I feel the need to note off the top here that this is, even more than normal, a very confessional, almost-journal-like post. Which means it's long because I'm trying to write out what I think so I'm able to see it. Which I've always felt you kind of appreciated. So head's up. And thanks for reading. I don't think I'm alone here.I have two choices at this point in this incredibly broken school year-
1) Admit that I am not a good teacher this year, and allow that to leak into my feeling about myself as a teacher in general, because I think I know what it means for me to be a good teacher.
2) Admit that this year is insane, redefine what being a good teacher means for me, stay sane, and live with that tiny niggling doubt that I'm making excuses.
I've been trying my hardest to get to option two. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've been doing it for longer than I've been teaching this year. I think I started making mental excuses as soon as it dawned on everyone that we would not (and should not) be going back to school this year. That everything education would have to be done through the computer. That classrooms, mine included, would have to look very different.
A regular reader of this space will know that my class is a place of mess and creativity and cardboard and spontaneity and wheels-within-wheels of goals and foolishness. I am not much of a stand and deliver teacher, though I can lecture with them best of them because I do love the sound of my own voice. I'm not much of a worksheet teacher because I hate trying to grade them and I hate thinking that they are the best way to assess much of anything. I'm also, to be clear and honest, not the best planner. I know where we are going, but if you ask me what I'll be doing in two weeks in math I'll only be able to give the the vaguest of answers. Not because I don't know what I'm doing, but because I move with the kids as much as my school's administration and pacing plan allows me. So my answer would be something along the lines of, "Probably whatever Lesson Six is, unless they really struggle tomorrow and Friday. Then just short of Lesson Six. Probably."
Now? Man, I need to plan much better because time is shorter. But I'm kinda not because it's even harder to know how well a lesson is going to go.
Everything about how I teach has had to change. Distance teaching is trying me in ways I didn't realize when I first started worrying about it. I knew I wouldn't be able to do projects like I want to do because of the inequality in materials. "You could deliver materials to students," you might say if you were a well-meaning person on Twitter trying to solve someone else's problems before you were asked for help. Yes, I could. I could travel to 28 homes every two weeks with a supply of cardboard, tape, scissors (to replace scissors that had been lost or broken), rulers (see previous), markers and Sharpies (see previous), and whatever else the students might need for the project. If I did that they would probably make a Lifetime movie about me. I mean, they would if I were an early-in-my-career white lady "saving" a bunch of inner city (movie for "Black except for the one white boy and the Mexican girl") students.
But in the real world that's not feasible. It's not. I could maybe do it once, and I might once. But I can't make a habit out of it because it isn't a sustainable thing.
So building projects are out. Completely? No. But mostly, because I don't know what kids have at home and I'm not sending anyone to the store.
Ok, but I'm a Good Teacher. And to me that means I'm creative. I pride myself on my ability to think around corners and solve problems I'm confronted with in my class. Don't have enough laptops? I can fix that. Run out of tape? I can fix that. Reading curriculum is dry this week? No problem, easy. No one is getting this math? Google is right there to help me figure out a better way to teach it. Give me problems, yo. I'll solve them.
But this isn't a problem.
Distance teaching isn't a problem. I can't think about it like that. We can't think about it like that. Distance teaching is what I do right now. I do not like it but I like any of the alternatives even less. I've seen hybrid learning plans and they do not look better to me. The ones that might be safe are more restrictive than a whale bone corset being swallowed by a python, and the ones that aren't safe (most of them) are as effective as taking our shoes off at the airport and just as fragrant. They are less ideal because the world we live in right now is not safe for groups of any kind. Unless science is wrong, which I have been informed might be the case. In which case it's a good thing I've got a chewy center because I'm a big sucker.
So distance teaching is Teaching now. Which means my method of delivery has been determined for me. It's not the problem. Teaching can't be the problem, it's the job. The problem is how do I make it engaging? And how do I make it equitable? And how do I assess? And how is that equitable? (I have it on good authority that nothing about right now is equitable. No suggestions to work around that were made, so I guess it is what it is. Which is...you know, not great. Personally, I'd cancel report cards completely and when that failed to please The Powers The Be I'd insist on Pass/Fail only because, like I said, it's impossible to fairly assess anything right now. But that's just me thinking about solutions again. Hashtag PassFailPandemic)
Do I make class engaging? I am engaging. My kids come to my thrice daily Meets. Many of them chime in. Very few turn off their cameras and go play Among Us as far as I can tell. Not a whole lot I can do about that past what I'm doing. Moving goalpost there- I used to take nearly complete responsibility for student engagement. But now they actually can choose to come or not (in theory) and nearly all of them do come nearly every time. I have puppets and they like the puppets. Puppets are engaging. The kids act like they like the flipped videos I make with the puppets.
I know I'm not getting information across as well as I could be. Maybe. Am I communicating it as well as I could be? I think I am. But I'm not sure. It's hard to tell. Some days I'm not. But that's not always my fault. I have a second grade class and a kindergarten class happening downstairs in my house at the same time as I'm teaching fourth grade. Because of the layout of my house and the volume of my five year old I can hear those classes happen. Which means my students sometimes can too. To be fair, sometimes I can hear classes happening at the dining room table in their homes too when they unmute to answer or ask a question. Total Synchronous Learning- Distracting Or Teaching Us To Focus Better: You Be The Judge.
