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Educators Share Their Thoughts On Teaching During The Pandemic

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

What does school look like during a pandemic? In some parts of the country, it's not much different than it was a year ago - fully in person, full capacity, masks optional. Other districts are entirely virtual, and many classrooms are somewhere in the middle. It's been a radical reimagining of what school is in a very short period of time, so we wanted to hear from some of the teachers making it happen. First, here's Maxie Hollingsworth.

MAXIE HOLLINGSWORTH: I teach in Houston, and I teach pre-K through fifth grade math. And I also do reading and math interventions.

PFEIFFER: Next, David Finkle.

DAVID FINKLE: I teach in DeLand, Fla. I teach ninth grade English, and I teach creative writing.

PFEIFFER: And finally, Suzen Polk-Hoffses.

SUZEN POLK-HOFFSES: I teach at Milbridge Elementary School, which is in Milbridge, Maine. And I am their pre-K teacher.

PFEIFFER: And, Maxie, a question to you - I understand that your district is all virtual at the moment. So what does class look like for you right now?

HOLLINGSWORTH: It's quite stressful - have to say. We're doing lots of presentations. Basically, we are on screen, on camera essentially all day.

PFEIFFER: And, David, your school is doing a hybrid model. What does that actually mean for your classroom?

FINKLE: So I have six classes. All of the classes - in addition to having kids in front of me in class, I have a bunch of kids in Microsoft Teams on the computer.

PFEIFFER: Simultaneously.

FINKLE: Simultaneously.

PFEIFFER: Woof.

FINKLE: And I have to - as opposed to being kind of here, there and everywhere around the classroom, I am kind of tied to my desk.

PFEIFFER: Because you have to keep your eye on that screen.

FINKLE: Well, I don't want them to feel too left out. I bought a conference mic so that the kids on the computer can hear what the kids in the classroom are saying. So between the mic here and the speakers and the second big monitor and my laptop and all the wires coming out of it, I feel like I'm at air traffic control.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLLINGSWORTH: Absolutely.

FINKLE: I'm starting to get used to it. I'm on Week 4. Most of us are saying we're already end-of-the-year tired.

PFEIFFER: And, Suzen, as we said, you teach pre-K. I'm trying to imagine what it's like to get 4- and 5-year-olds to social distance.

POLK-HOFFSES: Absolutely. That was a very big concern, that social distancing piece. I'm trying my best, but, you know, they're 4-year-olds. They're full of life. They're infectious. But I can say that they do wear their masks. They understand that they need to wash their hands. So yeah.

PFEIFFER: And are you teaching both kids in front of you and some doing virtual learning?

POLK-HOFFSES: I do have distance learners. I have parents that are - you know, that are doing remote learning with their students. But, no, I am full-time with my 12 in-classroom students. So, yeah, I could not imagine teaching pre-K doing, like, what David - there is no way in the world.

FINKLE: No.

POLK-HOFFSES: They would be like a bag of worms just everywhere. And...

HOLLINGSWORTH: They are. They're like that on screen.

POLK-HOFFSES: Are they really?

HOLLINGSWORTH: Oh, yeah. My pre-K class - I hope to God no one walks in and sees - like, I don't get observed because they're just rolling around. They're making faces. They're eating. They're playing with their dolls or whatever. I mean, you name it, it happens.

PFEIFFER: And what would you say, Maxie, are the biggest challenges of teaching remotely? And what parts of the classroom experience are lost?

HOLLINGSWORTH: You know, it's interesting. I've never been this tired in my life. And I just finished a doctorate, and I'm a full-time parent. The kids are great. They're participating as much as they can. We are working around technology issues - you know, my Internet goes out; their screen doesn't work. So the kids are great. It's more - I spend so much more time. I create the lesson plan. Then I create a presentation for the lesson. Then it has to be uploaded into Pear Deck and all this stuff. So it really - like, I haven't been asleep in the last two weeks before 2 o'clock in the morning.

POLK-HOFFSES: Wow.

PFEIFFER: You know, as all of you have said - enormous amounts of pressure on you, a lot of extra work. Now you also have the coronavirus concern. No one wants to get sick. I'm wondering, how are you thinking about health issues on top of everything else?

