Minnesota teachers Meng Yang, Maryam Abdulahi, Alka Goyal, and Natalia Benjamin have been working long hours through distance learning. But they miss the dynamics of a regular classroom. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

If you ask teachers why they chose their profession, most will tell you that working with young people is both their greatest motivation and their greatest professional joy. 

But the pandemic has drastically changed the way students and teachers interact. With most metro area schools entirely or partially online this fall, many teachers say connecting with students has become much more difficult.

Teachers are putting in longer hours than ever. They have more responsibilities as they follow up with absent students and prepare multiple ways to deliver lessons. Some longtime teachers say they feel like a first-year teacher all over again. 

We spoke with four teachers from immigrant communities to hear about their beginnings to this most unusual school year. Compared to March, when classes first went online, teachers say they are more prepared and have better tools for distance learning. But they miss the moments of a school day that can’t be replicated on a screen. A student interrupting a read-aloud story to ask a question. Peering over a student’s shoulder to make sure they understand how to solve an equation. Former students greeting last year’s teachers as they pass in the hallways. Building relationships with new students remotely has been difficult, they say. But they are determined to make it work.

Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Alka Goyal, chemistry, Central High School, St. Paul

“I had a student that had a lot of younger siblings at home, and he was so focused when he was in the classroom. And then when we went to remote learning he suddenly stopped turning in his work.” More

Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Maryam Abdulahi, Coon Rapids Middle School

“Some of them have pets, so they’ll say can I show my pet? That’s always fun, the unintentional show-and-tell we have.” More

Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Meng Yang, Champlin Park High School

“What worries me a lot are the students I have not seen. Even when we reach out to them, they haven’t communicated back.” More

Credit: Courtesy Natalia Benjamin

Natalia Benjamin, Century High School, Rochester

“The virtual classroom is so limiting. The spontaneity in the classroom where we can just see each other and they can just raise their hand and ask questions, a lot of that is missing.” More

Alka Goyal, chemistry teacher, Central High School, St. Paul Public Schools

Alka Goyal with her crocheted Pokemon figures. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

There are definitely some subjects that will translate better to remote learning. I feel that chemistry is one that, even to teach the mathematical concepts, some people just need to see in person. I need to see what they’re messing up on. And also just being able to do all the labs and demonstrations. I end up posting videos, and it’s just not the same. Right now in the school year they would be doing measuring labs, just really simple labs to get to know the equipment. Watching the videos, they’re not experiencing it themselves.

I was teaching about the scientific method and we can correlate what we’re seeing with the pandemic. They’re following the scientific method, and there’s no one solution to it. We’re seeing it in reality right now, where they come up with a vaccine and then they’re cross-questioning themselves: Okay, does this really work and what do we need to improve further? So I think it’s a real life experience for students in science, seeing it happen.

In March a lot of teachers just felt overwhelmed with how much their workload increased when we went to remote learning. I still have that same feeling right now. Now we just have so many meetings. Being available to students and following up on all the students who are not showing up in your classes. If they’re working on an assignment in class you would walk around and give them participation points, or you saw everyone working and you gave them completion points, or even have teams that would help grade, and that’s not possible anymore.

There are definitely advantages to distance learning with some students. Their participation increased. Some students who were really social in the school setting would get distracted. I experienced in March suddenly they became productive in remote learning because they were stuck at home. But there were disadvantages to it as well. I had a student that had a lot of younger siblings at home, and he was so focused when he was in the classroom. And then when we went to remote learning he suddenly stopped turning in his work. He emailed me and said, ‘I’m sorry I haven’t been able to turn in my work because I have siblings at home and I have to help them with all their homework because my parents don’t know how to help them.’ I had to make adjustments for him.

I love teaching high schoolers. They always teach me fun things. I mean, there are so many features on my phone that I know because my students taught me all that stuff. So I try to find ways to connect with them so that they feel free to share stuff with me occasionally. Just yesterday I got an email from two of my students from last year and they wanted me to be advisor of a club they’re hoping to start to encourage girls into STEM careers, and they said they didn’t feel any other teacher encouraged them in science as much as I did. 

