How the internet saved the world: a year in the life
Teachers reflect after online instruction under COVID
May 21, 2021
It’s been over a year. Anything and everything that once resembled normalcy in the classroom before the infamous coronavirus struck–pens, notebooks, homework packets–are but a distant memory. The live chatter and chaos of the classroom has been replaced with the solitary click-clack of their keyboards. The desks once filled by bright-eyed students are now empty–a vast majority of them are, anyway. The students are now reduced to rectangles on their computer screen.
This has become the life of the modern teacher.
They were used to giving and getting assignments, sure. Most assignments, however, come with a deadline. As it appears, a pandemic is the exception.
Finding their footing
The emergence of the pandemic during the spring of 2020 forced teachers to improvise a job previously characterized by meticulous planning. With no solid academic plan in place, other than a weekly Webex call or two, the spring semester was centered around actively encountering and conquering obstacles, as well as simply adjusting to the new circumstances.
“[Students] didn’t have devices, didn’t have internet access, didn’t have this and that,” art teacher Eric Champion said. “A lot of the time last year was spent trying to solve the problems that [made it so] you couldn’t do the tasks.”
The 2020-2021 school year, however, has differed significantly from the uncertainty that plagued last year’s spring semester. With new modifications to better accommodate the circumstances, such as multiple learning pathways being offered to students, U.S. history and AP government teacher Cortney Haynes agreed this year’s newfound structure has made it possible to emphasize academics again.
“After having a summer, it seems like the school was able to try to put academics more toward [the forefront],” Haynes said. “We had a little time to sort stuff out and be like ‘OK, this is our world. We can try to live within it rather than try to figure out what the world was.’”
In spite of the technological improvements, the school year has not been without its fair share of challenges. The improvements in digital instruction are certainly a step to, but hardly resemble the normalcy that once prevailed in the classroom during the pre-COVID era.
Far from normal
When teachers weren’t planning their weekly lessons or cleaning desks between class periods, they were overwhelmed with concern for how best to reach their students, especially those in a virtual setting. For AP English 3 teacher Blake Hollowell, who teaches three virtual classes out of four periods, the greatest obstacle in terms of adapting to digital learning has been losing the ability to familiarize himself with his students’ lives.
“I think it’s difficult for virtual teachers to really be able to anticipate the problems that come with virtual learning on the students’ side,” Hollowell said. “There’s not much I can really do to be aware of students’ individual circumstances, so I really don’t know what’s going on in their lives as I would if they were in the classroom. I could make judgments, I could make observations and adjust to those students based off of what I see. But when I can’t communicate [with] them in this informal classroom setting, it’s difficult to really understand what they might be going through.”
Champion, too, faced a similar difficulty as far as communicating with students in a virtual setting, noting the way he teaches online differs significantly from his in-person instruction. He expressed feeling a loss in humanity, a loss in the social aspect which has long characterized the educational profession.
“Online learning is task-based because there’s not the back and forth,” Champion said. “It’s ‘I will give you a task,’ [whether] it’s ‘Watch a video, listen to me talk about it, interact with it.’ Yes, we can have some exchange, but most people don’t turn their cameras on. Most people aren’t interested in sharing themselves to an online persona. [In] my experience, it’s broadcast only. It’s me giving a task, and then the student does the task, gives it back to me, gives me a task [to] grade, I grade it, give them a task of ‘Fix this.’ It’s task-based. We’re exchanging tasks as opposed to exchanging conversations and emotions and humanity.”
Academic anxieties and little lifeboats
Like other teachers, Hollowell shared he’s encountered moments of uncertainty. As an AP teacher, a vast majority of his job revolves around being able to engage in discourse and visually see both the effectiveness of his teaching, as well as the progress made by his students–both of which have been difficult to observe in the wake of this school year.
“It takes a tremendous amount of effort to stay motivated when you don’t see the effects, the fruits of your labor, the results of your teaching,” Hollowell said. “When that’s less apparent, it takes more work to get the data that proves you’ve been an effective teacher. In the absence of doing that work, you’re kind of flying blind.”
For others, like English 1 and 2 teacher Tricia Jennings, the year hasn’t been composed of digital struggles. Though still lacking in traditional classroom normalcy, Jennings admitted despite experiencing what she described as “a bitter couple weeks,” she’s found success this year as a result of her all-in-person class schedule.
Though her year has still consisted of excessive tasks and jam-packed school days unlike ever before, she demonstrated confidence in her coping methods to “preempt that feeling” of worry.
