One Teacher’s Reaction(s) Upon Learning We’re Starting With Distance Learning

So, here we are. August has arrived.

And with it, the judgment about how the next education year will start. States, districts, and schools are being forced into really tough decisions due to the current climate and complications of COVID-19. While the debate rages on about what’s best for students and society, the fact remains that there is no easy answer: if it was easy, there wouldn’t be a debate.

In my state (Oregon), our governor laid out specifics for schools to reopen. I won’t bore you with the numbers, but essentially, my school / district has a ways to go before we can even start thinking about a hybrid method. 

Now, a few weeks ago I wrote about the topic of returning to school, and laid out some maybe-not-so-commonly-thought-of pieces to running an educational building. In that post I shared how I feel that we as adults need to respond, regardless of the choice that’s made in each district / county / state. (Curious? Check it out here!)

But now that my situation is becoming less theoretical, and more obvious (that I need to get ready for another school year), I decided to chart a few of my thoughts upon hearing that I will – most likely – be teaching from my kitchen table in 6 weeks. 

The following are just a few of my reactions I had when I heard the news of Distance Learning. Some of this post is to give the general public a peek into the head and heart of just one dum educator; the other part of this post functions as just a place where I can process my thoughts. (It’s my blog, and that’s what I’m supposed to do, right?)

Relief

Contrary to what might be shared among your teacher friends, I found a lot of relief when I heard that we were going to be starting the year with Distance Learning. (They call it “Comprehensive” Distance Learning, but I kind of just lol at the use of that word in this context.)

Why relief? I was relieved to have an answer to our problem; it’s an attempt at trying to get the ball rolling. I would prefer to be in-person and simultaneously safe, but that’s just wishing COVID-19 wasn’t with us, which isn’t necessarily a novel preference.

Starting with DL might not prove to be the right answer (like I said in my previous post), but it is at least an answer. It’s hard to steer a parked car; now we have some movement to work with.

Socially, I have some relief as well – as trivial as that might sound. When I get asked a billion times a week “What is your school going to do?”, instead of me responding with a cliche, “Well, ya know, it’s too early to tell. I mean, we might end up starti-”

I’m boring myself with the theoretical response. It will be nice to now answer with “We’re going to try Distance Learning,” and then receive either an abrasive counterargument, a satisfied smile, or a nonchalant “Cool.”

Most of all, I was relieved that I didn’t have to make the decision for so many families, educators, and schools. I do not envy the leaders who have to make those choices; there’s pretty much a 100% chance you’ll get it wrong to a good number of people, regardless of what is decided.

I’ll know in a month if my relief is warranted. But for now, I’m thankful that I have been given the basic blueprint of how the year will start; let’s just hope I’m not holding it upside-down. 

Panic

Yes, you can feel both relief and panic in the span of seconds. Have you ever accidentally blown through a stop sign? Or watched your child ride without training wheels for the first time? Or almost sent an angry text message to the person you’re complaining about, not the person you’re complaining to? See, it’s possible. 

For obvious reasons, I felt panic. The first thought through my head was “How am I supposed to start a year off with my students? All of my get-to-know-you activities are definitely not going to work virtually.” Will it be “easier” since kids had “practice” a few months ago? Will it be harder since they “had” to practice last year? Good thing there will be no way to compare! 

The first few weeks are critical in developing a classroom culture. Last year, when we all went DL in late March, my kids knew me; they knew my humor, my expectations, my patience, and my weaknesses as a teacher. That was all learned in class. (You know, where the kid sits next to the other kid and the teacher talks in front of the whiteboard?)

By starting the year with DL, there’s a whole new challenge ahead for us educators. How do we connect screen-to-screen? How do we connect heart-to-heart? How do I build a cohesive learning cohort without knowing the color of backpack they use? Or if they prefer mechanical pencils to Ticonderoga #2? I’ll be brainstorming over the next few weeks on how to begin best, and hopefully I’ll have a “Survival Guide” for myself (and others, if they’re interested).

On the bright side, sometimes “Panic” can create some interesting problem-solving solutions. I’m intrigued to see what other educators devise as devices are being fired up in September. Can teachers, schools, and parents use this difficult time to demonstrate persistence in a way that’s never been asked of us before? We teach problem solving; now is the time to put it into practice. For 9 months.

I’m also interested to see what happens to education as a whole 5 years from now, if Distance Learning becomes thoroughly legitimized or preferred. If I was a pessimist, I’d probably hit the panic button again at that thought.

