National

Pandemic teaching, in their words

Teacher Ben White stands in his classroom in Knoxville, Tenn., on Sept. 23. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Across America, the coronavirus pandemic has rewritten the syllabus for the 2020-2021 school year. Teachers are facing formidable challenges, whether educating students in masked-up, socially distant classrooms or virtually, from computer screens. Here is what they had to say about their experience as the school year began.

Jessyca Mathews, an English teacher at Carman-Ainsworth High School in Flint Township, Mich. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Jessyca Mathews, 43, Flint, Mich.

English teacher at Carman-Ainsworth High School

Teaching experience: 20 years

The massive rumbles of thunder surprise me from my sleep. With heart racing, I turn over to look at the time. It’s only 4:30 a.m. I could try to sleep for another hour and a half, but my mind has other plans. As I sit up and look out the window, I gaze at the dark, mysterious sky.

I am exhausted, but I must start my day because it is time for the inevitable. I must report to the Factory today.

I begin a ritual that would soon be my daily routine. I take a hot shower. Brush my teeth. Put on ChapStick. Find clothing with many pockets. Display makeup just on my eyes. The mask will cover the rest of my face.

I investigate my survival bag to make sure I have the required items: hand sanitizer, masks, face wipes and at least two bottles of water.

As I zip my bag, the memory of last year’s school bag comes to my mind, and I smile. Then it was filled with purple pens, gifts for co-workers and first-day prizes for students. I always loved playing games with them on the first day.

But that won’t happen this year. Teaching will be online for the foreseeable future.

I reach inside the medicine cabinet for the thermometer and take my temperature.

It can’t be over 100.4. Lastly, I complete the Factory’s required health assessment form online to “prove” I don’t have the Illness.

My “Good for the Soul” soundtrack plays on my car radio, but I ignore the tunes. There is too much worry about entering the Factory to enjoy the irony of Beyoncé, telling me to “Get in formation.”

After driving through rain-drenched streets, I arrive and park in the front parking lot. Before entering the Factory, I pause to watch other co-workers.

With her head hanging low, one worker walks with a slight limp as she begins her path to the front door. Another co-worker sits in her car. Her eyes are closed, and her body is still. This meditation must be her moment of peace, even if it is just this brief minute. I do not interrupt her.

Others lurch out of the dark shadows of cars and trucks, reaching for their faces to veil their noses and mouths. The coverings also suppress the lips that usually express greetings of “Welcome back” to start the previous years.

After meeting my new intern, Anna, who stands alone in a puddle-filled parking lot, we join the others. We trudge inside the Factory to start this new line of work and existence in education.

Nothing is like it was before.

The workers cannot meet as a whole group due to the Illness. Half of the staff are sent to the cafeteria and half head to the auditorium. We can’t even join as one to start the school year. There is no unity anymore.

Anna and I are sent to the auditorium to receive further instruction. Once we enter, we hear the directions:

Sit five seats apart!

Sit every other row!

Sit facing forward!

There are slight sounds of squeaking seats as each worker follows the directions. There is limited talking. There are no happy conversations about children and escapes that happened this summer. The Illness took many things. It also took away the usual noise and excitement that happens when we start another school year.

Just one year ago, teachers of all grades gathered in this space. There were laughter, hugs and well wishes to have another successful school year. But the tone has changed. Most sit and stare, their eyes filled with nervous tension, confusion and worry. We soon hear a noise from the speakers. The Leader is prepared to begin.

The Leader appears on a large screen and I fight to pay attention to my new directives as the anxiety creeps into my soul. The Leader’s message is quick and direct and we are sent to our working spaces. The Leader’s statements do not comfort me, and nothing in returning here makes me feel like I matter.

There are no lights on in my hallway. Figures of co-workers move like apparitions haunting abandoned buildings, each disappearing into their classroom. I panic at the drab ambiance of my working space. It makes me think of all the things that will not be there with me to start this school year.

No students. No conversations. No light. Will there be joy?

Today, there is only darkness and the soft click of my door closing to start this new year of dystopian teaching.

I shall teach children on screen from the Factory.

I whisper to myself, “Welcome back, teach . . . ”

Justin Lopez-Cardoze, a teacher at Capital City Public Charter School in D.C. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Justin Lopez-Cardoze, 31, Gaithersburg, Md.

