I am teaching virtually this Fall. But recently I went, masked, into my eerily quiet school building to gather some books and materials from my frozen-in-time classroom, to take home for my virtual lessons. Looking for something else in my desk drawer, I came across my mug. It was a typical teacher gift mug. It says, in flowery script, “I’m a teacher, what’s your superpower?”
I put it back in the drawer, thinking I surely don’t need another mug at home. Then I took it out. Put it back in and then took it out again. I ended up bringing the mug home.
Why? I reflected. I realized I needed that reminder. That I do have a superpower; I am still a teacher.
What does it mean to teach under difficult circumstances?
I took a lasting lesson many years ago from educator Lillian Katz. Upon travelling to visit schools all over the world, she said that it is possible to teach under any circumstances- she had seen teachers and students in rural India sitting in the shade of a tree writing figures with sticks in the dirt. I often thought of this image in ensuing years when my Smartboard glitched or my video wouldn’t download.
Years after that I attended a panel discussion that included teachers from war-torn Afghanistan. One instructed her students to bring an empty oil can when they came, which was to be the child’s seat. For another, their classroom was a shell of an abandoned bus. Another taught in a small apartment room, instructing her female students to leave at intervals so as not to draw attention, as education of girls was illegal at the time.
So I compare those challenges to mine, now, during the Covid 19 pandemic. You could say I have it easy, but it doesn’t feel that way. I have a different kind of challenge. I can’t be with my students.
I am an elementary science teacher, a believer in hand’s-on experiences, but I can’t put anything in their hands to use. Most of my instruction must be “asynchronous”- where I just leave them electronic messages and assignments. I have a small amount of precious “live, synchronous” instruction time. How best to use it? it has to be a time to get to know each other, create community, establish new norms, give children a chance to share, show them they are heard and valued.
And for the rest of my lessons I have the whole world of information at my and my students’ fingertips- the internet. All the videos, virtual lessons created, news, images, and learning platforms. What wealth, but totally overwhelming. I feel guilty at what I am choosing and guilty at what I am missing that could have been better.
So how am I still a teacher? How can I still be a good teacher? My mug’s message made me think harder…
I can carefully choose what I show my students on my screen, to keep them engaged. I can use powerful images and real objects, to help them be grounded in the reality of what we are learning. I can phrase my questions carefully, be a good, intent listener, give praise and encouragement, and instill curiosity and keep the thrill of investigation and discovery alive.
I can choose material for my asynchronous lessons carefully from the internet, striving to keep children independent (so their parents can work), and keep it equitable (not leave anyone out over different abilities or resources.) I can remember to give my students work to do that regularly takes them away from the screen, outside and into the real world which still exists around them.
I still feel overwhelmed but I must trust in my superpower. I have a feel for students and can use my time with them well. I can’t check out everything on the internet but I can evaluate what I find and make good choices for them. I can be a kind teacher to children and act with sympathy toward my struggling families.
I am still a teacher, and I must do my best to be a good one.