BLOG POST BY 2019-2020 PA TEACHER OF THE YEAR AND PTAC MEMBER MARILYN PRYLE
I teach tenth-grade English at a suburban high school. Like many teachers, I have been teaching in a hybrid, concurrent mode almost all year. This means that I have some physical students in front of me and the rest of the class on a Google Meet. I teach all of them at the same time.
Often, I find it difficult to explain to people why this is so challenging. The increased workload of extra preparation, grading, and record-keeping is only part of it. There’s something more, something in the day-to-day living of it that is emotionally wounding--but it’s hard to express exactly what that is. Here. I’ll try to give a close-up look in an attempt to explain.
Period 1: Students filter into the classroom and make their way to their six-foot distanced seats, greeting me. I greet them back, and click the link for the Meet. Immediately it starts to ding as students arrive at it. I let them in by repeatedly clicking “Admit.” I greet them as they appear on the screen. Alternately, I look up to greet the physical students who trickle in. The bell rings. I look at my screen.
Some students don’t have their cameras on; they are supposed to, but it has become a losing battle throughout the school, and like most teachers, I have decided it’s not worth my energy to begin each class by demanding, yelling, or shaming students into submission on this. Still, I make my usual request: “Turn your camera on if you can, thank you.” A few dark squares come to life with faces in them. Two others flicker to a wall or ceiling. The rest remain dark. Are they being disrespectful? Did they hear me? Is there something distracting going on at home that they don’t want to show? Are they there?
Ding! A comment: Mrs Pryle, I’m sorry my camera’s not working.
Ding! Ms Pryle, if I turn my camera on my wifi goes out.
“Ms. Pryle?” A student is standing in front of me, and I hadn’t realized it. I look up. “Can I go to the bathroom?”
“Sure, go ahead,” I reply, and look down. That’s okay, thanks for letting me know, I type. “Okay everyone, let’s start with our Book Club reading,” I say loudly, almost shouting because the students are spread across the room and I am in my prescribed corner. The heater fan is cranking. “Did everyone get that? Let’s start reading. Good job.” The students in the room open their books. I glance at the screen.
“Ms. Pryle? Are you talking? You’re muted,” a square says.
Darn. When did I do that? I click the reddened mic icon to black. “Whoops, sorry about that, everyone. I was just saying to start reading, okay? Take out your book, and I’ll tell you when 10 minutes is up. Good job. Good to see you.” Are any of them struggling today? Jane looks a little tired; Chris has a hood pulled over his head. Are they okay? Are they reading? Do they think my class is a joke like this? Or boring? I feel like I’m not doing this right. Maybe I should start writing discipline referrals for the non-cameras. But what if they’re too anxious about it? Sometimes they film each other and then post things to social media--
“Ms. Pryle?” My head jerks up; another student, Audrey, has apparently been standing there. The rest are reading. “Can I grab a temporary book from the shelf? I forgot mine.”
“Sure, absolutely, go right over there,” I say, and follow her over. “What do you like? Do you like science? Do you like poetry?”
“I like science,” Audrey says.
“Great—here’s a perfect temporary book for a day or two,” I reply, and pull a copy of What If from the shelf. “Each chapter is its own short episode of sorts. The author asks these random hypothetical science questions, like ‘If I hit a baseball into space, would it go into orbit?’ and stuff like that. And then he answers it with real physics and—"
“Let me check that, Audrey. You can page through this,” I say, and hand her the book while I head back to my station. Someone has arrived late.
“I’m so sorry, Ms. Pryle, I was trying to get in here with the link for Human Geo, and I didn’t realize it till just now—”
I remember to unmute. “No problem, Gavin,” I whisper, “we’re just reading for ten.” In the meantime, I really need to talk to Casey about her paper. I open up another tab, open my Google calendar, and copy an additional Meet link.
I unmute. “Casey, if you can hear me, come on over to the conference Meet for a minute so I can talk to you about your paper.” I mute, paste the new link in the chat, and go over to it in a new tab. I wait. Did Casey hear me? Was her camera on? Did she just walk away from her computer at home?
Ding! It’s Casey asking to get in to the new Meet. I let her in.
“Ms. Pryle?” Matt calls from his desk, raising his hand.
“If we’re done with our book—I just finished mine—can we start on our book review?”
“Sure, good question.” I look at the screen. Casey is looking at me from her square, waiting patiently. “Ok Casey, can you open your graded paper?”
“Um, where is it?” she asks, squinting at her screen. “Oh wait, I think it’s in my classroom folder. Hold on…”
I click on the other tab of the main class Meet while she scrolls. They are still there, apparently reading. I make sure I am muted on that tab and return to the tab with Casey on it. We review her paper, and I send her back to the main Meet.
I unmute. “Okay everyone, that’s ten. Finish up your paragraph and then go to your Daily Reading Chart. Make some notes on it for today.”
“My book just got really exciting!” Gina says from her desk. “It started off slow but--
“Ms. Pryle?” a voice calls from the computer. I look down, but Gina is still talking.
“—and then it got really good when the main character—”
“Hang on there, Gina. Hold that thought—” I say and look down. “John, can you hang on a sec? Gina was just telling me about her book.”
“Oh. sorry about that. Sorry. I didn’t hear her,” John says sheepishly. He feels bad; he would never normally interrupt a classmate. I feel bad for him.
“Totally fine, John, you didn’t know. Just one minute— Go ahead Gina.” Gina finishes her point, I ask a follow-up question that feels a bit forced, and then I look at the screen. John asks about the final due date for book clubs, and I answer him. A couple more hands go up on screen (Ding! Ding!). We talk. I look up. The in-person students are done and waiting patiently. It feels like I’m failing at this. You’re not failing, I tell myself. You’re doing it. It’s a difficult situation and you’re doing the best you can. Breathe. Managing the voice in my head has become a second job this year.
