Searching for Virtual Teaching’s Silver Lining

A MiddleWeb Blog

One of the best educator blogs that you may not be following is Crawling Out of the Classroom by the incomparable Jessica Lifshitz. On April 28, she wrote a post that has stayed with me. It was called The Teachers Are Breaking.

In this post, she speaks about how teachers are willingly giving more of themselves than ever before because we care about and miss our students.

We want them to have some semblance of the normalcy that was our classroom before Covid-19. And it’s hard. Unbelievably hard. And teachers are showing the strain. Based on the feedback her post received on social media, this post hit home for many teachers.

As an avid news consumer, I can tell you what I am seeing in the media is not helpful. I live in Michigan, which is a hotspot for the virus, and apparently for frustration, as evidenced by recent protests covered by the major news outlets.

So many media narratives

We hear some voices championing us teachers as heroes, while others wonder why we are even collecting a paycheck considering we are just home relaxing. We see some super-teachers who are able to go above and beyond lauded on television which only makes us feel more inadequate if we’re not able to do the same.

I’ve read several articles about how this quarantine will irreparably damage a generation of students regardless of what teachers do. The inequity in educational opportunities in this country has become glaringly apparent. There is difficulty in providing services for our special education and most vulnerable students. And, most disturbing, we know we have students in homes experiencing worse abuse, neglect, or addiction than we can imagine.

This constant media barrage is soul crushing. Nearly every educator I know is experiencing some version of the struggle to do what is right for kids under unprecedented conditions while maintaining our own mental health.

Points of light amid the darkness

So I decided to take Mr. Rogers’ advice and look for the helpers. To recall the lyrics from one of my favorite musicals and remember that a “spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” For my own self-care, I had to find the silver lining in this world of virtual teaching. Here’s a small list I compiled of things I have come to appreciate more while teaching under quarantine.

1. The Value of Ed-Tech

As I’ve previously written, I am not a fan of ed-tech as filler or busywork, but with many companies offering free trials of their products, teachers have been more willing to experiment, and many have found new ways of sharing information with their students.

2. The Value of Connectivity

I didn’t get into teaching to talk to a screen. I thrive on the energy of a live classroom where we can freely share ideas. I laugh every day of school and I miss the give and take of conversation. I know how much my students enjoy this contact, so I appreciate being able to see them on a group conference call.

Seeing them in a little box on my computer is better than not seeing them at all. What’s more, many teachers, including myself, have learned new skills to use in the future to “see” all of our students.

3. The Value of Independence

Although it has been incredibly difficult for the younger middle graders, I have seen tremendous growth in their ability to manage themselves and their time. I am very proud of them and tell them so when we meet.

4. The Value of SEL

Those of us who have always been “Maslow before Bloom’s” teachers realized long ago that a student can’t learn if they are in emotional crisis. Our curriculum is secondary to their emotional and mental well-being. Now, many others are seeing how important it is to pay attention to the whole child, not just their academics.

5. The Value of Creativity

This has been the part of the quarantine that makes me happiest. I admire the teachers who realized that they would need to jettison a huge chunk of their curriculum and prioritize what is truly most important. They have also reached deep into their bags of tricks to provide engaging lessons that allow all students to be successful without resigning them to endless worksheets.

Here are a few of the fun things I’ve done in the last couple of months, not necessarily academics:

✻ I’ve been sharing a daily “Wonder” trivia question such as “Why do we get on a horse from the left side?” The next day I post the answer. It’s not an assignment and it’s just for fun, but students are enjoying sharing these with their families.

Not a student meme but it gives them the idea.

✻ Another fun, not for credit, way I’ve engaged them is by challenging them to create a meme about living under quarantine. I told them I would share these with the teachers. Many have responded they loved this activity.

✻ Coincidentally, early April was when I had scheduled for my students to share their Passion Projects with one another. I came up with a way for them to share the digital part of their presentations on Padlet, comment upon one another’s presentations, and then show their final project over Zoom.

✻ We’ve sung Happy Birthday to peers, and I had my students teach me a Tik-Tok dance during our advisory meeting.

✻ Finally, I still teach English, and we are reading a class novel. Because we can’t have decent classroom discussions on a screen, I’ve utilized technology such as FlipGrid and Google Forms for feedback. Their final project is a literary analysis graphic character biography done on Canva.

6. The Value of My School Community

My colleagues are amazing, and I am thankful for them every day. The way they have pulled together in this crisis has warmed my heart. Here are some things we have done since school let out on March 13th:

✻ The dean organized a group movie night where students can watch a movie together virtually.

✻ My sixth-grade science teacher colleague has students studying ecology in their backyards through many creative assignments.

✻ Our sixth-grade Global Studies teacher is using Fanschool (fanschool.org) where students compete in teams to learn about Geopolitics.

✻ When I told the guidance counselor and dean about my concern for a few children who were very lonely under quarantine, they organized friendship zooms where kids can come hang out. This has been a big hit for the students who most need it.

✻ The student council advisor has helped the students organize spirit days where the classes compete by showing up in spirit costumes on zoom meetings.

✻ The entire school is brainstorming ideas for how we can honor and celebrate our graduating eighth graders since they are missing out on so much.

Finding value in involuntary change

Of course, there are many more amazing things going on in my school and schools all over the country. After all, teachers are agile masters of their craft and were able to not only build the plane mid-air but simultaneously manufacture the parts. In a matter of days, they transitioned to a whole new world of teaching.

Yes, it’s harder than we ever believed possible. Yes, it is causing stress in our families as we give even more of ourselves than we thought we could. Yes, the students are not as engaged because middle schoolers need their friends and us more than ever.

But there can be value in change, even if it’s involuntary. Without change, there is no growth. So even though this is more of a growth opportunity than any of us would have wished or needed, it is what we have been given so it’s worth trying to look for the silver lining even in these grayest of cloudy days.

Cheryl Mizerny

Cheryl Mizerny (@cherylteaches) is a veteran educator with 25 years experience – most at the middle school level. She began her career in special education, became a teacher consultant and adjunct professor of Educational Psychology, and currently teaches 6th grade English in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Cheryl writes about student motivation and engagement at The Accidental English Teacher. Read more of her MiddleWeb articles here and here.

6 Responses

  1. Judi Herm says:

    This! Obviously came from a master teacher’s heart and mind. I’ll be sharing it widely for its truth, concrete and creative ideas, and inspiration. Thank you.

  2. Sheri Altieri says:

    I love this article! Do you mind if I reference it?

  3. We have been talking about silver linings at school and making lemonade. Perfectly timed, love how you highlight teachers’ agility and mastery of craft. Thank you, Cheryl!

  4. Jacob Kraft says:

    Hello Cheryl!

    This was such a relateable article in our current situation. As a fellow middle school educator, I totally agree with your statement about the student as a whole. You said, “Our curriculum is secondary to their emotional and mental well-being. Now, many others are seeing how important it is to pay attention to the whole child, not just their academics.” If there is one thing I have learned through this process of teaching from home, it is that our students need socialization and first-hand experiences with others. Schools are not just a place for academics, they are a place where young people grow. They are a place that provides routines, security, some food, and human connectivity. Most of my Zoom meetings have become a place for kids to interact and connect rather than one for instruction.

    Thank you for sharing how your school has brainstormed and implemented several ideas for connecting your students. I plan to share these ideas with my own colleagues.

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