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.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee