Teaching During the Pandemic Has Filled Me with More Purpose Than Ever
By Skylar Primm, 6–12 Environmental Educator
This is my eleventh year of teaching. I’ve never been much of a “traditional” teacher, having spent all of those eleven years at teacher-led, student-focused schools with project-based learning curricula. Nevertheless, I’ve spent the last several months in the same circumstances as the vast majority of educators across the country, if not the world. Remote teaching, or as I’ve seen it referred to more accurately elsewhere, “emergency pandemic teaching,” is a struggle that all of us are muddling through together. I think that we owe it to ourselves, our students, and educators of the future to document what we are experiencing and learning at this time, so that everyone can benefit from a better-prepared system, both on- and off-campus.
Thinking back to February, during a normal, pre-pandemic school week, I would be facilitating morning advisory circles, teaching a mini-lesson for a math skill, conferencing with students about their projects, helping students with independent math work, and maybe watching a student presentation or two. On Thursday, I would be driving the school bus to and from our weekly place-based field experience, where students would be getting their hands in the literal dirt somewhere, perhaps at one of our school forests or local natural areas.
Needless to say, lately, these last few months have been far from normal.
Thankfully, our school’s project-based curriculum has been relatively straightforward to transition online. In these months of remote teaching, I have continued virtually facilitating morning circles, teaching mini-lessons in math, and conferencing with students about their lives and academics. I have also watched a number of virtual student presentations, which we have been able to record and share with our school community. I may not be driving a bus, but students are still receiving lessons that call for traveling outside to explore nature and environmental education topics (while maintaining safe social distancing, of course).
My favorite part of remote teaching comes in 15-minute bursts.
When I confer with my students, I feel like I am fulfilling my purpose as a teacher.
I always open these virtual meetings with a chat about how things are going outside of academics. Sometimes, they need advice. Sometimes, they need a bit of an academic push. Sometimes, they simply need to talk about their lives and have someone listen.
The bedrock underlying everything we do at school is, in a word, relationships. This remains true whether we are in the same room together or interacting exclusively through our screens.
My students also have strong relationships with one another, which has helped when I’ve had one or more drop off of my radar. I am usually able to leverage their social network to check into whether the student is safe and if they need any specific support.
Being flexible and adaptable to student needs is also vital. About a third of my students usually appear on camera when conferring with me. About half sign in only with audio. And a handful prefer to just “meet” via text chat. Students’ preferences and comfort levels with communicating on camera, over audio, or through text can vary from day to day, and even moment to moment, and I am careful to mind this when I am trying to connect. (Their reasons don’t matter — I am not a “trauma detective,” as the educator Alex Shevrin Venet has taught me.)
I’ve also found flexibility to be important when dealing with the technology that facilitates remote teaching. I have a fair amount of control over my own computer and internet connection, but my students generally have far less. Sometimes, their microphones don’t work or their wireless connection drops out. Sometimes, they oversleep or forget about our meeting. I try to always assume good intentions and trust that whatever else they have going on is probably more important in that moment than meeting with me. We can always reschedule our meetings, but they can’t reschedule their lives.
I recently managed to completely forget about a student’s meeting that was on my calendar. Because I’ve treated them with grace and respect when they have done the same, they treated me with grace and respect as well. I really wanted to beat myself up over that mistake, but we educators need to be graceful with ourselves and practice self-care. Remote teaching is draining, and the persistent trauma of the pandemic only adds to our exhaustion.
It’s easy to be “always-on” when one’s home becomes one’s classroom, so I’ve had to learn to set boundaries on my time. During most lunch breaks, I move to the couch or the bedroom and read a book. When the school day is over, I take the dog for a walk, putting some metaphorical and physical space between myself and my work. And, all day long, I stay hydrated. It’s a bit of a cliche, but that makes it no less true. Drink more water. Your brain and body will appreciate it.
At some point, we’re going to be back in our real classrooms. I dearly hope that this happens sooner rather than later, but regardless of the timing these are a few lessons from remote teaching that I think we should be bringing with us:
- Relationships are central to everything we do, and should come first in our planning and our practice. Our classrooms should be communities that lift each other up.
- Flexibility is necessary when working with human beings as well as technology. Both are unpredictable and benefit from grace, humility, and patience.
- Self-care can take many forms, but it’s key to a sustainable career in teaching, online or off.
These lessons will also benefit us when (unfortunately, I don’t think it’s an “if”) we are forced by circumstances to return to remote teaching. The more we practice in easy times, the better we’ll be in hard ones.
What lessons are you taking from teaching during the pandemic?
Skylar L. Primm teaches at High Marq Environmental Charter School, a project-based learning school in Montello, Wisconsin. In 2017, he was the recipient of a Herb Kohl Educational Foundation Fellowship in recognition of his teaching, leadership, and service. He currently serves on the boards of directors for the Human Restoration Project and the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education. He blogs at medium.com/@skylarp, usually for the Greater Madison Writing Project. You may contact Skylar at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To be reminded why your work is so very important and for more stories and advice, visit our collection of teacher perspectives at The Art of Teaching.