Teachers and Teaching in Pandemic Times

Updated: Jul 14, 2020

Since the project’s creation at the end of March, 2020, we have received a steady number of diary submissions from teachers from around the world describing their experiences of teaching and working from home.

There was perhaps elation for some during the early days of school closures. Andy Jarema, a music teacher from Michigan, noted that when cancellations arise, as sometimes happens with "snow days and whatnot," there can be a hum of excitement associated with an unexpected break. But when it became clear that his school would be shutting down for the rest of the year on March 13, the news did not come with the usual thrill of a temporary closure. Instead, Andy remembers that there was a shared, "sense of loss at not having this thing we do everyday anymore." Other teachers have also noted how moving entire classes and schools to online platforms have created tangible difficulties for students, teachers, and parents alike–not to mention the general sense of sadness at lost social opportunities such as cancelled proms and sporting events.

In June, seeing some significant decrease in COVID-19 cases, some governments around the world reopened schools and colleges but have made contingency plans and provisions. For our team at Coronavirus Chronicles, largely based in the United States, debates about whether schools are to reopen are ongoing, and vary from place to place. While we do not know what schools and universities will look like when the next school year is scheduled to begin, we are happy to highlight some of the recent experiences of our contributors, and now they have navigated these times.

New software, new responsibilities, new fears

For teachers, used to constantly being around other people, moving to working from home was disorienting. Even more problematic was their fear that their daily contact with hundreds of people put them at risk of infection. During the first two weeks of school closures, Andy and his wife quarantined at home and wondered if they had been exposed to COVID-19. Fortunately, they realised that their painful “symptoms” were just the unfortunate side effects of spending all day on the couch.

One of the archive’s earliest contributors in March was Daniel, a teacher from Ireland who wrote succinctly that it was a challenge to teach “10-12 year olds online using systems they are not comfortable with”. Many teachers, however, also needed to learn this new technology from scratch. Kim F, a Spanish and art teacher in New Jersey, spent “hours researching different online learning platforms for managing student work, creating assessments, teaching material, and facilitating student practice.” A college instructor in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, even had issues with his own Wi-Fi connection. Schools had little to offer their teachers in terms of uniformity or training – Eric LaNoue, a music teacher from Royal Oak, Michigan, writes that there were even so many constantly-changing policies that a large chunk of his workdays was spent reading these different documents. Meetings also had to be conducted online, from parent-teacher conferences to virtual office hours where a teacher like Eric would stay on an open Zoom call to answer questions from students who (often never) dialled in.

Rose Hester, an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, NY, made this delightful puppet show video for her students. Titled "Six Feet Apart Yet Closer than Ever", it features Kermit the Frog, Elmo, and Cookie Monster.

When it came to grading for the semester, some teachers hit yet another bump in the road. Students who had normally been “exemplary” were now doing the bare minimum or struggling, and some were “simply absent”. Teachers could not monitor those who had their cameras turned off (often necessary on limited bandwidth) during Zoom calls. While some school districts and universities allowed for optional or mandatory pass/fail, others insisted teachers not fail anybody, causing a dilemma for the teachers who wanted to grade their entire classes fairly, commensurate with effort.

The parents and the students

Let us also not forget the newly-appointed “teachers” that school closures have made necessary: parents of schoolchildren who are now largely responsible for keeping students motivated and working when they are at home. Laura Olivarez from San Antonio, Texas, found that monitoring her children’s homework had to go far beyond signing off on their completed assignments and exams. She had to be administrator, scheduler, assistant, and technical support twice a week from 7:30am to 3:15pm: “[the kids] need to know how to edit, create pdf documents, scan homework, print work, and more,” Laura explained, “If a device fails us in the middle of a class I have to jump up and figure out how they will get back into class”. According to Kim, other parents demonstrated varying degrees of involvement in and commitment to their children’s education. While some struggled to work from home themselves, or needed to self-quarantine from their children, others made excuses for incomplete assignments or did their schoolwork for them, “By the way,” she reminds us, “teachers can tell.” The range of parental experiences reinforced to Kim that “we are all in the same storm, but not in the same boat.”

Coronavirus Chronicles have also received submissions from students of all ages. Michael, a PhD student from Philadelphia, is used to studying while locked in his own apartment, but notes the strain on his mental health from limited social interactions. Teenagers Edoardo, Jonathan, and Lauren, writing from Italy, Hong Kong, and England, have all supplemented their online school learning with their own projects, such as learning to cook, growing an avocado from a pit, and listening to lots and lots of music. Arya, an athletic teenager in India, drew upon her many years of reluctantly learning mathematics to create a running track around her apartment’s courtyard and perfect her basketball skills in a limited space. She has also been writing poetry and developing fun games with her younger sister. Bien, a teacher in the Philippines, is likewise continuing to learn from his elderly father about how to selflessly help friends and family in need. Bien is passing the lessons, “not only [of] resilience,” but also “ways to adapt,” to his children.

What’s next?

For those with teaching responsibilities at American universities, there may be even more to adapt for teaching fellows on F-1 visas who are required to leave the United States under the new SEVP policy for online classes. According to Jennifer, teaching college-level recitations on a Eastern Time schedule while living in Singapore (i.e. during “the wee hours of the morning”) has been the biggest accommodation required by her work. What would happen to those teaching – and learning – from different time zones across the world if schooling during the second half of the year was all online?

For the time being, teachers are still awaiting further instructions. Michelle, an educator from Lancaster is eager to see what will happen for the next school year. Like Michelle, Kim in New Jersey is taking a proactive approach during her summer off to “plan for whatever might come next”. They echo what teachers around the world are thinking: education will forever look different, and none of us have any idea what that look will be.


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