I Don't Belong Here.

a humor blog from the trenches of suburbia.

Curtis really lets me have it in first block this morning. 

He’s a ninth grader, upset I chastised him in the class chat window because something he said wasn’t appropriate.

Another freshman had just typed he couldn’t hear the instructions I’d given because his internet connection was bad, to which I replied, “isn’t online learning wonderful?”

“No,” Curtis chimed in. “It’s not wonderful. It’s terrible, and I wish it would die.”

“Not appropriate for the class chat, Curtis,” is what I typed back. That’s when Curtis lost his shit.

I tried to ignore him and move on, but there he was, typing as fast as I could talk. “This class is terrible,” Curtis typed. “School should be burnt to the ground.”

Once I get the rest of the class started on their next assignment, I pull Curtis into a breakout room where we could chat one-on-one. Curtis has autism, you see, a special education student in my co-taught English class. I knew he didn’t pick up the sarcasm in my comment, and I want to try and explain.

In the breakout room, Curtis is inconsolable. He raves like a madman, confused at why I would ask a question and then scold him for his response. “It’s called the First Amendment!” he yells. Normally, he’s too shy to use the mic, but not now. “Maybe you’ve heard of it!”

There’s nothing I can do but apologize. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way, you’re right, I was wrong. I hope that will calm him down, but it only enrages him more.

“You are the worst teacher I’ve ever had!” he screams. His camera isn’t on, but I hear his fists slam against his school-issued keyboard. “I can’t believe you even have a job! I can’t believe they let you graduate from college!”

He signs off, the virtual equivalent of slamming the door.

It is 8:54 A.M.

I guess I shouldn’t bitch about how hard I have it. In the scheme of shitty jobs, teaching in 2020 doesn’t even crack the top 10. Coal miners have it harder, the little kids overseas stitching together Nikes have it harder. My dad was a union ironworker for 20 years, and sometimes, his friends would go to work and DIE. I don’t think teaching from home is worse than that.

What I know is while I’m pretending like Curtis’ comments don’t sting, I get an email from my department chair asking for the list of books I’ve taught in the last three years, as well as copies of my book approval forms. I guess a community member sent a Freedom of Information Act request, probably to try and catch us teaching texts that aren’t approved. “AHA!” I can hear this person say. “I KNEW those teachers were up to no good!”

“I’m sorry in advance for the time this will take,” my chair writes, “but we have a deadline based on the FOIA request.” 

At 9:45, I sign on to my next class and wish my students good morning. I know they’re here because their names are in a list of virtual attendees, but when I ask how they are doing, I’m greeted with the silence of my dining room.

I want to tell them to turn on their mics, activate the cameras built into their school-issued laptops, but I can’t. It’s a FERPA violation, I was told in the one-hour virtual training session I took in August. 

So I talk to myself, like when I was little and would pretend to be a radio DJ interviewing Green Day with my tape recorder. There was nobody else there to answer the questions I asked, so I answered them myself in a British accent, because at the time I thought Green Day was from England.

I’m not what you call a textbook teacher. I didn’t go to college for education; I didn’t study the pedagogy the way some of my colleagues did. I learned from my parents: my mom, who just retired after teaching high school French for 42 years, and my dad, who got tired of watching his friends die at work and started teaching sixth grade science instead.

As such, I think a lot less about standards and learning targets and a lot more about fun. I treat my students like an audience I need to trick into learning. I guess my colleagues who list their masters degrees in their email signatures would call that student engagement.

Over my career I’ve learned to feed on the kids; their facial expressions, their body language. I’ve learned to read the room and then, like Clint Eastwood in the incredible 1986 film Heartbreak Ridge, to improvise, adapt, and overcome. 

But all the little tricks I’ve learned in the last 10 years are useless when I’m staring into the abyss of my own laptop screen. It’s like my first year all over again.

It’s not all bad, I guess. My biggest gripe about my job used to be my 12-mile commute on the Capital Beltway, where I would spend between 35 and 80 minutes staring at the taillights of the car ahead of me. I used to dream about a situation where I wouldn’t have to drag myself out of bed before dawn. 

