaching in the height of Covid.

Teaching online allowed for a greater degree of freedom than I’ve ever had as a teacher.

I’ll be the first to admit: not every teacher and not every student is up for learning through online methods. There were students who dropped off the face of the earth when the class went online. While I’ve heard stories of students who used this time to work because finances in their home were especially rough due to Covid (a plight I can feel for), most of my students (again, private students) did not have the same needs when they picked up shifts. There was a lot of credit recovery that needed to take place to get some of my seniors ready to graduate.

That all said, it was a glorious experience to be less tied to the clock than we usually are. I think some teachers and students (like myself), are self-motivated enough to get work done; removing the chain to a bell and a clock actually improved our school experience. I woke up later, meaning I was better rested. I went to my own bathroom (conviently near my home office). I made delicious lunches for myself.

For my students: I assigned or made videos which explained the content, assigned work at the beginning of the week, and made all work due Friday at midnight. I met with groups of students for extra info/group therapy sessions (because that’s what a lot of them ended up becoming), or for discussions (which also ended as group therapy). For those students who are capable of some self-motivation, this schedule was actually a boon. While it might not be the future for every child, it showed me that school could reasonably change for high school (especially for upper classmen, which were overall more capable than the freshmen).

So, not knowing if these days of wonder would be dragged from me over the course of a night was maddening. Not knowing when I might get the sweet relief of teaching from home was saddening.

This was epecially bad because lessons taught in the classroom look entirely different from work/lessons assigned online. Could this be made worse? Yes. Have some students online and some students in the class. Generally, I ended up choosing to go with “Are more students at home or in the classroom?” as my method to decide how to plan for the class. Then, when it blew up in my face because I guessed wrong, I just had to roll with it.

A Waning Threat, Surely

While there would still be those students who would become quarantined (and even more than a few who got Covid), our school was generally more open in the spring semester. There was a sense that things were getting better. We even got to celebrate graduation in-person (though with limited seating)!

But things were still ongoing. Even as the public schools were seeking to open their doors again, the delta variant was on the move; we didn’t even know about omicron yet.

I’ll explore these ideas in the next (and hopefully last) post of teaching in a time of Covid after the end of this year (2021-2022).

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