I have loved teaching and being a teacher for as long as I can remember. Since the COVID-19 pandemic however, teaching has changed dramatically. Many teachers are being reduced to time on a screen, or in some cases, replaced by a program, or an electronic activity. While this may need to be our reality now, I hope and pray that we do not get too comfortable with this new practice. There is certainly a covert cost to this new type of connectivity, and the cost, I must caution, is considerable.
Adam Sutton, an 8th grade social studies teacher in Maryland, writes rather poignantly about the situation that arose in classrooms across the country earlier this year. In his essay entitled, “The Lost Identify of Teachers: The COVID-19 Story,” Sutton asserts that “a teacher’s value is his time with his students. There is no replacement. Administrators, parents, and teachers shouldn’t be left thinking that a teacher’s value is easily substituted by a few electronic worksheets sent with the click of a button” (theeducatorsroom.com, 2020).
Imagine that. The very thing that (we know in our hearts) separates us – technology – is now the instrument being used to connect us. Please don’t misunderstand me – I think it’s pretty fascinating that I can “meet” with a student or colleague through a Zoom Meeting or Google Meet. Yet are we really connecting? In a way it can and does connect us, but what is the cost of this form of connectivity?
Students lose so much more than mere academics. They lose relationships with people that love them and that they love. We all know that children learn more when they know their teacher cares and is invested in their learning. How many students have risen to greatness because a good teacher inspired them and genuinely cared about them? (I overcame a severe stutter due to the patience and tenacity of my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Sprano. Trust me, it was his one-on-one attention and instruction that made the difference. A screen between us would never have sufficed.) I see that with the students I teach as well.
Therefore the most significant questions remain: “Are students really connecting? And if so, at what cost?”
I have a unique perspective, because while I am an educator, I work independently. Parents can hire me to teach their children and/or to help them navigate the educational system. Administrators can hire me to work with teaching staff and support them in implementing best practice strategies. Home Educators can even hire me if they need a mentor to come alongside them, as they develop their child’s “best learning life.”
Potential clients who call me for advice can be ‘honest’ with me because as I tell them – I work for my students. Period. (How freeing is that?) I get to ‘assess’ the child, and his needs, and develop an approach or approaches that fit that particular child. I follow no curricula or teacher expectation or state mandate. This is professional empowerment at its finest. Nonetheless, most who have called me this year were not happy with the ‘remote learning format.’ I am not saying, they did not try their best, I am simply saying – they were not happy with the outcome.
Our public schools seem to love prepackaged programs, where kids who are struggling sit at a computer that teaches them how to read (or learn almost any concept) now a days. Isn’t that amazing? Our gifted teachers cannot teach our students how to unlock the code, or learn a challenging scientific concept, but a machine can. One dear colleague called it “artificial intelligence.” Another boasted that one particular program’s ‘algorithms’ were flawless. While many may think that’s pretty miraculous, I think it’s pretty pathetic.
A ‘program’ can never replace an excellent teacher, or excellent teaching. It’s that simple. Programs may make it easier for the teacher initially, but harder in the long term. Teachers are robbed of their innate ability to use their professional judgement, and hence their exceptionality is lost. What a substantial cost to not only the teacher, but more importantly, to the student as well.
Oh sure, I have read all of the beautiful, inspiring letters and essays written by administrators, teachers, and parents last spring about how successful the distance learning model was. These may have been lovely, really, and I want to believe them. Truly I do. Yet all of the platitudes praising Google Hangouts and Zoom Meetings will NEVER replace our need to be together and connect with each other. Never.
I am frightened that when this pandemic ends, we will all have grown accustomed to this new platform of connection and it will become our permanent reality. Can such ‘artificial intelligence’ and these perfect ‘algorithms’ replace the teacher?
Sherry Turkle’s book is aptly titled, Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. I do not know about you, but I do not want to expect less from my students and do not want them to expect less from me.
I want to sit next to my students again and not be separated by a screen.
I want them to know I am happy to see them and excited about a new book we are going to read together.
I want them to know I care about them, and their struggles, and successes.
I want them to know I am ‘there’ for them in this journey they are on.
Such connectedness can never be replaced by technology. Just like ‘good teaching’ can NEVER be replaced by a program on the computer. Just like an ‘authentic relationship’ can NEVER be replaced by a Zoom Meeting.
If we are, the cost will be too great to imagine. This is the hidden cost of so called connectivity: our relationships with our students. I am not ready to relinquish those. They are too precious.
You are right, Mr. Sutton, teachers can never be replaced. Our value rests in being connected with our students, and I can only hope that my students will always expect more from me, not less.