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Pandemic Teaching: Entry IV

After teaching for this many years I always feel a sense of accomplishment after wrapping up the first week of teaching. I feel like if I can make it through week one I can make it through any week of teaching. This year it felt even more satisfying because of the challenges with online teaching. It was a wild week to complete and there were more twists and turns than ever before. But, overall, I was pleasantly surprised at how the week went.

I can’t say enough about how the staff from my school supported and helped each other. The teachers, the administration, and the support staff all chipped in to make the first week a success. Anytime someone needed help or a tip there were multiple staff members offering ideas and their own time to walk the other staff member through potential solutions. In an earlier entry I brought up how the support to get ready for the opening of school came from the school level, rather than the district level. This week was another example of the local schools, not the district, getting it done.

One of the pleasant surprises was how polite the students were. Any time I had a one on one or small group video chat the manners of the students were awesome. Their emails this week were also more respectful than from students in the past. I’m not sure if this increase in civil behavior is indicative of a more thoughtful group of students or if the fact that they are interacting without their peers around has an impact on how they act towards us. They were also very flexible and patient with all of the hiccups along the way. They understood that everyone, including the teachers, were still learning all of this online teaching technology.

Part of the reason the kids seemed better behaved could also be that we don’t have 35 or more students packed into one classroom. Any group of 35 will always be difficult to manage. There are always going to be people who don’t listen and who misbehave. Being at home and in a class of one might actually allow for some enhanced concentration and civility.

Among the many drawbacks of distance education, one that struck me this week is the worry that more kids than normal will fall through the cracks. In our large classes it is an unfortunate reality that we don’t have an opportunity to interact with all of our students on a regular basis. We often spend most of our time associating with the good students or the bad students. With class sizes of 40 or more students that is how it happens. This year I actually have a slightly smaller student load than normal. I have 202 students throughout 6 classes. Over the past 10 years or so I usually have around 220 students. This year I don’t have any class with more than 40 students. I don’t remember that happening for over a decade. I still have more students than optimal, one of my classes is at 39 and one is at 38. I only have one class with less than 35.

The overbearing sizes of our classes make it difficult to have true interaction with all of our students. Distance learning with class sizes of 35 plus makes it impossible. When I am teaching my class I have a separate screen so that I can see my students when I am presenting. This means on my small computer screen I have up to 39 small camera shots of my students. The live camera shot of each one is too small for me to make out anything but the most striking characteristics. That is only if my internet browser extension for showing all of my students at once is working. If my internet browser extension is not working I will only see 8-10 students at a time on camera. This feature intermittently goes down multiple times during each class.

In each class we have a short time period to present our information to our students. Then we allow time for our students to stay online and ask questions or come back during office hours for help. Students who don’t reach out will have very limited interactions with their teachers. We, as teachers, will unfortunately have less interactions with our students this year because of the limits of distance learning. It makes me nervous that inevitably more students will fall through the cracks than ever before.

After completing my first week of distance education I felt like I had truly earned my weekend and a break from work. It was a strange, stressful week. I am not sure how long the distance learning will last this year. But, I made it through week one and I can make it through the rest. I was also inspired and proud of my 8 year old son, Lance, with his response when asked how the first week went. “It was good. I still miss school, but this is better than nothing.” It sure is, Lance. Educators and students have made it a good start to an unusual school year.

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