My Virtual Reality: A week in the life of teaching Distance Learning
By Denise Marsh
We are told that we are “essential” workers, but teachers are definitely a different breed. I don’t want a “super hero” award or an angry, “but it’s your job comment, I just want you to sit back, close your eyes and imagine (unless of course, you’re a teacher yourself) teaching on a computer to 19 first graders in an empty classroom. This is a true story. This is MY story.
“Why am I doing this again?” I pondered the question over and over again-so much that the sole of my soul is fatigued. I couldn’t teach my students at home with a tiny Chromebook when Palm Beach County delayed the “brick and mortar” return to school and gave us our assignment of distance learning. Our kids and educators had needed “promises of safety”. Thus, we continued to teach remotely but this time not with a flexible schedule. Instead, it was a bell to bell, mandatory schedule that would be “exactly like a regular school day”. My principal was flexible- she gave us the choice of working remotely or teaching in our empty classroom. I considered my newfound relationship with my fridge, the t.v. tantalizing me and my leggings in the next room cheering me on. They would say, “come on girl we’re here for you”. I knew my decision would be clear as day…
I adopted an extreme path and woke up for work at the ungodly hour of 5am. Keep in mind that we don’t greet the students till 7:45. But, I had to be prepared. I blamed the Capricorn in me!
The day was very, very, very, very, very long. Did I say enough “very’s? “Of course not! My breaks, which included fine arts ( Media, P.E., Art, Computers on a rotating basis) were all back to back. It was wonderful to have all that planning time and my lunch as well but the trade off was 11-2 lasting 3 years.
I understood how to use my SmartBoard (you know …that gigantic computer )…well. Sort of. I soon discovered that I should’ve paid better attention at my trainings . But ,the saying, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” was definitely appropriate here and I was definitely now the “old dog”.
Here is how it “went down”. Sixteen of my nineteen homeroom students were supposed to “show up”. I had a few M.I.A on day one, but the rest sat in those “Brady squares” ( my new term for the Google Meets squares. If you don’t know about the Brady Bunch-stop reading. Just joking!) I was TERRIFIED! I was sweating profusely. I wanted all of the power to go out All day! Suddenly I forgot how to “present” programs and still have the kids in the classroom. I got knocked off several times. I even had one kid fall asleep on screen (what a confidence builder!). I spoke loudly, well louder than usual and it sounded like I was yelling. The time it took to get to Recess (my first break) might as well have been the equivalent of waiting for a solar eclipse. How could these tiny people make me feel so insecure? How could a computer screen make me feel so inadequate? I felt my eyes burning and my head ready to explode-the stress was unfathomable! I left my Meet open, turned off my camera, muted my mic and put my head down on my desk/table contraption and cried and cried.
I came home that day and cried again. I laid in my bed that night and said,” I’m NOT going back, knowing that this could never be my reality. I opened my Chromebook to check my messages and hidden in all of the myriads of school messages was one from a parent. “Great, a parent is already complaining” I stated negatively. But the exact opposite happened. The email was from a student’s mother professing that her daughter, “was so nervous about online learning and that I made her so comfortable”. I felt hopeful.
Is it Friday yet? I whispered to my reflection in the mirror. The melatonin I took to sleep decided to kick in a few hours before my alarm went off. I tried fervently to psych myself, to think of the comment from the mom but my sleep hangover left me cranky and groggy. I stared at the SmartBoard angrily and yelled, “ I hate you!”. Then, the morning bell sounded and the “show” would begin….But, today I was more organized. I had my materials all neat and organized. Then, at recess a parent emailed me, (and I am not joking!) if I could “give more breaks or at least give the kids time to socialize”. I did a doubletake on the email and answered politely that I was not in charge of the schedule and having kids “socialize” on the meets would be difficult. The kids had already been socializing and when their mute buttons were all turned on the echo was enough to wake the dead! Note to self: no socializing and no chat (but that’s another story). And so, the lessons began. The clock ticked and the schedule moved along. My back was sore and my eyes felt heavy. I told myself that I would have to order those blue light filtering glasses when I had the money. Whenever. Sooner than later. I decided to try to use the “present”feature again and it actually worked! I felt like a dog greeting its owner, after a long day. I was doing it! At the end of the day I felt like a geriatric patient-everything hurt. I said goodbye to my students and as I was clicking off the meet one of my girls said, “ I don’t want you to go!”. The moment was definitely bittersweet and gave me that little spoonful of hope I desperately needed. “ But I will see you tomorrow and then again the day after that” I said in a happy tone. My student smiled and signed off, so I guess I gave her hope as well.