Seventh-grade science teacher at Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.

Teaching experience: Nine years

It was the first day of school with students. After eight years of first days, you would think I would feel calm and confident on my ninth. Honestly, each year it gets harder to manage the nerves. You want to do things right; you want your students to like you and say, “This class will be incredible.” On those first days of the last eight years, the moments felt so magical. I would see new faces, bright smiles, goofy personalities and nerves suddenly disappearing. It felt right.

But my ninth first day? I felt uncomfortable. I’m used to hearing and seeing students interacting with each other when I’m presenting on the first day, but in the world of Zoom, all you hear is yourself against multiple tiles on mute — and that day, most of the tiles were blank backgrounds with names. I didn’t hear a laugh. I couldn’t observe body language. What once felt like joy in my classroom quickly turned into emptiness.

I found myself seeking guidance from my principal that afternoon. I felt defeated, but in a unique way, which made me feel like even more of a failure. Last year, I was named D.C. Teacher of the Year, the first Latinx teacher to win that award. Folks were reaching out, asking me to share my expertise and perspectives from all over the District and country. I felt like I was on top of my teaching career. And now, after my first “Day One” in a distance learning program? I felt like a loser. I felt like I couldn’t be the teacher I had worked so hard to become.

I told my principal, “I feel like a first-year teacher again, only worse.” Her response stuck with me. “It feels worse because you have built years of what has worked well for you,” she said. “You have the background, and you have the experience. You have the expectation. Ignorance was bliss for you on your first day on the job several years ago. Now, you’re trying to live up to that expectation when the world has changed so drastically.”

So do I change my expectations? Do I lower them? Do I overhaul everything for the sake of adjusting to the pandemic? My principal told me to keep my expectations high in magnitude and low in rigidity.

“Create a bigger picture to discover the avenues that strive towards the high expectations your students deserve,” she said. “And select those paths as the decisions you will make as a teacher for your students at this time.”

I listened. And 18 instructional days later, I have realized this advice has transformed my students and me into agents of optimal learning. My outstanding co-teacher, Danielle Fadare, and I have helped each other broaden our scopes to provide meaningful and fun instruction.

Did we teach our students how to read a procedure with scientific tools and chemicals this year? No. But we did a demo on making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while students learned how to co-write detailed procedures in groups to control every move I made to create one.

Did students use compound microscopes to view outdated slides in person? No. But they have learned how to use a virtual platform provided by a local university to investigate cellular structures using a 100X objective lens — a level of magnification that most compound microscopes in K-12 schools don’t have.

For the longest time, I viewed distance learning as limiting my quality of instruction. I thought, “Well, I won’t be able to do this because it just won’t be the same through Google Hangouts or Zoom.” It turns out I was right. It won’t be the same. But I had a choice. Should I accept those limits or should I embrace the potential and leverage my creativity to create promising outcomes? I have chosen the latter.

Is everything perfect? Absolutely not. And there’s a long way to go. There will be lots of magical moments and wins, with lots of failure. But I’ll fail with the intention of finding a different path to follow.

And the kids are excited to be back. Many of them are already super tech-savvy. They’re turning their cameras on. They’re laughing. One thing that I noticed today is that when I dismissed kids to their next class, many wanted to stick around and just talk to me. Not for anything academic . . . just to talk. As crazy as this sounds, I feel like I can relate to my students more than I ever have in my entire career. I’m learning with them. I’m growing with them. I hope we can build trust for one another throughout this time. And I’m hopeful for a better tomorrow.

Ben White, an English teacher at the Webb School of Knoxville, Tenn. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Ben White, 46, Knoxville, Tenn.

Sixth-grade English teacher at the private Webb School of Knoxville

Teaching experience: 21 years

“Mr. White! You’re on mute!” the four virtual, homebound students call in a chorus from my iPad.

In response, I use the remote control looped around my neck to spin the robot mounted on a tripod beside my desk. My iPad — our portal from school to home — sits in the robot’s open top, and I reach up and poke the microphone button, thus enabling my virtual pupils to hear me.

“You may begin the quiz,” I tell them.

My in-person students, 14 of them in this class, wiggle in their seats, and one kid raises his hand and asks, “Uh, have you posted the quiz yet?”

