Teacher truths during COVID reality

Two public school educators share candid insights after a devastating year

Teachers are my heroes.

If we paid educators the way we pay athletes, and paid athletes the way we pay educators, within a generation we’d be living in a utopia.

Then again, we wouldn’t be living in a capitalist society -- I get it.

Approaching the end of what must be the most difficult academic year of our lifetimes, I singled out two of my favorite public school educators and asked if they would share impressions of what they, their colleagues and students, have just come through.

Lisa Brown: 23 years at Nauset High School, recent finalist for Massachusetts teacher of the year, Lisa has broadened the educational focus with curriculum like “World Cultures” and “Exploring and Respecting Differences.” For a generation, kids who are academic stars as well as those don’t feel like they fit into the mainstream find success in her classroom.

Paul Niles: 27 years charismatic leader and co-founder of the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School with 252 middle school students, a public charter school (and the only one in the state that is unionized), for years Paul continued teaching science while serving as principal. When people refer to him as a real-life version of Harry Potter’s beloved Hogwarts Headmaster Dumbledore, it’s not just because of the white beard -- not only, anyway.

What follows is a close rendition of our separate conversations, not a transcript but put together from detailed notes, expressed first person.

Lisa:

Where were the passionate conversations? Teaching to a flat screen, not gathering in a circle or dealing with each other, it wasn’t fulfilling. There was no dynamic in my classroom. We kind of flatlined.

For kids who were coming into class during the hybrid time, which was maybe 20 percent of the class, they sat miles apart and focused on their screens even when sitting in the classroom. In order to have “equity” with the kids at home, we needed to do the same. And then when everyone was supposed to be back in May, the percentages flipped and 20 percent were still on zoom. For a discussion-based class, in that context how do you have a real discussion? You don’t. As a result, the kids in my classroom became quiet, quieter and quieter as time passed. In 23 years I never saw the campus so quiet, almost desolate.

My role changed. I needed to become a middleman among students looking at individual screens. It was like being a docent, not a teacher. I really disagree with the idea of having an adult interpret experience and impressions, whether in a museum or classroom. But it’s what I had to do. It became really discouraging.

What also happened was that being online made it very difficult to create real accountability. Guilt became the only accountability factor and I don’t operate that way. If kids didn’t want to discuss something or work on something, all of sudden they “lost their internet connection”; the number of times that happened could not be coincidence.

One result of this year I see is the introduction of more and more online, individualized classes. Pardon me, but by and large they’re bullshit: no person-to-person discussion, no interaction, no eye contact. You might as well be in a space capsule on Mars.

I found myself often with very little energy, I guess because I’ve always fed off class energy. It was like I fought a low-level depression all year. So am I looking forward to getting back to what we might call a more normal situation in the fall? You bet I am.

Paul:

A beautiful thing about education is that you develop a pace, a rhythm, techniques, and a whole set of institutional traditions that carry everyone. You ride a structure and you have faith that the structure will hold you up. But this year, we had to invent new ways of doing things weekly, almost daily. So it came to feel like a struggle for survival.

Take for example distance requirements. With collaborative teaching, people can be within a foot of each other, which is good and important. That couldn’t happen, and it changes how you teach. Then the daily schedule had to shift to smaller but more groups, four classes of kids had to become five, we ran 150 class units beyond what we’d normally fill. And the unifying experiences that we find so satisfying, like class trips, were lacking.

All this led to a lot of triage, doing the best you can. That’s why the theme of the year has been survival. And what has impressed me most is the resilience and grace of the students and staff. The strains were daily, on infrastructure, moods, everything that could be strained. There were no substitute teachers, for example. But people responded. So long as we had a good rationale for what we were doing, people gave their all.

We had been hoping that teachers would be treated as essential workers, they should have been, gotten vaccinations early on, but that didn’t happen. Even so, by the time we were ready to resume full classrooms, all staff had gotten their vaccinations. It wouldn’t have been a dealbreaker if not, but it was good the way it worked out.

Given all of this, I think that professional supervision of faculty has taken a back seat at a lot of schools this year. And when it comes to assessing where we’re at, according to the traditional curriculum, kids will be behind. But there are other things that matter. Resilience, sticking together, independence -- look at these as extra strengths that have emerged and will help students build back. These are very important.

Coming back, the whole system can’t just say, ‘These kids are damaged.’ Because if that’s all that’s said, you know what? They will be.

NEXT: MY SECRET LOVE AFFAIR

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