Teaching, Learning, and Failing in the Pandemic

I knew I was depressed when I started to bring a blanket to school with me.

This fall, I splurged on a $65 wool blanket at a farmstand. Its tartan pattern is teal and black. At first it was just some cozy thing: I brought it with me to the living room to read and wrapped it around myself when I sat at my desk. But then I began to take it with me on car rides. And when I couldn’t get out of bed one January morning, I promised myself that if I didn’t call out sick, I could — like a toddler — take my blanket with me.

Usually, I feel like an effective teacher. In fact, I’m rated “exemplary” on the state’s evaluation. My students write me kind, sometimes glowing, letters at the end of every year, and some of them stay in touch as they navigate life after high school.

This year, I hardly know my students’ names, let alone faces. And they’re failing. In my four sections of English IV, the average grade for this term is — as of now— 28%. Only six of my 98 students have above 70%. If the seniors don’t pass my English class, they can’t graduate.

My students aren’t completing work. They are logging on, at best, erratically. “Yesterday,” I’ll say, about to connect the previous lesson to today’s, before trailing off, realizing that I’m staring at an almost entirely different set of empty boxes on the screen.

And when their cameras do wink on for attendance or they mercifully unmute themselves to answer a question, I see them horizontal in bed. I hear the booming voice of their sister’s chipper teacher: “Boys, and girls, you’re all doing an excellent job multiplying this morning.” They’re watching anime on TV or playing Call of Duty. There’s a guinea pig out of its cage. A cat on the keyboard. They’re in the middle of a shift at the laundromat, AutoZone, or Burger King — or they’re in their cars, having just clocked out or on their 15-minute break.

Things were hard in my district — located in a deindustrialized mill town — before the pandemic. Students were chronically absent, juggled work and school, and had limited access to technology. The pandemic, we know, merely exacerbated every existing inequity. My students do not all have a conducive place where they can work at home, and now all of school is homework. Handed a laptop for the first time, students have been overwhelmed by the sudden, strenuous demands of Google Classroom, email, and a personal calendar. With money excruciatingly tight in so many households, some of them are logging over 40 hours per week at their jobs. Students have been sick; family members have died.

It boils down to what they tell me over and over: “I have no motivation.”

What I think they mean is, This isn’t high school anymore. They’re right.

Even the students who started the year week on/week off hardly ever got to see their friends. If they did, they couldn’t hug them or dap them up. They couldn’t claim a corner of the hallway with their partner for some gross-out PDA. There was no homecoming; there will likely be no prom.

Lifelines like sports and theater have been cut. For students with their sights set on a four-year college, I imagine it’s easier to grin and bear this alienation. Few of mine have applied.

I admit that I sometimes laugh with friends and colleagues about the Kafkaesque nightmare of teaching in this pandemic, whether hybrid or fully remote. For example, I open my inbox to find a student’s midnight email (no

subject): “can i get help on the term paper so i can past this year i will turn in all the work i owe and try to pass.” There is literally no term paper.

More often, though, our commiseration sounds a bleaker note. I’m supposed to be an adult in my students’ lives who provides stability and love. I’m meant to equip them with the skills they need to face the world — and to change it. Instead, I’ve become a relentless source of stress. A security blanket in my lap, I’m doling out zeroes, dangling graduation over their defeated heads, and I feel like shit.