“Of course I’ve posted the quiz,” I respond as I flip open my MacBook, log in to the appropriate Google Classroom and scan the stream. And then I slap my forehead: “I just didn’t post it to the right place!”

I receive an understanding nod from the students as I repost the quiz — this time to the accurate digital locale. As a girl in the front row begins her assessment, she politely reminds me, “Don’t forget to take attendance.”

“Right,” I reply, pulling out my phone to log in to the school’s website. “Attendance.”

Yesterday, as I presented my laptop screen via Google Meet for the at-homers and via Vivi for those on campus, I looked up and saw my head, caught in two different cameras, projected twice on three different screens. If you want to know what it’s like to teach during the pandemic, find a dog who compulsively chases her tail and toss her into a hall of mirrors. When she’s too dizzy to stand, start teaching her new tricks.

The ubiquity of hand sanitizer is beginning to creep me out. In my classroom alone, I have a gallon. Hand sanitizer should not come by the gallon — gallon jugs are for milk, and craft beer.

I also have a silo of sanitizing wipes, a package of alcohol pads, two bottles of sanitizing spray and one random, perfumed bottle of antibacterial mist.

Because my school requires masks to be on inside the building — and on correctly; no overhanging beaks, thank you very much — some students have taken to stuffing their water bottle tips into their masks and drinking through the fabric. So now I see kids with big wet bulls’ eyes on their masks, which makes me even more terrified when someone sneezes.

And kids sneeze all the time. Recently, I endured a three-alarm sneeze from a student who’d approached with a question.

“Mr. White? I — uh — achoo, achoo, achoo!”

He was inches above my shoulder. My instinct was to drop, roll and run like hell for the exit. Instead, I palmed a squirt of Purell.

The student was masked, at least, and so was I . . . but the haunting droplets, like viral ghosts hanging in the air for hours . . .

It. Was. All. I. Could. Do. To. Continue.

Pre-Covid (ah, pre-Covid!), we teachers were mostly allowed to dip our toes in the technology waters — some of us chose primarily to lounge poolside; some of us jumped in headlong. And then the dime dropped: spring break one day; virtual school the next. I actually filmed my lessons last spring from a chalkboard beneath the kids’ playhouse in my backyard.

But our restless natures required the return to the building, or at least the option of such a return. Moms and dads across the land, hair on end from their kindergartner’s lessons, had their torches lit and were ready to storm the gates. So we opened them, of course, both the physical and the virtual — at the same time.

Inasmuch, I now curate half a dozen Google Classrooms and as many Google Calendars; I have a Swivl account to manage my robot, a virtual sign-out sheet, a shareable link for my back-to-school-night video, three to four separate screens to negotiate during each class, a video conference assembly every morning, seating charts scanned and filed away for contact-tracing purposes, and a HEPA air purifier (purchased with my own money) for placebic peace of mind.

Speaking of my mind: I have a hummingbird brain these days. My ability to concentrate has been reduced to a wisp. At least twice this week, I’ve spun circles searching for my mask while it was clapped overtop my schnoz and maw like a muffin wrapper.

But the inability to land my attention on any branch for more than a few wing beats is not always a bad thing. Sometimes I forget to be frightened in my 500-square-foot classroom packed with possible viral exhalers. Sometimes, even masked and sanitized and standing behind the no-kids-allowed demarcation line, I simply teach grammar: It takes a subject and a verb to make a sentence; it takes a teacher and a student to make a classroom.

Terence Freeman, an English teacher at Lawton High School in Oklahoma. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Terence Freeman, 73, Lawton, Okla.

English teacher at Lawton High School, Lawton Public Schools

Teaching experience: 14 years at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, 26 years at Lawton High

Hope was on my mind in the summer months leading up to this academic year. I hoped the school had plans and funding for sanitizer, cleaning liquids, paper towels, masks, teacher testing and more; hoped that I and my students would remain healthy; hoped that I could still have the personal relationship with students that enables learning to happen.

I will remember Hands. During Week 2, I took my classes to the library, where the district fulfilled its promise to provide every student with a Chromebook. I now had the option of having students read from a website or from a paper textbook. Call me old-fashioned, but there’s nothing like the heft and texture and tangibility of the printed text.

