By the end of the first marking period in November 2020, I was supposed to be an experienced hybrid teacher, but I hadn’t yet set foot inside a brick-and-mortar classroom since the pandemic triggered my state’s first quarantine.
Looking back at my school district’s earliest plans for the opening days of the school year, both teachers and, at most, half the student body were scheduled to enter the high school building starting on the Tuesday before Labor Day. Though thin on details, our administration was clear on the goal: operating as close to business as usual (pre-pandemic) as possible.
Of course, things didn’t go to plan. But the story of how my district shifted from an in-person experience to an online format, and then, finally, to a hybrid classroom, didn’t begin after the school year started. Rather, the seeds were planted early in the summer of 2020, when the future of schooling never seemed less clear.
What follows is the first of a two-part personal history documenting my district’s ever-evolving plans to bring students and teachers back together again under the same roof.
193 Days Until the Start of Hybrid Instruction
What would the hybrid plans look like?
It is early July 2020. Having hobbled to the finish line of an unprecedented school year less than a month ago, committees were formed to game plan how, precisely, to reopen the school district’s buildings. I volunteered to become a member of one of the committees, each of which contained a mix of students, teachers, school administrators, and community members. During the first few meetings of my committee, a variety of proposals were entertained, some with more moving parts than others.
Judging from the tumultuous spring, Option A-1 (the “A” in the name stood for “all”) seemed a nonstarter for the high school: bring every student back into the building and put into place measures to mitigate the spread of the virus, such as plexiglass sneeze guards installed in front of teacher desks in all classrooms, automatic hand sanitizer dispensers placed in every hallway, air filtration machines situated in high occupancy areas, restriction of hallway traffic to one-way, temperature checks of all students and faculty upon entering the school, staggered dismissal times throughout the school day, lunch deliveries to classrooms, and a revised schedule that generally cut back on the student movement in favor of teachers traveling more through the building.
But in July, there was still not a lot known about the virus. And Option A-1 reflected that, leaving many questions unanswered, such as: How could social distancing be maintained with thousands of students roaming the building? How would classrooms be sanitized throughout the day? What if a student fell ill — where would he or she be taken? If a parent or guardian wished to keep their child at home, how would that child stay on top of the work? Suppose a cluster of people became infected — what would the next step(s) be?
Option A-2 tried to address the deficiencies in A-1. All students would attend four days of the week instead of five, with the remaining day of the school week (perhaps Wednesday or Friday) set aside for deep cleaning. Though an improvement over the previous plan, many logistical problems remained.
Bringing in all students simultaneously was asking for trouble. Option C-1 corrected for that deficiency, “cutting” the student body into halves (hence the “C” in C-1). Students would be grouped by last name: A to K and L to Z, resulting in two roughly equally-sized cohorts (there could be exceptions made to this rule in order to ensure that family members were placed in the same cohort). From there, the A-K cohort would attend high school in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, while the L-Z cohort would attend on Thursdays and Fridays. While the high school was being deep-cleaned on Wednesdays, students, from the safety of their homes, would participate in some sort of educational experience online.
There were many details left unresolved with Option C-1. Even if a cohort accounted for only half of the student body overall, that didn’t necessarily guarantee that each class period would be at fifty percent attendance on in-person school days, even if all students scheduled to attend showed up for class. For instance, a sixth-period chemistry class might disproportionately have a large number of students enrolled whose last names begin with A to K, making social distancing either difficult or impossible in the classroom. Alternatively, a third-period biology class might have a disproportionately small number of students enrolled whose last names begin with A to K, leaving the biology teacher with, for example, only two students out of twenty-six attending on Mondays and Tuesdays; on the other two in-person teaching days of the week, however, that same bio teacher would be stuck with twenty-four students in the room.
Option C-1 also didn’t specify precisely how instruction would be delivered online to students on Wednesdays, nor did it put educational plans into place for students whose parents decided to keep their progeny at home. Most tellingly, there was spirited disagreement among the committee members on the delivery of instruction for days in which regularly-attending students were designated to stay home (e.g., Thursday and Fridays for the A-K cohort). Would teachers also be responsible for delivering asynchronous instruction on those days, or would teachers only be tasked with teaching cohorts in person (e.g., for the A-K cohort, only on Mondays and Tuesdays)?
