Lessons From the Disaster of Zoom Teaching

The last year has exposed the limitations of teaching with tech.

As the number of people vaccinated against COVID-19 steadily increases in the United States, the number of students attending fully in-person school is also increasing.  More than half of all schoolchildren are now back in the building. Although this is hopeful news, more children are also now getting infected with virus variants, which has already caused schools across Europe to re-shutter. Schools may therefore fluctuate in their capacity to provide in-person instruction for the foreseeable future. Urban schools, which comprise more students of color and English language learners, are more likely to shutter due to higher rates of COVID-19. As a result, it tends to be white students who benefit from in-person instruction during this pandemic, exacerbating the pre-pandemic opportunity gap. If traditional in-person instruction continues to be unreliable at the national level, we must invest time and resources into constructing legitimate and sustainable alternatives—options that don’t compromise effectiveness for safety or vice versa. While I assume that most people have a general notion as to why current methods of remote instruction pale in comparison to in-person classes, I will share my first-hand experiences teaching on Zoom in order to expose just how bad it really is. We can’t begin to repair the damage done (or envision more effective methodology) without understanding where we’re coming from.

Many of the experiences I describe will resonate with fellow teachers working remotely across the country, although the specifics will vary depending on a school’s policies and resources. To provide some context: I’m an English language (EL) specialist at a public charter middle school in Boston. This is my first year teaching at the school, but I have eight years of teaching experience. The overwhelming majority of the school’s student body is Latino/a and low-income. More than half of students report speaking a language other than English at home. About one in five receive special education services, and a small minority of the children’s parents have pursued higher education. Just like all Boston public schools, my school provides every student with three meals a day, available for pickup. During the pandemic, the school is also loaning every student a Chromebook, and any family that lacks internet receives a hotspot (however, the hotspots are limited in their capacity to provide the bandwidth necessary for video calls). The school has operated in a fully remote capacity since September, but Massachusetts started requiring in-person instruction at the end of April. Half of the families have opted into it, and half have chosen to continue remotely for safety reasons. The following is a collection of memories and observations detailing my eight months on Zoom, all preceding our switch to in-person instruction. 

I Didn’t Know What Most of My Students Looked Like

The first time I “met” my students was on Zoom. Meeting them didn’t entail seeing most of their faces. For the first four months, in any given class, at most one student would have their camera on at any given time. That is because from September until January, my school and many others didn’t require camera use due to equity reasons; the concern was that students might feel ashamed of their living space/surroundings. It appears that middle schoolers can’t stand having their peers see them on camera, besides in Instagram-filtered photos taken at the perfect angle. 

By January, the school realized just how difficult it was to teach to a room of blank screens and instigated a cameras-on requirement. Once the camera policy was enacted, I was blessed with views of my students’ ceilings and, if I was lucky, their foreheads. (Threatening to mark students absent when they refuse to show their faces isn’t much of a motivator.) 

I generally knew my students for their ceilings rather than for their faces. For example, I know that Victoria’s ceiling is composed of gray tiles with one tile missing, and Pablo has beautiful pink Christmas lights adorning his.*

*Throughout the story, names have been changed to protect students’ privacy.

Normal, Free-Flowing Conversations Cannot Happen in a Virtual Classroom

Teaching on Zoom, I was faced with the conundrum of wanting students to unmute themselves while also wanting them to stay muted. If they unmuted themselves, that was a way for me to know that they were present at their computers and not off having a snack or watching TV. And, of course, as an E.L. Specialist, I needed to gauge their progress in language acquisition, so hearing them speak was obviously in my interest. 

At the same time, however, I desperately wanted them to stay muted. That’s because their microphones would often echo back my voice, which was incredibly distracting. Many had siblings learning from home, too, and often in the same room. This means that when my students turned on their microphones, my class got bombarded with a discordant choir of all the siblings’ remote classes. I’d have no choice but to listen to the teachers saying the same, tedious things I myself said all day: “Clara, please unmute yourself.” “Juan, I can’t hear you. Can you try using your headphones’ mic?” “Emily, can you repeat that? Your connection seems unstable.”

 Sometimes, I even suspected that I was hearing my students’ siblings’ classmates’ siblings’ teachers, as well. Allowing my students to unmute themselves could thus create a portal to thousands of linked, similarly exhausting, online learning situations.