Yet I worried about students in successive classes touching the same books. So I went on Amazon and ordered three large boxes of nitrile gloves. I’ve placed a pair for every student in a baggie with her or his name on it, and the baggies are stored in separate boxes in the classroom. The students enter the room, wipe down the desks I have sprayed with liquid cleaner, wash their hands with sanitizer, grab the assigned baggie, put on the gloves, grab the book on the desk, read and at the end of class put the gloves in the baggie and the baggie in the box. A terribly makeshift solution, but one that’s been enthusiastically received and executed by the students. They and I each do what we need to do — that’s the can-do spirit of an American.

I will remember Obstacles. Two-thirds of our students elected in-person education. Some technical adjustments were relatively easy — cold breakfast in the classroom, wiping down desks before each period, sanitizing hands, distancing between desks. Masks were harder — not the wearing, but the communication.

On the first morning of school, gloved and masked, I helped do a security check of students’ backpacks/bags/purses before passing the students on through the metal detector. All of the students were masked, and I quickly realized how important our faces are to communication, to the recognition of emotion. A cheery greeting from me, if I got a response at all, generated a reply whose emotional content was muffled, distant, cold. I have had the same experience in class. Conversations involve both hearing and observing, and the masks impede the observations. I and my students have needed to work harder to emote through our eyes and voices.

I will remember the Probe. In Week 3, I took advantage of a free coronavirus test offered by the state’s health and education departments. I made my appointment the day before, showed up 10 minutes early and was the second school employee at the location. The testing equipment beat me to the scene but, unfortunately, the nurses did not. Teacher after teacher arrived at the room, and we milled around in the hallway, awkwardly chattering and trying to maintain social distance.

Thirty minutes after my arrival, two nurses arrived — one female, one male. In due course, I was seated before the male nurse, who proceeded to make a minute-long speech that I understood nothing of — these masks are truly a pain. The insertion of the probe was uncomfortable, the nurse’s count to five unnecessarily slow and the aftermath a slight burning and a watery eye. I high-tailed it back to the classroom and beat the first of my 18 students by about 30 seconds. I used a Kleenex to dab the watery eye — one must maintain one’s image, after all. A result came the next day: “Not Detected.”

I will remember the Extra. On the third day of school, I learned that my Advanced Placement students would have the option of getting a virtual education. I tried hard to find a magic bullet, but the programs and technology suggested to me over the summer would, I came to believe, only allow me to offer a significantly limited version of the in-person curriculum I have developed over the years. So I have found myself trying to construct that limited version (at the moment, for eight students) while at the same time conducting the in-person version. In essence, I feel as if I am being tasked to be two teachers — me and Extra Mini-Me.

So there it is — my first weeks at school. Hands. Obstacles. Probe. Extra. H-O-P-E. I am reminded of the poet Basho: “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” We can only hope.

Myron Curtis, a history teacher and football coach at Broad Run High School in Loudoun County, Va. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Myron Curtis, 35, South Riding, Va.

History teacher and football coach at Broad Run High School in Loudoun County, Va.

Teaching experience: 11 years

Exhausted. That’s the best way to describe how I’ve felt these last four weeks. Exhausted but also kind of excited. This unfortunate circumstance has in a weird way allowed me to really try some new things.

When I first started teaching, I taught world history and ancient civilizations to ninth-graders and U.S. and Virginia history to 11th-graders. Over the years, I have added Advanced Placement U.S. history to my course list, and this year I have added an African history and diaspora course for the first time, a course I’ve lobbied for for years.

I was extremely pleased with the amount of interest I received for this course from students last January during our course selection time. However, right now our school is 100 percent virtual. This couldn’t have come at a worse time for my African history course. So many of my ideas for my inaugural classes died when they announced that we would start the year at home.

I was planning a field trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which I hoped would become a yearly event. I was even trying to make fundraising plans for a trip to Africa. Maybe I was being too ambitious to begin with, but this class is very important to me. If I was successful with this course, other schools might see its merit and offer it in their schools.

I’ve had similar letdowns in my other classes, including AP U.S. history. To adapt to the new virtual circumstances and keep kids engaged, I started a program called Coach Curtis’s U.S. history road show. Since we were not able to teach from our classrooms, I decided to take my virtual classroom to historic sites around the country and teach my lessons from there.