I am a crocheter, I’m a crafter. I’ve been spending a lot of time crafting all these Pokemon figures. So I would share at the beginning of class, here’s one I made, just so I could connect a little bit better with my students. They just found it funny that I knew all these characters. I’m hoping that as we go through this, they will also open up to me and start sharing something that they do outside of chemistry class.

Maryam Abdulahi, 7th grade English/language arts teacher, Coon Rapids Middle School, Anoka-Hennepin School District

Maryam Abdulahi, a 7th grade English and language arts teacher at Coon Rapids Middle School, will transition from distance learning to a hybrid model on Tuesday. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Our school district went with the hybrid model but we have not started it yet. We have been teaching for the past two weeks and it has all been distance. Tuesday is going to be the first official hybrid day. It will be interesting for sure.

It’s going to be a little scary starting over because there will be kids in front of us and some will be distance and we have to do learning/teaching for both. So you’re teaching three formats in one lesson. 

Before school started, I was so scared. I was terrified! Will they show up? Will they cooperate? Will they all have Chromebooks? Will they know how to log in? So many questions. None of the fears that I had actually happened. My first day came and with each block I got less stressed. By the end of the day I was like, oh, okay, it’s possible.

The need for connection is so obvious. They’re all terrified to write in the chat or talk and unmute or whatever. But when something comes up, you see it fill up in the chat. For example, I brought up how this summer I didn’t get to go to as many weddings as I thought I would, because a lot of weddings were canceled. And then one kid was like, my sister got married. And then in the comments it blew up. I didn’t go, I didn’t go, back and forth. But it was the same exact phrasing. If we were in person and I made that comment, the class would erupt. The energy would have gone up in the room. But because it was distance, it was just a bunch of words on a screen. 

Some of them have pets, so they’ll say can I show my pet? That’s always fun, the unintentional show-and-tell we have. Some people get new decor, and say I got new stuff in my room, can I show it?

Next week we’ll start reading short stories. Short stories are nice to start with because they are short. Getting through them is like, “Oh my God I did it!” It’s an accomplishment. But we won’t be able to read them together in person. The kids at home will be listening to us read it through a video. And we won’t be able to stop and start and share those moments together and question it. I really enjoy those moments when a kid’s like, wait let’s stop here. What does that mean? Why did this happen? Those little discussions. That’s not going to be happening most likely.

I worry so much. I could tell you a million and one things. My biggest worry is that I won’t be able to keep up with these constant changes. Right now it’s distance, I feel like I’m comfortable. But then now it’s hybrid. But what if there’s an outbreak and we go back to distance? Can we go back to distance the same way we had it before or will the district have new ways to do distance? Will the kids be able to keep up with distance, in-person, hybrid? 

Meng Yang, English teacher and AVID program coordinator, Champlin Park High School, Anoka-Hennepin School District

Meng Yang outside of Champlin Park High School, where he teaches English and coordinates the AVID program.

I took part in some of our union rallies to ask the district to reconsider how to start school, especially because being a teacher of color, representing students and communities of color, this pandemic disproportionately affects communities of color. We thought we had to create awareness and be a voice for the people that were not heard this summer. 

I can see which students have taken distance learning, because we have an option of that. All of them are students of color in my classes. They’re definitely afraid.

I really worry about the safety of my students. It’s not equitable in technology either, if they’re from communities that don’t have good Internet access, or if they don’t have computers in their household, or if they have to share a computer. Sometimes the voices that are heard are the ones that are more affluent. They have access to computers and they can stay home. The parents can work from home. It’s just a big mess and a big headache. But a lot of the teachers in my building, we keep on moving because you can’t really stop and can’t give up because you’d be giving up on the students. 

I check in all the time. And they say they’re fine. But you can see on some of their faces when they do pop on the screens that it’s not what they want. They do want to go back to school. And then there are some students that I’ve never seen at all. Even when we reach out to them, they haven’t communicated back.

