Lessons From Tensions | A View from the Frontlines of Teaching During COVID

At my independent day school in Reno, Nevada, things are tense. As I write this, we have just completed our fifth week of hybrid in-person and distance-learning school. Since the start of the school year, we have done our best to handle new COVID protocols, more robust supervision schedules, unhealthy air quality and overwhelming smoke, demands on the community to protect the health and safety of all constituents, widely varying levels of comfort and fear with the pandemic, and questions for which there are no easy answers. Teachers and students are grateful for any modicum of normalcy and routine, but it constantly feels like something is about to break.

Over the summer, my partner dean and I brainstormed ways to help teachers approach a year that would be like no other year of their professional careers. Here’s what we knew:

  • Our teachers are planners.
  • They care deeply about the experience they facilitate for our students.
  • Mental health, social-emotional well-being, and physical health would have to be a focus in a new, critical way.

With these understandings, we composed a list of “priorities for pandemic teaching” based on our school’s five pillars. What could teachers give up in a year when the demands would be so different than in the past? What could teachers focus their energy on in hopes of preserving energy for the new stresses that would be placed on them while teaching in person during a pandemic? What could teachers do differently to adjust to the needs of students living through social unrest, global health concerns, and the effects of climate change?

Our School Is Prepared, and Yet…

As a small school, we are trying to meet the needs of each of our students and their families. Therefore, while we are on campus and in person, we are also offering distance learning. This means that teachers are providing instruction to masked students in the classroom and to children at home logging into Zoom. We changed our schedule to lessen transitions and preserve cohorts as much as possible, so teachers meet their classes every other day for 80 minutes. We have equipped classrooms with plexiglass, sanitizing cleaning supplies, and new desk arrangements to ensure physical distancing. Teachers have their very own around-the-neck headset that allows the kids on Zoom to hear them even when they move away from the computer. We have taken so many steps to make everything possible, and yet nothing feels right.

It’s the tension. To some teachers, tech use is second nature and to others, it’s a foreign language. Regardless, our dedicated teachers feel responsible to provide the same educational opportunities to the distance learners as to the ones in the classroom. That means monitoring their distance-learning students’ presence on camera, providing digital copies of all materials, drawing on the Zoom whiteboard instead of the classroom whiteboard, managing hookups and wireless connections to audio equipment and projectors, and being creative to find ways to draw them into class discussion, even when they can’t hear their classmates well. The teacher can do all of these things well and still feel like they haven’t taught either group to the best of their ability.

Add to that the fact that there are extra supervision duties as we strive to keep kids physically distanced during breaks, in the hallways, and during lunch. Teachers who pride themselves on their empathy and authentic relationships with students are now having to ask them – nay, nag them – over and over, to please move further apart from each other. Is it possible to remind a child for the 8th time in one day to scootch away from her best friend at lunch outside without damaging the relationship that you put hours into building? As a result, those relationships, essential to teaching and learning, are strained.

In the middle of week five, complaints started coming in from the parents of our high schoolers.
The children are isolated, they are not able to participate in their normal activities, classes are so long, homework is so unnecessarily overwhelming, and the world around them is not making a lot of sense. SATs and AP exams are not going to mean what they used to mean, so GPA seems to matter more than ever. School is creating undue stress in this very stressful time. Can’t the teachers let up a little?

Our Teachers Care So Immeasurably Much

Teachers feel like they owe it to their students to deliver the same type of curriculum they have always provided. They need this book, that unit, this theory, and that concept in order to be ready for the next year or for college. They need to practice their skills with this essay or that project or they won’t really have the skill in their toolbox. They need 80 full minutes of instruction because it’s the only way to fit everything in. The teachers could not care more than they do. They care so immeasurably much.

Hence, the tension. Teachers are using their pre-pandemic skills to be the best teacher they know how to be, and they want, more than anything, to do their job well for the students in their care. Students are showing up, trying to play the game despite the fact that the rules were thrown out the window last March and the new rules have not yet been written. Parents, who have spent almost two decades supporting the development of their children into the kind of adults who can have opportunities in the world that was, are grasping at straws to give their children a chance in the world that might be.

Here are a few lessons I have learned to-date:

  1. Students need more patience, grace, and empathy than ever before. The world is not going to look like the one they imagined; the rug has been pulled out from under them. They are being robbed of the milestones of adolescence that we all took for granted. They knew that prom and graduation and sports and theater might be taken from them, but they can’t even hang out in the hallways sharing gossip or flirting during passing time. The pandemic has sucked the joy out of their teenage lives, and their mental health cannot sustain that void being filled with more Beowulf or DBQs or extra practice problems. Educators can make the greatest impact by trying to fill that void with more of our time and compassion.
  2. Less is more this year. Instead of our teachers feeling pressured to teach every last unit that we’ve covered in the past, we can give grace to our teachers and students by consciously reducing the amount of content and workload that we assign. We can focus more on the skills we want our students to leave this year with rather than specific pieces of content that we’ve always offered to them. This approach could go a long way to support the mental and physical health of our students as well as the teachers and parents.
  3. Parents, like everyone else, are afraid of the unknown. We all want to help children develop into resilient adults who have a chance to pursue their passions in the unknown future. For educators navigating a scary time, I cannot stress this enough: parents need to be informed. The plethora of unknowns are terrifying for our parents. Even if we don’t have the answers, communication is crucial. No, Mrs. Smith, I don’t know what AP exams will look like in the spring, but we are reading everything the College Board sends our way and trying to adjust accordingly. No, Mr. Jones, I don’t know if basketball will still run in January, but if it doesn’t run for our school, it’s because it’s also not running for other schools. If parents seem like they are not supporting the school’s work, it’s likely because they don’t have enough information. If they are critical of teachers, it’s because they don’t know how much the teachers care. The more the parents know, the less afraid they will be.
  4. Everyone needs to be heard and seen, more than ever. As a teacher, I have felt in the past as though no one was taking the time to see how much effort I was making and what an excellent job I was doing. The harder things are, the more people need to be caught in the act of doing great work despite the challenges. As a leader, I am learning to take more time than my task-oriented brain would like to listen, to empathize, and to find solutions. The to-do list must wait. Colleagues, parents, and students need to be heard. Administrators need to find even more opportunities to celebrate the hard work of their educators. They are working so, so hard.

This year, tension is unavoidable. To deflate that tension, we need to find ways to identify and name it. Our locus of control does not include the ability to fix all the problems caused by the pandemic, but it does include the ability to know what we’re up against. Recognizing the sources of the tensions will get us closer to innovating new solutions, and those solutions will no doubt be valuable in the post-COVID era of education as well.

Emily Dolan has taught students at every level in independent boarding and day schools since 2004. Currently, she is an Upper School Dean of Students, and she is lucky enough to teach both sixth grade and ninth grade classes. Her school is part of the 2020-21 Challenge Success School Program.