During Week 1, I went to Natural Bridge in Virginia. Our first unit dealt with pre-Columbian Native American civilizations and their first contact with Europeans. The Natural Bridge is an important spot for the Monacan Indian Nation, so we discussed their role in the history of native people in Virginia. This week I went to Salem, Mass. I wanted to help students get an idea of what early Puritan culture looked like and also how that society’s patterns of social and gender roles were impacted by religious ideals. It was an asynchronous day, so attendance was voluntary. Imagine my surprise when not only did my students attend, but others who aren’t in my class tuned in as well.

One of the ways I try to keep them engaged is through social media. I make TikToks about my trips and also post about them on Instagram and Twitter. I have a weekly contest where I post a video about an upcoming trip with clues. The first person to correctly guess where my next destination will be gets a prize I pick up from the gift shop and ship to them.

In addition to teaching, I have been coaching football for the past nine years. Getting to see the players grow, mature, take chances and learn is an amazing privilege. Broad Run is consistently one of the top-ranked teams in the state. But this year I haven’t been thinking about how good we can be. I’ve just been really missing practice. Just practice. Not to sound like Allen Iverson, but something as simple as being able to have a normal practice with our players, be around the players, build relationships, that’s what I’ve missed the most.

I’m trying focus on the bright spots of all of this. Because as far as football goes there haven’t been many. Our season has been pushed back to February, and we have had so many safety requirements for practice placed on us, it’s difficult to get anything done.

The players have been frustrated about all of the restrictions. But they have handled it with an impressive amount of maturity. I have been most impressed with their desire to participate in local government by attending school board meetings and even participate in protest, opposing some of the rules restricting their ability to play this season. Regardless of how you feel about the issue, I am proud of them for not sitting the bench on what they believe in.

Our head coach came up with an idea of having weekly meetings just to check in and discussions on a book he ordered for everyone called “Chop Wood Carry Water.” This book by Joshua Medcalf is about falling in love with the process of being great. It couldn’t be more appropriate as it discusses perseverance, in a time when it can be easy to give up on your dreams and blame circumstance.

This has been without a doubt the most draining, challenging, emotional, disappointing and exciting year I have experienced as a teacher and coach. Each week, I feel like my limits are tested. However, I am learning so much about myself in the process. And I hope we all are as teachers and coaches.

Laura Estes-Swilley, a teacher at Durant High School in Florida. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Laura Estes-Swilley, 50, Plant City, Fla.

English teacher at Durant High School, Hillsborough County Public Schools

Teaching experience: 21 years

It is difficult to feel good about teaching right now. In my Florida district, everything feels wrong: Our governor doesn’t seem to support education through budgeting or rhetoric; we test our kids until they cry; education policy is determined by people with no understanding of teaching and learning; there is little concern for the coronavirus crisis on a state level; my district is in the throes of a difficult transition to a new superintendent.

In my school, though, we work together to make every day safe, healthy and engaging for our students. We try to support each other. This is no easy task in a district where our leadership hasn’t earned any trust. We opened three weeks late because our district leaders could not seem to make decisions. It was painful, and when school finally started, everyone was exhausted; but, at Durant, we were inspired by our principal, the leader who counts most in our daily lives. Not everyone is anxious to teach high school seniors, but I really am happy to be my students’ teacher.

Our students have the choice between e-learning and attending brick-and-mortar schools. I am teaching in the classroom, but many of my peers are teaching e-learning from home and some are teaching a few online classes from their empty classrooms. Then there are those teaching classes in person and online synchronously, with 50 or 60 students per period. Those teaching from home feel cut off, and in many ways they are. The teachers juggling in-person and online students at the same time are overwhelmed to a level I’ve never seen. They feel misused, because they are. There is a splintering. That’s natural, because everyone is struggling, but it’s not helping morale.

Gone are the days of lunching with our peers, talking about our days or what works with a specific kid or lesson or text. Gone are the days of just sharing our lives with each other. Teaching has always been isolating; we are almost always apart from each other. Our lives are filled with kids and that’s the best part of teaching, but sometimes we need adult voices. There are few now. I see that it is even lonelier for our students who have only Zoom contact with their teachers and their peers. I know they are home for good reason, but I miss them on campus, the way they swell a crowd, as Shakespeare would say.

