Lessons From a Year of Pandemic Teaching

I am sure I am not the only teacher to have some of these insights, but after a few weeks away from the 2020-2021 school year, I feel a need to write them down, if only for myself.

I spent this school year kind of exhausted. I was teaching with a mask on all day, and also encouraging my students to wear masks when they were reluctant to. I was trying to have some social distance between myself and students and between students and each other, even in classes of 30. I spent 5 out of my 6 classes teaching in two modes at once: online and in person. Everything had to be handled in two modes: in-class/on-paper and digitally/online. Planning, presentation, discussion, assignments, assessments, all had to be done in two modes. Despite losing class time to the difficulties of teaching in two modes, I still lost over 20 class-days to required assessments.

So – what are my takeaways from this very strange year? Probably nothing I didn’t know before. But the things I know, I know better now.

Less focus on standardized assessment: Our obsession with standardized testing has got to stop. Or have a mentioned that before? My students lost over 20 days of instruction to standardized assessment, district, state, and College Board combined – and that was just in my English class. There were other days lost in other subjects as well. Most of the time, the assessments are either low quality or else give students no real useful feedback about how they could improve. Worse, all that assessment got in the way of things that do matter (see below).

Our mandated curriculum is completely arbitrary: In spring of 2020, when we all stayed home for the 4th quarter and taught and learned online, my district tossed the curriculum map in favor of an online learning platform called Edgenuity full of videos and automatically graded assignments. So I guess the curriculum map wasn’t as important as I thought. Of course, since I’d been replaced by a video teacher, I guess I wasn’t that important – at least not to the system.

My decisions as a teacher matter: No matter how much they try to teacher-proof and micromanage the classroom (or just replace us with videos), our choices and expertise as teachers matter. Two of my classes, my “regular” classes, went to Edgenuity before I knew there was an option to do your own thing. My 3 “advanced” classes did an online version of what I would have done in class – a combination of curriculum map stuff and my own materials and assignments. My Edgenuity students didn’t show up for calls and became completely disengaged. The students doing my materials had much better attendance on calls, were involved in online discussions, and stayed with me to the end. This was not, I believe, merely a function of their being advanced students. I think they, too, would have checked out on robo-teacher.

The Work We Assign Matters: If we view every assignment through one lens only (Does this lesson cover a standard and will that coverage improve test scores?) we miss out on so many opportunities to help our students as people. In English classes especially, we can expose them to important, even life-changing ideas. I am always on the lookout for short stories, essays, blog posts, speeches, poems, song lyrics, comics – even children’s books, that will not only teach them how to read better, but give them tools to live better. Or at least get them thinking about what it means to live better. When students wrote me their final journal at year’s end, they nearly always mentioned some text that I’d hand-chosen to include in our readings that made a difference for my students.

Relationships matter. A lot: A lot of things got in the way of relationships this year. Masks. Screens. Social distance. Facing everyone the same way. My divided focus as a teacher between online and in-person classes. My feeling that I shouldn’t be out circulating with the in-person students because of Covid, and because I would be abandoning my online students.

Discussions were very hard to get off the ground. It was hard to build relationships between myself and individual students, between small groups of students, and between all the students in a given class. Class community didn’t develop. And that lack of relationship made teaching really hard. Toward the end of the year, sparks of relationships began to take hold, and teaching felt – well, like it used to again.

As the Teacher, I Need to “Bring It” Everyday: Early in the year my wife received a “Dear Teacher” writing assignment from a senior in which he thanked her for being the only teacher he had who didn’t look like she was writing her resume for some other job even as they were teaching.

I know teaching as not merely a performance art. It is about relationships and community. But on the other hand, I do need to approach each class period with a sense of enthusiasm, a spirit of fun, and a lot of energy. My experiences as an actor have helped me view teaching as a kind of interactive theater. One of the lessons you learn in theater is to keep your performance at the same level of energy, even when you aren’t getting much response from a particular audience. This year, I felt that lack of a response nearly every period of every day. But I went in smiling and joking, and trying to teach with my usual enthusiasm to both my in-person and online audiences. Sometimes I was afraid I was being a little over the top or obnoxious, but my students consistently thanked me for my enthusiasm and engagement at the end of the year. One student who’d been so deadpan I thought he was barely alive online and later in class (he returned to in-person in January) turned out to have loved my class.

So, as I return to school this August, I will be appreciating the lifting of Covid restrictions, but what I’ll be appreciating even more is the chance to build community and relationships in ways I couldn’t when restrictions were in place. And I’ll have a renewed appreciation for the importance of my own enthusiasm and creativity as a teacher.

Sadly, I will still be frustrated by the assessments reigning down from on high, along with other, newer nonsense from the powers that be.

But feeling better-connected to my students will make up for a lot. In fact, I think I’ve discovered that connection is everything.