As C-1 stood then, teachers would either:
- Have to teach the content both synchronously (in-person) and asynchronously (online) in order to cover the curriculum at the same pace as they would have in a “normal” school year; or
- Have to teach the content synchronously (in-person) to students at least twice as quickly in order to cover the curriculum at the same pace as they would have in a “normal” school year.
Both scenarios clearly presented significant challenges for both teachers and students alike, above and beyond the hurdles of a “normal” school year, though anything resembling “normal” was beginning to feel like a distant memory.
Other variants of C-1 were discussed: Changing the days of the week (C-2 and C-3), and even alternating weeks (C-4) — with the A-K cohort attending school in person during the first week, and the L-Z cohort the second week — were considered.
A more radical proposal was also put on the table. Called Option B-1, it involved having both cohorts in the building four days a week but at different, non-overlapping times: A-K would attend in the morning, while L-Z would be there in the afternoon. The elimination of lunch periods was an advantage of Option B-1. But, as with the other plans, B-1 had its own disadvantages. For instance, teachers would still be exposed to the entire student body at least four days per week, despite the staggered schedules. Worse yet, teachers would have to manage twice as many class periods per day as their “traditional” schedules dictated, albeit those periods would be much shorter. Each day would be a whirlwind of activity.
Adjacent to Options B-1 and the C series were considered, such as splitting the student body into more than just two cohorts as well as late afternoon and even evening schedules.
Option O-1 (the “O” stood for online) was offered almost as an afterthought. An online experience for all students had its own downsides, among them the necessity of providing childcare for working parents and a significant curtailment of the interpersonal connection between students and teachers. From the look of things, I didn’t place much hope in the district choosing to go in this direction. I wasn’t particularly keen on the option, either, given the rather poor outcomes following my district’s first foray into distance learning this past spring.
But, as the summer wore on, virus numbers in my state rose to new heights. One of the administrators who lives in the district privately told me, “If we’re not going virtual, I’ll be pulling my kids out of the high school.”
167 Days Until the Start of Hybrid Instruction
Will a spacesuit be necessary?
Staff, parents, and students received an email from the superintendent. It read, in part,
The impending return to school has presented us with many challenges, not the least of which include balancing the safety and health of our students and staff while making sure our children continue to receive a top-flight education. After careful consideration of the many variables in play, we have decided on a hybrid reopening plan that has students split into two groups by last name: A to K and L to Z. Each group will alternate: Mondays and Tuesdays will find the A to K students in school, while the L to Z students receive remote instruction, and on Thursdays and Fridays will be the reverse.
The district’s reopening committees were now assigned a new task: fleshing out the details of this reopening plan, which was essentially Option C-1.
Not knowing the extent of the PPE my district will be supplying, I began investigating purchasing gear for my own protection. I texted James, one of my colleagues. “Face shields…worth getting one and wearing it at school?”
“Why stop there,” he replied. “Just google BioVYZR.” So, I did, and was treated to a literal spacesuit for us earthbound teachers on the screen.
“If you wear anything that over the top, you know the kids will call you out on it. ‘He looks like an astronaut and it’s not even Halloween!’ they will say, or something to that effect,” I texted James back.
“I just keep hoping that someone wakes up and realizes how crazy this all is. We need to figure out ways to improve distance learning, not try to have masses of people squashed together in an old building,” he wrote.
“Yeah, but they only install traffic lights at an intersection with a four-way stop after there’s a horrible car accident, not before,” I responded.
He replied later that day, “True enough.”
163 Days Until the Start of Hybrid Instruction
What about the students who choose to stay at home?
One of the sticking points of any hybrid plan was how, exactly, to deliver instruction to students whose parents or guardians, out of an abundance of caution, chose to keep them at home. The administrator heading my committee noted that “in a perfect world, we could record classes or show them live, but the teacher’s union might object to that.” Ultimately, all constituents had to agree on a path forward. It quickly became obvious to the committee members that not permitting a live feed from classrooms would lead to an obscene amount of extra work for teachers, who would not only have to teach in-person but also supply parallel work and activities to students learning remotely. Plus, students who chose a virtual experience over a hybrid one would no longer have four days a week of instruction from their teacher; rather, they would (presumably) be stuck with asynchronous assignments and no live interaction, day after day.