I have 130 students and what kept me awake this summer was not knowing if I would be able protect them. I had not yet met them, but I knew how important they were. I had never experienced fear at Durant High School until Aug. 31, the first day of school. Some of my fear was unfounded. We are all adjusting to the misery of day-long masking; we are cleaning desks between every class; we don’t share supplies or books. We have had, to date, only two student cases of the coronavirus, but we have over 30 students quarantined.

Normally, my students come in having read “King Lear” and “The Things They Carried” over the summer, but not in this pandemic year. We were still learning how to study a piece of literature, preparing to dig into “Lear” as the first quarantines began on campus.

I find the most painful thing is the one for which I haven’t prepared. It hit when I checked my messages and read “re: COVID sucks.” It was only the second week of school and already one of my seniors was letting me know he would have to quarantine. I realized this was going to happen again, again and probably again, until it began to feel normal. I’m so tired of the phrase “the new normal.”

My heart dropped into my stomach reading the message from that student, who is in one of my AP Literature classes. I soon began my own version of synchronous teaching as he Zoomed into class daily to join our discussions. I am lucky to have such dedicated students, but when I read that message, I wasn’t thinking about curricular concerns. I was worried and I was sad; I hardly knew him, but I wanted better for him. I want better for all of them.

My student was right: The coronavirus and its attendant difficulties are awful. None of us were prepared for this in February, but we have gotten ourselves together since March. A teacher is always a learner, so I look for lessons. When I consider these students I have only known for a month, I feel incredibly hopeful. They are resilient. They sanitize; they wear masks without complaint; they sit six feet apart at lunch; they embrace the opportunity to be in school; they are planning for the future; they are excited to start their adult lives. In short, they are beautiful. And I am lucky to know them.

Khalil Abouhamad, a teacher at East Union High School in Manteca, Calif. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Khalil Abouhamad, 35, Escalon, Calif.

Special education teacher at East Union High School in Manteca, Calif.

Teaching experience: 11 years

Coronavirus cases in our county surged all summer long, but our school board approved in-person instruction anyway. After state and county efforts mandated we shift to an online distance-learning model, teachers were still made to teach from empty classrooms instead of from home as we did in the spring.

This meant spending tax dollars to power and cool classrooms for teachers only through California’s heat wave and fire season. And it would force teachers to ditch their home offices that were often equipped with more reliable Internet and computers, directly affecting our capacity to serve students. Most teachers moved mountains in the spring but were now being trusted and treated like the few who weren’t as committed.

When I was a toddler and my sister a baby, my father passed away from a completely curable condition because he did not speak up. Here I was, my son a toddler, daughter a baby, about to return to work and being told by my family doctor that my 2010 splenectomy rendered me irreversibly immunocompromised while a deadly pandemic is surging in my county.

While our largest neighboring district had already permitted teachers to follow statewide guidance and work from home until students returned, I was rushed for a doctor’s note and still made to advocate for myself as though my doctor shouldn’t be trusted and I would suddenly grow a spleen. And caring, hard-working administrators like my own were unfairly made to discuss such medical conditions with their teachers districtwide before granting the waiver. Both teachers and principals involved would have much preferred spending their taxpayer-funded time in the service of students and families in need rather than navigate this imposed struggle.

An effective teacher is no stranger to struggle, both chosen and imposed. The best teachers you ever had probably chose some struggle outside their contract, be it leaving the textbook to come up with memorable lessons, organizing eye-opening field trips, spending their own money or just taking the time to connect. We make chosen struggle our professional pleasure.

Imposed struggle — known fondly as “BS” among educators — consists of things forced upon us with little to no educational value, and is what continues to prevent countless promising teachers from ever becoming like the one you remember, the one who inspired you, the one who changed your life, or even saved it. Imposed struggle has fueled our widespread teacher shortage for decades.

Since my 11-year teaching career includes four countries, various levels, multiple languages and technology aplenty, I had gotten to a point where I never expected imposed struggle to dictate my livelihood ever again. Then 2020 instructed me to hold its beer.

I remain grateful for ultimately being able to teach from home as it is unquestionably better for my family health-wise and my students tech-wise. I wish my colleagues would have been granted the same option, not only for the potential increase in effectiveness, but for the security in knowing we are trusted and supported by those elected to govern us from a distance.

