The Metaphors Aren’t Helping
Michelle Bulla, August 2020
It’s 6:02am and I’ve been awake since 4:30. Maybe you are, too. I’m guessing you’re with me, if not physically, then likely you are spiritually.
I feel like each day that goes by, I am further and further hamstrung by the impending and increasing weight of the school year that is about to come, and that not a thing I do to try to lessen it is having enough of an impact to lighten this load that feels less manageable by the day.
I don’t usually write doom and gloom.
And I don’t even totally feel doomed, or “gloomed.” I think there are some incredible opportunities for meaningful paradigmatic change right now. Assessment, writing, student – teacher and teacher – teacher collaboration, what school days can and could look like…
But we’re not focusing on that. We’re losing this opportunity for meaningful change even as it presents itself.
So today, the weight is heavy. The load feels crushing. And I think it feels that way mostly because I feel betrayed.
Betrayed by a system that is prioritizing everyone’s needs but mine, but teachers’. I get that we’re servants. I’m good with that. But I want to be able to fulfill the expectations of my service. Not drown in them.
I participated in – and partly blew up, apparently – a task force reopening meeting yesterday that was supposed to be focused on curriculum. It began with a delineation of our phased-in, slow start reopening. Bell schedules for remote instruction, how the student population would be divided in half, what parents might need to consider in their choice to send their children in for the coming hybrid or keep them home for fully remote school.
It glossed over actual teaching and learning and shifted to extracurricular activities.
It alluded to the SEL-related (social-emotional learning) reasons why it’s better for students to go to school, though it didn’t address the logical fallacy of trying to meet them in “pandemic school.”
Because “pandemic school” is going to look and feel nothing like “normal school.”
The voices in my head feel like they’ve never been louder, and like they’ve never been less heard.
Oh, I used my voice. I spoke up. Truth to power, as they say. I expressed the myriad frustrations, emotions, realities, questions, concerns, anxieties, needs that teachers have right now. Loudly. Clearly.
I know I was heard by some. But I’m not convinced at all that it mattered.
To begin? You can’t stream what you can’t see. I do not stand in the front of the room lecturing. I’ve been running an organized chaos of a three-ring circus centered on student performers for well over half my career now. But even if I were that lecturing teacher, there’s no way I’d be able to do it for 42 minutes in a mask, for three classes in a row. And even those who think they’ll try are bound to move from the spot in front of the webcam as they reach to point out the country they’re discussing on the map that hangs from the left-hand-side wall. The wall the camera can’t see. And then walks over to their desk to hold up an artifact that brings tangibility to the lesson topic, they’ll be out of the webcam on the other side. And they’ll be masked, so the students in the room will have a hard time hearing or following, and the ones tuning in from home won’t have anything to look at, and they definitely won’t be able to hear. They’ll tune out. They’ll log out.
And then those parents who chose fully remote school falsely thinking it would be improved from the spring, will be confused by some classes being “remote only” sections, some not, and then complaining about that plus the “tuning in” model not working and that they need a different learning experience, because the one livecast by a teacher shows an empty, muffled, boring-at-the-best-of-times classroom wall. They’ll change their minds about what they want. Repeatedly.
They’ll want a totally flipped classroom model.
Which that teacher has not and will not be trained to create or execute. But even if they didn’t put in the effort in the spring to practice it, they will likely try to create one for everyone anyway. They’ll try because they can’t lecture in a mask. And they can’t run small groups. And they can’t have one-on-one conferences with students on the side of the room. And they can’t share side smiles, fist bumps, or send the littles out to the playground for recess shenanigans to burn off the hard work of learning. And they won’t have the faintest idea how to handle the first student fight inspired by the walking raw nerves and racial tension that will escalate at the sight of the first “blue lives matter” mask someone will wear when more and more are joining in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Teachers will still be required to report daily “attendance,” but now will have to keep track of who was present physically, who logged in, who submitted the daily something on Google Classroom to prove they engaged in school that day. Every day. For high school teachers, it’s not unusual to have 150 students. Daily. Meanwhile, somehow, we’re going to try to plan lessons that work in triple-down versions – in person for cohort A, at home for cohort B, and those who chose totally remote. Three versions of one lesson. Every day. For every subject at elementary, every course / prep at secondary.
And none of what I’ve written here – none of it – addresses the blindingly-neon-pink mammoth bull of health and safety that is stomping through the room, cracking my Chinese tea cup.
I’m a successful veteran teacher who embraces change, who leads by example, who works hard to inspire her students and her colleagues, who has been assured over and over again that though not perfect – of course – she’s made meaningful, positive impacts on people’s lives.
Now? I’m feeling like the dying salmon nearly drowning in angry white water rapids, swimming upstream; but that metaphor – no metaphor – seems to cut it these days.
My excitement to work on improving assessment (shouldn’t most of it be based on students creating vs. recalling?), authenticating writing (don’t students have A LOT to say, always, but now, for sure?), using video calls to confer (bring back show-and-tell from elementary school!), and centering equity and opportunity for all students (Black lives DO matter!)…feels like it’s operating on a different mathematical plane than the physically unconstructed one racing to take off without wings. (Mixed metaphor on this last one – “mathematical plane” refers to the planes of existence; the physical, albeit unconstructed “plane” refers to the vehicle that moves us from one place to another. It’s a little confusing, I know, but then again…what isn’t these days? I rather enjoy the warped pun here. Humor me. I could use it.)
I could go on. But it’s literally not good for my health. Or yours. So I decide to share my not-so-secret frustrations with you. You are my therapy. You are my solace. You are my audience, my sounding board, my resilience. I tell myself I can keep fighting this good fight with you by my side.
Let’s hold socially-distanced hands. Let’s remember to breathe. Let’s forgive ourselves our expectations. Let’s promise hugs when they’re safe, pretend-clink glasses over video happy hours while they’re not. Let’s say “I understand. I hear you. I am here with you.” I am fairly certain it is the only way we’ll have any chance to climb these mountains that don’t seem interested in moving.
Michelle Bulla is a high school English teacher and the 9-12 department chair at Monroe-Woodbury High School in southern Orange County, NY. She’s also a Teacher Consultant with the Hudson Valley Writing Project, and a member of the Executive Board for NYSEC where she serves in several capacities. She’d love nothing more than to continue this conversation with you as her favorite topic is her hashtag, #TeachingWriteNow. Find her on Twitter @china93doll or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yes, forgiving ourselves our expectations might be our best comfort going forward.
After all, as we are discovering, for every complex and challenging question, there is always a very simple wrong answer.