As we are nearing the end of the fall semester I find myself slipping into a terrible funk. It’s been 18 weeks of teaching from behind a screen. Teaching students who, like me, are suffering from the lack of human interaction. The screen is filled with icons that students have created. A dog with a half-watermelon hat on his head and Kermit the Frog look back at me without making a sound. I have no idea if they are actually present. I’ve heard from my nephew that he logs on to the Google Meet and gets back in bed. I suspect several of my students do the same. I have no idea if any of them understood the concepts taught. In each class there are a couple of kids who engage. Just a few who ask questions, discuss the problems presented, and turn in assignments.
It’s not just student learning that concerns me. I also worry about their well-being and their mental and emotional stability. I watch my co-teachers and colleagues struggle to make connections with students and with each other. Our lunch bunch dissolved after being divided by the horrid politics of the presidential election. Some of us have taken the current global pandemic seriously, condensing our lives and limiting contact to just a few folks in a bubble that allows us some security and social mobility. Others have not seen the reality of death and illness caused by the virus and choose instead to believe it gives no reason to be cautious.
Students and teachers are emotionally, physically, and mentally tired. While working at a rather large public high school in central Texas I come across teachers and staff who are aggravated. Annoyed by the decisions the district has made on either side of the issue, there are some who advocate for a return to full face to face instruction and others who believe just as strongly that school should be 100% virtual. Our school district falls somewhere in the middle allowing families to choose. Fewer than half of the student population has chosen to return to school for face to face instruction after our Christmas break. The numbers have increased with each marking period, although with large numbers of students still choosing remote learning, teaching in the classroom looks very different.
The difference in how we teach is affecting students and teachers as well. When I started planning for this post, I thought that I would write about ways to try to get students to engage in a virtual classroom setting. What I found after talking to teachers about student engagement is that they are hurting. Teachers across the board, in different disciplines, are hurting. Why? The demise of interpersonal relationships, rising failure rates, and the thought that all of their hard work – learning to use new software, hardware, programs and apps; late night planning, and creating new learning activities and projects to teach students remotely- is for nothing. It feels like it’s all for nothing.
There are plenty of articles, websites and professional development providers claiming to have the solution. Most of them are guessing about things that might work in a secondary education setting to get kids motivated. Most of them fall short of the expectations. This is new to all of us. Solutions are not easily found. The math teachers in our school reached out to students to ask for help. Unfortunately, the survey yielded little helpful information. Students understand that they are not learning. None of the usual strategies are working now and they aren’t able to articulate what is wrong or how to fix it. Students admit that they struggle learning content and with time management. Some turn to cheating – using Google search to find answers and even submitting assignments that were completed by their classmates. Academic dishonesty is descending to new depths.
Let’s end this post on a high note. In spite of all of the issues that both students and teachers face during virtual learning there is a silver lining around the dark storm cloud that education has become. Many teachers, especially those in CTE (Career and Technical Education) and fine art classes where assignments are more about what you can do, build, and create, have turned to video presentations. Some of the teachers in my school started with FlipGrid but then decided that students could use whatever platform fits their personality and skill level. The results are encouraging. Students are showing their faces. One teacher in my department commented that as students talked through the problem solving process they realized their mistakes and corrected themselves. Another teacher was impressed by all of the diverse solutions that students provided. This is outstanding! When we are all present in class and one student comes up with a solution the rest turn off their brains and can find no other way to view the problem. When students are not influenced by their classmates they can work out unique solutions that demonstrate their understanding of the concept. I love that! Perhaps this is a cornerstone on which we can build the spring semester. Perhaps we will find strategies that work and we will have students who engage with each other, the content, and their lonely teachers.
A girl can hope. Right?