But the committee agreed that there was a way out of this problem: a webcam installed in every classroom, albeit with some restrictions on its use.
To avoid having teachers instruct both online and in-person (which is, in effect, double the amount of preparation work), and also to avoid having them teach twice as quickly, we would use a webcam for a live feed (via either Zoom or Google Meet) of each teacher for every class period during every school day. The advantages were numerous:
- Now, the A-K cohort who are in the building will be able to interact in real time with the rest of their classmates (the L-Z cohort), who are synchronously live/online, and vice versa;
- The L-Z cohort, who are not in the building, will not miss material taught to the A-K cohort, and vice versa;
- Students in the L-Z cohort can ask questions or otherwise interact, in real time, with the teacher, despite not being physically present in the same room, and vice versa;
- Any students from the A-K cohort who are absent are also able to virtually join their classes, live online, and vice versa; and
- Every class period is recorded, so L-Z cohort students who were unable to virtually attend classes from home can watch their classes at a later time (even the A-K cohort who were present physically in the classes can view the videos for later reference), and vice versa.
Disadvantages included the following:
- Every classroom would need to be equipped with a reliable webcam, and fast;
- Teachers would need to take several minutes at the beginning of each period to set up a Zoom/Google Meet session, as well as start recording it; and
- The teacher’s union might object to classes being recorded.
In reference to the third disadvantage above, a “zone” in each classroom could be designated the “recording space” — such as the front of the room — and no students physically present in the classroom would be allowed in the frame. After all, with social distancing in effect, teachers would need to be at a remove from students regardless (teachers physically circulating around the classroom, though a staple of effective teaching, would have to be banned in these pandemic times).
The two significant upsides of the so-called webcam proposal couldn’t be ignored: it permitted instructional continuity regardless of whether students were physically present in the building or not, while also dramatically lessening the preparation workload of teachers throughout the school year.
158 Days Until the Start of Hybrid Instruction
What if a student doesn’t wear a mask?
Enforcement of mask-wearing is the pressing topic at the Zoom committee meeting I attend today.
“Especially with the older kids, they have to wear the mask and the fact is teachers will just have to make sure they do,” an administrator chimes in.
In response, a teacher spits out questions rapid-fire: “Will admin back up the teachers? What kind of enforcement power will we really have? Should we call security if a kid refuses to comply? What makes you think they will all be perfect little angels when they’ve never been that way before?”
There is silence because no one knows for sure how it will all play out. We’ve never faced this situation before as a staff, or as a community. But it seems realistic to anticipate that some students might wear their masks as chin straps or take them off altogether, especially as the weeks pass and comfort levels rise. After all, teenagers’ risks of contracting the disease are especially low. (Would the contemporary teacher’s repeated admonitions to students to “Please put away your phone” now be replaced by entreaties to “Please put on your mask”? The masking up of society had been the quickest culture change in my lifetime, second only to the near-overnight adoption of cell phones.)
The details of the district’s hybrid plan remain vague and underdeveloped, with the school year set to start in a matter of weeks.
150 Days Until the Start of Hybrid Instruction
Should teachers be treated as special?
Early in the day, I texted James, arguing that we, as teachers, have to be careful not to appear “too special” to work in person, to risk our lives. What makes us so privileged, I asked him, compared to health care workers or firefighters or grocery store clerks, who were implicitly deemed expendable during this crisis?
“Look, it’s not that we’re too special to work,” James texted back. “But our job does allow for a work-at-home possibility, doesn’t it? Not ideal, I know, but safe for all involved.
“I saw a blog from a parent in another district who addressed lots of arguments for in-person teaching. The most compelling to me was this. She said she asked 50 adults in different jobs, ‘Would you attend a 45-minute meeting in a conference room with 12 other people?’ Every single one said no. But that’s what we do, multiple times a day!”
