I step back to reflect on many things, including this strangest year of my more than 2 ½ decades as a classroom teacher. It is also as I approach what I suppose is a milestone of sorts, my 75th birthday on May 23. And of course since my major course of instruction is American Government and I have for most of my life been very much of a political creature, including as a denizen of this website since just after Thanksgiving, 2003, any reflection I make will inevitably include the political.
Stepping back a bit to last school year. For those who do not know I had a stroke in my classroom on November 12, 2019. I immediately recognized that something was wrong, and the school got EMTs to me fairly quickly. I was transported to a very good facility about 10 miles away where the the ER doctor took one look at me, told me I had a stroke, showed me the droop in my face, and got me to agree to a very expensive (but covered by insurance and very effective treatment). It meant that my “damage" was minimized, even though I had a more than 90% blockage in my left carotid artery, the cause of the stroke. That was addressed by surgery about 6 weeks later, I went through some rehab, and I have continued to teach.
But before as a teacher I could live on 5-6 hours sleep during the school week. Now I really need 8 or I get wiped out. And I suffered some permanent damage — my vocal cords no longer close, so I am basically no longer able to sing, and have to work at projecting my voice (difficult with a mask on speaking into a computer).
Our last day of in-person instruction at the start of the pandemic was Friday March 13, 2020. I did not return to my classroom until April 7 of this year, after Easter Break, and after both my wife (who is immuno-compromised with a blood cancer) and I were 2 weeks past our second vaccination. Even then, most of my students are remote, I have yet to have more than 6 in a classroom, and it is not unusual to have none of the up to 26 students in a class actually in the room. So yes, this has been a strange school year, even without all the oddities of the election cycle, January 6, and since.
I do not like teaching remote. It is much harder for me to read faces and body language of students arrayed on a screen. There is lag time for them to respond to anything verbally — they have to keep their microphones off unless they are speaking. Some are increasingly disengaged from their learning, and it is a real challenge to keep them connected. I am not alone in what I am experiencing.
It is also far more time-consuming for me. All work is submitted electronically. To read, correct, and grade a paper online takes at least 1.5 and usually 2 times as much time as making marks and comments on a piece of paper. I have to highlight or bold pieces of text that are problematic. Yes I can type more quickly than I can write, but usually I have to type more to make clear issues. And I can no longer go through a pile of papers by sorting them alphabetically, then grading (where I can quickly see any patterns of problems that need to be addressed). And once I grade, it is easy to just go through again as I enter grades into the computer.
But now their work appears in the online folder by first name in one window, while the grade book is ordered by last name in another window. That also makes life more complicated.
And there are other realities. Some students have to share devices within their families, so have to give extended time to get work done, which means homework is not as effective in reinforcing instruction. And then there is COVID. I have had at least 10 of my students that I know have contracted it, and probably several dozen who have had family members contract. Some students have had to care for family members. Others have had to work to provide income for their families, with one now the only one bringing in an income because everyone else lost their jobs at least temporarily. And yes, some have experienced deaths of people close to them.
I teach Government, which also means I teach politics and elections. We spent a fair amount of time addressing what happened on January 6. Some of the students live in DC. Some have family members who work on the Hill, or are in National Guard units that were activated. An alum of our school works in the office of the House Parliamentarian and a few months ago spend about an hour online sharing with our government students and others his experience of January 6.
We were recently able to balance that a bit. As long-time participants here may remember I am a friend of well over a decade of the Secretary of Agriculture and about 2 weeks back he spent an hour online answer questions Government students had submitted in advance. In a sense, that was a bit of a highlight for the students, to have a cabinet official spending time with them, albeit virtually (in the past I have brought relevant people into schools where I teach — journalists like Chuck Todd, Candy Crowley Byron York, Ari Berman; lobbyists and senior Congressional staffers; several Congressmen from other states that I know; local public officials; etc) — I like to connect the students with the people in Government because it makes what they are studying so much more relevant. It also helps that the man who actd as SecAg before Tom Vilsack was confirmed is a graduate of our school and whose son works at our school — the Secretary told the students how much that man brags on on school, which was also a positive.
