Working from home. It has sounded great to me for quite a while. You can arise, shower when you’d like, dress in “real” clothes when you get ready, eat when you want – with more than 20 minutes to spare for lunch, and use the bathroom whenever you decide. As a teacher, that last one is important. In a high school block classroom, if you don’t make it between classes, you may have to wait another 90 minutes before you have an opportunity to go.
Thus, being the master of one’s own schedule can sound highly appealing to a K-12 educator, who is accustomed to a highly regimented schedule. My usual schedule as a high school instructor is fairly tight. I rise around 6:00 a.m., get ready for school and try to leave by 7:00 a.m. Normally, I have an approximately 25-minute commute. At 7:45, the first tone sounds, and by 7:50, students are either seated in the classroom, or they are tardy.
Our first block class lasts until 9:20, at which point, we have a ten-minute student break. At 9:30, students must be in class for second block, which consists of either intervention or enrichment, depending on their progress. For the entire school year, I teach Senior Seminar during this time, working to help students be successful on their senior projects, to be presented in the spring, and preparation for postsecondary success, including college applications, financial aid, and other accompanying tasks.
At 10:00, the tone sounds, and third block begins at 10:05, during which time I have my second English class for the day. At 11:30, we begin fourth block, which, for my class, goes until 12:05, then we break for lunch until 12:30, and at 12:35, we resume until 1:30 p.m. From 1:35 until 3:00, I am engaged in planning. Thus, from 7:50 until 1:35, I am singularly focused, with no time for much of a break.
However, about three weeks ago, all of that regimentation stopped momentarily under social distancing guidelines. For the first week, teachers and students took a break, followed by a week of officially scheduled spring break, followed by a week of making contact with students regarding our district’s out-of-school learning plans. Then, on April 6th, we were supposed to begin distance learning with our students.
If it ran smoothly, distance learning might work well – perhaps not as well as direct classroom instruction, but it still has potential. The problem, however, this time is that no previous structure had been put in place. Other than school e-mail on the Google platform and Google Classroom in my school district, there is no centralized way to contact students or provide a place for them to submit assignments.
Don’t get me wrong: the suite of Google tools is wonderful; however, students apparently aren’t accustomed to checking it or always responding, and while Google Classroom is great, it doesn’t offer the same suite of functions as a more comprehensive learning management system as Canvas, the electronic tool provided by most universities, including The University of Tennessee at Martin, for whom I teach classes at the satellite campus in Selmer.
Further, a number of external third-party tools (several at no cost) have been offered to help instruct students, as, believe me, I receive daily e-mails from various sites to whom I belong to an e-mail list, but if you haven’t wandered into a classroom in more than a decade or aren’t currently a teacher, direct instruction (e.g., lectures) is no longer the most viable method of teaching.
In fact, in my classroom, I don’t really do much “lecturing” at all. Most of our activities consist of reading together and delving into hands-on learning activities. Of course, I am fortunate: while I don’t have top-notch technology access in my classroom, I have been afforded a dedicated set of Chromebooks for daily student use. Therefore, in this era, making an instructional video lasting longer than a few minutes for viewing outside of class may not be that beneficial to students.
Compound that issue with this one: in the midst of makeshift “distance learning,” rural students are highly disadvantaged. Some are fortunate enough to have devices – besides a phone – at home to complete work, along with reliable Internet access. Others are not. For some, the issue is one of affordability in the midst of poverty. For others, it’s a lack of readily available Internet access in the area in which they live. For some, the Venn diagram overlaps, and it’s a combination of both obstacles.
In light of education following this pandemic, we should progress with two ideas: we need to push our representatives for better rural Internet access. What we have now is inexcusable. One of my colleagues who is widely traveled says comparatively that there is better Internet availability in Ukraine and parts of Africa, where she has been. Africa? Seriously? Yes, in the third world.
We also need to figure how better to ensure that students have the technology to facilitate learning, both at home and at school – whether that comes from school or parent provision, or a combination. While technology isn’t necessary for traditional learning, everything 21st century students need to know isn’t “traditional” or “basic” anymore – at least not the methodology.
For one, they should know how to distinguish between “credible” sources and unreliable ones rampant with misinformation and “alternative” facts that haven’t been checked. Apparently, there are a number of adults who haven’t learned this lesson on how to verify sources or check facts because I witness it on social media every day.
Ultimately, I, the educator, have learned much in the last week. I wonder if education will be the same in the aftermath and how it may be different. My desire to work at home as an educator? It’s not so strong anymore because without the proper infrastructure, it’s impossible to do it successfully. Frankly, it has made me miss my classroom and daily interaction with students, which is much easier.