Teaching can be a ‘joyful slog,’ but during this pandemic, I found myself looking for ‘joyful’

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Jonathan Parker is an English teacher and adviser to the student newspaper at Taylor Allderdice High School. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Teaching is hard work but, when it’s going well, I find it hard to imagine any career more joyful or fulfilling. I have shared both of these realities with a number of student teachers, interns and new colleagues over my years in the classroom. Before March 2020, I would tell anyone who would listen how much I loved my job. It adds great value to my life.

Alongside the fulfillment of teaching, I have made intentional choices throughout my career to achieve a healthy work-life balance and have counseled other teachers to do the same, always with the mindset that we need teachers with valuable experience to persist in the profession for the long haul and for the benefit of our students.

But in the uncharted waters many of us have found ourselves in this school year, the positive feelings and balance have become elusive. I spent much of the spring, summer and fall volunteering to plan for school reopenings and learning new platforms for teaching, meeting and communicating. In my pre-pandemic classroom, I’ve never had any fancy technology. I still have an actual slate chalkboard, and our school had an average of one computer for every three students when we left our building in March.

Imagine onboarding the whole staff and all students to an entirely new way of learning in an instant. Whatever you’re imagining, it’s harder than that.

Before we started remote learning in September, teachers spent weeks and weekends practicing how to deliver lessons, sharing their screens, telling each other “you’re muted,” creating Bitmoji classrooms and setting up home offices to mimic their colorful and interesting in-person classrooms. And in an effort to keep school as normal as possible, our school decided to have all classes live for our entire regular schedule. 

Just like everything else in the COVID era, there are infinite valid and understandable perspectives on in-person, hybrid and remote learning options. But adjacent to the totally understandable frustration from families whose students hadn’t been in a school building in almost a year, I was spending 70 to 80 hours a week trying to figure out how to support my students, many times without success. Long, frustrating hours coupled with few bright spots in teaching are definitely not sustainable. 

I have been an English teacher in Pittsburgh Public Schools for about 17 years. I genuinely enjoy teaching my freshmen English students and my journalism students. Any English teacher can tell you that sometimes the stacks of essays are intimidating, but the relationships with students, families and colleagues over my years at Taylor Allderdice High School have added great value to my life.

During the long days, weeks and months of the pandemic, I started thinking about my job fulfillment through somewhat of a yardstick I call the joy-slog ratio. It was inspired by an education professor from the University of Pittsburgh who, a few years ago, called teaching a “joyful slog.” Teaching, like most fields, has its joys and its slogs. For me, the pandemic was inverting the normal joy-slog ratio.

The realities of virtual teaching

In the fall and early winter, my weeks followed an incredibly busy schedule. Each school day, I would teach all my classes live, mostly to blank icons with students’ initials rather than actual faces. Then I would spend most of the afternoon and some of the evening making paper resources electronic and responding to student questions in chat, email and other messaging platforms. I would also call students’ families to check on technology access, explain log-in processes and how to download and submit assignments, the entire time trying to plan and actually teach English and assist my own three children who were learning remotely. 

If technology access is the equivalent of a yellow school bus that gets students to school, I would say I spent eight to 10 hours a day trying to build a bus engine with no mechanical training whatsoever. Then I would wake up early on Saturdays and grade student assignments for five or six hours and then spend another five or six hours on Sunday planning lessons for the week. Luckily, working at home, I had unlimited access to fresh coffee at all times. Suffice it to say, I was working longer, harder, more frustrating hours than I ever had in my life. As a reference point, during the summers in college I worked 90 hour weeks for a landscaping company, and this fall was much harder than that. 

When friends would text or call to chat, I often found myself ignoring them, simply not having any desire to communicate outside of the incredible volume of electronic communication required for a job that used to be largely void of electronic communication. On Fridays, when we normally have a family movie night, I rarely made it through the introductory credits before falling asleep, only to wake up when our kids were heading off to bed to reply to more student messages or to troubleshoot technology issues with other teachers.

To keep my sanity as a teacher, I have had to develop some pretty thick skin. Public dialogue about teachers is always quite the roller coaster. Most federal political candidates speak in vague complimentary terms about teachers and then set policies that make our lives appreciably worse. News organizations laud teachers literally teaching from their deathbeds during COVID and then condemn unions seeking safe working conditions for reopening. If you’re on that roller coaster, it’s a pretty wild ride. But public dialogue has become much more personal in the last year. 

In the week of March 16, 2020, as parents were beamed into classrooms alongside students from kitchen tables and living rooms, there was encouraging and sometimes hilarious commentary about how hard it was to be a teacher. Teachers deserved to be paid like NFL players. Parents joked that after a couple hours of remote learning in their own houses they were trying to figure out how to send their kids to the principal’s office. 

Fast forward a few long months to November. With daily cases in the thousands in Allegheny County, many in the public eye were talking about how selfish our evil teachers’ unions were for wanting safe reopenings.

We were asking for better ventilation, testing, masking and social distancing protocols so that we didn’t contract the deadly virus or worse, bring it home to the family members we love. Our school solicitor had to edit specific teachers’ names out of parent complaints for public school board meetings. These commenters raged about teachers for their perceived failures during the excruciating remote learning period.

