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The Year of Teaching Dangerously

Teachers Discover That Distance Learning Is a Dance

The headless-chicken days of March. Zoom crashes. Parents against PPE. And yet teacher stress levels are returning to normal.




The Year of Teaching Dangerously series concludes with Larry Buhl’s look at how two teachers – one in Los Angeles County, the other in neighboring Orange County – coped with the effects of the coronavirus outbreak on their classrooms. On the eve of the new fall term, each teacher admits that those early, confusing days of online learning have prepared them for the challenges that await educators and their students – as they all await the end of the pandemic.


“We never went to teacher school to do this.”

Akimi Sujishi-Watson, Canyon Elementary School

After months of being in a holding pattern about how they will teach in the fall, Los Angeles teachers may have some guidance as the L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) and United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) came to a tentative agreement August 2 on how to proceed with distance learning amid the coronavirus pandemic. Under the proposed deal, which UTLA reported on social media, students will virtually attend school from 9 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. — no classroom instruction — though some smaller elementary schools could reopen with state waivers.

See Other Stories in This Series

A few weeks before the agreement was reached,  I spoke with Akimi Sujishi-Watson, a teacher at Canyon Elementary, an LAUSD-affiliated charter school located on L.A.’s Westside. Even at the time she and her colleagues had accepted the fact that her school would be doing distance learning for at least a good part of the fall term. The teachers found that knowledge comforting, putting them far from the headless-chicken days of March, where teachers across the state, and the nation, began a forced experiment in distance learning under duress.

Sujishi-Watson later emailed me to say she’s happy with the teacher-school board agreement, because it provides more opportunities to connect with families.

Springtime scramble

It helps now, as it did last spring, that each student already has a school-provided Chromebook and pre-COVID class website, with a password-protected portal to access homework. But, she admits, the learning curve was steep.

“I had never heard of Zoom, or thought about what it would be to teach virtually,” Sujishi-Watson said during our talk. “March to June was so long. I worked more hours than ever. It felt like I was a first-year teacher, without my sea legs. Things come at you, and you’re learning while teaching.”

Sujishi-Watson Zoomed with the entire class from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. daily, and the rest of the day was spent “workshopping,” which meant answering questions and being kids’ and parents’ tech support.

“[Distance learning] was like learning a new language,” she said. “How do I convey this info and have kids demonstrate what they know? Some of it was little things — having to screenshot with questions, checking communications. It was a long day.”

Sujishi-Watson started creating videos with instructions for parents and kids, including tutorials on how to use Google slides, or making a text box, but also explaining daily lessons. She would get updates from parents via video. It worked, except for the times when the whole district was on their site at the same time: “The sites would crash because they were overloaded. I would get 20 emails saying, ‘Help I can’t log on to Clever,’ so I had to troubleshoot. Students are pretty tech savvy but some parents are less active with tech.”

Parents also have various ideas about what to do about opening schools, Sujishi-Watson says.

“One parent said teachers shouldn’t wear PPE. Everyone has a different way of handling this crisis.” But she thinks it’s impossible for the school to go overboard where safety is concerned. “Kids’ hygiene is hard to control.”

Sujishi-Watson has spent 25 years in the district and 18 as a teacher. Prior to teaching, she was an afterschool program director. She says her previous career as a counselor at a runaway youth shelter was an inspiration to go into education. The kids who came out of the shelter with goals and skills all had good teachers, she noted.

Sujishi-Watson admits she was a bit of a late bloomer academically, and it took some years, and a master’s degree, before she found herself: “I was a quiet kid who blended into the background.”

Now, with the COVID crisis upending her well-laid teaching plans, she is, in some ways, a student again.

“My husband teaches high school, and he agrees that distance learning is so frustrating. We never went to teacher school to do this.”

*   *   *

“We were grieving but didn’t know what we were grieving.”

— Andrea Calvo, Ladera Vista Junior High School of the Arts

Imagine you’ve been cast in your school’s spring musical – in this case, High School Musical — and you’ve been rehearsing for months, but the COVID crisis closes everything a day before the show opens. Andrea Calvo, a teacher at Orange County’s Ladera Vista Junior High School of the Arts in Fullerton, was directing the show and said the performers, as well as students and in her guitar and choir classes, have been emotionally “all over the place” since March.

“Some days [they are] depressed, some days happy. They went through all the emotions and the ups and downs that teachers did,” Calvo said. There was so much confusion on how online instruction would go, and how long it would last. “We were grieving but didn’t know what we were grieving.”

In July the Orange County School Board stepped into the national spotlight by declaring its schools, unlike Los Angeles County to the north and San Diego County to the south, would open for fall classes – and without masks or social distancing. It would prove to be a moot point, because later that week Gov. Gavin Newsom mandated that all schools on the state COVID-19 monitoring list – including Orange County’s – be closed until they are off California’s monitoring list for 14 consecutive days.

A week before the fall term started, Calvo said that teachers’ stress levels have lowered somewhat since the March scramble to take learning online. Now there’s a plan to reopen schools – when the school meets the state criteria and not before – if not an exact date.

“Not knowing is stressful,” Calvo says. “Nobody thinks distance learning went well in the spring. We were in crisis mode.”

After a few months of trial and error, and a summer to connect with other music teachers nationwide on distance learning best practices, Calvo says she’s better equipped to teach online. She adds that the students at her school all had iPads, so they were already better poised for distance learning than students in other schools. Not that it made the switch easy. Nothing in her 20 years of teaching could prepare Calvo for Zoom meetings with choir students who appeared, singing, on 60 little video boxes on a computer monitor.

“We did warmups, they recorded themselves, and I hosted,” she said. “For musical theater, I demonstrate movement [in real time] and they follow.” There were too many students to fit on one computer screen, but fortunately Calvo had help from a student teacher, who monitored a second screen.

But Calvo says Orange County adopted what it calls a “Do no harm” grading policy during the crisis. The idea is that you can’t hold students to the same standards while schools are closed. “Some students were at home with family and quarantining there. Some may be at home all alone caring for siblings, some had sick parents. We don’t know what students are going through.”

But Calvo and fellow teachers and staff do want some idea of what students are going through, and they try to make sure everything is all right. “We make spreadsheets to see, ‘Oh this student didn’t log in for three days. So in that case we call and ask if everything is okay.’”

Not giving up on its plan to force everyone back into classrooms during the pandemic, the O.C. Board of Education last month vowed to sue Gov. Newsom over school closures, claiming that online instruction had been a “failure.”

Distance learning for the long haul

Calvo said that attitudes of parents and county residents have shifted over the past five months as more have accepted that the pandemic will change learning for the foreseeable future. “In May, Orange County posted photos of what classes would look like, with PPE and distancing, and people said, ‘Oh, that looks awful.’ Now, more people want schools to look like that when they open.”

“As a teacher and a parent I think distance learning is safest,” says Calvo. “But that is from a place of privilege, because I know I am able to stay home. A lot of parent friends feel the same way but I recognize we may be in a bubble.”

Calvo assumes distance learning will be the norm well into the new school year. That’s a challenge for any school, but for hers, which has 30 arts electives, it’s an even bigger challenge to maintain its culture. “There is a lot of creativity here. [Distance learning] is a dance.”

Copyright 2020 Capital & Main

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