What A Teacher Wants You To Know About Remote Learning

Photographed by Francena Ottley.
As much of the world moves online amid the social-distancing measures put in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus, students and teachers are faced with a strange new reality. Many educators who have never been trained on remote teaching — or even, in some cases, on how to use platforms like Zoom and Google Classroom — are now grappling with the possibility of having to finish out the school year that way. Children are dealing with the emotional fallout of upended routines, canceled activities, and diminished social lives, while their parents try to figure out how to adapt their homes and schedules to make room for online learning. Unfortunately, for many less privileged kids, this will likely exacerbate the inequality they’re already facing. 
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To get a better idea of what teachers are dealing with right now, we spoke to a fourth-grade teacher from New York City, where schools shut down on March 15, at the end of her first day of remote learning. While she remains positive about her students’ ability to adapt to life in this unprecedented time, she worries about some of them falling behind — not to mention how fellow teachers with children of their own at home are expected to balance life and work. 
What year and subject do you teach, and how long have you been teaching for?
I teach fourth grade. I teach the dual-language class for my grade, which means we normally have a Spanish day and an English day, alternating. All the subjects are taught in both languages. It’s really fun. It also means I have a good amount of newcomers in my class — this year I have four — which means kids who have come to the U.S. within the last couple of years. We have about half native Spanish speakers. And this is my seventh year of teaching!
So today was your first day of remote learning. How did it go?
Honestly, it went better than I expected! I actually had 19 out of 22 of my students on our morning meeting, and it was awesome to see their faces. It was awesome for them to see each other for the first few minutes. I let them all talk at the same time, and then I muted them, which I can’t do in real life, and that was amazing. They started writing on little notepaper: “Unmute me!” That was really funny. Then we all went around and said how we were feeling. I felt like we were able to preserve some of what classroom life is like — I still hand-wrote the morning message. In terms of the assignments, I’d say we’re all still learning Google Classroom. A lot of the stuff is just like, download this text and read it, but kids are kids, so they’re clicking “turned in.” It seems like less than half of the kids did the work on the page for today. There was definitely some confusion, and I made a bunch of mistakes in terms of what I assigned. 
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I had parents send me really nice messages saying, “Thank you for working so hard on that.” But just an hour ago, I had a parent email me photos of her daughter sobbing in front of a laptop, and she said, “This is what broke her. Social studies broke her!” And it’s hard to explain to this mom, I’m just filling in a schedule that my boss gave me, and they’re saying we need this amount of work, but they’re also saying kids should only be working for four hours a day, which is less than a normal school day. I'm noticing a lot of parents are taking whatever I put on the Google Classroom very seriously, and trying to do it all. And I mean, the social studies thing was just supposed to be fun. I had forgotten there even was a quiz attached to it. It’s been hard to send the message to parents — well, you want to send two messages. You want to send a message that this is our schedule, and these are our expectations, so that parents can lean on that if their kid is being defiant. But you also want to share the secret message to parents that, come on, this is up to you. You have to figure out what works for your family. 
When you think about having to teach remotely for three months, or six months, or a year, does that seem sustainable to you?
I think I could do it. I would get pretty bummed out, but I just think it would widen the opportunity gap way more than it already is. Just because giving a kid a device is not the same as providing them with field trips and support, as more affluent kids have, and having kids [from different socioeconomic backgrounds] in integrated schools, where they get to know each other. My kids who are already struggling or have parents who aren’t able to support them with technology or language, I think those kids are going to get further and further behind. I mean, there’s also social development, and so many things they’re learning as they develop friendships, and physical development, getting to run around. I could do it, and they could do it, but I don’t think it would be good for either of us. 
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What kinds of directives and resources have you been given by the school? Do you feel like it's been enough?
I think they are doing their absolute best, because this is new for them, too. Honestly, I think that some people, especially teachers and parents, have felt like it's been too much or too many directives. My school is very structured, which I like, because that’s just the sort of person I am. I like getting a lot of instruction and guidance. But I think a lot of people who have their own children that they're trying to guide through remote learning, or little young children who need full-time attention, are really struggling with that and felt like it was a lot. 
There's also been a lot of concerns about screen time, because it's just really hard to modify this stuff to where it doesn’t involve a screen, especially if a kid doesn’t have a lot of books at home and the best solution is for them to read books and other extracurricular material online. I think there's been frustration from a lot of folks, myself included, that we’re asking a lot of families, and some of it we’re not comfortable asking, because it’s not developmentally appropriate, or it’s just too much. 
