Guilty Teacher: Confessions of a Learning Pod Supervisor

I should be ecstatic. I have the dream teacher job. I get paid a ton of money to be called a teacher and I do no teaching. I don’t have to do any parent-teacher conferences, there are no virtual back-to-school nights, there are no staff and faculty meetings. I have a classroom full of bright, kind, usually well-behaved children.

Then why am I so full of angst? Why can’t I just sit here and look pretty? Because my dream teacher job depends on the pandemic continuing and the schools staying closed. This makes me feel morally wrong. Adding to my mental anguish is trying to second guess when they might reopen and I lose my job. And I feel bad for the kids and their parents.

Let me start with the kids and their parents. Distant learning is affecting kids and their parents differently depending on their age and where they are doing their Zoom calls. I work in an educational camp. Kids grades K-8 come and do their Zooms in pods of 12. They are usually coming from different schools and have different schedules. By 2:00 all the Zooms are done and they get to do enrichment classes like woodworking, metalsmithing, slime making, sports, and cooking.

Overall I’d say the kids are having fun here. The younger ones do their calls the best that they can and when it’s over, they play or do crafts. They are making new friends and having tons of social interaction. Our boss told the parents that the kids would always be 6 ft. apart and always isolated in their learning pods. Luckily this isn’t true and we don’t have to enforce it. The kids are having a very normal experience except for attending school on a conference call and wearing a mask all day.

I had a class of first graders for my first month. Only one of them had a very difficult time with Zoom calls. He had three calls per day of one hour each. That is way too long for a six-year old. He was done after five minutes. His ears hurt from the mask and headphones. Or his eyes hurt. He felt dizzy. His stomach hurt and he was hungry but he already ate all his food in the first hour. I did my best to address his needs and keep him on his calls. But it was impossible. I emailed his parents all day so they would know. I was so happy for him, and all the private school children, when his school got a waiver and was able to open up for in-person learning.

Our program shrunk a lot after the first month. All the private school kids got to go back to school and the middle school kids decided to stay home. This caused me anxiety because I had thought that my dream teacher job was going to last all year. That’s how my boss had presented it in the interview and in my offer letter.

Suddenly my dream teacher job became more like the tv series Survivor. After the first month, teachers suddenly started disappearing. With fewer students, classes were consolidated and some teachers were told that was their last day. It finally dawned on me that my annual salary was meaningless because this job was actually month-to-month. Who was going to get kicked off the island next? One day I texted a teacher who always came to give me a bathroom break and she replied that her last day had been the day before. No more bathroom breaks.

Our boss, who was so nice in the interview, suddenly turned into Mrs. Hyde. I don’t know if she intentionally deceived us or if she changed her mind and gave up on her own project. Right away she started yelling at us. I think she was in over her head and not used to parents calling and complaining about the slow Wi-Fi or their other disappointments. She started yelling at us and telling us to “take teacher initiative” when she had no answer for something.

In the interview she had led us to believe that this job would last all year and that after that she was going to open up a science-based school. This sounded great. What a dream teacher job. Great pay, little stress, a great team and a future plan. I imagined myself helping her to open the school.

That all changed when my boss said, “We are all just making money for a little while off this pandemic.” That statement underscores a big part of my mental angst. When I told my high-school aged daughter that I felt I had sold my soul to the devil, she said, “You have made a Faustian bargain”. It was true. My dream teacher job has no future, no professional growth, no purpose.

As part of my Faustian bargain, my boss told me that when the children are on their calls, I could do “whatever I want”. That sounded awesome to me. I could use this job to transition out of teaching entirely. Perhaps into writing. We are always being told that teaching is hard work and underpaid. And it has only gotten worse in distant learning. I feel so bad for the teachers that I see on the kids’ computers. I know they are sometimes teaching into the void. They see only the tops of kids’ heads or the kid goes upside down, or is zoned out watching a YouTube, or the video is turned off, etc.

But it is hard to do “whatever you want” when you are at work. You don’t really want to be doing whatever you want. You want to be present and engaged in what you are doing.

My boss moved me to a classroom full of third and fourth graders during my second month. I was surprised to get this news the night before. I had bonded with the first graders and gotten to know their parents. I thought I was going to be their teacher all year. I had created number cards to do math games with them. I had set up the room for them before the start date and had found age appropriate toys and books. I had purchased some craft materials for them.