Ask and ye shall receive, I guess, because my commute is now 35 seconds. As long as my shit’s set the night before, I can roll out of bed at 8:05 and be GTG by the time class starts at 8:10.

I’m also taking advantage of the fact my students can only see the top half of my body. As I make a futile effort to get my students to engage in my lesson, I’m also perfecting my Zoom mullet: plaid J Crew shirt on top, fleece sweatpants on the bottom.

It doesn’t go well, by the way, the engagement. When my student Zach gives a good answer in our Padlet bulletin board activity, I ask him to come on mic and elaborate.

“No way,” Zach types in the chat. “I can’t talk. My voice is trash right now.”

My third block is a planning period, which I spend bouncing between my task list and my children. Oh, did I not mention my children before? Yeah, while I’m teaching at home, I’m also trying to be a dad. Dominic is in 6th grade and Josephine is in 3rd, so they’re mostly self-sufficient, but I’m wholly convinced seven-month-old Robert has some sort of sixth sense about when I need to give direct instructions to my students, because that is when he starts to scream.

I feed Robert a lunch of oatmeal and mushed bananas, and then I write a 504 Plan narrative. It’s for a student I don’t know and have never met. He’s on my roster, sure, technically mine, but in the last two months, he’s never turned on his mic or camera, nor has he typed responses in the chat. I literally couldn’t pick this kid out of a lineup, but sure, I would love to provide anecdotal evidence of his academic progress on a legally-binding document.

I also write a college letter of recommendation for a student I had in class last year. Since he spent the majority of the year ignoring me, I told him I probably wouldn’t be the best person to include with his application, but he insisted. So I spoke my truth:

“I’ve never written a letter for a student whom I wouldn’t recommend for a program, but in 2020, nothing surprises me anymore,” I wrote.

I start my next class just as my infant Robert begins to tantrum. I pause my opening activity to grab him and bounce him on my knee, and he yells whenever I try to talk.

“I’m sorry, you guys,” I say to the class. “It’s almost nap time, I promise.”

“It’s okay,” one of my students types in the chat. “My government teacher was trying to talk to us about something boring like caucuses or electoral votes or something, and her baby threw up on her right on camera. She kept going like nothing was wrong.”

Dominic and Josephine are on lunch break now, while I’m going through my slides about static and dynamic characters. They’re in the kitchen five feet from my classroom, arguing about the proper ratio of peanut butter to jelly. “If you’re not going to be responsible about the amount of jelly you put on your sandwich, I’m going to do it for you from now on,” Dominic says. An argument ensues, and they begin to wrestle.

I throw my pen at them. “Knock it off,” I hiss. They scatter like a pair of roaches. I return to my character talk, but I can hear they’ve resumed fighting in Joesphine’s bedroom, and I’m powerless to intervene. All I think is, when I start my next activity timer, you guys are gonna get it.

Midway through my independent work activity, the mailman comes. Mail has become kind of a thing for me because it’s one of the few interactions I have with the outside world. So when I hear the lid clang shut, I get a little shot of adrenaline.

Inside is a letter from my HR department, notifying me of the changes to my health insurance program. Looks like my premium costs have increased 5.3 percent. Since I didn’t get a raise or cost of living adjustments this year, that means I’m actually making LESS money than I did in 2019.

I try to stay off Facebook as much as possible. It’s just a lot of people complaining. My teacher friends are complaining, my parent friends are complaining. There’s talk of strikes and walkouts and lawsuits, like we’re in the fucking Grapes of Wrath. There’s hashtags to open schools, there’s hashtags to close schools. Not until it’s safe they say, and for god’s sake WILL SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!?!

It must be nice to have such strong convictions that you’re willing to lay them before millions of people on the internet. I don’t say anything because I don’t know what to feel. I don’t want to choose a side. Which faction is saying God, I’m so tired? That’s the side I’m on.

One thing I’ve also noticed about Facebook is that I keep getting ads for other jobs. A lot of them are targeted at teachers.

“Let’s face it: Teaching is hard and teachers don’t get paid nearly as much as they should (Especially now),” reads the ad for a copywriting company that popped up on my feed. Attached was a testimonial. “Her goal was to replace her teaching income in five months. She did it in six weeks.”

