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Teaching During the Pandemic: A Local Educator’s Insight

IN THE October 3 ISSUE

FROM THE 2020 Articles,
andEducation,
andSteven Sanchez
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by Steven Sanchez

A lot of things changed once Covid-19 impacted the world. Despite the effect it had on employment, service industries, entertainment, none probably felt the deep impact of how severe the virus was capable of than the educational system. Once the lockdown hit, teachers and students were dealt a very big blow when the last months of the spring semester at all school levels were cancelled. Administrators, faculty, and deans all over the world had to decide whether to bring back in-school sessions for the following fall semester. Summer school was basically a testing ground to see if people were ready to go back to school, and let’s just say the results were less than spectacular.

An on-campus population is a for sure hot spot for high rates of possible infections and that’s what happened. Those high schools and colleges that went against protocol, whether it be local and state government, even defying national ordinances, immediately caught the virus, seeing a spike in cases in this country. Even with the safety measures in place, there was no way of fighting this thing off. Schools rushed to figure out a solution but only the one that has sufficed thus far…online teaching. It seems that the educational system’s future was headed in that direction as online classes have been around for a while, but not as an entire replacement overall.

It’s a good thing that there’s viral apps such as Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, and Canvas that allows options for there to be direct communication between teachers and students, but the downside could be that learning how to use these apps would be a class lesson in itself especially for older teachers not used to this kind of technology. Having to adapt whether being an older teacher and also, it’s been quite a transition for the youngsters as well, to where malfunctions can interfere with lessons, and it doesn’t help those with limited or no Wi-Fi access at all.

No in-person interaction between educator and student in a classroom has been an adjustment for both parties. For students it’s an emotional experience, no school means no sports, dances, social events, etc. For teachers, plain and simple, it’s their livelihood that’s been threatened. As if being a teacher in America wasn’t already stressful enough with no pay. Even before all the commotion with the virus, teachers all over the country were leaving the profession at an excessive rate and even walking out and protesting for better pay and resources. With that and then the virus appearing, a lot of educators had to seek other sources of employment and income to make ends meet.

Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group reported that fifty million public school students are getting their education from home, but nine million are without the adequate technology or Internet access to learn effectively. The majority of those students with lack of access are people of color or live in rural areas showing a huge educational gap tied to race and economic standing.

The educational system was already suffering, so this situation was just adding insult to injury. One takeaway from all this craziness is the fact that there’s no denying that educators are essential workers and they deserve more credit than they’ve been given. No group of people have been giving teachers their dues and showering them with praise more than parents who reluctantly had to become home school teachers. Without in-person lessons, parents, whether employed or not, had to take up the mantle of what these educators do on a daily basis, and their respect for them has escalated. No teacher deserves more appreciation (my bias opinion) than my former AP Literature teacher from Buchanan High School, Mrs. Donna Lutjens.

Donna Lutjens

She’s been a teacher for thirty years now, all but one of those years at Buchanan. Her first year was junior high English at Monroe Middle School in Ridgecrest, California, and then started teaching high school English at Buchanan when it first opened in 1991, and she’s been dedicated to the institution ever since. Not only has she seen the school change with the times, she’s seen first-hand the evolution of the profession throughout the years and where the future of education is going. It was an honor getting the chance to converse with her and obtain her in-depth perspective on how the virus impacted students and teachers, the struggles and benefits of online teaching, the respect teachers deserve, and will the school system ever recover from this travesty.

KRL: When the pandemic hit, did you even think about teaching, about how you were going to teach or would you even teach? Did those questions cross your mind?

Mrs. Lutjens: When the pandemic first hit, I was like many people who thought it would be a short-term shutdown. I teach seniors, and honestly March is a tough month. The kids are getting restless about still being in high school with the light at the end of the tunnel in sight. Some of them give in to senioritis, some of them get a little nervous and panicky about the impending next steps, and the end-of-the-year senior events start to pile up on the calendar. Teachers can feel buried in paperwork and all of the extra work that comes along with getting us all to the finish line successfully by that time in the year. Honestly, I thought of it as a blessing in disguise, giving everyone a forced opportunity to take a minute and breathe during that hectic time of year.

When things began to drag out and our brief pause turned into something much more long term, that was when I began to ponder how all of this was going to affect me and affect my students—their worries, their fears, their mourning the loss of what they had come to expect as senior rites of passage as those things fell secondary victims to Covid. I worried about them, and I missed them. All I knew was that I needed to figure out ways to connect with them in our new online format and let them express all of their concerns while trying to help them continue to make their way to an academically successful end of the year. I thought about HOW I was going to teach them differently, but I never thought about not teaching or bowing out.

KRL: Based on your own experience, who would you say was the most affected by the arrival of the pandemic? It came towards the end of a school year and has continued on into a new one, so who would say it has impacted the most. Would it be the teachers or the students?

