by Adrin Fisher
I’ve been thinking a lot about my situation, teaching high school English in a plague year. I’ve polished up a little sentence to describe it.
My boss made a promise that I can’t keep.
I’m fond of that sentence. It feels to me like a short, pithy Sherman Alexie sentence in the story I read to my College English classes last week. Zinger, I called it. A gut punch, I said. A sentence that perfectly encapsulates a situation.
Teachers have been told to get on with it. Assess students—both blended and distance learners simultaneously—meet them in the gap, and then work your miracle-worker magic.
But, that’s not what we had planned for. Or, more accurately, that’s not what was planned for us. The promised technology has not yet arrived. Our provided training was “a lick and a promise”—the lick part being the shock of being exposed to a dozen new programs in nine hours in September. Broadband is spotty and rain interrupts satellite internet and kids are sharing devices, so also send home packets and books. And also benchmark…and also do this test training…and also create videos…and also receive meaningful contact…and also join these Teams meetings…and also…
Before you internalize the chorus of armchair experts singing, “Teachers always rise to the challenge!” and “Mr. Rogers taught virtually!” let me pause to address those claims. As anyone with any longevity in a field that chews up and spits out 50% of new teachers within the first five years can tell you: what we’re being asked to do now? It’s not the same.
Magical thinking only works magic in the realm of thought.
Mr. Rogers didn’t assess anyone, didn’t teach more than one thirty-minute lesson per day, didn’t manage IEPs or 504s, didn’t field parent calls, didn’t connect with more than one hundred separate personalities with one hundred separate (sometimes fluid) identities, backstories, and sets of conflicts, issues, and emotions. And that’s what teachers do in a regular school year. Mr. Rogers didn’t have to spend precious lunch minutes to discern whether the person really has never grasped the concept of “downloading” or whether the student (and/or parent/grandparent) considers distance learning in the fall of 2020 a Get-Out-of-School-Free card. Mr. Rogers didn’t have to teach himself a learning management platform in public or thoughtfully respond to electronic messages on four different platforms. Hourly.
Mr. Rogers was a saint, to be sure.
But try to explain to me that this has all been done before? Tell me that if I can’t do it, it’s a personal failing? Spare me.
To stop myself—and possibly you—from spiraling into the recitation of woes—none of which we caused and none of which we can eliminate—I will share with you my second sentence, my second zinger.
This could be the year that school swallows me up.
I know that doesn’t sound particularly cheerful. But stay with me.
Every year of my career I have sacrificed many, many hours outside my contract. I work hard. I feel weird saying that out loud, but it’s true. I correct essays, design lessons, prepare, make photocopies, read, write recommendations—I do all things we all do. In fact, I’ll do it again this weekend. Sometimes I feel really guilty, choosing between time with my family and time with my job. Sometimes I wonder what ELSE I am if my life is consumed by my job.
But now, I pour my energy into this monumental task: to be all things to all students in both 84 minutes per week and no minutes per week, on three different schedules and with precious little time or training. I’ve taught myself to be proficient in a program I’d only heard of before July. I’m planning and creating content on Sunday afternoon for Monday morning. I haven’t found time to grade much yet—even though a stack of essays and summer work and paragraphs and mission statements are traveling back and forth to school with me every day while their brothers and cousins quietly wait in virtual classrooms.
However, guilt and misery make no kind of life.
Therefore, I am choosing to adjust my expectations for myself. I’m deciding what I own and what I don’t.
So, because I can’t offer you time or money, teacher-friend, I offer you seven imperatives.
In these fluid times with these unrealistic demands, the only way forward is with intention. When my sons were younger and stopped by the dining room table to tell me about a Pokémon evolution or a YouTube video while my pink pen hovered over an essay, I had to train myself to listen. I clasped my hands and looked into their eyes and forced myself to stop. I still do it, actually. That’s my model. I will intentionally not get swallowed up. I choose to stop, fold my hands, and listen.
Even though we try to educate our students about how fake social media is, sometimes it’s hard for us to remember: not everything praiseworthy is Pinterest-worthy. Value function over form.
Less is good.
Let’s move toward sustainability. This is not a normal year, not for curriculum, not for the SATs, not for special education referrals, not for anyone or anything. You are not a continuous miner or a perpetual motion machine. Choose the essential. Save the rest.
Although I am not yet to the point where I can anticipate unit time-tables or plan for more than the following week, I have made it a priority to plan those five days. On Monday (or Thursday, depending on the cohort), I release the plans in the form of a slide, which I project at the beginning of each class, every day. I set it up as Day 1, Day 2, rather than Monday, Tuesday, so that I can use one slide for all schedules. I learned from a social media page how to “publish to the web” which allows me to make changes on the original and have those changes pushed out to all locations. I allow myself to correct typos, clarify, or add resources, but NOT to add assignments after that initial rollout—I realized last Monday afternoon that I’d forgotten to leave time to talk about a story I’d assigned in AP Lit last Day 3. That discussion will still be valid next week.
In a webinar in July, I learned a visual trick to help students organize. I have a different emoji for each topic (my utilitarian topics are Week 1, Week 2, etc.) and each assignment or resource for that week has the matching emoji. Students thank me for these two tricks.
Students are stressed. They’re oddly quiet underneath their masks, but their eyes reveal a constant low-grade panic. Good students who’ve succeeded in past years are being tested—because as it turns out, they’ve relied on memory instead of a planner. But now? That won’t work. They’ve mostly never had to manage their unsupervised time at home. They must choose to close Tik-Tok and pick up school. We have to have lines, late points, rules, assignments—of course, teacher-friend. But we should also have empathy.
Take refuge in nature. It’s beautiful out there.
Take refuge from social media. News flash: the “us” against “them” fighting is going to continue, whether you observe it or not.
Take refuge in texts. Billy Collins, one of my favorites, has done a Poetry Broadcast every weekday night since April. Maybe you have sacred texts. Maybe you will carry around a poem in your pocket through these long days (here’s what I’m asking my AP kids to do next week). Maybe you have an old standby, some delightful novel or biography that you loved once. Pull it out again.
Finally, remember who you are.
You are a teacher. But that’s not all. You win, not this school year. Don’t let yourself be swallowed up. Courage, dear heart.
A Multi-Faceted Person Doing Her Best to Teach Through a Pandemic
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Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you light. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher, an Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award Winner, and a finalist for WV State Teacher of the Year. She is currently teaching College English, AP Lit & Comp, and English 12. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin