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  • Barbara Comstock

Teaching Today: Trying Not to Be Bad Comedian in a Dark Piano Bar

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

I taught for over 20 years, mostly in middle school classrooms, and there wasn’t a time when I didn’t lay awake the week before school worried about the start of the new year. I had every first-day-jitters nightmare you can imagine, every year: I would arrive at school in my pajamas, I’d open my mouth to give the kids directions but I was voiceless, or I stood there waiting for kids to arrive and they never did.

That last dream -- the one where somehow I’d gotten the wrong day or ended up in the wrong classroom or the kids all just decided en masse not to come to school -- is the one that haunts me most this year, a full year after I retired. You see, you can take the teacher out of the classroom, but it seems like you can’t take the classroom out of the teacher. I will forever worry about my kids -- where they ended up, how they are doing, whether or not they’re pursuing their dreams -- but this year I’m also worried about my colleagues. This year, in the face of a pandemic, they are living that nightmare I dreamed so many times of an empty classroom. This year, because of a virus that threatens our very lives, teachers all around the country are zooming into their kids’ living rooms from empty classrooms or from homemade studios in corners of their own homes.

The debate whether to open school or not this fall raged on for what seemed like an eternity. On all sides there were powerful arguments. After an abrupt shutdown this spring, when teachers sprung like heroes into action to deliver curriculum virtually, often in the face of an infrastructure not built for complete online learning, teachers were heralded and revered. Six months later, with economic disaster afoot and everyone clamoring for normalcy -- not to mention a political campaign underway -- the President pushed for the opening of schools, in spite of any danger. Both teachers and children were being thrown under that old school bus.

In most cases, sanity and health concerns prevailed, but so did the costs and challenges. Parents are tired. Kids need their routines and their friends. Teachers are doing a job they never signed up for. Every single teacher, no matter how many years of service they have under their belt, feels like a new teacher all over again.

I liked being a “veteran” teacher -- knowing what I know and comfortable to learn what the classroom would teach me. I used to tell my kids that absences were such a disruption to their learning because the classroom was where the magic happens. Each day of my career, I stood at the door and greeted my kids into the room. The way they said “good morning” -- whether they looked me in the eye and smiled or dropped their eyes and mumbled -- told me a lot about where they were mentally and emotionally. I could quickly gauge the temperature of the room. Even with the best-planned curriculum, I could almost instantaneously call out a lesson-plan flop because the kids’ body language was such a truth-teller. When we were reading a novel or discussing an article, the kids would pick up on my enthusiasm through my voice and the way I would move about the room. Curriculum was one thing, but being in the classroom together also taught empathy and patience, collaboration and caring. Together, we built an environment for learning.

Now, my friends and colleagues are teaching kids from Kinder through college over screens. Most times, as they deliver instructions, the teachers I know have to mute their kids. As a dear friend of mine said, “It’s like I’m a bad comedian in a dark piano bar where I can’t see the audience and no one is laughing.” Every teacher I know is beyond exhausted, working double-time trying to get it right. They are also under the microscope of parents who, like armchair athletes, aren’t shy about sharing how this lesson or that might have gone better.

I know -- because I’m also a parent. I watched as my college student tried to deal with astronomy labs from home, with supplies we had to scrounge to dig up -- taking timed tests on platforms that would collapse under the weight of use. I watched (and complained to my husband) about equity issues that rang out like sirens. What if you didn’t have headphones? What if you didn’t own a tripod for that lab? What if your Wi-Fi was spotty? What if your home was small and crowded with family all sheltering-in-place and you found it hard to concentrate?

Teachers all over the country are trying to deal with these very issues, in addition to lesson planning, grading, delivering lessons, and conferencing with kids. I know a science teacher who is putting together lab supplies each week for one student in each of her classes and then driving those supplies around town so that each week, on rotation, there’s a student who is actually doing the lab. I know another teacher who, before the start of school, drove around to each child’s home, with a poster and a big-smile welcome to third grade. There’s another teacher who does scavenger hunts with different themes to get her little ones up and moving a bit instead of being glued to the screen. Teachers are taping their lessons to increase access and answering emails late into the night from confused students and worried parents. Every teacher I know is trying to connect with their kids and make sure each and every child has the tools to learn. The creativity is astounding.

