The Unreal Reality of Teaching Online

It started out as if a dream were becoming real. Working from home! I could get so much done! It would be like a mini vacation! Heck, maybe we could even have an actual vacation. The feelings of excitement and positivity were strong in my household when we heard about teaching online in early January. We were on break for Chinese New Year and the virus still had not been named. To Michelle and I, it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. So, we talked about what we could do with this new found extension of our time.

A couple days later, I started feeling a little less happy go lucky and filled with the urge to travel. I envied those that were already traveling (because they went on a normal vacation during the New Year holiday) and those that decided to pick up and go when the online school news hit. The reason I was not on a plane was because I was already in the mindset that the best thing we could do was stay put. In my head, traveling was a misstep. Being stuck in a small space jammed with potentially sick strangers just seemed foolish. So, I stayed. And watched as memes mocked the virus and people outside of China largely ignored it. It was around that time I began wearing masks every day as well. It could be a coincidence, but the mandated masks made me more aware, more cautious, and less like making a joke (or finding your joke very funny).

About mid-vacation, I decided to get my first week of lessons done. It was challenging because I have young students. I knew what I was giving them would be raced through in my physical classroom, but I had no idea what would happen with them at home. If they raced through the assignments would I have given them enough work? Would parents be mad that I had not provided enough work for their child? I did not know but I wanted happy parents, or at least parents who thought I wasn’t phoning it in. So, I decided to offer some additional assignments, I tagged them as optional and they were a little more challenging. I put everything online as a weeklong list of things to do. I tried to make a very clear plan to accompany it, telling them what to do and when. I looked it over several times and finally called it good. Then I went back to wandering around outside wearing masks and playing in the sand with Carter.

When the first week started, I sent the email about the work and the plan, then I waited. I checked in all day. Nothing. Not a single reply and no way to see if anyone had even looked at the email or the online lessons. I stayed near my computer most of the day for no real reason, but I wasn’t really sure what to do. I was not sure how being online would work and I wanted to be there to send a quick response when the work or a question finally came in. So, I hovered by the computer, checking my empty email box frequently, and tried to plan week 2. The next day was the same. Just a lot of waiting. And the lack of response told me I was probably okay. I mean if there was a problem, I had told them to email me.

Unfortunately, I was not fine and the quiet was not a good thing. Apparently, my week of work, with the optional extras, seemed like a crazy mountain of work to the parents and every single student suddenly had no idea how to do anything. The parents were going absolutely crazy, but they were not doing what I asked. They were not telling me. Instead, they were telling my director of instruction, what my school calls a position that is similar to principal. She brought me into the discussion on Wednesday. I made changes and explained things differently, thinking the issues would be an easy fix if they only understood. I was hoping I had done a better job the second time around. I hadn’t. And it was still a big deal.

Thursday rolled around and my DI asked me to change everything. She wanted me to cut out the extra and trim down to the essentials. What did they really need to work on? What was the best way for them to accomplish it, considering I was not there to help? Less is more, keep it simple. Then she moved on to lesson plans, she wanted those sent daily using Microsoft Sway and did not want me to have a weekly lesson sitting on Moodle only (our online system). Then, I was asked to have an online class once a day and to include a video lesson along with the Sway Newsletter. So, I started working on it and I made a lesson for Friday. Then I explained the changes I was making in a parent email. I set a class time for my two groups, a half hour each back to back.

Silly Zoom photos.

The next week, I played around with sending out a daily PowerPoint instead of a Sway newsletter, but I hated editing them and found Sway much easier to alter relatively quickly. I also knew that was the one I was asked to use anyway. She ultimately did not care if it was Sway or PowerPoint if it was sent out daily. I just felt like it was best to stick with the first recommendation.

