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Accountability and Empathy: Where's the Balance?
I went into this year knowing online learning would be tough. I zoomed in with my equity lens and kept it sharply focused, ready to make adjustments wherever necessary to meet students’ needs.
2020 has been a stressful time for all of us and my students are no exception. Home is not safe or welcoming for many, so collapsing school and home spaces leave them no escape.
Everyday traumas do not stop in a pandemic, they only compound.
So, of course, you don’t need to join the zoom call if your internet is essentially nonexistent. Yes, I’ll take that assignment late because you were babysitting / you’re fighting with your mom / your stepdad kicked you out.
I believe my class assignments offer meaningful learning, but none of that matters if my students don’t feel valued, cared for, and safe. When we started, I was ready to model empathy above all else.
But, now, it seems like I was preparing to solve entirely the wrong problem. What about the students who have access, safety, and support and just aren’t engaging?
A Numbers Game
Five weeks in and I have an abysmal turn-in rate. For my last assignment, I gave my students 80 minutes to read 15 pages. By the end of the day, 5 of 25 were turned in.
When I saw this pattern emerge, I first reflected on what’s in my control. Am I giving them too many assignments? Is it unmanageable?
We have 100 minute periods and each class meets twice a week. Now that we’re in a bit of a rhythm, I start us together for the first 10-20 minutes, usually with a breakout room discussion to frame our essential question for the day. Then, I give them reading or writing time while I circulate between their documents and answer questions on my screen.
I’ve lowered my expectations to the basics of what I want us to accomplish, instead of trying to fill those 100 minutes with content. No one can (or should) sustain that on zoom, including me.
Here’s a typical week of assignments in my class:
- Day 1: Write one paragraph (5 sentences)
- Day 2: 15 pages of reading
- On their own anytime from Sunday to Sunday: one news article and one online grammar activity
During in-person school, we’d do at least two of those activities in one class; a 50 minute period, repeated 5 days a week. So, there’s no doubt that we have dramatically less “work” now.
However, I’m trying to shift our collective purpose away from the grueling associations of work, and more towards the personally meaningful learning. Work time and learning time don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
I designed these class assignments as reasonable to complete during that period. I usually err on the side of less, adjusting the curve for lower-level readers, because I don’t want to add undue stress or shame.
Additionally, I give them until the end of the day, rather than the period, to finish. That way, they can take a break, ask me questions later, or generally deal with life. I will also take everything late, (because, 2020) but I encourage them to use their time wisely and communicate with me as much as possible.
But, no matter how clear I am, how many times I offer my help, or how much time I give, those turn-in rates are consistent. And depressing.
Straight to the Source: Student Voice
After exhausting all logic on my end, I went into investigative mode. As the teacher in charge of our learning, I take full (perhaps too much) responsibility for how our lessons turn out.
So, I went straight to the source: my students. I didn’t want my frustration to color my interpretations, force me to make unfair assumptions, or tell stories about these learners that just aren’t true.
I asked a series of questions in a Google form about the organization of class, due dates, how they are using their class time, and if there’s anything I can do or change to help them learn.
There were a few who answered that they were confused and stressed, but none of them were surprises to me. Thanks to our wonderful counseling team and my work as the administrator for summer school, I had a heads up about these students. Those who struggle in-person school certainly aren’t going to benefit from this online model.
What’s surprising is the number of students who are simply not engaging.
The overwhelming majority said they understood my lessons, assignment directions, and purpose. Most also said, “Honestly, I’m not using my time in class well when you release us; I’m doing other stuff.” All but a few left “What can Ms. Schaake do to help you?” woefully blank.
What do I take away from this?
- I am doing everything I can do to create clear, manageable learning opportunities, and it’s working (as well as can be expected).
- My class time might be well structured, but they consciously aren’t taking advantage (You can lead a horse to water…)
- They aren’t giving me feedback on how to help and I can't read minds.
In one sense, these answers make me feel better, because they validate the work I’m doing. But, I’m also no closer to a solution. If students are just choosing not to engage, and I’m not right next to them to prod, support, and encourage, then what’s left in my power to do?It’s clear that a large number of students do not know how to “school.” I don’t mean this derogatorily. It’s just a fact. Click To Tweet
The students who are easily distracted won’t complete assignments without a teacher there to redirect them, frequently. Those who can’t organize to save their lives can’t make sense of Google Classroom. Many students haven’t realized that if they are in bed, with their Zoom cameras off, and Netflix on, they probably aren’t really focused on learning.
I don’t want to lose my empathy focus, but I’m frustrated when I am doing everything I can, and it’s not reciprocated. I’m not evening asking them to come halfway. I feel like I’m going 90% and I just need them to come the extra 10%.
I’m struggling with student accountability. When pandemic learning started last Spring, our state took on the “do no harm” approach. And I agree. I’m not talking about punishing my students who are genuinely dealing with circumstances outside their control. I will adjust for them, that’s equity.
But, what about the student who turned on his mic, just to ask his friend when they were gaming later? Or, the student who timed out, unresponsive in a breakout room when I wanted to give him one on one support to catch up? What about the girl who has a designated learning space, fast wifi, and snacks, but just forgot to do something? Every single class period?
I would argue that I am actually doing harm to those students by not holding them accountable for their learning. When I have deployed every possible tool to help them succeed, and they have no consequences for turning in things “whenever,” are they ever going to learn those skills?
I am often reminded that my content is far less important than the other lessons I teach: empathy, critical thinking, respect, open-mindedness, genuine kindness, and responsibility. Just like I would address a reading or writing gap, I need to address the “doing school” gap.
So, I’m trying to find a balance between empathy and accountability. How do I model flexibility and understanding while also telling them I expect the world of them because they are capable? How do I make adjustments but draw some firm lines to keep my sanity?
Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?