Educational technology training for teachers was the focus of my master’s research and has recently skyrocketed in demand. Many teachers gave more than they had to give in the spring and were now having to restart with unreasonable new guidelines and unfamiliar students, with minimal time to prepare. I understood I would again be spending as much time teaching teachers as students, but I welcomed serving in this capacity. While this chosen struggle had consumed my life in the spring, it benefited many teachers directly and even more students indirectly.

Our students have struggled too. I knew that some had been slipping into unhealthy lifestyles since our last day together on March 13, which ranged from losing the sports they played to just no longer walking to and from campus daily. The measures taken helped flatten our curve, but it wasn’t free of charge and the bills are starting to arrive.

One month in, I assigned a simple writing prompt: “The best and worst parts of distance learning.” It can be jolting when students open up. Many families are making it work, but many are unable, and these responses help illustrate student struggles. While some older students enjoy pre-adulthood, the collective sentiment was mostly negative, commonly citing Internet access, home settings, screen-induced headaches and declines in mental, emotional and physical health.

Public educators will be the first to list the problems plaguing our school system: imposed struggles rooted in years of neglect and misguidance. We overcome this by choosing to struggle in the service of our students and one another. Though we understand the reasons, we’ve been painfully limited in this capacity during the pandemic.

Do we solve these mounting issues by returning to classrooms, endangering public health? Do we handicap the virus by staying distanced, straining mental health while widening education gaps? Do we balance both, as many are starting to — and how effective can we be in averting potential disasters on either side? To what degree will these decisions be chosen or imposed? When dilemmas outnumber solutions, struggle takes root.

Teachers steady the ship. When this episode is ultimately relegated to memory, our students will reflect not on the algebra lesson, art project, new app or glitchy device, but on the one core truth that unites educators the world over:

“They had every reason to quit, but never did.”

How’s that for a lesson?

Andrea Ainsworth, a teacher at Waverly Elementary in Linden, Calif. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Andrea Ainsworth, 35, Escalon, Calif.

Second-grade teacher at Waverly Elementary School, Linden Unified School District

Teaching experience: 11 years

I started teaching second grade as a long-term substitute on Aug. 20. I was actually looking forward to it, probably because I was ignorant as to what lay ahead. As a full-time teacher of eight years ending in 2018, I was craving a professional challenge. What I hadn’t foreseen was that many of those challenges would be out of my control.

I quickly realized it isn’t the “teaching” that has most teachers filled with anxiety and working overtime during the pandemic. Any good teacher can learn to deliver a lesson from any medium; it’s all the other stuff.

It’s the fact that in many districts in California, teachers are mandated to work from their classrooms even when the technological infrastructure of most schools is not able to support every teacher live-streaming simultaneously. Many teachers would be better able to meet their students’ needs from home, where their Internet and computers are often more reliable. During my second day, I was dropped from the Internet nine times. My partner teacher (it is a job-share) was kicked off 14 times another day. The Internet crashed districtwide during that week as well.

My biggest fear these first weeks of school is not being able to meet the needs of my students. The plan the board members have laid out for our district does not seem to be equitable for all of our families at this time. I work for a district in a rural community with many low-income families, and high-speed Internet is either too expensive or simply unavailable for their households. Throughout the day students will come in and out of our meeting time because their Internet fails. It has been especially hard for some families this year because we have had rolling blackouts due to fire danger.

Grading is also challenging because many missed assignments aren’t the students’ fault. Students who miss assignments generally have a hard time finding their materials, struggle with inadequate Internet service and must deal with plenty of noise and distractions around them. We are expecting these second-graders to be prepared and ready to learn while in environments that are not conducive to learning. Distance learning has shone a bright light on how we, as a society, have ignored education for too long.

To try to combat all of these issues, my principal has been doing home visits. She also emailed parents letting them know she was available to come to their house and teach them about the technology they must use. She has been doing a few home visits a week. The connection between school and home has never been more important.

We have begun to bring small cohorts of students back on campus. These are the students who don’t have adequate Internet access or have a disability requiring additional support, which often isn’t possible with distance learning. They come once a week and sit at a distance in the cafeteria. This one day has proven to be helpful for those students, as they are getting some adult support and access to better Internet. There are also applications in the works that would bring back more students. We don’t know what that will look like yet, but if done properly it could be a good thing for students and teachers alike.

