Under the Sun

Here's What One Phoenix Teacher Really Thinks About Distance Learning

Who knows when and if we'll ever get back to a traditional classroom setup?
Who knows when and if we'll ever get back to a traditional classroom setup? MissKPrimary via Flickr

There was a lot to hate about distance learning, Teri Woods admitted the other day. Some of it was just silly.

“Some idiot said, ‘Look at me, I’m teaching from Rocky Point!’ So now districts are making teachers sign papers promising they’ll teach from home. Next thing you know, they’ll be telling us which room in our house is okay to teach from.”

She let out a long sigh. “You gotta laugh.”

Really, though, there wasn’t much funny about teaching remotely. The real trouble, she thought, was that neither students nor teachers were prepared. Kids weren’t trained to distance-learn, said Woods, who’s taught math at North High School for six years, and teachers had to scramble to learn how to teach from a laptop. “So, you know, some kids are logging in and then going back to bed. They’re told they have to log in, but no one said to them, ‘You must participate, you can’t just sit and listen to class.’”

She’d learned to punt, using a complicated, sometimes inadequate online teaching system.

“We don’t have the proper bandwidth, so we’ve been asked not to use our video cameras while we’re teaching. We can’t have kids sharing the screen, so they can’t see one another, so they can’t be a class. I’m teaching kids I’ve never met, never seen their face or spoken with them. They don’t feel comfortable talking on the mic, so I don’t even know if they’re there. I’m educating literal strangers, essentially by phone call. I can’t even begin to tell you what this is like.”

She’d tried to bridge the gaps with humor. “The other day I said to my kids, ‘Hey, I put on makeup today!’ And they were like, ‘Why? We can’t see you.’”

Woods had been thinking about college professors who’ll be taking on distance-taught students next year.

“There’ll be kids taking freshman English who haven’t really learned anything in a year. Next year is when we’re really going to see the impact of distance learning. Because right now, there isn’t a lot of learning going on.”

Maybe, Woods thought, that’s because teachers are so under-supported here. “I got this asinine questionnaire from the Arizona Education Association,” she said. “I’m not joking — one of the questions was, ‘Are you worried that if students don’t go back to school, they’ll be more behind than students in other states?’ Seriously? We’re in the middle of a nationwide pandemic, a worldwide death toll, and you’re worried that Arizona kids will make the state look bad? Why are you asking me this?”

She liked a plan proposed last month by Tempe Union High School District where kids would go to school one day a week. Teachers would see five or six students per day and set them up with their work for the week, always keeping a safe distance, wearing masks and gloves and scouring the classroom at the end of the day.

“And the parents protested,” she reported, obviously mad. “They said, ‘No, we want our kids to go back to school.’ Even though the kids can get sick and die. You can’t make this stuff up.”

Literal distance learning might have worked better, she thought. “So, at my school we have 3,000 people in a square-mile area. You can’t have that now because it’s a health risk. So maybe our math department goes to the church up the street and uses the Sunday school classrooms. And the science department uses the Jewish community center a block away. And the kids can be six feet apart or whatever. Look, these places are empty anyway.”

She’d been comparing notes with colleagues at other schools. One couldn’t stay logged on to her classroom. Another’s system crashed completely on the third day of school. Another had a bitchy email from a parent complaining that there was “too much teaching” on the first day.

It was no mystery to Woods what might happen if schools attempt to reopen before it’s safe.

“Last year, Arizona had 5,000 teacher vacancies,” she pointed out. “People didn’t want to teach because the work is hard and the pay is crummy. This year, a mess of them have already said they’re not coming back because they didn’t love the job and they don’t want to do it remotely. The minute we reopen schools during a pandemic, we’ll be another 10,000 teachers short, because you can’t kill a bunch of teachers and then ask, ‘Who wants to be a teacher now?’”

She said she wanted to laugh about all this, but she couldn’t. “Seriously, who’s gonna say, ‘I want that job where I’ll end up sick and dead?’” Woods wanted to know. “Just exactly how stupid do they think teachers are?”
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela