You only get one first day of school. There’s only one chance for a teacher to stand before a class and make a first impression. We print off our rosters and we begin learning our students’ names and nicknames. We do icebreakers to get to know everyone and begin to create a safe classroom community in which students feel comfortable being themselves and, of course, learning.
But what does the first day of high school look like during a pandemic? Like thousands of schools across the country, Bellaire High School, where I teach, and Houston ISD started school Tuesday online, something that would have sounded unimaginable if you had told me in February. Even though this is my thirteenth year teaching, in many ways I feel like a first year teacher.
When Bellaire shifted to remote learning in the spring, we benefited from already knowing our students. We already had nearly eight full months of getting to know them. I knew what worked and what didn’t work for each one. I knew who liked to work quickly and efficiently and who preferred to procrastinate. I knew who liked to talk and who was as silent as a mouse. We had made memories and built a classroom community.
And, more importantly, I knew the social and emotional needs of the students in my classes. While remote learning in the spring was indeed an emergency situation in every way, my virtual classroom became an extension of my face-to-face classroom. It wasn’t ideal, but I made it work. And I was able to do that because I knew my students.
So, rather than settling into my classroom and greeting students at the door as they entered my room, I began the school year in the most 2020 way possible—seated at a folding table in my guest bedroom wedged between the bed and the door because, well, that’s where the magic happens—at least during the pandemic. My partner, who also teaches at Bellaire, taught from the dining room table. Although there are comforts from working from home, space is limited.
Typically, my teaching relies on face-to-face interactions with students. I love to talk to them and learn about their interests—what music they are listening to, what TV shows they like, what TikTok trends they think are funny, etc. And, of course, if you are familiar with me, then it will come as no surprise that I love to dance with my students (for more on my students and my collaborative work, see Susie Tommaney). I relish the opportunity to build relationships and community through being creative together. How does this translate to virtual teaching?
It does… and, of course, it doesn’t. Thankfully, I can jump right into furthering relationships that have already been established (honestly, I’ve never been more excited to have some students who I already know). I have collaborated with students in my Dubsmash Club since March, posting side-by-side duet dancing videos on Instagram. We regularly interact and maintain our community. On the first day of school, I shared a collaborative Dubsmash video on Instagram (@dr_boffone) of four of my students, another Bellaire teacher, and me dancing to “All Night Long” by the Mary Jane Girls.
This was possible because of the work that had been done in-person since I began teaching at Bellaire in 2018. I’m now wondering how I do this with my new students who will likely not feel comfortable sending dancing videos to a teacher who they’ve never met before. It’s much trickier to get to know the students who I have never met or seen before.
I don’t think I’ve ever been as nervous on the first day of school as I was on Tuesday. And, as prepared as I was, I felt incredibly unprepared. When I kept thinking about what would make me feel more prepared, nothing really came to mind. I’d feel fully prepared in an alternate 2020 universe in which COVID-19 didn’t exist, one in which we could start the school year just as we have always done. But that’s not the world we are living in. That’s not the hand we were dealt.
The first day of school began in the most unwelcome way possible—the HUB, the district online portal, crashed early in the morning and it was unavailable to most users even by the end of the school day. The HUB is where students can get all of their course information and, most importantly for virtual learning, it’s where they can find the information and links to join their classes’ Microsoft Teams accounts. In short, the HUB makes everything work. Once I knew the HUB had crashed, I manually added my students to my course Teams to try to work around the problem. Attendance was low in my first class, but by my second class, most of my students had found their way to my “classroom.” If anything, the first few hours of the school year reminded us that anything is possible and to expect the unexpected. It is 2020 after all.
As I began class, I could barely focus because my email and Teams notifications, not to mention Remind on my phone, were dinging at a rapid clip. Mostly, students were messaging me asking me how to get to class. Meanwhile, I had students sitting in my class, presumably just as confused as I was. When my first class ended, I had to quickly take attendance and archive the video for anyone that might have missed it. I ran to the bathroom and it was already time for me to do it again with the next class.
Luckily, many of my tech issues were fixed as I got more comfortable managing this new world of virtual teaching, but I still forgot to turn on the sound when I screenshared a video of me introducing myself. I forgot to record the class session until it was almost over. I still was distracted by email notifications and my cat clawing at the door, wanting to come in and see what I was up to.
Throughout the day, I couldn’t help but think how lonely I felt. I taught my classes in silence. All of my students were on mute. All of their videos were off. I felt like I was giving a one-man-show into the abyss. Sure, my students made use of the chat, but it wasn’t the same as chatter filling the classroom as students meet each other and do ice breakers.
Where I normally feed off the energy in the room, I was left alone and to my own devices to create and maintain the energy in my virtual classroom for each 50-minute period. I would tell a joke and be met with silence. I’d ask if anyone had a question and there would be more silence. My second class warmed up a bit and kept me company in the chat, but regardless, I felt like I was teaching on a deserted island. It was exhausting and by the end of the day I felt braindead.
Was this an ideal way to start the school year? Of course not. But it’s what we have. Until our COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and positivity rate dramatically decrease, going to school the old-fashioned way doesn’t feel like a viable reality. As a teacher, the health of my students and their families (not to mention mine) is fundamental to school being a “safe” space.
But, even as lonely as Tuesday was for me and as many tech issues as there were, I remain positive that I will be able to make the most of remote learning. Like I told my students, I am committed to them and, right now, that involves me giving them the full Dr. Boffone experience. Virtual might not be ideal, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be meaningful.
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