James Madison Memorial High School teacher works to keep his students engaged virtually

Distance learning has created a few issues that make it hard for me and my students to be successful.
Nicholas Schmidt
Photo by John Finecec
Barriers existed before COVID-19 for the struggling students Nicholas Schmidt works with at James Madison Memorial High School. E-school has only made it more difficult to keep his kids connected.

By Nicholas Schmidt

Teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic is really testing the potency of my anxiety medication and the effectiveness of my therapist. As a credit-recovery teacher at Memorial High School, my stress threshold is fairly high. I work with our school’s most struggling learners. These students have failed a class or two (or sometimes more than a few). As a result, they are at risk of not graduating from high school. My students are disproportionately students of color, students with disabilities and students who can be considered “low-income.” I love my job, because I get to work with students who feel completely disenfranchised by our education system. My classroom is a safe space for kids to start seeing themselves as learners. Distance learning has created a few issues that make it hard for me and my students to be successful.

Student engagement has been a nightmare during this pandemic. And my students typically struggle with engagement. Regular attendance was a challenge before our building closed. I would take time outside of my teaching schedule to drive to kids’ houses and let them know that I missed them and needed them in the building. They would inevitably show up to class and then I could work on building their self-esteem, skills and ultimately their credits. Engaging my students during distance learning has been exponentially harder. Many of my students are now working more hours to help their families stay afloat. Lack of access to the internet, technology and a satisfactory learning environment are just a few of the barriers my students are facing. I have been calling, texting and emailing students and their families daily — some of them are still not showing up for distance learning. I anticipate having many of the same issues this fall as MMSD enters full virtual learning until at least November. Distance learning has made it very difficult to plan.

Planning has become more painful than I ever expected. In my role, there is a ton of adjustment that happens based on student need. When we are in the building, I can tell when a student is struggling with a concept, and I can provide that student with the appropriate scaffolds. How do I provide students with appropriate interventions when I cannot even get them on the phone? Many of my students do not have access to reliable internet or a safe learning environment at home, so distance learning has created massive issues related to equity. Planning has become like throwing a multitude of darts at a board and just praying that a few stick for each student. I find myself planning alternative assignments for kids at 11:30 p.m., because I have finally gotten a kid to respond to me and do not want to waste the opportunity to get them moving in a positive direction.

But if there is a silver lining to COVID-19, it is the increased awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd prompted more of the world to acknowledge the injustices of police brutality and the systemic racism that exists for Black, Indigenous and People of Color in America and across the globe. I grew up in a neighborhood with predominantly BIPOC friends. I work predominantly with students of color. I still have no idea what it is like to live as a BIPOC in Madison, Wisconsin. I have no idea what it feels like to live under the weight of systemic oppression. All my experience with this stuff is as a protected outsider. One of the reasons I got into teaching was because I wanted to fight for people who did not feel like they could effectively fight for themselves. Supporting the Black Lives Matter movement is not about sending the message that only Black lives matter. Rather, it is about me using my privilege to join with the message that we will no longer accept systemic racism and the oppression of Black folks.

COVID-19 has made it extremely difficult for all parties involved. Teachers cannot seem to get all their students involved with e-schooling. Parents cannot effectively juggle the responsibility of working (sometimes multiple jobs), raising kids and facilitating e-learning when they were not the ones who planned the content. During this extraordinary time, I am still extremely grateful to be an educator and to work with our team at Memorial High School. This time is not ideal and neither is distance learning. At Memorial High School, we will continue to do what needs to be done to ensure that our students are successful — even if that means showing up at my students’ homes just to let them know that I love and care about them. We are JMM.