“Ok everyone, we’re going to work on some questions in small groups. Start with sharing your reading responses, and then work on the questions together. In-class people, get right to work. Online people, I need a minute to make your small groups. Hang on…” I scan the room. I have not only allowed but encouraged students to work with their friends this year, both to increase engagement and to create a space for social interaction during this time of isolation. Two groups begin talking in class, yelling over their masks and the space between desks and the heater. One student sits alone, his two friends from this class both online today.
“Simon, do you want to join Matt and Bryce in their group? Just turn your chair and all of you can work together,” I suggest. He shrugs. I’m failing at this.
“Do you want us to start on the questions while you make our groups?” a voice says from my computer over the din in the room. I look down.
“Um, yes, thanks Maya. Yeah, just get to work on your own and I’m making your groups right now,” I say. I look at the Meet. One girl laughs; another smiles. They are muted. Are they laughing at me? At something else? Do I have something on my face? I know from my own teenage sons that at any given moment, there are actually two classes going on online: the one on the Meet and the one on the continuous group chat. What are they saying? I can’t think about this now; I have to make groups. Focus.
I quickly drag names into groups on the Meet Breakout feature. Students chose their group mates in the beginning of the year, but in Google Meet I must recreate the groups at the beginning of every single class. This takes a few minutes, but in my heart I know it’s worth it. I have the groups memorized by now but I still have to consult my chart because my brain is just--
“Mrs. Pryle?” I look up. Aidan is yelling from across the room. “Should we write answers on the story itself, or a separate doc?”
I hold the cloth of my mask so it doesn’t go into my mouth. “The story itself. Add to your annotations,” I yell back. I look down. Chloe goes here, Marta goes there…. I drag the rest of the names. “Done!” I announce to the Meet, “Okay, when you get in your groups, talk to each other. Share your responses. Work on the questions. I’ll pop in,” I say, and click the button that sends them into groups. I look up and breathe. Everyone’s working.
“How’s it going in here?” I ask the physical space. “Any questions? How about someone tell me their reading response?”
Hannah raises her hand. “I wrote about a cultural value—how the Greek gods are part of almost every scene and that shows—”
“Ms. Pryle?” Someone on the Meet is still in the main group. “I just had to change devices and got kicked out of the small group. Can you put me back in?” Sure, I tell him, and click “Edit groups,” drag him over, and click “Save.”
I look up. “Go ahead, Hannah. What were you saying?” She finishes. I try to listen. I’m failing at this. No you’re not; everyone’s working. Hannah just had a great thought. You’re doing it. Don’t look discouraged in front of them. They are saddened too; be strong for them.
Ding! Someone arrives to class 20 minutes late. I say hi and put them in a small group (Edit—Drag—Save). I’ll find out why they’re tardy later.
I enter one of the small groups. All the cameras are off, and no one is talking. I’m failing at this. “How are we doing in here?” Silence.
Then, Jessica unmutes. “Hi Mrs. Pryle, we’re good. We just finished sharing our responses and Mary is just waiting for the questions to load so she can share them and we can work on them together.”
I thank her for unmuting and talk for a minute to each of them, listening to their responses. They’re doing ok. I’m not failing. I go into another small group.
“And then I told her she could just go—” Evan closes his mouth dramatically on camera and everything is silent, stopped. I obviously surprised them. Someone giggles.
“Did I interrupt something here? Do you want to finish your thought, Evan?” The rest laugh. I wasn’t trying to embarrass Evan, but he is clearly embarrassed. I’m failing.
“No, sorry, Ms. Pryle, I was just talking about something that happened yesterday,” Evan says guiltily.
“That’s ok, I know you don’t see each other a whole lot these days. I get it,” I say. I’m smiling, but he can’t see through my mask, so I squint the corners of my eyes a bit harder to reassure him. “How are we doing with the story?” I ask, and chat with the group for a couple minutes.
“Ms. Pryle, what does number six refer to?” Alex asks from across the room. I look up. There are only two minutes left in class.
“It’s referring to the part with Helen and Aphrodite,” I say, but I don’t want to go too much further. “Actually, we’re getting close to the end of the class so start to wrap up your last thought. I have to bring these other small groups back.” I click on “End Groups—>Yes, I’m sure—>Groups will end in 30 seconds—>Groups will end now—>Yes, I’m sure.” I wait for the main Meet to populate with faces and blank squares.
I did not get to talk to most students about their responses. I did not review the questions. I could not circulate. I don’t even know if most of them wrote responses or did the reading at all. I did not talk about the plot of the story, or symbols, or emerging themes, or modern-day connections, or, or, or. I’m failing at this.
Ding! That one is our actual class bell. The students in the room get up and start toward the door. The students in the Meet are waiting for me. I look at them as my arm waves on its own to the students filing out the door. “Ok, everyone on the Meet, good job. I hope you made some progress today. Email me if you have any questions, and just follow the work on the calendar. Okay? It’s so good to see you.” I think of them alone in their rooms, possibly alone in their homes for the entire day. I am saddened. “You’re doing it, you showed up, you’re doing a good job,” I say. “I’m proud of you, you’re doing it,” I add. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” I try to sound happy and hopeful; I send them hope and strength energetically. Some wave; some of the blank squares unmute and say goodbye. They have been there, the whole time. I feel bad for doubting them. I should have more faith in them, and in myself, I should--
Ding! The next class streams in, and it all starts again. And again. And again. Six times every day. Sometimes seven, when I cover another teacher’s class: there are precious few outside subs this year. After school, I will spend another hour or two preparing (reading, creating, and converting material for online consumption), grading (every activity has to be turned in this year, and I don’t feel comfortable giving tests, so it’s mostly writing), and following up on attendance and missing students.
What’s so exhausting is not just the fact that my attention is pulled in several directions at once, that I can’t hold or finish a thought, or that I don’t know how much literature anyone is actually learning. What’s most exhausting—spiritually exhausting on an existential level—is the emotional component, the variety and intensity of emotions: the overwhelming doubt, sadness, uncertainty, insecurity. The constant feelings of failure. The utter grief that remains, even a year later—or more so, because it’s a year later—that this has happened at all, that we have all lost so much. And then the energy I have to muster to counter these thoughts, to encourage myself, to encourage the students, to encourage my colleagues, to remind myself to go easy, to have compassion for myself and everyone around me.