Uncertainty

Educators across the country (and probably the world) are experiencing massive, massive amounts of uncertainty. Similar to panic, uncertainty creates a strange, sometimes visceral feeling in our physical bodies. Stress, Anxiety, and Concern are close relatives, and tend to stop by on occasion whenever Uncertainty settles into our daily routine. 

Even though we know how the year will start, it’s anyone’s best guess as to how it will play out. Heck, last year my wife and I had our first kid in December and I thought that was going to be the only real roller coaster to navigate.

Teachers love control. At first glance, some teachers might disagree; but even if you want a sense of autonomy with your students, that’s still a type of control, where your preference is to be more student-centered. Whether you’re a “Please ask me to use the restroom” type or a “The bell doesn’t dismiss you, I do” type, teachers function best when their classroom management is to their strengths and styles. Not all types of “control” look the same.

Teachers will struggle at the start of the school year regardless of what their employer decides; I will struggle regardless of the prep work I do. The beginning of the year is really fun, but it’s also slightly demanding at the start of any normal year. Before kids come in the doors, teachers have to get their materials and classrooms organized in efforts to regulate just a little of the incoming chaos. 

So when you take a teacher out of that classroom, and then ask them to maintain a sense of control virtually, while starting a new year (on the heels of the craziest ending to an educational year ever), it’s a really big ask. Throughout the year, teachers will get mixed messages from their leadership, encounter differences among their faculty staff, and experience challenging conversations with their students’ parents, all while trying to do what’s best for their own selves and families at home. 

We experience the mixed messages, differences, and conversations every year. But now, compound that with Distance Learning. That kind of “guaranteed uncertainty” can be daunting for educators coming back. If you’re tired of hearing that a teacher is stressed, or overwhelmed, it ain’t going away anytime soon.

We educators are all going to be doing our best in these upcoming uncertainties; and that’s what we hope to get from our students.

Hope

What’s a slightly negative blog post without having “Hope” as its conclusion? 

Satire aside, I do have a feeling of hope. And the reasons are not as earth-shattering as you might suspect.

Starting a new school year from a distance is going to be a challenge for literally everyone involved. Teachers are going to stretch themselves thin; parents are going to balance support, vocation, guilt, and duty; and kids are going to endeavor on yet another straight-uphill learning task. 

The next year is going to be so weird in so many ways that internet learning might become the new “normal” for a while. So if things do normalize, there’s a chance that this whole situation could get easier. It’s not a guarantee, but there could be some value in this Distance Learning with one another. 

Perhaps students will be able to engage virtually in classrooms as often (and as impressively!) as they do on YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, or Xbox Live. Perhaps parents will be able to set effective schedules for their families, relying on what worked and what didn’t work last year. Perhaps teachers will collaborate locally and nationally for best practices with DL. By the end, there might be a semblance of cooperation and cohesion between schools and families; aren’t we both (schools and parents) tasked with instructing the children of society?

This is going to be a hard year! So having realistic expectations is going to be critical for everyone. If my students religiously struggle with decimals each year, I’m not going to get angry or discouraged when they have a hard time again. How would I feel about learning a brand new math concept over the internet with some goofy guy-teacher? I hope we can truly evaluate our efforts to give when we can, and loosen up when we can.

I hope that parents can find the supports they need to navigate this upcoming school year. I have a 0-year old at home, and I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to manage my work and his learning. Finding the right balance that works for parents, kids, and schoolwork will be a challenge.

I hope that teachers can take their duty in stride and not become disheartened or over-burdened when (not if) more uncertainty arises. I know it feels like we have to do all the things for all the kids; but I hope teachers can accept when they’re doing their best, and push when they are capable. 

I hope that members of society extend grace towards one another. When people get stressed, they lash out; that’s a commonality in human nature. Now that basically everyone has some skin in the game, I hope we can choose to work together and empathize with others instead of opting for a victim mentality. 

I hope social media becomes a place of help and connection, not of derision and mockery. I’ll leave it at that, because I’m sure we’ve all done our fair share of trigger-scrolling, trigger-sharing, and trigger-ranting. 

Lastly, I hope that kids get to remain kids. Our students have never done something like this before; instead of having insane demands on them, I hope we can all be aware enough to not take the childhood from the child. Education is important, but allowing our students to still learn how to play, interact, and express themselves is importanter. 

Let’s all keep that in mind in the throes of October and November. It isn’t life-or-death, Karen; it’s just fractions.

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