Maximizing the time given: Teachers adapt to empty rooms

Andrea James, an English and AVID teacher at McNary High School, engages with students from her room at the school. 

By any measure, the classrooms at McNary High School feel surreal this fall. 

In Andrea James’ English and AVID room, there are no desks aside from hers. James, who typically has one of the best-curated, sizable collections of books in the entire school, has been reduced to a single, small bookshelf behind her desk where she converses with students through one of two screens. A bare bulletin board, off-camera, is usually filled with college acceptance letters her students receive. If students want a spot on it this year, they are going to have to email James copies of the letters or send a picture. 

“We’re all first-year teachers now,” said James in between providing instruction and independent work assignments. “I feel like I’m still learning everything, too. My plans are usually only a day ahead of the students.”

In teacher Ryan Kirch’s room, tables and chairs are stacked neatly alongside one of the walls. Kirch sits atop a cabinet as he talks with students through a laptop on a rolling cart. The whiteboards in the room are filled with the lesson plans for students in government and economics, a visual reminder of the work completed and still ahead. 

“I think, for a lot of the kids, it’s a struggle. It might be a technology issue, a motivation issue or a surroundings issue. It’s also not being able to ask questions on some stuff. If the kid falls one or two days behind because they either don’t understand or it’s a technology issue, whatever it may be, I’m sure that’s frustrating for students,” Kirch said.

Joshua Rist, McNary’s choir director, speaks to students from a room built specifically to cater to music students. As a result of the pandemic, his voice needs to fill the space by itself. It’s a small boon that his class still has a physical component. On camera, he does vocal warm-ups alongside the students before beginning a lesson for the day.

“We’re not really a choir right now, we’re a music class that sings,” Rist said. “Instead, we’ve been listening to a lot of music on a deep and philosophical level.”

Aside from warm-ups, one of the few songs the students sing together this day is We Shall Overcome. 

The essential supply list

James’ classroom has never been only a container for delivering content to students. Pre-pandemic, she rearranged the physical space of the rooms to emphasize lessons from every book she taught. Writing was found on the windows as often at it appeared on the whiteboard. The space itself was one more tool she had to engage students.

Twenty minutes into her first class, James has led AVID students through three different websites to capture different aspects of the day’s lesson on colleges, but she’s hesitant to add more.

“I don’t want to overwhelm them, and I’ve already seen it happen,” she said. “This year has been way more limiting. A lot of the students this year have complained that I’m louder than their other teachers. I’m okay with that because it’s one of the few ways I have to get their attention.”

Among the many limitations this year is that students are not required to use their video cameras and neither James nor fellow students may hear their voices during a regular class period. Students are not often required to use either one because of the disparities such a window into their homes might reveal. 

“So much of teaching is having a back and forth between students. I’ve been encouraged by the attendance I’ve had, but having the power to mute them – even if I don’t use it – feels like too much,” James said. 

None of this is to say the year has been gloom-and-doom since September. There have been bright spots. A chat room that runs alongside the class screen provides a different kind of engagement that James said helps some students come out of their shells more regularly. Attendance has held steady. 

Early in the year, her first writing assignment had students think about the school supplies they needed in a typical year and the ones needed now. 

“Across the board, they mentioned motivation, a willingness to be part of distance education and making a choice to be present. That was pretty eye-opening for me and, I think, for them. It helped them realize they had to take ownership of their education,” she said. 

She’s also planning to teach a new novel this year, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, a story about a young Black teenager questioning his roots and the society he lives in after a violent altercation involving his best friend and a retired, white police officer.  

A day prior to being interviewed for this story, one of her students asked, for the first time this year, if the two of them could speak privately after class. 

“They told me that they basically hadn’t started any of their assignments because they weren’t grasping the technology. It was great because I had the chance to slowly walk through some problems with one student and have the immediate feedback knowing they understood,” James said. 

She wishes she could help more people understand how much teachers are missing their students this year. Classrooms feel weighty without teenagers in desks, but she is trying to use that as a teaching tool as well. 

“I think we owe it to our kids to be modeling discomfort. This whole thing is uncomfortable. Few of us have it all together right now, but sitting in your discomfort is actually the most important thing toward figuring out who you are and figuring out how you are going to contribute,” James said. 

Nuance in an age of hot takes

In the wake of all the changes of the past few months, Kirch took up yoga and meditation. 

“Once I got to the point where I realized I can’t control or change this, I had to decide that I’m just going to do the best I can every single day,” Kirch said. “And realizing the importance of being as positive as I can in every interaction with the kids.”

One of the tricks Kirch uses is to make sure he’s living his principles is leaving his laptop camera on in an area where he can see himself at all times. It means he can check his body language as the hours and days shift. 

