“We Can Only Hope” (Terence Freeman)

Freeman is an English teacher at Lawton High School in Lawton, Oklahoma. He has taught 14 years at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and 26 years at Lawton High School. This story appeared in the Washington Post’s online article, October 6, 2020. Freeman is one of nine teachers the newspaper asked to report on their experiences in returning to remote and in-person instruction during the pandemic.

Hope was on my mind in the summer months leading up to this academic year. I hoped the school had plans and funding for sanitizer, cleaning liquids, paper towels, masks, teacher testing and more; hoped that I and my students would remain healthy; hoped that I could still have the personal relationship with students that enables learning to happen.

I will remember Hands. During Week 2, I took my classes to the library, where the district fulfilled its promise to provide every student with a Chromebook. I now had the option of having students read from a website or from a paper textbook. Call me old-fashioned, but there’s nothing like the heft and texture and tangibility of the printed text.

Yet I worried about students in successive classes touching the same books. So I went on Amazon and ordered three large boxes of nitrile gloves. I’ve placed a pair for every student in a baggie with her or his name on it, and the baggies are stored in separate boxes in the classroom. The students enter the room, wipe down the desks I have sprayed with liquid cleaner, wash their hands with sanitizer, grab the assigned baggie, put on the gloves, grab the book on the desk, read and at the end of class put the gloves in the baggie and the baggie in the box. A terribly makeshift solution, but one that’s been enthusiastically received and executed by the students. They and I each do what we need to do — that’s the can-do spirit of an American.

I will remember Obstacles. Two-thirds of our students elected in-person education. Some technical adjustments were relatively easy — cold breakfast in the classroom, wiping down desks before each period, sanitizing hands, distancing between desks. Masks were harder — not the wearing, but the communication.

On the first morning of school, gloved and masked, I helped do a security check of students’ backpacks/bags/purses before passing the students on through the metal detector. All of the students were masked, and I quickly realized how important our faces are to communication, to the recognition of emotion. A cheery greeting from me, if I got a response at all, generated a reply whose emotional content was muffled, distant, cold. I have had the same experience in class. Conversations involve both hearing and observing, and the masks impede the observations. I and my students have needed to work harder to emote through our eyes and voices.

I will remember the Probe. In Week 3, I took advantage of a free coronavirus test offered by the state’s health and education departments. I made my appointment the day before, showed up 10 minutes early and was the second school employee at the location. The testing equipment beat me to the scene but, unfortunately, the nurses did not. Teacher after teacher arrived at the room, and we milled around in the hallway, awkwardly chattering and trying to maintain social distance.

Thirty minutes after my arrival, two nurses arrived — one female, one male. In due course, I was seated before the male nurse, who proceeded to make a minute-long speech that I understood nothing of — these masks are truly a pain. The insertion of the probe was uncomfortable, the nurse’s count to five unnecessarily slow and the aftermath a slight burning and a watery eye. I high-tailed it back to the classroom and beat the first of my 18 students by about 30 seconds. I used a Kleenex to dab the watery eye — one must maintain one’s image, after all. A result came the next day: “Not Detected.”

I will remember the Extra. On the third day of school, I learned that my Advanced Placement students would have the option of getting a virtual education. I tried hard to find a magic bullet, but the programs and technology suggested to me over the summer would, I came to believe, only allow me to offer a significantly limited version of the in-person curriculum I have developed over the years. So I have found myself trying to construct that limited version (at the moment, for eight students) while at the same time conducting the in-person version. In essence, I feel as if I am being tasked to be two teachers — me and Extra Mini-Me.

So there it is — my first weeks at school. Hands. Obstacles. Probe. Extra. H-O-P-E. I am reminded of the poet Basho: “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” We can only hope.

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Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, technology use

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