I replied, “Wishing the brain trust was as convinced as you are, but they are listening primarily to the taxpayers who are paying us teachers to do more than transmit knowledge. They are paying us to babysit, something we can’t do through Google Meet.”
“I agree,” he wrote, “the push for in-class is all about school-as-daycare. But think about what we won’t be able to do…No group work, no manipulatives, no handouts, no collecting papers. Remind me what we will get out of in-person time?”
“We’ll get COVID,” I responded.
140 Days Until the Start of Hybrid Instruction
What are the odds?
Though we were barreling toward a hybrid reopening, there were warning signs that our plans might be derailed. First, the number of people contracting the virus in my county was heading toward all-time highs. Second, rumors and rumblings on social media from concerned parents and teachers in the district were becoming too numerous to ignore. Third, though committees like mine were tasked with putting the machinations of a hybrid plan into action, there was little push from higher-ups to finish our work.
Still, as a member of one of the planning committees, I was more in the loop than most — or so I thought. One of my colleagues, Lisa, reached out to ask me about my current thinking about the upcoming school year. “Give it to me in probabilities,” she said, “and especially write details of what an average school day might look like.”
So I obliged and emailed her a list, which included these predictions:
- Chances that all high school teachers have to interact with students, in person, in the same building: >99%
- Chances that high school teachers will not be permitted to let students leave during class, except in cases of emergency: >95%
- Chances that all high school students will have lunches delivered to them in their classrooms, rather than going to the cafeteria: >95%
- Chances that the high school end-of-day dismissal is staggered in some fashion: >95%
- Chances that all high school teachers are given virtually no access to copying materials and/or are generally not permitted to hand out papers to students (worksheets, tests, etc.): >90%
- Chances that high school hallway traffic, especially during passing times, is limited to single-file travel: <50%
- Chances that all high school teachers are required to teach, either in person or online or both, during times outside of the traditional contracted time: <50%
- Chances that all high school students will be temperature checked and/or virus tested every day: <1%
Many of the items on the list, in only a day’s time, proved to be wrong, embarrassingly so. “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” Yogi Berra once said.
It’s also tough to make predictions with incomplete information, while simultaneously being kept in the dark.
139 Days Until the Start of Hybrid Instruction
Would there be a last-minute reprieve?
One of the few remaining days of summer break was disrupted by a surprise announcement courtesy of another email from the district superintendent.
Dear community members, parents, students, and staff:
After carefully weighing the options, and taking into account the rise of COVID cases in the county and the state, we have decided to proceed with a fully virtual reopening of our schools for the fall for all students. Though I realize that distance learning will present many challenges for each of you, and it is not the ideal instructional mode, it is also the safest — for students and staff alike. We still do not know enough about this virus, and the guidelines to mitigate its spread are in flux.
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and with the superintendent siding with the angels, every teacher seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief. It was like a last-minute stay of execution from the governor. The superintendent was bucking the trend of nearby school districts, many of which had planned to return to in-person instruction — and would stick with their plans as the school year commenced.
But our reprieve was not a pardon, since we were also put on notice: expect to go back to in-person instruction sometime in the second marking period at the latest. Especially if the surrounding districts were finding success with hybrid instruction, and experiencing few outbreaks or closures, then my district would likely follow suit, just as we did when other districts in the county called for a snow day and we trailed the herd-like lemmings. (Coincidently, with the advent of online instruction, snow days were likely a thing of the past.)
Teachers now had to scramble: with the start of school only one week away, figuring out how to properly use the online learning platforms, and formulating expectations for students, took top priority.
School administrators were frantic as well. They had to, at the drop of a hat, write new grading policies that made sense, revise the student handbook, and rethink how to evaluate teachers during this period of distance learning. There would be many new directives for them to formulate and disseminate — which certainly played to their strengths.
I had to rethink how to conduct my classes, and fast. Recording videos of lessons, something I had spent the summer doing in anticipation of needing greater flexibility in instructional delivery, was only the tip of the iceberg. Much work remained to be done. Planning was one thing; the execution was another.
From 138 Days Down to 64 Days Until the Start of Hybrid Instruction
Do administrators purposely not answer their emails?
