Teachers are constantly left out of education policy and of making decisions about the things that we know best. We definitely weren’t interviewed about how we thought remote learning should go. But we’re still the ones rolling it out.
Right after schools closed, we called up all of our students’ parents to make sure they were OK. I made probably four or five hours of calls, checking in on the students’ mental health and seeing how they were doing. But there was also a huge push, right away, from the Department of Education, for us to get as many students logged on to Google Classroom as we could. So because none of us teachers had ever used Google Classroom, as we were calling up students’ parents and checking in, we were also learning the system ourselves and then making video tutorials for students on how to log in. We also had to get internet-enabled iPads for students without devices at home. On March 20, I put in three orders for devices for students, but it wasn’t until last week—the last week of April—that all the orders finally came in. It took over a month for some of my students to get their device—it was just crazy.
I teach fifth grade—reading, math, science, social studies, and writing—at a public school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. My class right now is a mix of Latinx students, Chinese students, and some South Asian students, and many of their parents don’t speak English. Luckily, I have some knowledge of Spanish and Chinese, but a lot of other teachers were really struggling to reach parents because they don’t speak those languages and had to find translation.
What I’ve also noticed with my students is that their parents have either lost jobs and are now home trying to find employment, or they’re frontline workers who are overworked right now, meaning they’re not home to help their child with schoolwork during regular school hours. They’re coming home late and only able to work with their child at night, which is when I’ll get a text message, like, “Ms. Tan, my child is having trouble with this. Can you help?” Or, “There is a glitch in this Google form that’s marking my answer wrong. Can you help with this?”
I’m also a special education teacher, so a lot of my job now is also trying to help students focus and making sure they have the right testing accommodations, like having everything that isn’t a reading comprehension assignment read out loud. A lot of the first two weeks of remote teaching involved providing tech support, and writing out my students’ individualized education plans for their special ed services, and helping parents get their students acclimated to Google Classroom.
I have 12 students, and I have three paraprofessionals in my classroom. And in our class alone, we’ve had something like 13 deaths, among our students’ and staff members’ families. So it’s been a challenge trying to roll out assignments while also supporting the mental health needs of my students, their families, and staff: Is this assignment I’m pushing right now really important when my students’ relatives are dying or sick? Some students really need an assignment to feel like there’s some normalcy in their day, but some kids are really struggling because they can’t focus, they’re scared. Some of my students have told me they haven’t gone outside since schools closed, so they’ve been inside for over a month. I’m trying to find a balance.
Teaching is 80 percent the relationship—a wink when a student is getting it right, a quick stare at a student when they need to come back and refocus, giving them positive cheer and reinforcement, and being like, You got this! For a lot of my students with learning disabilities, what they really need is a good, structured routine. And remotely, I can’t be the special education teacher that I need to be for them—it’s just not possible.
Structure and routine, in general, are a problem. There’s no typical day for me because things keep changing. For instance, right now one of my students has a parent who’s going back to work, so I’m working on a new routine with that child. Sometimes the curriculum shifts to something that gets hard for the kids, and I’ll get a lot more phone calls for help.
And I know for myself, I am in grief over how this pandemic has hit our society, hit Chinatown, where I live, and hit my students.
In this job, we do 12 months of work in 10 months. And anyone who is an educator—anyone who’s a parent right now and is teaching kids at home, for that matter—knows how much work it is to teach our children and also provide a wraparound safety net for them. That’s why the mayor was so reluctant to close schools, because, unfortunately, schools are the only safety net for a lot of our students.
It was just so clear that our school system had no real plans for the pandemic or how to roll out virtual learning at all. Not that anyone expected any of this to happen, but to have no contingency at all and then to shift the burden to educators is demeaning and demoralizing.
A lot of my teacher friends are saying they’re working 10- to 12-hour days and constantly having to call parents. I luckily have only 12 students, so in that sense, my job is much easier than that of a teacher on my grade level who has 32 students, some of whom are English language learners or just arrived in America and are now expected to figure out remote learning.
The main reason I’m still doing this every day is my students. The first day after school closed, when I called up the parents, it was joyful just hearing my students’ voices, hearing them say they had been waiting for my call, and they were happy to hear from me; 100 percent of my students miss school and want to be back, and they miss each other. Last Friday, we finally got almost the whole class on a Google Meet chat, and it was so good to see every one of my students in one spot, where they could also see each other. I felt like I could finally breathe.