Grace and Flexibility: Essential Worker Profile #4

Tina was drum major of the Marching Thunderbirds during my tenure as Chief Thunder.  I was heartened as I hope you’ll be by the intrinsic normalcy of our talk during this time created by the fact that high school teachers deal with the wills of teenagers for a living regardless of a pandemic.  She’s worked as a math teacher for District #117 in our home state of Illinois since 2007.   

“…Is today Tuesday?  I don’t even know what day it is…. Well, we were on spring break when we got the shelter in place order and we are just now starting in on everything and Illinois weather isn’t the greatest, so…let me look at the calendar – losing track of days… The schools closed… not last week, but the week before… Originally, we got told we would have a week where we would come in early and have time to prepare for Distance Learning, but that didn’t happen. We had two days that were emergency days – that have been forgiven and not have to be made up – nothing has been graded, then spring break, and then we started yesterday.”

I inquire into what Distance Learning is…

“Distance learning, remote learning, e-learning– it’s all the same.  The hard part here is education is, how do I say this, it’s highly controlled state-wide.  I’m on, let’s see…three?  Three Facebook groups dedicated to this situation.  People all over.  And the range of experiences is so vast.  It’s hard to keep up on what we should be doing… Now I don’t like to talk politics too much, but Governor Pritzker and the Illinois Education Department came out with an overall mandate that basically stresses grace and flexibility.”

Grace and flexibility.

“Basically, that every community is different, and every community is going to have different obstacles and points of access, so I felt that was very good, because it is true.   Every kid and every situation is different.   Because of where you are and what you have access to.”

“I work for District 117 and by far – I’ve been there since 2007 – we’ve never had anything like this, but anytime we have had issue, the district has always supported me as a teacher, so I’ve felt very supported in this whole thing.  We have a great tech team,  instructions coaches, colleagues…”

“My motto as both a parent and a teacher— my kids are ten and fifteen, so I don’t have littles— is that … we have to keep this simple.   ‘Cause we don’t know what is going on at a student’s house.  The student could be watching kids during the day and working in food service at night, we don’t know what is going on.  We try to equip them.  Comcast is giving free internet access to learners who are on free or reduced lunch… but is it on the same level?  We don’t know.  And if you have a parent working and more than one student (in the house)… the bandwidth could be compromised, so I keep it simple.”

Grace and flexibility.

“I made some videos and some notes.  Things like Edpuzzle.  I add in notes and questions they could answer.  And, luckily, I have been using an online program since the beginning of the year.  And a virtual text book.  So my students have already been doing this program- they can do more of what they already have been doing.  They know how to log in and access it.”

We have been told by the state that we cannot put out grades that would negatively impact… they can either stay the same or go up –

I thought of  it as the educational equivalent of rent freeze or a moratorium on penalties and late fees.  Grace and flexibility.  

“We can give an incomplete,  but I am operating under guidance that we are going back to school a week from Wednesday even though I’m pretty sure we will not…

(NOTE: In the length of time between when we talked and I assembled this, that date has been officially further delayed till at least April 30th.  To give you a sense of how fluid the situation is evolving:)

I honestly think we won’t go back to school, and if we do it, will be for a week or so… We can give an incomplete, but I can’t lower their grade.  If that student is getting a C, the lowest they can get is a C. If they can somehow demonstrate to me in a Zoom meeting or get them to do extra work in a Chromebook, I can change those grades to reflect an increase.  I’m lucky, ’cause i only have a couple students who walked into this with failing grades.”

It made me think of what they talk about in war about never defending an undefendable position. I wondered if the lack of penalty would cause the whole situation to become like teaching Seniors in May after a while. 

“I teach sophomores and juniors.  When Common Core came out, Math 1,2,&3- which takes all those concepts of Algebra, trig, geometry, and spreads them out, so you get pieces freshman, sophomore, and junior year – the concepts we teach the students follow their maturity and brain development… I like it better.  Freshman year they talk about linear equations, that’s it. Sophomore – quadratic equations,  parabolas and so on – junior year is all the higher level concepts…”

I guess I was still stuck in Sophomore year maths after all for it all felt like higher concepts to me.   

