As the country begins to look toward the possibility of moving forward, at a necessarily measured pace, toward a recovery from quarantine and all its ramifications for businesses and families and the education system, one of the last groups that will return to semi-normal, albeit what is likely a whole new normal, is the school system. It seems quite possible most, if not all, public schools across the country are finished with face-to-face instruction for this school year. Some states, like Maryland, have already told their teachers to prepare for the possibility of starting the 2020-2021 year with distance learning. Until schools reopen in the traditional sense, teachers are relegated to “having class” via online meetings, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and giving and receiving assignments online. While teachers have worked hard to maintain some semblance of engagement with learning for their students, they are struggling to cope with the emotional cost of losing the end of their school years.
One of the most conspicuous things that our society is realizing as a result of this catastrophe is that teachers’ jobs are a lot harder than they’ve been given credit for and that a good portion of what makes education effective is made up of two elements: routine and the relationship forged between students and their teachers. And distance learning has thrown both of those elements into disarray, causing everyone involved, from teachers to students to parents, to struggle to find ways to cope with the void left in their lives when school buildings were closed. As would be expected, some have managed better than others. Several teachers from Wood and Washington Counties shared their thoughts.
Too much downtime is never a good thing for me, and I know that about myself.
Many have found comfort for themselves and their kids by maintaining a routine of regular contact, such as Jessie Marie Ice, who meets virtually with her fourth grade classes every weekday. Others are maintaining contact in more indirect ways. Katie Nestor, who teaches English, Speech, and Debate at Parkersburg South, is writing letters to all her seniors and Ashley Carter is writing to all her second graders from the point of view of her cat, George. Sonya Ashby, a Library Media Specialist at Lubeck Elementary, records video lessons for her students to access. But all agree the best video session or recorded lesson simply can’t take the place of being in the room together.
Another way many are coping is filling their time with other activities they wouldn’t normally have time to do. “I’m an artist,” Abbie Burge said, “and being quarantined has given me the opportunity to work on art, specifically watercolor painting.” Elaine Nichols, a Special Ed Math and Science teacher at Parkersburg South, has poured her energy into a different group that needs her help. “In the community, I have been volunteering for a feral cat program and have been helping stray cats learn to be house cats and trying to find them homes.”
Many know themselves well enough to know they can’t have too much downtime. “Staying ‘busy’ has been important for me,” said Beth Perry, a teacher at Phillips Elementary. “Working on house projects, unpacking the last few boxes from our move. In my downtime, I’ve been reading lots of books and doing puzzles.” Nicole Maxson, who also teaches at Phillips, expressed a similar sentiment when she said, “I’ve been cleaning and organizing, then continuing to clean the same things over and over again. Too much downtime is never a good thing for me, and I know that about myself.”
I’m exhausted. I have not found a balance.
Extra time with family and pets as well as getting home projects completed are bonuses many are enjoying. “But I’m lucky to be quarantined with my wife, two daughters, and my dog,” said Jonathan Walsh, who teaches art at Parkersburg High School. “We enjoy each other’s company and help each other through the low times. So far, the only one who’s gotten on my nerves is the dog, and I can’t stay mad at him.” Amber Murphy, a Special Ed teacher, fears she’s enjoying the time a bit more than her pet lizards “I think the pets want me to go back to work also.” Maggie Miller doesn’t just hang out with her kids, but helps them stay busy. “Spending the afternoons doing fun art projects with the kids has helped us spend quality time together. We have also taken walks, had fires, and went for drives.”
But while the change of routine and slowing down have benefited some, the loss of contact is a source of stress and frustration for many. Tena Martin, a Special Education teacher at Hamilton Middle School, summed it up well: “I’m anxious, and it makes it even more difficult to learn how to deliver instruction on websites I’ve never used nor need to use with my special education students and their families. It overwhelms me and exasperates an already stressful situation.”
Sarah Nisewarner, a science teacher in Williamstown, speaks for a lot of teachers regarding how hard this is, especially for teachers with young children at home. “I’m exhausted. I have not found a balance,” she said. “I get through days because I have to. I have three young kids and a working spouse.” For her, it’s less about enjoying the time than about just making it through each day. “There are too many living things that rely on me for survival in this household and that’s what I’m doing at the moment, surviving. I am not the poster child for this quarantine campaign.”
As we hear about more states closing for the year it is setting in that I may not get to see my students again until the fall.
Typical of nearly all teachers, Katie Costaras is concerned about her students. “It’s that typical release of stress that I would do at the start of the summer. But as the first week passed, I became more and more worried about my students.” On one hand, she thinks about what the extended time away from school will do to them academically. “This group has come the farthest in terms of quickly improving and getting on grade level or close to where they need to be as second graders.” All teachers are keenly aware of the brain drain that takes place over the summer. Costaras, who teaches second grade at Phillips Elementary School in Marietta, is deeply troubled over this break being twice that. “Their break from school is now two-and-a-half-month break to a five-month break. How many of them will fall behind again?”
Additionally, Costaras, like many teachers, is simply sad to have lost the end of the year with her kids. Teachers start the year knowing they’ll fall in love with their kids and that at the end of the year it will break their hearts to say goodbye, but we’ve lost the chance to have that true send-off, even teachers of non-seniors who may see their students again next year. Costaras expressed this concern well when she said, “As we hear about more states closing for the year it is setting in that I may not get to see my students again until the fall and by that time distance will set in and the relationships I spent all year building will slowly go away.”
As a teacher of seniors, I am also struggling with the fear that my time with my kids has come to an abrupt end before I could send them off to college with my good wishes. I have a tradition of making a goodbye presentation that I play on the final day of classes in which I tell them one last time I love them and treasure the time I got to spend with them. We laugh, we cry, we hug, and they leave with a sense of closure and that they can move on with no regrets over words unsaid, deeds undone. I am not exaggerating when I say the idea of missing out on saying farewell to these students and helping them to say farewell to each other breaks my heart for them, but just as much for myself.
While everyone is struggling to find a sense of equilibrium during this time, people on the frontlines of the battle—healthcare and other essential workers—have the added burden of putting their health and safety on the line. So, this article is not intended in any way to imply that teachers are making a bigger sacrifice than everyone else. It is simply to highlight the unique nature of their job that makes the quarantine and working at home just a bit of a different challenge than that others are facing.