Teaching Is Hell Right Now

Listen to this episode

S1: Quick note here at the top, we are talking about what hybrid education looks like this year. So it was only appropriate to mutter a curse word or two. There’s some salty language ahead. Christopher Pinto is a high school math teacher outside Houston, Texas, and these days he’s got this routine. He wakes up around five thirty six in the morning, pours himself some green tea, and then he cranks up this song, a good 80s power ballad, 1984 Starship’s Nothing’s Going to stop us.

S2: Now, you remember this one? It’s just the ultimate power ballad of like nothing’s going to stop us now. And if this world runs out of lovers, we’ll still have each other and we’ll make it through this cheesy pop music.

S3: It’s one of the few things they can psych Christopher up to do his job.

S4: So it’s like even even if online learning goes to complete garbage, it’s OK because we still have each other and we’ll figure it out.

S1: Christopher is actually back in the classroom this fall, but he’s also teaching online at the same time during first period, which is eight, 15 to nine o’clock.

S5: I have 15 students with me in the room who are as socially distant as possible. And simultaneously I’m running a Zoome call with 15 or 20 other students who are checking in via laptop, iPhone, smartphone or tablet or some device from their home. How’s that working out? Oh, terribly.

S1: But we’re making do this is not what Christopher pictured he’d be doing day in and day out. After being fully remote in the spring, he imagined returning to work would be a small step towards normalcy. Instead, it’s not really normal at all.

S5: Some weeks it feels totally manageable and some weeks it feels like I am the worst teacher ever and I just don’t know where to find the balance in between both.

S1: So is virtual school, is hybrid learning. Is that getting easier?

S3: Definitely not. I just don’t know any other way to put it, even though it’s only been 11 calendar days, it has felt like the longest school year by far. Today on the show, hybrid learning is a giant experiment. America’s teachers and kids are trying out all over the country no to classrooms look alike. But Christopher Pinto, he’s letting us into his. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: Throughout the summer, Christopher was monitoring the situation at his school, looking to see whether it would open up for any kind of in-person instruction, unlike a lot of school districts. The plan kept changing as the covid rates in Texas swung up and then down again.

S5: It was all sorts of places. So beginning of June, I thought, OK, we’re definitely starting virtual. And then July things started looking up and I thought, OK, maybe, maybe we’ll go back at a certain percent capacity in August. And then August rolled around and cases hadn’t exactly lowered. So it was just this giant hoopla of everything hybrid. Are we doing face to face? Are we going completely virtual? And even up until the week before school started, we still didn’t have a definitive answer, so to speak, before until the week before we were planning on being virtual. And then it turns out our district opted for the hybrid model. So we had to not only have our virtual classroom ready, but then also prepare the materials for your face to face.

S1: Students families could choose between in-person learning and virtual, but teachers, they were expected to show up unless they had health issues. Chris is immunocompromised. He’s got type one diabetes. He applied to get a medical waiver and teach remotely, but he was denied. He says he’s come to terms with that. He’s young, just 25 years old, and remote teaching was so isolating that he had some hope that his school’s hybrid approach would suit him better. That is not what happened a day one.

S5: This was probably my worst first day. Just because I’m trying to make the Zoome happen, I’m trying to greet students without, like, high fives, fist bumping, elbow touching any of them. We only know what each other’s eyebrows and eyes look like. So we’re just not even even though we’re in person, not really having that connection because we just we can only make eye contact.

S1: Chris gets to school around seven thirty in the morning, spend some time making sure his lessons are already for his remote students. He calls his lessons modules. Students can either join the class live or watch videotape instruction he records the night before. So he’s actually teaching everything twice, once for the kids at home and then again for the classroom kids and for the online students. He tries to post several days worth of lessons all at once so they can work at their own pace.

S5: What where I want to say pressure, but where we are highly encouraged to do is to publish the work for the week. So that way, if students choose to just work on their own time, they are more than welcome to complete the work for the week all on Monday and get it over with some students who want the teacher element, they attend the live sessions, but it’s not fully required that students have to be minute for minute with the teacher being there for live instruction.

S1: It actually wouldn’t work for a lot of Christophers remote students. That’s because so many of them have jobs themselves, often as essential workers.

