In this story from the front lines of distance learning, a high school teacher shares how she continues to support her students virtually and how they engage with her classes.

Listen: An Education Renaissance

Friday, March 13th, was an unusual day at Prairie du Chien High School. We were beginning to hear rumblings of school closures around the country as the threat of Coronavirus loomed ominously around us.

Students joked about how nice it would be to have a few weeks off of school, and teachers gave assignments with the caveat of “if we’re here next week…” By the end of the day, the high school rumor mills were whirring full-speed, and our administration held an all-school assembly to set everyone straight.

Our administration told students, “as of now we have no plans to close.” But we asked students to take home all textbooks, schoolwork, and devices that would be necessary if we did not return as planned. With a heaviness in the air, the final bell rang to dismiss students for the weekend. Tupperware stacked in lockers were hauled home, students struggled to bear the weight of their stacks of books, and teachers spent a little extra time tidying our classrooms.

I received the update only a couple hours later while driving home: Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers mandated all schools close their doors from March 19 until April 6. It wasn’t unexpected news, and yet it still felt shocking. 

The following Monday morning, my colleagues and I sat together in our auditorium looking up to our principal for guidance, just as our students had only three days earlier. We spent the day setting up virtual classrooms on platforms that were entirely new to some of us. I helped one colleague transfer documents from his desktop into Google Classroom, then spent the afternoon bookmarking, scanning, and saving readings for my students to access from home.

I have been teaching at Prairie du Chien High School for seven years. As I’ve gotten to know more and more students, I’ve developed a strong rapport with many of them that grows stronger throughout their years in high school. I never expected that mid-March, our year together would end so prematurely and painfully.

Prior to the pandemic, the students with whom I spent the most time and had the most candid conversations was a group of ten seniors. They ate lunch in my classroom every day—the ten of them in a semi-circle around my desk. We celebrated college acceptances in the fall, and they expressed their anxiety about the cost of tuition in the spring. I proofread their scholarship applications and proudly signed letters of recommendation. 

For the past eight weeks, I’ve been so grateful for those relationships because I know that my students and I are all benefiting as a result. Some students consistently reach out to me through Google Hangouts just to share what they’re doing or how they’re feeling. Others send me emails in all capital letters that say things like, “GUESS WHO GOT THE SCHOLARSHIP” just so they can maintain a sense of normalcy and we can continue to celebrate their successes.

But sometimes, it’s not so positive. Sometimes these seniors are full of despair: they miss their friends, they don’t get to play one last baseball season, they’re unsure of what summer income and college money will look like if their places of employment remain closed. Some of them talk about the headaches they have from spending more time than usual on their devices. I can’t change our circumstances, but I can continue to listen and be there for these students. 

Physically, I am concerned this pandemic has had a negative effect on my younger ninth grade students. Many of my freshmen write to me about the hours they’re spending watching videos online without ever leaving their bedrooms or basements. On the other hand, some students are finding ways to embrace solitude and escape to the outdoors to find peace. I hope that as a result of this experience, my students will have learned new strategies to help cope with uncertainty and stress.

Of course, the stress of this pandemic extends far beyond what my students feel. It permeates from students to their parents and from parents to their children. Parents occasionally direct frustration back to teachers. What I think some parents have trouble recognizing is that teachers are doing what we can to maintain a semblance of normalcy in their students’ lives, and we genuinely miss their kids. The assignments we are creating are often intended to allow students to express themselves through this difficult time. 

Parents, understandably, are working through financial, emotional, and educational hardships of their own. Some are struggling to find childcare, others are concerned how to provide dinner, and many are uncertain how to motivate their children to keep up their grades when there is less accountability coming from school. 

Thankfully, there is a positive side to this new way of teaching and learning. Some of my students who dread coming to school for reasons related to bullying, social discomfort, or anxiety are thriving in an environment where they’re protected behind their screens. Nobody is comparing outfits, mocking responses, or criticizing comments online; my students who typically keep to themselves are thriving. 

Several in particular have taken this moment to shine. A student who is reluctant to share in the classroom is often the first in virtual class to submit work. The student writes insightful analyses of our discussion topics in a way that he never before shared aloud. 

Another student who has a health concern that causes her to frequently miss school is finding success in long-term projects she is able to complete when she is feeling well. Without the anxiety of attending school, she is relishing in submitting assignments and receiving positive reinforcement from me about her quality work.

Teachers were asked to transform our classrooms over the course of a weekend. We spent hours troubleshooting, making copies, downloading PDFs, and creating digital assignments so our students wouldn’t miss a beat. 

I completely changed some of my fourth term plans. My Holocaust Studies course wrote film reviews after watching a documentary I would not have had time to show in class. My ninth grade English students created artwork identifying a theme from their time at home; then they wrote “museum labels” for their pieces. Although we didn’t cover some of what I had planned for this year, I am content knowing that my students continued to embrace their worlds, write and reflect on their experiences, and have pride in the work they submitted.

I hope when my students are older and reflect on the culmination of their 2019-2020 school year, they will be able to find some benefits of the lessons they learned. Many have become significantly more independent. Some had to become babysitters for younger siblings and relatives, but learned to take charge with patience and grace. Some of my seniors talk about how much they have appreciated a slowed-down life, time to enjoy their last spring at home, and time to spend relaxing with their families. 

This pandemic generated an Education Renaissance for teachers. We had to readjust—and sometimes recreate—lessons to best reach our students. We chose to incorporate social-emotional learning standards into our teaching to make sure we were checking in on our students and that they could open up to us. We became more flexible in nearly every way possible. Can’t do your work until you help your younger siblings wake up and eat breakfast? No problem, work when you have time. No internet at home? We’ll have hard copies in the high school foyer. Can’t join our Zoom meetings because you’re working during the day? Just submit your response later.  

I hope that by listening compassionately, accepting flexible deadlines, and communicating frequently, my students can continue to see me as a source of strength through this unprecedented time. More importantly, I know they have developed a newfound sense of independence and strength within themselves that they can carry into their futures.