Our seniors have two more weeks of classes. Four of my classes are seniors. And for the next two weeks many will be taking one or more AP exams. On the day of an AP exam they do not have to attend classes. If we give finals, it is only the week after next for seniors, and they have to be virtual. No one in Social Studies is giving a cumulative final — we each decided that on our own. Some are giving unit exams for their final unit. I am giving a 350 word essay with some choice of topic, and they already have available that and all the rest of their work to get done between now and May 14. My juniors will have several more weeks, and I will give them a similar final assessment in the form of essays.I read printed words very quickly so this is not that time consuming, although I expect the weekend of May 15-16 to be filled with reading. I have almost 90 seniors.
Sadly I have several who will fail this course despite all I have done to get them through. They will have to make up the course this summer, but we will allow them to participate in graduation ceremonies. Like last year, there is no big prom, and we have had to abbreviate or eliminate a lot of the other things we do with/for seniors. This year has been hard on them as well as their teachers.
I am feeling older. I do not have the energy I used to have. I cannot push myself. I no longer feel I can coach soccer or even run a student activity. This year I only teach 5 classes, last year I taught 6. Perhaps next year, when we expect to be fully back in person, I may find it takes somewhat less energy to fulfill my classroom responsibilities than it has been for more than a year. When I applied for my current job I told them I was willing to make a 4 year commitment if they wanted me, and then to go year by year — by then my wife would be eligible for Social Security and we would explore our options. Now I am not so sure. I am returning for next year, assuming my health holds. I love the freedom I have as a teacher.
But I am not sure what I will be teaching. Don’t get me wrong.I know my primary responsibility will be government. What I don’t know is what that government will be. There is the unwillingness of Manchin and Synema to recognize how extreme the Republicans have become. We see all the efforts being done legislatively to try to effectively disenfranchise large groups of people who would vote Democratic. It is not clear to me how much if at all the current Supreme Court would be willing to intervene to stop what should be obvious at attempts as disenfranchisement for partisan purposes.
In a wave election, gerrymandering becomes less effective, by which I mean if you try to maximize your partu’s advantage in seats your margins in some cases will be narrower and that could cost you seats in a wave. But the lines will in many cases still be drawn by legislatures shaped by current gerrymandered districts, which has to raise at least some concerns going forward.
I am not worried about a backlash if we did away with the filibuster, because I believe that Biden and the Democrats could accomplish so much that we would have massive support even with gerrymandered Congressional and state legislative districts in 2022 and we would expand our margin in the Senate.
But Manchin and Synema give cover to the Republican messaging on some key issues, and that leads to the kind of gridlock that could hurt the entire country, and I am not sure how we properly message that.
Further, remember that in teaching government I am also teaching politics and elections. As nasty as 2020 was, I fear how much worse 2022 could be, and I am not so sure that I want to take that on. Were I to end my teaching after next school year, I could avoid that and tnbe problems it would entail (we have a substantial minority of our families that could be classified as varying degrees of MAGAts). Fortunately, my department chair won’t ask me for my intentions for the following hear until late February or early March, so assuming the school wants me back I have until then to decide.).
Were this my last school year, I could be at peace about that. I have done at least a good job of serving my students and the school. I think I have at least one more year in me
But I have to be careful, to manage my time and energy.
That is why even though I had started a program that would have allowed me to complete my doctorate by August of 2022 at a reasonable course, I withdrew even though I was doing very well. It was becoming a real issue of time and energy.
So I accept I will never finish a doctorate, just as over time I have accepted I would not be a rockstart, a baseball player, a lawyer, a father, and lots of other things.
I am coming to accept that I will never read all the books I want, travel to all the places I’d like to see…
In about 2 weeks I will have completed ¾ of a century of life. Presuming I am still alive and competent, then perhaps I will share some thoughts at the changes I have seen,of the people I have encountered. Perhaps.
For now I am simply happy to be finishing another year of teaching adolescents.