That second week was hell. I was working nonstop to create these daily lessons, daily videos, and have online classes. I used my teacher friends’ ideas to lumber through the week. I was all over the place emotionally. I was so mad during that adjusting period. I was also heartbroken, overwhelmed, and on the verge of tears almost every day. It was intense and damn if it did not really make me wish for my classroom and the old normal. I spent hours trying to learn how to create online lessons for 1st and 2nd grade language learners to do online. What I would do in the classroom was largely predicated on the I do, we do, and then you do (with me nearby) principal. That doesn’t work real well when you aren’t there. I spent hours crawling through ideas and websites to suit my lesson objectives that did not need too much tweaking. Everything needed at least some tweaking because in all lessons a teacher is usually in the same room as the students. But I finally found some that I could envision as a work alone and check later type of project more easily than others. I also knew that not all of the kids I was working with would have a lot of supplies to work with so I had to eliminate a lot of the fun and creative ideas. Fun projects are hard to pull off when only one kid has everything needed. Then there were the online classes. I was figuring out Zoom on the fly and trying to figure out how best to use the time together. Finally, the videos took a little bit of playing around before they became what they are today (a rambling mess that is very much something they are used to from the classroom).

As I got toward the end of the second week and began laying out clear plans for week three, I realized that I was glad to see my class sitting there. Not everybody bothered to show up but the ones that did made me feel happy. We spent time talking about the virus, daily life, weather, food, and fun we were having. One of the things I realized was that the kids were not having fun. It was a component every kid was missing. They were working almost as much as I was, and they weren’t happy. In my classroom, I utilize a lot of educational games. It just makes the time go faster and it allows me to work individually with a kid while the other kids are competing on some board game that is related to something we have already learned. I wasn’t really sure how to pull that off. That became my pet project and it is still a real battle. How do you have fun with kids in your daily class without it seeming to the parents like you are goofing off? Well I think switching it up and not doing the same thing over and over is a good first step. It is a work in progress. My first try was fun videos that were 3 to 7 minutes in length. Then I moved to how-to videos (drawing and origami lessons). Now I am having themed Show and Tell on Fridays.

Week three was better. Sway turned out to be a good way to create daily lessons relatively quickly. The hunt for good materials and lesson ideas was still a struggle still. The issue really boils down to the teacher being in the room. I can help explain a confusing step, help repeat instruction, show them what I am doing, and just be there to encourage a kid who is struggling and about to give up. I cannot do that when I’m not there. I was frustrated but I was not angry anymore. So, I was moving along emotionally.

I think it was week 4, things blur together, when our starting date was pushed back again. It was the 3rd time and I had super sad kids the next day. They had been looking forward to getting back to school, being with friends, and having a normal class. Then it was moved out of reach again. I just listened to them and commiserated with them. I was also bummed not to be going back because online teaching blows and I just wanted to do my job the best way I knew how. Face to face class is that way. The crazy thing is it’s also a lot easier. Teaching is always a lot of work if you are doing it right. But damn if online teaching isn’t at least double.

It was also that week that I started feeling like I was getting the hang of the online life. It was still too much work but it wasn’t frustrating agony. But Spring Break came along and sort of derailed the momentum.

Our Spring Break was not my favorite idea. They had moved it and I had looked forward to the non-moved date as when things would be normal and I would travel again (a dream in hindsight but it was a nice encouraging dream). It didn’t feel like Spring Break because nothing was changing, I wasn’t going somewhere fun. I wasn’t going anywhere because we were smack in the middle of the epidemic (it wasn’t declared a pandemic yet). What the new Spring Break meant was that I could do less work (but I still did too much work for a break). Michelle decided that unlike me she was going to travel. She went to her hometown for almost 2 weeks. I spent 12 glorious days being able to paint when I wasn’t working. I missed my little family and was glad when they were back but the break, to do what I wanted, was nice.

It was somewhere around our school week 8, but the week 9 since schools closed (we don’t count Spring Break), when schools in certain provinces began getting ready to reopen. Our school was telling people to stay put, not to come back to China, for those that had left. They would let people out of the country know when to come back to be ready to resume operations. Then the country closed its borders. It was at this point that I was sure school would not restart. I was never sure before and said as much to the people around me that were saying school was done for the year. But now, considering how many teachers were stuck outside of China, it seemed to make sense. How do you restart a school when all the teachers are in other countries and unable to get back? The answer seemed simple, you don’t.

The thing is…. I was wrong. Our province announced that high school seniors would start back April 27th. The other grades would follow as they were given permission. That story will have to wait until later since it’s a story still being created. But I will tell it, as I have told this one, with complete honesty.

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