The Sunday Magazine·Personal Essay

Stream, announce, assign, post, comment: Sam Heffer learns to teach from a distance

Sam Heffer is a prep teacher in a kindergarten to grade five school with about 300 kids and 27 staff. Three times a week, she also teaches a gym class. When she worked in a bricks-and-mortar school, she never spent much time sitting in front of a computer. Now she logs in to visit four Google Classrooms where there are no students visible to her. Here’s her essay, The New School.

‘I’ll admit that I’m caught up in it, eager to understand how things work.’

On the left, Sam Heffer in her classroom pre-lockdown; on the right, distance teaching. (Erin Heffer/Michael Heffer)

It's nearly five o'clock, and I'm sitting at my old oak dining room table. Bold spring sunlight is streaming through the window like a spotlight finding its subject. That subject is me, parked in front of a laptop that shields me from most of the glare. It's this time of day when I look up from the computer screen and realize that hours have passed, as I've scrolled from one issue to another. My technology learning curve is steep and uneven; enlightenment and frustration, in different doses every day.

The sun spotlight is my cue. It's time to leave my virtual schoolhouse, and return to my real house. And lately, I'm very grateful for both. Truth? There is a point in each workday now when my eyes feel like enlarged ping pong balls ready to pop out of their sockets. There's a time when my brain feels like a pot of porridge, boiling over on a virtual stovetop. But I tell myself this is to be expected. When I worked in a bricks-and-mortar school, I never spent much time sitting in front of a computer. Now I log in to visit four Google Classrooms where there are no students visible to me. I stream, announce, assign, post and comment my way through each class. It's so very different. It's so very quiet.

My technology learning curve is steep and uneven; enlightenment and frustration, in different doses every day. ​​​​​- Sam Heffer

I began teaching almost 30 years ago. I've enjoyed my career. And for more than a decade, I've been a prep teacher in a kindergarten-to-grade-five school with about 300 kids and 27 staff. 

Three times a week, I taught gym to Ms. Kramer's grade three-four mixed class, so she could have prep time — 50 minutes to mark assignments, or plan a lesson, phone a parent, rush to the washroom, make a cup of tea. Our gym periods were noisy and exuberant. Before we began, the students would sit in front of me on the floor as we reviewed behaviour basics. With my prompting, they chanted loudly in their sing-song way: 

"Go where you see spaces, not where you see faces!" 

"Stop before you hit the wall, the wall will always win."

"No ice … is very nice!" 

All familiar reminders to avoid collisions and injury, even as they took off, running full speed, playing Noodle Tag.

Sam Heffer's French classroom on wheels with colourful bins and handy shelves, photographed before schools shut down due to the pandemic. (Erin Heffer)

I also taught beginner French à la carte to grade four and five classes. This meant that my French classroom was on wheels. And my cart was the Ferrari of teaching carts, with colourful bins and handy shelves. I loved it! "Driving" the cart for me was a coveted job that even the most reluctant French student was happy to have. And the cart held up pretty well, with a little WD-40 here and there and some Gorilla tape. The telltale rattle as I pushed it down the hall was like a familiar train pulling into the station.
"Ahhh, I hear the distant rumble of French approaching," said the only male teacher in our school, Mike Trellis. "Kes keh sest sa?" he'd quip as I rolled into his classroom. Long ago Mike decided that part of his job was to torture me with his fake, fractured French. "Well, as Madame would say, "Sest tut." And off he would go for his prep. 
French class was noisy too. There were games with bells and points, groups of kids simultaneously rehearsing puppet plays, dialogues and presentations. I loved this age group, and I miss them. Most of them were still willing to try speaking a new language. They knew that I wanted their best effort on any given day, and some signs of progress, never perfection.

This new school is all-consuming, this web of distance learning and teaching.- Sam Heffer

But today I'm not at school, of course. No one is. And no one knows when we'll be back there again. This new school is all-consuming, this web of distance learning and teaching. I'll admit that I'm caught up in it, eager to understand how things work. 

I set the timer on the oven for 45 minutes. When it dings, I tear myself away from the screen to refill my water glass, get a snack, go to the washroom. Then I reset the timer and surrender again to the endless web of resources and how-to webinars and videos.

I get how gamers dig in now. I get how addictive surfing the internet can be. I get it, and I'm only looking for ways to help kids learn simple French, and ways to keep my gym class active at home. But I'm all in. My brain chatters along, often out loud, to no one but me:

"Is this website any good? Well, it's free. That's important. What about this one? … Ahh, that YouTube video; it's perfect. Right, now, what is it? Safe YouTube dot net. Got it. Copy the link. Save it. Explain it. Assign it. Post it. What's next?"

Shadow of Sam Heffer on her bike. (Sam Heffer)

Today feels like school day 4,692 since The Launch — the day that distance learning replaced what was elementary school. I'm proud that I only spent the first two days in my nightgown, connected to my laptop by an umbilical cord of dread, panic and anxiety.

Since then, I've gone out most mornings, often first thing. I walk, or run, or ride my bike when people are sparse and the air feels fresh. In April there were snow flurries and pelting rain. It is the longest spring on record. During that time outdoors, I acknowledge the horrors of COVID-19.

Sometimes, I let a random wave of doom and despair wash over me as I remember why I'll be setting the oven timer. Why I'll be delving into the "Google Jungle," 45 minutes at a time, right after my morning coffee. I am grateful to have this work at this time; a world of virtual learning for our kids. But when I'm outside in the early morning, and the sunrise takes my breath away, I am grieving — for what we had, and for all that we have lost.

I strive to stay hopeful. I know there will be a day when we will have more ordinary freedom. But I admit that I will cheer, very loudly, when the kids are allowed to log out of distance learning, and I'll be cheering when we can all log back into real life.

Sam Heffer is an elementary school teacher based in Toronto.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full essay.

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