I think, considering how sudden this was, and how my administration is not super technologically well-versed, I think they tried to gather Google Classroom tutorials and pull ideas from the teachers who know what they're doing as quickly as they could. I feel like they have been really supportive of us... as long as we're working to accomplish what they want us to do. But I think there definitely have been people who have felt like, in their effort to be as calm and reassuring as possible, they haven't really left space for the human side of it. We wrote a letter from some union members to our administration, asking for more flexibility and understanding.
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Can you share more about that letter?
It came from a conversation that we had, where a lot of teachers were expressing that they felt like we were being told to do this one-size-fits-all sort of teaching that wasn't the best thing for their students, and that we weren’t being trusted to do what we thought was best. It’s just specifying that we’re not in an academic emergency, we’re in a public health emergency. So we’re asking to be given the flexibility, trust, and support we need to do our jobs and maintain our own safety and well-being over the coming months. It’s kind of just pushing back against these rigid expectations and asking the administration to trust us, to [allow us to] create schedules that work for our families. I mean, I don't envy their position. I think that they were trying to just make it as simple for us as possible by giving us the schedule. But then, of course, it's not the best for every person, for every kid. It's more about tone — like just let's remember that we're people first. It felt like the academic applications were rushing before, like, talking about whether our families were safe and taken care of in terms of food and resources, and whether we felt supported. 
If you’re a parent who is also a teacher and now your kids are home, has there been any guidance given to those people on what they’re supposed to do?
No. They basically just said, your work hours are the same, and you should be available during that time to parents and students. But they also said, we know you have to eat, we know you have to take care of your kids. I feel like the administration is not legally allowed to tell teachers, it’s okay if you’re not around. But I took it as a winking, you-do-what-you-need-to-do, don’t-ask-don’t-tell type of thing. They emphasized a lot that we should be recording stuff [ahead of time] when we can, and coordinating as a grade. That’s a great way to make the workload easier, but it also makes it less differentiated for individual students. There’s only so much you can do right now.
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Have you been given any information about how you’re supposed to be grading your students, or what this period of time “counts” as?
Not yet. I think they just announced that tests were suspended, which is such a weird word. Like when presidents “suspend” their campaign, it means it’s canceled. Now, I don't know if that means the kids are gonna take two rounds of standardized testing next year or what, but we know tests aren’t happening. But I have no idea what the grading for the third trimester will look like. If I started assigning grades, I would just feel really uncomfortable, for the same reason I don’t grade homework beyond “Did you try or not.” Because there are some kids who have parents sitting there with them the whole time, and other kids who don't, or who are in a really distracting environment with a bunch of siblings, and it doesn’t feel fair to grade any of their work. 
How has all of this impacted your personal life as a professional? 
I have finally had to face my technological fears, which is a good thing. I knew nothing about Google Classroom, and there’s still a lot I don’t know. It's really cool to learn how to use this tool, and I feel like next year, I can use it strategically in my classroom. Year seven is a year where I’ve gotten pretty comfortable — this is my second year in this grade, at this school, and I was starting to feel like I had it pretty under control, like I’m in a groove. I think you do teaching sometimes if you’re somewhat of a control freak, and I’ve had to completely let go of that. I can't make sure that kids finish their work. I can't. One kid, I still haven’t even talked to her, to get her to log on. Kids are gonna do what they're gonna do. And the mandates from up above are gonna change. It’s forced me to be really flexible, and also to get in touch with myself outside of my profession. We all have more time now, so I’m like, oh, what other hobbies do I have? What books do I want to read? Who do I want to connect to? What’s important to me? 
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Is there anything else you want to add?
I guess I would say that, even though my job has been changed immensely by this, I still feel so fortunate to have a job and have a salary. And, honestly, the fact that there is still a way to connect with my students, even though it is hard to figure out, having something to work on has been really nice.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.

The coronavirus pandemic, and resulting economic downturn, has disproportionately affected some professions — doctors, nurses, teachers, small business owners, cashiers, and food industry workers are just some of the folks on the front lines. Checking In is an ongoing series where we pass the microphone to workers in industries most impacted, and ask them what they want us to know about their hopes, fears, and needs right now. Click here if you want to participate
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COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the CDC website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.
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