All is quiet. Teachers and students adapt and adjust to their online classrooms, and they go about their business while settling into a routine.
Instead of Wednesdays or Fridays, Mondays are chosen for weekly meetings and teacher collaboration time. The remainder of the week sees us cycle twice through two full eight-period school days.
There are issues, of course, centering on technology and grading practices. But it turns out to be the lack of face-to-face communication that caused me the most trouble during this interregnum.
With the social-emotional cues that come with speaking to someone in person, a virtual medium —i.e., the school conducted entirely online— was never going to match up.
To compensate, I encouraged my students to email me at any time throughout the day, not just during school hours, if they had a question or concern — and I gave them my solemn oath that I would answer their communication with one of my own posthaste. Even if a student had a request that I either wasn’t able or was unwilling to grant, I made sure to relay that message to them regardless. I also explicitly made the same promise to parents: I won’t leave you hanging; I’ll always reply. And if any of my fellow staff members shot me a message, I’d make it a priority to get back to them in a matter of two hours or less. In my view, this emphasis on timely responses to electronic communication wasn’t something to commend; rather, it was the minimum expectation of a professional during a time of the pandemic, when electronic communication was all we had.
Not everyone else working at the school held him- or herself to those same standards, however. Nor were they required to, since my expectations were very much my own. Others chose to travel along different paths.
Teachers at my school have long joked, “There’s no point in sending an email to an administrator because you won’t receive an answer.” It was all about CYA, apparently; in order to protect themselves, the conventional wisdom went, administrators, refrained from putting anything in writing in response to questions from teachers. (Of course, if teachers received emails from administrators, then we had to respond as quickly as possible, lest we suffer the consequences.)
Not wanting to test the theory, I made it a point to avoid sending unsolicited messages to my administrators; if I had any requests, I’d approach them in person directly. That usually worked well for me. But without the benefit of human-to-human contact during the pandemic, I’d been relegated to employing a virtual medium for everything.
I avoided sending the email as long as I could, but I finally caved: I had run out of options and out of time, and the request had to be made. Never mind what it was or what it entailed; that’s immaterial to the following discussion. But the request was both warranted and modest — no, it was trivial. It required precisely zero skin off an administrator’s back. Moreover, I had never made such a request before, either to the administrator I sent the email to nor to anyone in my school’s leadership hierarchy. In fact, I had never even sent an email to this administrator — let’s call him Administrator X— before, in his short time working at my school. He had never sent me an email, either.
The missive I dashed off to Administrator X, a tall, lanky, young man (he had only recently celebrated his twenty-ninth birthday) with a cherubic face counterpointed by a prominent chevron mustache and long, slicked jet-black hair, included a link to a Google Doc: a standard-issue form that I was required to fill out and submit.
Three days passed, but I hadn’t yet received an answer. I felt like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense: attempting to communicate to passersby, with no one responding back. But then I looked at the statistics of the Doc, and it showed two unique viewers: me, of course, and also Administrator X, who viewed the document the day I sent him the email. I literally sunk in my chair when I saw that, my body slumping in defeat while my stomach lodged itself in my throat.
Two weeks passed with no response. Perhaps Administrator X didn’t answer because he feared blowback on my part; maybe he didn’t want to engage in a back-and-forth involving why, exactly, he had to (presumably) turn down my request. More optimistically, perhaps he had put off his decision until a later date, when he could compose a well-worded response, carefully explaining his reasoning to me. So I decided to send a followup, alleviating him of that potential concern.
Just writing you a quick follow-up. I was hoping you could please let me know what your decision is regarding [the request]. No matter what you decide, I appreciate you taking the time to consider this request. Thank you.
A day passed. Then two days. Then three. Still no answer. There could be no more debate: Administrator X was clearly ignoring me. If the medium is the message, then Administrator X couldn’t have been clearer: he wanted no part of me or my trivial request. I was out of sight, out of mind.
Of all the struggles I’ve had during distance learning — technology frustrations, lesson plan rewrites, grading challenges — none depressed me more, or made me feel smaller and more insignificant than this incident. It turns out that a virtual staff is an isolated staff, and the half-life for just “getting over it” extends much longer for me these days. When teaching online, weep, and you weep alone, with no one else to relay your troubles to or decompress with.