“I have to go to my people,” Jennings said. “I have to be able to spend time with people and not have to talk about school, to just sit back and relax and enjoy and soak up the moment. Once I’m able to do that, then I will be loose-tongued and be able to confess how I’m feeling. Because to share how I’m feeling, it really is a confession.”
Similarly, Champion clung to his own life philosophy of self care– what he terms “tasks and procedures.” Admitting the abnormalities of the academic school year, he explained the routine is the normalcy–his singular glimpse of authority amid life’s uncertainties.
“Life’s crazy, everything’s hard, but I know I’m going to have coffee today,” Champion said. “How I make the coffee, that’s a procedure. Those procedures become little, tiny lifeboats and I just step on one to the other to get through the day. I don’t focus on that feeling of dread or insecurity or anxiety, I focus on the procedure and the task. I do the task and I make the task complete, and when that one’s done, I do the next one. This sounds really weird, but that’s the only thing I can control.”
What about the kids?
Elementary school educators faced a unique challenge this year–teaching children who are still in a crucial stage of intellectual development. Elementary school is an imperative building block for young children, as they not only develop an academic foundation, but experience social interaction, something that has been seriously limited as a result of COVID and enforced protocols.
“Our students need to be in collaborative groups, talking and learning [with] each other,” Central Elementary principal Lea Devers said. “A big challenge has been keeping the students socially distanced, which is very unnatural for people–especially elementary-aged people.”
Bluebonnet Elementary literacy dyslexia interventionist Julie Mining has also faced similar obstacles, as her job is dependent on socialization and the sharing of materials. As a dyslexia interventionist, however, Mining’s greatest struggle has been the discovery of new and effective methods that comply with safety protocols.
“We focus on the sounds of words, like digraphs and diphthongs and things like that,” Mining said. “We have small mirrors that each of the students have, so we take our masks down and use our mouth [while looking] in the mirror. But we can’t do that as much as we normally would in the past, because they’re supposed to keep their mask on.”
Even still, as Devers and Mining reflected on their experiences, they both agreed though young in age, children have demonstrated impressive amounts of resilience and adaptability.
“They’ve just kind of picked up on everything and rolled with it,” Mining said. “I think that’s been amazing to watch. I think it’s going to show a lot of growth with these kids moving forward because they’ve had to deal with these setbacks. I think they’re stronger for it–I think we’re all stronger for it.”
The internet to the rescue
All teachers agreed academia, as a result of the pandemic, has changed. Though there is no way to be certain of the extent to which the past year has affected students, the one certainty, Hollowell feels, is that the next 10 years will be devoted to “filling gaps,” especially for “those students who struggle with the virtual learning format.”
On the other hand, the pandemic, though not without both academic and emotional fallouts, had its silver linings. Arguably the most important is that teachers experienced and found success in a paperless classroom–a long-time goal for numerous educators. Additionally, the utilization of programs like Canvas demonstrated effective online learning is possible, and, as Haynes said, “catapulted education, overall, into some changes that it needed to make anyway and it hadn’t.”
Champion shared his praise for the internet, saying that although a pandemic is never necessary, “if there was ever a good time for this to happen,” 2020 was the adequate year–thanks to the technology of the modern era.
“If this would’ve happened before the internet, when I was a kid, the world would be a drastically different place,” Champion said. “But because we had the internet, the world could keep spinning. You could still interact with your friends, you could still order food, you could still see what was going on in somebody else’s house. I know that sounds crazy, but I mean, you could still watch television from all over the world. You were still connected. If the internet wasn’t there, this would’ve been the trainwreck of trainwrecks. The internet saved humanity.”
The future of the classroom
Though they all cling onto hope that the upcoming school year will contain a hint of normalcy, if this year has taught them anything, it is that “normal” is subjective–and simply not the reality. Will classrooms ever return to what they once were? No one really knows.
“Virtual assignments and going paperless, essentially, has allowed for different forms of collaboration I hope we can find ways to integrate within the classroom in a new way,” Hollowell said. “But I do think, even if we do return fully in-person and we don’t have to sit in rows anymore, I do think some of the strategies will carry over. My hope is that it won’t be the same, but for good reasons rather than bad.”
As the year comes to an end, Champion candidly discussed the weirdness of it all, while still encouraging his students and fellow teachers alike to not only embrace the circumstances but actively seek the life lessons within them.
“This is your life,” Champion said. “It’s frustrating, it’s weird, it’s not what you expected, it isn’t what you signed up for. You didn’t say ‘Oh, can I have the pandemic thing?’ It’s really easy to dismiss yourself from it and to push away or to fight back. Stop. This is your life. Like, what can you gain from this? How can you get stronger from this? How can you get smarter from this? How can you exit this with a six pack instead of being soft and gushy?”