Education is a big deal in my family. My grandmother was a teacher; my mom is a teacher; my aunt is a teacher; and my brother is on his way to becoming a teacher.
Of course, modern teachers have never had to deal with anything like this before. California school buildings are closed through at least the end of this school year—and instead, teachers are doing their best to educate students online. Because of these unusual circumstances, I decided to talk to some teachers in my life—my mom, an old high school teacher and a couple of my college professors—via email or online chat (except for my mom) about what it’s like to be a teacher during a pandemic.
“Theoretically, the quality of the learning should not be changed, but I can’t help but assume it has been diminished drastically,” said Corbyn Voyu, an assistant professor of English at College of the Desert. I am currently enrolled in her English 2 class, and Prof. Voyu has been putting a ton of effort into re-creating the same fun learning environment from her classroom in our Zoom video conferences.
“I worry about the students who specifically chose to take courses in-person rather than online,” Voyu said. “I cannot imagine their quality of learning is remaining the same. Usually at this point in the semester, there is an effort slump, which impacts the quality of reading and writing I see from students. That perpetual phenomenon, coinciding with the stay-at-home order, is making my assessment of student work more ambiguous than usual. I am constantly wondering: Is this the normal midterm decline, or the new medium of learning that’s causing students to not participate? I am not sure I will ever find a concrete answer.”
Prof. Voyu explained how she is working extra hard to keep her teaching interesting.
“I am resorting to more educational gimmicks like Kahoot! (an online quiz game), to varying degrees of success,” Voyu said. “I am culling work down to the most-essential pieces, because I know an interminable Zoom session is no fun for anyone. I am lessening the rigor of my standards by recording lectures, carrying the brunt of discussion, and extending deadlines. Mostly, I find I am trying to operate on ideals of compassion. … My students deserve to learn and, I believe, need to learn about literature, so I want to provide them the space to do that. I am really trying to follow where my students lead; I want this time to work for them rather than for me. Basically, if my students have an idea that might make their learning better, I’d do it if I can. In a regular class setting, I cannot say I am that flexible.”
I am also in adjunct teacher Steven Fuchs’ Intro to Government class. Compared to Prof. Voyu’s more free-flowing class, Prof. Fuchs’ class is primarily lecture-based. He said he appreciated the technology of the Zoom application and online discussion boards.
“I find them extremely useful, especially since I can now associate a name with a face,” Fuchs said. “This is always an issue when instructors teach large survey courses. So, in some respects, it adds a level of intimacy to the class. I will absolutely encourage students to interact via Zoom and discussions in future classes. … Except for some startup issues, I’m very pleased with the transition. I’ve been using online quizzes and papers for over five years, and taught a fully online class during winter intersession, so I think my students are lucky to have a relatively easy transition.
“Also, students are often shy about speaking up in public, so the text-only discussions I have been implementing have given them a chance to more fully express themselves and their academic abilities.”
To see how things were going at the high school level, I reached out to my old film teacher, Monica Perez, the head of the Digital Design and Production Academy at Coachella Valley High School in Thermal. She has always been tech-forward with her teachings.
“Most students are only familiar with online classes as a form of credit recovery; there has always been a brick-and-mortar classroom where kids are given multiple scaffolds and retaught if they don’t understand,” Ms. Perez said. “In this online-only setting, it is harder to gauge who needs help, because a student has to be more proactive in their learning. The quality of learning is there, because the curriculum stays the same; it is the way a student chooses to digest that learning that comes into play. There are many videos and guides that can be used to facilitate learning; kids know how to Google answers, so that concept isn’t new. (Education success) is more of a motivational factor now more than anything.”
Ms. Perez said she’s needed to allocate more time to check in with her students.
“One of the biggest differences in my teachings is my form of communication with my students,” Ms. Perez said. “I get a lot more phone calls and text messages now. Students just need to know that you care and miss them. I miss them dearly, so hearing them on the phone is a big positive difference.
“Kids don’t need to know about existentialism if they’re living it, so we (teachers) can approach these topics a little differently. I have ditched some bell/busy-work activities for more online conversation and debate. I am going to limit the craze of Zoom for only necessary times. I prefer pre-recorded material anyway; live Zoom could be used for quick Q&A sessions.”
While Ms. Perez said video conferences are useful, they can’t and shouldn’t fully replace the physical classroom.
“Video conferences are a double-edged sword, because not all students have access to connectivity,” Ms. Perez said. “They are a strong tool for students who need the ‘live’ interaction with their peers and teachers, as online classes by themselves require a lot of discipline and individual effort. I see it as any other tool. It is a fad right now because of our pandemic circumstances, but there are multiple modes of teaching and learning. … In the future, yes, I do see many riding the video-conference train, but I also see many students and teachers alike missing the organized chaos of the brick-and-mortar classroom. A perfect storm, in the end, would be an equal balance of the two mediums.”
Ms. Perez said she’s heartbroken that the class of 2020 won’t be able to fully experience their senior years.
“Many of us are very saddened that we don’t get to be with our kids for the end of the 2019-2020 school year,” Ms. Perez said. “I miss all my children, from those who make me want to pull my hair out, to those who make me a proud ‘cat mom’ everyday, to those crazy combination students who flip a coin and keep me guessing.
“If anything, this pandemic has shown the importance of education and the need to reinvent the ‘old traditional’ ways of learning to a fusion of old and new. In order for kids to thrive, we can’t teach like we taught 50 or even 10 years, ago. We have to evolve.”
Finally, I spoke to my mom about how teaching is continuing at the elementary-school level. Maureen King is a teacher at Palm Academy in Indio, and she is doing her best to make sure the learning never ceases in her third-, fourth- and fifth-grade combo class.
“We do a mandatory check-in every day with our students via video conference or email,” King said. “Every student went home with their school-issued Chromebook and a paper packet encompassing three weeks’ worth of school work. However, that was back in mid-March, so our daily check-ins have been utilizing our system of online video lessons in order to further their education. Many programs that we used in regular class are being used for distance learning, and I am able to assign specific lessons for student reinforcement when needed. Once a week, the entire class meets virtually to see one another, play some games and check on their social and emotional well-being. I also have office hours if students need one-on-one tutoring.”
King is proud of the measures being taken to continue connecting to her students, but she admitted there are some obstacles between younger students and technology.
“I find that younger students are needing more help at home to login and share assignments with their teacher,” King said. “Internet connectivity is not a given in our school population, so I am working on providing additional written packets for students who have been unable to join virtually.
“Per my school guidelines, teachers should be providing four hours of work per day, focusing on reading and writing, math and personalized passion projects. We are also stressing the importance of physical activity and the well-being of the students.”
No matter the education level, local teachers are working hard to do the best they can under the stressful circumstances.
Prof. Voyu summed up her motivations in this way: “These are unprecedented times, but I have too much respect for my students and for my subject to just allow the semester to be considered a wash.”