Mixed with all of this are moments of real connection with the students. Lighthearted moments, laughter even. Emails that thank me for caring, for trying so hard. At the end of the day the children need us, and this is what we wanted to do when we became teachers: to care for children, to better their lives by helping them grow. As difficult as it is to constantly feel like a failure, I’m old enough to know that ultimately I’m not; I’m just experiencing a profoundly difficult time. The students are too young to fully have that perspective. So I keep going: You showed up, You’re doing it, I tell myself each day. Keep going, I say. I’m proud of you.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER KAREN GENNARO
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” So begins L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between. I lingered on this famous first line while walking amid the windy and vast uncertainty of last March. When Covid 19 began to spread last year, it forced an abrupt closure of our schools. Overnight, what was - was no longer. Since then, Hartley’s words have served as an affirmation of sorts - a reminder that we all travel through time as we move toward new destinations, and we carry things along.
Where are we going?
The early days of the closure were laden with an indescribable sense of urgency and a longing for clarity and stability. Ensuring the continued presence of a daily walk became my first step along an arduous journey, one that precipitated the need for persistent strenuous laborious action along with profound mental focus.
As a kindergarten teacher, I believe physical movement serves as fuel to ignite the brightness of inspiration and unite it with the starkness of analysis, and the revelations born of reflection. Walking induces actionable ideas to emerge and percolate freely through confirmed pedagogical beliefs. Conclusions are considered; solutions arise. Refined ideas are propelled forward, and, in so doing, confirm the next instructional steps and opportunities for collegial collaboration. Walking served to distance nervous thoughts from unwavering professional obligations- a way to gain mental momentum. The walk became a mainstay along the search for stability, replacing part of the lost structure of what was once the school day.
What must we leave behind?
Fear can truncate creativity and imagination. Fear replaces them with a recoiling sense of ‘nope’. A lack of hope and inconsistent opportunity contributes to a rising sense of fear and overwhelming dread. Phillip Schlechty’s work informed my decision to support and provide pathways for families and children to remain engaged with school in order to regulate, relate, and reason together until we reached a safe harbor. So began a deliberate search for ways to coax calm and to refresh collective purpose.
What must be maintained?
We need to preserve the active learning community that is school. We are critical go-betweens for young children and their families. We guide them from the known toward the new. We must support, strengthen and nurture our inclusive collective resolve to go forward together by ensuring there are links to school. If we do this, we can move away from the irons of indecision, uncertainty, and fear that threaten the integrity of our safe passage. Then, we can offer the critical continuity and stability young families need.
So, in those first days of the closure, I contacted my student’s families. Every morning I set up a series of short simple video lessons based on our school work to offer parents, children, and caregivers a link to kindergarten. This included key elements of our regular routine: calendar time, our songs, our Bear playing with math and working on problems, and a storytime. Notifications of these small videos arrived in family inboxes through an existing digital community posting app that all of the families regularly accessed.
Almost immediately responses returned. The children recorded themselves talking to our classroom Bear. They asked when the next posts would come along. Every morning I forwarded the next videos and learning experiences; every afternoon I responded to the children and families. In the evenings, check-in-and-chat phone calls with parents offered a place to stay connected to our kindergarten community.
Eventually, Google-Meet touch-points on different days and at different times allowed small groups of parents and of children to share thoughts, worries, and stories.
These were simple yet meaningful initial attempts to stay connected - this became our Go-Between school. In it, we found some comfort and stability. We found time to strengthen our resolve to forge ahead. Soon enough, though, we were to learn that we would stay at home for the remainder of the school year. And, the District took over. They established the platform. They linked us all to their plan.
What must we take along?
If the past really is a foreign country, as Hartley affirms, perhaps our navigation of this expansive Covid-void will bring about opportunities for educators to consider essential scholarly and pragmatic questions about the future of education. We need to carry critical questions along this journey. Here are just a few that I am taking with me: which substantive teaching and learning presences must survive and thrive? Which decisions about teaching and learning in kindergarten should be recalibrated? Without teacher efficacy, how will history and the essential and innovative teaching practices of a true kindergarten coalesce? How best can we serve? How can we link arms to forge equitable pathways forward?
What educators take along this journey away from the past will truly define the next iteration of public education. Along the way there is school. School endures. May Sarton, the Belgian-American poet said, “It always comes back to the same necessity: go deep enough and there is a bedrock of truth, however hard.”
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER REBECCA GIBBONEY
Elena Aguilar states in her book Onward that it takes about “10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become a master at something as complex as teaching” (p. 239).
And yet, here we are, teaching through a pandemic--a pandemic that has turned our Picasso masterpiece into a blank canvas. Fall of 2019, I would not say my canvas was a masterpiece, but it was a work in progress. However, as I sit here almost a year since we were isolated by the pandemic, I stare at a blank screen--a blank canvas, not exactly sure how to write my thoughts on paper, not exactly sure how to reach you. Like many of you, I have so many questions.
Yet, my questions target a different audience --YOU!
As a former teacher turned professional development provider, I have so many questions. Some have answers. Some seem impossible. Some still have me holding onto hope.
How can I create professional learning opportunities that do not feel like one more thing for educators?
How do I help educators believe they are enough?
How can I…
My incomplete masterpiece in the past could not possibly be the exact same work of art in the future. I had to let go. I had to find a way, one brushstroke at a time.
A yellow streak, understanding new learning management systems.
An orange streak, turning professional development opportunities into professional learning opportunities (yes, there is a difference) through gamification.
Blue streak here, there. Green streak.
Asynchronous. Hybrid. Synchronous. Remote.
Slowly but surely, my blank canvas is getting some color.
Each of us has a blank canvas. All we need to do is pick up a new brush. Perhaps, try a whole new paint. We all need to paint through our unknowns and sometimes beyond the lines, new perspectives; because with each stroke, we will create our own kind of masterpiece.
The ultimate question is, what kind of masterpiece will you paint?
