Quaranteaching: A Work of Heart
My Aunt mailed me this card during Teacher Appreciation Week: May 4th to May 8th. By that point, I was already mentally drained—struggling to find the desire to crawl out of bed and log into a system that allowed me to virtually connect with my students. Forced into circumstances beyond our control, we were challenged to finish out the school year completely online. My initial excitement faded when I realized just how difficult the transition would be. I was hopeful, but that hope faded, too, as I spent numerous mornings met with silence while talking through a computer screen. If my heart wasn’t in this, I would have called it quits after week two.
Because my 9th and 10th graders did not have the capacity or discipline to confront this laborious task without the support I would usually provide face-to-face, they stopped logging on. And I stopped setting high expectations. Many of them were negatively impacted by the pandemic, some more severely than their peers. I received constant notices about the loss of internet/electricity. Requests for submitting work late without penalty due to having to care for younger siblings. One of my 10th graders informed me that he was busy adjusting to fatherhood. Real life was happening on their end and learning, understandably, took a backseat to other priorities. Where did that leave me, an empathetic educator with responsibilities and reminders to still deliver meaningful instruction? I could only come to terms with the fact that there is no easy way to teach obedience in the midst of hardship…
I tiptoed along the fine line between compassion and callousness daily. No matter how explicit and minimized directions were, some students ignored my efforts to continue contributing to their knowledge tank, putting me in a position to exercise grace and offer the benefit of the doubt, even if it wasn’t earned. I am an English teacher who values words over numbers. However, in this profession, many rulings are based on data.
This school year, I was assigned to 65 9th graders (two classes) and 105 10th graders (four classes). Prior to COVID-19, I made noticeable progress when it came to memorizing their learning styles, figuring out what kept them motivated and building a mentor-like relationship that would last long after graduation.
Roughly 35% of both grade levels checked in consistently and adhered to assignment deadlines.
25 of those students had an IEP and required individualized accommodations.
At the midway point of the fourth quarter, more than 50% were failing. Of course, I blamed myself and went overboard trying to determine what needed to be improved.
I spent hours texting and calling the numbers in my contact logs, emailing academic updates and warnings, excusing work that actually did not require much of an attempt, and offering one-on-one grade recovery opportunities. Although our virtual schedule was 8AM to 3PM, I was checking and responding to notifications during my downtime in the evenings and on weekends—aiming to be flexible and patient.
Managing a schedule of eight classes, which would normally be cut down to four on alternating days, seemed impossible for teenagers to accomplish on their own from a distance. It quickly became exhausting trying to help them find ways to keep up. I can only imagine how parents dealt with the overwhelming requirements involved with a foundationless homeschooling role.
While prepping for a much-needed Summer break and reflecting on the past couple of months, I honestly don’t know how I survived 10 weeks with no training, no blueprint, no physical assistance, and some days, no energy. It was truly a teach-and-learn-as-you-go experience; an impersonal and detached way of delivering education to students who mainly thrive off of personal interaction.
During the prolonged period of self-isolation, additional tragedies took place that impacted me, as well. In this moment, I don’t have the emotional willpower to list them all, but I’ve found ways to cope and participate in self-care rituals that grant me temporary peace.
The card from my Aunt ironically extends its relevancy to current conditions: If “A great teacher helps others see the world in a brand-new light”, why are we surrounded by so much darkness?
I cleaned out my classroom last week and don’t know exactly if or when I will be returning to what has been my scholastic space for five years. Nevertheless, quaranteaching has alerted me to be mindful of what occurs beyond the boundaries of books and desks. I am now more sensitive to the issues that a curriculum, a country, may never be able to permanently fix. And knowing there is not much that I can do to spark immediate change for the future of my students, for the state of the world, is a heartbreaking lesson to learn in solitude.