I briefly considered writing Administrator X yet another follow-up email but decided that would be one too many — and even possibly transform his view of me now, which might be akin to an annoying gnat to be swatted away with the press of a “Delete” key, into a malevolent, destructive presence that had to be put down.
I also considered asking another administrator at the school, whom I consider a friend (we once shared a classroom), for his take on the situation. But, I realized, that would put my friend in an uncomfortable or even untenable position, since he technically reported directly to Administrator X.
Thus, there was no recourse for me. Administrator X had the last word — so to speak — on the request, and his silence was the stamp of disapproval. Nothing quite hurts like being ignored.
Yet it still didn’t square with me. Administrator X is a buoyant, jovial presence in person; he’d never failed to say hello to staff members when they walked past him in the hallways, and would always do so with a skip in his step. He would vigorously shake our hands. He would ask in his distinctly Texas twang, with a wide grin his mustache failed to conceal, “How’re y’all doing?” whenever he saw not just me, but everyone, student and teacher and parent and maintenance employee alike. He addressed everyone formally, never employing first names and always using appropriate honorifics (mister, missus, doctor, and so on). And he always spoke, in person at meetings and even in mass communications via email, of how he much he “cared about us all.” Variations of that vague pronouncement — of claiming to “care about us all” — were more than a verbal tic. They were his brand.
Administrator X’s EQ was clearly through the roof. Before the pandemic, he had visited my brick-and-mortar classroom several times, writing positive comments and seemingly thoughtful, and remarkably fair, critiques.
But after this incident, I started reflecting more deeply about his interactions with staff, and several new memories bubbled to the surface. I recalled a Monday meeting on Zoom, just a few weeks before I sent my ill-fated request, when a teacher asked him, “Did you get my email about that student?” He responded, “Oh no, Ms. Bennett, I definitely didn’t, please send it again, thank you!” I also remembered other similar clipped conversations during in-person faculty meetings, where, when questioned, he would quickly pivot with a nod and a smile and then redirect the conversation. I remember him offering big-picture promises and lovingly kind comments and inspirational talk to faculty, but also a demonstrable lack of interest in the details and the hard work.
I also recalled my friend, another administrator in the school, confiding to me around a year ago, when life was still blissfully normal: “Administrator X delegates everything. I don’t want to say he’s lazy, but I’ve never worked harder at this job, and I’ve been working myself to the bone.”
Administrator X was a silver-tongued devil, I sadly concluded. Viewed in this harsh light, the seeming praise he gave to my teaching in the past now seemed to drip with a generous helping of sarcasm. I simply hadn’t read his critical comments with the correct perspective before, like looking at Rubin’s vase optical illusion and only seeing two vases when there were also two women present as well, staring daggers at each other.
Even as I write these words several months removed from the incident, I still struggle to find the meaning behind Administrator X slighting me. My feelings were hurt, I had knots in my stomach for a week, and my search for clues to explain why he didn’t respond to my emails made me feel like I was still an awkward teenager trying to divine why I had been rejected by my latest crush. In that vein, maybe I should consult the book He’s Just Not That Into You to get to the bottom of Administrator X’s behavior — and, more importantly, to make peace with it and move on: with a little less faith in humanity (and school administrators) but wiser to the ways of the world.
In the final analysis, I guess he didn’t care that much about me after all.
63 Days Until the Start of Hybrid Instruction
Will the marking period end in peace or in pieces?
Presidential elections always stoke the passions. In the United States, at least, everyone is expected to join a team.
Teachers and administrators, no matter the professional caps they wear around students, are not immune to losing their heads when politics is at issue.
An in-class incident at the high school occurring shortly after the 2016 election— an incident that aroused the community’s ire and was debated seemingly endlessly thereafter — resulted in the administration putting a number of social-emotional safeguards in place.
Despite the precautions taken, however, on this last day of the first marking period, mere hours after the polls closed in the November 2020 election, we teachers again found ourselves in media res, very worried that history would repeat itself.