The most memorable moment for me would be the silence of the Google Meet. It’s like I’m talking to myself. I turn on and everyone is muted so you can’t hear from anybody. And some people don’t have their cameras on so you just see their little circle avatars. I talk, and I’m giving out instruction and trying to throw out my jokes, and it’s just falling flat because there’s no energy coming back. 

At the end of a session when students log out and they go to do their work, a couple times now there have been one or two students that kind of just wait and they stay behind. And then when everyone’s left and it’s just them left with me, then they talk to me. They say all these things like thank you, or I have a question. I can just feel how much those students want this to work as well. 

I miss things like standing by my door in the hallway and students saying hi to you. That’s not the classroom stuff, that’s real life stuff happening in the hallway. You actually say hi to somebody, there’s a connection, you know? It’s authentic, it’s genuine. It’s not like a forced, I’m the teacher, you’re the student you have to listen to me. 

I hope that students in the communities that we serve recognize how important education is with all the issues that we’re having, and how teachers are fighting through all these uphill battles. I hope that the community and the people, society, recognize and appreciate how hard teachers work to help their students for not enough pay and not enough recognition. 

What worries me a lot are the students I have not seen. What worries me a lot is how society affects the students that I have, and how they may not understand how to express or vent things that have happened. Even in the last 24 hours I know some students are triggered by [a Kentucky grand jury not indicting the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor] and they don’t know how to express it. I tried to offer them space today, but it’s so weird to offer space in a Google Meet. They’re afraid to talk, and I’m afraid of how a discussion is going to go online like that with students that I don’t know. 

And I feel like we’re experimenting with how this is going to work and I just don’t want anyone to be sacrificed, for someone to get sick. So that makes me worried too. 

And how effective the lessons are. Are they really learning something? Are students really picking up on things or are they just clicking done because they looked at it?

Natalia Benjamin, English language teacher, Century High School, Rochester Public Schools

Natalia Benjamin teaches English language learners in Rochester. Credit: Courtesy Natalia Benjamin

On the first day a lot of our kids signed in, so that was very reassuring. We had a few kids that were still trying to get devices and just getting set up. As time has gone on, some of those wrinkles we’re still ironing, but for most of our students we know where they’re at, what devices they have, and what they need help with.

We’re really trying to make sure the kids feel comfortable and to build relationships. It’s not a one-time, let me get to know you. But every day we’re trying to get to know each other better. 

We also have in-person help so they could come to the school, of course following the CDC guidelines with masks and making sure they’re not sick, but making sure we can get them to the school if they need that in-person contact to explain things. 

In my prep time and open hours it’s a lot of reaching out to students and to families, making sure that they’re okay, to see what they need, find out why is it that maybe there’s a missing assignment, why is it that somebody’s missing a class, just making sure they’re taken care of. It’s a much bigger toll than if we were all in the building.

I think everybody’s doing a really good job at trying to make sure people have access to technology and wi-fi, etc. But at the same time we have to remember that that does not take care of all the inequities students face at school. Some of them still have to be working after school. Some of them are baby-sitting, Some of them are taking care of family members.  We had it before COVID and it’s still here. 

The virtual classroom is so limiting. The spontaneity in the classroom where we can just see each other and they can just raise their hand and ask questions, a lot of that is missing. Just those split-second interactions we would have, people would be funny, that’s really hard to do in a virtual classroom.

We’re starting a photography club. It’s kind of exciting we’re starting it during this time. It also makes it easy to collaborate between schools. So we’re collaborating between Century High School and John Marshall High School. We have some professional photographers that have agreed to work with us. So we’re going to be able to meet digitally so that these experts can share some tips and things to try. 

For Latinx Club we’ve been meeting virtually. The kids were asking to meet throughout the summer because there’s very limited opportunities for socializing. I think they enjoyed just being able to get together and have an hour a week where we could just kind of chat and share about what was happening in our life.

I think for the most part kids are staying positive. They’re trying, right? It’s great to see everybody, even when technology isn’t working, they’re being patient, they’re hanging in there, they’re asking questions, they’re not giving up. Just recognizing their resilience and their willingness to stick with it and try to make it work even though we all wish it was different.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...