Panic Pedagogy and Virtual Teaching: Four Days In

Photo by Khara Woods on Unsplash

I waved and smiled at my webcam, wishing a good weekend to the 25 black boxes populating my screen. I pushed away from my cluttered, makeshift desk and sighed. My first week of virtual teaching was done.

This reflective essay is my brain’s way of trying to make some sense of what just happened and what is to come. It’s my way of trying to force a formal beginning to the school year. Since the Corona virus has swallowed up the typical back-to-school routines that function as important transitions, this essay will have to do.

The only expectation I allowed myself going into this year was that it would be hard. After ten years of working in a brick-and-mortar school, there’s no way switching to a 100% virtual ecology would be anything but a severe and humbling challenge. And indeed, this first week was brutal.

Because when it comes to virtual routines and distance learning protocols, I know almost nothing. There is no automaticity for any of the low hanging fruit I mastered years ago. Something as mindless as taking attendance or figuring out the best way to get lesson materials to a student now requires giant gobs of brain juice. As a result, everything is hard, takes four times as long to do, and comes with little to no guarantee of success. Sweet!

As a teacher, I’m used to struggling. But I’m used to struggling with the stuff that never gets easy. The lesson planning. The student relationships. The “just right” feedback. Now I’m back to re-learning the basics, like taking attendance.

In the past, if a student wasn’t in class, I would mark them “absent” and move on. Now, if a student is absent, my brain has to work its way down a convoluted decision tree filled with multiple serpentine paths. Is this student even supposed to be in this class? What if they’re on my Synergy roster but not on my Microsoft Teams roster? Which version of my roster is the right one? Does it matter if the student’s family asked for in-person, hybrid, or all virtual? Has the student been absent the entire class period or did they disappear somewhere during the middle of the virtual “lesson”? Maybe the kid has a spotty internet connection? Where else might the technological breakdowns occur? Is it one of the apps I’m using in the lesson? Maybe the kid has access to the internet but can’t log into their Google account. Or is it something on the school’s end? Are district firewalls responsible? Am I supposed to help the student troubleshoot? Am I supposed to do that now? During asynchronous time? During my planning period? What if the student and their family are not proficient with the dominant language practices? Do I call with my personal phone since I’m not actually at a school? Should I be using Google Voice to make these calls? But my district doesn’t have a subscription to Google Voice, which means I would have to use my personal cell phone. What are the ethics involved in that decision? Etc.

As my brain tries to figure all this out, it still has to try and keep 25 blank boxes engaged in something. Those empty student boxes! Before the year started, my ego insisted that I would be able to convince students to turn on their cameras. I would be so engaging and welcoming, I reasoned, that by the end of the week I would be looking out at a wall of faces. Wrong!

I absolutely do not “blame” the kids for keeping their cameras off. I don’t blame anyone or anything. This is a shitty situation that’s unleashed rivers of hurt upon so many of us. When you add the normal developmental challenges of going through adolescence, why WOULD kids want to be on camera?

(As a side note, it turns out it’s really really hard to teach in an environment completely devoid of feedback. I can’t read body language when there are no bodies. And if I can’t read bodies then I don’t know how to modulate my tone, volume, and delivery.)

For my part, I’ve never worked so hard at being engaging. I pose and holler, contorting my face into every expression imaginable to try and hook the kids into staying with me. By the end of the second day I had kids telling me to wipe off the spit from the camera. In my mind, behind those blacked out boxes, kids are fucking around on their phones,talking to each other, playing video games, watching Netflix, etc. Not because they’re kids, but because they’re human beings. I’ve certainly looked at my phone times during my lessons. I like to think I’m slick by putting the phone somewhere my eyes would normally focus, but I mean, come on.

As a result of everything, my current teaching style is best described as panic pedagogy. I don’t know who the hell I have in front of me. Lessons are finished seconds before kids start coming into the virtual room. Apps and websites seem to crash on the regular. And my god, the links. So many links! Everything just feels disconnected and off.

Some of my discomfort comes from administrators who are trying to map brick-and-mortar schooling onto a virtual environment that resists this sort of 1-to-1 correlation. But most of it comes from being a shitty virtual teacher. I’m not insulting myself. It would be unrealistic for me to be anything but a complete novice at something I’ve neither done nor been trained to do. And I know this year will get better. I know that I’ll get better. I’m not trying to convince myself of this because I don’t need convincing. I’ve been doing this long enough to understand that teaching is a long game. It’s a life’s work. And this pandemic isn’t going anywhere, so neither is virtual teaching.

Closer than you think.

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