I enjoyed being with the first graders because they needed me. They kept me busy and engaged. As soon as their calls were over, they would get off their computers and go play. I had to try to keep them quiet when they played since many others were still on their calls. Sometimes they had fights that I had to help resolve. I had to refresh the paint supplies and get new paper. I played math games with them. I read to them. There were also several parents who had asked me to personally tutor their children.

It is a different experience with the third/fourth graders. They don’t need me. They know when their calls are. And when they end, they stay on their computers and they pretend they are still on a call or doing classwork. This is so they can secretly watch YouTubes, play video games, do coding, and chat with their friends. It’s a very quiet classroom but it is also boring for me. And distressing to see kids on the screen all day. I beg them to come to me if they need help with their classwork. Finally I got a new student who actually needs me to guide her through her work. I crave real teaching again.

My purpose in the third/fourth grade classroom has become that of a police. I have to try to see all their screens at once and catch them when they go onto a YouTube during a Zoom call. They don’t all do it, but the ones that do, do it all day. As soon as you turn your head, they are back on YouTube. I sit in the back of the class and they are supposed to all sit facing the front of the class so that I can see their computers.

The ones that are secretly going on YouTubes and playing video games will start to turn their computers so I can’t quite see. When I approach them, they quickly switch their screen back to the call. Most are not defiant and just say “oh yeah, sorry” when you catch them. For others, if I threaten to call their parents, they start to cry. If I explain rationally why it’s important to stay present for their teachers, they say “Zooms are so bo-ing!”

I found myself hoping that schools would open soon. Even though this meant that my job would end. It’s so hard to watch children staring at screens all day and saying their Zoom classes are “bo-ing”. One day my middle school daughter said to me when I got home, “Mom, I need a re-start. Distant learning is not working for me.” That was the same day the news article came out that many kids got D’s and F’s in the first quarter of distant learning. My heart ached for these poor kids.

I think the age group that is losing the most during this time of distant learning is the middle-school kids. The younger ones are having fun because their parents are either spending a lot of time with them which they love or they are paying for camps like mine where they are having fun. The high schoolers are doing OK because they get to sleep in and they can drive places to see their friends. The middle school-aged kids are not attending camps and they are alone in their rooms. This short film called “Numb” by Liv McNeil will bring tears to your eyes.

The group that is most distressed though is the public school parents. They fill Facebook groups with their worries over learning loss vs. safety. If they have kept their kids at home, they are stressed out because they have to put aside their own work and do the teaching and tutoring. If they put their kids in a camp like mine, they are spending $2,000 a month for online public school.

For the parents with the kids at home, most likely it is is the mothers that give up their work. This causes stress in the marriage. They are upset private schools are open but not public schools and they feel their children are slipping behind the private school kids. They feel there is a great learning loss happening and that their kids will never catch up. They are upset with the teachers that don’t want to go back into the classrooms. They are angry with the people that are going to restaurants and causing the Covid-19 rates to spike which keeps the schools closed.

As a parent, I want normalcy and in-person learning for my children. As a teacher I want to do real teaching again and not policing Zooms. One day, out of the blue, I received an email from a district asking if I was interested in a long-term sub position. They were going to open up soon in a hybrid model of distant learning. They needed long-term subs because many of the teachers were boycotting going back in person.

Yes I was interested. As an educator, I believe in-person is the most effective and beneficial way of teaching and learning.

But should I feel guilty again? When I told friends about my new opportunity, they jokingly said I was a scab. But I’m not crossing a picket line. There are simply many teachers that have personal reasons for not wanting to do hybrid teaching this year. I have felt safe during my in-person dream teacher job. The only thing missing is the teaching. I was surprised how many teachers don’t want to go back to in-person teaching but for me it is an opportunity.

I was done waiting to see if I would be kicked off the island next. I decided to jump off myself. I traded high pay and an uneasy conscience for a sense of purpose, professionalism, growth and a future. I’m excited to be going back into the classroom in a real school. Goodbye guilty teacher, hello real teacher. The kids need to go back to school.

Justine is a mother, teacher, and writer. Her passion is Italian so she created where she shares Italian recipes, travel, language.

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