Aguilar, E. (2018). Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER JAKE MILLER
The year “1920 was an auspicious year for a young person to enter the world as an American citizen.”
Journalist Tom Brokaw used these words to introduce us to “The Greatest Generation,” those Americans born between 1901-1927. In his epic book of the same title, he shares how they grew up watching the world become more authoritarian abroad, eventually leading to the outbreak of The Great War (now World War I). The war was followed by the 1918 Influenza pandemic (also known as the Spanish Flu), where 50 million people died across the globe (including 675,000 Americans) -- more than double (and quintuple) the number of war deaths.
Once the virus was under control, there was a decade of a new normal and explosive growth until the stock and job markets collapsed, thus beginning the long, painful journey of The Great Depression. There this generation remained stymied for another decade until war broke out. When their country called them to service, whether it was fighting on front lines or stepping up personal sacrifice and increased production at home, this generation quite possibly saved the world.
What if the group of students before us, in 2021, is the next Greatest Generation?
The historical outline above hardly is a recipe for replication, but there are more than enough rhymes to allow us to consider it.
To start, 2020 is an equally auspicious year for a young person to enter the world as an American citizen.
As a social studies teacher, former staff member at the Pennsylvania State Capitol, candidate for office, organizer for Pennsylvania State Education Association, and promoter of youth voices in government, I’ve said this more about politics and government in the last calendar year than ever:
“Well, I never saw that happen before.”
Whether it’s the Black Lives Matter or Q-Anon, “Stop the Steal” or a second Presidential Impeachment, or any other events that have tested the elasticity our democratic-republic like a trampoline, students are becoming Constitutional scholars if only because the events of the world have made it a priority to understanding - and fixing - them.
Additionally, while adults like to debate and surmise the difficulty of making sacrifices of wearing a mask to get this pandemic under control, this generation expresses the resilience needed to outlast and outmaneuver a pestilence. While others gawk at the slow crawl of immunization rollout - especially here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania - children don’t even have a vaccine trial to look forward to. And yet they continue on.
Graduating seniors enter quite an uncertain world already. However, 2020-21 has proven to be the most auspicious; that’s led to necessity being the mother of invention and brother of intention. Schools and their teachers - whether at the college level, community college, certification programs, or high school - have had to pivot more than those on the ice of a Flyers-Pens’ game. And, though far from perfect, teachers have mostly met the students where they are.
To say high school students and teachers are struggling to perfectly meet one another’s needs is an understatement. But what if the important lesson students taught us isn’t perfection - or isn’t in a textbook?
What if it was the auspices of tenaciousness?
At the middle school level, where I teach, coming of age with all the hormones and anxiety of the age is already quite a task. Even the most confident and successful adult can recollect some dour feelings of pubescence. While students have stumbled and failed more than ever, what if the lesson these kids teach us is resilience -- and personal ownership of their learning?
Less than 20% of schools are back to full-time instruction, and that impact has been hardest on elementary students, where attention spans are low and even lower behind a screen. Ask any parent of a Kindergartener, and you’ll know exactly what I mean -- or of any third-grade teacher who needs to see another kid bring another pet to the screen.
And while pundits (wrongly) mention how schools are “closed” (they’re not) and how 2020-21 will be “a lost year,” I have a bigger question:
What if this the year that redefines the American future, and these kids lead us there?
COMPARISONS WITH THE GREATEST GENERATION
I’m sure the adults who were raising the Greatest Generation had more than their fair share of doubts about the kids before them. The decrease in life expectancy was unparalleled. The number of America’s sons and daughters lost to war and then disease was comparable to the suffering in the Civil War. Jim Crow was at a crescendo, and anti-black racism led to an egregious amount of mistreatment and even lynching. The difficulty in determining who or what was “an American” extended to other groups, as Irish and Indigenous found difficulty. A decade of growth in the Roaring 20s was a dream that would pop and crush this generation just as much.
But when the time came to show their resilience, they heeded the call and met the challenges as best they could.
My hope is that this group sitting in our classrooms seats, the Zoomers, will be our next Greatest Generation.
A CALL TO ACTION
But our hope is not enough. The time for action to bridge these gaps is now. The way to make sure that this generation of students before us is the Greatest Generation and not the Grounded one. That’s why the Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee has stepped up to share:
Which brings us back around to 2020, our most auspicious year for a young person to enter the world as an American citizen. In this year, it is the teachers who will bridge that gap and give students every chance to transform into the Greatest Generation. Maybe it will be the year this generation proves themselves beyond our every doubt.
When we work so they may rise, we’ll once again say, in the most positive proclamation, “Well I never saw that happen before.”
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER BJ ENZWEILER
I write this blog post on Jan 7, 2021, a day after the protest, insurrection, sedition, attempted coup, or whatever you want to call it. Like many Americans, I was appalled by what I was seeing at our national capitol building. In a desperate attempt to understand, I flipped through different news sources on an almost minute-by-minute basis. Three screens, my phone, and my two computer monitors all showed news sources until I couldn’t take it anymore; sulking, I crossed the street to Rite Aid to buy a whole box of Tastykake Chocolate Bells. I needed to consume sugar to try and sweeten an incredibly bitter day.
Now, a day later - with more hours of news and chocolate bells devoured - I’ve given myself some time to reflect on what has happened and what it means for me as an educator. This is an educators’ blog after all. I want to understand the cause of what happened on January 6th in Washington DC.
The first assumption my brain jumps to is that we need more critical thinking in this country. This idea has been tossed around so much that it has almost become axiomatic. But, I must pause and think about my own experience and what I know of the teachers I have met. All of the teachers I have known in my decade of experience have tried to push for critical thinking in their classrooms through their own disciplines. We have used projects, Socratic seminars, and debates to push our students to see the world more broadly. We all know about the necessity for critical thinking in all classrooms, and we have known this for decades. To say that the current and former students of the United States schools have not had critical thinking training is reductionist. We should not discount the efforts of our fellow teachers across the nation. Many of us have pushed our students to take different perspectives and know that our students are thinking critically.
