In July, Slate sat down with four teachers for a candid conversation about their hopes and fears for the coming school year. “I’m scared,” one said. “The opportunity gap is just going to widen,” said another. And they all agreed: “When a kid or a teacher dies, everything is going to change.”
We’re now halfway through the fall semester—time for a midterm check-in. Our panel of teachers reconvened to talk about how remote learning is going, what it’s like to be back in the classroom, and the ups and downs of what may (hopefully) be the strangest academic year of their careers. Our teachers—all writers for Slate’s Ask a Teacher column—are Matthew Dicks, a fifth grade teacher in West Hartford, Connecticut; Brandon Hersey, who teaches second grade in Federal Way, Washington, and is also on the Seattle school board; Cassy Sarnell, an early childhood special education teacher in Albany, New York; and Amy Scott, an eighth grade English teacher in Durham, North Carolina. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Jamilah Lemieux: In July, we asked you to find three words to describe your emotional state. We’re getting settled into the new school year, how’s everybody feeling right about now?
Cassy Sarnell: Apprehensive, busy, and surprised.
What are you apprehensive about?
Sarnell: Well, prior to schools reopening, Albany County was doing pretty well. We were at about a 0.4, 0.5 percent positive rate on our tests. Since school’s starting, and I’m sure this is going to be a theme for everybody, that number has gone up. We’re hovering at about 1 percent. Compared to certain other states, that’s nothing. But, at the same time, it is going up. There’s a part of me that feels that this is inevitable. We’ve opened schools, people are being less careful. Nationally, numbers are going up so much that a full-blown second outbreak is coming.
What about you, Matthew?
Matthew Dicks: I would say I’m hopeful, I’m nervous, and I’m excited. Yeah.
What are you excited about?
Dicks: I’m excited to actually be with my students. We’re actually about to go back full time with a full class. So, there’s part of me that’s excited about actually bringing all of my students together for the first time so they can see each other and it can feel like a real class. But, at the same time, I’m fairly nervous about the whole situation.
Amy Scott: I am feeling concerned. Here, the plan is to go back to a hybrid model in January, and I don’t understand that. What’ll be different between August, when we started, and January? I’m tired. It’s really exhausting to teach online. But I’m surviving. Trying to make it through with child care issues and work and trying to live through this like everyone else.
Brandon Hersey: My three words would be keeping hope alive. I was really apprehensive as well going into the beginning of the year. But when I saw how excited my second graders were to be there and to log on and to keep learning. So, I feel like the least that I can do, and the least that we can do as educators, is meet them with that same enthusiasm.
Amy, we have something in common. We’re both single working moms, so it doesn’t surprise me that tired was one of the words that you used to describe how you’re feeling right now. We’re having this conversation on a Sunday morning. What’s on your agenda for today? What does a typical Sunday look like now?
Scott: So, my children are being babysat by the TV right now, so I can record this podcast. Then, I will try and prep some food for the week this afternoon. I have to say, the only reason I’m able to do my job in any effective way is because I have my niece babysitting for me during the week. I was not planning on having child care expenses. I was like, “Yay, kindergarten.” Now, I have child care expenses, so I’m dipping into my meager savings. But I feel it’s a privilege that I am able to do that.
The reason I’m so tired is I’m still recovering from the beginning of the year. Our schedule was a traditional bell schedule, so kids were expected to be on Zoom for 50 minutes an hour from 8:30 to 3:30. It was absolutely insane. They finally changed it a couple weeks ago so we have shorter classes and less time on Zoom. I’m still recovering from that.
How different is this school year from what you imagined over the summer?
Scott: I’ve learned that these kids are completely overwhelmed. When you’re in the classroom, and you get them online, they can look at your screen, they can look at their neighbor’s screen, they can whisper to their neighbor, What are we doing? When we’re in Zoom, it’s not possible, so the kids get lost more easily. One thing I’ve learned is to put all the attachments on every single assignment. Repeat attachments over and over and over and over again. Because, if you think about it, when your colleague sends an email and says, “Oh, don’t forget to do that survey that somebody sent out two weeks ago”—and then they don’t link the survey to that email, it’s really frustrating.
I’m really enjoying getting to know some of my students. Brandon was talking about meeting his second graders. Brandon, how many second graders do you have, total?
