I’m a Teacher Who Has Been Working Remotely for 2 Years — Here Are 5 Things I Want to Change Forever

published Aug 31, 2021
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Credit: Anna Spaller

Teaching is unlike any other profession, but that’s an understatement for the job in 2020 and 2021. After living rooms, bedrooms, and other at-home spaces turned into makeshift classrooms, many people now have a more nuanced idea of what teaching is: Gone is the perception of teachers simply being there to provide students with knowledge, and having summers off.

As a teacher, I went from being surrounded by 22 elementary students every day to filming videos of myself teaching so that they could stream lessons on their iPads at home. Like in any challenging situation, my students and I learned as we went what worked for us, as well as what old methods of doing things no longer serve us. Here are five things that I hope never go back to the “normal” that many teachers knew before — and how you can get involved with the students in your own life to support them through their learning. 

Don’t: Compare Students Against One Another, in Academics and Beyond

Unfortunately, the United States education system puts a lot of emphasis on comparing students to each other. Between standardized tests and various competitions, students are taught from a young age that they need to be “better” than their peers in order to succeed.

I have always found the act of comparing students to be demoralizing, given that each student is an individual who deserves more than a standardized grading system. This belief was only reinforced in the past year and a half: Within days, it became clear how resources such as a stay-at-home parent to help, and/or money for a private tutor can give certain students advantages. Where I teach in remote Alaska, few people have internet access at home (myself included); the learning curve for families to even access videos on school-provided iPads was enormous. The added stressors caused by a dearth of resources likely impacted some students more severely than others, in ways we will see play out for years to come. 

Because of this, I hope the routine of comparing students against each other becomes a thing of the past. I’ve switched from using tools like the controversial public behavior chart  in favor of a private classroom management system where I conference with students individually, and remind them of all of the positive choices they have made so that they have a more well-rounded understanding of how their actions affect others. Each student is an individual and it’s time schools and their families and support systems treated them that way.

Don’t: Work All Hours of the Day, Every Day of the Week

Teaching is one of those careers where the hours for which you’re contracted to work and the actual amount of hours you work almost never correlate. When I taught in Philadelphia, my commutes usually began at 6 am so that I could prepare for and teach classes that started at 8 a.m. and ended at 3 p.m.; my commute home usually happened around 7 p.m.

This predicament became even more profound when I moved to remote Alaska, where teacher housing is usually only a few hundred feet from the school. It became so easy for my colleagues and I to say we were “just running over to grab something” before staying for three hours to work.

Yes, dedication is admirable and there are times when working more is necessary, but it shouldn’t be an every day, all-the-time situation: Everyone deserves and needs time off. For me, this means setting very specific boundaries with my work hours. Unless there’s an emergency, 6 p.m. is my absolute cut-off and I take at least one full day off every week. It’s a habit I hope to keep in the years to come.  

Don’t: Self-Fund Classrooms (or Other Workspaces) Without Any Support

Another persistent standard in education is that teachers are all but expected to fund their own classrooms. Many educators spend the summers following the sales and collecting books, crayons, paper, and everything else necessary for classrooms to function. Considering that teachers are already making less than most other degree-requiring careers on average, this can have a huge impact on a teacher’s livelihood.

This long-running problem was only exacerbated by the pandemic, given that remote learning meant that I could no longer simply hand a student a pencil when they needed one. When students ran out of something, I would deliver the supplies to their homes. I personally ordered over $2,000 of books for my students to take home with them — an expense I could only have managed with the support of Donors Choose

This shift provided further perspective on how much inequality there is within different school systems. While I am going to continue advocating for more equity in school funding on a national scale, I also have become more confident about utilizing resources like donations and reaching out to higher-ups in the district to tell them what my students need and remind them of their responsibility to provide it. If you have a student in your life, check in with them (or their parent!) to see what they and their classmates need, and contact your local politicians about prioritizing local school budgets. The more people follow up about this problem, the sooner it can become a thing of the past.

Don’t: Exclude Families From Day-to-Day Decisions and Classroom Happenings

Familial involvement has always been one of the most important pillars of education for me and, throughout my career, I have continually involved families in all aspects of my students’ education. Unfortunately, I know this isn’t the case everywhere: I have seen schools exclude parents from decision-making processes, and simply not inform them of happenings at the school. When schools began shutting down for in-person learning, families became even more integral to their children’s educations.

Education is a partnership, and good schools and teachers make it a point to include families in the process, and families should feel empowered to be included as well. When parents or caregivers reach out to me to ask questions about what’s going on in the classroom and how they can be involved, I know that they value the work I do. While I understand that not everyone is able to visit a classroom in person (especially now), getting involved is so beneficial. The saying “it takes a village” is a cliché for a reason, and I know my students have so much to learn from everyone in their lives, not just me. 

Don’t: Focus Entirely on Certain Academic Subjects (or on Work in Your Own Life, for That Matter)

Schools can often switch between  focusing on academics and social-emotional learning, based on which area they think students are lacking, rather than working continuously to maintain a balance between the two. This is especially true at the elementary level, where so much emphasis has been put on literacy and mathematics over the past few years that students often aren’t provided with an opportunity to explore other areas, such as science and social studies. This leads to many students being able to recall information easily, without having the opportunity to explore what might truly interest them. 

There are so many aspects of learning that are vital to a student’s holistic growth, from practicing critical-thinking skills to learning how to name their feelings and having opportunities for social interaction. Each of these skills are important for a child’s development, and are things that parents and siblings can model to the children they know. You can also do this by exploring your own interests and hobbies outside of work — not only will you help yourself recharge and avoid further burnout, but the students in your life will see there’s more to life than plugging into work, and follow suit.