The 2020 School Year So Far (I’ve been busy…)

I have not been blogging. I’ve been too tired. At times it’s almost been too much to teach and keep up with the comic strip. Actually, at times it’s been too much to teach and sleep adequately. But I’m going to try to get back in the game here, if only to record what’s been happening as a tiny fragment of history.

My school year started in August with three weeks of pre-planning. Three weeks was a lovely amount of time to re-acclimatize myself to school and get ready for the approaching school year. Our district, however, had three weeks to prep us for “Volusia LIVE!” – the hybrid model that had us delivering content in two ways, face-to-face and online, simultaneously. An attempt was made to give us a half hour training video. It was not adequate. We tried to duplicate Volusia LIVE during PLC meetings by having half the people in the room and half appearing via teams. It went well, I guess. With adults. My students are not adults.

Once students arrived, things were okay yet oddly exhausted. I was hybrid every class of the day, always looking back and forth between my laptop screen and my face-to-face students. I bought an air purifier and a conference microphone so everyone online could hear everyone in class. My online students seldom turned on their cameras or participated (what a thrill when they did!) My face-to-face classes in front of me were all mostly in masks, and not too terribly large. Some were as small as 12, some as large as 24. I didn’t feel comfortable doing pair/share or small group discussion. Without those activities as an accelerant, large group discussion fell flat in many classes.

I like my classroom to have have a happy buzz of energy. It felt dead. I threw myself into teaching to both audiences with more than my usual zeal. I tried to provide all the energy in the room. Between emoting and multitasking between two modes of teaching, I came home exhausted every single day.

Two of my classes, my co-taught English 1 classes, had large swaths of students simply not show up. I have no idea what happened to them. At one point my 3rd period was down to 3 students in class and 2 online. My 7th had 2 in class and 3 online.

It was too good to last. They did our official class counts and our school lost 18 “units” (teachers) to transfers – some to our district’s virtual school. We lost a ninth grade English teacher, and her classes were dispersed to those of us that remained. This took place on school picture day. My new students arrived and I immediately walked them down to the auditorium for pictures. My two tiny classes exploded with students. I had to try to start the year over with some classes.

I continued to teach in two modes. After enough teachers spoke up about how it wasn’t working, our school board told our district to “fix this.”

Meanwhile, my already wonky nine-weeks was further disrupted by a one-day district reading assessment, a three-day district writing assessment, and a two-day district reading assessment. (That’s 6 class period gone, in case you are counting, on top of picture day.) Then, my building was recruited to give the SAT for pretty much an entire day. Then we had to give the PSAT as well. Now we were up to 9 instruction days gone. During this plethora of testing, I caught wind of the fact that the state of Florida was going to demand two years of academic growth this year to make up for our lack of testing last spring.

At one point, an assistant principal came by during a class and asked to see my seating chart. Then he returned with it to tell me I needed to go see my principal. During the very long walk across our rather large campus, I was nearly chanting, “Please don’t let me get quarantined!” under my breathe. In fact, those were my first words upon entering my principal’s office. “Please tell me I’m not quarantined!” I was not. But a group of my students were.

The first quarter ended with us turning in grades (such as they were) on election day. We were then going to start the quarter in limbo for 3 days with classes we weren’t sure we were keeping, because on November 9th, massive schedule changes would begin that would make as many class periods as possible, for as many teachers as possible, either pure face-to-face or pure online.

On the third, when I went to turn in grades, I couldn’t, because there were missing assignments in my gradebook. I looked at my gradebook and saw no blanks. I did a “Missing Assignments” report and discovered dozens and dozens of “phantom students” who were apparently in limbo between someone else’s class and mine, and who all had blanks for every grade I had given this quarter. I had to hit “X” to exclude every single one of those grades for dozens of students. I didn’t finish grades until nearly 5pm and had been reduced to tears of frustration.

The schedule changes began as announced on the ninth, and because my classes are nearly all unique to me, nearly all my classes stayed hybrid. I still got a lot of schedule changes though, and now several of my classes have nearly 30 face-to-face students in them, which does not feel particularly safe. I have had to send away students who loved my class, while it seems the students who don’t like my class much almost invariably stay. I have had students arrive in my class for a day and then, mysteriously, leave. It’s all very surreal – like the class of Theseus. If nearly the entire population of period 3 has changed, is it still period 3? I don’t blame my school-based administration. They are doing the best they can with what they have to work with, and have always been responsive to my concerns. Nonetheless, this is all a bit stressful.

My wife, who also teaches at my school, has been dealing with a slightly different version of all these events, and is just as tired as I am.

I guess I am getting used to teaching in two modes nearly all day. (One period is pure face-to-face, but one student got quarantined, and so I’m letting her attend online.) I’m not as tired as I was at the beginning of the year. But I will say, I’ve never been so happy to reach Thanksgiving Break.

In the midst of all this, I wound up giving my name to the state union, the FEA, as someone who would be willing to speak to the press. They apparently got my name out there. I have now chatted with NPR’s All Things Considered, been in a print interview with NBC news, been part of a cover story in the Daytona Beach News-Journal that was also featured in USA Today, and appeared on CBS This Morning and the CBS Evening News. I guess I’m one of the voices of Teacher Exhaustion.

But for all the stress and upheaval, there are still things about this year I’m thankful for. I’ll write about those closer to Thanksgiving.