The Case of the Invisible Student

Believe it or not, remote teaching makes you miss disruptive students. When a student starts walking on top of desks or singing in the middle of classes, it’s a sign they are present and real. Misbehavior can result in authentic communication between children and teachers, teachers and parents. Such discussions have the potential to lead to improved behavior in the future. 

In my teaching experiences prior to the Zoom house of mirrors, I had plenty of students with behavioral issues: students who would scream, throw pencils (or eat them), tie their classmates’ shoes together to make them fall down when they walked, etc. So I’m well aware of how exhausting it can be when students act out, but I’d choose any of those situations over a virtual room filled with blank screens shielding unresponsive teens. 

There’s nothing to be done when a child simply goes invisible, especially when you can’t even call their parents for support since they’re working outside the home all day. I asked the questions “Are you there?” and “Can you hear me?” more times in the average remote school day than I did in the rest of my life up until starting this job.

I Have a Master’s in Education, Not Computer Science

Parents called me on a regular basis for tech support—how to connect a hotspot, what to do when that hotspot stopped working, why the screen suddenly had Korean words flashing across it, what to do when Zoom randomly kicked their child out of the meeting —and all I could do was redirect their calls to the endlessly inundated tech support team. I had to remind myself not to feel useless or to resent the fact that my Master’s in Education gave me no training on the intricacies of Zoom or hotspots. But I didn’t choose this profession to become an IT expert; I chose it because I wanted to make a difference in children’s lives. 

The fact that I’m decidedly not a computer whiz caused me daily frustration. Often, a fun activity on an innovative platform designed for remote instruction (e.g., Padlet or Jamboard) was inexplicably blocked on my students’ computers. In other cases a program might only be loaded for some students and not others. I’d never know when Pear Deck slides might lag for certain students so that they couldn’t keep up with the presentation, or when Google Classroom would randomly delete a student’s assignment and not let me re-add the student to the original post, so I’d have to create a whole new post just for one student—right in the middle of class when I was simultaneously trying to teach 14 other students. 

And there were plenty of times when my Zoom chat disappeared in the middle of a conversation with kids, or I was somehow unable to share my screen, even as host of the meeting. I’d usually have no idea where to even begin to troubleshoot in times like those, especially since my adrenaline would inhibit rational problem-solving. In those moments, I fantasized about simply shutting my laptop and calling it a day. But I persevered, reminding myself that even if students learned for two minutes in the whole day, that would be better than zero minutes. In the past, my ratio of planning to teaching was about 30:70. During remote teaching, it was 80:20. Some days I didn’t even feel like a teacher: a more accurate title for my role would be “tech support secretary.” 

“Master multitasker” would also be an accurate job title for remote teachers. These are all the platforms I needed to use at the same time when “teaching” a class: 

  1. Zoom, which involved trying to talk to students and get them to mute/unmute themselves while also checking the chat feature, which, as I mentioned, liked to randomly disappear (a bug that took Zoom many months to fix), and making sure I was letting in late students from the waiting room.
  2. GoGuardian, which allowed me to monitor all the students’ screens at once, close and open new tabs for them, and send them messages. I don’t know how I would have taught without it, but it was also one more thing to keep track of.
  3. Whatever assignment the students were working on, which was usually on one or two of the following platforms: Google Docs, Google Slides, Padlet, Jamboard, Edulastic, Pear Deck, or Nearpod.
  4. My phone, to monitor messages from teachers, parents, and students in case someone needed help logging in or a teacher needed coverage due to Wi-Fi issues.
  5. My email, for the same reasons as above.

Casually Circulating the Room Can’t Happen in the Virtual World

The role of the E.L. specialist is to offer small-group language instruction and to co-teach general education classes. When I co-taught on Zoom, I was severely limited in my capacity to make grade-level material comprehensible for English language learners. In the past, for both types of lessons, I relied heavily on reading students’ body language, checking their work throughout class, and communicating with gestures. 

During remote instruction, if I wanted to check in with students during a gen ed class, I had to privately message the teacher and ask them to put me in a breakout room with students in need of help. Then the teacher had to pause instruction to engage in the time-consuming task of setting up breakout rooms. My students didn’t always click “join” when invited to the breakout room; this would depend on whether they were actually present at their computers when the invitations were sent. If the gen ed teacher then wanted to create more breakout rooms for the rest of the students to engage in small-group work, the new breakout rooms would cause my breakout room to abruptly end, so my students and I would be sent back to the main Zoom room. This abrupt ending often occurred when students were in the middle of speaking, or even before they figured out which page of the document they need to be working on. 