There are definitely other root causes of the events of January 6th. I think one of the more important causes is tribalism. This is blind loyalty people are expressing to demographics, religion, and political affiliation. With the rise of the internet, social media, and more politically focused news sources, we are able to choose our social groups and information. As such, political discourse has more easily turned into echo chambers that inflame the rages of sedition. Tribalism comes from a deep human desire for belonging. We must remember that we humans are still animals; we are social creatures with a basic need for connection. The tribalism of the 2010s and on comes from the community building that humans will always do. Tribalism appeals to our base nature and can circumvent our critical thinking when we are angry, hurt, and vulnerable.
So what do educators need to do? When people feel underappreciated and unheard, rabid tribalism can emerge. Therefore, we should recognize our human need for connection and listen to all of our students’ pain and perspectives. We need to continue to teach perspective-taking and critical thinking, but something else must be present too: compassion. Always recognize the humanity and pain behind the rage. In our classrooms, we should not ignore whatever crazy news is going to happen in 2021. Instead, we must talk about it with our students. No, we don’t all teach current events, but showing our humanity is a slow but positive step towards anti-tribalism.
With all of the directives and paperwork, this can seem like another thing that has to be added on to the workload. Compassion is not more work; instead, it is a methodology. We should inject empathy into all interactions we have with our students. Let’s not allow anybody to feel so sidelined that they turn to rabid echo chambers online or elsewhere. We should hear our student’s views to make our classrooms safe and stable spaces. Let’s be available, and let’s be kind.
And, maybe have a few more emergency Tastykakes stashed away somewhere.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER, ALICE FLAREND, PH.D.
Students usually see teachers as having finished school and, therefore, finished learning. However, the need and the drive to learn new things are integral parts of being an educator, both as an inherent trait and as a result of external forces.
I earned a PhD a few years back, and that process threw me back into a nascent learner mode. I had to learn not only a new language (e.g. epistemology, cognitive versus sociocultural constructivism), but I also developed a new social science way of viewing the world. This brought into sharper focus how I push my students to explain all the motions in the visible world with a few principles and with unfamiliar use of the familiar words, such as force (comes from the interaction of objects), acceleration (not just speeding up), and energy (specifically defined).
I was once again riding the roller coaster of learning: the frustrations of not understanding, the doubts of whether I could understand, and the elation when I finally could understand. I was in the same emotionally charged position in which I placed my students and was reminded just how difficult learning is. My learning journey improved my teaching by pushing me to build stronger relationships with my students to help them manage the emotional swings and to build stronger ties between my curriculum and their prior knowledge to help them navigate to deeper understandings. All of my students come with different prior knowledge, experiences and understandings. As a teacher, I need to learn these particulars about my students and then help them fill in the gaps and further their individual knowledge. This means taking the time to listen to the voices of my students as they tell me about themselves, their ideas and their questions. It also means the classroom activities will look different for different students.
Fast forward to teaching in times of COVID. With little warning, my fellow educators and I were thrown into the uncomfortable world of being learners of technology with a deadline and with hundreds of students, parents and community members counting on us. I need to help my students learn during these stressful times but without the means to look over a shoulder at the student device, or more importantly, without being able to look them in the eye.
My students are willing to simply click, secure in their cavalier view of technology that nothing cannot be undone. I, as an adult, am less adventurous, having unwittingly transferred funds between accounts with one of those simple clicks. My mistakes as a teacher are visible to and affect the lives of my students and their families. Posting wrong Docs, giving assignments on sites that cannot be accessed on certain devices, missing student responses that need an answer can all contribute to losses of learning and faith in schooling.
I felt and still feel awash in a dazzling forest of technology without much of a map. I am one of the lucky ones because my science and engineering background means that at least I have a foundation of programming and electronics which fills out a bit of the map. I understand that computers only know the syntax of the commands given not what we intend to do. This does not, however, mean that I know why sometimes my text comes out backwards on EdPuzzle questions or that I am able to predict how a Doc will look on an iPad versus a Chromebook versus my laptop.
One of the only good things to emerge is that once again I am in touch with the world of the learner, hopefully, pushing me to be a better teacher.
BLOG POST BY 2020-2021 PA TEACHER OF THE YEAR AND PTAC MEMBER JOE WELCH
Each May, my middle school holds an awards ceremony for our 8th grade students. We celebrate their accomplishments, highlight their kindness and contributions, and hear from administrators, teachers, and students. At the end of it, we roll the annual reflection video with Jason Mraz’s “Have it All,” amongst others, serenading us in the background.
And, even though I may have seen the video cut dozens of times before airing live, I always get that lump in my throat. Lyrics like “Here’s to the lives that you’re gonna change” or “May the best of your todays be the worst of your tomorrows” ring true. But, really, it’s the line “I want you to have it all” that captures the sentiment I - and so many other teachers - have for students as they begin the next chapter of their story. We want them to all to have the access, the opportunity, the support, the confidence, the resilience, the inspiration, and the character to experience all that life has to offer them.
But right now, they can’t.
As full disclosure, I opened the school year teaching in a semi-hybrid format, then virtual, then live hybrid, and then back to virtual. The yo-yo that is the 2020-2021 school year has put students in a position where they just cannot, as Mraz writes, have it all. They should have the experiences and opportunities that others before them have had in year’s past. Teachers want them to have that - and more. But, we, as local communities throughout Pennsylvania, need to be better at adhering to health officials’ recommendations and guidance so that our students can get back to having it all. It is beyond time to acknowledge that.
Are teachers and students coming together to do amazing activities to foster learning? Absolutely, we are. And, we’re doing a great job in the situation that we have had dropped in our lap[tops]. Trust me, teachers across the state [and nation] are doing their best to innovate and inspire. After four months of collaborating, training, planning, and adapting, educators have, once again, shown their resolve and are proving that their dedication to students will not waver but grow stronger, especially in the face of adversity.
