By Eric Wang
North Penn High School
If you think remote learning, fraught with communication and technical problems, is highly stressful for students, think about the challenges teachers face.
It’s no walk in the park for them, either.
In a changed world brought on by COVID-19, students are struggling to learn, while educators are struggling to teach.
“If a kid was in my room, I would walk over to their desk and if they didn’t know what they were doing, it would be clear within ten seconds,” said Gustav Maurer, a social studies teacher at North Penn High School. “But if they’re at home, I’m not going to know that.”
“There are always students who are more quiet in class,” said Brendon Mostert, a history teacher at North Penn. “But it’s much easier to get them engaged in the classroom than in a virtual meeting.”
An additional concern may be that students are often afraid to be embarrassed in front of their peers. The online format forces them to face this embarrassment when asking for help.
“There’s no privacy at all,” said Michael Gourley, a math teacher at North Penn. “If you want to talk to me in class, you talk to me through a speaker and everyone can hear you.” Under such circumstances, many students remain silent.
When students struggle, they often resort to cheating, which is made easier in distance learning. Many teachers are not equipped to handle this.
“When a student submits work, how much of that work was through the notes that they had sitting in front of them that I can’t see through the screen?” asked Gourley. “These grades cannot be compared to any previous years because you never know what they’re doing. I just grade as if it were a normal year and hope that students aren’t taking advantage of it.”
Since November, the North Penn School District has used a hybrid model, which allows in-person learning at the school every other day on a rotating cycle. On off-days, virtual students join classes online and teachers must teach online and in-person students simultaneously. The hybrid model has been widely used throughout the country.
Seventy percent of the student body is enrolled to come in every other day, but only a small fraction of those hybrid students choose to learn in person, with the rest sticking to full virtual school. This has frustrated teachers.
“I think at first, students chose hybrid to get some sense of normalcy, but then when they came into school and saw that they were only surrounded by one or two students, it almost made it worse,” said Gourley.
“There’s been so few students here. It’s not really worth coming in for that,” said Maurer, the social studies teacher. “If I had a classroom full of ten or eleven kids every day, it would make sense to be here, but under these circumstances I would prefer to be at home.”
“It’s really difficult to teach the virtual students and the in-person students at the same time,” said Sarah Levandowski, a North Penn English teacher. “I know that someone is going to feel like I’m not giving them my undivided attention.”
For many teachers, a task that is usually a minor part of the job — grading assignments and tests — has become overwhelming. This is particularly true for those teachers who teach math subjects, where work done on actual paper is the standard. Digital tools like PDF scanners and PDF editors, while they help streamline the process, are much slower than grading on the paper itself.
“Grading is… almost impossible,” said Gourley, who admits time spent grading has quadrupled. “I now have to grade where Wi-Fi is available. If a student’s homework assignment has five pages, there’s five loading screens. That makes it very, very difficult.”
Christian Berger, a physics teacher at North Penn, laments the loss of hands-on learning in his class, which he believes detracts from the learning experience.
“If we were in the classroom, I would give you some equipment and you could do experiments,” said Berger. “Me posting some pictures and videos online of me doing the experiment just isn’t the same. You learn so much more by doing the science yourself.”
Many teachers have expressed a desire to recapture the human element of education, something that is often lost in digital translation.
“The worst thing about it is not getting to know the students,” said Gourley. “I really do like learning a lot about my students, and it’s just not happening.”
“I can’t seem to get the same back-and-forth with my students as I can in a classroom full of kids, and that’s the best part of teaching and learning. I miss it,” said Maurer. “Prior to the pandemic, I really enjoyed this job, and now it’s more just something that needs to get done.”
“Not everything has to be explicitly said when you’re in the classroom,” said Mostert, the history teacher. “And now that we’re virtual, all of that has to be said. Virtual teaching adds a barrier.”
North Penn, except for tests, does not mandate students’ cameras to be on in class, which sometimes forces teachers to teach to a blank screen. “It’s a little discouraging,” said Levandowski.
Berger said he has a smiling plastic stick figure that he saves for days when cameras are off in his classes. “I can’t teach a wall of profile pictures. So, I look at this guy and teach him.”
Despite all these difficulties, most teachers maintain that they can teach effectively in a virtual setting, but that students must put forth more effort than usual in order to learn.
“Maturity is the key,” said Gourley.” I can teach effectively over the Internet, but I think it’s up to the student to make that happen.”
“The students are more accountable for their learning,” said Berger.
Most teachers are cautiously optimistic about progress against the pandemic, but they are reluctant to hope for anything in the face of uncertainty.
“I’m hoping to be back to normal by the fall of 2021,” said Maurer, “but who knows?”
And despite the circumstances, most teachers believe that they are doing the best they can.
“I’m surprised at how well it’s actually going,” said Maurer. “I do think I’m reaching my students. I do think they are learning.”