Mrs. Lutjens: I don’t think you could make an argument that the pandemic affected either teachers or students more. You might be able to say it impacted us differently, perhaps, but it was profound for all of us. Some students struggle connecting with teachers and peers online, and some of them struggle accessing the academic content online. They dearly missed each other, and all of the senior activities they had been looking forward to for years. Some of our kids were in homes where they weren’t supported, and they missed that support system and the structure of being in a traditional school setting. They were nervous and scared, and absolutely sensed that the adults in their world didn’t have the answers and were running only a half-step ahead of each decision and response to Covid. It’s hard to feel comforted by those adults you’ve trusted all your life to guide you and help move you toward the right decisions when you realize that they don’t have all the right answers either.

The teachers, on the other hand, had many stressors as well, including not really knowing what the ‘right’ response was. Some were dealing with immune-compromised family members in the home, so there was fear and concern. Many were dealing with the struggle of managing the home learning of their own kids at home while still trying to give their very best to their students. Teachers and school administrators struggled to learn new technological platforms and ways of reaching out to our kids and their families—so much so that attempting to take on new technologies became almost another full-time job. As is often the case when a national event grips our country, many of us were in information saturation, addicted to the news where there was no good news in sight for weeks on end, and it was incredibly disheartening and emotionally draining. Most importantly, we lost our daily face-to-face interaction with our kids. This is why we became teachers. It’s the part about the job we love. Grading and emails are not what inspire us and get us through our days—the kids are. Teaching is hard, challenging work, and we are here because we know that the hard work is worth it. Without our kids with us and in front of us day after day, the payoff wasn’t so tangible, and the work was that much harder.

KRL: Since teaching has gone virtual, how would you rate your technology skills? Do you like teaching online? Has it been an adjustment for you?

Mrs. Lutjens: I was fortunate in that I already had been teaching a college class that had a significant online component. It allowed me to make the transition relatively smoothly. However, there are a great number of technological features that could help me create even stronger engagement with my kids and to offer more interest and variety in trying to effectively deliver my content. I have to give myself permission to try those features in increments and learn as I go. I have to allow myself to recognize that it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it will get better as I continue to learn.

KRL: Online classes were already a thing before, maybe not to this extent but it was available. The lockdown just showed what was the inevitable. Do you think this is the future of teaching? What place do you think educators will have in an age of unlimited technology and knowledge?

Mrs. Lutjens: I like to consider myself a silver-linings kind of person, so I thought about how we could see a silver lining here. To me, that meant that we as educators were given an opportunity to reimagine our role and our systems. If we were using our time well and focusing on the right goals, we could immeasurably strengthen education in our society. We’ve seen where there were holes in access to technology, and I think there were incredible community partnerships to address that problem. Feeding children who are food-insecure remained a priority, and we were able to address that on a large scale as well. But we’ve also seen that a great number of our students could learn and grow at least part-time through interaction with their teachers online. The focus, as of now, has been how to get kids back face-to-face, five days a week, but I think that’s a mistake.

I believe the future of teaching really should be a hybrid model, one in which students can be a little more self-paced and are given the opportunity to work independently where teachers are available as guides while they are at home, and with lectures and peer interaction scheduled at intervals throughout the school week. This allows for teachers to be able to answer questions when needed as students are working independently, but also allows for a structure where more direct teaching happens in person while the social/emotional component is able to thrive in those days when students are together on campus. Right now, I think most of the impetus to ‘get back to normal’ is driven by a sense of familiarity on the one hand, and the inability to rethink other structures that would need to be addressed to support the hybrid model, such as daycare and adult work structures that depend on a stable, consistent school schedule. That being said, I don’t think we should ‘go back’ to education as it was because it is too difficult to think of an effective alternative; if we don’t take this opportunity to restructure our educational system now, we lose an incredible opportunity to be really forward-thinking and innovative.

KRL: What are the pros and cons to both methods of teaching, being in person and online?

Mrs. Lutjens: The pros are we are not overloading our kids, schedule-wise. The number of hours they are in a ‘classroom’ is smaller, and they have more time to process and practice the content. There are hours built into the schedule for tutoring and one-on-one conferences with students, which is quite difficult to do during a traditional schedule. In addition, the chat feature of Zoom allows students who might be too shy to speak up in a classroom to ask questions and get clarification without feeling like they are drawing too much attention to themselves.

Some of the cons are that too much screen time in any capacity can lead to fatigue. It’s draining. It’s much more difficult to really see how much kids are engaged and to help them stay focused. They are in their homes with all of the comforts and distractions that they can provide, so learning online can be difficult for many. Students are also required to be a little more self-motivated. Some students are absolutely ready to face that challenge, but many struggle with it. Reading body language and facial expressions can be difficult in the little boxes on the screens, too. All of that makes it more of a challenge to get to know my kids in the ways I have been able to connect with them in the traditional setting. We were at an advantage in the spring, in that we had already had an opportunity to really connect with the kids during the previous months of the school year. This fall it has been much for difficult and slow to make that connection in the same meaningful way.

KRL: For those that have limited access to school or depending on their geography, they have to rely on home schooling where their teachers are their parents. What advice do you have for those people who have to carry work while having to teach their kids at the same time?

