What We Really Learned during Distance Learning

By March, the 2019-2020 school year was humming along nicely for my sons, Devin, a kindergartener, and Thomas, a second grader. They were happy in environments that challenged and encouraged them. Their instructors sent home weekly updates, and dinner conversation filled in more detail. Devin lamented that “Ms. Smith” too often rearranged table assignments; Thomas noted that “Ms. Brown” was stricter than previous instructors. Still, every morning the boys sprinted out of the car, backpacks bouncing like giant paddle balls, and eagerly disappeared through the front gate.

Then came Friday, March 13. My sons and I stood before the same gate in near disbelief, waving uncertainly at Ms. Smith and Ms. Brown. Instruction was moving online, and no one knew how long students and teachers would collaborate this way. As expected, distance learning proved a pale substitute for proximate education, and Google Classroom lacked the joy and energy of a teeming campus. Still, for all its shortcomings, remote learning afforded something for which I will always be grateful: a genuine glimpse into what makes these women so formidable.

I stayed out of the “classrooms” at home, but I heard much when passing the bedrooms where my sons were situated. One morning I caught Ms. Smith explaining that the silent “e” makes the “i” say its name. She asked if anyone, then, could pronounce “k-i-t-e.” I eavesdropped at the door, hoping to hear Devin answer. Instead, Ms. Smith excitedly intoned, “Yes, Steve! Unmute yourself and tell us what word this is!” Steve confidently replied, “Ms. Smith.” He took a beat. “Scooby Doo is opening today.” A few students giggled, and I remembered why I could never teach elementary school. In every way a Type A personality, I recoiled at the interruption and waited for Ms. Smith to put a stop to it. To my surprise and horror, she did not.

Instead she steered a raucous tangent about whether Scoob! could possibly be better than Trolls World Tour. One breathless voice after another joined the debate, each high-pitched pronouncement outshouting the one before. Like rolling thunder, the giggles gave way to chuckles, then squeals of unbridled laughter. Through the crack in the doorway, I spied Devin doubled over the keyboard and smacking his right palm against his forehead in hysterics. I had not seen him this happy in days. Then, 90 seconds into chaos, Ms. Smith tapped “Steve” again. He announced the word was “kite” and the lesson continued. I closed the door appreciating what an acrobat the elementary school teacher is. And what a marvel Ms. Smith is. She had understood what those children needed in that moment, and it was not a quick answer to a spelling question. Almost without warning these young souls had lost so much: school, friends, visits with grandparents and cousins, playdates, parks, sports, playlands, restaurant visits, parties, theme parks, fine arts programs, music classes and normalcy. Ms. Smith gave them a chance to at least take back being silly, and it was glorious to watch. Afterward, any time I heard Devin laugh during class I offered a private thank you to Ms. Smith for bringing cheer to a boy so badly in need of it.

Days later I overheard Thomas’ class discussing fractions. Standard stuff until a voice I did not recognize loomed in the background. Ms. Brown’s teenage son had entered the room. Ms. Brown asked her son to leave and do his homework. When he claimed to have none, she uttered a stern, “Yes. You. Do.” A long, deep sigh. Then a slammed door. I smiled, for it was all a little awkward, a little amusing and completely relatable.

Before then I had thought little of the fact that Ms. Brown was a mother of two. Two was just a number, the same number as mine, the average number of children in U.S. families. The quick interlude, however, revealed there was nothing average about what Ms. Brown was doing. With scarce notice, she was teaching, reassuring and disciplining twenty-nine children who sat miles away while teaching, reassuring and disciplining her own children who sat mere feet away. Ms. Brown had always exhibited such a command of the classroom that I had not considered that she was juggling her own challenges. I began to pay closer attention. I listened in awe each time she stopped a lesson to console an anxious student late logging on because his connection was spotty, to calm a flustered student who could not get his math homework to save, to listen as another teary student described  a cancelled birthday. I wondered what morning routine she sacrificed so that she could instead open and monitor the “classroom” a half hour early so the kids could just talk, laugh, yell, rant and rave. I nodded thankfully when she marshalled a cheerful tone and urged her young pupils to remember that this challenge is temporary. The narrow lens that was my 7-year old son had painted a stern disciplinarian, but the intimacy of distance learning allowed me to see a caring side I would not have otherwise.

I now enter the new school year with a renewed appreciation for the joy educators provide, for the stabilizing force they represent and for the strength it may take them to muster those smile that say, “It will be okay.”

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