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Students in social studies class at CIS 303.
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'We Desperately Miss Our Students and School Communities'

Five educators in New York City reflect on what it’s like to teach during a pandemic.

May 7, 2020

The TFA Editorial Team

The TFA Editorial Team

The coronavirus hasn’t just closed New York City schools for the remainder of the school year. It’s provided a window into the work great teachers do to make sure their students’ needs are met, no matter the circumstances. It’s also placed a large portion of the general public in teachers’ shoes…with many quickly realizing they’re not so easy to fill. 

Here, several Teach For America New York corps members and alumni share what teaching in NYC looks like today, and how they and their students are getting through this tough moment together. Inspired to thank a teacher for going above and beyond? Try these helpful quarantine-safe, social distancing-friendly ways to show your appreciation.

What is an “average day” like for you at the moment?

Crystal Johnson (N.Y. ’16), seventh grade science and coding teacher at Baychester Middle School 

I’ve created a schedule that I stick to pretty religiously. Keeping a routine helps this time feel more normal for me. The best part of this new routine is...sleeping in! I get an extra two hours since I've ditched the 1.5 hour commute to the north Bronx! I post my daily science lesson to post at eight a.m. Students have ~24 hours to complete each assignment which is usually a blend of working with our online curriculum (Amplify) and completing some type of exit ticket through Google Classroom. I read and respond to emails, eat a quick breakfast, and then at nine, I lesson plan for an hour—the goal being to upload one assignment. Our admin has asked that we stay one week ahead on lessons in case of falling ill. Then at 10 o'clock, I hold a mandatory Zoom session for my advisory group, 15 students who I have been tasked with working with one-on-one to ensure daily "attendance" and work completion. 

At 11 a.m., I take a lunch break and read for 15 minutes (I am trying to pick up reading again which I have sadly fallen out of touch with!). I hold office hours each day from noon to one o'clock where students can pop in to my Zoom/Google Meets to get extra support with their science work. They're free to stay for as little or as long as they'd like. I spend the next hour or two grading work and giving feedback. We are required to grade one assignment per day since this is the only feedback students are getting now as opposed to many in-person opportunities for informal feedback or CFUs (checking for understanding) during class. I leave two to three o'clock open for grade team or instructional collaboration time although those don't happen each day.

“Schools are NOT closed. A school is not a building. A school is a group of people with a commitment to community and learning.”

Emily Myerson

Sixth grade math teacher

New Jersey '12

What impact is this crisis having on you personally and as a teacher?

Janki Patel (New York ’16), eigth grade social studies teacher at CIS 303  

Personally, I think like most other people, this crisis has been mentally and emotionally draining. With each day presenting new, more daunting information, it has been hard to envision an end to this. Finding a balance between following the news to stay informed, and not getting caught up in it has been difficult but important to do. As a teacher, the effects of this crisis have been overwhelmingly difficult to handle. Not being able to see my students in person to gauge how they are doing is hands-down the most difficult part of this. Knowing that many of them rely on school to help fulfill their socio-emotional needs makes me worry about them. There are many thoughts that surround me about a child, from how they must be managing with virtual learning, how they must be feeling at home with their family, and what they’re eating for their meals. I’ve been able to keep in constant contact with the students that have access to working technology, in particular a cell phone, but it’s the students that don’t have access or that share a device between multiple siblings that are much harder to get a hold of. 

Although [there are] many challenges, transitioning into virtual learning has brought about many positives too. I’ve found that many students who often struggled to turn in assignments and had missing work pile up are now turning in assignments before due dates. Moving over to virtual teaching has opened me up to seeing how technology can be used to help students that struggle in a traditional school setting and how if I have access to technology, I can leverage it in the classroom in September.

Janki Patel (N.Y. ’16) pre-pandemic with her students at CIS 303

What impact is this crisis having on the students you serve, and their families?

Emily Myerson (New Jersey ’12), sixth grade math teacher at Achievement First Linden Middle School

So many of my student's families who are frontline workers and I can hear the stress that comes with that regularly in check-ins. I am so in awe of families at my school who have gone above and beyond, been creative, resilient, and committed to their scholars' education and our school community. I called a mom who was concerned about her daughter's time management and the mom was at work as a nurse and was using her break to talk with me. I end every day wanting to give a parent/guardian of the year award to so many families.

Matthew Engel (N.Y. ’18), ninth grade global history teacher at Westchester Square Academy

My students have been writing journals throughout this pandemic, and have created firsthand accounts of the positive and negative impacts this crisis is having on them. For several of my students, this pandemic has been a positive experience. While they're still sad and worried, they have seized this opportunity to reconnect with their families. Several students have also used this as a chance to reflect on the things and people they're thankful for. Some of my toughest students have taken ownership of their education, and I have seen a dramatic increase in their participation. Sadly, for many of my students, this pandemic has taken a toll. Some students have lost family members. Many students are worried about the health of their family members or themselves. They are also seeing their parents or other family members lose their jobs. They are becoming more and more concerned about how they're going to make ends meet. Almost all of my students are just exhausted from this lockdown. They feel trapped and missing their friends and the ability to go outside.

Do your students have the tools they need to be successful with virtual learning?

Janki: Some of my students have their own computer/laptop that they use for virtual learning, some use their phone or share a device between siblings, and some of them have no device or working internet connection at home. I have been working to help students who don’t have working technology to sign up for the Department of Education (DOE) devices but it has taken some time for them to get their devices. In this time, those students are falling behind on school work and feeling overwhelmed about having to catch up with their classmates. A few days ago, a few of my students received iPads from the DOE and have just gotten started on setting them up. Now that the mayor has said that schools are officially closed for the rest of the school year, I have been reaching out to students who have been sharing devices or who have had glitchy devices so that they can get their own working device until June.

Emily: Ninety-five percent of my students do. WiFi and microphones have been a struggle so right now I am really brainstorming and getting creative about how to create a virtual classroom that affirms and elevates student voice and thinking.

“Almost all of my students are just exhausted from this lockdown. They feel trapped and missing their friends and the ability to go outside.”

Matthew Engel

Ninth grade global history teacher

New York '18

What is something you wish more people understood about NYC teachers and teaching at this time?

Jennifer Storch (N.Y. ’19), an 11th and 12th English teacher at Coney Island Prep High School

I wish everyone knew more about how much work goes into each and every lesson. Teachers, such as myself, are altering their entire curriculums to ensure student success. I also wish people understood the obstacles my students have to go through.

Jennifer Storch (N.Y. ’19) pre-pandemic with her class at Coney Island Prep High School

Janki: I wish more people understood that while it may seem like our workload has reduced because we are not physically in the classroom all day, our responsibilities towards our students are still the same and this has brought about many new challenges for us and we don’t necessary have the tools or information to navigate.

Matthew: The first thing I want people to know is teachers miss being in the physical classroom. My colleagues have attacked remote learning with a positive attitude, but all of us are missing being together and being with the kids. Also, most teachers are working so much harder with remote learning. We are adjusting to new platforms, trying to find resources, and adapting/refining our daily lessons. I finally have my schedule under control, so I am not working 12-14 hour days anymore, but I don't have any kids or immediate family to care for. Many of my colleagues are still working longer hours than usual while also trying to teach their own children or care for elderly or sick family members. The pandemic has also affected several of my colleagues who have lost people close and dear to them, but they're still logging on to support their students every day.”

Emily: Schools are NOT closed. A school is not a building. A school is a group of people with a commitment to community and learning. While we feel relief that there is no state tests this year, it also takes away the most public form of recognition of our scholars’ success.

Crystal: We can’t wait to get back into the classroom! We desperately miss our students and school communities.

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