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Back in August I wrote a post about my first day back to school, “Why Teachers Think About Quitting“. It feels like it’s been years since I wrote it and it seemed like an appropriate moment to step back and take stock of how things have developed since then in this bizarre “hybrid” teaching world. Some of the issues I mentioned in my post from the first day have been resolved in practical terms- but there are other issues that deserve some attention.
The school gave us a list of students who decided formally to be remote for at least the first quarter of the school year. That helped a little in planning those classes because we could count on them being online or at least having to record the class for them to view later. However, two issues have emerged:
The first: Why are students remote? Many teachers suspect that admin didn’t even ask, but simply wanted to make sure every family got what they wanted and so we are concerned that there are some students that should be in school but are home. This concern is amplified through school gossip; we have understood that there are sleepovers and other social gatherings that have taken place at the homes of remote students with multiple peers which is a no-no.
The second: there are in-person students who are suddenly absent but are supposed to participate remotely. Naturally, we assume this is for COVID testing (who knows) but you don’t know for how long they will be out and their absences change lesson plans radically.
Let me give you an example:
I have seven in-person students for French 2 so I made seven photocopies of my handouts for them and set up our activity which involved the big whiteboard, the small personal whiteboards, and markers for a game. Ten minutes before class in the morning, I got an email that three students were attending remotely. Crisis. With half the class gone, I re-wrote the plan to eliminate the game, raced to set up the appointment for the class in Microsoft Teams so the remote students could log on, found new handouts for the grammar lesson I would do instead, and downloaded them as PDFs which I printed for the in-person students and emailed them to the remote ones, plugged in the cables for the Owl camera and HDMI so we could see the students and we started a grammar lesson instead. I collapsed into my chair at my desk afterward. This happened in mid-September. (I am getting better at OneNote which will help with some of these issues, but the sudden change in plan that I needed to make wasn’t avoidable.)
And then there is the student role in all of this. After a day when just one of my students was absent, she came to the next class with a question and prefaced it with: “That was so hard. I just wandered away. I mean, the Owl is so annoying. I just…can’t…with remote learning. I’m so sorry. It’s not your fault.” and I felt like howling because I did everything I could to accommodate her, and it didn’t seem to matter; that lesson was lost to her. Moving on.
I have no doubt that it’s hard to hang on during a 60-minute lesson. The Owl cameras that were purchased by the school have proved to be tricky in classrooms. The video quality is unattractive. For remote students with a full load of 8 academic courses, they have 8 hours of these Owl-filmed classes to watch which is like watching paint dry. If I’m not sharing my screen with the camera, it just scans the classroom with masked students with their books. The sound is tough. The teachers are easier to hear because they speak loudly but the students are very hard to understand with the masks. The remote students just aren’t seamlessly integrated into the greater classroom. The students can’t talk chatter with the students on the camera. In fact, once the video is turned on, I find that the remote students are often simply looking out at the classroom quietly waiting for class to start. When we do small group work in classes where students know each other, they just use FaceTime and I turn off the Owl. It works better.
For freshmen students, this distancing effect is particularly pronounced because they never really met each other in the first place. Students that I have taught for a while tell me readily that they feel lonely and isolated. One said she missed her peers and the feeling of being at school- walking in the hallways, going to lunch, and talking with different people. I wonder if their parents understand how blue they are and again; for what reason are they being held back from school? Is their health at risk? Additionally, remote students are supposed to turn their cameras on so teachers can see them during the class but increasingly they have been turning their cameras off, a kind of retreat from the rest of the class. I should tell them to turn their camera on but honestly, I haven’t done that much. I have many other things to keep track of that I haven’t kept up with that piece. Which brings me to my last part.
“Hybrid” means something different everywhere and you have to dig into it to see how each institution wants to define it. For several schools, remote learning was meant to be a temporary situation. The students were temporarily unable to come to class, so they watch the videos, do the classwork and the idea is that they will rejoin their classmates soon. In short, the focus should be on the in-person students and the remote students observe. My school does not seem to have any philosophy at all other than “everything for everyone” (it’s generous, I’ll give them that).
The lack of a real “hybrid” philosophy really becomes apparent when you get a class of seven where five are remote and only two are in-person and you wonder on whom you should be focused? On the remote five who are very quiet or on the in-person two? Teachers want to teach everyone, but they feel guilty and stressed when they feel they are leaving children out, especially since we know that many feel lonely already, not to mention what their parents will say to us about that. A remote class is 100x more stressful than a class of 30 in-person students.
I think that admin genuinely thought that by bringing cameras in and requiring the remote students to show themselves during class, the remote and in-person students would be united in one seamless group that the teacher would teach normally- no sweat. What they did not anticipate was the enormous tech learning curve, the student behavior, and the huge amount of work that teachers would have to do that is nearly double to prepare for a “hybrid” class resulting in teachers freely admitting they are exhausted, even burned out and going to admin to speak about it. Our tech coordinator, also a math teacher, is exhausted with all the tech troubleshooting he is dealing with singlehandedly which can’t be delegated to anyone else because…there is no one else. We desperately need some time to re-group, re-evaluate our technology training needs, and find a renewed sense of purpose in the classroom. I wonder for how many other places this is the case? And we don’t even have the schedule for the second semester yet- they haven’t even started planning it. I asked the head of school if she would consider giving us a survey so we could be entirely honest about what’s working and what we think we could tweak and she said she thought it was a good idea so we’ll see where that goes.Published in