I can’t tell you how many five-minute breakout rooms involved nothing but me trying, in vain, to direct students to the correct page of the class activity, an issue that is solved in seconds when you’re in person. Quick, casual moments like page flips, thumbs ups, smiles, nods, pointing, shhhing, gesturing at visuals: those moments are lost on Zoom. Such interactions and reminders occur constantly when teaching in person, and they help students—particularly those who struggle with heavier language loads or executive functioning—stay on task, stay engaged, and know someone is paying attention to them. You can’t point students to the glossary or encourage them to reread an important paragraph when you don’t know if they’re even there, on the other side of that blank screen. 

Remote School is Not a Viable Backup Option

Even online, there can be precious teaching moments. To add some levity to this article and detail the full range of remote teaching experiences, I will name a few:

  • A student took great pride in a poem he’d written, read it to the class, and agreed to submit it to some publications I recommended. The class couldn’t really hear him read it because his internet was lagging so much, but the fact that he eagerly volunteered was heartwarming.
  • When discussing the vocabulary word “advocate,” I asked students what they’d like to advocate for. A 12-year-old male student immediately turned on his camera and said “women’s rights,” then proceeded to articulately describe gender inequality in Latin America and the United States. He turned off his camera right afterwards, but for the moments that he shared, it almost felt like we were in a real classroom.
  • A quiet English learner, one who’d never spoken up in gen ed classes in the fall, by wintertime started to answer questions in all her classes.
  • Students send each other fun Zoom chats, such as this one: 

Ahmed: WOAH i just realize something

Miguel: 2+2=fish 🙂

Ahmed: our teachers went to skool and are spending there life in skool bad choice

Miguel: not bad choice

Ahmed: they became the thing that punished them

Miguel: their lucky. Some people work in like idk…way worst jobs

Ahmed: like sewer

Yes, meaningful exchanges can still occur online now and then. It was inspiring to witness the passion and dedication that teachers and administrators poured into making online school function as well as it possibly could. It was moving to see students trying to make the most of the unfortunate situation. 

But teachers and administrators have exerted themselves to an extreme degree for such little gain on students’ end. Some tech issues have been smoothed out slightly since the beginning of the year, and everyone has started to get more used to the various platforms. That said, for this entire school year, students have still been deprived of an actual education by any honest measure. And precious moments, like those mentioned above, happen daily in normal school but were few and far between in the online world. 

Ever since the pandemic started, we’ve consistently left students with two dismal schooling options: go to school in person and potentially bring a deadly virus home to your family or stay at home and experience daily technology frustrations in place of real learning. Now that my school is transitioning back to in-person learning but half of the students are opting to continue remotely, I worry that, even in the mere 37 days we’re back in person until summer break, there will be a great deal of inequity between the two cohorts. Hopefully, come fall, everyone will be able to safely return for the education they deserve. But if vaccine hesitancy and the new variants make that improbable, we may well see a repeat of this school year’s pattern, with urban areas having higher rates of transmission, causing their schools to shutter more often. This heavily impacts students of color, thereby continuing to widen the achievement gap. 

Well before the pandemic began, use of technology in classrooms was a prominent topic of professional development courses, and teachers who consistently used technology in their instruction were applauded. Technology, in my experience, can be highly beneficial in the classroom.  Voice-to-text and automated read-aloud options benefit English language learners and students with disabilities. “Smart” whiteboards allow teachers to annotate projected text and images, increasing visual clarity and engagement. Many other useful educational tools are now available as well. However, there’s more to teaching than just using tools. 

I fully support the use of technology in the classroom—but only as an aid to in-person instruction, not as a replacement. The United States is continuing to experience COVID-19 surges, and future pandemics are likely. Therefore, it is imperative that we develop schooling options that allow for in-person interaction without compromising safety. I’m not an architect, so I don’t know the specifics of what this would entail, beyond the immediate need to replace or update 53 percent of United States public schools’ HVAC systems and address the estimated $38 billion annual funding gap for public school facilities. 

What I can tell you as a teacher is that remote learning does not work.  This is an unacceptable backup option for times when it’s unsafe to be in school. Figuring out how safety and learning can go hand-in-hand instead of negating one another should be a top priority if we want future generations to consistently be able to receive a legitimate education. 

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