Teaching During a Pandemic: The Struggles of Distance Learning

Teachers and students alike are doing their best to adapt to using Zoom, an online video conference service, instead of meeting in person. Source: https://zoom.us/docs/en-us/media-kit.html

Teachers and students alike are doing their best to adapt to using Zoom, an online video conference service, instead of meeting in person. Source: https://zoom.us/docs/en-us/media-kit.html

Karen Chen, Features Writer

To start the school day, students open up their devices and enter Zoom to join classes. Some have their microphones and cameras on while most are displayed as pictures on a screen. 

On March 1st, schools began distance learning and have continued for nearly two semesters. Adjusting to distance learning has been a learning process for many students who have sat through hours of classes feeling confused or tired. The struggle isn’t limited to students only though; teachers have also been going through similar and unique issues with managing online classes. 

Although the workload for teachers has remained relatively balanced, with hassles such as long commutes now out of the way, changing courses to adapt to digital classes has formed a new obstacle. The expectation of teaching has changed from a hands-on experience to utilizing online applications such as Zoom. With the limits of technology, coming up with new ways to teach has been a struggle between teachers, especially among those with many years of experience under their belts. 

“Am I just giving the kids work to do so they have work to do?” Jesse Griffin, an English teacher, said. “Because that’s not okay. Or am I giving them work to do because it’s something that’ll make them smarter?”

Using this mindset, the curriculum students are expected to learn has shifted to focus on efficiency and necessity. Aspects such as due dates, assignments, and testing have been loosened, especially with the current concern towards cheating. 

“How much can you rely on students’ ethical compass to give you accurate information on a test?” Mr. Griffin said. Without the requirement for cameras and microphones to always be on, teachers aren’t able to fully supervise students during testing. Even with cameras and microphones, not everything going on in a student’s room is able to be observed. Teachers have already been expecting a lack of transparency through digital media to cause more cheating. To combat these issues, teachers have begun changing the formatting and material presented in assignments. 

Roger Chen, a foreign language teacher, brought up using open-ended tests that give students the space to use their individual critical thinking and creativity to answer through their application of the skills taught in class, rather than testing their memorization. After reflecting on past assignments,  Mr. Chen began questioning the type of material that should be tested.

“Am I assessing for assessing’s sake? Or am I assessing something that is important?” Mr. Chen said. During the start of distance learning, he began focusing on timed and open-ended questions rather than quizzes on memorized vocabulary or grammar rules. While some teachers are coming up with new ways to prevent cheating, Mr. Chen also stressed the consequences of cheating and the importance of being able to “fall safely” right now, rather than later in the future when more will be at stake. Making cheating a habit in high school can lead to failure in the future when cheating won’t be an option to solving a problem.

To provide students with practice and to prevent them from making bigger mistakes in the future, teachers are also stressing engagement. Distance learning has brought many barriers to teaching such as cameras and microphones being turned off in class along with the lack of usage of applications like Remind or Loopmail to ask questions. 

“When students log onto a Zoom session, they’re on mute and their camera is turned off,” Mr. Maestas, a biology and chemistry teacher, said. “So as a teacher, because I really value engagement, because I want to build authentic relationships, it’s kind of hard when you’re staring at a blank screen.” 

Though chats and polls have helped teachers receive feedback on how students are doing, it’s much harder to read the room and grasp the understanding of the students when most aren’t able to visually or verbally provide engagement. 

As students continue towards the end of the semester, teachers have shared their own concerns with their classes to connect with students and their struggles. Balancing their time between work and their home life has become a new challenge with the disappearance of physical separation between the workspace and their homes. Alice Li, a math teacher, has expressed her concern with maintaining a healthy separation between work and home. “I actually have a hard time differentiating social, family, or work life,” Ms. Li said. With more work due to preparations to make the most of class time, the lack of structure between answering emails, grading, family, and socializing has led to some feeling dispirited. 

Managing children and family can add to the stress of juggling priorities. Working around the schedule for distance learning is like a “pie of stuff” according to Mr. Griffin. Each day has to be split up into different times for different activities in order to cover both teaching, family, and individual time. Teachers with children who are also attending school force teachers to split their focus between managing their kids’ education and conducting their own classes. Living with relatives can help with caring for children during class, but concerns for the elderly and their health can also be stressful.

Future endeavors and improvements to distance learning have not been pinned down or officially decided. Many teachers themselves have taken upon their own time to make Edpuzzles or videos to help further simulate in-person learning such as labs and demonstrations, but with lots of uncertainty in the air, many are cautious to plan too far ahead or too big. Currently, teachers are still in the process of trial and error to see how well different types of lessons perform in class. 

As students advance towards the end of the fall semester, students can be aware of their own engagement and impact in classes to make school both easier and more exciting. Though classes may feel foreign and unnatural at the moment, in the time being, most can agree the new schedule has been great for sleeping in.