“There’s a lot of content to get through with the shift to quarters instead of semesters, but even that plays a back seat to the relationship, connection and care we demonstrate as teachers,” said Kirch.

It’s frustrating for Kirch that most of the class activity plays out on a version of social media, which shifts discourse from nuanced conversations to hot takes designed to stir up reactions. 

Kirch’s biggest breakthrough of the early weeks was realizing how much more likely students were to ask questions when they were broken out into small group discussions in the digital classroom. It’s helped allay some of his fears about the achievement gap widening as a result of distance learning. 

“From there, I actually started breaking it up even further and having one-on-one conversations with the kids as much as I could. The hard part is I only get 90 minutes with them two days a week and those one-on-one conversations can take up much more time than I expected,” Kirch said. 

Kirch is certain high-achieving students will continue to thrive with distance learning, but he’s already had a few other students disappear from class entirely. When that happens, Kirch must initiate a process that involves creating a paper trail that leads to other school and district officials trying to make contact. 

“One way to make sure they aren’t just turning on their cameras and leaving the room is calling on them to answer individual questions,” Kirch said. 

Given the new hours schools and students are keeping, some might believe that teachers are getting more time off. That isn’t the case. 

Because distance learning has shifted most work to independent assignments, everything is an assignment that needs to be graded. Kirch has 110 students in his eight class periods. Every student is turning in roughly two assignments per day five days a week. It means Kirch has 1,100 assignments to grade amid all the other commitments. 

In the days leading up to in-person class cancellations in March, Kirch was teaching an economics unit on the importance of having an emergency fund. The pandemic could provide many relevant lessons to students in both of his content areas. Aside from the economic impacts, there are opportunities to talk about the government role in public health, but Kirch has to walk a fine line when talking about such topics. 

“The fact is we don’t know how our students’ lives have been affected by everything we’ve gone through and we have to be careful with their emotions,” Kirch said. “This whole situation is incredibly frustrating for everybody. As teachers, we have to be aware of it and we have to ask for everyone to have more grace for each other than we’ve ever given before.”

Crumbs for a feast

What students can’t see in Joshua Rist’s choir room is just as telling about the man they see on camera doing push-ups and vocal warm-ups with them. 

It’s a whiteboard off to the side of the room. There are two quotes written on it. The first is unattributed: “My job is to awaken possibility in others.” The second is from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

While the second quote speaks more to a larger sense of where we are seven months into a pandemic and additional months of racial unrest, the first quote is something Rist tries to seize upon while teaching music. 

“For some of the kids, what we do now is a different kind of musical skill set. It’s more like being a studio musician than part of a choir and it sometimes awakens a new hobby for them,” Rist said. 

The new semester system requires moving more quickly through content, but the switch to distance learning has given Rist opportunity to get to know his students’ unique voices more rapidly. Rather than having to pick each one voice out of a chorus, he has them submit samples of their vocal work and keeps them on their toes with sight reading assignments they record online and turn in. 

“I pride myself on getting to know all the kids’ voices by October, but I was way ahead of schedule this year because of the way we have to do it,” Rist said. “One side effect of that is I get to give them much more personal feedback and I’ve been trying to give that aspect of the job more time.”

Rist said the hardest moments for him occurred in the spring when all learning moved online without the preparation that the summer months afforded. In his old choir room, a whiteboard calendar is still stuck on March 2020. Across the third week, a student scrawled “COVID” followed by a frowny face. 

A class calendar inside the old McNary choir room is stuck on March 2020.

“It was disappointing, but we thought it was temporary. It’s not looking so temporary now,” Rist said. “That was probably the lowest point in my career so far because I definitely respond to the energy of the students.”

Like Kirch, Rist took up meditation. 

This semester, Rist is only teaching freshmen and sophomores, but his juniors and seniors continue to meet in an ad hoc club on Friday afternoons. 

“It can feel like crumbs compared to walking into the same space with each other, but even crumbs feel like a feast when we’re starving,” he said. 

Whenever he can, Rist tries to get the various classes singing, which helps foster a sense of community that would otherwise be lacking. It’s one reason he chose We Shall Overcome for the class he was teaching while being interviewed. 

“One of the hardest things in teaching music is how music has been used to bring out the best in humanity. Sometimes singing something makes it more true than just saying it. We need that right now,” Rist said. 

One of the hardest things for any teacher at this moment in history isn’t the technology hiccups, the challenges of delivering English lessons online or even the frustration of not seeing their students faces. The harder struggle is finding ways to remind students that what they are doing by taking ownership of their education will matter in the end. 

For that, Rist turns to another quote, one not written on the whiteboard in his classroom. It’s an exchange that occurs between Frodo Baggins and the wizard Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”