I’m not sure why I keep seeing these ads. Probably because I keep clicking on them.

At 3, I finish teaching for the day and tend to the kids. My wife comes home and changes clothes so she can go to her second job as a dance teacher. She has just enough time to tell me she heard four schools that are pilot sites for in-person learning had to shut down because of positive COVID cases. It’s the second day of the pilot.

I want to get my lessons ready for tomorrow, but I’ve got three other 504 Plan narratives that were due four hours ago. I’ve also got to take Dominic to Scouts, the baby needs a bath, and dinner needs to be made. Juggling home and work life has always been tricky, but it’s a lot harder when your work station is the dining room table, and you watch your inbox get a little fuller each time you walk by.

I wonder if coal miners think about coal once they leave the mines for the day.

Melinda is home by 7:15, which is good, because a notary is scheduled to come at 7:30 so we can finalize our mortgage refinance. Her name is Sheila, and she’s a lovely woman about my parent’s age.

I push aside my workstation at the dining room table and begin signing the stack of papers that’s thicker than Infinite Jest.

Rather than sit in silence, I start asking Sheila about her job. Did she like it? How did she become a notary?

Sheila says she worked in retail for a long time and hated it, and then her son became a notary. “I figured if his dumb ass could do it, I could too,” she says.

We laugh, and I keep on with the interview. What are her hours, how does she find clients, how much does she charge?

“Why are you asking me all this?” she finally says.

I tell her I’m a high school teacher.

“Say no more,” she says. When we reach the bottom of the stack, she hands me a card and tells me to keep in touch if I’m looking for some work.

“Maybe I could be a notary,” I say to Melinda as Sheila pulls away.

It’s a line I’ve said for years. It started when my friend Brandon quit his job as a PE teacher and doubled his salary and halved his workload as a contractor’s project manager. “Maybe I could be an exterminator,” I say when the Terminex guy leaves. “Maybe I could be a mail man.” 

It’s a running joke that’s less funny each passing day.

“Do you want to get another job?” Melinda says when I express my envy for Sheila.

“I dunno,” I say. “I’m not really qualified to do anything else.”

Back to the dining room table to set up my lessons for tomorrow. It’s getting late now, 9:30, but I know if I don’t get it done, I’ll have to get up early and finish it tomorrow. In previous years, I’d be planned weeks ahead. Now, for some reason, I can’t get more than tomorrow’s lesson ready. It’s taking three times as long to prep materials because I have to re-think their delivery.

I notice an email from Curtis’ mom. “I heard part of what happened this morning,” she writes. “I am so sorry! I had no idea he was going to do that. He should be contacting you shortly to apologize.”

I relpy, telling her not to worry about it, that I know Curtis is doing the best he can. “I’ve been doing this a long time and have plenty of patience,” I write. “I have a feeling Curtis is going to be one of my favorites by the end of the year; in my experience, that’s how this movie usually ends.”

Mom responds just as I’m getting into bed. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” the email reads. “You made me cry. You are amazing.”

These are the moments that dull the ache, that make me want to keep going. But these kinds of moments are further apart now, replaced with thank yous that feel empty because they’re sandwiched between additional tasks. There’s lots of talk about taking stuff off my plate, but from my perspective, my plate resembles my father-in-law’s at Old Country Buffet.

I know I’m good at my job, I know I love it. Or I think I do, or at least I did once.

I tell Melinda about Curtis and his mom and the FOIA and the kids’ fight over the jelly. I want to talk more, want to spend time with her, but it’s late and I need all the rest I can get because after school tomorrow I have to work my second job at the bar from 5-11.

My last fleeting image before sleep is that I am a coal miner, my face and arms blackened with soot, my hands clutching a pickaxe.

2 thoughts on “Progress Report: Teaching in the COVID-era

  1. Karen says:

    Elementary school counselor here. This post is amazing and humbling and familiar.
    The Curtis’ of the world need teachers like you. Thank you for making a difference…you do💗

    Like

    1. samhedenberg says:

      Thank you so much for reading, and thank you so much for saying so. It makes me feel less crazy.

      Like

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