Kathryn Harris is a great teacher — so remarkable, in fact, that she was just named to a list of Philadelphia’s best educators.
But when the coronavirus turned the world upside down, forcing districts across the country to figure out remote instruction, fast, Harris found herself in an odd position: not quite sure how best to reach the seventh graders she teaches at Olney Elementary. In the classroom, she thrives on discussion and on inspiring students to think deeply, and teaching feels instinctive and joyous.
In many ways, online education “is the opposite of everything I like about my job; it feels alienating,” Harris said. So when she’s connecting with students in real time in Google Meet, “I’m as excited as they are. I’m waving, I’m saying: ‘Don’t hide your screen! Let me see your face, I want to see you!’” Harris said.
Harris is among 60 top Philadelphia School District educators just awarded the 2020 Lindback Foundation Distinguished Teaching prize, a $3,500 award given annually to excellent district teachers selected by school officials and Lindback trustees. Seven principals also were cited for awards.
As the Philadelphia School District ends its first week of remote instruction of new material, The Inquirer asked Harris and two other Lindback winners about how their jobs have changed because of the coronavirus, what complications their students face, and how education might be different going forward.
At the U School, a North Philadelphia high school, the staff has managed to reach every single family, in person in some cases, said Lindback winner Clarice Brazas, who teaches 10th graders humanities there. Some students were tougher than others to reach; she tried for weeks to reach one young man, finally connecting with his grandfather, who said the teen was fine, just very busy, working many hours.
Now, “there’s a big span of what kids are doing. There are some kids who are just scheduling office hours with me to talk about what’s going on in their lives, what games they’re playing.” Others are doing mandatory work and not surfacing much otherwise. Younger students tend to be engaging more, said Brazas, who is delivering live sessions every Monday then scheduling two live check-ins throughout the week with her students.
In Harris’ advisory of 29 students, only three haven’t checked in.
“It’s issues beyond their control,” said Harris. The district has said it will not penalize children who cannot regularly complete work because of such circumstances.
Robert Rivera-Amezola, a Lindback winner from Francis Scott Key Elementary in South Philadelphia, is a specialist, teaching digital literacy to every student in the K-6 school. He’s pushing out videos that he creates, holding office hours, and joining different classes’ live Google Meet sessions. (“It’s a really daunting task,” he said of remote instruction. “It’s just you and the screen. There’s something about being in a classroom, even when you’re exhausted, that gives you energy.”)
Participation varies but is often dependent on parents’ abilities to supervise their children’s learning, especially for the youngest learners.
Some parents are essential workers, and others are suddenly without work. Others have multiple children to care for. Some have language barriers — more than half of Key’s students are English language learners — and about 20%, Rivera-Amezola guesses, have no internet access. “It takes a lot for the parent of a small child to sit with the child in front of a Chromebook, to be part of the live instruction. At the end of the day, I can imagine the psychological and emotional exhaustion of another day of wondering what’s yet to come,” said Rivera-Amezola.
The coronavirus has heightened educational inequities, as Philadelphia school staff are keenly aware. Many affluent districts were able to move to remote instruction without missing a beat; Philadelphia students went more than a month without learning new material, in large part because so many lacked computers and internet access.
What Philadelphia students lost is “unknowable,” Rivera-Amezola said. Parents have plenty of questions about Chromebooks and how to access material, but with a world in turmoil, they’re often reaching out to schools for different needs, too. The mother of a kindergartner messaged him recently, not about a lesson, but to ask whether he knew where she might be able to find diapers for her baby.
Brazas knows she has to hook students. She asked her classes to write about songs that are helping them get through quarantine, and will then make a mix with their selections. Next, her students will work on explaining something they’re expert in, through writing or a YouTube video.
“We always try to do high-interest work, but right now, that’s even more important,” Brazas said.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has made it clear that the aim of emergency remote learning is staving off regression as much as possible. Content is important, but relationships are more important, especially during a time of challenge and loss.
“The challenge is to buoy kids, to let them know we’re still here,” said Harris.
No one wanted a pandemic or remote learning thrust on them, but there are a few upsides, Brazas said.
“This might teach people to make learning more flexible, might teach people more empathy, even when we come out of this,” she said. District administrators have gone out of their way to account for students’ often-challenging life circumstances, and although those circumstances have been exacerbated by the coronavirus, they’re not new.
“Teachers need to have the latitude to give our students space,” Brazas said. “Not having a standardized test this year certainly makes that a lot easier.”
“When you’re dealing with first or second graders, masks get dirty or lost,” Rivera-Amezola said. “We’ll have to have a repository of them, like we have coats for kids in winter.”