I taught in a suburban high school for 23 years. In normal times, a back-to-school essay like this would be timed to drop sometime in late August or early September. Well, here we are in mid-December, and there’s no normal in sight.
My former colleagues — I’ve been in retirement mode since 2017 — are on the digital, stay-at-home, teach remotely bus. There’s very little “in-person learning” going on right now in my old school district. Laptops are the new lectern for teachers, with students plugged in on the other end.
Of course, the kids still learn from certified educators — they’re just receiving information digitally. The district has tried hard to build in some structure and variety — yes, there’s PE and sometimes art, depending on one’s grade, and I’m told there’s a lunch break built into the virtual day — but I’m finding it difficult to imagine teaching students I’ve never met except over the Interwebs and keeping 30 kids per class (so, a high school English teacher in my district would have to do this five times, for a total of 150 kids each round) interested in The Great Gatsby when they have so many digital distractions right at their fingertips.
Things are difficult at home these days, but high-schoolers were easily distracted before they started virtual learning. I had to combat the difficulty of online entertainment in Room 215, too. And as cellphones improve and streaming platforms increase, I find it hard to discount the fact that more than a handful of kids these days are “multi-tasking”, ie. sitting at their laptops while simultaneously streaming a movie on their phones — a skill they think they’ve mastered when they really suck at it, to use their terminology.
How many times did I take a kid’s phone away because s/he was watching Netflix rom-coms or playing Call of Duty instead of paying attention to the give-and-take between Gatsby and Daisy? Don’t ask.
Then there’s the Sore Butt Syndrome involved. Sitting for 7.5 hours per day — that’s the length of the in-person, traditional school day in the district I taught in for two-plus decades — has to cause a lot of pains in, as my Nana would say, “the ol’ como se llama.” Kids aren’t changing classes, nor congregating with friends in the hallways and the cafeteria. I don’t think Nana’s faith would allow her to say “ass,” unless it were in reference to a donkey, so that’s the reason for the euphemism, en Español. And then, if you’re a teacher who’s been around the block a few times, in terms of maturity and all, there are doubtless pains in the back, the legs, the hips, the knees. I’d say the whole setup probably puts a good deal of hurt on all involved.
So I imagine it will be pretty scary — but also somewhat of a relief — when my friends get back into the classroom. Our district has been making rumblings about this happening. They’ve polled parents and students on what seems like multiple occasions, and there was a big-ass school board meeting a few weeks ago (via Zoom, of course), where parents, teachers, board members and all the other “stakeholders,” as they say in the best education bureaucratese, got to weigh in. I’ve been checking the Google Machine, the school district’s Web site and various teacher/parent digital portals, and haven’t been able to ascertain what came of it all. But it looks like teachers and students will be dragging themselves into actual schools sooner or later. Yes, my colleagues will still be able to “opt out” and teach online for the rest of this school year, but I do know a handful who are just as eager as the parents to get those bodies back in school.
Contrary to popular belief, we teachers often look forward to the start of the new school year. Yes, we anticipate new faces and new challenges with joy and only a small amount of trepidation. And while I think we can all agree that the ’Rona is much more than some arbitrary bump in the road, I can see teachers around the district, the state, the country, looking forward to some semblance of the normalcy inherent in returning to their classrooms. A little like the square peg in a round hole conundrum, but here we are.
Everyone’s going back to the classroom — eventually. That means a whole lot more to teachers than it does to their charges. I’m sure the superintendent will require teachers to “come back” at least a week early. There will be the requisite “inservices” — an education term for professional training — that will both put all to sleep and teach nothing professional educators don’t already know (I think I just negated the previous sentence with a double negative, so you can tell I’m a slow learner). There will be the “department meetings,” usually the source of much gabbing and gastronomical largesse, although in Covid Times, they might cancel the communal eating portion of the program, which would be a dang shame. “Welcome Week” for teachers will probably consist of zoom meetings featuring each teacher weighing in from individual classrooms while eating the sack lunches they brought from home.
There will be the lame attempt, on the part of the administration, natch, to make us all feel at home while at the same time interrupting the precious time we need to organize, and plan and set up (those terms all sound the same, but all mean distinctively different things to a teacher) a classroom system that will work, while at the same time keeping all semi-safe.
One year we did a professional development sesh inspired by something the principal learned in administrative training that involved each of the school’s 200 or so faculty members learning to draw lady bugs; we were supposed to interpret this as some kind of lesson-planning exercise. Lady bugs to this day inspire — in me, at least — the tremendous desire to teach. No, not really. All I really wanted to do that day was get ready to welcome my students.
But there’s also that thrill that only a teacher knows, and I hope the ’Rona doesn’t deprive my friends of the joy that is inherent in these small, but extremely fulfilling and sometimes even fun back-to-school tasks when they:
10. Rearrange the classroom furniture. The custodial staff cleans every year, and puts things back just any which-a-way. The challenge here is to decide if I want my classroom to look the same as last year, or if I want to go in a whole different direction. It is imperative that we, as teachers, have this reckoning with the room we will inhabit the rest of the school year. Believe it or not, it’s a legitimate challenge to take nasty old desks and tables — much of the same kind of furniture I matriculated at eons ago, scuffed and sometimes broken (queue Moker and his battery-powered screwdriver and mad repair skills), scribbled on and stained with who-knows-what-all — and turn them into a symphony of stations for studious pursuits.
9. Pull all the boxes out of storage. Teachers participate in the age-old (and largely silly) exercise of packing up their rooms every June and then unpacking again in order to set up the room again two months later. It is safe to say that I could have probably pitched much of the junk I’d squirreled away, but I most definitely had to rummage through boxes before that determination could be made. Woe be the teacher who pitches a box of markers, only to learn that the Central Office — those folks who failed as teachers, botched their school administrative assignments, and then were promoted to jobs at the top, where they make gobs more money than they did as teachers, and spend their time going out to lunch, often on the taxpayer’s dime, and dreaming up silly initiatives — determine that all high-schoolers would benefit from group work, using brainstorming and employing markers and giant sheets of presentation paper, known in our trade as tablets of newsprint. Long story short? Save those markers! They could be more than a metaphor for things to come.
8. Put away and throw away all the detritus. Please see Number 9. Don’t forget to save the markers!
7. Visit with some colleagues and studiously avoid others. This is what I call the Dance of the Passive-Aggressive Teachers. We teachers, for the most part, are nice people. But every business has insufferable components, so we learn to steer clear of confronting those we dislike. Virtual meetings should help with that. The DPAT is an effective skill honed over many years of the practice. Leave the newbies to socialize with the boors. While this sounds like cruel and unusual punishment, new teachers, too, will learn soon enough how to “dance” like a pro, because teachers are, for the most part, the most passive-aggressive people I know.
6. Get butts in those seats. Yes, teachers have already “met” their students — virtually. But in-person is a whole ’nother deal, and a seating chart is often critical to classroom dynamics. When I started teaching in 1994, a high school English teacher could expect no more than five classes, totalling 125 students. Over the years, budget cuts have inflated those numbers beyond the pale. For many years, I taught between 143 and 154 students spread over five classes. One year, I juggled 177 students over five classes, including one class of 42, mostly freshmen. Those kids — that class of 42 — are college seniors now, so yes, I lived to tell the tale — and they all survived, even though a lot of them had to sit on the radiator or in each-other’s laps. It worked out — froshies are itty bitty folks.
5. Figure out how to translate all the virtual learning we’ve been doing into an actual classroom experience. A teacher obviously already knows what classes she’s teaching and the names of her students. But it will be a chore — for both students and teachers — to convert that vital knowledge into what they call in the education trade “an in-person learning experience.” But you’ve probably heard this before — kids are resilient. Teachers are, too. I never was the cliché “educator,” who teaches the same thing, the same way, year in and year out, à la Ben Stein in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” I’m thinking this year will be a hybrid of lessons learned in years past and new techniques/skills/requirements necessary for this pandemic school year.
I can’t even imagine how the “six feet apart” rule will work with high-schoolers, the most social of beasts. I envision a lot of high school teachers employing the tricks of their elementary school colleagues in efforts to keep all these “handsy” teens within their Covid Classroom Bubbles. And yes, “handsy” is one of my Dear Nana’s words. “Hands on your own body,” as they say in pre-school. Goes without saying. Like, “Inside voices, please”.
4. Get there ahead of the crowd. Our book room down in the English Wing is over-stuffed with a lot of beat-up textbooks and paperbacks. I imagine students already have the basic textbooks they need for the school year — either the traditional books or an online copy. But English teachers assign novels, too. The trick that I’ve learned over the years? Get there early in the morning on the first day back, or even a day or two before the Monday we’re supposed to report, and grab the best of the inventory (ie, enough copies of the next two novels I plan to teach). Stack them on shelves in the back of the room. Yes, I’m a hoarder, but I’ll also share with a colleague who asks nicely.
And you’ve probably heard of teachers who spend oodles of their hard-earned salaries on classroom supplies. I’ve been known, on occasion, to purchase entire class sets (in some tight budget years, that’s 35 books) of Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye to supplement when the book room inevitably comes up short. Cause it often does. All English teachers should become familiar with Better World Books — their prices are bargain-basement, and your purchase helps do some good in the world. Plus, the books from BWB are tax deductible, although I don’t know if I ever stopped for a quick sec to actually deduct the price of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece from my taxes. I viewed it as a donation — for the good of the cause and for the sanctity of my sanity. Also, I don’t like to fight with colleagues over supplies. Passive-aggressive behavior sometimes comes at a cost.
3. Go shopping, if only online. Yes, even in these pandemic times, new duds are pretty much a necessity — especially for those of us who’ve spent the better part of nine months in sweats. Best to start off on a well-enough-dressed note, before we all start showing up to school in more informal attire. I’ve worked for principals in the past who didn’t require, but strongly hinted at, a well-dressed teacher troop. My thoughts, since I’m not much of a fashionista? This, too, shall pass, but be prepared, just in case.
2. Acquire crucial office supplies. See #4, but substitute the supply cabinet for the book room. A high school English teacher can never have enough funky-colored felt-tip pens. The skinny variety, which are used for grading, and are not the same as that box of markers you saved in case of an edict on “group work” from Central Admin. Don’t want to ruin our cherubs’ self-esteem by grading in red, now, do we? I’m thinking hot pink might be en vogue this year.
1. Guesstimate the effect of administrative changes. We are all governed this school year by a deadly virus, which can’t help but dictate many of our school administration’s moves. I worked under five principals over two-plus decades, and some were only capable of rising to the level of their incompetence. That’s called the Peter Principle, and it especially applies to high school principals and their wannabes, assistant principals. There’s a truism in education: If you can’t teach, then teach gym. And if you can’t teach gym, become a high school administrator. I kid you not. I’ve been bossed around by more than one failed teacher who now wears a principal’s cap.
And I intend no rap on the PE teachers. In my next life, I’m coming back as the Guru of the Gym — T-Shirt, sweatpants, and no papers to grade, baby! Were I as smart as those who teach physical education, my eyes wouldn’t be so weary from grading thousands of student papers over the years.
Seriously, though, I wish all of my former colleagues — even the school administrators — the best of luck when they return to their school buildings. Teaching is a difficult enough dance — adding a pandemic to the mix could be more punishment than any of us deserve.