This article is part of Open Book, a Slate series about the new school year.
Last May, my daughter’s teacher organized an end-of-year “party” on Zoom to celebrate her preschool students’ success. The children did their last show and tell of the year, watched a slideshow of adorable class photos set to music, and shared what they were looking forward to about kindergarten. As their teacher said goodbye, telling the children how proud she was of them, her voice cracked and her eyes filled with tears. As a teacher myself, I shared her sorrow. I realize that if she had been able to host this celebration the ordinary way, in a classroom, she might have cried there, too. But I suspect her tears were, at least in part, a bit of her mourning the 10 weeks the class missed together. I, too, was grieving all that I had missed with my high school students.
The humanity of teachers seems lost right now in the constant, everyday swirl of debate on how and whether students can go back into the classroom safely. Unfortunately, many communities have seen that debate transform into a battle of teachers versus parents. Some parents view educators’ advocacy for virtual learning as teachers only looking out for their individual rights over the greater good of children’s well-being, our larger society, and even our economy. This perspective saddens me deeply, because everything that I’m mourning from the end of last year, and all that I’m preparing to grieve for in the coming year, is about my connection with my students, and my fears about my ability to contribute to their overall well-being.
Last spring, I really missed face-to-face teaching.
I missed helping students write and record podcasts they would share with their peers and families in a grand culminating “podcast-a-thon” event. This project was a roaring success the first year we tried it, so my colleagues and I were excited to learn from our experiences to help make this year’s podcasts even better. While recording a podcast might seem like something teenagers could do at home, the majority of my students would need hands-on guidance and support. We had designed lessons to facilitate brainstorming, researching, writing, revising, recording, and editing—all of which students would have done in small groups during class. Could we have revised these lessons for distance learning? Probably, but not in the amount of time we had to transition to online teaching, and not without the school’s equipment and technology.
I missed teaching the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi as I had every year before, but there was no way to get the books to my students. I longed to see the students’ typical reaction when I pass out copies, “We’re reading a comic book?!” They are excited—partly because this is different from what we traditionally read in English class, and partly because they think it will be simple and easy. But it’s so rich, so complex, and so much fun to teach.
Outside the walls of my classroom, I missed the community of my school. I love saying “hello” to kids hanging out in the hall before the bell rings. I love sitting down to confer one-on-one with a student revising her essay or trying to choose his next book to read. Those moments allow for more personal connection, like the time a student with dyslexia disclosed her love of horseback riding to me, so I recommended she read The Eighty-Dollar Champion. She typically found reading slow and arduous, but she loved the book, and so she devoured it. It’s hard to describe the feeling of pride I get from helping a student build a love of reading, but it’s a bit like tending to my garden: The work is slow, and sometimes tedious or frustrating, because results do not come immediately. But each fresh bloom yields deep satisfaction.
At the same time, my pride isn’t limited to how I make an impact on students’ lives directly. I love watching them grow independently, too. By April, my sophomores are less like squirrelly freshmen and more like self-assured juniors, and it’s a marvel to watch in action. I also missed the rituals of closing out the school year—graduating seniors popping by to say, “Ms. Holbrook! I did it! I’m going to walk the stage!”; celebrating colleagues who are retiring; and saying goodbye for the summer to each of my classes.
Of course we did have virtual versions of some of these experiences, but they were not the same.
As I look to this coming school year, I am already grieving. I teach in Austin, Texas, and my district will begin the year with online instruction. How will I get to know my students from behind a computer screen? Of course I will adjust my familiar getting-to-know-you activities, discussions, and assignments for Zoom and Canvas. My colleagues and I will collaborate and share any tricks we pick up along the way—what works and what I’m sure will be some failures.
But I worry about the subtleties that may be lost. There’s a look a student has when they have something to say but haven’t raised their hand—will I see that? Conversations among students in class teach me about their dynamics and personalities—how will I hear them? Those little exchanges I have with students as I move about the room—noticing a sticker on their laptop or a doodle on their paper—teach me about who they are a little at a time. Will I still learn those things? Will I get to know them as well when we connect online instead of face-to-face? And students notice those things about me, too. Will they still get to know me? Will they still get to know one another?
And of course, as their teacher, I worry about lost learning. Most of my students floundered last spring. Many teens were initially excited for their strange extended spring break, but as the weeks stretched on and distance learning began, they struggled to participate meaningfully. They would sleep all day and forget to join Zoom sessions. They would struggle to find the motivation to log into class, or they would log in, but not complete their work. The assignments they did turn in were often subpar.
In many ways, I can’t blame my students. As my husband and I attempted to make working from home manageable while parenting two young children (ages 2 and 5), I often found myself distracted, unmotivated, and anxious. And many of my students were grappling with problems much larger than the adjustment to social distancing. Students had to babysit younger siblings, pick up jobs to help parents who were laid off, or take care of ailing family members.
As it stands now, I see no good solution for the fall—I do not want schools to return to in-person instruction until it is safe to do so. In my state, the government is essentially making that impossible. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott says he’s eager to reopen schools, but at the same time, the state will not provide schools with the additional funding they’d need to help address the challenges of social distancing. While schools were supposed to benefit from $1.2 billion in emergency aid from the CARES act, the state has essentially hijacked those funds, allocating them to budget shortfalls unrelated to education.
Educators are famous for making the best of difficult situations, for innovating solutions with their own thrift and ingenuity, all too often on their own dime. If the English department budget is cut, we seek out used book sales to fetch copies of the classics at 50 cents apiece. We then scour garage sales to buy shelves to store those books. In fact, teachers spend an average of $480 a year of their own money on classroom supplies. But teachers can’t beat this virus armed with a personally funded arsenal of Clorox wipes and Purell—nor should they have to try. The health and safety of our communities are on the line. It’s infuriating to be left in the lurch by our government.
I am equally injured by the ways some parents almost vilify teachers (and teachers unions) in the debate about returning to school. Because despite my grief, anxiety, and outright anger, I am wholeheartedly committed to my students. I recognize just how much is at stake. 2020–21 will be my 17th year as a teacher, and I am used to rolling with the punches. This summer, I have been attending online professional development, planning for ways to adapt the curriculum for distance learning, and mining the internet for ideas on how to get to know my kids online. Whatever is asked of me, I’ll do it. I’m confident my own daughter’s teacher will do the same. But I wish we all had the support we need.