Jonathan Parker is an English teacher and adviser to the student newspaper at Taylor Allderdice High School. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

‘Why don’t you just reopen?’

For Pittsburgh Public Schools, where the average building age is 87 years, calling barriers to safe reopening hard to manage is a significant understatement. In room 212 at Allderdice, where I teach, I couldn’t even physically open half of the windows in March. Our teachers’ lounge and other bathrooms rarely had functional toilets and paper towels at the same time. Rest stop bathrooms on the turnpike look like five-star hotels in comparison. 

Tissues in our classrooms are just rolls of toilet paper, and soap is consistently available only if someone is kind enough to donate it. Forget space in many small classrooms for any amount of social distancing. When teachers were required to return for one week in November, I taught my classes from the trunk of my minivan in the parking lot to stay as safe as possible. It was fine on Monday and Tuesday when temperatures were in the 60s. On Thursday and Friday though, I raided my supply of hand warmers and got out my winter jacket to make it happen. 

On the afternoon of Dec. 23, 2020, I shut my computer down for winter break, intending to take the Christmas weekend off and grade some essays and plan lessons between Christmas and New Years. Within a half hour, the entire world was spinning around me. My wife is a physician assistant, and we figured I was having a weird vertigo episode, a condition I had no history of experiencing.

We later discovered that I had a vestibular migraine, which is basically a migraine without a headache, which presents as vertigo and is brought on by lack of sleep and immense stress. I spent all of that afternoon then Christmas Eve and most of Christmas Day either sitting and sleeping in a recliner or stumbling back and forth to the bathroom to vomit. I thought I had been treading water for the first four months of full-time virtual learning, but really I had been drowning. Needless to say, I did not grade those essays or plan lessons the next week. I just spent time with my wife and kids, taking walks with the dog, and resting.

The first week back at school presented an unusual opportunity. Like much of the country on Jan. 6, our family watched the developing riots at the U.S. Capitol in horror. As a citizen, I was distressed, but as a teacher this was an important opportunity to have student-centered conversations about media and the importance of language and truth, and our own biases as we encounter news. 

I responded to a survey from the New York Times about how teachers were navigating the Capitol riots in the classroom and connected with a reporter from the Times’ education bureau. I interviewed with her on the phone on a Friday night and the next week she came in and observed our virtual class.

The next week, she visited again to take questions from students. Parents had to sign off permissions, the principal had to approve the visit, and our district’s media relations person communicated about the event as well. It was a lot of work. But it was joyful work. It was inspiring to hear my students’ perspectives and to make connections for students who are always intellectually curious but have been starving for their voices to be heard and their questions to be answered. 

As strange as it is, given the nature of the actual circumstances, the week following the Capitol riots improved the joy-slog ratio dramatically. 

When I was in my first year of teaching, one of my teacher friends told me the key to success in high school teaching. He said: “Jon, every single day you have to have a solid belly laugh, and preferably two or three of them.” It wasn’t exactly the advice I thought I needed at the time. I thought I needed to know how to grade papers more efficiently or how to plan activities that were interesting and thought-provoking. I thought, frankly, that I just needed to figure out how to get my students to sit in their chairs.

But to this day, his advice has proven true and until March 2020, sustaining. I clearly did need to learn those other skills — the ones they attempt to teach you in teacher school  — but for any of that to matter, what I needed to do was to enjoy teaching. To enjoy the friendship and camaraderie with colleagues. To genuinely enjoy the students enough that we could laugh with them the same way.

In the years that followed, I learned another sustaining strategy. While laughter was necessary for survival in the first few years, once I became skilled enough to encourage and facilitate student-led complex discussions, those became a primary, though different, source of joy. Being able to see a student latch onto an idea, explain her thinking, change her mind, you want to talk about a rewarding, joy-inducing “job”? That’s it.

“Joyful slog” is really a concise way of capturing the nature of teaching. It is incomplete to say teaching is all joy — there are disappointments and stress and the work is generally hard to do. But done well, it is also intrinsically rewarding work. The “slog” component is probably like most other jobs. In its best times, teaching for me is 80% joy and 20% slog, which is pretty darn good. Considering the joy-slog ratio in other industries might reveal why people pursue teaching careers throughout the country regardless of the fact that in some places salaries are below the poverty level.

What is happening right now and has been happening since March 2020 for me is a total upending of the joy-slog ratio. Remote school is more like 99% slog and 1% joy. The belly laughs are few and far between. Actually seeing a student’s face, much less seeing a student inspired by an idea or a compelling discussion is even more rare. It has happened. But the regularity simply isn’t there.

Anyone who has been a parent knows the pure joy of seeing their children happy. Seeing my students happy brings me much the same joy.

What has become abundantly clear to me is that when teaching is mostly slog and little joy, everyone suffers. Students and teachers alike are yearning for the in-person return to our classrooms. That cannot come soon enough for anyone.

Jonathan Parker is an English and journalism teacher at Taylor Allderdice High School and a resident of McCandless Township. If you want to send a message to Jonathan, email firstperson@publicsource.org.

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