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I had extraordinarily high bookish ambitions when I realized I was going to be stuck at home for a year. As a fan of classical texts and modern classics, I had some woeful gaps in my reading resume.
I was going to read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.
I was going to read Ralph Ellison’s, Invisible Man.
I was going to attempt Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.
Proust was quickly abandoned, but Steinbeck was magnificent. One of the things I learned about Steinbeck was the Latin phrase he used to describe himself: Ad Astra Per Alia Porci – “a lumbering soul but trying to fly.” He even signed his letters with a “Pigasus” logo.
My jaw dropped when I discovered Steinbeck’s erudite attempt at self-deprecation because it perfectly captured my own feelings of teaching amidst a global pandemic.
I didn’t want to admit it, but I have felt utterly dejected at times during the first semester of this school year, thinking thoughts I was not particularly proud of. I have lumbered every single day. I have yet to soar. I know I am not alone in feeling that I am attempting to soar but with a single, wounded wing. It has led me to some dark thoughts.
Here are a few:
#1: Most Students Could Easily Put in A LOT MORE EFFORT. Yes, I know and sympathize: Zoom meetings to eternity are a dreadful way to learn, a seemingly apocalyptic academic perch from which everyone seems ready to flee. An exhaustive enumeration of every drawback of distance learning could become the stuff of a long, heady Russian novel filled with angst, spiritual anxiety, and emotional dizziness. No one thinks this is easy.
But talk to honest students and many of them will readily admit they are taking full advantage of the situation to be lazy, to gorge in their lethargy, to give minimal effort. The most common word used by my seniors these days is “unmotivated.” A lack of motivation is logical, understandable, and completely forgivable.
But it also means students are capable of giving at least a little bit more effort—a modicum, a crumb, a droplet. And what a difference this morsel of effort would make.
Look at all the reporting about the tidal wave of failing grades as we approach the end of the first semester. LA Unified has even decided to delay the ability of teachers to give failing grades. Districts are scrambling to figure out what to do. But a colossal amount of money (hundreds of millions of dollars) and effort (by thousands of school support staff) has been put into giving students home computers for free and mobile hot spots to boot. Teachers, by and large, have been infinitely forgiving of disengagement, accepting of late work, and aware of lax testing protocols. And yet, many students steadfastly refuse to turn in work. They simply will not do it. No matter how easy it is. No matter how much time is given. No matter how many varieties of grace are afforded to them.
Two decades ago, teachers often stressed diligence, organization, and responsibility in the classroom. The presence of these standards was neither to intimidate nor oppress, but to inculcate a sense of unwavering expectations, imbuing young people with a sense that real achievement required real effort, no matter the subject or grade level. This distance learning paradigm is exposing a difficult reality: swathes of young Americans with little diligence coupled with a profound lack of adult supervision is not going to end well.
In fact, it will end in both metaphorical and real failure. The numbers don’t lie.
#2: Our Teacher Friendships Are Frayed and We’re Not Sure Why. Teacher communities are wonderfully diverse. And usually, this diversity is a potent source of strength and vitality. But when we are cut off from all sense of normalcy, when our homes are not just homes but become havens for health and citadels of sanitation, we become more prickly about disagreements. And for good reason: in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic as racial tensions seem to daily expand and contract like pernicious social accordions, when infection and death numbers rise and fall without end depending on the location or season, when a contentious presidential race is more akin to a death match or mimics opposing gangs on the prison yard who seem all-too-eager to pounce at one another, we don’t find our opinionated or quirky colleagues to be as endearing. We walk around raw, easily agitated, and constantly biting our tongues. As CNN recently titled an article on their website, “The pandemic has destroyed friendships and divided families.”
#3: We Daydream About Other Careers More than We Should. Many of us think to ourselves “If this is what teaching is going to be from now on, then find me another career.” Most of us who long for a traditional class setting don’t want to see one more headline about how education “will never be the same again.” Although it hasn’t happened yet, there are strong undercurrents of despair in the classrooms across America as teachers threaten to quit “en masse.”
We long for the halcyon days before a virus imperiled our profession. Things were neither perfect nor easy before March 2020, but at least we knew what we signed up for. We knew what teaching looked like, what it felt like, what to expect from the students and our colleagues.
#4: We Wonder If This Entire Year Is a Waste. Should students be able to opt to repeat the year, especially high school seniors missing out on the traditional activities associated with their final year of formal education? Do we need to re-designate traditional markers of mastery to account for this year of altered learning? Countless articles have explained that the most vulnerable students—students with income insecurity, students in homes where parents are losing work, students having to cope with mental health issues on their own now that school services are unavailable or fleeting—are the most likely to gain little growth from this entire experience. In moments of utter honesty, many of us trying our best to pivot towards an altered teaching landscape will admit our students are receiving a fraction of the education they typically receive in a traditional class setting. Why? Because tests are now open book and open note. We are pressured to ease up, not give as many assignments, understand the students are overwhelmed and not to add to their stress and strain. While this is wise and compassionate, it also means less education.
#5: COVID Has Amplified the Bad . . . A LOT. Long before the world had ever heard of COVID-19, young Americans were living lives largely disconnected from the values, world-views, and expectations normally associated with adulthood. This crisis has exacerbated these problems ad infinitum.
Many young Americans were already cut off from adults and from each other, fostered in large part by monomaniacal obsessions with devices, the tyranny of time devoted to social media platforms, and the cult of celebrity that is endlessly indulged. Young Americans eat alone. Socialize alone. They are less likely to date or go out in group activities. They had quarantined themselves long before a state governor made them do it. But at least they learned together and gathered in a communal academic setting every day.
This crisis has added hours to device usage. It has made the distance from one another a virtue (food good reason, of course). But worst of all, it has created a sudden vacuum of adult influence in their lives. Being on the other end of a Zoom call is not the same as a classroom. Screens are virtual, not tactile. Distance learning is not just geographically distanced, but emotionally and personally distanced as well. Our students were already too distanced from their parents, their teachers, and other ameliorative and supportive adult relationships. Now we are witnessing not seas of separation from adult life, but oceans of opaqueness. Stunted development, stymied maturation, and a further delay in the process of growing up is certain to ensue.