POLK-HOFFSES: Yeah. Sacha, this is Suzen. My husband is 74. He has Parkinson's, and I am terrified. I am terrified. We sanitize the room and everything, but that is the biggest thing. And every night, I come home. I take a shower. I change my clothes because honestly, I am terrified.

HOLLINGSWORTH: I was wondering when I heard that you were in-person. I - both of you, I just thought, oh, my God. You're so brave. I am petrified to go back to work. We just got a notice this week we go back on Oct. 8. And my daughter has asthma. Her pediatrician has told us she is not to go to in-person at all until there's a vaccine. I literally don't know if I'm going to have a job in three weeks because I don't know if I can - I'm just so scared. I'm just so scared. I don't know how you do it.

POLK-HOFFSES: You know, a kid sneezes, and I'm like, calm down, Suzen. It's OK. But it is terrifying. We love our kids. We love our students. We love our families. But in the back of my mind every day, I'm like, am I going to bring this home to my husband?

PFEIFFER: Right. What a fear to be weighing on you. David, do you feel similar?

FINKLE: It's a little nerve-wracking. Most of the kids are pretty good about the masks. Once in a while, it's - I, like, make this motion like, pull your mask up, 'cause some of them let it drift down below their nose. But, yeah, it is stressful. We've got air purifiers that we bought ourselves. We've got those running all day. And we just kind of try to keep our distance as best we can, and we do a lot of cleaning and hope for the best.

PFEIFFER: All of you are at the very beginning of the school year, yet you all have talked about how worn out you feel, questioning whether this is sustainable. But, you know, based on what scientists are saying about when we'll have a widely available vaccine, you're potentially looking at an entire school year of teaching like this. How do you plan to get through that?

HOLLINGSWORTH: I want to get to a point, A, where I like my job again because I absolutely have to say I hate virtual teaching. If I could have quit my job three weeks ago, I would have. Day 1 was awful, and I knew it. I said, this is not how I want to teach. But I had to have a - you know, we say a come to Jesus meeting with myself. And look.

POLK-HOFFSES: Right.

HOLLINGSWORTH: This is what it is. You make it work. But to me, it's just one day at a time. I can't imagine spring.

PFEIFFER: And, David, how are you steeling yourself to get through the year?

FINKLE: Well, you know, I've heard it said that we're all first-year teachers again. And I wouldn't go that far, but I think it's just a question of kind of figuring things out, new ways to do things that I used to know how to do without thinking about it. And now I've got to think about everything I'm doing.

HOLLINGSWORTH: Exactly.

POLK-HOFFSES: Yeah.

FINKLE: Nothing is easy.

PFEIFFER: And, Suzen, how will you get through the year?

POLK-HOFFSES: I'll be honest. Today I went and spoke with one of our mental health professionals at my school because I don't think - it's hard, and I don't want to be a wrung-out rag. I teach pre-K, which is, like, the best grade in the world. And I need to be, you know, happy and full of life and joy.

FINKLE: Yeah.

POLK-HOFFSES: But I'm just getting worn down bit by bit.

HOLLINGSWORTH: And God bless you all because your job is hard...

POLK-HOFFSES: Thank you.

HOLLINGSWORTH: ...Enough in person. I mean, so I could not imagine...

POLK-HOFFSES: Thank you.

HOLLINGSWORTH: When I was told I had to teach pre-K, I remember freaking out, like, the first three months. And then pre-K teachers all said, don't worry. By December, they'll be different students. And I said, oh. They were right.

(LAUGHTER)

POLK-HOFFSES: Yes. Yes.

FINKLE: I couldn't do what you do, Suzen.

POLK-HOFFSES: (Laughter).

FINKLE: But you probably won't want to deal with ninth graders.

POLK-HOFFSES: No, no, no (laughter).

PFEIFFER: Well, we wish all three of you success this year and physical and emotional strength. And thank you for the work you do.

POLK-HOFFSES: Thank you.

HOLLINGSWORTH: Thank you all.

POLK-HOFFSES: Thank you.

PFEIFFER: That's David Finkle, a high school English teacher in DeLand, Fla.; Suzen Polk-Hoffses, who teaches pre-K in Milbridge, Maine; and Maxie Hollingsworth, an elementary school math teacher in Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIMECOP1983 SONG, "BACK TO YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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