I argued constantly during the pandemic that remote elementary education was a waste of time, and all parents wanting to reopen schools should have just pulled their kids and threatened their district’s funding, but that doesn’t mean an elementary school teacher’s job was easy. But I don’t know enough about the day to day work to comment on it.
I taught mostly high school math during the pandemic, for eighteen months: March to June 2020, summer school in 2020 and 2021, and the entire 20-21 school year. I did a good job at it, too. I can attest that for middle and high school, teaching is much harder in remote and required far more time.
Check for Understanding: In person, math teachers give kids a practice problem and walk around the room to determine who gets it, who needs help, what common misconceptions exist. We make sure the kids are all working, check for common misunderstandings to address, give the kids who finish in 30 seconds an additional challenge, and do this all in five-ten minutes.
To say that this task can’t be done in remote understates the difficulty added by remote. In-person, student response and teacher checking are done simultaneously. In remote, these tasks are sequential. To determine kids understanding on Zoom, teachers had a few options, from unstructured to highly structured, all of which took far more time in an online class of anywhere from 25 to 36 kids.
Easiest method for ad-hoc questions: ask students to put the answer in private chat. For example, put a liner equation graph up and ask for the equation in slope intercept. The question had to be something that doesn’t require math notation, which Zoom chat can’t handle. In general, getting 90% of students to answer takes on average 10 minutes AFTER the time needed to work the problem. Teachers need a list of names handy to check off each answer. Some kids won’t answer until nagged by name–which assumes, of course, the kids are actually online as opposed to logging in from work or bed or Disneyworld, which you can’t figure out until you’ve called them out by name several times. (I would always mark those kids absent then, despite their Zoom login. Revenge, and it did improve actual attendance.) Despite the problems, I used this method often. My student participation rate was generally over 80%, focus and obsess as I might over the remaining fifth. So I could ask a question and get close to half of the kids answering quicky, chat them back a followup question while I harassed the rest into responding. It wasn’t perfect but it worked well enough and besides (as I reminded myself frequently) in the in-person version, there were always kids who didn’t work until I nagged them. And inevitably, there were kids who forgot to put it in private, meaning everyone could see their answer, meaning those who just wanted to avoid work could copy the response just to get me off their backs.
Next up for adhoc questions: create a poll, Classroom question (in Google) or a Google quiz. These made it far easier to track who had answered and who hadn’t and teachers didn’t have to go into Zoom logs to figure out who said what. This method also allowed for more than one question, so teachers could get more granularity on misunderstandings. Still the same math notation limitation and the same nagging issues, delay in response. Moreover, it was really hard to make these genuinely ad hoc. Zoom poll takes a minute, but they’re hard to track outside of Zoom. Google Classroom questions take maybe two minutes, Google forms longer than that. From a practical standpoint, they can’t be really adhoc. So you have to plan ahead, which some teachers do automatically and others (raises hand) find a difficult task. Google forms were great for actual quizzes (see below) but they’re a bit too much work for a simple check for understanding. I never used Zoom polls, used Google forms for quizzes. I used Classroom questions occasionally.
Creating a poll, classroom question or google form quiz can’t be done easily on an ad hoc basis, especially if the question involved formulas that need special font, which most polls don’t allow. So teachers had to either plan and create their questions ahead of time (more hours of work) or create something simple in the moment–again, with response time for each taking ten minutes or so, for the same reason.
Classwork: Both of these methods give no clue as to what errors are being made and in fact, there’s no way online to check for understanding and get a real insight into student thinking. Checking for understanding by its nature has to be quick. Classwork, the bread and butter of math teachers is the other key way to see student thinking, what happens after the “release to work“, whether it be a book assignment, a worksheet, or an activity. For the first year of Zoom–from March to December 2020–I created Google Classroom assignments and students took pictures of their work to turn in. Teachers using this method have to flip through multiple pages of student work online. This is brutal. I still have nightmares from the time spent reviewing classwork online until, thank the great math gods, a fellow teacher told me about Desmos activity builder and its integration with Google Classroom. As a former programmer, I was able to build my own custom lessons quickly, but for teachers without that skill, Desmos offers a lot of blessed options and googling finds a bunch of others. Desmos and Google Classroom combined were wonderful. I could build my own activities, assign them to a class, and then see students work as they completed it, catching mistakes in action. If a student never logged in, I could see it. If a student logged in but did nothing, I could see it. I marked a lot of students absent on that basis, which got them back into paying attention. Huge win.
