In March 2020, the world as Spokane’s high school students knew it changed.
For roughly a year, they learned and did assignments via computer screens. They then returned to the classroom about half of the time, and now have gone back to a full schedule resembling the days that seem so long ago.
But alongside them, their teachers have also traversed the unknowns of high school during a pandemic.
When the initial “few weeks” of quarantine were announced, the general consensus was that everything would go back to normal in relatively quick fashion. Then reality set in.
“I kind of thought it would be like an extended spring break of sorts,” said Robert Homburg, a U.S. history teacher at Shadle Park High School. “When they left, it was, ‘All right, do these assignments. I’ll see you in a couple weeks!’ And then I didn’t see them again for the rest of the year.”
The rest of early 2020 sidelined academics as school districts fashioned supports to put the health and safety of students first.
“Being a teacher, in a lot of ways, is like being a parent in that you want to protect and help the kids that are under your care, so that’s what I tried to do that spring,” said Daniel Shay, a science teacher at North Central High School. “I had to balance what I wanted to get through as a teacher with what the students needed.”
It became clear any measure of success would be found only through adaptation.
“We questioned how much homework to give out because we wanted them to do that and get through the curriculum, but at the same time, knowing we’re all kind of stressed out, are they really going to do that much homework, especially if their five other teachers are asking them to do the same thing?” said Matt Leonard, a fitness and health teacher at North Central.
Shay felt double the pressure with a baby at home and time away from his classes, so he made the move to “asynchronous learning” in which the students essentially teach themselves by sending labs home, creating resource pages and recording lectures for students to take notes at their own pace.
Almost every teacher had a different way of presenting their content, but curriculum changes couldn’t bring the students to open up online.
“My wife and I described it as teaching into the void,” said Tyler Weirauch, an English and yearbook teacher at Shadle Park. “It was completely overwhelming to continuously adapt and try to figure out how to help kids either be socially/emotionally learning or actually learning, and basically it was just failing over and over and over again.”
“At first I requested cameras be on, I couldn’t mandate it, but I requested, and it got to the point where I wasn’t willing to fight it,” Homburg said. “People would just be waking up in the morning, opening up their computers, and just going back to sleep. You’d call out their name and they wouldn’t be there, so you don’t know who you’re talking to, if anyone.
“I just got used to it. I would make the same jokes I make in class but there’s no one laughing or anything so I would just laugh to myself if I thought it was funny.”
Attempting to build any sort of relationship or even rapport with students also required adaptation.
For example, Leonard would show his new puppy and have the students show their pets as well. He would also discuss his personal life, have “dad jokes” at the ready, and put emphasis on teaching about mental health and self-care.
“I tried to be some kind of consistency when so much was very inconsistent throughout the year,” Leonard said.
Weirauch and Shay would hold small group or one-on-one discussions on various topics as they tried their best to establish connections. Nonetheless, forming the desired student-teacher relationship was near impossible. And it took a toll on students and their teachers.
“It was so difficult just seeing students struggling, academically and emotionally, and not being able to help,” Weirauch said. “Part of the reason why I’m in teaching is to be able to help students, to help them grow academically and on some level emotionally. And I’d try so many different ways of helping and getting to kids, and I just couldn’t help them.
“It made me feel like I was ineffective, and it overwhelmed me, because I tried so many different things, and then to try and fail and try and fail … it eventually makes you want to just give up.”
Eventually, there was a glimmer of light in the darkness as the “cohort” schedule was integrated in March. Students were split into two schedules, A and B, with the two groups going to school in-person two to three times a week while doing work at home on the other days.
Although there was the ability for more interactive class discussions and activities – and to simply be around other people – some classes would only have seven or eight students, Homburg said.
“With everyone away from in-person for almost a year, everyone was just so quiet,” Leonard said. “There weren’t any behavior issues or anything like that, it was just trying to bring kids back out from their independence, from their isolation, from their quietness.”
“We were able to actually have class discussions, so it changed how we were able to teach, but it still, unfortunately, felt very similar to remote learning because people weren’t reacting to each other as much,” Weirauch said.
As school lets out for summer, teachers reflecting on the past couple of years concur it was a relief to be back in class.
“You’d be amazed at just what that does to your morale as a teacher, having a class of students face to face again,” Shay said. “As a teacher, you drain your cup to be able to help the students and give a lot of energy to keep those students motivated; and in-person, what fills your cup back up again is having them in front of you, making stupid jokes to see their reaction, and those relationships that you develop.”
It hasn’t been easy this year. Some students struggled with the return to more structure, as reflected in attendance and phone use. Some teachers said that throughout the nine-month school year, the feeling of “normal” only started to set in around March or April.
“I think the students are still kind of learning how to do school again,” Homburg said. “You know, when you’re off for a year and a half you get used to that and that way of life, so I think there’s still some struggle academically and socially. I think it’s going to take some time .”
Teachers did find some silver linings: more family time, technological integration, learning options for students, greater compassion and understanding between teachers and students.
And as teachers, who often find themselves teaching much more than academics to their young and growing students, life lessons also blossomed from the hardships.
“Whenever you get comfortable, you get complacent and when you get complacent, there’s not very much room for growth,” Shay said. “So when the pandemic happened, we were all forced to look at our teaching in a very different way … You can come up with any analogy you want, but there’s no growth without some sort of pain. I ultimately feel like I am a better teacher because of what happened.”
Leonard added: “Now that we’re back, I feel like a lot of the most important things in our lives have come to the forefront, like in our curriculum, talking about mental health, personal care and emotional wellness have really come to the forefront. I feel like there’s a greater understanding of how important your general health and wellness really is.”
And although the incoming freshmen whose middle school experiences were less than ideal may find some more struggles than the usual class would, teachers like Weirauch believe the pandemic has prepared him for it.
“I think the education system is now a little more prepared for where these students are going to be,” Weirauch said. “Many kids will be in many different places and realistically a little behind academically, but we’ve always had students that were in different places, and now hopefully we can deal with it better and progress more individually instead of expecting almost everybody to be at the exact same place … Honestly, I hope it never gets as normal as it was. Our normal wasn’t working for everybody, so I hope we can take some of what we’ve learned and apply it to the future.”