Top Ten Most Difficult Things About Teaching in SY 2020-2021- Part 2

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If you’ve not yet read Part 1 of this list, I recommend that you do that now as what’s on it relates directly what I share below.

Onward to the end of the list and the most difficult thing for my teaching in SY 2020-2021.

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Ventilation?

In the early to middle days of the Pandemic, it became clear that the primary means of transmission of COVID was via inhalation of airborne virus particles shed by an infected person.

For the record, I offered an overview of these findings on this blog on July 31, 2020 – IMPT: VENTILATION is Essential and What We Know Now RE:COVID-19

That was only five days after Derek Thomson published, at The Atlantic, a seminal article which appropriated the term “hygiene theater” He writes at the top of the article:

COVID-19 has reawakened America’s spirit of misdirected anxiety, inspiring businesses and families to obsess over risk-reduction rituals that make us feel safer but don’t actually do much to reduce risk—even as more dangerous activities are still allowed. This is hygiene theater.

Unfortunately, most school leaders didn’t read this data and focused instead on scrubbing desks, putting hand sanitizer everywhere and other surface-focused protocols. Meanwhile, little attention was paid to doing much of anything to ventilation systems.

From the literary, satire site McSweeney’s – Middle School Hallway Posters for the 2020-2021 School Year

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I paid close attention to data about room level ventilation as it was one of the few things that I could control in my classroom and thus lower my anxiety about catching COVID.

I tried to learn more about how the ventilation system worked in the three classrooms where I taught each day. Not satisfied with the answers I received from my questions to those who would know about this, I did the one thing I could do – open the windows as much as I could and still keep the room bearable.

“Bearable” for me was usually cooler or warmer than the students liked. Fortunately, the weather this past school year wasn’t unusually cold or hot. So with one or two windows open, as well as the door to the hallway, there was always some airflow happening.

When the kids would enter and loudly complain – “It’s sooo cold in here,” my standard response was:

“The room is fresh. And a fresh room is a safer room.”

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Recreating Almost Everything

Due to the basic logistical challenges of classroom teaching, almost everything about how I conduct my classes had to be significantly modified.

Recall that these basic restrictions were in place for pretty much every classroom in the U.S:

+ Some students were in the room while others were elsewhere live streaming on Zoom.

+ Students in the room couldn’t move their desks closer than six feet – thus making pairing-sharing impossible.

+ Students had masks on all of the time which made their speaking difficult. To be heard by the teacher or other classmates, they had to speak up or shout. The more force a student put into his/her speaking the more he/she ejected potentially virus-laden particles into and even through their face mask. Thus, silence wasn’t just golden, it was safer.

+ Students couldn’t share physical items. For this reason, as well as the in/out of the classroom issue I described elsewhere, doing group projects or making visuals, e.g. posters was impossible.

In my previous sixteen years of teaching, I created a classroom where students often shared with each other, group projects were frequent, and students would stand up and give presentations.

Over time and with trial and error, I did discover ways to incorporate many of these pedagogical practices into my classroom, albeit in quite different ways. In future posts, I will reflect on the Top Tools which made my teaching possible during SY20-21.

Regardless, I had to spend much thought, effort and time transferring my course content into different forms and formats.

The time this took made me quickly realize that in order to have a life, get some rest, and stay physically and mentally healthy I could either create/modify content OR assess student content (their home/class work.)

The creation of content took priority as I had to fill 45 minutes for each class, on each school day. Conversely, the assessing could wait. Not surprisingly, I slid way behind in the rate of my grading and this too became problematic and stressful.

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Rolling the Dice on Testing

In any class after you teach content and concepts, it’s time to assess what the students have learned.

While there are many ways to assess progress and hold students accountable for reading the text and so forth, a traditional, objective quiz or test is one of the quickest and easiest ways to do this.

Typing, printing, copying, handing out quiz/test papers to students, collecting these, grading them, and handing them back to the students is how objective assessments have typically been done across time and place.

But – how do you do this when not all of your students are in front of you at the same time?

And – how can you use paper quizzes/tests when these can spread disease as they are handled?

Fortunately, the learning management system (LMS) my school used made it easy to create online assessments which would be automatically scored and recorded. This was a godsend as I opted to use reading quizzes rather than having students submit answers to questions after their assigned reading.

Online quizzing/testing opens a whole other can of worms though.

