The old joke is that no one goes into teaching for the money. In fact, becoming a teacher 13 years ago meant leaving a lucrative legal career and returning to graduate school, a decision I made after substitute teaching for a year.
As a substitute, I loved the rush of excitement when a lesson went just right, the amazement I felt when a normally quiet student offered up the perfect comment about a book and the special connections I made with my middle school students.
I went into teaching for one reason: the kids.
Now, my happy place is my classroom, spotless and organized, with my students who know our routine, our rules and our expectations of one another. I teach literature and English, and I love it with all my heart. I enjoy grammar and punctuation. I take pleasure in learning new words and the etymology of words I already know. I adore reading, taking apart a piece of literature, analyzing it, studying it and putting it back together again.
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Being a middle school language arts teacher speaks to all my strengths, including acting. With a background in community theater, I look at my six classes each day as performance art.
If we’re studying a Sherlock Holmes short story, we’ll do it with a British accent and have tea and cucumber sandwiches when we finish. We’ll listen to an audio recording by a native Spanish speaker of an immigration story about a Mexican family and then, after the test, have a fiesta with queso and chips, Mexican songs and Agua de Jamaica.
But now, thanks to COVID-19 and state-wide school closures through at least April 24, I am an actor without a stage. A performer without an audience.
Sure, I can teach the literary elements of that Sherlock Holmes story online: the foreshadowing and the tone, the metaphors, the Victorian writing style. What’s missing, though, are the kids. Distance learning means I can’t connect with my students, face to face, in those unique and engaging ways.
Gone is the feeling I’d get every 40 minutes when another group of students entered my room to dive in and learn together. We would work in small groups to build skills they’d need in the years to come. We’d write reflections and analyses and research papers to prepare them for high school and college. We’d read out loud, share our thoughts in vivid class discussions, present our papers and practice public speaking skills.
So as much as I love teaching, distance learning during coronavirus presents a huge challenge for me. Without the kids, without the face-to-face connection, without the classroom interaction and hallway buzz when classes change, the pure essence of school is diminished for me.
Along with thousands of other teachers, I will learn the digital tools necessary for this new style of teaching, such as Google Classroom, Zoom, IXL, Flipgrid and more. I will redesign my units for distance learning. I can’t very well act out Sir Arthur Conan Doyle being knighted by King Edward VII on-screen while sitting in front of a computer (our admin team asked us to remain seated during our Zoom classes), but I can still use my British accent. I can share my screen and show rare video footage of 1896 England. I can even wear a “speckled band” around my forehead (spoiler!).
As for the kids, I’ll have to rely on tiny thumbnail videos on my screen to help me stay connected to my 7th and 8th graders. It won’t be the same as before, but I’ll do this for them. I sure do miss them.
My friend and I just this evening finished a virtual bookclub where we read the same novel simultaneously and then had discussed it 1/3 through, 2/3 through, and after we finished. And in our final virtual book club chat tonight, we each reminisced about a special English teacher we had who opened up the world of literature to us.
All I can say is: having a wonderful English teacher is a lifelong gift.