Hersey: Right now, I think we’re sitting at 19.
Scott: Nineteen. So yeah, I have 110 kids because I teach eighth grade. So, reaching out to those kids who need support, it’s so much harder, because there’s just so many of them. I feel like some of my kids are really slipping through the cracks.
Is anyone else feeling like their students are slipping through the cracks or struggling?
Dicks: Right now I’m seeing my students one week on, one week off, and I can see the difference between the two very starkly. The students who spend a week at home, I get to teach them for 30 minutes a day, at the end of the day. Their level of engagement, their effort levels, all of those things are dramatically increased when they’re in the classroom. Many of them, I see their effort and their engagement almost disappear when they’re at home. I think some of them actually see it as their vacation week.
Cassy, how is special education working via Zoom? Are you feeling that these kids are struggling to be engaged?
Sarnell: I’m actually not doing distance learning. I was lucky enough to get to pick which one I wanted to do and I picked in-person because I was feeling really frustrated about not reaching my kids, not meeting my goals. At the time, at the start of the school year, infection rates were low enough that I felt safe going into school. Even now, we haven’t had a case in my building yet.
But I see it all the time. There have been a couple of kids that were in special education virtual whose parents were like, “Forget this, we’re sending them in-person,” because they felt like they weren’t receiving the same benefit. That’s not to say that the teachers who were working virtually weren’t working incredibly hard. But it’s an almost insurmountable-feeling challenge.
Scott: My twins are 6, and one of them has Down syndrome. My niece was on vacation last week, so I was trying to get my boys to their respective Zoom classes. It was hard enough with Patrick, who does not have special needs, to keep him in front of his screen and working and doing what he needed to do. Then, with Arlo—even sitting with him, I couldn’t get him to do the activities or pay attention or anything like that. So, you know, I’m a teacher and I failed miserably.
Have there been any positives at all to the weirdness of this school year?
Scott: Yeah. I’m getting to know my kids and my own children. I’m able to spend more quality time with them. Especially with the new schedule, I’m not as exhausted at the end of the day, and I actually am, like, “Oh, I really like my children.”
Dicks: I have 19 students, but I get eight on one week and 11 on the other. What I’ve noticed right away is students who, in the past, have had difficulties in terms of behavior, all of those behaviors disappear when there’s only eight kids in the class.
Sarnell: From a special ed perspective, we’ve had kids who have previously struggled a little bit, keeping up with the pace in a class of 20 kids who are now in a class of 10 kids. They are getting a bit more individual teacher attention. Some of my students have really had a much better start to their year.
Hersey: I’ve actually regained quite a bit of time, about six or seven hours a week that I’m not commuting. And when my students log in, since we’re only really together for two and a half to three hours a day, they’re really engaged, and they’re ready to go. Students are picking up on the concepts a lot more quickly, because they know that they’re only going to be in class for three or so hours.
Matt, I know you’ve only seen your kids in small groups thus far. Are fifth graders wearing masks and avoiding physical contact for the duration of the school day?
Dicks: Overall, they’ve been exceptionally compliant. I would actually say that the kids seem to be dealing with the masks better than the adults. They are far more flexible and they seem to have accepted it as a reality in a way that, frankly, I have not. I think I’m more frustrated with my mask over the course of the day than any of my students. I’ll tell you, my wife teaches kindergarten, and it’s the same thing there. Even though they’re 5. I’ve been really impressed.
Listen to the full conversation on Mom and Dad Are Fighting:
Amy, you have eighth graders, how are they doing? This is a really significant year for them, and it’s been disrupted.
Scott: I think it’s been really hard for them. We have a couple of students that are new to the school this year. I had a little survey question the other week that was, “Who are your friends on the eighth grade team?” I had two students say, “I don’t have any friends yet.”
I have some kids who are just blowing it out of the water. They’ve done hilarious, creative, wonderful projects. But I also had a kid who ended the quarter with, literally, a 1 [average] in my class. I’ve never had that happen before. A 1 out of 100.
It’s heartbreaking to hear a kid say, “Oh, I don’t have friends.” I’ve noticed that my daughter, during lunchtime, where some of the other kids are chit-chatting, she wants to go be in front of a screen, she wants to talk to me. She’s not seeing this as time to connect with those kids. How are your students interacting with one another?
