I’m a high school math teacher. My school district transitioned to remote learning this past week, and we won’t return to campus until at least the end of April. While the transition has been jarring, it’s also been a rich opportunity to improve my practice as a teacher and reflect on the role I play as a public educator.
Before closure, COVID-19 was already making its mark in the school building. Students and teachers, like the rest of the world, could talk about little else. Science classes were exploring epidemiology. Our nurse was spreading the good word about handwashing. I taught classes on exponential growth and curve flattening.
We wanted these lessons to arm our students with knowledge in the face of fear, but the fear and confusion were palpable. Many students asked if we thought school was going to close down. They wondered how long we thought the spread would last.
One visibly distraught ninth grader raised her hand in algebra and said, “So many people are saying different things. Some people are saying this is not a big deal. Some people are saying it is. Who am I supposed to believe?” We discussed what makes a source credible and how citizens can make informed judgments. In truth, I’m not sure if this clarified things for her.
Those teaching moments, while inseparable from the coronavirus, were not unfamiliar and very much situated in the context of a typical school day. The outside world always informs the work we do.
But now that we are remote, we find ourselves in a moment of existential reckoning for public education. As teachers, we are being forced to ask ourselves: what, why and how do we teach?
My classes have continued with the same content. We’re progressing through exponents, linear functions and complex numbers. Is this what I should be asking them to think about right now? I’m not sure. Curriculum matters but so do circumstances. Should we be dropping everything and teaching our students about this global pandemic?
When I try to step back from the particulars and ask myself about the role of education, I think about empowering students to become thoughtful, skilled and caring members of a democratic society. If my content was important two months ago, if it was important to teach young people to think critically and logically then, isn’t it still important today? Maybe even more so? The struggle of finding that importance and relevance keeps me engaged and is a question we should always be asking, pandemic or not.
Then again, maybe the most important thing is to give students a sense of normalcy and support in the face of a chaotic world. There’s an intimacy in socially distant learning. This past week, I had an easel whiteboard set up in the middle of my kitchen as students video conferenced in to ask questions about the quotient rule and imaginary numbers. Students learned what kind of cereal I buy and what magnets are on my fridge. In an unexpected way, I feel closer to them than I ever have. Vulnerability has a funny way of doing that.
All teachers have been recalibrating and refining their teaching practices. As I sit at my computer, my inbox has been lighting up with emails from colleagues, discussing new methods and strategies for online teaching. Google Classroom? Zoom? Flipgrid? Kahoot? The tools that supplemented a tech-integrated classroom in the past are now the bedrock of our teaching.
We’re learning new skills. How do you manage a group of rowdy teenagers over a video conference call? How do you assess whether or not students understand content without being able to give them a pen-and-paper quiz? Teachers are exploring new and creative solutions all over the world.
My high school is primarily using computers for this new kind of education and has attempted to provide a laptop to every student who does not have one. Other schools have been providing paper packets for students to complete and turn in. Neither strategy is perfect. The internet is not a universal utility, and community hotspots are not an ideal solution.
One student of mine told me that she’d been completing all of her assignments on a cell phone. I walked her through the steps of how to borrow a laptop, and I’m hoping she’ll have one next week. But for all the accessibility problems with computers, I’m grateful for the connectivity. I’ve seen the faces of many of my students this week and am corresponding with them on a daily basis. I see their work when they finish and am able to immediately get them feedback. The vast majority of my students have been logged on and engaged.
In this new paradigm of public education, we have continued to ask ourselves: What do our students need to know? We may not always agree or be sure of our answers, but we’ll always keep asking the question.
We are continuing to design lessons by thinking about what will be best for our students, before we think about what will be easy. We’ve gone out of our way to help our students access learning. We’ve held students accountable for their work and helped them recognize their own capacity for growth. We’ve done everything we can to help them make sense of their world and prepare them to be tomorrow’s leaders, no matter what that world will look like.
Our solutions are not all the same. We will continue to struggle, reconsider and start over again, just as we did in the past and just as we help our students do every day, but by reflecting on our work through this new lens, we will become better teachers. The pursuit of excellence in teaching and learning is always incomplete and always worthwhile.
Jacob Goldstone is a math teacher at Brunswick High School.