But there’s that time factor again: either teachers could use their existing curriculum (worksheets or books) and spend hours reviewing work online (in my case, I don’t do homework normally, so this was a big chunk of added time) or they could rework all of their existing curriculum into Desmos assignments, which also took endless hours but at least had something of a payoff.
Assessment: Monitoring test integrity is relatively easy to do in person. (Relatively. And methods got much more sophisticated post-pandemic). Rampant cheating was a huge issue during remote. How to reduce cheating? Rewrite tests entirely.
For example, in a paper-based test you could ask a student to graph “y=2x+7” or “y=(x-3)(x+5)”. But Photomath–or, for that matter, Desmos–provides that answer in a heartbeat. Instead, I’d use a Desmos activity and ask students to graph a line with a slope of 2 and a y-intercept of 7, or a quadratic with zeros at 3 and -5. This wasn’t in any way a perfect substitute. Students wouldn’t have to know how to graph a slope of 2 or find a vertex. But at least I could ascertain a level of understanding. There were entire topics that were pointless to teach during the pandemic (exponents, factoring) because there was no way to see if the kids were doing it themselves or photomathing the work. Rewriting the tests still took hours.
Grading: Most non-teachers–hell, even teachers themselves–can’t really conceive of how hard it is to grade online. Automation takes care of the multiple choice scenarios, but Google forms allow short answers, and they don’t always exactly match. And never mind the exact matches, how about partial credit? Math teachers routinely give credit for setting up the problem correctly, deducting fewer points for minor math errors, and so on. I bought the least expensive Veikk tablet (love it, and still use it) but I could never find an easy way to mark up student work and save it for return without a lot of extra work. Leave aside that, it is still difficult to keep track of what you’re adding up. You can’t write directly on a google form or desmos, so you have to snip it and make your notes, which you then have to tally up and keep on a separate sheet….and so on. it’s a bitch.
These are essential tasks that went from 2 minutes per instance to an hour or more–each instance, with dozens of instances a week. For teachers (or me, at least), life outside of work was great. But work itself? This article focuses on life during the early months of the shutdown, but I was able to institute more structure during summer school and by fall 2021 my school had instituted a formal “bell schedule” with something approximating a normal school day online. It was a lot of work. Teachers coped with this in different ways. The more organized teachers who believe that coverage is the most important thing taught less time online and added far more to the students’ “asynch” hours, believing this would allow the motivated students to learn more effectively. I did the opposite. But regardless of method, work was much longer and harder.
The only good thing about teaching during the pandemic is that I could do my bit to make life better for students after a government action I vehemently opposed from day one. Meanwhile, moving so much of school online added permanently not only to my pandemic school day, but to my day post-pandemic.
I remember the day our school closed, asking the head custodian what he’d be doing during the shutdown. “Taking care of mom,” he said. She had cancer. Oh, so he wouldn’t have to be on campus. He laughed. “Maybe a bit. Not much.”
Bus drivers were definitely furloughed. But in the main, public education layoffs actually decreased during the pandemic.
Shutting down the schools in March 2020 left hundreds of thousands of people paid a full time salary to do almost nothing. Most non-teaching school lower level staff (attendance, custodial, teacher’s aides) had very little to do. We didn’t even take attendance in most schools from March to June 2020, so those clerks had nothing to do. Custodial staff had to clean if anyone came on campus, but otherwise were onsite doing nothing. Secretaries and clerks had half or less of their usual job. The more highly educated district staff, who are nice, supportive, but ultimately unnecessary staff anyway but ignore that for another time, had pandemic-related assignments, like finding online curriculum to purchase at great expense that we teachers generally ignored. I don’t blame any district or school staff for their long vacation. But they were on light duty at best.
Half of all school employees don’t teach. With the exception of school administrators, most of them had next to nothing to do during the school closures. So closing the schools meant that just under half of all public school employees had their jobs cut in half at least. Schools could have laid off millions of personnel to combine jobs.
Just one of the many misconceptions deluding all those complaining about paying teachers to “do nothing” during remote education is the fact that teachers were one of only two employment categories whose jobs got much harder and longer during the pandemic. I’ve pointed out endlessly that school closures were primarily a function of parental preference, that teachers’ unions, no matter their pro-closure rhetoric, couldn’t do anything to affect those decisions. There’s mountains of evidence establishing this pattern. But even those who foolishly believe in the evil teachers closed the schools story should remember that if teachers closed the schools, they created more work for themselves, not less.
Meanwhile, does anyone remember the various folks howling about closed schools and lazy teachers demanding that district and support staff personnel get furloughed? Any complaints about the thousands of state government employees getting a long-term vacation at taxpayer expense? Demands that schools collapse jobs to eliminate expensive, unnecessary personnel?