When my school went on Zoom and our entire staff shifted from the classroom education model we all knew so well to a new platform we needed to master within a weekend, we all thought it would only be for a short period of time. “Two weeks to flatten the curve!” was the mantra, and we believed it. Online learning was supposed to be a stopgap meant to keep everyone afloat until we could all return to normal.
As the weeks turned to months and the world shut down, the realization that online learning was the new normal started to sink in. It required new training about how to utilize breakout rooms effectively, how to gamify lessons, how to hold students accountable even when their cameras were off. We needed to learn how to deal with the mental health issues of isolation and loneliness in a career that up until Covid relied on the opposite – collegiality, interaction, one-on-one conversations. We needed to shift our teaching methodology when the skills we relied on – reading body language, engaging in discussion, even simply identifying sleeping students – were no longer available.
It was a difficult situation. It still is.
I’ve been an educator for 27 years and shifting my class online required reassessing everything I knew about education and my classroom objectives. After two weeks online, I wrote a letter to my department and encouraged them to look at online schooling vastly different than in-class teaching. In short, everything that we did as classroom teachers needed to change. We tried to figure out, “What is the opposite of a lecture?” “What is the opposite of literature circles?” If we were to be successful, we could not just transplant our classroom online. We needed something new.
Having finished a year of this, I have to say that my assessment of online learning is overwhelmingly negative. However, as much as I am looking forward to having all my students in my class at one time and getting back to the performance level of education that I’m comfortable with, there are elements of the online teaching experience that I will take into my classes even when Covid is a memory and the Zoom stock levels out. They are the take-aways that have changed me as an educator.
I knew that my students came from various socio-economic backgrounds, but never was it more glaring as during a Zoom class. I was able to see first-hand where my students were learning. I saw kids who had their own rooms, with two screens, and expensive headsets. I saw kids who came to class with their younger siblings on their laps because their parents were working. I saw kids who zoomed from their dining room table with two other siblings zooming their classes at the same time. I heard the background noise of parents fighting, of babies crying, of siblings playing and it was a clear reminder of where each uploaded homework assignment, or each missed assignment, came from. I will never forget the student who messaged me privately asking for permission to use a virtual background because he did not want other kids to see his home, or the student who asked me not to call on him because his parents were home and he didn’t want the class to hear them yelling.
Weighing of Grades
Education is grade-centric regardless of how many times we try and stress the importance of “learning” over the final averages. “You are more than your test score!” we say, as we hand a list of colleges to students and tell them which ones are “reach” schools that they don’t have the grades for. There is no getting around the need for grades, but the grading options on Zoom seemed silly. An idea like “Ask a question in the chat and only give points to the students who answer!” was a petty way to create grades that neither reflected student knowledge nor mastery of the subject. They were cheap grades.
Placing so much emphasis on grades in the midst of a pandemic was uncomfortable on another level. Over the years, I have had students who were going through hard times – a parent with cancer, a messy divorce, a sick sibling – and each time, I worked with the student to help them keep up in class, maintain their grades, and feel successful, even when their situation made it difficult. The compassion I extend to them is what anyone would do for a child in a similar situation. During Covid, all of my students were going through difficult times. I was now making those same accomodations for an entire class. And while my late policies and grading shifted accordingly, in the long run, it didn’t make a difference to my final objectives and taught a much more important lesson in kindness, understanding, and values.
Making those changes also forced me to revisit the curriculum. At the start of the pandemic, I reached out to other English teachers and asked how they were handling the new reality. The best advice I received came from a teacher at SAR Academy, in Riverdale, NY. As the first school in the country to take their classes online, they had a few months lead time before I started struggling with the realities of Zoom. He said to stop focusing on grades and instead, try to frame this experience within the lens of my content area. When discussing the alienation of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, create opportunities for personal reflection on the isolation of quarantine and lockdown. Look at Camus’s The Plague as a metaphor for our experience. Create relevance to help balance the insanity that was all around.
With teaching everyone online for the first part of the year and then teaching hybrid classes (some kids online, some kids in person), the nature of assessments and tests had to be completely revisited. I could do whatever was in my power to try and monitor cheating, but even a cursory glance through TikTok showed me that there was no way to combat it. Instead, I needed to change my tests to achieve my classroom objectives while allowing students to use any resources they wanted: notes, the internet, books – whatever was available, they could use. That meant I could not give multiple choice tests. I could not give tests that required memorization. It made me question those kinds of tests anyway. Did I really need my students to match the names of characters to their descriptions? Did I need them to list facts about authors off the top of their heads? If the knowledge is readily googleable, how much instant recall do they really need to know? My tests changed.
In one class, after a unit on short stories, I wanted to give my students an unseen story and see how they would annotate and analyze it. But I also knew that any short story I would put on their test could instantly be googled. So instead, I wrote my own short story, filled with allusions to the works we read in class for that unit. I didn’t list myself as the author, preferring to keep it anonymous. In another class, instead of asking students to list philosophers and their beliefs, I had students assess artwork and relate the paintings to the various philosophies we discussed in class. A math teacher I work with gave a test with the answers already filled out and asked the students to find the wrong answers and explain why they were wrong. These modifications weren’t just petty ways to prevent cheating. They allowed students to display the larger objectives we hope to convey. They also gave me a real glimpse into the connections my students made with the work rather than simply reading over spit-back soundbites from class lectures and character lists.
The Importance of Chilling Out
Perhaps the most important lesson teaching online has taught me is to learn how to let things go. Teachers are constantly looking at the clock, at the calendar, at the lesson plans that need to be completed. We are always running out of time. Every aspect of my teaching changed and so did my tumultuous marriage with the course expectations. Allowing students to share their concerns trumped my desire to finish a chapter. On a day when the internet was glitchy and my lesson choppy, I needed to just inhale, send a message on Google Classroom, and repeat the class the following day. It pushed my plans back a day, but forging on and pretending that we covered the material made sense on paper but was impractical in real life. I learned how to triage my lessons and assignments, always willing to take a step back and reassess regardless of what my carefully planned expectations stated.
This year was difficult for teachers and the climb-out this coming year will most likely require another reassessment of how we educate. But the values and lessons learned from pandemic teaching will hopefully still make it to most teachers’ plans when schools are fully back in person: the lessons of sensitivity and compassion, of adaptability and standards, and about real, authentic, education. The way it always should have been.