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FIRST PERSON: Teachers, Step Back and Listen

Despite experience with technology and nearly eight years in the classroom, Katie Clarke, Ed.M.'12, didn't know what her students needed when she started teaching virtually

PHOTO: Katie Clarke, Ed.M.'12


Last year, when I was approaching my eighth year teaching high school Spanish, I felt that I was nearing that level of confidence that veteran teachers talk about. I had seven and a half years of experience under my belt. I was professionally developed, tenured, and equipped with three flash drives.

My daughter was born on February 20, 2020. While on maternity leave, my school (on Long Island) shut down on March 16. When I “returned” to work on May 1, I ran a Google Meet for the first time, expecting to be greeted by the faces and voices I had missed so much. I thought we’d be waving, laughing, telling stories, catching up. Instead, I was greeted by a screen of 28 black, muted squares with my students’ names at the bottom. 

“Wait, are you guys there? Hello? Turn your cameras on!” I said. “I can’t see you! I can’t hear you!”

Notification of a new message in the chat: Hi! 

“Wait, why aren’t you talking to me? Why aren’t you turning your cameras on? I want to see you guys!”

Notification of a new message in the chat: I don’t know. This is just how it is. We don’t turn our cameras on.

I remember feeling sad. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t excited to see me or to show their faces. I thought, “Aren’t these kids the ones who are constantly posting pictures, sending videos, and FaceTiming? Why are they being so camera shy?”

Suddenly it was the first week of August and Governor Cuomo announced that schools in New York would be reopening in the fall as long as they had a plan that followed these guidelines: face coverings whenever social distancing is not possible, health screenings, proper building ventilation, disinfecting protocols, and contact tracing.  My principal informed us that we would be teaching using a hybrid model; teaching to kids in front of us and at home at the same time. I wondered if this could possibly work. Can they really learn through Google Meet? Teaching language with a mask on? Socially distanced seating? 

September came and our doors opened. My building had our kids attending at 50% capacity on a given day. They had been grouped into two cohorts alphabetically. So, in a given class period, I had about 12–14 students from one group in the class with me, and the other 12–14 students joining class from home via Google Meet. By the second day of school, I was teaching kids in front of me and kids tuning in from their homes with little issue.

My gut instinct was to delve into technology. I thought, “Okay. I’m young, I’m good with computers and apps, I can teach myself how to use these things to involve the kids at home.” However, although I knew that things were running smoothly because my technology was working and I was teaching my lessons, by the second week of school, something still felt wrong. There was a depressing atmosphere in my classes: silence, lack of smiles, no laughter. I paused and looked at all of the masked students in front of me, and the little squares on my laptop screen of students working from their homes. I wondered, “How can I act like this is normal? How can I expect them to be good at this? How can I hit pause and rethink this all?” 

Suddenly, I found myself drawing back to the values I learned at HGSE. I thought about the work I did in Professor Robert Selman’s and Senior Lecturer Richard Weissbourd’s courses on morality and considering teenagers’ perspectives through a developmental lens. But, most of all, I thought of Professor Howard Gardner’s course: Good Work in Education: When Excellence, Engagement, and Ethics Meet. Gardner’s Good Project defines Good Work as, “Work that is at once excellent in quality, responsive to the needs of the broader community, and personally meaningful.” 

When I went back to a research paper I had written for that course and reread that definition of Good Work, my mind was doing cartwheels. If you are an educator reading this, repeat that sentence over and over in your head: “Work that is excellent in quality, responsive to the needs of the broader community, and personally meaningful.” Wow. 

Finally, I realized the problem. I didn’t know what the needs of my students were. I didn’t know how they felt, because I never asked. I needed to ask them, “How are you doing with school the way it is?” After a series of surveys I learned that while learning at home, they felt incredibly distracted and they didn’t feel a part of class. So, those solutions that I thought I had in September, using add-ons and apps to have them participate virtually, were only making them feel less a part of our learning community. Were my students able to manage assignments and learning online? Yes. But were they able to feel part of the class while sitting at home? Was I doing a good job at providing that for them? No. It’s hard to say as a teacher that you’re messing up and not doing a good job. But, after getting their honest and respectful feedback, that was the truth. I wasn’t doing Good Work. 

How have I pivoted in my teaching during COVID-19? First, I pivoted by replacing human interactions with apps and add-ons. That didn’t work. Then, I pivoted by choosing to listen to the students, and listening to their needs. I had to prioritize their social-emotional needs over their academic needs. I’ve chosen to pause instead of getting straight to work by beginning class with 2 to 3 minutes of light, fun conversations in Spanish. It’s a way for all of us to connect, make eye contact, and get a break from the seriousness of the world. I call more on the students at home and have given them an opportunity to tell me what they struggle with while learning from home. I allowed them to share their tips with one another. They gave each other advice like, “Days when I’m doing school from home I get up and shower and get dressed as if I’m leaving the house” or, “I have to put my cell phone in another room during class.” 

Have we found the perfect solution to accommodating hybrid learning? No, we haven’t. But things are better. My students have smiles (behind masks), laughter can be heard in the room as well as through the computer’s speakers, and we’re supporting each other. That was what they needed. That was what I needed. That is excellent, engaging, and ethical.

What teaching during COVID-19 has made me question was that confidence that I was feeling before the pandemic hit. Was it confidence? Or was it compliance? Did I want to have an easy time doing my job or did I want to be good at it? There’s a difference, more so now than ever. If COVID-19 hadn't shaken up my process, would I have revisited those values I learned at HGSE?

I’m enjoying being back in school. I hope we can sustain this throughout the winter. However, if we do go fully virtual again, I feel prepared to know how to serve my students and assess their needs. If you’re an educator during COVID-19, you’ve got a lot on your plate, that’s for sure. But, take a step back, listen to your students, and ask for their feedback. Most importantly, ask yourself, “Am I doing Good Work?”

ABOUT ME: Since finishing my program in the Human Development and Psychology Program, I have been teaching Spanish at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, New York. As a teacher, I prioritize developing strong, meaningful relationships with my students and making my classroom a happy place.