I have had the opportunity to experience this first hand. As the year opened, a small, but diverse group of educators from different schools and communities throughout Western Pennsylvania collaborated with their local PBS Affiliate, WQED, to produce high-quality lesson content to serve students throughout the entire viewing area of the network. This collaboration led to recording over-the-air lessons and units, producing engaging activities that can be implemented with or without technology resources [which leads to a greater conversation about educational equity]. Colleagues and I have worked to broadcast live lessons from historic sites around Pittsburgh as well as day trips to Fayette County and Washington, D.C. Teachers are willing to literally go the extra mile for students. Again, we want our students to have it all, to best experience it all, and to know throughout it all that they are our priority. I am also proud to be part of a group of teachers that filled their hybrid classrooms with historical figure cut-outs, social justice leaders, entrepreneurial role models, and local heroes to fill the physical voids students may feel in their classrooms when desks were left vacated due to social distancing and hybrid models. This is all part of what it means to do what is needed to connect with our students, and teachers are rising to the occasion and then some.
We all want students back in school, experiencing everything, with everyone, as soon as it is safely possible to do so. Students have been working under difficult circumstances as well. Some are trying to attend class while caring for siblings, some have family members who are sick, and some students are victims of a lack of equitable technology resources. We have seen some of the best that our students have to offer over the last four months, and, on the flip side, a spotlight also now shines on the need for equitable reforms now and in the future. Students’ resiliency, their perspectives, their positive attitudes as changes are thrust upon them, certainly are helpful fuel to press forward. However, the fatigue of students and teachers is setting in. The sustainability of this marathon that is 2020 is in question.
I’ve been putting off writing this for weeks. I wanted to make sure to have a positive spin on what I wanted to write. A feel good story, if you will, about what I had mentioned above. About how it is all working out for everyone, with a clear narrative that teachers are working harder than ever [and we are], and are sacrificing and risking more than ever [and we are], and will continue to be able to sustain it. But, that is just more of the toxic positivity that is detrimental to moving forward. In stressing about this recently, a colleague I consider to be a mentor shared, “Joe, some situations just aren’t all positive.”
So, let’s have the conversation. Unfortunately, despite all of the innovating, all of the collaborating, all of the inspiration that teachers, students, and communities are making happen in our schools, schools are slowly being forced to close physical spaces yet again. As scientists and doctors have predicted, not following safety recommendations has led to a rise in community spread.
I, like hundreds of thousands of teachers across Pennsylvania, want students back in school. I do my part to make sure that this happens, like hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania teachers. And, like hundreds of thousands of teachers across Pennsylvania, I am willing to make personal sacrifices and make the decisions in my own life, in and out of school, to put us in a better position to be able to do this safely. Making these choices so that a kindergartner has a better chance of in-person reading instruction? A no brainer. A middle school student has a better chance to participate in their first musical? Sign me up. A high school senior can hug their friends at graduation? Who wouldn’t pick that?
These are personal decisions that keep me and my family safe and keep others safe. These are decisions that teachers and so many others across the Commonwealth are wisely making. But they are also the decisions that are necessary if we want to return to normalcy as we await the cavalry in the form of mass vaccinations. But, until that point of widespread distribution, we need your help now more than ever to make this a realistic possibility.
I want the students to have it all. I want to sit in a full auditorium in May surrounded by students and have that annual lump in my throat. Put simply, I want students to be in school.
Please, help us make this happen.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER SUSAN MATTHIAS
After taking part in a workshop, “Developing a Growth Mindset in the Middle School Math Classroom,” I began to understand that it is the classroom culture that could positively impact the manner in which students approach their work. Although this workshop focused on math instruction, the concept of developing growth mindset in students can be applied to any content area on all levels.
If you have ever heard statements such as “I have never been good in math”; “I will never be able to write an essay”; “This science experiment is too difficult”; “This math problem has too many steps”, you are most likely working with students that operate using a fixed mindset. These students see their personal qualities as fixed traits that cannot be changed. Students with fixed mindsets do not recognize the connection between effort and success. With a fixed mindset, they believe that skill and intelligence are qualities you are born with and cannot be improved upon.
A growth mindset classroom culture can teach students that they are in control of their learning. Once students begin to understand, and most importantly, believe they are in control, an empowering mindset begins to creep in.
My classroom culture begins with me. After I adjusted the manner in which I responded to students,I began to see change. My responses to students began to communicate my confidence in them as the learner. In the past, when students came to me with questions and problems, I would be tempted to jump in and fix it for them. I stopped doing much of the work for them. What I realized is that learning stops when I respond in that way. I began to change how I responded. I began to ask more questions such as “Tell me what you do know about this problem,” or “Tell me how you got to this point.” The questions I began to ask and the discussions that ensued began to empower the students. I heard students say, “I got this!” or “I will work on that.”
Yes, a growth mindset is all about empowerment. Students need to understand that learning takes work and effort, and often, does not come easily. When students begin to experience success after doing their work, they begin to feel empowered. In a growth mindset classroom, students understand that a response such as “I don’t know” is not accepted. When students are not sure of how to respond, they learn and practice other responses such as “Can I phone a friend?”; “Can you come back to me?”, “I need a few minutes to think about that.” If teachers refuse to accept “I don’t know”, they promote a classroom culture where learning can happen, even if that learning does not appear to happen immediately.
It takes time and patience to develop a classroom culture that promotes a growth mindset. Educating students about the difference between a fixed mindset and the benefits of growth mindset opens doors they once thought were closed. It takes a strong teacher commitment to develop a growth mindset classroom. Discussions and responses to students must encourage students to do the work. At first, students may push back, as it will feel uncomfortable to them, however, if done consistently and with compassion, the culture will change. Although results will not be immediate, when promoting a growth mindset culture, I assure you that they will begin to try harder and reach deeper. They begin to be more accountable for their work and become more independent. Students will then be in charge of their learning!
Blog Post by PTAC Vice-President, Mike Soskil
Today I embark on my twenty-third school year journey. Each one has been exciting, difficult, rewarding, and unique.
As I look forward to this school year, I can’t help but reflect on the incredible challenges I faced during my first year teaching. There were times it felt like I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and others when I didn’t think I’d make it. When I look back, though, I realize that it was the greatest year of professional growth of my career.