Mrs. Lutjens: The best advice I can give is to give yourself and your child grace. There will be frustrating days and days where there are wins. The frustrating days may be exacerbated because everyone’s work and school and home world is all happening simultaneously. It’s a lot! Build structure, but don’t be so inflexible with it that you don’t recognize when your child is on overload and you just need to go count butterflies in the backyard for half an hour. Make sure you schedule in down time, and family time, and time to do nothing, in addition to time to learn and work. Communicate with your kids, and communicate with their teachers. Remember that all of us are doing our best and doing what we can to keep our heads above water in these uncertain times.

KRL: This is online teaching, and it is dependent on Wi-Fi, but there are families that don’t have access to Wi-Fi. What does this mean for those students who will fall behind because of their lack of technology?

Mrs. Lutjens: Great effort has been made by school districts, community partners and businesses, and the state to try to ensure technology access where kids have historically been without it, and I think there have been some great successes there. It’s one of the things that makes me wonder if we had the means to do this before, why wasn’t it done? This is one of the examples of how people thought outside the box to come up with solutions that were non-traditional, which I think should be the key moving forward. I know there are still kids out there who still lack technology, and we should be doing everything we can to connect those kids with the means to have and keep that access.

KRL: Do you think the educational system could’ve adjusted to this without scrambling to figure things out? Did the means exist to carry on no matter the tragedy? What can schools from here on out do when confronting a disaster like this?

Mrs. Lutjens: This was an incredible curve ball no one saw coming, at least in terms of profound, lasting impact. The educational system was in part beholden to laws, mandates, and guidance from national, state, and health agencies, so they had to adjust and scramble to meet those guidelines as they were changing, often week to week. A seamless transition to a completely different way of thinking about education was probably not possible. Fortunately, we are beginning to put systems in place to help meet the needs of students and educators should another disaster like this occur.

KRL: A lot happened during the lockdown. Protests, civil unrest, economic collapse, fires burning the state, and the list goes on. These are subjects that aren’t necessarily on the curriculum at most schools. These are things that can no longer be avoided. Do you think that now is the time to actually study these subjects thoroughly so students can be prepared for the real world?

Mrs. Lutjens: It’s one of the biggest difficulties of teaching online instead of in person—the challenge of processing all of the events that have been part of our national conversation for the past six months. It’s incredibly difficult to navigate all of that online in the less than personal format. They are big discussions, however, and important conversations to have in a classroom. Our students are steps away from being a vital part of the process that gives them voice in that conversation: the voice they can use in voting and being a responsible consumer and creator of information in our world. One of the most important aspects of education is to help prepare students to step into those conversations and exercise civil discourse and critical thinking about how they want to help build the world in which they and their own children will live.

KRL: You’ve had to reluctantly adjust to this situation in a way no other profession has to. Going from in person to online, and the weight of the youth’s education lies on your shoulders. That’s quite a bit of pressure. As if teachers didn’t have enough weight to carry already. They weren’t getting an admirable salary for their efforts. Do you think this situation will expose the truth on how teachers deserve to get better pay that equals the efforts they put into their job?

Mrs. Lutjens: In an ideal world, yes. That would be wonderful! It is an important responsibility, and one that I think few take lightly. If nothing else, even if it doesn’t translate into better pay, perhaps some people might recognize and appreciate the numbers of hours that go into a child’s education. Our work day has never started at 8 a.m. and ended at 3 p.m., and this experience might have illuminated that fact for some. Even beyond the grading and the planning and the training and the communicating with parents and administrators, there are the hours, sometimes well into the night, where we are thinking about and worrying about our students, academically, socially, and emotionally. There is no off-switch; we are always on the clock.

KRL: How were you keeping yourself occupied during the pandemic?

Mrs. Lutjens: I often travel during the summer, but obviously, this did not happen this past summer. I have been giving myself more time to do the things that fuel my passions outside of the classroom—reading, writing, photography, and cooking.

KRL: A lot of teachers pre- and during Covid have been working multiple jobs to stay financially afloat. This may not be a concern of yours per se, but if this thing continues on without an end in sight soon, have you given much thought into other forms of employment for financial stability?

Mrs. Lutjens: I have been fortunate that I have not had to look for additional work to help keep me afloat. Wherever education goes, that will continue to be my career path, as I can’t see myself loving any job more than I do this one.

KRL: What does the future hold for you as a teacher post-Covid?

Mrs. Lutjens: I have another eight years or so before retirement, so I hope post-Covid will still find me back in the classroom, at least part of the time. I can’t wait to get us to a place in society where I am with my kids in a classroom once again.

Steven Sanchez is a film graduate of UNLV. He’s a filmmaker, writer, photographer, and music manager. Obsessed with movies, comic books, and rock ‘n’ roll. A football fanatic, big fan of the Oakland Raiders. Enjoys reading and collecting vinyl records. If there’s a rock show in town more than likely he’ll be there. Loves his grandma’s home cooked meals. He has a twin sister and most people call him the pretty one. You can learn more about Steven on his YouTube channel and on Instagram @stevensanchez5807 photos and videos.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Sally Schmidt October 3, 2020 at 10:41am

Really enjoyed this interview. Very comprehensive and thoughtful. It is obvious that Mrs. Lutjens’ students are lucky to have this wonderful teacher.

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