Sarnell: I have two kindergartners on my caseload and both of them have play skills goals. It’s been a really big challenge to try to figure out how I’m going to teach these kids to build social skills when they’re not even allowed to be within 6 feet of their peers. They both rush to the same spot to play a jumpy game together and I have to say, “Well, I’m sorry, but you can’t do that right now, it’s not safe.” I have to completely squash it and feel like a monster.
Dicks: All of the social interactions in my classroom are limited … or not really limited but weirdly Orwellian. You can be a friend but you must keep distance between that friend. I’m more involved in their social lives than I normally would be, because I think they’re having a hard time navigating the 6 foot distance, and being normal.
During your remote teaching, what’s it like to teach in front of an audience? Have you had any moments where, say, a parent has jumped in with an opinion, or to chastise their child, or perhaps even to defend them?
Hersey: Yeah, something happened there. I think that was one of my biggest anxieties. When I have a parent, just, magically pop into my classroom unannounced, it can just throw you off your game. Typically, when we have a classroom, and a parent walks in, it’s almost as if the parent is a guest in the classroom. Now, we are becoming guests in our students’ homes. So, for me, at least, it’s been about changing my mindset. At first, it was a challenge, but, now, for me, it has become a real joy, because it really opens up our kids’ minds to what education is and what school is.
I think we’re going to have kids who show up more whole and more ready to learn, especially from Black communities, because education is so communal. Education has always been something that you didn’t only get at school. For me, education happened at church, it happened in the grocery store, it happened on the sidewalk. I really am challenging myself, and especially my team, to think about this.
Dicks: Last week, I crumpled up a piece of paper, and I threw it at a kid and said, “You’re making me crazy.” She said, “You know, you are being recorded right now and people are watching you throw paper at me.” You just forget that you’re being recorded. Then, I’ll get a chat message in my Google Meet, and it’ll say something like, “My mom thinks you’re hilarious, but a little crazy.” Ultimately, as I tell my students, I have to trust your parents that they get it, and if they don’t get it, they’ll ask me and I can make them get it.
Are any of you all seeing movements in your communities to reopen schools?
Hersey: We definitely are. What I would just remind folks is that, regardless of where you are, or where you might be, there are people in your community that are still dealing with and dying from this virus. For me, personally, I just lost my uncle to coronavirus about a week and a half ago. So, while we might be in a place to where our transmissions and cases might be low, the mental health impacts and the familial impacts of this virus, especially for communities of color, especially for the Black community, are still very real and very present. I would just urge folks to be very patient because, as we said before, the alternative is death. Students will continue to get sick and many will continue to lose family members if we rush back into an in-person setting.
What do teachers need from parents right now? How can we best support you all?
Dicks: My wife and I have gotten messages saying, Thank you for going into a school and putting your life on the line for my kid. It changes your entire disposition, because it is hard to be appreciated by 5-year-olds or 10-year-olds.
Sarnell: I need two things from parents. The first is responsibility. We’re starting to become complacent with respect to the virus. All that does is put me at risk; it puts my students at risks. So, I need parents to be responsible. The other thing is patience. This is a hard year, especially for parents with kids with special needs. There can be a lot of feeling like the world is ending if your kid is not catching up right now. It’s just not necessarily a realistic goal to set this year.
Scott: What I need is for parents to encourage their kids to become their own advocates, to communicate with teachers directly. And also, to copy your kids on emails that you send to me. Because, so often, the parent is asking a question that the kid can answer.
But also, I want parents to give themselves a pat on the back and a break as much as possible. Like I said, I was failing miserably last week when my babysitter was out of town. So, please know that every time you email and you ask for that link again—every time I was emailing teachers asking for the link again—teachers understand what you’re going through. We’re all just doing the best we can.
Hersey: Clear communication. If there’s something going on, please let us know. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Now more than any time before, I see myself less as a teacher and more as just a community member looking to support in whatever way I can. Don’t suffer in silence. Reach out and let us know what’s going on so that we can help and we can support. Because, we care about y’all, we love y’all very dearly, and we want to do everything that we can to make this time a little bit more livable, and this burden a little bit more manageable.