“I have a couple seniors, maybe they came from a different school or didn’t pass a class, and two support classes– half a period a week made up of ten kids.  Those are for some students who need extra examples and can come from any other teacher in the building.  I like the integrated efforts.  Two of my classes are co-taught with a special ed teacher – there are electives I don’t teach but are there available-  like modeling and game theory, probability, stats,AP stats and AP calculus.  We have stuff for students who struggle and those who excel-  we even have AP computer science classes.”

“I’ve already had Zoom meetings for each of my classes.  I put out several to give options and asked students to log into at least one.  Just to make sure they are okay.  Because as a school, you know, we have resources that are there if they are struggling emotionally or having trouble getting food.  So far, I’ve had a quarter of my students log in.  I put some in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings.  I wanted to give them flexibility.  I put in an Ed-puzzle video,  Gave instructions, ‘watch the video and take notes.’  Again, this is what I have been doing from the start of the year in part- so, they know how to do that.  And in that Ed-puzzle there are open ended and multiple choice questions.  They have to do that once a day, or an online textbook called Big Ideas.  And I gave them enough to do that through next Tuesday and made a suggested schedule – do this once a day.”

Grace and flexibility.

“it should take our slowest student forty to fifty minutes to do this assignment.  I have some that will complete that in fifteen minutes, and average… is twenty to twenty five minutes each day.  But if they don’t do that, it can’t negatively impact, sure, but it gives me an  idea on who is doing what, so I can say,  ‘hey, I noticed you didn’t do anything.  Was it because you don’t know, don’t have access, or time…? Keep in touch – Keep it pretty simple.”

“I know other teachers are doing a lot more than that… I feel, for my group of students, I feel like this will give them the essentials in case we have to go back and take a final exam. ”

Those words still had an effect on me. Like seeing cop headlamps behind you on a dark night even when you know you aren’t doing anything wrong. It touched a deep seated guilty feeling in my monkey brain.

“I had a bunch of boys, they’re cute, who all sit on line and play video games together – I ask them how is it going?  They say, ‘it’s super easy,’ and I remind them if we were in school, we would go in depth.  That I am giving you the absolute essentials to go into next year’s math class, cutting out extra things that might deepen the knowledge.  Just what can I do to get you through, and that’s it…”

I asked about the lack of consequence.  Or oversight – if there is such a principle with teenagers learning algebra…  Do they know that it’s pretty much free-for-all? 

“Some of the kids know – are up enough and read and listen to the news to know that there is no consequence.  I think some kids realize they don’t have to do anything and can still pass,  But I’m getting fifty percent completion, even though most of them know there is no.. we’ll see.”

“I think because of Standards Based Grading  that things won’t… Standards Based  Grading says students should be graded on what they know, not in compliance to what they are doing.  For example, let’s say homework is half the grade and tests are half – a kid gets an A on test and never turns in any homework, they would get a C, traditionally.  But, is that worth a C’s grade?  So, right now our homework category is ten percent of the grade.  It never effects the grade, and the majority of kids still do their homework… because eventually they know they will be tested on it.  So that’s the mindset – another point (to S.B.G.) is that a student can look at their grade and see it, say I really did bad on Pythagorean theorem and I need to look at that.  It allows them to take responsibility for their education.   But … I don’t know going forward…are they going to – like, if it comes out we are not going back to school, and they know there isn’t going to be a final – will they keep doing homework…?”

I suddenly felt relieved.  Like I was back in school and the word test just got taken off the wipe board.

“I feel bad for the Seniors.  There’s this mean meme going around that says, you know, ‘Back In Vietnam Seniors were being asked to go to war, not miss their prom,’  and I understand that, I know this is not as bad as going to war, but it is bad.  I know some of my students- like one girl already bought her dress and won’t go to prom, and potentially not have a graduation.”

These are all rites of passage in our nation.  And sadly there are not many. 

“We have an international travel club where students go every year to different countries, and they were supposed to go Japan and that, of course, got canceled.”