In the midst of all of the adversity, I have seen evidence of learning from my students. I have seen parents set up mini classrooms for their kids inside their homes, and go back and forth between their children to ensure they are getting the best education they possibly can. I have seen teachers help each other and lean on one another for emotional support. I have seen teachers who have kids of their own, struggling to fit in enough time with their families because distance learning is taking up so much of their day. I have seen administrators try to navigate the many rules made up by the state and district offices, while trying to shield their teachers from all the negativity and maintain the educational standards the students had when they were on campus.

In spite of unwelcome decisions by some of our off-site leaders, I have witnessed huge cooperation among all those involved with students. I sincerely hope such trends will continue because while we all share these current burdens, we will also share the successes that come from working through it together.

Amanda Lhéritier, an early-education teacher at the private Tuckahoe Montessori School in Richmond. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Amanda Lhéritier, 43, Richmond, Va.

Montessori early-childhood teacher at the private Tuckahoe Montessori School

Teaching experience: Seven years

There’s a poem I love, “To Be of Use” by Marge Piercy, that I frequently think about in terms of my work as a teacher, and especially now during the coronavirus. Young children derive a sense of purpose and fulfillment in their work just as I do in mine. I love my students and feel profoundly grateful to be with them in person this year.

Teaching during the coronavirus era requires substantial resources that not all teachers or schools possess. My school has remodeled and provided masks and extensive cleaning supplies. I frequently put in 10-hour days, with more work still to be done when I return home. Our school has been able to bear the financial brunt of changes, and my family has picked up my share of everything else.

There’s also an emotional burden to bear. To protect my own parents, I haven’t hugged them since February, but they’ve been very supportive. I’m able to be fully present for my students and their families because I have the support of my family, especially my husband. He’s working from home and is around for our children while they’re at school virtually. It’s a huge relief that he’s there, but I still feel terribly guilty that I’m not, even though our children are both well-adjusted teenagers.

The past six months have been an impossibly challenging time for working parents of young children, especially for families with one parent. If I were a working mother of young children, I’d need someone willing to provide education and care for my children so that I could do my job. I hope to fill that need for my students’ families.

Preparing for the year was physically and mentally exhausting. Our school has made so many structural and procedural changes to comply with new guidelines. My own classroom has undergone a complete overhaul to accommodate the spacing requirements as well as the needs of our older students. Having one of my favorite people, Carrie, as a brilliant, hard-working teaching partner has been essential. Before classes began, we came to school on nights and weekends to get our classroom ready.

It’s been an extraordinary amount of work made completely worthwhile the moment children stepped in the room. Our open house was such a joyous experience it felt like a family reunion; so many of our students hadn’t seen anyone outside of their home since we closed our doors in March. We had our three ceiling fans on high, the windows open and everyone in masks, but we were all quietly aware of each other’s space and presence.

The first day of school was the first time I felt any anxiety about the school year. I tried to pump myself up listening to music in the shower but chose “One Day More” from “Les Misérables” and ended up crying a little.

Our first few weeks have been as grueling as they have been rewarding. The hard stuff was what I expected: grief, cleaning, hand-washing, mask-wearing, distance-keeping, sneeze patrol and prevention, more cleaning and more protocols. Montessori teachers do much of their work quietly, unobtrusively and behind the scenes, but there are times now when I feel like an auctioneer. I’m directing children, giving lessons, listening, taking notes and observing, all at the same time, all day long.

What I didn’t expect was to feel such a close bond with my colleagues and to be completely enchanted by the little children we teach. My 4- and 5-year-old students experienced an abrupt end to their normal lives, endured six months of isolation and yet on the very first day of school, children were composing music and painting maps of Asia. My students are a constant source of delight. Take, for example the 4-year-old girl who this afternoon examined some muddy water and told me, “I’m a scientist. We discovered that it could be goo . . . black venom . . . or animal throw-up.” So many choices!

My early thought process was about making this experience safe and wonderful for my students. Now that we’re settling into this new way of life, I want to do everything I can not to lose this opportunity — not just for them but for myself. Keeping us all safe and healthy AND learning is hard, hard work, but I’m focused and determined to give it my all. My efforts are guided by Maria Montessori’s statement that “The child is both a hope and a promise for mankind.”

Photos by Carol Van Houten. Design by J.C. Reed and Dwuan June.

We noticed you’re blocking ads!

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker. Or purchase a subscription for unlimited access to real news you can count on.
Unblock ads
Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us