Keeping the kids in the classroom from cheating on this form of assessment is pretty simple – stand behind them and scan their screens as they work on their laptops.

Doing something similar for the students at home – whether always home or temporarily due to “q-teen” or illness – is a whole other thing. And then you have the issue of when and where students make up quizzes/tests they missed.

I did decide early on that I wasn’t going to stress too much about whether students were taking these assessments honestly or dishonestly. Carefully policing them would have been more hassle than it was worth.

So, I simply reminded them that cheating on any assessment is wrong. And that cheating on a Theology assessment – especially one on the Eighth Commandment (Don’t lie) – is a whole other level of wrong!

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Masked Teaching

The final two difficult parts of teaching for me involved the masks that we all wore, all of the time.

If you read this blog during the days of reopening last summer, you know that I’m a huge supporter of wearing masks to protect others and (to a lesser extent) protecting ones own self.

I found and raved about a type of mask that was both safe and relatively comfortable (especially on my ears) to wear for the seven or so hours of each school day.

This said, it was still a difficult chore wearing a mask for as many hours as I did during SY20-21. To make things more difficult, I wear glasses. Keeping these relatively unfogged was a different challenge itself!

Every time I opened my mouth in class to speak from behind my mask it took greater effort and force and thus more exertion than the usual maskless way I’ve always spoken and taught.

To address this and make something quite difficult less so, I decided early on that, as much as possible, I’d avoid lecturing to my classes as doing this six times in one day would leave me beaten. So, I recorded my lectures and showed these to students in the classroom while their peers at home streamed them on their own.

It was weird watching myself on the screen so often (especially when I noticed little flaws in my presentations.) Yet, I can not imagine myself making it through my difficult teaching days if I didn’t deliver content in this manner.

In a future post, I will tell you all about the great tool which allowed me to create and curate quite a library of videos!

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And my most difficult part of teaching for SY20-21 was — Seeing only 1/2 of my students’ faces

The previous nine items on this list involve a physical challenge in one way or another. This aspect, the hardest for me, was a purely mental challenge.

I need to say up front that this was made more difficult and significant for me as SY20-21 was my first one at this particular school. So, I knew next to zero of my students on the first day.

In a purely practical way, being able to see only the upper 1/2 of my students’ faces made getting to know their names maddeningly difficult. I have to admit that learning names in the best of times is hard for me. This basic task, with every face obscured behind a mask, was so tough that even by year’s end I can’t honestly say that I knew every student’s name – at least not well enough to confidently call them by name.

The deeper aspect of this particular challenge is harder to describe.

In this post and the previous one I share my experiences to hopefully give those who did not teach in SY20-21 a sense of what those of us who did teach faced day in and out.

I imagine that there are many aspects of what it was like being a first responder or medical professional during the Pandemic which could be described to me – but I wouldn’t nor couldn’t fully understand – because the experience(s) was/were so strange and thus deeply affecting.

Looking out and seeing only the eyes, foreheads and hair of twenty-five or so teens was weird and at times even disorienting. I could see all of their faces, but where my mind was expecting to see a nose, mouth, lips and chin, was the obstruction of a face mask.

Since, as a first year teacher in the school, I had no memory of seeing any of my students without an blocked face, my brain learned each face with the mask as a “normal” part of it.

Here’s where it gets weird and harder to describe. When a student would briefly take off his/her mask to take a sip of water, I’d catch a glimpse not just of the lower part of their face, but also their face as a unified whole. And my brain would feel odd in these moments as I processed the full sensory information of what their bare face actually looks like.

This may sound subtle and insignificant, but it had a clear impact on me. More than once, a kid in the parking lot, appropriately unmasked, would say hello to me by name because almost certainly he/she was in one of my classes.

I’d see their bare face and feel my brain freeze as it tried to figure out who this kid was. I knew in those moments that this kid’s face was more than the sum of its two halves. Recognition was impossible for me as we passed in the parking lot because even if he/she had sat in my classroom all year, I had never actually seen them. And so that bare-faced kid was practically a stranger to me.

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Those are my greatest challenges from the extraordinary school year concluded less than a week ago.

I invite comments and questions here – especially from other teachers. Just as medical professionals had their stories told and saved, I think we need to do this for the professional educators who heroically taught day in and day out during a SY truly like none before!

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