NEW YORK — Social studies teacher Karen Rose stepped out of New Rochelle High School last month for what will likely be the last time. And while that makes her sad, it’s not what bothers her most after 34 years in the classroom.
“My biggest worry is the kids I’ve gotten no response from,” said Rose, who is retiring in June and never expected to end her career struggling with online teaching. “I’m calling and emailing them constantly. Maybe their parents are sick, undocumented or out of work. Some might not have a Chromebook or internet. They are literally MIA and may never come back.”
Many teachers I’ve spoken with are doing their best to maintain relationships from afar with students who depended on seeing them every morning. Along with Rose, I contacted a middle and an elementary school teacher to see how they are faring. They told me they are often frustrated, longing for classroom interaction and eye-contact. All are adapting to new platforms and trying to reach their students virtually.
And all three told me the same thing: They miss their students terribly. The conversations reminded me why the relationships teachers form with children – and vice versa – are so often the key to educational success. The best teachers, the ones we all remember, are those who inspire, give a push when needed and make sure we get back up when we fall. They are the ones whose words of encouragement we still hear many years later.
The coronavirus has in many ways become an unprecedented test for teacher-student relationships, forcing a readjustment of expectations without daily check-ins and in-person interaction, without tissues for tears, high-fives for a job well done or praise in front of classmates. Of course, teachers want their students to master content, develop a love of learning and move on to the next grade. But these teachers also know that success requires time and trusting relationships.
“We are the one constant for some of these kids,” said Eileen Wood, a first-grader teacher in Stoneham, Massachusetts. “They come to school and they know what to expect. It’s the stability, the repetition. They have art, they have gym, they have lunch and they have teachers they know. And now it’s all taken away.”
“We’re the one constant for some of these kids. They come to school and they know what to expect. It’s the stability, the repetition. They have art, they have gym, they have lunch and they have teachers they know. And now it’s all taken away.”Eileen Wood, first-grader teacher in Stoneham, Massachusetts
Jennifer Glick, a former lawyer who has taught English language arts and special education at PS/MS 108 in East Harlem for the last five years, used to start each morning walking around the classroom while her students ate breakfast, checking on their health and well-being. “If you don’t have a relationship with them, they won’t learn,” said Glick, who has taught many of her students for both seventh and eighth grade. “In middle school, it’s really part of development. They want that internal motivation, to do it for someone who really cares about their success.”
Sometimes, just listening is enough – especially at a time when many of her students are locked inside or know someone who is ill or has died from the coronavirus. Now, during morning meetings via Google classroom, Glick is the one being peppered with questions – and often she can’t answer them. “They all want to know: Will school re-open in the fall? Will we get yearbooks? How will we graduate?” said Glick. “I can’t answer, so we just talk about silly things, and the frustration of not knowing.”
In Wood’s suburban Massachusetts district, elementary school educators were so concerned about their students they held a car parade, driving through streets and shouting greetings from a distance. The three hours of driving around town crystalized for Wood the stark disparities in ways students live, from spacious homes with front porches to small apartments where they could be seen waving from windows.
Direct online instruction for kindergarten and first-graders is too difficult, so Wood posts activities on the app Class Dojo that kids can do with help from their parents. She is most worried about her students during school hours when their parents may be working and don’t have time to oversee their assignments. “I think some of them are watching a lot of TV,” she said.
New Rochelle teacher Rose has no idea if lack of internet or laptops are the reasons some of her students haven’t gotten in touch, although she suspects that’s sometimes the case. She teaches 114 sophomores, juniors and seniors in a highly diverse school of more than 3,000, including many from families whose first language isn’t English.
At school, there were always plenty of staffers around who could help translate her concerns to the non-English speaking parent, but that’s no longer an option. Short of going door to door, Rose doesn’t know how she can reach those students who are simply not answering emails or turning in assignments. “Some of them are seniors, and they are failing,” she said. “Can you imagine not responding at all?”
Late last week, she finally heard from one of the seniors who’d gone missing, through a school counselor: The student couldn’t get to her schoolwork because her father was hospitalized with coronavirus and her brother had also fallen ill. On Monday, Rose learned the student’s father had died.
For additional perspectives on the student-teacher relationship during coronavirus times, I turned to trauma experts including Pamela Cantor, who started the nonprofit Turnaround for Children. On a recent conference call, Cantor said it’s important during this period for students to maintain relationships with family, friends, teachers and people they trust. She pushes the three R’s – relationships, routine and resilience.
I also listened to educators and researchers at Harvard School of Education discuss ways of staying connected while apart. They reminded teachers that learning can take place in many contexts, and to not strive for perfection during these difficult times. “Our teachers are feeling a really big loss,” said Dana Winters of the Fred Rodgers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media. “They are missing their students’ faces and they are missing those interactions. There is a lot of anxiety about whether they will be able to progress to the next level.”
Superintendents are also concerned. Some have banded together to call for providing internet hotspots and Chromebooks to millions of students who cannot get online or access lessons. Nearly 12 million students in 2017 didn’t have broadband internet in their homes, according to a federal report, and the school leadership group Chiefs for Change is calling for better connectivity nationwide. “It is time for federal and state governments to similarly accelerate plans to bring connectivity to every family in our state and the nation,” Pedro Martinez, a school superintendent and chairman of Chiefs for Change, wrote recently.
In the meantime, some school districts have decided that providing virtual learning may not be worth the effort. Others are still scrambling to get devices and hotspots to parents. Glick’s school gave out iPads and laptops to students who needed them, while committees at her school are going door to door to track down the non-responders. When students don’t sign in via Google meetings, Glick sends them silly questions just to make sure they check in, such as: “What would you get if a Zombie bit a Vampire?”
In East Harlem, where Glick’s school is located, there’s an acute awareness of loss. The low-income and largely minority neighborhood is experiencing more coronavirus cases than any other part of Manhattan. To help process their feelings, Glick has asked her students to write journal entries. “I’ll be reading a journal entry, and it will be like, my aunt died, my neighbor died,” Glick said. “There is so much insecurity. We are losing people and they are dealing with all of this loss in isolation.”
The youngest learners can’t have playdates or easily connect online with their classmates, though they might get an occasional glimpse of them online during Google meetings Wood has set up once a week. But those interactions are sometimes missed by parents who are working or can’t access the platform because they’ve misread or misplaced directions. Teachers in the younger grades have been told it’s not fair to hold parents and kids accountable for every single assignment during these difficult times.
“We are going to have to work extra hard next year to catch them all up,” Wood said. “All of us are going to have to just meet them where they were last spring and do our best.”
Back in New Rochelle, Rose recently received a full-page email from a senior who used to spend his free periods in her classroom, even though she was no longer his teacher. He wanted to tell her everything that he’s doing, from playing guitar to Legos – along with how much he missed his classmates and being in school.
So does Rose. “I never expected that when I left that March 10th would be my last day ever as a [classroom] teacher,” she said. “This was supposed to be the final spring semester for the seniors. I was supposed to have my last final spring semester. Now it’s just all the work, but none of the fun. And I may never see some of them again.”
This story on teacher-student relationships was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.