Most importantly, despite all of the difficulties, I know I made a positive impact on my students that year.
Three days before the 1997-98 school year began, and less than 24 hours after arriving in the Sonoran Desert after a cross-country drive, I met the Program Director of the Mesa, Arizona school in which I had landed my first teaching position.
She welcomed me. She laughed at me because I was wearing khakis, long sleeves, and a tie on a 115 degree day (I was trying to look professional and make a good impression). She showed me my classroom.
Then, she handed me three photocopied teachers manuals: an old math book, a phonics book, and a spelling primer with a copyright date of 1898 (really). These were to be my only curriculum or teaching guidance for that entire school year.
I was terrified. But at the same time, I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep. Finally, after all of my university courses, my student teaching, and my dreams of making a positive impact on the world through teaching, I was going to get the opportunity.
I made a lot of mistakes that year. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and talk some sense into the relatively clueless first-year teacher version of myself. I learned a lot, though. And, with each mistake, each new experience, each new challenge, each colleague that I connected with out of necessity, I grew as a professional and a person.
In a strange way, I was blessed at the time with the humility that comes from knowing I was clueless. As a first year teacher, I didn’t expect to have it all figured out. I did my best, all the while knowing that my best was going to continue to get better.
I’ve come to understand that the incredible challenges that I faced that first year were the groundwork for the innovation and experimentation that has allowed me to be successful in my career. If I could figure out a way to find resources and to teach with almost no guidance or mentorship provided by my school, I could figure out a way to teach anything to anyone.
Now, like many of you, I’m right back here at the beginning. As I begin this year, I’m once again clueless. I’ve never taught concurrently - online and in-person at the same time. I’ve never had to worry about the physical, mental, and emotional health of my students, my colleagues, or my family in the ways that will be necessary this year. It’s harder because I know now - much better than I did back then - what effective teaching looks like.
So, I’m giving myself permission to make mistakes, learn, and grow this year. I’m not going to be as effective at first - because none of us are. Our students’ needs are different, our challenges are different, and our restraints are different. But, with each new challenge comes and opportunity to grow, and an opportunity to model for our children how to learn from mistakes.
I’m giving myself permission to focus on the social-emotional health of my students more this year, and to be at peace with the fact that it might mean there is less time for academic content. After all, all of us have been impacted by this pandemic, and we can’t Bloom unless we Maslow first.
I’m giving myself permission to innovate and experiment, because the only way to the other side of this pandemic is through it.
And, for those of you who need someone else to tell you, I’m giving you permission to make mistakes, to focus on your students’ holistic needs, and to innovate as well. This school year will be different than any other you’ve ever experienced. As teachers, we tend to be perfectionists, believing that our value is measured by our ability to teach the curriculum.
When we have quiet moments of reflection, however, we all know that our value as educators is much more closely tied to our ability to connect with our students and help them see their value.
As the inevitable uncertainty unfolds this year, carve time and space for you to remember, honor, and focus on that. Surround yourself with other educators (virtually if needed) who inspire you and help you do that.
You aren’t alone. PTAC’s network of outstanding, inspiring teachers will be working with you to ensure narratives from our classrooms are informing the decisions in Pennsylvania that impact our students. Experience tells me that they will also be coming together to help each other, me, and you build networks of support and collaboration.
The challenges may be new, but the solution in education remains the same. Relationships will get us through this school year. With colleagues, and with the students that we love. Teachers have a capacity to empathize and show compassion on a level found in few other professions. It’s never been more important for our students or our fellow educators.
If we get those relationships right, at the end of this year you and I will look back at all of the struggles and know that we had a positive impact on our students.
Decades from now, our current students will be asked by their grandchildren, “What was it like to live through the Pandemic of 2020-2021?”
My hope, for my students and for yours, is that they begin telling that story by saying, “There was this incredible teacher…”
Fox Chapel Area High School Music Department students welcome faculty, staff and administration back to a new year!
BY PTAC MEMBER COLLEEN EPLER-RUTHS, Ph.D
Inspired by a conversation during a recent meeting, I set out to find out what my students felt about their new experience in online learning with me and overall. In some ways, I was driven by my fear of the future. What if we are online next fall? Would students flock to a virtual school? Is there a place for a brick and mortar teacher in this COVID world? Can I craft working relationships with a new set of students in a digital environment?
For context, my school district is considered rural but we do have one town and one very small city included in our population. We have 48% free/reduced lunches and about 10% minority (mostly Hispanic and/or Black). We are one of the districts in the state where a portion of our population has no internet access due to either poverty or location (rural without internet providers). For that reason, our spring semester was considered “enrichment.” We held online classes and office hours, provided online work (or packets), and provided graded feedback. However, the students were not held responsible or accountable for the assignments. Second, I teach computer science and physics, so I was already using technology in my classroom. My students were used to using Google Classroom, Documents, and Sheets. I felt my students would easily make the transition to online learning.
My anonymous 16-question survey was split into three parts - questions about them, questions about my online classroom, and questions about school overall. I had a mixture of scaled questions and open-ended questions. First I asked what they valued in education. Then I asked questions about their engagement with my classroom and what I did that was good and where I needed to improve. Finally, I asked them what they miss about brick and mortar school, and what they liked and didn’t like with online school. My final question was “any other thoughts?”
I was humbled by their perspectives and thoughtful considerations. While some of the feedback was something I could correct right away (“get a better camera, I had a hard time seeing in class” and “slow down”), some of the feedback spoke to my heart and what I am beginning to understand about the student COVID experience. So today, I am going to focus on what my students valued, what they need and what they miss and don’t miss about the brick and mortar school.
The first set of questions were designed to help my students first focus on the learning context and their educational values. My first question was “What do you value in education?” 67% of my students suggested that gaining knowledge and skills was valuable to them.
“I do not want to take a class just to pass and advance to the next level. Instead, I want to understand and grasp the topic at hand. By understanding what I have learned, I can take this knowledge and become a successful adult. “
22% of my students valued the teachers:
“Learning challenging material, but with the help of my teachers.”
