‘The biggest feeling is sadness.’ With classes canceled, teachers try to keep teaching

An empty classroom. From (c) dglimages - stock.adobe.com

It has already become a stale Facebook meme: “Homeschooling is going well. Two students suspended for fighting and one teacher fired for drinking on the job.”

A week ago it was worth a chuckle; today it more likely elicits a strained, “Tell me about it!”

Parents need to be parents, not substitute teachers or digital lesson monitors. Parents have more than enough to deal with during this pandemic which has locked many of them out of their work places and pulled the plug on their paychecks.

“It’s the new normal” has become the robo-response to most matters in these frightening days of the health epidemic infecting the world. If that is the case, I am tormented by what “the new normal” will mean for the institution that is dear to me—the public education system and its beneficiaries, the students.

As a teacher, retired and long in the tooth admittedly, I know how important one-to-one contact is for effective learning to take place; the loss of such contact is one reason I have always been opposed to cyber charter schools. Now we are facing the possibility that no-personal-contact distance teaching might need to proliferate.

Certainly teachers can prepare canned lessons or post video lectures to dispense information; however, the teaching/learning experience is so much more than echoing the right answer or marking true or false.

From a digital distance a teacher cannot see the small, tell-tale expression in the eyes of a pupil who does not quite understand what another student is saying.

An instructor sitting at a kitchen table and staring at a computer screen is unable to notice the beaming face of a young writer who has earned an “A” (or its equivalent) on an essay. FaceTiming with a student is not the same as sitting side-by-side before school with a young scholar who needs some extra help to fulfill an assignment or prepare for an exam.

A phone call from a school’s principal is not the same as a student’s being called to the school office where she learns face-to-face that she has been awarded the top prize in a national art contest.

Most teachers care about more than delivering their classroom lessons; most teachers deeply care about their students. Jennifer Schramm, a twenty-five-year music teacher at Cumberland Valley High School, the school where I spent my entire teaching career, had this to say:

“I think the biggest feeling we are all experiencing is sadness. At the heart of being a teacher are the day-to-day relationships you have with your students. I, for one, am missing them terribly. I am personally sad for the seniors of 2020. All of the special moments that they have waited so long for are in jeopardy….their prom, their final concert performances, their final sporting events, award ceremonies and even graduation.  At this point in time, we are giving our kids optional activities to keep them engaged and active. Nothing graded is allowed at this point. I expect that to change in the coming weeks.”

She continued, “I am doing my best to stay in touch with my kids just to say hello and let them know I am here for any needs they may have.”

The teachers in the Carlisle Area School District, the district in which I live, are making admirable efforts to keep in touch with their students.

The Carlisle Area Education Association has developed a public Facebook page on which they post a variety of faculty-created videos designed to maintain their relationships with their pupils.

These short pieces range from a principal telling corny jokes to an elementary teacher reading stories for youngsters to a compilation of district teachers dancing to “To Better Times” by Alder. Watch just a few of these videos, and you will see that a teacher’s job choice is not—as too many cynics often complain—June, July, and August; teachers are motivated to teach because they love their subjects and love, even more, their students.

But teachers still must teach, which presents a conundrum.

Former public school teacher Heidi Welch, Ph.D, writes in Our Teachers Are Not Okay. We Know This, And If We Don’t, We Should, “Teachers are being asked to do the impossible with little to no time. Many schools have informed teachers that they will be using remote learning activities for two or three weeks, but to be prepared for a much longer time period. Essentially, they are being asked to stop everything that was working and continue to make sure that their instruction is as good.

“They are worried about their students. Will they have food, will they be cared for and will they be ok? Will they see them again before the end of the school year? They thought so, but now it grows more uncertain. Will their students with special needs have the support that they need to be successful?”

Clearly students and teachers cannot return to their classrooms any time soon and resume business-as-usual activities; deadly health concerns obviate such an action.

We can, though, insist that our governments at all levels and our leaders take bold actions and make difficult decisions to curtail this death-bearing enemy. We can also encourage everyone to follow edicts designed to keep all of us safe.  Despite what some ill-informed people claim, this epidemic is not a hoax.

We must encourage and support our public educators to find ways to keep our students actively involved in learning. Be assured, our teachers will do whatever needs to happen for their students.

We must do whatever it takes to put our students and our teachers back in their respective classrooms so that they the pupils, our future leaders, can be prepared tackle any subsequent threats to our society and to learn from the mistakes being made during this one.

Carl Jung captures the essence of productive teacher/pupil relationships: “One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.”

Such warmth is not experienced fully through digital media or even from six feet away.

Originally published in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.