About Thomas Courtney

Thomas Courtney is a senior policy fellow with Teach Plus, CA, a guide teacher with SDSU, and a fifth-grade teacher in San Diego, California. He was also once a teacher aide in a first-grade classroom with Mary Merrill at Balboa Elementary--just down the street.

By Courtney Thomas

I was once the conductor of an orchestra. The classroom was my concert hall.

What I love most about teaching is the shared moment of discovery, especially when it builds into a crescendo. To me, the classroom feels like an orchestra of conversation, motion, and creativity. Maybe it was the fact I was born to a deaf mother, or maybe it was the ADHD. Whatever it was, noise and motion, the twin burdens of my youth, seemed always to be assets to me as an educator.

But then distance learning happened.

And all of my twenty years of elementary school teacher tricks seemed to be a burden once more.

I teach at a Title 1 school in the heart of southeast San Diego. I live two miles from my school, and both my children have attended there.  Years ago, we began to do something special. Although we were in one of the lowest socio-economic neighborhoods in all of San Diego County, and although NCLB told us to focus like a laser on test scores, we decided to also concentrate on the arts, on history and science, on sports, on art, music, and theatre. In short, we decided our students deserved a well-rounded education and higher achievement on standardized tests. And we fought for this right collectively. I’m proud to say we still do.

Maybe that was why I couldn’t handle the notion that via computers, we were returning to a skill and drill routine.  I no longer felt like a conductor. The music of my classroom had gone silent.

And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

Along with my friend and para-educator extraordinaire, Dominique Washington, we decided that we could safely venture out into the community to bring some of this music back. And on one particular day, I was reminded of just how special being in the classroom is.

8 am

Dominique and I arrive separately at Gabriela’s house. Gabriela is a special education student, who is also a second language learner. She runs outside and we have to talk her out of a hug. We sit with her apart from one another in the grass of her apartment complex. The computer that Gabriela had received had not been properly formatted yet. Gabriela could not join us online, and no amount of assistance with the family in their native language was helping remotely. Both mom and dad had limited computer skills.

After only 10 minutes, Dominique shows Gabriela how to access Zoom and we have a laugh on our computers in a mock trial of a meeting.

9 am

I return home quickly to meet with students for our daily opener. We have a few laughs, check-in on Jasmine’s parakeet egg and I run through the expectations for the day on google classroom by sharing my screen on Zoom. Today is Friday, and while my colleague invites those of my kids who need to complete writing and math projects, Dominique and I grab our masks and jump in our cars again.

9:30 am

Our local middle school has an exploratory science program set on a beautiful and natural acre of land. But our elementary school kids can’t access it now. So, in order to help the director bring science to kids in their homes, Dominique and I deliver science kits for those children attending Eco Explorers, a program for kids in grades 3-5. Many of my students are in the program with my prompting and I get to see them in their doorways as I deliver their kits.

10:30 am

It isn’t possible to get back in time, so I open my laptop, make a hotspot on my phone and begin a math class in the parking lot of CVS.  Most of my class is present, and many are interested in a challenge. Today I asked the students to find the measure of a missing angle in a triangle. We review the video I linked for them, and after a brief survey poll, I discover half of them can work with Dominique on challenge material, and the other half with me to review.

When we come back to the whole group, Dominique tells the kids he is at the Starbucks parking lot for wifi. I tell them I am at the CVS.  Mr. D.’s location is cooler they say.

Dominique and I notice that our student Nathan hasn’t attended class today, nor have we seen him since Wednesday. I bring up Powerschool and into the GPS goes his address. Next stop, Nathan’s house.

11:30 am

Dominique and I arrive about the same time and give each other distant elbow dabs. I had tried to get in touch with Nathan’s mom all week but no one had answered my calls, texts, or emails. Knocking on the door with my mask on, we’re greeted by an older brother, Carlos, who as luck would have it was once in my class too.

