An Ode to 2020-2021 Pandemic Teaching

“Can you guys hear me?” I repeat, for what seems to be the fiftieth time in a row, staring at the computer screen in front of me. The screen holds boxes full of circular icons framed by pitch black backgrounds – these “boxes” that are, apparently, supposed to be actual students, can be identified only by sheer memory due to repetition of exposure to the student’s chosen semi-inappropriate-for-school icon image or, for my rule followers, a simple large, looming, white first letter of their first name. The letter “R” spoke up first.

“Ummm, Mrs. Lowry?” R questioned. Her voice had a slight robotic sound to it, as I’m sure mine on the receiving end did as well. “Are we just working on our essay today, or, what are we doing?”

At first, I felt a wave of instant annoyance, followed by a sense of random camaraderie. What ARE we doing, R? T? P? Photo of Doge? Embarrassing selfie of student’s friend from elementary? Someone? Anyone? Tell me! What AM I doing here? 

I stared blankly into the sea of icons, and just behind the laptop screen, a sea of ACTUAL faces, exhausted to the max that we can’t just move on with whatever English-y thing I want to teach them about today. They sit, they wait, and they don’t say a single word – a mixture of good training and good luck – while I try to navigate the never-ending, aggravating world known has “HYBRID LEARNING”. 

“R______, did you hear any of my directions?” I inquire back. “Did you look at today’s post on Google Classroom?”

*Pause* and wait for the microphone feature on R’s box to go from crossed out red to lighting up green for, you guessed it, “go”. 

After a ten second lag time, the response: “Okay.”

And, for those of us who are teaching in a hybrid model this school year, sometimes “okay” has to be okay enough.

“All right, everybody, who has questions?” as I continue my typical song and dance. In the room with my junior high students, I am animated, bubbly, happy, and in my element. Throw in a constantly live-streaming laptop with a camera pointing up at me from the double-chin angle 24/7, a global pandemic, a still-breastfeeding first-time working mom, and a room full of masked children all just about as fed up as I am, and I have to admit that the levels of animation and joy are mostly forced this year.  At least the mask conceals the double-chin from that heinous computer screen angle.

I’m about ten minutes into what I feel is a successful lesson emerging. The bodies in the room are engaged, working, asking questions, and I’m zooming around the room like Mario Andretti. Maintaining six feet of masked distance when you’re trying to teach a junior high kid how to write is a pipe dream, so I risk the constant threat of impending coronavirus and get right down into the mud with them just like I always have. That’s what teachers do – we teach.

Just as I am hitting my stride helping in-person learner Student J fix an ongoing issue with comma splices, I hear it: the all-too familiar “chime” coming from my school-issued laptop still aiming at the front of the room. Duty calls.

I approach the laptop and tilt the screen so as not to give the kids at home an unfortunate view of my chest instead of my face, to examine what message I had received, and from whom.

Letter “K” who, yesterday, had a “Make Green Beans Great Again” icon instead, typed in the chat, “I can’t hear anything you’re saying.” Correction, for accuracy: i cant here anything ur saying

Terrific. These messages used to throw me for a real loop, as I immediately went into detective/IT support person mode within moments. I racked my brain, my fingers flying furiously across the keyboard, plugging and unplugging and replugging my camera (no, it’s not built-in to the laptop, and no, I don’t know why) in a desperate attempt to help K, or R, or P all struggling at home to hear their teacher. There is only one of me, and many of them, but it’s my job to make sure everyone is hearing, everyone is seeing, everyone is learning all the things at all the times. Even the kids learning from home who are sprawled out across their beds shoveling chips down their gullets with Netflix droning on in the background and YouTube music videos playing on another open tab on their laptop screen (listening to music makes them “think better” while they work! Except for the two hundred studies that show that it unequivocally does not) – I can still help them, right? I’m only competing with their cat for their attention! I can do this! I can do ALL the things!

Me in Marking Period 1 would have spent the better part of the next 5-10 minutes troubleshooting the hearing issue while the gracious in-person learners behind me just watched on in silent pity. Me in Marking Period 3? I’ve seen this movie a couple times before.

I speak. “K______, can you tell me what I sound like?” The bait. And now, we wait. All eyes in the room are on me, realizing that I dangled the worm from the hook, and wondering if the fish will grab hold.

Delay, delay, delay, then…. *ding*. In the chat, a message appears: “u sound like nothing”

Again, I inquire verbally, “Hmmm, so you aren’t able to hear me at all?”

Again, *ding*, in the chat: “no i cant here u at all”

This went on for a while before I revealed, audibly, that if learner K could, in fact, “not hear me” then it would be impossible for him to respond to what I was SAY-ING to him. I may be going batshit crazy, but at least I can still outsmart an 8th grader. Most days.

It never ceases to amaze me that these kids can operate and create a TikTok with their eyes closed, but ask them to attach and “Turn In” an assignment on Google Classroom and they are suddenly my dad trying to login to his email account. “What kind of technological witchcraft is this? A computer, you say?”

While I was busy exposing K’s plot to try to avoid engaging in any real meaningful learning during today’s class, four other hands in the actual classroom have gone up, and they all need my help. “Help is on the way, dear!” I sing-song in my best Robin Williams Mrs. Doubtfire impersonation voice. I metaphorically leap over a desk just like she leapt over that restaurant table when Sally Field’s new boyfriend was choking to death on a piece of peppered shrimp. I LOVE that movie.

Just as I approach Hand #1 to help said-student with a question, my laptop lets out a noise indicating that another remote learning student has just logged in to class with about ten minutes remaining in the period. Off I go to re-explain directions to “Tardy from Home” while also simultaneously changing the student’s attendance code in my class attendance for the period from “AH” (absent from home) to “TH”, then back to “AH” again two minutes later after I debate with myself that 10 minutes of class time does not a present student make.

