That which doesn’t kill you…

And it’s done.

I wanted to make sure I wrote this as soon as I could, because as time passes, things will look differently.

This has been the worst academic year in my 25+ year career. People would ask “How are you doing?” and my response would always be “Well, it’s a pandemic, you know…”

The school moved to semesters, and I was given three different courses (as well as a weekly club and in November, a 3x week extracurricular and. new this year, weekly lunch duty). We had three cohorts (two who flipped day-by-day and a third remote-only, the latter which grew and shrank on a daily basis as students & parents chose to be remote-only or not) and taught the same schedule each day. The latter meant that my Grade 11 class had last period every day, and you could tell; many of them had phys-ed third period, which meant they came in tired already.

The physical arrangements, from a medical perspective, were excellent — there was plexiglass and tape delimiting student & teacher areas. There were anti-viral wipes every class, beginning and end (I introduced my Grade 11s to worker-health-and-safety as we worked our way through the official Material Safety Data Sheet for those wipes after there was a conspiracy theory that they were bleaching people’s clothes. They were not.) Although my classes were some of the largest I’ve ever had, less than half were in the physical classroom at any time so they were well-distributed with set-in-concrete seating plans. There were only 6 reported cases at my school over the 4 month period so we appeared to avoid symptomatic spread. There was a daily screening of everybody before they arrived at school (which had its own personal information & privacy issues, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The department office was problematic; it had little ventilation, the door was often closed and the room overly warm (for my preference) so during my prep period I tended to work in my car.

As a school, we were well prepared technologically for this hybrid simultaneous remote-F2F teaching — with everything in OneNote and everyone having a Surface device — digital ink meant we didn’t have to worry about paper or pictures or PDFs — the content and student work was easily created and distributed. However, the process of teaching and learning was, well, problematic. Everything hybrid (juggling F2F & remote simultaneously) meant everything took twice as long to prepare for, to do, and to assess. Just taking attendance was a constant struggle. (“Oh, Tim, you’re now remote only?”, “Jane, you came online 10 minutes late, that’s why your parents got an email, sorry, we were discussing a problem and didn’t see you come online after I did attendance…” etc)

There was no time, and little energy. I would come home and work for 3-4 hours and then try to get some exercise, fall in bed and repeat the next day. I would reach Thursday and I would be out of energy; I remember putting my feet on the floor coming out of bed Friday mornings and praying that I’d find the strength to make it through the day. Three preps meant a lot of work trying to find ways for students to develop understanding that were completely different than what I’d spend 3 decades thinking deeply about. Friday nights and Saturdays I mostly slept and took care of home things, and then Sunday afternoon & evenings were for prep. Feedback to students was minimal compared to a regular year; there was no time to engage a lot with their work.

I used a lot of self-checking materials to help students. DeltaMath and Desmos activities, and OneNote/Microsoft Whiteboard content that gave them feedback on their work as they did it helped to make up for the lack of my own feedback. When I think of how much feedback they would get when working up on whiteboards in a regular class… Breakout rooms and Microsoft Whiteboard/OneNote, as best-of-alternatives still don’t compare to groupwork on a whiteboard.

My students were incredible — they worked very hard (okay, there’s always a distribution on effort and some kids were on the opposite tail) and kept their positivity up through most of it — okay, that’s a bit of rose-coloured glasses. There were tears and students were often challenged by all the stresses they had to encounter. But we got through it, mostly. In particular, my grade 9 and 10 classes impressed me with their participation — for coming new into the school, the grade 9 students were a complete surprise. Compared to last year, I was working with twice the number of Grade 9 and I really enjoyed learning with them.

One thing I did do was encouraged students to ask questions any time — using Teams Chat they would message me after class and I wanted to make sure they stayed connected with the class and the content when it worked for them. Students who took advantage of it did very well (students who never asked a question for the most part did not). It did mean a lot of interruptions throughout the evening & weekend but given the dis-connected construction of the classroom, I felt it was important and necessary. Since we have to book our gym time ahead, I would often be at the gym in the evenings, swiping furiously on my phone answering student questions in the evening as students asked about quadratic word problems, or equations of lines.

I seldom saw any of my colleagues and any kind of pedagogical discussion was limited to brief discussions of tests and pacing. There was no time and little energy to expend. For some reason, my school decided to dedicate a week to “Imagining the School of the Future” or something like that — I hid the Team and deleted the emails. I was barely keeping going day-to-day and the thought of giving a meaningful response to such a deep question was just overwhelming. The school also decided to implement a new LMS and a new student information system in September, which meant entering the same information into three different systems until we managed to work out something more reasonable. There were times I questioned the tone-deafness of emails sent down from above but I tried to ignore them and keep going. Whenever any head or director asked how things were going, I always replied “I’m struggling” and they seemed okay with that response.

I worried a lot about my colleagues. There was only me at home but folks with kids had to juggle everything with them, too, along with the academic responsibilities. We had a new colleague join us and the ramping up was painful to watch on her. And then when their kids would get sick and they would have to stay home — which meant that the teacher had to teach from home, look after the kid and keep up with everything else, too. (I pulled my back one weekend and had to teach from home one day — it ended up more work than rest and so I just went to school the next day and suffered through it). I could at least collapse into bed and not worry about anybody else; they had to make sure their kids were safe, secure and happy.

I was absent on Twitter and Facebook and here blogging. There was no time and little energy. The worst night was when I was working on setting a test and I fell asleep at my desk — I woke up when my phone dinged with a student question. I remember writing up a problem situation and the next thing I knew I was sitting up in my chair with a start when the phone went off. (That said, I did fall asleep in my car during my prep a few times, too, but I had reclined my seat and set my alarm — there’s a difference between a nap and spontaneous sleeping.) I don’t know how I kept my emotions in check during the day but they certainly came out on the drive and in the privacy of my own home.

I saw my family once, at Canadian Thanksgiving in October. The concept of “bubble” was out the window once I started teaching so I kept away from my mom (elderly and immuno-comprimised) except for that one patio-dinner at a restaurant. Christmas is still in question, since we’ll only have a week between my last day teaching and the 25th; I’m not sure how comfortable I feel. As a single person, the house gets quiet and lonely even with all the technological access to the outside world. Alexa has turned out to be the conversation I often need.

I will look back at this like all the challenging episodes in life and both learn from it, forget much of it and remember the successes. We finished yesterday at 4 and I went to bed at 9 and have had a good night’s sleep and the future looks brighter. There are vaccines on the way, I only have 1 prep for two courses next semester, and I lived through this. I didn’t die, and that is a pleasant surprise.

I recognize that my situation was challenging from my perspective. I had enough food to eat (too much, in fact; it’s a way of coping). I had my job, so there was money. I never got sick. Believe me, I count my blessings every day, too.

Cal Armstrong
Cal Armstrong
Articles: 223

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