Montgomery County, Maryland

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With national leadership urging schools to reopen this fall despite rising cases of COVID-19, classroom teachers are facing bewildering choices. Already undervalued, teachers are weighing the dangers of in-person instruction against the effectiveness of online learning, with little certainty about either. Students are isolated, parents are exhausted, school districts are scrambling to make responsible decisions, yet teachers themselves are being asked to carry most of this burden, risking their lives and their families’ lives to do their jobs. Even a superhero would be daunted. As we approach the start of the 2020 academic year, we asked U.S. K-12 teachers to tell us how they’re feeling and how they’re planning for the year ahead.

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My district made the call to have our first semester online after the community affirmed the only acceptable death rate in our schools was 0%. My work between now and when school starts took me to… YouTube make-up tutorials.

I am a Theatre and English teacher with eight years’ experience, and I’ve taught and directed in both rural and suburban districts in my state. That experience cemented two facts: that strong, positive relationships lead to more student success, and that carefully structured learning spaces and activities are better than retroactive punishment by simply making it much easier to do the right thing than the wrong one. ‘Path of least resistance’ and all that. That structured space takes time to make, but does not need to be physical: my Theatre I class last year had a student-run group chat that was very active, and aside from providing monologue feedback to each other, propagated a rumor that I was secretly a robot due to my apparently limitless energy. (I was not part of that chat, obviously, but a student did ask me whether I accept batteries, or need to plug in each night).

Social space was a fundamental benefit argued for in the case to reopen schools. The reality is that, in person, my relationship with my students, and their relationships with each other, would not truly be social: they would be austere and constantly mitigated by risk assessment and plastic barriers. I was more aware of this fact than many, because my entire Theatre curriculum is based on learning to share our feelings and the stage with each other.

And then I had a realization: there are millions of young people who every day have meaningful, positive social experiences with people they perceive as experts, people they want to learn from, and all entirely online: YouTubers, Instagram influencers, and TikTok stars. These “para-social” relationships are based on the phenomenon that our brains have difficulty telling the difference between two-way intimacy we build with those around us, and one-way intimacy we build with the characters and personalities we love online. And so, I dove into the psychological research on one screen, while on the other I was downloading OBS (a common Twitch and gaming-streamer program), manually adjusting the white balance on my webcam, and making sure my microphone had a pop filter on it. If I couldn’t build social spaces in my classroom, I was going to build para-social ones in videos for my classes.

These next four weeks of preparation are necessary for teachers like me, who need the time to study what we know about online education for K-12 students. Teachers are life-long learners, and we are prepared to read and adopt the best practices in online education and make this year exceptional — so smash that “Like” button for your local teachers.

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Michael Arden is an English and Theatre teacher, as well as an amateur tailor, poet, and medieval reenactor. After working across the state of Maryland, he now lives and works in the same school district from which he and his wife both graduated.