Teaching Through the Pandemic – A Chicago Teacher Shares Her Story

In light of our Teaching Through the Pandemic series, we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the very current, very real Pandemic Teaching Moment that teachers in Chicago are facing. We thought it best to explore the issue with a veteran teacher who has been part of the Chicago school system for 15 years. Rachel Rhodebeck serves as the PYP coordinator in her school and spoke to us via phone, Jan 10, 2022. Our discussion is recorded below with minor revisions for length and clarity.

 

Tell us about the things that fueled you while teaching through the pandemic. What keeps you on the job?

You go into teaching because it’s your passion, you care about it, you love it. You care about kids, you love watching people learn in front of you and seeing light bulbs go on. But I also believe in equity for kids and access for kids. 

This pandemic has hurt certain groups of people a lot more than others, but education is the constant.

The problem was that so many people couldn’t be reached remotely. I ended up calling or texting families over and over offering to help – getting them internet, dropping off materials and computers at homes. I called one mom’s kids every morning to wake them up so they would attend class – the mom said “Thank you, they only listen to you.” I also found internet deals when they were available and helped parents go through the signup process. Teachers did EVERYTHING to get kids access, but once we did, it was such a good feeling to know that kids weren’t being left behind. 

We learned so much more about our kids and their families because of zooming into their homes – it was an area of their lives that wasn’t often shared in school. It was a fun part to see different sides of our kids. 

 

Have there been any positives to your experience with pandemic teaching? 

It made lines of communication with parents better. Sometimes both parents and teachers get afraid to get on the phone and talk to someone – the pandemic forced us both to bond and communicate clearly because we lacked the ability to meet in person. This is naturally upheld as we go back into the classroom because we’ve built that habit.

 

What have you learned?

Things I knew but didn’t realize how important they were: 

  • How important SEL is in all types of learning. Kids are desperate for the language to use to talk about their feelings and emotions and for the skills to approach difficult situations.  

 

  • Learning to be flexible and find ways to help kids be successful against the odds.

 

We can reach kids no matter where we are or how we’re doing it. It’s hard, but it’s not impossible.

  •  It’s upsetting to hear people say that students “lost a year,” because, while we didn’t get everything we normally would in, we did get some of it in. Trauma can change learning, though, so the kids have retained what they learned differently. But I don’t think they are behind as some people want us to think they are.

 

  • Teachers can adapt and adjust so much when the need is there. Taking your in-person lesson plans and turning them digital on a dime is a huge task. My co-workers and I accomplished that as a team. We were one big “group think” of collaboration. It was everybody’s first year of Pandemic Teaching, so we collaborated more than ever.

 

  • Kids are resilient. They shift easier than adults.

 

Talk to us about what’s happening in your district right now.

Last week, the teachers union voted for remote instruction. In December, we asked our district for remote instruction and testing before returning from the break. No agreement was reached. On Monday (January 3), we came to school and we had 180 kids (out of less than 400) absent because parents were worried about the spread of covid after the holidays. Only 20 of those absences were positive.

By Tuesday, we had 2 more teachers and 3 assistants out with COVID-19, and 4 classes “flipped” to remote because kids had tested positive in those few days. And we still had 180 kids absent. So we were looking at a third of our students not getting any instruction because their parents wanted them to stay home. As a teacher – what do we teach in the classroom when half the kids are gone? How would we catch the kids up who were missing school when they did return? On each day, more people tested positive. The COVID-19 rates in Chicago are at a 23% positive rate.

Within two hours of voting for remote learning, all teachers in the union (about 20,000) were locked out of our accounts. My school had sent home computers and chargers on Tuesday in the event of remote learning, but we haven’t been able to do that because we cannot access our accounts.

We’re in an opt-in situation where folks choose to get tested, very few parents choose to opt-in. The Union continued bargaining over the weekend for opt-out testing. They want remote learning until the 18th to get through 2 weeks after break, but teachers would go into schools to help facilitate remote learning until the 18th.

That offer was immediately rejected. 

Teachers are willing to work but the schools won’t allow it. This is an illegal work stoppage in the eyes of the union. Chicago functions on a business model – no superintendent. Our mayor is in charge of the schools, under her is a CEO and a COO. No elected school board – the board is appointed by the mayor. So we’re in a stand-off with the mayor. 

No plan was made for how many students or staff had to be absent before remote learning was necessary. The schools are reactive, not proactive. 

 

What do you want people to understand about the teachers of Chicago at this moment? 

I want to dispel the myth that remote teaching is easy. It is much harder. Teachers are good at in-person, that’s what we’re used to. So remote teaching is not an excuse for us to stay home and “be lazy.” Remote teaching is the harder choice. The choice to go remote is about SAFETY not about EASE of instruction. 

We do want to work. We are not getting paid.

We are going with zero paychecks during this time because we are so concerned for our safety.

This is causing personal struggles for teachers.

Remember back to the beginning when you thought teachers deserved a million dollars each because teaching is so hard? It seems as if people have forgotten this moment. I think teachers deserve some grace, they deserve to be looked at as professionals. I’m a parent, I know the childcare struggle, but teachers shouldn’t have to be the solution to every problem we have.

 

What do you want the public to know?

We are NOT getting paid to sit at home. We would rather be with students. That’s what we prefer.  I like my job! We are facing financial hardship in our families. We are facing an emotional hardship because we have been beaten down by the media and the public’s response to teachers. I feel so devalued.

"Our job has always been to protect students and that’s what we’re doing now - this is for the student’s safety" - Chicago Teacher Rachel Rhodebeck

 We are not lazy. We are advocating for our students which is our job. 

 

Editor’s Note: The teacher’s union reached an agreement with the Chicago mayor late on January 10. Classes resume this Wednesday, January 12, 2022.

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