Remote learning really sucks — for all of us. I keep seeing advice from you and from others that sometimes kids just need a break and to not be afraid to tell a teacher that the endless Zooms and device time are over. I get that from a parent’s perspective, but I don’t know what to do as the teacher in this situation. When my students don’t show up or complete any of their homework, they are missing out on the material. I have parents emailing me that their teen has anxiety, but knowing that doesn’t change the fact that they’ve missed 12 assignments. I am very sympathetic and am struggling myself, but I still need to teach everything that could be on the test. I feel caught between two bad choices. Any advice?
A: Thanks for writing. I have so much empathy for you and for every other teacher out there. Every person in your letter here is facing an untenable situation: Parents are trying to work, keep their children from falling into depression and anxiety spirals, and hold on to their own sanity. Teachers are listening to their peers, districts, parents and students, all while navigating an ever-changing landscape of hybrid, in-person and virtual learning. Finally, teens are suffering, isolated physically from their friends, ripped away from activities and hobbies, and forced in front of screens — the very things everyone wants them to get away from.
I’m sure you’re already aware of this. I’m just restating this to point out that there is no easy solution. So what can you do?
In my book, “Parenting Outside the Lines,” I write quite a bit about the needs of the situation. This means that, in any given situation, you make the best decisions with the information you have. This still may mean that all of the decisions are subpar, but at least you are dealing in reality. If anxiety can contain fear of the future and depression can point to what hasn’t worked in the past, working within the needs of today’s situation can bring some solid ground to your emotional landscape.
The first list you make is what you know, right now, about school. You may find that, as you make your list, you don’t know all of the details. You may need to reach out to the heads of departments, your district, your union, your co-workers and other sources of reliable information to discover what is true today. Because the educational landscape is ever-changing, be sure you have the most current information. Checking facts against fears is the best way to slow down the anxiety and fear cycle.
Your next list is what you know right now about your students. When we feel out of control and anxious, the brain tends to send us stories that generalize. For instance, you say that parents are emailing you about anxiety and that students have missing assignments. But if you make a list of who is missing that many assignments, how many students is it, really? Is it three? Twenty-three? You need data to be able to make decisions about how to move forward. For instance, if half of your class is missing numerous assignments or checking out of Zoom because of anxiety, you have some decisions to make. Maybe you give fewer (or no) assignments. Perhaps you can take this data to the district, proving the students are not ready for the yearly test. This data can help you to be transparent with yourself, your students and their parents. Because every struggling family feels as though they are struggling alone, communicating this reality, while maintaining student privacy, can help ease the burden, shame and panic that many families are experiencing. You can express what your purposes and goals are, and how those may change as the pandemic continues to unfold.
Your final list is what do you need right now. Most teachers, I know, are absolutely last on their lists. Their own children, their students and their school community all come before themselves. Although this is admirable and the media loves to cover this kind of selflessness, it is also untenable. You, on your own, cannot be responsible for your students’ anxiety, homework completion and test readiness. Even when you are in school, that is a tall order. But now? It is virtually impossible.
So, what is on the “you” list? Do you need to reassess what can be accomplished with these students? Do you need to speak up? Do you need to get quiet? Do you need a mentor or another peer to share ideas with? Where can you get support?
When you are making these lists, don’t feel pressure to say or do the right thing. Just write out whatever comes to you, and it will become clear how much is truly out of your control.
Finally, you need to find a way to have fun with your students. (Yes, you read that right.) Fun and joy are in short supply these days, but where can you create games, silliness and some prizes, all while focusing on American government? Meet with fellow American government teachers (virtually) and say: “What are you doing to make this fun?” Get guest speakers. Ask others to present materials. Have the students teach the class (and grade their work). Have a “dance party” day, where someone DJs and everyone brings a snack. Have everyone write up their hopes and dreams for a post-pandemic life and share them.
You feel as though you are caught between two awful choices. These feelings are not in your head, and it’s not your fault. Please write this on a sticky note, and place it wherever your eyes land. Your brain needs a constant reminder that you care, that you are doing the best you can and that these circumstances will change.
Let everyone in your life — students, parents, your own family — know that you are proud of how well everyone has done. That includes yourself. Please get support. Good luck.
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