To quell our fears, a Zoom faculty meeting was held early in the morning, prior to the start of the school day. Emotions were at a fevered pitch. A grizzled thirty-year veteran teacher, Connor, who had thick sideburns framing oversized glasses perched atop a roman nose, was especially agitated that morning; he seemed like he was itching to start a (virtual) political debate, one that might quickly devolve into a session of mudslinging.
Connor had no fear: he was outspoken with his opinions, from the latest administrative directives to the most minor of proposed changes to a final exam. In fact, he seemed to have strong opinions on everything, and fellow faculty were accustomed to his over-the-top public delivery of them, so much so that they tuned him out a good two-thirds of the time, dismissing his oft-times extreme views as just “Connor being Connor,” our resident crazy uncle blowing off steam.
If you were in dire straits, you could count on Connor: he would give you the shirt off his back if need be. No one was more helpful, or more considerate. And no one could be more polite if the planets aligned.
Connor had a good heart, but he also had a short temper. Oftentimes, he assumed an aggressive, on-edge mien. Occasionally, he would be abrasive or even bullying toward colleagues; for instance, he once publicly accused another teacher on his course team of being an “unrepentant bald-faced liar.” Though he was unquestionably a great teacher, there were even more egregious examples of this sort of unprofessional conduct, behavior that he had somehow managed to normalize (at least for himself) simply because despite his actions, he had always lived to fight another day. I doubt other more reserved, cautious teachers could suddenly “explode” as he has on colleagues; that kind of conduct, par for the course for Connor, would be too much of an aberration for others to survive professionally.
The morning after the election, we were offered a “safe space” to air our thoughts and fears, all in preparation for meeting with students later that day in order to facilitate a discussion about the election. Facilitating that discussion was an administrative directive: all teachers had an obligation to devote time in each of their classes to allow students to speak in an open forum. First, however, teachers had to attend their respective breakout meetings to brainstorm pedagogical strategies.
Connor was in my breakout room. Our meeting turned ugly rather quickly. After several teachers spoke of their frazzled nerves as state recounts got underway, Connor teed up to speak. “I am so scared for my life right now! I can’t believe people that I thought I knew voted for that guy! I want to move to another country, but no one will take me in because I’m an American. This is an unsafe place, an unsafe place! This country is falling apart at the seams! If any of you in here voted for *****, well then **** you, I don’t care what you think about anything anymore.” It was completely predictable: he was a raging bull in the “safe space” of a virtual china shop.
We, attendees, were silent for a moment, but then the next teacher spoke, calmly, methodically, and acted as if Connor hadn’t just verbally lashed out at other adults in the Zoom room because of their political inclinations; after all, this wasn’t his first rodeo, nor was it ours. And nothing more was said of his outburst. In fact, the next week, after the dust had settled and the political environment stabilized (to some degree), Connor was again a paragon of placidity at the weekly departmental meeting, quick to offer his opinions on major items of business and sundry.
Life was back to normal. Or, at least, pandemic-normal.
During this last day of the marking period, I reflected on how far we had come.
Though it was far perfect, high school faculty, staff, and students had managed to make online instruction — the work in progress that it still was — a quasi-suitable replacement for the real thing. I recalled how most teachers were reticent at first to show their faces and the insides of their homes to students on-screen, but now didn’t give a second thought to switching on their webcams.
On a good day, I found myself thinking, “Though I would have never actively chosen this option, and I don’t like the reliance on tech, maybe it’s not so bad. I don’t have a commute, I can teach in my pajama pants if I want to (I don’t), and, best of all, I’m not exposing myself daily to a deadly virus.” I woke up one day to find, rather unexpectedly and in spite of myself, that I had adjusted to this new way of life.
In a pandemic, I realized, virtual teaching is the worst form of instruction, except for all the others. And, quite frankly, I didn’t miss the sidebar conversations, the crosstalk, and the need to shush students repeatedly during a typical in-person class period.
As I relaxed in my home, unexpectedly happy and content, I also waited for the other shoe to drop, as I knew it would.
Stay tuned for Part II of the hybrid countdown, in which a schoolwide faculty meeting goes off the rails, the school board votes on a hybrid plan, and an instance of hate disrupts an otherwise peaceful online classroom.