By Emily F.
Dear Blog Readers,
Fall semester has ended, and the first chapter of the IYWP’s Interview-an-Educator Project has come to a close. Now that you’ve heard from educators in the area, I want to write directly to you as a co-interviewer for the project.
As an aspiring English teacher, I feel honored to be a part of this project. I learned a lot about what it’s like to teach during the pandemic, and I want to take a moment to reflect back on the three interviews conducted thus far. I have numerous takeaways from each interview, but what I noticed most was the educators’ clear love for their students. With support from the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD), they continually work hard to ensure their students receive the best education possible despite the challenges. However, I firmly believe the challenges they faced so far shouldn’t be ignored. Specifically, I was shocked to learn about how the ICCSD’s detailed plans for the school year were foiled by abrupt state government changes. I also noticed a recurring theme of the teachers’ over-willingness to sacrifice their own health for the wellbeing of their students. This is harmful for teachers’ health in the long run, making it difficult for them to successfully teach their students.
According to the three educators we interviewed, the primary challenge faced by Iowa City schools at the beginning of the year was state government pushback. After the pandemic hit, the ICCSD spent the entire summer writing detailed plans for distance learning in the fall. They worked closely with teachers and the teachers’ union throughout the decision-making process. After the plans were finalized, Governor Kim Reynolds unexpectedly scrapped the plans without offering a new solution. As a result, teachers were forced to construct haphazard new plans for the year, feeling more ill-prepared than ever. Our first interviewee, who asked to remain anonymous, felt “angry, disappointed, embarrassed, and disrespected” by the state’s response to the pandemic. She cited this semester as the first time she ever felt dispensable by the government. The abrupt change in plans caused her to experience “a great deal of anxiety and disconnect” while imagining her teaching position for the fall. Our second interviewee Sophie Taft also expressed disappointment in the state’s response, saying that “people in positions of leadership are not really setting [teachers] up to do what’s best for the students.” Our third interviewee, a Practicum student at the University of Iowa, echoed Taft’s dissatisfaction with the state, concluding with exasperation that “they’re making [the decision-making process] more complicated than it has to be.” If the state government hadn’t interfered with the district’s plans for distance learning, teachers would have been better prepared to teach in the fall.
The interviewees also covered struggles faced by students in the classroom. From Taft and the Practicum student, I learned that the hybrid schedule presents challenges in itself. At Liberty High School, the week is divided into A- and B-days, and the students are split by last name. This means that some days have upwards of 18 students in class while others have only one, making for an awkward distribution of students. Students often fail to complete asynchronous work which, in turn, makes it hard for teachers to assess the students’ knowledge. Teachers can only offer distanced one-on-one help for students because they can’t come within six feet of them or touch their computers. When a student or teacher tests positive for the virus, they will be out of school for two weeks, switching back and forth between online and hybrid learning. Clearly, hybrid learning poses many obstacles for students and teachers in the classroom. But 100% in-person learning isn’t a safe option at the moment.
Beneath the surface of the student challenges, Taft and the Practicum student detailed their own challenges. They hinted that they often have to choose between their students’ wellbeing and their own health. Right when the pandemic hit, Taft remained isolated in her home and took strict precautions. However, she stopped thinking as much about her personal safety when school started. She figured, “I’m [going to] get it at school anyway, so I guess I’ll go to Walgreens and buy candy corn for school.” While the students in Taft’s school remain isolated in their homerooms, Taft serves as the music teacher for the whole building. This means she visits nearly every homeroom to teach which increases her exposure to the virus exponentially. The Practicum student also felt resigned to contracting the virus. After working with students all day, she quickly accepted the possibility of getting sick. Her only worry was bringing the virus home to her fiancé who has asthma. After interviewing Taft and the Practicum student and seeing their defeated dispositions firsthand, I got a sinking feeling that teachers’ natural tendency to care for others before themselves puts them at further risk in schools. Because teachers are used to prioritizing others, they risk their own health without expecting much in return. Knowing all of this, a few questions remain: Even though teachers are essential, do they deserve to be put at risk like front-line workers? Did they sign up for this? And most importantly, if teachers are taking care of students, who is caring for teachers?
Photo Credit: Dan Gaken, Creative Commons