I don't think it's equitable and I think that is out of my hands. In class it isn't. But like this I can't control how good your internet connection is, how loud your house is, what the situation is inside your house, whether or not a parent can sit with you and help you with things like I would if I were there. And if I dig into this too much I start feeling incredibly impotent as a teacher. All I'm doing is delivering information.
We all know that Teaching is not what you see in the movies. Sure, part of it is the delivering of information. But most of it is planning and dancing. You plan what you're going to do and why, you deliver it, and then you spend the actual lesson dancing to the rhythm of the kids, responding to verbal and nonverbal cues to clarify, deepen, and modify how that information is being received. Anyone can tell someone something. Teachers dance.
I'm getting better at reading expressions over the computer. When I can see their faces. When they aren't holding up their distractingly adorable bunny to the camera, or rolling around on their carpet, or talking to someone off screen, or looking at another screen off screen, or having their cameras off. "But Doug, that solution is easy!" Ah yes, my helpful friend. Let me guess, you're going to tell me to dictate how a student should behave in their own home while forgetting that a teacher should never make a rule they can't actually enforce? "Uh," you say. "When you put it that way..." Yes, exactly. When I put it that way I would never try to police a student in their own home to the extent that I'm going to insist that they sit in a chair at a table facing forward camera on. No. I do remind students to put the bunny down and please pay attention and I can see you playing a video game I can see the controller in your hand come on, man. We set routines, we built class rules. All that is in place. But what, I'm going to punish them? There's a disciplinary protocol in place? It reminds me of an old Robin Williams routine. "Stop! Or I'll say stop again."
Am I a good teacher this year? I don't know, man. I really don't. I'm doing everything I can. I'm being as creative as the various levels of stress and anxiety I'm under will allow. I'm also, as I mentioned, teaching from home. So am I doing everything I can? I have three children, two dogs, and only one wife. She is horribly out numbered out in the living room while I'm trying to teach in my office. She was really looking forward to a year where the seven and five year old were at school all day and she would have hours at home to bond with the one year old alone, and get some stuff done around the house that she wanted to do that is frankly impossible to do with the LOUDEST, MOST ENERGETIC HUMANS ON EARTH around 24/7. So between classes sometimes I grade or plan. Sometimes I go downstairs and parent. I don't work at school, which I could have done until the governor put a two week stay at home order back in place, because we are being as safe as possible and because I know I'm needed at home. My ability to be a good teacher and my ability to be a good parent are, for the first time, in serious conflict. But it's not a real conflict, we know what choice wins in that scenario. Doesn't mean there isn't the littlest bit of guilt about it though. I could be teaching better...I don't have to be sitting here holding my sleeping one year old and watching TV. I could get the laptop and work with her on my shoulder. Or I could enjoy holding the last tiny person I'm going to help make without working at the same time.
I'm not sure what the parents of my students want. Or what they expect. I know many of them want their kids back in school. Not in a "get out of my house" kind of way, but in an honest "I think you'll do better at school than at home" way. But their kids won't. Not this year. Social distancing at school, according to the plans I've seen and not to speak for everyone everywhere of course, is awful. It's not school, it's not better. I would rather kids be comfortable and, more importantly safe, at home than trapped at a desk in school, unable to move or work together in a meaningful, in-person way or interact with me in a way that is actually fun and useful. Again, maybe I'm stuck on a stick and wrapped in paper, but I don't think so. I've seen the numbers. I do want parents to know we know they are doing their best. I'm a teacher, my wife is a teacher, and we are frustrated with the process of teaching our own kids. I can't imagine what it's like for parents who don't have our background. I know they love their kids and I know they are trying to make everything in this crazy year work for their families as best as they can.
I do not feel like a good teacher this year. I feel angry and stressed and anxious almost all the time. I feel unheard. I'll be honest, a week ago I made the decision that to remain sane for this year I would reach for apathy when it comes to policy. I decided to try and be apathetic about things. Apathetic, by the way, is the worst thing I can be about something. It's the opposite of the way I'm built. But I thought to myself, "I don't think that Serenity Prayer thing works for me, but maybe I should try just not caring anymore and let someone else get worked up for a while. It's not working. I'm all fury and reason and questions and noise and the result is still nothing. What if I just didn't care?"
How does trying to be apathetic about the policies being made that impact my students make me a good teacher? How does driving myself crazy trying to have a voice in those policies make me a good teacher?
My kids seem happy to come to class. Even now, weeks in. They laugh, they play, they seem to enjoy me, each other, and at least some of the things we do. I don't know how much they're learning, really. I'm so far off any pacing plan it's not even funny because I indulge students following rabbit trails more than I normally do because some of them don't get to spend time with other people outside of these meetings and they need the contact more than they need to practice cause and effect.
I hate the "it doesn't matter what they learned, only how they felt" school of teacher PD that is popular right now. Because it does matter what they learned. Like, a lot. Not caring about learning, only feeling, is what got us into the mess(es) we're in now as a country. My job first are foremost is to help them learn and remember things, and learn ways to learn more things, and to learn to use all the things they learned. I want them to enjoy it because that makes it all work so much better and be so much stickier, but learning comes first. That makes me a good teacher.
But maybe not this year. This year I think, and don't tell my boss or her boss, I think I care much less about what they walk away remembering academically and more that they walk away healthy and feeling like the 2020-2021 school year wasn't great, but it didn't suck either.
I think maybe that will mean I was a good teacher.If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.