“Hump Day” or “when will this week end day?” My knees hurt and I had huge bags under my eyes-like the bags you get when you buy one of those big pillows at Macy’s. “ I can do this, I thought. But the SmartBoard smirked at me and I swear it sounded like it said, “we shall see”. Suddenly, programs decided to malfunction. There were technical glitches and blocked sites. I had messages telling me to “contact the I.T. department. I felt desperate and overwhelmed! How will I get through this day I thought to myself, biting my lip to stop from getting emotional? I was in emergency mode. No one prepared me to be a circus entertainer when I had my professional development trainings. I put on a “happy face” and mulled through the lessons. There were a few kids that never got supplies for remote learning because they were on vacation (of course, AFTER the vacation). It was NOT a great day. I felt defeated. I had even tried to play “Simon Says” with them, which by the way is extremely awkward and weird to do on a computer with “Brady squares”. When we were close to the end of our day, I wanted to teach the kids the meaning of “hallelujah”.
First graders are notorious for saying random things at inopportune moments, especially during instruction. “Can I show you my Halloween costume?” one of my girls begged during our math lesson. I replied, “if you wait till the end of the day you can show me”. That poor girl… The “end of the day” for her must’ve felt like an eternity. I was shocked by her patience and understanding. And, OF COURSE I made a big deal when she finally showed me her cheerleader costume! Another day down in the books…well, not quite. Still hours of planning to do for the next day.
One more day until Friday…Today definitely should’ve been named, “Big technology problem” day! I was even looking forward to the day…well, maybe a little. I was finally bonding with my students. I knew their quirks and their shining qualities. Thanks to Google Meet each square had a name and was in alphabetical order, although I would get dizzy trying to find out who was talking when they didn’t “raise their hands” or when I just couldn’t find them on the grid! Then, at out nowhere, there was a power surge which lasted a good 20 minutes. We literally could not do anything-not even communicate with the squares. Frustration turned into laughter. My masked colleagues were in the hall, all talking about how confused the kids would be and how this day was “shot”. But we were all in the same boat-a sinking one.
When the power resumed my kids asked, “why were you missing?” I explained the situation calmly. The sweet and unexpected thing was, they were worried about me. I guess I was their “superhero” after all. This realization got me through the rest of the day.
T.G.I.F! The Friday before the long holiday weekend made it even sweeter…Did I mention that I changed my mind about Monday being the longest day! It was INSANELY hard for the kids to focus and concentrate. I had to break up the academics constantly and wasn’t thrilled about it to say the least. I actually did a “Zumba dance for kids” video on YouTube with my kids!
Later in the day, there was a child learning from daycare having a meltdown and another child who kept showing us her puppy on the screen. It was a Friday to remember…I was also worried that the student that kept going to the bathroom all day would either forget to close the bathroom door (which was clearly in view of the camera) or bring the computer with her (let’s just say that this HAS HAPPENED before to other teachers.)
At the end of the day, I knew how Mulan had felt when she fought for her father’s honor and won. But I had no medal of bravery to show off to my audience. When the last bell rang and I said goodbye to the kids I knew that I had earned this weekend! I DID IT! We are all still alive…well…barely. But still…
The end, but really just the beginning…
Ladies and gentlemen, that was just one week! There are no “unicorns” or “rainbows” with online learning. The Facebook commercials of the happy teacher waking up and adorned with colorful pajamas waiting to greet a class on camera of perfectly attentive students is definitely a myth. The kids weren’t the only ones having the meltdowns, I had plenty myself. I also had moments of triumph and truth. But currently the greatest challenge will occur on September 21st when schools open, “ Brick and Mortar”. There will be kids still doing Distance Learning while others return to the classroom. The children will be wearing masks. I will be wearing a mask. How will I teach and monitor the kids at home while simultaneously doing the same with the kids in person”?
There may not be enough Melatonin…