San Francisco Diaries: Finding the silver lining in teaching on Zoom

Educator Kelly Gregor Hartlaub had been a librarian for some time until the pandemic hit, until she was suddenly called back to frontline classroom teaching, on Zoom, for distance learning. Her first task as a Zoom teacher? Sex education. Yikes.

But that wasn’t even the hardest part. In today’s podcast episode, Kelly shares the emotional, mental, and practical challenges of distance learning, how she and fellow teachers kept going, and how an English-learning student having an especially hard time helped her in kind.

Listen to Kelly’s story:

We met Kelly a few years back, and here she is in the photo above (third from left), about to dig into a delicious burrito with some of San Francisco’s bloggerati (including Burrito Justice, Peter Hartlaub and Heather Knight from The San Francisco Chronicle and the Total SF project, and yours truly).

We’re always looking for stories about how San Francisco has changed and transformed you, whether it happened on Muni or off. 

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A few months after my second son was born, I started a master’s program.  I had an infant and a three-year-old, and I was teaching high school English full time.  I’d wake up while it was still dark out, write an essay for one of my library classes, feed the baby as I graded my students’ papers, teach all day, gather the boys up after school, pass my husband in the kitchen as we both wrangled kids and dinner, and then slip quietly away for a class while my husband put the kids to bed each night.

I thought that would be the hardest stretch of my career. And it was…until I taught sex ed on Zoom.

After Covid-19 caused schools to shut down in spring of 2020, I spent the summer working with other librarians planning ways that we could help students and teachers when school started again. Because of course school would start again.  Then, about 3 days before the year began, my principal called. There weren’t enough teachers to cover all of our now-online classes, so our district was closing all of our libraries for the year and assigning the librarians to classes. In the spring, I would at least be teaching classes I was familiar with–English and Journalism among them.  But that fall, as in less than a week from that dreaded phone call, I would teach two health classes that I had never taught before. 

Now, it’s important to know that I am a team player.  I did not want to teach these classes, but there was no question that I would teach them. I am also an optimist. I didn’t really question whether I could teach them.  I just knew we were in a global pandemic and I was fortunate to still have a job, so my school could plug me in wherever they needed to.

I also had some perspective.  That baby and toddler from my library school years had grown into a 7th and 10th grader.  I watched them log on to their classes that first morning of Zoom school–dystopian pandemic school, as my friend called it–and I saw how much was riding on what they would find at the other end of their screen. 

When it was time to start my own classes that first morning, I probably could have phoned it in. Who would blame me if I did the bare minimum, if I cut classes a little short or copied and pasted the first thing I found online? But each one of those students popping onto my screen was someone else’s baby, and I had to try to give them a reason to keep logging on each day.

A lot of people assume teaching online is easier than in person.  I would have thought so, too, before I did it.  But the prep work for classes like that is unbelievable. You have so few opportunities to reach kids in that format, and so I spent hours planning for every hour of instruction. What music would I play when they entered class that day?  What question would I open with, so that at least once each session, I could hear every student’s voice? How could I structure a breakout room so that these poor kids could talk to each other in a meaningful way?  Or even in a shallow, small talk kind of way?  How would I convince them to turn on their cameras instead of crawling back into bed, which honestly is exactly what I wanted to do too?

Here’s how I did it: I sat at my computer for 12, 13, 14 hours a day, and I loaded up my Google Classrooms with one activity after another to try and engage those kids. I spent so much time staring at that screen that I dreamt in Google slides.  I tried to fill in those awkward moments in the beginning of a class by playing tunes from their playlists–Katy Perry and Olivia Rodrigo–or mine, which leaned heavily on Aretha and the Avett Brothers.  The day before Halloween, I asked them to come to class in costume.  My husband helped me transform that morning, going full  Lord of the Rings with a wig and beard and light-up staff…  I was the only one who dressed up, but there was no undoing that intricate costume on the fly so I taught that whole day as Gandalf the wizard.

So, yes, I tried to reach my students.  And I had help.  I shared ideas constantly with two other teachers, my pandemic partners.  I also have a generous, selfless husband who took over the meals and kept our family afloat so I could.  Just.  Work. But even with all that time focused on my classes, I never felt like I was doing it well.  I barely saw my own family, even though they were one or two rooms away.  I felt every day like I was doing all of my jobs badly–teacher, mom, wife, daughter, friend.  I sometimes fantasized that I would be hit by a bus and knocked into a coma so I could just check out for a few months.  And then I felt guilty, because that would mean taking precious hospital staff away from Covid patients.  So I even lived my fantasy life badly.

But I couldn’t feel too sorry for myself because I knew that as low as I was feeling, some of my students were far lower. Sitting out a year of high school comes at a cost.  This pandemic has been hard on everybody, and it’s been brutal for teens.  I understand why many of them turned their cameras off.  They felt lonely and isolated, and seeing themselves on camera made them feel self-conscious and weird.

I was so discouraged, felt so useless that I might have finally quit if it weren’t for Tim. Tim was a freshman who logged onto our health class diligently every day, camera on and ready to learn, but he spoke very little English.  Pre-pandemic, for Tim, this iconic rite of passage of starting high school would have meant not only being new to a campus, but in his case being new to a country.  Only now, Tim would have to adjust to all this without ever actually meeting anyone in person.  Imagine starting high school under those conditions?

One of the best ways that students like Tim learn a new language is to go to a place every day–like school–and hear people around them using these unfamiliar words until they begin to make sense. Not just in class, but at lunch and in the hallways, in dozens of ways throughout the day. But Tim was in a vacuum this year, just him and his teacher with a bunch of black squares in a Zoom box. 

When I checked in with Tim, it was clear early on that he didn’t understand the material. He started staying on zoom with me after each of our classes and we used a shared screen and Google translate to try and review the material we’d just finished. He stuck with it and turned in every assignment even though it took him much longer than most kids. I worried about how isolated he felt, and I asked him if he was interested in joining a club.  One of our campus clubs had been meeting via zoom, and there would be students there who could speak with Tim in his home language.  Did he want to try it out, I asked?  What’s a club? he replied. When I explained, he told me that he would try it out because he wanted a friend.  

On our last day of class, he used the chat to thank me.  I ended the session and stared at my screen feeling hollowed out but also feeling something like hope.

This fall, kids are back on campus and I am back in the library. The first week, I walked into a classroom and saw Tim.  I recognized him right away, even with his face covering.  His teacher started to introduce us, and I said “Oh, I know Tim.  We go way back.” Now I see him most days at school and he goes out of his way to say hello, his smiling eyes peeking out above his mask.  We have this joyful little exchange, an acknowledgement that we got through a dark time, that things may not be perfect now but they are better. I think about Tim often when I meet a new student, mindful that they may be dealing with any number of obstacles that I don’t know about.  It’s a gift he gave me, a reminder to be empathetic with all of my students.  I owe him for that.

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