S5: I have a lot of students who are in the food industry, the grocery stores for a lot of our online students. When you look at the data analytics for the day, I’ll notice that I don’t have a high completion rate between nine a.m. and six PM. But then come nine p.m. to midnight, that’s when I’m getting the most assignments turned in. That’s what I’m getting all of the frantic emails that this link wasn’t working, that they can’t submit this. And I’m tired out by that time, so I don’t respond to emails.

S1: After nine p.m. I was going to say that creates a huge day for you because you’re saying you get up around five thirty or six and then you’re getting emails from kids until like midnight.

S5: Yep. So the only times I don’t get emails are definitely midnight to five a.m. and sometimes I did get that five or six a.m. email because of my students who work morning shifts starting at eight or nine. They’re doing the work between five a.m. and eight a.m..

S1: Huh? I mean, this can’t be sustainable for you.

S5: Oh, not at all. I did the math yesterday, so it takes about two to three hours to make and edit the video lessons, another two to three hours to format the module, one to two hours to make the attendance quizzes for the week, another two to three hours to make sure the notes are readily available and that links are working. And that’s for one class. And I teach two different math classes. So then I have to double that.

S1: And that’s all work that you would not have had to do if you were just teaching in person, correct?

S5: So I’m averaging an extra like twenty five to thirty five hours a week to make hybrid learning work.

S1: How did you create connections with your students, even if they’re not there?

S5: So what I do is a happy hour once a week with my students. And so we get on Zoome and there’s no there’s no work. It’s just a chance for students to come on and share something they’re grateful for. Talk about what’s stressing them out, having a safe place to vent and cope. And so I do it during lunch hour. So I have some kids in the room with us and then I’ll have kids on Zoome and they’re very responsive to things like that because although I guess the goal is to track the data as well as possible, I choose to see them as people before data points. So really making sure that they have that space where they can just be kids and not be virtual learning students. What do they talk about in those lunches? It just ranges from this teacher is doing X, Y, Z, or I’m working these hours. I’m tired all the time. What’s on Netflix? Did you see this tick tock, things like that. The conversations are very random, but as far as the emotional element, its students are overwhelmed, they’re tired, they’re stressed, they’re disheartened.

S1: It’s interesting, I think, of remote learning as being so distant and you don’t know your students as well. But what you’re talking about, it sounds like in some ways you’ve got a very intimate look at your students lives.

S5: Yes, for sure. And most times my interactions with students are just through email. So it’s been it’s been a struggle. Just not knowing that I have another 70 to 90 kids that I’m going to meet when this is all over, but not really knowing them. And how do we integrate them in the classroom where they still feel valued and included? So aside from just like the logistic nightmares, I’m also wondering what this looks like post coronavirus and when everyone is back to this quote unquote, normal, if normal, will even exist in this academic year or maybe not until next school year.

S1: Hmmm. How are you coping with all this? You sound like super energized and that you’re doing so much. When do you have time to care for yourself?

S5: If I’m lucky, maybe the end of the week. Definitely not Monday to Friday, which is a terrible thing to say because I’m a big advocate of mental health and finding a good self care routine, taking like a nightly walk, doing a lot of journaling, but just trying to find time on the day where I can remind myself that it’s not the weight of the world, shouldn’t it be on my shoulders? And that if maybe this lesson isn’t perfect or this model isn’t it great, like the world will keep turning and we’ll get through it.

S1: If Christopher sounds a little Zen here, that perspective is hard earned. He told me part of surviving hybrid learning. For him, it’s meant admitting to himself he needs to be back in therapy. He says teachers like him. They feel like they’re at the end of this funnel. And there are so many expectations, it feels like there’s no winning.

S5: And what’s best for students might mean more work for teachers. And what’s easiest for families also means more work for teachers and what’s best for education agencies to track data. And attendance is not what’s best for teachers. And so teachers just feel very much left out of this conversation of advocacy and what we’re advocating for what’s best for students and families, admin and agencies. We’re not advocating on what’s best for teachers.

S1: Do you feel safe being in the classroom?

S5: I think I do. For the most part, we aren’t doing any contact, which is I don’t want to say nice because I do normally like to high five or fist bump my students. But yeah, there hasn’t been too much contact. And then in a classroom I have about ten to fifteen and they’re as spaced out as they can be. But it’s just this unknowing factor. There’s no treatment, there’s no vaccine yet. And we just, we never know. It only takes one kid and that could infect one hundred other students. Such just I don’t know if I’m necessarily concerned for my safety, but definitely for the safety of my students if it only takes one. And do you talk about covid in your class at all? We do, especially for my AP statistics students. How well, you just looking at the data and then also just our first unit is dealing with one variable data. So we look at the difference between categorical and quantitative data. So showing my students how different graphical representations communicate different information. And so we had one project where I had kids find like five misleading graphs of data, and then we would go through and see like, is this actually misleading? Is this misleading graph with covid data? Correct. And just looking at like so when data is collected properly, we can see it has these elements and we see it. It looks like this it just being able to give students like analysis tools to read into more than just believing like a headline.

S1: Did it make your work feel, I don’t know, like a little political, even like you’re it sounds like you’re you really want them to be engaged citizens.

S5: I do. It it always feels political and. Especially with statistics, numbers can be manipulative. And so I try not to lean my students one way or the other, but instead empower them to make the decisions that they want to make based on what’s available to them. And so I teach I teach nine to 12, but a good chunk of my students are the 17 18 year olds who will be eligible to vote in this next upcoming election. So making sure that they’re also registered so that they can go and make their voice heard.

S1: Hmm. You literally do that. You make sure they’re registered.

S4: Oh, I definitely make sure they’re registered. Oh, I love it.

S5: Yeah. It’s the work of a teacher I don’t think is necessarily political, but it’s hard to be completely unbiased because the truth is politics do play into the well-being of lives here. And so I used to give extra credit for students who would go vote and bring back their I voted sticker.

S1: Are you doing it this year?

S5: Well, that is a tough one, because this election, OK, all the elections matter, but it’s a very important election.

S4: So I don’t want to incentivize that with extra credit. As much as I want to incentivize that as when you vote, you’re making a choice towards people’s well-being and livelihoods. Now, go be decent citizens.

S1: You want them to do it because they they want to do it.

S4: Yeah. And not just do another thing because the teacher says so or because it’s for a grade.

S1: Hmm. I saw this headline today that was pretty blunt. It asked, you know, will this be a lost year for America’s children? I wonder how you would answer that question.

S4: You that. Yeah, that one was like a brick to the face. Will it be a last year? I think if we look at it in terms of like. Test scores and stress and anxiety. I do think it is the last year because everyone is just frustrated and it doesn’t feel like. The success right now is outweighing the negative internalization that is teaching during a pandemic, but I do feel like it’s still a year where you have the opportunity to impact your students by your actions and by your words. And so I never think it’s a total loss of a year. I guess that might be garbage. And we’re all over it and we’re done. We’re just like, stay home. But I still think it’s an opportunity to connect with students and to still let students know that they’re cared for. So I don’t think it’s lost in the sense of the emotional and social aspects. But education wise, I do think the repercussions of this year are going to last for at least the next one to two, maybe even three years.

S1: You did tell my producer that every day you have a moment of grace and every day you have an oh shit moment. Would you share true.

S5: Would you share one of each of the moments of oh, shit are a lot easier to come to mind. Zoome giving out on the Abargil that working my principal getting succeed on an email to me because a link that I posted was working. Angry parent email. I forgot to click my attendance and I’m going to get another passive aggressive email. It’s just like little puddle of shit like that. The grace definitely comes from students that are coming to my class and they’re getting a life lesson because, like I said, most teachers are just opting to have face to face students, complete the online work in the classroom. So just hearing students say, like, this is the only class I like coming to or this is the only class where I feel like I’m learning something that to me it’s like double the stress, but also, wow, I can’t put a price on that.

S1: Christopher Pinto, I’m so glad you join me to share your story.

S4: Mary, I just want to say thank you so much, because right now the conversation isn’t teacher centered and teachers keep getting left out. So just having a platform to share the teacher experience is just so. I am very grateful. And I know that if any teachers are listening to this, I hope that they can relate to the struggles that are being shared.

S1: Christopher Pinto is a high school math and statistics teacher outside Houston, Texas. And that’s the show. What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Jason de Leon, Daniel Hewett and Alena Schwartz. This show gets a little better each day with the help of Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. I’m Mary Harris. I will be back in this field with more. What next? Tomorrow.