He says that his mom and dad had to work long hours this week and he was tasked with getting Nathan up for “computer school” but that his brother won’t respond. When we discover that Nathan is still asleep at 11:30 it’s far too tempting.  Carlos calls up his mom on a new number I didn’t have and after permission is granted, Dominique and I, with masks on, enter and walk up the stairs and knock on Nathan’s bedroom door.

“What the what?” says Nathan standing at his door a few moments later.

“Hey,” says Mr. D. through his mask.

“Hey,” I say through mine.

“OMG, YOU CAME TO MY HOUSE?” Says Nathan.

“Yeah,” says Mr. D., “We missed you today.”

“I…I missed you guys too,” says Nathan.

After asking Nathan to meet with us out in his yard, and showing him how to set an alarm on his phone, Dominique and I risk an elbow bump for real this time and we make it back to our cars in time for another lesson. This time it’s grammar and word study. And this time Nathan is there at his desk next to his bunk bed.

12:30 pm

Dominique and I rendezvous at Bowlegged Barbecue and while we eat on the tailgate of my truck, I hold a Zoom meeting with my school newspaper club. They’ve decided to begin a comic called Covidman.

1 pm

After Dominique leaves to the sanctuary of his car, I’m texting parents reminders that soon they will receive their children’s weekly scores and that work is due by 4 pm for grading.

2 pm

After dropping off several more science kits and a prize to one of my students, I try to pass a car double-parked but can’t. I see the owner of the car, a lady in a bumblebee costume and a mask handing something to a kid on the stoop of a nearby house. She runs back to her car, apologizes and that’s when I see the sign on the sides of her windows, “Congratulations to Mrs. P’s Kindergardener Graduates.”

2:30 pm

Home, I help students complete their weekly projects in google docs while in the middle of breakout groups with Ms. Miller who I co-teach with on Friday.

3 pm  

I attend an IEP meeting where no one can really figure out what will happen next year.

3:30 pm

I begin to check student work, finishing my grading at about 5 pm.

6 pm

I eat dinner with my wife and children. My wife, an archaeologist, calls me “nuts but benign.”

7 pm

I begin sending out reports to parents about their children’s weekly scores and attendance. I still have not heard from Enrique’s family. It’s been six weeks since I have made any contact, so I try once more via email, phone, and text, emergency numbers too. All are unsuccessful. He was having such a terrific year before all this.

8 pm

I receive a call. It’s from Nathan’s mother. I prepare to apologize for stopping by unannounced and instead she stops me.  “Mr. C.,” she says, “I want to thank you.”

I say, “For breaking and entering into your home?” She’s a woman with a delightful sense of humor and we have a nice laugh.

“No,” she says, now serious. “I want to thank you, and Mr. Dominique, for caring so much for the children. For helping us keep the children engaged. It’s been hard.”

“You bet,” I say.

8:30 pm

My friend, Ms. Ritchey, who happens to be my daughter’s teacher, calls me. I pick up, laughing as I say hello.

“Hey there Tom,” says Brianna. “I’m calling about Onora.”

“Oh,” I say, “What’s going on?”

“Nothing much, just there’s a remote dance competition I thought she might like to be a part of, I texted you the link.”

10 pm

I tuck my daughter into bed a full hour later than I would have back in February. We’ve been talking about her dance routine for nearly 45 minutes. She loves to dance.

She says, “Dad, it’s a good thing Ms. Ritchey sent you that link, imagine if I never saw it.”

As I turn off her light and sit down to consider assignments for the next week, I suddenly hear her voice and can’t get it out of my head.

Imagine if I never saw it.

And that’s when I realize that one day soon, when the music of my classroom begins again, I won’t have to get into my car, to drop off science kits, to text, to email, or to call like I did today. The students will be right there for me to bring a world of discovery TO them.

As my head hits the pillow, I realize simultaneously just how lucky I’ve been before Covid-19 and just how lucky I will be afterward.

I will be a conductor of an orchestra, and the classroom will be my concert hall again.

Pandemic

 

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