Fast forward eight minutes of simultaneously looking over Johnny-in-the-room’s shoulder to help him re-word his thesis statement while also manning the small but ever present army of hybrid kids who I’m not even sure are clear on what period this is. Just as I’ve hit my stride, and Paul-Pokemon-Gaiter has officially gotten two whole sentences written (small wins!) I must shut everything down. It’s time to grab the spray bottle and paper towels.

I shuffle and weave throughout the backpack cluttered aisles to spray each desk and distribute a half-piece of a paper towel (I mustn’t exhaust my rations) to each student so they can “disinfect” their desk with soap and water before the next group of children will come clambering in through the door.

Unfortunately, today, like many days this year, my time management skills deceived me, and there is far too much “idle time” for the children in between desk cleaning time and bell ringing time. I almost want to break out in song just to distract them (there are days that I have). They inevitably do that innate THING they do where, no matter how old they are, they all want to get up, line up and stand there at the door smashed up against one another like they are still in preschool. It’s just science. I spend the remaining hour-I-mean-30-seconds of the period reminding them they can’t get up from their seat, they have to remain six feet apart, and no, don’t even consider throwing your piece of paper towel into the trash like it’s a basketball hoop – it isn’t. 

The bell rings, the students shuffle out, and after three-fourths of them have exited I start silently chastising myself for forgetting to remind them to use the hand sanitizing dispenser on their way out the door. I can’t be too hard on myself, however, because I must race back over to the computer, shut off Period 2’s Google Meet, and que up Period 3’s Google Meet, and mentally switch gears to prepare for my next group of kiddos. Factor in the students who linger to talk to me about who will win the Super Bowl, setting up what I need to run my next class period, or speed-walking to the restroom to pee.

The mad dash to the restroom is not in the cards right now, however, because my next period’s Google Meet will not load my camera nor my microphone. As I’m troubleshooting this issue amongst the sea of incoming warm bodies, fielding random greetings and questions and mumbling, the mousepad on my laptop starts to stick and my cursor will not navigate across the screen without a ten second lag time. The in-person students fire up their Chromebooks just in time to tell me the internet isn’t working. They can’t access anything they need for today’s lesson. My Keurig in the corner is leaking water as it struggles to spit out my second cup of coffee for the day. The phone rings. The bell rings. Class begins. ‘Tis sheer poetry, I tell you!

This is just a typical Tuesday teaching in the 2020-2021 school year. Many schools are fully virtual, some may be fully in-person, and some have staggered schedules. My school is full-time, 5 days a week in-person, with students having the option to learn remotely from home for… various reasons. It’s been a daunting task to try to keep track of who is present, who is present from home, who is actually absent, and whose parent do I need to email later explaining WHY I had to mark their child absent even though his icon was technically on-screen all period.

Let me be clear that we are all thankful to have jobs – immeasurably meaningful jobs – and that aspect is never lost on us. I returned to my job this fall not because I had to but because I truly love it. Even though I knew this year would inevitably present its challenges, and woah, Nelly, it has, I have to say, I still love my job. 

The true bright spot this school year is that I have a tremendous group of students – both in-person AND at-home, and my only regret is that I am just not possibly able to give all of me to all of them all the time with a split learning model, though they certainly are understanding. Kids have been immensely resilient through this and I tell them that all the time – even when they’re lounging in bed eating and pretending that they can’t hear me. I have to channel the middle school version of me on the regular and remember that I might have tried it, too, had Google Meet (or Youtube, for that matter) existed in 2001. I truly love them.

The classroom phone rings and I traverse across the room, still talking so as not to lose my audience, and answer the phone as seamlessly as I can. “Can you send Suzy-in-person-learner to the guidance conference room?” Suzy owes me two assignments, let alone the one that’s currently in progress.

I answer with, “sure.” In my head I also ask if I can join her, as I, too, am needing guidance.

“Suzy, honey, they’d like to see you in guidance,” I relay the message, as Suzy stands up and gathers all of her belongings. As Suzy walks past me on her way to freedom, I gently make the “mask up over the nose” silent motion that the kids have grown accustomed to seeing simply because 1. Apparently, they still don’t understand the mask goes OVER their nose and 2. They do understand that we are all tired of saying it to them. She smiles, I think (it’s hard to tell underneath her surgeon mask). I realize I’m not sure if I’d recognize Suzy without the mask on. I’m also not sure if she’d recognize me.

Under my mask I mouth silently, to no one, “take me with you” as I watch Suzy exit my classroom, forgetting to use the hand sanitizing station.

I take a deep breath, smile underneath my own surgeon’s mask, and walk slowly back to my position in front of the room, in front of the laptop camera. A smattering of masked faces and icons await my directives, and they are watching (except for the icons who are watching YouTube). 

They are watching how I’ll react when the computer freezes.

They are watching when I have to repeat my instructions, for the third time in a row, to the student who just logged in halfway through the period.

They are watching when interruptions come on over the loudspeaker right smack in the middle of the lesson. 

They are watching as I zoom around spraying desks and handing out paper towel pieces, praying that my timing is perfect. 

They are watching me take attendance – P, A, T, PH, AH, TH… every class, every period.

Their parents might even be watching (fun!) as I guide Letter K through the trials and tribulations of hybrid learning technology issues during class time. 

They are watching, and I am teaching. 

I’m teaching them to write. I’m teaching them to think. I’m teaching them how to survive a pandemic. 

From a few rows across the room, Student J’s eyes meet mine. His eyes reveal that he’s weary, but under the mask, smiling. My eyes convey the same.  

What I hope Student J and Online Student Doge Icon leave my room today knowing is that I am watching, too, and they are also teaching me.

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