“One of the things that bothers me as a H.S. teacher– we hear it all the time,  “such and such you know in my day, kids were better behaved and… The kids are the same!  And also, the kids today, BY FAR are much more cognizant of what is going on than we were!  I mean, I was a pretty good student and I think I did things right, but, the volunteerism my kids do…?!  When tragedy strikes… the sense of community, we had a student who was in a car accident and killed— the kids produced bracelets, sold them, and then donated the money to cover the family’s funeral costs.  Would I have done something like that back when I think back…?

“They have a sense of what is going on outside – my son’s Water Polo Team volunteered at a Food Bank… They may seem very selfish, but when it comes to a big need for someone else, they put things aside.  There is bullying, yes, but a lot more acceptance…. We had a Dance-Off in assembly, the whole school, and each class had to throw one kid onto the floor – elect them, and the kids picked one of the students who had visual special needs– and he danced… and the whole school voted for him to win.  I don’t think that acceptance would have been there when we were in high school.   People think they are more selfish. We only see the negative… I think kids are going to look at this – and it does suck  – but they are going to go out and say there are more important things.   And I also think —we don’t have to worry about our kids – they said the same thing about us and we are fine.”

“And I’m looking at this from the demographics of where I teach – it’s much like where we grew up…

Which I would classify as a mix of blue collar – middle class for those of you who don’t know what it was like to get a Whopper at the Illiana Oasis that crosses the I-294 just east of the quarry.  

“…there are districts that are much worse off – and others a half hour away that are much better off; we are one to one as far as Chromebooks go… That started two years ago.  And there are districts where student-to-Chromebooks is not one to one – and others its more than one to one…. we are in the middle.”

“And I think it’s the arts that will get us through – our color guard kids our theater kids, our band kids– I went and played with the prep band a couple years ago- kids love to perform and love to create, they’re doing it still!  I had one student tell me, and she struggles, she works hard but struggles, and she said,  ‘second period orchestra and playing violin is the highlight of her day.’ She didn’t know where she’d be without second period.  I’ve been trying to promote a couple of my local businesses, like a yoga school and a local teacher store for supplies, we try as much as possible because we have to keep these guys going – when we are back in normal life.  I support the arts cause I have been coaching color guard for six or seven years and I like it – I want my students to look at my Instagram and say, ‘you have a real life. You’re real.’  When they see my kids are doing taekwondo.

“My husband and I have been married for twenty one years. We met at U of I.  He works in pharm. – involved in testing all the vaccines and stuff now and went into lab the other day.  He has a PHD in molecular chemistry and I have no idea what … I can grasp little tiny bit.  He talks like I understand  and I pretend … now he works form home – and we have two kids, yo know, we are your pretty much family four.”

“And listen my husband was playing video games ever since I met him – I have a big flat screen TV with surround sound in my bed room – in my bedroom! And an X-Box. My husband is in his room – my son is in the other room, and they are playing each other.  My kids are far enough apart so- plus, one being a boy and a girl– they don’t really fight.  My sister?  She has two boys; five and eight … and they have been fighting.

I was at the caboose end of five brothers, so I could draw my own conclusions….

“There are many many people going through very severe consequences.  I am grateful I’m in education, ’cause education and health care survive any recession – and I am in education and my husband is in health care.  Maybe we won’t get a bonus – but there won’t be a Repo-Man knocking on my door.”

“But we shouldn’t worry about these kids.  At our school, they have a class called life resource management they have to pass before they graduate – they have to sew a button – learn about taxes, make a budget, they even have to do fake interviews, create a resume and even get reference- I had students put me down as their reference…”

So, basically… It’s the adults we have to worry about… I guess.

“I love Illinois – sure our taxes, property taxes may be higher — but if you look at test scores compared to Wisconsin and Indiana… I mean, I had a colleague go and teach in Indiana, and she has to teach one more class a day and took a fifteen thousand dollar pay cut.  So is there a direct correlation…? I don’t know – I love Illinois, I can go ski,  there’s the Chain of Lakes, Lake Michigan, I can go to Great America… wish winter can be a little shorter though.”

I somehow breathed like I haven’t since the eighty eighth day of March when all of this began.  Something about a teacher from Illinois to keep it all in perspective. 

Let’s keep it simple. 





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