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Please Reconsider How We Get Through This School Year

A Chicago teacher weighs in on how distance learning has gone so far and how it must change going forward

By Ashley McCall

November 16, 2020

An illustration of a building with lots of windows each with a person in it

On Wednesday, August 5, less than a month after releasing a hybrid learning plan, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that Chicago Public Schools would begin the year with a full remote model. This left me, and thousands of CPS colleagues, students, and families, with one month to plan for the unpredictable year ahead.

Less than a week earlier I published a piece on Chicago Unheard, a community blog about CPS, asking: What if we radically reimagined the new school year? What if we designed a school year for recovery? What if we made space to acknowledge the fear, anxiety, frustration, and confusion students, staff, and families are feeling? We didn’t. And four days into the start of the school year, a family interaction manifested some of the worst I worried this year would bring.

After a 90-minute struggle with technology platforms, the majority of students transitioned to lunch while I stayed online to support two who were still having trouble. A caregiver came on screen and left a message in the chat box. “If these children, or their parents, spoke to you the way you do them, you would feel wildly disrespected. I’ve been listening to this all week and I’m highly upset. Exercise more patience PLEASE!!!”

When I spoke to respond, he yelled at me for my impatience and disrespectful tone. I tried to assure him that I was willing to discuss any concerns, but would not have the conversation in front of students. He ignored my response and logged off. I was left with the remaining two students.

Over the next 30 minutes I was in communication with my colleagues, my principal (who reached out when the office received a call of complaint), and my resident teacher about how to address the concern (and still start my next class on time). My resident teacher graciously stepped up to start class while I set up a meeting with the family. Then I cried in my bathroom for 20 minutes.

I cried because my district chose to prioritize narrow measures of success over the flexibility to respond to families’ unique needs. I cried because district leadership chose pep talks over months of purposeful preparation. I cried because in just four days, I had already seen children and grownups weep and wish for relief. I cried because I knew the subsequent phone call (in which I was told I expected too much, needed to have compassion, and should stop barking at kids like a fitness trainer) was not going to help us take a single step toward healing what had been broken so early in the school year. I cried because nothing but grace will get us through this year, and in that moment I seriously doubted our capacity, individually and collectively, to offer enough of it.

“Despite the calls for grace and flexibility, federal and local policymakers have chosen to prioritize practices that leave very little room for it.”

Ashley McCall

Since March, families have told us how near impossible it is to work and manage their children’s remote learning experience, especially the young ones and those who need more intensive social and academic supports. In response, teachers have advocated for changes, like the adjustment or removal of the traditional grading system. Students told us they were stressed, tired, scared, confused, and lonely, and many parents and teachers agreed. We have had since the spring to plan for a rich, relevant, and flexible remote learning experience that takes these shared feelings into account and teaches students how to manage them—in part by engaging with relevant educational content. After all, we promised them that “we’ll get through this together.”

Despite the calls for grace and flexibility, federal and local policymakers have chosen to prioritize practices that leave very little room for it. Teachers have called for live instruction schedules conducive to students’ needs around social-emotional growth and executive functioning skills, but the district remains committed to keeping students in front of their devices for nearly six hours each day. Some students across the city are burdened with hours of additional homework after class. Why is the call for flexibility not reflected in these policies? Why is the onus, once again, put on students, families, and educators to navigate rigid grading standards, overbearing live instruction schedules, and to micromanage students’ presence in virtual classrooms? These inflexible expectations created the conditions for stakeholder collisions like the one I experienced.

Despite the district’s flawed requirements, students, families, and educators are adapting our practice and expectations daily to meet the needs of those we serve. There is still time for those in local, state, and federal leadership to do the same. As a 2016-17 teaching policy fellow with Teach Plus Illinois and now-board member, I understand the challenges to changing policy and practice. And as I grind through this labor of love with my colleagues every day, I know that our work to improve remote learning will not be without flaws and mistakes. But I also know that a commitment to iteration and integration of stakeholder feedback will result in the gradual improvement we all deserve.

This year, and every year moving forward, policymakers must choose the well-being of students, families, and educators by empowering teachers to understand their students’ needs and then working to meet them, instead of prescribing a one-size-fits-all approach grounded in traditional forms of teaching and grading. The unbearable stress so many teachers, caregivers, and students carry at this time will continue to harm us until we remove some of the perpetual external pressures that keep us from working together. The next iteration of the remote learning framework can do that.

I am hopeful-—you cannot teach without hope. Of course we will get through this together. What remains to be seen is who and how we are on the other side.

Ashley McCall serves as a third grade bilingual English/language arts teacher at César Chávez Multicultural Arts Center on the Southwest Side of Chicago and a teacher representative on the Chávez Local School Council. @ashlm_12