Top Ten Most Difficult Things About Teaching in SY 2020-2021- Part 1

It’s been a few days since my SY20-21 wrapped.

In my last post , I reflected upon how and why this may well have been my last school year as a classroom teacher.

I’ve used this blog throughout the Pandemic Period to reflect on my experience of this historic time. Also, I have tried to capture and preserve, for the historical record, what it was like to live through an unparalleled time of crisis and challenge.

When the Catholic school at which I taught opened near the end of August 2020 to a reduced number of students in the building, I became a “front line worker” In no way were the difficulties and risks I faced comparable to what medical professionals and essential retail workers faced from the earliest days of the COVID outbreak.

Nevertheless, I and every school employee faced hurdles to leap and obstacles to navigate as one school day led to the next and the pandemic surged before the vaccines were shot into (most) Americans’ arms.

I now share what I experienced as the top ten most difficult aspects of the teaching that I did during SY20-21. A few caveats about the list:

First, I am trying to focus on challenges that other teachers may have also faced. In other words, with minimal exceptions, I try to avoid things specific to the school where I taught. As such, this reflection will avoid my personal opinions about the school community as a whole functioned during this SY.

It is about my experience, in my classrooms – nothing more and nothing less.

So it perhaps goes without saying that I am reflecting from my specific teaching context – in a large, affluent Catholic high school, in Columbus, Ohio, as a teacher of Theology to 9th and 11th graders. My school had a clear structure for how everything would be conducted from day one.

You’ll imply from my reflection here that we had at least half of our students in the building from day one. Clearly, this arrangement may be significantly different than how many (most?) educators taught for part or for all of SY20-21.

Here’s my list, in a logical order, but with my hardest challenge at the final position.

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Red/Gold/Grey Learners

My school opened with a “hybrid” plan. Each of the about 900 students was in one of three groups: RED (last name in the first 1/2 alphabet); GOLD (last name in the second 1/2 alphabet); GREY (students who were not coming into the building at all)

The RED and GOLD students alternated days in the classroom. So, I taught three groups simultaneously – the ten to fifteen students in front of me in the room; about the same number who were supposed to be watching/participating via my live Zoom stream; and three or four kids per class who were always at home on the live Zoom.

For about the first month, I taught in this format.

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Near, yet far away?

Too soon (IMO) after we adjusted to this alternation of kids in and out of the building, the arrangement was shifted.

I then had a max of twenty kids in front of me in the room. The additional kids (who weren’t GREY ones) would watch/participate in the Zoom live stream I presented – while they sat, physically distanced on campus in a large “aux area” (one of the gyms or other large spaces)

The challenge with this arrangement was that the kids watching class in the “aux area” could not speak to participate in the class activities. Keep in mind that kids Zooming in from home could talk and orally participate. Needless to say, this forced silence of one of the three groups to which the teacher was trying to teach, was particularly difficult for the conversation-rich world language courses.

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Constant Rotation (aka “The Animal Groups”)

This arrangement of twenty in front of me with additional students in the “aux” would have been simple if I only had classes of twenty or thereabout.

With the exception of my 8th period freshmen (with 22 in the class,) I had as many as thirty-two on my rosters. In that 3rd period Junior class, five of the kids started “grey,” so this left seven who had to rotate each day out of class and into the “aux.”

Developing a system for this rotation and then effectively communicating it to the students was one of the hardest, most baffling, and thus time consuming aspects of the early to middle part of the SY.

This could have been less of a daily hassle if 1). the admin to teacher and/or teacher to teacher dialog offered a uniform and efficient rotational system b/c every teacher had to create some system for this – OR 2). I had a brain that could easily think up my own system for making sure that kids generally were equally in or out of the classroom.

I eventually used Google Sheets to make groups with animal names (Gorillas, Giraffes, Elephants and more) placed on a calendar showing who was to rotate and when. I constantly had to shift the groups as numerous kids would going out for long periods either on “q-teen” because of exposure to COVID or they were sick with COVID for days or weeks.

I could say much more about trying to take attendance for the three groups as well as constantly aiming for twenty in the classroom (even though a fuller vs. emptier room meant more risk to me for illness)

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Always Juggling

When I was a freshman at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory in Houston, Texas, my Theology teacher would sometimes juggle in class. I was impressed, so one weekend I went home and taught myself how to juggle three balls. When I went and showed my teacher – Mr. Arce – my new skill, he let me borrow his juggling pins to see if I could up my juggling game.

It was essential this past school year both that I know how to juggle and that I’m a quick study.

The challenge of rotating students described above, as well as what I share next, required constant juggling of many more than just three or four “balls.”

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Classroom Choreography

One of the first things they tell you in teacher school is the importance of “classroom management.”

While this term can cover much of the moment to moment features of a well run, learning-rich classroom, often it narrowly means just making sure the kids behave and listen well.

Since all of my students wore masks all of the time (and were usually spread out around the classroom) keeping them quiet wasn’t usually an issue. This was good, because the learning arrangement we had added many new aspects to my classroom routine that I never had to do in my sixteen prior years teaching high schoolers.

For my 2nd and 3rd period Junior classes, I moved into a different classroom and set up before teaching.

Here’s the typical order of steps I took before beginning class with a (much needed) prayer:

Open my laptop and browser

Log into the LMS

Log into Zoom

Plug in charger, cable for the USB camera, cable for the USB speaker/mic, HDMI cable for the Clever Touch screen (a mounted large LCD monitor)

Check to make sure all of these connections are functioning properly.

If/when something isn’t working properly – trouble shoot and fix. (If my slow laptop freezes or crashes – restart and wait for it to boot.)

Greet the kids in the classroom.

Look at my spreadsheet to see who is supposed to be in front of me.

Take and enter the roll for classroom kids in the LMS

Greet the kids on Zoom.

Realize that I didn’t either “unmute” the mic or turn on the camera so they didn’t hear/see my greeting.

Unmute the mic. Turn on the camera. If either isn’t working – troubleshoot and fix. (If I can’t fix, send a student to the tech office to see if a techie is available to come and fix the problem)

Once again greet the kids on Zoom.

Look at my spreadsheet to see who is supposed to be on Zoom that day. Since their cameras are not required to be on and because the kids sitting down the hall in the “aux” aren’t supposed to speak, trust that if they are logged into Zoom and I see their name on the screen (I blocked all photos early on) they should be marked “present” in the LMS.

Share my screen (on which the scripture for the prayer is found) to the LCD screen.

Share my screen with the kids on Zoom.

Stand up (after multiple minutes have passed since the bell rang) and begin the prayer.

Have someone tell me that the mic is muted, camera is off (or poorly positioned), and/or my screen is not shared with the Zoom kids.

Go back and fix the above problem(s).

Restart the prayer and then the class for the day.

Undo all of the connections at the end of class.

Move to a different classroom and repeat.

Make it through six periods a day for the duration of the school year.

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Tired from all of that?

I’m spent from just recalling it and the challenge it was to keep that choreography going period to period day in and day out.

So, I’m concluding the post here. Will be back here soon with the rest of my Top Ten Difficulties…

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