“A teacher who is always ready to help and makes themselves available. I also get a lot more out of in person teaching, but I understand that it isn’t an option right now. “
The rest of the students valued having fun, learning for the real world, and for humanity.
“I value anything that benefits the welfare of humanity. Mainly, I value education that makes me better than I was the day before, not only intellectually but makes me a better human. “
The students’ answers about educational values generally made me feel that our students are engaged in learning and do care about how we teach.
My second question was “I wish my teachers knew…” I normally ask this same question as a test question during the first semester in the fall. I am often blown away by the variety of personal information and insights students will reveal. I was just as impressed by the candid responses and different perspectives I got in my online class survey. Three general themes ran through the survey answers: 1) students struggle with a lack of motivation, 2) online learning can be hard, time consuming and not as good as being in person, and 3) being stuck at home is taxing on mental health. Students gave genuine answers.
“I wish my teachers knew that we as students do not understand the topic as well as the teacher does. Students do not like the feeling of being downgraded because "the topic is easy" or barely teaching us because the teacher thinks we understand.”
“I wish my teachers knew how much pressure I put on myself and how grateful I am to them for being patient and kind.”
“I am infinitely gracious to those whom teach with respect, and whom understand they are still very similar to me, as I am human and so are they. “
“While I try to do most of my work for most of my classes, if I did absolutely everything for all 7 of my classes and went to every Google meet, I wouldn't have time to do anything else.”
“How my motivation to learn has been diminished more and more since being stuck at home. I try to stay busy, and for the most part I do stay pretty active, but I do have some days (or weeks) where I can’t bring myself to do much at all. “
Reading candid thoughts from my students helps me to tailor my classroom to their needs and be more reflective on my goals for them. I started to include information on my classroom announcements about social emotional learning, reaching out to guidance if they find themselves overwhelmed, and getting outside to hike and enjoy the outdoors. I also encourage them to contact me directly through email or office hours. Finally, I made sure I talked with each student as they came into the digital classroom to see how they were and how they were doing with physics content.
At the end of the survey I asked my students “what do you miss about coming to the brick and mortar high school?” There were no surprises in that many students reported missing friends, teachers and interactions with people (47%). Interesting enough, students also missed motivation and the routine (23%) and hands-on learning (17%).
“ I miss seeing my friends and teachers. I also miss being in the classroom because I feel like I learn much better that way.”
This is good news for those of us concerned with brick and mortar schools going the way of horse and buggies. Interactions with people, routines, and hands-on learning are our strongholds in physical schools. Only a small percentage (12%) suggested that they didn’t miss much.
“I do not believe I would have grown as much as I have if I had continued going to brick and mortar school. Education is so much more than a grade.”
Next, in comparison, I asked the students “What do you like about online learning?” The most common answers were the ability to set their own learning pace (24%) and have a flexible time schedule (24%) and sleeping in (12%).
“You can do it in the comfort of your own home and at any time you want.”
But a significant group of students (18%) said they like nothing about online learning. Only 6% of the students liked learning without receiving grades. Overall, I am not surprised by these results. Online learning does offer flexibility and freedom. But, I was surprised more students didn’t suggest lack of grades being a good thing. As an educator, I have always dreamed about a world where grades didn’t matter, but the reality is that our society values putting a number to effort. Is there a place for curiosity and learning for the joy of learning in the high school?
My last question was “What do you not like about online learning?”, Students had a wide variety of dislikes about online learning too. Many of the complaints had to do with the lack of schedule or accountability.
“The lack of real schedule, to me it didn’t feel like a school day, just a day where I did some extra work.”
“I don't like that work isn't mandatory, that we don't get grades. Even if I do all of the work, I feel like I'll be behind next year because of how long it has been since I've had an honest test, or actual grades.”
Other students felt overwhelmed, unorganized, and unable to communicate:
“Sometimes hard to keep on track with work”
“It's harder for me because I like to be able to physically write things down on paper, and I would like to be able to ask questions in person because I feel like I get more out of it that way.”
Overall, online learning is just not the same as in person. Students didn’t like staring at the computer all day, not being pushed, feeling unproductive and were concerned about falling grades.
“I believe that myself and others have lost motivation ...Online learning is not the same as physical, real life learning.”
Many of these complaints about online learning are going to be hard to overcome. But we must put thought into these shortcomings if we have to continue with virtual school into the fall. As educators, we have to help our students build a consistent schedule, get organized and become self-motivated so we all can find success in this new digital world into which we have been thrust.
At the end of the survey I asked my students if they had other thoughts. I was encouraged by the general positivity of my students and their resilience.
“I enjoyed your class while it lasted”
“I think online learning has potential, but I'm still not ready to go all in.”
“Thank you for doing all you could to make this year better through all the horrible events that have occurred.”
“I am very happy with your transition to online learning. Even with this big change I am still able to learn and hear your silly jokes during the meets. Thank you for truly caring about my education along with other students, it really shows.”
And understood their sense of loss:
“I'm going to miss my high school, believe it or not, and all the teachers that believed in me when I couldn't believe in myself. I originally thought that when I would leave high school, I'd coming running out cheering and happy to get away from it, but now I'd give my left leg to attend one more in-person class, to bump into someone in the hall, to hear other kids laughing, to see my teachers in person, to have my ears attacked by the sounds of slamming lockers and the loud, boisterous teachers in the school, and to say goodbye to the lunch ladies in the cafeteria.”
*Sniff* So what have I learned from my survey?
First, I found that my students really do care about education, learning and working with their teachers. I also now know that they carry a great load - school, work, family and activities - and the COVID lock down has made motivation and mental health even more of a challenge. I also believe that there is still a future for a brick and mortar school where we can help students one-on-one, give them a routine and time to interact and learn with other people. But, we also must learn to embrace this digital world and think outside the brick-and-mortar box. Online learning does have many benefits including pace and freedom to follow your curiosity and passion. While my survey will not help me predict the future for the next school year, I know the future will be in good hands with the students who have learned to thrive in our new normal.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee