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'It's Intense': High School Teachers On Working From Home

A teacher works at home
Jennie Gartner, Courtesy
With high schools across Vermont closed because of COVID-19, teachers like Jennie Gartner, a history teacher at Rutland High School, do classwork from home.

When high schools closed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, teachers had just days to figure out how to finish the year online. They needed to ensure students would stay on track academically and emotionally.

VPR reached out to several high school teachers to find out how that was going and all said the last two months have been draining, frustrating and, for those with kids, hard to balance with the needs of their own families. 

Jennie Gartner teaches history at Rutland High School. She said a teacher friend of hers told her about running into someone who casually asked how she was enjoying her extended summer vacation now that schools were closed.

"I don't know a teacher who has not been up 'til 11 o'clock at night, multiple nights... trying to get lessons ready, trying to get things working, trying to connect with students." - Jennie Gartner, Rutland High School teacher.

Gartner said several teachers mentioned similar encounters, and it’s enough to make her want to scream.

“I don't know a teacher who I'm friends with who has not been up till 11 o'clock at night, multiple nights during this time period, trying to get lessons ready, trying to get things working, trying to connect with students,” Gartner said, adding, "It's intense. I mean, If you think, like, how much you work normally on a daily basis when you’re in the [school] building, it’s so much more now, and for people to think that I’m not doing something or I’m not doing my job, it’s so hurtful.”

Teacher Leonard Barenstein at home
Credit Leonard Barenstein, Courtesy
Since schools closed in March, Mount St. Joseph Academy teacher Leonard Bartenstein has taught his English and religion classes from his spare bedroom.

Leonard Bartenstein teaches English and religion at Mount St. Joseph Academy, a catholic high school in Rutland. It's difficult to, you know, be sitting in my bedroom all alone, talking to a screen all day and call this the same thing as teaching in a classroom,” Bartenstein said.

He said school officials at MSJ announced they were closing on a Friday and he immediately began to worry about how he’d teach his American literature class. They were halfway through a book, he explained, and his class had been writing about it and discussing it each day.I had to think about, well, how am I going to do that? This class has 26 students in it. Am I going to have them all in some sort of conference call?” he wondered. “Am I going to have them emailing one another or doing some sort of discussion board forum, posting their comments?”

It was nerve wracking, Bartenstein admitted, but by Monday, he said the staff had come together and decided about how they planned to present their full schedule each day with Google Meet.

A lot of schools are using Google Meet for online video conferencing.

For those of you who’ve experienced a Zoom meeting, it’s similar. Everyone gets a small square on the screen and cameras and microphones can be turned on or off.  But who sees what can vary from school to school and class to class.

More from VPR: Did Your Zoom Video Freeze Again? COVID-19 Crisis Highlights Internet Inadequacies

At Mount St. Joseph Academy and Rutland High School, using the video link is optional.

A spare bedroom that is now a classroom
Credit Leonard Barenstein, Courtesy
It's difficult to be sitting in my [spare] bedroom all alone talking to a screen all day and call this the same thing as teaching in a classroom," said Leonard Bartenstein of Mount St. Joseph's Academy in Rutland.

Bartenstein said he turns his camera on so his students can see his face and by default, part of the spare bedroom he now works in.

Jennie Gartner said her students can see her every day sitting at her kitchen counter, where her computer is set up.

But she and Bartenstein said most of their students choose not to be on camera. “So I just see a screen full of icons,” explained Gartner. “Whatever their Google icon is for their Gmail account, and their name.”

She said she usually opens class meetings 10 minutes before their scheduled start time and can see when her students log in and take attendance. “I like to say hi and chat for a few minutes with the kids before I start my lesson. You know, ask them goofy questions about what they had for dinner or what shows they’re watching, just to check in and see how they're doing.”

Normally, her classes would last over an hour, but online, she's cut that to thirty minutes. She takes turns asking students to weigh in on questions or share their thoughts. “You know, Carrie, you go first. What do you think about this, or John, what do you think about this? And we've actually had some pretty good discussions that way."

But, she added, "I don't ever see their faces.”

Teaching like this works, said Gartner and Bartenstein, but it’s awkward and both said it takes much of the joy out of class time.

Teacher Ben Krahn and Kids
Credit Ben Krahn, Courtesy
In the attic office they all share, Middlebury Union High School teacher Ben Krahn juggles his own kids' needs with those of his students, while teaching remotely.

Ben Krahn agreed. He teaches English at Middlebury Union High School. “For me, the hardest thing about teaching online has been trying to be at peace with not duplicating the classroom experience.”

Krahn said that he is assigning work and students are for the most part completing those tasks. But he added, “It’s really hard to get a gauge on how much learning is really going on. So that’s another really difficult part, is just trying to make sure that our students are going to be at a place in the fall that we really want them to be at.”

More from VPR: Donated Antennaes, Routers And Wi-Fi Help Rutland School Kids Stay Connected

The other big hurdle?  Doing it from home with three kids and a wife who also works remotely. We have an eight-year-old, the six-year-old and a one-year-old,” Krahn explained.

They set up an office in their attic that all of them – well, not the one-year-old, but everybody else – takes turns using. Hearing Krahn describe the complicated dance he and his wife do every work day to use it is mind-numbing.

“And at nine o'clock, my eight-year-old will come up into the office and he has a Google meet," explained Krahn. "Then at 9:30, my six-year-old will come up and she has her Google class meeting.”

Teacher Ben Kahn sits at his desk
Credit Ben Krahn, Courtesy
Middlebury Union High School teacher Ben Krahn now takes turns sharing a desk with two of his children and his wife.

Krahn oversees each child's session, while his wife watches their other two kids.

At 10 a.m. his wife takes over the attic to get her work done and Krahn manages all three kids. “The one-year-old demands constant attention,” he explained. “But the beauty of a one-year-old is he still takes a nap every day.”  

Somewhere in there, Ben Krahn prepares and teaches five classes, corrects homework and stays in email contact with students, parents and colleagues.

“That's been one of the major struggles that I think every parent who is at home right now can identify with,” Jennie Gartner said. 

"Plus, you know, you're just looking around your house and you're thinking like, 'Oh, gosh, I need to do this. Oh, gosh, I need to do this.' And you're thinking to yourself, if I take the time right now to unload the dishwasher, that just adds another 15 minutes to the end of my day."

As she explained this, her eight-year-old son called out from another part of their house. “Sammy, I'm just finishing up the interview, OK, baby? What's wrong?”

"It's been really hard to just get the energy and the gusto to wake up everyday and do this over and over again, knowing that what we all want is what we had." - Ben Krahn, Middlebury Union High School teacher

Sam needed help spelling a word. So Gartner switched roles from teacher to mother and patiently called out "R-E-C-E-N-T-L-Y.  Got it?” 

She apologized with a laugh and shifted back to her teacher role. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I feel incredibly grateful to have a job when so many people are being laid off.”  But it's clear that workdays are long, distractions are many and it’s frustrating.

“The hardest thing I'm doing right now is trying to figure out a way to be a good mom and be a good teacher. And right now, teaching is definitely winning,” Gartner added with a sigh.

Gartner, Leonard Bartenstein and Ben Krahn all said they love what they do. They just don’t love it now.

For a timeline outlining Vermont's response to COVID-19, head here.

“So it’s been really hard to just get the energy and the gusto to wake up everyday and do this over and over again, knowing that what we all want is what we had,” Krahn said.  

He’s proud of how resilient his students are with remote learning.But for a lot of students, this is a platform that just doesn’t work for a variety of reasons, and I worry about some of them.”

Teacher Jennie Gartner works at her kitchen counter
Credit Jennie Gartner, Courtesy
Rutland High School teacher Jennie Gartner says she's concerned about the new trauma some of her students have been exposed to since the onset of the pandemic. Here, she teaches from her kitchen counter.

Jennie Gartner is worried as well. She knows for many of her kids, school is their safe place and not being able to check in with those kids and really see them on daily basis gnaws at her.You know, I have students living in motels, as we all do in Vermont, certainly, but some who are newly living in motels due to the economic crisis.”

So, she said now, her biggest worry is what kind of new trauma these students are enduring and how hard will be for teachers to get them back on track once classrooms are reopened?   

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