I’m standing in front of my small audience of seven live, in-the-flesh students. My other eight students are hidden behind a camera and sitting on a desk next to me. I ask a simple question: “What does ‘tener’ mean?” Three students in front of me hazard a guess. “To be?” “To have?” “It’s something I can’t remember.” The rest of their faces are painted in thoughtfulness. I turn to my laptop, waiting for a response of any kind from the black screen of death. I hear nothing but crickets. I turn back to my flesh students. “Okay, and how do we conjugate ‘tener’?”
As one, my students belt out, “Yo tengo, tu tienes, usted…”
“Great!” I turn to my black screen of death. All students are muted. I stand up at the board and conjugate the word. “Online people? Can you see this?”
I work at a private a school, and because of this, our school was afforded the opportunity to teach for two live hours each day. Which means half (ish) of the high school student body peels themselves out of bed early, makes themselves presentable, and drives to school to sit in class for a whopping two hours before heading back home to finish their classes online. Those who don’t join me in school are online.
My students’ desks are six feet apart; masks cover half their faces. And while I know masks are useful, they are murder on my brain. Earlier this year, I stared out at my students and blinked. “Is her name Grace or is that Sarah?” Shoot. My body pinged with panic. I should KNOW this. Normally, I have my students’ names down pat by the third day. It’s the third month, and I’m still shaky. Then I remind myself. Oh. It’s because I can’t see their faces online. They are simply a name. And when I can see some faces at school, half of it is covered by a cloth. Fortunately for me, I teach part time—I have less than thirty students. For those that have hundreds, I can’t even imagine.
I get one precious in-person class per week. The rest is online. Let me tell you how the online classes go:
Me: (Super excited for the day) “Hey everyone! How’s it going!?”
Spanish 2: Just the sound of air.
Me: “Hey guys! How are you!?”
Spanish 2: One person chirps “Good.”
Me: (Fifteen minutes later after we’ve wasted a bunch of time doing a connection exercise just so students can socialize) Okay, so we’ve got like thirty minutes to do an hour’s worth of stuff. Sigh of the long suffering. “So open your book to page 54, and let’s conjugate these irregular stem-changing ‘I’ verbs.”
Spanish 2: Crickets.
Me: “So could you turn on your cameras and turn yourself off mute so I can hear you?”
Spanish 2: No response. Thirty seconds later, one mute-mic blinks off.
Me: “Thanks, John, now can EVERYONE turn off mute and turn on your camera?!”
Spanish 2: One camera blinks on. It’s pointed at the ceiling.
Me: “Thanks for the image of your ceiling fan.”
Spanish 2: Another video blinks on. This time, it’s a lovely yellow wall I get to see.
Me: Thrumming my fingers, waiting.
Spanish 2: A minute later, another camera goes on. This time I get to see a face.
Me: Leaning forward, amazed to see my student’s precious face. (Don’t worry, readers, I only got to see it for about two minutes before he snapped his camera back off. But, hey, two minutes is better than a sharp stick in the eye!)
Finally, when all hope is lost of getting 100% participation, I give up and begin conjugating my verbs. The Zoom call is laggy. I hear one voice stridently conjugating the verbs exactly one word after me. I have to mute my speakers just so I can hear myself think.
When we are done, I check the time. We’ve got fifteen minutes left of class to achieve thirty minutes of content.
Me: “Well, I guess we’re out of time. Sorry I’ve gone so long and didn’t give you more time to do the video and homework. Again. For the zillionth time. Okay, now go watch your lesson video and do the homework! Adios!”
Spanish 2: A few “bye’s.” Everyone blinks from my screen and scurries to do something that is NOT Spanish.
I’ve left the fate of Spanish in their young, frail hands. It takes extra hours to create all of their lesson videos- easily accessible online. They have video lessons, live reviews, teacher-access, homework, a physical textbook and online textbook. They have an online platform to keep them organized, remind them of upcoming assignments. They have everything at their disposal to be successful except for a live body to keep them accountable. And this- this is the one thing they need.
Every time I scroll through the homework, a number 3 appears next to it. It means three people have turned it in. The same three people. Those are the ones that get their work in. The rest of them… I sigh. Each one represents copious emails. Zoom meetings. Unpaid private tutoring. Gray hairs. Wrinkles. An early grave.
Time warp back to our classroom with Spanish one. I have half the class in front of me, half the class online beside me. We are doing a simple exercise. We’re practicing “feeling” words. I call on the fleshy girl in front of me. “Jamie, what the word for happy.”
Me: “Great! Samantha- sad”
Me: “Charles- angry”
Charles: Thinks for a second “Enojo?”
Me: “Close. Enojado.” All these questions have been answered in a matter of mere seconds. I Pause. “Hey, let’s ask our online people. Billy (*online person), what is the word for ‘sick.’”
Billy: Nothing. There’s no camera on. He’s muted.
Me: “Billy? What’s the word for ‘sick’?”
Billy: Still nothing. We wait. And wait… and wait some more.
Me: “Okay, Billy must not be there. How about you, David?”
We wait for David in the same fashion that we waited for Billy.
Me: “David? David?… Okay, Cindy? What’s the word for ‘sick’?” I can practically hear Cindy scrambling from her dazed stupor wherever she is in cyber land. Several seconds pass.
Cindy: “What was the question?”
Me: Pulling out my hair. “What is the word for ‘sick’ in Spanish!” I’m trying to ask it as a question, not a statement that comes out with the force of a nail gun.
Cindy: “Uh. I don’t know.”
Me: Desperate. I turn back to my students. The live ones. The flesh ones. My voice does sound desperate, riddled with despair. “Can any of you tell me what ‘sick’ is?
Spanish 1: Blasting at me in unison “Enfermo!”
And that, ladies and gentleman, describes my life as a distance-learning teacher. If 2020 taught me one thing, it’s that anything can be done. But flipping a high school classroom to distance learning cannot be done well.