Advice from a Teacher Struggling to Find Confidence During History’s Weirdest Educational Year

This is the hardest teaching has ever been. Whether you’re a first-year teacher or a 30-year veteran, it’s never been so dang challenging to get through a day of educating America’s youth. It’s friggin’ hard, folks, and it’s hard for a whole lot of reasons beyond teachers’ control.

Whether we’re teaching remotely, in-person full-time with students, or some hybrid approach that lives in the gray area between the two, we’re facing conditions this year that are… not ideal. Some scholars would even argue that teaching conditions in a post-COVID world suck monkey butts.

Why Are Monkey Butts So Colorful? | Popular Science
Nothing against monkey butts. Some can actually be quite beautiful.

But whatever. In my experience, nobody ever likes to hear teachers whine about how hard their jobs are. Rather than use this space to gripe, I want to use this space to let teaches know that somebody else in the universe understands how you’re feeling right now.

Like you, I find myself feeling about as unconfident as I’ve ever felt in my 17 years as a high school English teacher. It’s hard to feel like we’re doing great work at our jobs when best practices have been thrown out the window in favor of safety precautions. Safety, while necessary, is ruining everything.

FAIL Blog - unsafe - Epic FAILs funny videos - Funny Fails - Cheezburger
Trampolines, for example, are constantly ruined by concerns over “safety.”

In my case, I’ve had to arrange my desks in rows instead of a u-shape, as I’ve always done, and that’s made it harder for my students to see each other and have authentic conversations and debates. Students also have to keep their butts in those rows of desks all day long because kinesthetic activities aren’t allowed. They make contact tracing impossible, so there is no other option but to sit. Children are not meant to sit. They are meant to run around and scream and roughhouse in the house until their parents have gone absolutely CAN YOU GO OUTSIDE IF YOU’RE GOING TO BE THAT LOUD, TONYA?

These safety precautions have resulted in a lot of stand-and-deliver instruction that I’ve spent the last five years eliminating from my repertoire. Those who know me can appreciate just how much I love the sound of my own voice, so it’s easy to imagine how hard that shift has been. But I got there, handing over more of the educational responsibility to students and trying my dangdest to let them run the show.

And that’s where I think teachers should focus their energies this weird year whenever possible. I mean it. So here’s the money quote…

(You ready for it? Okay. Just checking.)

Uh...Can You Help Me Tie My Shoe?
Hang on, I just gotta tie my shoe real quick here. Bear with me.

Money Quote (ka-ching!): If you can’t be the teacher you want to be and can’t teach the lessons you’d rather be teaching, just have students produce something and help them mold it into work they’re proud of.

In other words, rather than speaking at a Zoom classroom where I’m never sure who’s listening and who’s not, I’m just giving the students something to create. Whether that’s a project or a piece of writing, I’m saying, “Good morning. Now go do this thing I want you to do.”

What is the true human cost of your £5 hand car wash? | Slavery | The  Guardian
Sometimes we do a little team-building by washing Mr. Brigham’s car.

This project-based approach works, both for engagement and academic growth. But it only works if you build a classroom that allows for the following:

  1. Reassessment. If the kids don’t do it perfectly the first time, they need to be able to do it again with no penalty. And then again, if necessary, and again and again until it’s where you and the student think it should be.
  2. Feedback. Since our current classroom setups make it harder to provide spoken feedback, you’re probably going to spend a lot more of your time covering those Google Docs in written feedback. A lot of my class periods are now spent at my computer, dropping comments into assignments a flower girl dropping handfuls of lavender down a wedding aisle. Look at how beautiful they are! LOOK AT THEM!
  3. Efficacy. Give the kids authentic assignments that they can get invested in. They’ll read feedback and take it to heart a whole lot easier if the feedback is over something they genuinely care about.
Brain scans reveal a 'pokémon region' in adults who played as kids - The  Verge
Like Pokemon! Youths still like Pokemon, right?

Is this a perfect solution? No. Would I rather be teaching students the way I was before the pandemic? Of course! Is this something I see myself continuing in an educational world where COVID-19 is no longer a concern? Man, you ask a lot of questions. What is this, a Supreme Court justice confirmation hearing?

While this approach certainly has its flaws, it has afforded me the opportunity to collaborate with every individual student so much more than I was able to do when we started remote instruction out of nowhere back at the start of this whole godforsaken pandemic.

You’re asking, “Isn’t this what grading is supposed to be? Tons and tons of written feedback?” Yeah, sure, but we teachers work with so many students and only have so many waking hours to grade stuff. Shifting from tons of instruction to more work production gives teachers more time to leave that written feedback in bulk. I’ve even seen some teachers who screencast an essay or assignment and provide audio feedback. There never would’ve been time for that in the world of 2019 and before. Most teachers barely have time to pee.

Teacher wage, student ratio: The best and worst states for teachers
Don’t let that smile fool you. This woman hasn’t urinated in nine hours.

As I said earlier, it sucks monkey butts to feel like we’re working twice as hard as a year ago to produce half the results, but I think this approach can keep that student growth chugging along, even in an imperfect situation. Because what is real life going to be like for our students, anyway? It’ll be them doing a thing, having a boss or supervisor yelling at them for how wrong they did it, and then doing it again—but correctly this time.

I’m not yelling at my students for being wrong (as cathartic as that may be sometimes), but I am helping them shape their writing and ability to close read and analyze texts as best I can. I refuse to feel like I’m not doing my best when I’m pouring so much of my heart and energy and brainpower into my career this year.

To my fellow teachers, whether you find a way to make things work or not, just know that you’re doing everything you can to help your students, and that’s more than enough. Quit getting down on yourselves. You’re awesome, even if the rest of the world doesn’t always remember to recognize it. This is a year our students will never forget, so stay positive, love your kiddos, and help them grow as students and young citizens.

And remember, the best thing about teaching being so hard right now is that it only gets easier from here!

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