By Kevin Scott
I’m a teacher. Simply writing that statement feels refreshing and comfortable, yet it’s an identity to which I only recently returned. I taught 7th graders in the early 2000s. My first year of teaching U.S. history included trying to explain the election of 2000 and Bush v. Gore. My second year began with 9/11, and my third included the D.C. Sniper, which forced every kid in the D.C. metro area to stay indoors for the entire fall. No sports, no P.E., no riding bikes—just fear. I stayed in the classroom until 2007 when I took my experiences to a national education organization to use what I knew in a new environment. If I’m being honest, I was burned out and had two young sons who wanted to know why their dad wasn’t at their preschool’s “Donuts with Dad” or the end of year graduation lunch with the rest of the parents in their class.
After more than a decade away from the classroom and several different stops in non-profit education associations, I felt a pull back into working with middle schoolers again. An opportunity came to me that I couldn’t pass up, so in August of 2020, I returned to teaching U.S. history in the same middle school where I started in the early 2000s. Actually, I returned to teaching middle schoolers U.S. history from a card table in my basement, in 80-minute blocks of time.
“Wow, you really went back…now?” is the most common reaction I get. “Yup, we’re all first-year teachers this year,” was my response to most friends and family members. In many ways, the shift to remote instruction leveled the playing field; it was a new ballgame for everyone. Ask any teacher and they’ll tell you about the struggle with virtual teaching: the re-planning, the changes from the norm, and then more changes to schedules, policies, and more changes again. We share stories of epic technology fails, chaos in the background when students unmute their mic or turn on their video, and the anxiety of knowing that parents are listening to us teach—perhaps waiting to pounce on something we say. And it’s all being recorded, as well. This made teaching the election of 2020 and the events from November to January much tougher, as I walked the tightrope of exploring the historical significance of what was unfolding with students while dreading uninvited parent interactions that could unbalance the discussion. Talking about January 6 virtually was especially difficult. In a classroom, there’s an energy I can gauge, knowing which way a discussion is going and how to manage or redirect it as needed. But in the virtual world, the chat box lights up without notice and something inflammatory or biased appears without warning. Redirecting the conversation while fifteen kids are posting their stream of consciousness or parroting what they read on Twitter isn’t the same as facilitating an in-class discussion with everyone in the same room.
In March we returned to in-person instruction, but with many students opting to remain remote. That means I am concurrently teaching up to fourteen students in the classroom with the other half of the class online. In some classes I have two kids in front of me and more than twenty at home, which is even harder. Students remain far apart and we can’t move desks around to create groups or use common teacher techniques like “think, pair, share,” for example. In many ways, the classroom resembles 1961 with rows of desks and a more teacher-centered style than I prefer. For years, I attended conferences where I heard educational experts say, “teachers shouldn’t be the sage on the stage”—but as hard as I try, that’s exactly what I am now. I’m trapped in my corner of the room so the kids at home can see and hear me through the camera/mic on my laptop, while the students at school can’t get within six feet of me. And all of this is while wearing a mask; everything I say is muffled like a jazz trumpet.
Despite these challenges, my students who are in the classroom seem mostly happy to be back in school. I say “mostly” because I can’t really see if they’re smiling at my bad teacher jokes. Or if they’re yawning. I can’t read their expressions at all and I certainly miss being able to read lips when they’re talking to me from thirty feet away through a mask. They tell me it’s weird but they’d rather be in school than at home all the time. Learning their names and faces is difficult; the photos I have in our attendance system are from the beginning of last school year, and I can only see a portion of their face behind the mask anyway.
As the spring wears on, thoughts of the fall start to pop up. District officials have already announced we will be in person for five days a week. I can’t help but wonder what that will look like and how it might work logistically (or not). I think back to my years with the education groups that focused on professional development and the problems educators were facing then. Is our goal just to Make Education Great Again—that is, return to the pre-2020 version of normal? It’s not as if the 2018-2019 school year was a picture of perfection. The challenges of inequities were certainly there and have only become tougher to tackle. The “digital divide” is more pronounced, as are teacher stress levels. The need for social emotional learning is greater than ever, and the focus on data (testing) has not abated. These were all problems we hadn’t solved before the COVID-19 pandemic began to take lives. The added trauma of the pandemic and the growing social tensions of the last year will add another layer of challenges as we return to physical classrooms. I wonder if we are mistakenly nostalgic for the “before” times, forgetting that they were far from perfect.
There were some advantages to conducting school online. We learned that when teaching remotely, we can plan and grade student work virtually. We can have meetings from home without trudging all over the county to go to an in-service professional development workshop. We don’t need to wrestle giant poster projects from school to home, hoping it’s not too windy in the parking lot as parts of the project fly away in the breeze. Whether online or in person, we can learn from students when we struggle, just like they learn from us. And yes, we can still have snow days. Please keep the snow days.
I’m hopeful that we will learn from this year and walk away with an enhanced appreciation for personal interaction. I’m hopeful that more people appreciate teachers and our ability to adapt to our students, new rules, and keeping what’s best for students at the center of our practice. Finally, I’m hopeful that we don’t forget what we’ve been through and continue to have grace and gratitude for one another moving forward.
Kevin Scott is a dedicated educator who brings multiple lenses to his teaching practice. In addition to his past and current experience as a middle school teacher, he has worked with educators nationwide at ASCD and elsewhere, learning from the best about how to approach all students with a balanced, student-centered philosophy.