There is a lot of concern, from teachers and parents, about the social-emotional well-being of our kids. None of this is natural. Every teacher I know would rather be in their classrooms, with their kids. While online learning allows everyone to be safer from the virus, the isolation is worrisome and the learning more challenging. I don’t know how I’d manage this new world of education. I miss the classroom with all my heart but I find myself grateful that luck timed my retirement just right. I don’t know if I would have been gracious about feeling like a first-year teacher all over again with all the new technology I’d have to learn.

A couple of weeks before school was about to start in the district where I worked (and still live), I got a call from a former colleague. She’s a young teacher and we were friends on campus, but I hadn’t talked to her in a long while. I was curious as to why she was reaching out.

She was nervous and lost. They were still figuring out schedules and curriculum. She didn’t have her class list yet. What would I do? What lesson would I start with? So many questions. I realized, as we spoke, that she was reaching out to me because everyone at school was working longer hours than ever, pushed to maximum tilt. I don’t think she felt like she could burden them with her doubts and worries.

I realized that I finally had a small way to help in these troubled times. We talked for a bit about curriculum, the lessons she loved, and how she might adapt them for a Zoom platform. At the end, I asked her to remember why she went into teaching. I asked her to think about her fondest memories in the classroom. All of that centered on her relationship with the kids, the camaraderie and the bantering, the raucous laughter and the tender moments of sharing -- how the learning happened because of all that.

I reminded her that kids are resilient. I suggested that right now, in the middle of a pandemic, she should do her best to deliver quality instruction -- but that at the end of the day, she really just needed to focus on loving her kids and building those relationships. Day by day. Student by student. The learning will happen; the kids will be alright.

However, the challenges we face right now as a country, as a society, are enormous. Everyone is being pushed and tested. Where is the leadership? At the national level, the Department of Education seems more intent on bolstering private and religious education than it does protecting public education. Public education is rooted in the constitutional idea that all *men* are created equal (I hope we can agree that should read “all humans” are created equal). How do you ensure equality if there is no guidance from the top? Betsy DeVos has been stunningly quiet when it comes to protecting our children, when it comes to educating everyone.

That lack of leadership from the top has sent a very clear message that each state and, in turn, each district is on their own. Rather than any demand to rely on science, states and districts have been at the mercy of political pressure. Depending on where you live and the politics embroiled at your state and local level, your schools may be back this fall in all manner of ways. Maybe your kids are back, in person, full time, with no changes. Maybe your kids are back, full time, online. Maybe your district has created a hybrid model of sorts. In the end, it’s wise to ask about the role science played in making these decisions. Were all stakeholders at the decision-making table -- not just parents, but teachers and students as well?

What about curriculum and lesson-planning? As we imagine a new world of online education, even just for the time being, where is the leadership on that? Right now, the publishing industry is scrambling to provide instructional materials suited to online learning, and online tutoring services are out in front reaching out to districts and families, but it’s the teachers in the trenches who can best tell you what works and what doesn’t. They’re the ones who can tell you whether the assessments they used to give in the classroom can be administered with any success virtually, whether a particular textbook series is accessible, and whether or not their kids are learning. Teachers know.

Therefore, teachers need to be at every level of decision-making when it comes to meeting the educational needs of children. That means that the Secretary of Education at the Federal level should have their credential and have been in the classroom. In my mind, it also means that every State Superintendent of Ed should have been a teacher first. And I firmly believe that every Board of Ed should have at least one former teacher who understands the classroom because they were there and know what needs to be done. Teachers can demonstrate the kind of leadership that is so sorely lacking today.

As far as reopening this fall went, my local district decided early-on that it would start the year online and each month would re-evaluate the science and the data. The state of California shortly thereafter required that all our public schools start virtually. Our California State University system just announced that moving forward, virtually all classes will be online. CSU explained, wisely, that it would be much easier to transition back to in-person learning if the data supports it than it would be to shove everyone back to virtual learning. Rather than bowing to public and political pressure, my local district, the state of California, and the CSU decisions seem to have been made to protect the health of our communities. We only need to look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to know this is the right decision, even if it’s not perfect. And if you ask any teacher, student, or parent -- it’s not perfect, but it IS keeping everyone much safer during this pandemic.

Moving forward will be challenging, no doubt. As a society, we need to figure out how to ensure educational equity and justice because far too many kids don’t have an adequate learning environment. We need educational leadership at every level. While education isn’t a “profit” center, it is at the center of everything we do. Once this virus is behind us, I hope we find the resolve and the political will to address education as the vital growth issue that it is.

Barbara is a retired school teacher in California. She is married to a wonderful husband along with two very beautiful grown daughters and has an adorable dog name Kirby.

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