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Teacher's Lounge Virtual Instruction Advice - Dazed and Confused

Dear Teacher’s Lounge, 

I am so tired of people talking to me about wellness. It seems totally hypocritical to say that teachers need to prioritize our health, and then throw endless rules and policies at our heads that change by the day. My stress level is through the roof. I’m just being real here when I ask if it’s possible to prioritize anything but low-level sanity. 

~Dazed and Confused 

Dear Dazed, 

You are absolutely right. People tell us one thing, and then their actions speak a lot louder. In this case, I don’t think that anyone is intentionally being hypocritical when they tell you to be well and then give you a bazillion things to deal with, but to be blunt, the rapidly changing conditions of this whole pandemic make all decisions extremely transient. We don’t know which way we’re going or what we’re doing, and that is disorienting at best and traumatic at worst. 

I once had a really stressful job, one that kept me up at night and haunted me in the daytime. Once a day at lunchtime, I would grab a giant mug of something caffeinated and head outside, where I would walk around the building and remember that life existed outside of cinderblock. I always wound up in the same place: on the steps outside the front of the building, looking out at the cars speeding down the street and remembering that the microcosm of my workspace was not real life. Sure, it felt that way. But real life was my home, my children, my husband, my love of the beach and all things chocolate. 

There is a whole lot of noise in our heads right now, and it intensifies each day. We worry about becoming proficient in online platforms for learning, about whether we can/should/must record classes, if kids have their cameras on or off, or what will happen if we can’t teach all the things we know are important. If we get stuck in our worry, which might seem like the responsible thing to do, we will not make it out of the year with even our sanity (which, Dazed, is kind of a low bar, but I understand what you’re saying). 

Wellness tips don’t work because they’re too individualized to reach, well, individuals. My walk around the building did it for me, and so does my morning workout and my protein latte as I gear up for work each day. My best friend meditates when she gets up, which is great for her. My brother takes two walks, one before work and one after, to clear his head. My mother practices the piano for hours. My husband cuddles with the dog. My son rides his bike each evening, and one of my daughters wanders the house singing to herself while the other lies on her back and stares at the ceiling. These are all wellness moves, and they are extremely personal. 

Districts tell you to prioritize wellness because they know it’s important, but they also can’t be the ones doing it for you. It’s their job to get teachers through this new world, but nobody can do everything, so your wellness is going to have to be up to you. If it helps, make a list of all the things you like to do that make you feel good. Then, try and figure out how many you can fit into a normal workday, and how many you can incorporate into weekends. It might even help to pick one big thing that has to happen to lower your stress and commit to that one thing. If it’s a workout, do five minutes and see if you can go for ten. If it’s a hot bath, schedule it into the day just like you would a meeting. But make sure it’s something you look forward to, something that you will want to do, because if it’s not, it will never happen. Then, and only then, do you have a chance to drown out the noise and worry and confusion in your head, and just remember that it will all be okay. 


Dear Teacher’s Lounge, 

My school district is not returning in person for a few months, and I have been upset to hear people express the idea that teachers do not have the right to stay home and jeopardize students and their education. They compare us to doctors and other essential workers. Even my close friend said that retail workers are just fine going back, so why am I so adamant about staying home? My question is, how do I respond to these arguments? I know they’re flawed, but I’m having a difficult time responding in the moment. 

~Virtual Teacher 

Dear Virtual Teacher, 

First of all, ugh. This time is difficult enough without people arguing constantly about the challenging decisions that we all face. Agreeing to disagree would be nice without people pretending they understand the shoes others walk in. 

In terms of how teachers respond to attacks about going back to a physical classroom, the most important thing is to stay civil. American society has never placed a premium on valuing teachers, and these times are no different. In fact, this pandemic has shined a harsh light on the reality: teachers are appreciated for childcare far more than for our skills as educators. In other words, it is harder than normal to feel comfortable defending our profession these days.  

But regarding how you respond to people who attack virtual teaching, here are some possible replies: 

Comparing one profession to another is not helpful right now. Clearly, teachers and doctors should not be compared other than through the lens that we both got into our respective professions to serve others. That is pretty much where the analogy ends. The same holds true for comparing teachers to firefighters, or grocery store cashiers, or tightrope walkers. None of us has a true understanding of what other professionals do until we’re there doing it along with them.  

School buildings are not like retail spaces or offices that are populated by adults. Children will struggle to maintain proper distance despite their best efforts, large numbers of people will cross into shared spaces like hallways and gyms no matter how hard we try to avoid it, masks will come off and be quickly misplaced or used as slingshots, and ancient ventilation systems will make the spread of what is now accepted as an airborne virus even more efficient, particularly once colder months arrive. By their sheer volume of occupants alone, schools have the potential to become daily superspreading events. 

Unlike many essential workers, teachers can do the job remotely. Can it be done as well? No, but the same problem exists in person as teachers try to instruct behind plexiglass and masks. Having said that, good instruction can exist in both scenarios. We just need to let it happen and stop telling teachers they can’t make it work. 

Truthfully, you can’t convince anyone that your own point of view is the right one, but you can share your own ideas in a respectful way and expect the same of others. The people who are angriest about virtual learning right now are concerned parents, many of whom have essential jobs of their own without needed childcare. We can understand their dilemma (some of us have that exact dilemma as teachers as well), while we also hope they understand ours. These are impossible choices, and our compassion about that should be foremost as we engage in conversation. 


Dear Teacher’s Lounge, 

This might sound dumb, but I’m really stressing out about the appearance of my “classroom” at home. My district doesn’t allow virtual backgrounds, and I live in a cramped apartment with other people. How do I create a calm space for my students, or at least the appearance of one? 

~Bad Setup 

Dear Bad Setup, 

It’s not a dumb question at all. In our filtered social media world, everyone thinks that people live in these gorgeous Pinterest-style spaces, but I assure you that the reality is quite different. Your question is a serious one, and it’s not just about having a less-than-ideal living space as a teacher. Many of our students live in poverty, and they are alarmed at the prospect of showing us their living situations. What can we do to help ourselves and them? 

If at all possible, aiming the computer’s camera at a wall can make any space neutral. Windows backlight the individual and can make it hard to see anything but a silhouette, so walls are better for visibility. If a wall isn’t possible for whatever reason, covering the area behind us with a blanket or large cloth can also create that illusion of neutrality. Students will be focused on you more than your background once they adjust to seeing you every day, so being functional over beautiful is more important in terms of background. 

With apartment-mates or loud family members, the best thing we can do is remember to mute ourselves as much as possible. I spent the summer sharing the dining room table with my three kids, and I spent as much of the time on mute as I could to block noise out. I also got a cheap pair of headphones with a mic attachment, and that made it harder for others to hear my own background when I was talking, since the mic mainly picked up my voice. 

If it’s affordable, other backgrounds can make the space behind you prettier. Some people get screens and use them as a barrier to what is happening behind them, or do some minimal decorating (plants, a poster) to change up the classroom look. Whatever you decide to do, remember that no adults actually expect you to live in serenity, much less children. Our professional veneers have been stripped away by months of Zoom meetings, and people understand that our real lives lurk just beyond our screens. As we begin the year, staying aware of our children who might have more to hide than just a messy house is a particular concern, and one that we should be most tuned into.  

Have a question, comment, or helpful tip about virtual teaching and learning? Send them to the Teacher’s Lounge  We’ll get through this - together!


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Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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