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Tekoa Butler sums up how, surely, most teachers, parents, and students are feeling about going back to school in nine days: “It’s going to be weird,” she says.
When New York City welcomes students back into the classroom, it will be the only major school district in America to do so. The complicated hybrid solution, which will see some students logging into classes remotely, and others attending in person on certain days, was delayed after teachers threatened to strike. Most schools will now be open by September 21, and school days will be shorter, ending at around 1.30pm.
“It is a little odd,” admits Tekoa, a teacher at the Business of Sports school on W49th St. “I’m teaching remotely this year for health reasons. I’m fortunate to have a co-teacher who works with our students with special needs, so he’ll be present in the classroom during live instruction and I’ll be broadcast on the ‘smart board’.
“But I would prefer to be in the classroom with my students. Of course, I’ll adapt. I managed to do so when we went remote in March, but it doesn’t feel the same.”
“Imagine a school with 2,000 students in an old building that doesn’t have windows that open – they’re going to have concerns, naturally.”
As far as other teachers are concerned, she adds: “My assumption is that a good majority of them are not happy. Perhaps they feel their school is not prepared. Our school has proper ventilation. We have air conditioners, and we can make it work with our small population. But imagine a school with 2,000 students in an old building that doesn’t have windows that open – they’re going to have concerns, naturally.”
Teachers will have to get used to students being on their electronic devices for the majority of the school day, as books and paper are discouraged for safety reasons. And social distancing will bring its own challenges. “The whole idea of being in the classroom is to have interaction with your peers, not just your teacher,” says Tekoa. “We’re social beings, and that is part of the learning process – learning how to interact and feel comfortable and confident around others. I teach secondary education – 12th graders – so a lot of the classroom time is discussion and collaboration, and I don’t know how that’s going to work.”
Masks, obviously, will be mandatory. But that, too, could be problematic. “Your facial expressions are lost, and that’s obviously a way teachers manage class. That thing called the ‘teacher look’? You don’t have to speak to the child. You give them a look and they know what to do, how you’re feeling. And then there’s the smile – that means something to the child too. So it’ll be interesting to see how things work out in that way.”
“It will teach students to be more independent and take ownership of their learning. Sometimes we tend to enable them, and offer so many supports that they’re not taking that independence.”
But she’s confident that, educationally, the remote experience can be as efficient as – and sometimes better than – in-person teaching.
“It will teach students to be more independent and take ownership of their learning,” she says. “Sometimes we tend to enable them, and offer so many supports that they’re not taking that independence.
“I’ll use vocabulary instruction as an example. Students are very quick to say, ‘What does this word mean?’ as opposed to trying to discover its meaning on their own; looking at the word in context or taking the time to look it up in the dictionary. They want quick results. So I feel it’s challenging for them to take on that ownership, to plan how they implement tasks and complete assignments on time. Because there are days when they’ll be working independently, without instruction. It’s very much like college in that respect.”
And some students thrive in that environment. “They actually said, ‘I like this better.’ And those were the kids who had already demonstrated independence in the classroom, but also were students who didn’t attend class as often; they had a lot of absences. So, for some reason, those kids were the ones who completed their assignments on time and their grades improved.”
However, encouraging independence will not extend to attendance. “Students are going to be required to log on and be present in class with their cameras on,” says Tekoa. When schools rushed into remote learning, that wasn’t always the case. “You had a lot of students who were very lazy. They would be in bed. They wouldn’t have their cameras on, so you’d be looking at an image or a dark space, and it just didn’t have that same connection. So, going forward this year, I’m going to be very strict in terms of making sure that, when there’s synchronous learning happening, they’re present and they’re held accountable for their presence.”
“We don’t know what to expect because we’re dealing with a pandemic.”
She adds: “I do feel for the parents of younger children, because their attention spans are a lot shorter. They need a lot more guidance and attention. And if you’re a parent at home, you’re probably working at your job. So I can imagine it would be really, really difficult.
“I guess we just have to take it day by day,” she says. “As an educator, we always come prepared. You have your lessons, and you know what the plan will be in the future, because every day builds up to some final assessment. But it doesn’t always work out that way. That’s what I enjoy about teaching so much – you’re problem solving all day long, every day, and this is just another thing in that respect. We don’t know what to expect because we’re dealing with a pandemic.
“We have kids in school, trying to uphold those protocols and make sure everyone’s safe. But what happens if someone is ill? Now what? Does the whole school shut down? And for how long? Then is there another reopening?
“We all become accustomed to routine. We live by the clock and we live by the calendar, so we expect things to be a certain way each day. When there are those disruptions, I think it’s going to be hard to keep things together. It’s just going to be a constant case of, ‘OK, let’s pull it back together and stay focused.’”