Net Gains and Net Losses in Distance Learning.

Here is how things used to happen.

I would wake up at 6:30 and get dressed. I would grab my smoothie from the refrigerator and fly out the door to school, where sometimes I would see students in the morning, sometimes not. Once the bell rang, it was a whirlwind: students forgetting locker combinations, students wanting to leave their art projects or skateboards in my classroom, students all around me talking over one another and nobody really listening. In my conference period I graded or got paperwork done as rapidly as I possibly could, before it all started over again. For lunch I ate the same meal that I distributed into pyrex tupperware that I cooked in a crockpot on Sunday. When I got home, I wrote letters of recommendation for over half the seniors and graded more when I could. I would then collapse into bed.

Contrast that with distance learning.

I wake up at 7:30 and do a workout that lasts between 15 and 30 minutes. I cook a well-rounded breakfast of eggs, toast, and an orange. I meditate and make coffee, and then I write a blog post (hello!). From there I do up to two hours of work providing feedback on assignments and replying to correspondence from students. This last bit usually ends up happening all day, and that is one area I cannot switch off. Besides these moments, I read and write in the afternoon, and then spend time with my wife in the evenings, or with friends (at a distance obviously).

There is definitely some asymmetry going on here.

On the one hand, the difference in stimulation is night and day, and for an introvert like me, I can say that I truly loved the experience. There were times where I felt like a bad teacher, because a lot of what I do was being very present and attentive to students in the moment. That kind of emotional intelligence is what English teachers do best. But for my own sanity, the experience was incredible.

That said, the experience for the student was likely miserable. They clearly have far less control over their lives now that each teacher has different methods and expectations, and since many do not drive and have no reason to, our suburban layout for our city is not conducive to distance learning experiences. Even with a bicycle, the places available to go were little, and for a time no one was going anywhere. With lack of proper daycare, older siblings undoubtedly carried the weight as babysitters of their family, cooking meals, washing dishes, and doing chores.

Everyone seems to be washing more dishes, actually.

What I am trying to suggest is that even in this particular industry there have been huge differences in the experience of social distancing, and to imagine that across all industries is to experiment in chaos.

Did I take advantage of my school? I have been interrogating that idea. On the one hand, meditating and working out were not necessarily in the teaching description I got in the year 2014 when I started working at the school I’ve taught at until this point. On the other hand, distance learning amidst a pandemic was not either, and perhaps I could argue that keeping a sound mind and body were all part of increasing my effectiveness when I’m on the clock.

Or I could have just worked more.

Plenty of this calls into question the ways in which we measure input and output.

For example, there has now been a serious bottleneck that needs to be addressed with numbers of students and technology.

At school there is a simultaneity, where I am teaching and therefore I am there to answer questions and give instruction very quickly on-the-fly. Emails will pop up on my laptop to answer later, and all these different modalities were layered.

Now that is not the case: it is all digital all the time. If I was so inclined, I could sit here at this computer and spend all day typing responses and giving huge pages of feedback, and not only would that be allowed, it would be encouraged.

I cannot type fast enough to be the best teacher I was when I was in the classroom. There are way too many students.

So on one level, there are obvious failures of the system: there is only so much psychological counseling I can do from an email.

On another level, I benefited from a new sense of balance in my life that I want to hold onto for the future. Whether or not that happens is anybody’s guess.

That phrase seems to be the case with everything these days. Our school is planning contingencies for distance learning until January. No more summer slide for kids: we now have to deal with “coronavirus slide.” Kids don’t read books anyway, now imagine them mandated to love their devices even more.

And I am having a hard time encapsulating this experience into an aphoristic phrase. So far Michel Houellebecq takes the cake: “Everything is going to be the same, but worse.”

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