It’s 2:48 PM and I’m scrubbing sippy cups at a desperate pace. Dishwater pools around my bare feet. Before I know what’s happening, tears are forcing their way out from behind my eyeballs. I cradle my head in my hands and give in to the convulsion that’s been demanding to be felt all day. I crumple onto the sink counter and gasp for air. The breakdown is short. Fifteen seconds later, I wipe my tears off on my new carpal tunnel brace and return to the pile of spent milk bottles.
Out of my earpods drone the disembodied voices of my colleagues and administrators. I’m supposed to be on camera for a staff meeting that goes until 4:00 PM, but I have to leave to pick up my child at 3. Since school “ends” at 2:43, I have 17 minutes to wash the dishes and pack a snack for the ride home. I want to be a good employee, so I do my best to listen to the meeting as I bolt out the front door clothed in a dish soap soaked button-down and some faded Cookie Monster pajamas.
I hit the first stoplight and breathe. An administrator is going over the process for filing a discipline form. Why are they talking about this? Is this really a problem?
My eyes start twitching again.
The light turns green and I stomp the gas pedal, stuffing down the rising panic that seems to define my daily existence now that virtual school has started.
When I pull up to daycare the staff meeting has moved on to the topic of parent communication. Every interaction with any family member must now be logged in triplicate. Click the boxes, enter the information, get it time stamped, email the proper administrators, etc. I’m crying again. I just need a second to breathe. To be quiet and still.
The ten second walk from my car to the daycare’s front door is all I have to pull it together. So I fix my face, choke back the tears, and approximate some sort of smile as my child opens the door and bounds into my waiting arms.
Can she tell? Does she notice?
“Daddy missed you today, baby!” But that’s a lie. Virtual teaching has dominated my consciousness for the last month. I don’t want to lie, so I try to retroactively make it true as I say it. I try to convince myself of it as I say it.
With the toddler strapped in, I finally let myself take out the earbuds and turn off the meeting. The last thing I hear before finally closing the app is “We know you all have a lot on your plates, so we appreciate…”
Fifteen minutes later my child and I arrive back at our house and the second shift begins.
Virtual school is suffocating me. There’s no time to reflect on or process anything that’s happening. This is unfortunate because I have a lot of shit to puzzle through.
Some of this shit is capital Q Questions. For instance, how can I design robust assessment activities in a virtual environment? What role should the pandemic play in the content students are engaging with? Do my students have enough to eat? How do I handle cognitive load when I have no idea who my students are? How can I ensure my lessons are culturally, linguistically, and historically relevant? How can I build a virtual space that gives students a chance to catch their breath and heal? And perhaps most importantly, who are my students? How will I get to know the 100 black boxes in front of me?
Buzzing around inside every big Question are a thousand smaller ones that also need answers. What apps should I use? How should I communicate with families? How do I give feedback? How do I get quality books into my students’ hands? Without any sort of private messaging feature, how can I work with individual students in a way that doesn’t broadcast the conversation to the entire room? Should I open up a virtual room at lunch? If so, how many students should be allowed in at once?
This isn’t the mental masturbation of some perfectionist wringing his hands. I literally need these answers in order to do my job. And these questions take a lot of time to figure out.
Fortunately, my anxiety kicks me out of bed at 4:00 AM every day. This means I’ve been working for multiple hours before my first class begins at 7:50 AM. And like every other teacher I know, I work every single minute until the end of the day, including multiple hours on Saturday and Sunday. Unfortunately for my students, I refuse to work after 3:00 PM. It’s the only way to ensure I have something left of myself to give to my family. But the sheer enormity of all I have to figure out keeps my brain active despite my best intentions to shut it off. It’s not ruminating or stuck in an obsessive thought spiral. It’s trying to figure out real, tangible answers to what the hell I’m doing.
This 3:00 PM cutoff is necessary for my survival. Unfortunately it also means I spend most of my time feeling unprepared and lost.
“Sorry for today’s lesson, I had to stop working on it at 3 yesterday.”
“Sorry I don’t know what book to recommend. The massive library I amassed over the last decade is back in my classroom, and my ADHD makes it impossible for me to remember any of them off the top of my head.”
“Sorry the activity wasn’t that exciting. It turns out the eight hours I spent on it last weekend weren’t enough.”
I would never say these things out loud to students, of course. Part of me recognizes that the vast majority of my students don’t perceive my half-baked lessons the way I do. That only does so much to ameliorate the frustration, though, because I know how much better it all could be if I just had more time. There’s just too much to do.
I find the following analogy helpful in framing what virtual teaching feels like to me. We can imagine life in general as a juggling act. Each of us has a number of balls in the air: some for family, some for work, some for ourselves, etc. As our circumstances change, so do the balls we’re asked to juggle. Some of the balls are plastic. These can be dropped and picked back up later without much consequence. You can drop these ones without worrying that you’re breaking something that can’t be mended. But there are glass balls, too. If you drop one of these, it shatters. That’s it. It’s gone.
To be a teacher during the pandemic is to be given one hundred glass balls to juggle. Everything is important and everything is breaking.
Students I’ve never seen on camera and barely heard on microphone pop in and out of classes without mention. Parents go uncontacted if their kid isn’t participating in work because I can’t seem to make the time to touch base with them. Differentiated curriculum is nothing more than a fantasy. Every essential aspect of teaching now rests in a crystalline burial ground around my feet.
There is no end in sight. There is no glorious finish line or point on the horizon when these problems will somehow resolve themselves. Just a grueling marathon through the busted shards of the teacher I used to be.