Story by Lilian Zhu
Photo by Thomas Forman
Tiger spoke to multiple SPHS teachers about distance learning as part of its September print center spread. History teacher Annalee Pearson talks about her online school expectations and the psychological aspects of Zoom.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tiger: How is distance learning going?
Annalee Pearson: It’s a lot better than I thought it was going to be. I was very anxious about how it would go. And I have to say that it’s going out better than I thought. There are definitely some holes or flaws in this kind of online platform. But it’s really kind of surpassed my expectations. It’s actually going okay.
Tiger: Did the amount of preparation time for classes change? How so?
Pearson: I’m a 19-year teacher and I feel like a first year teacher all over again. And [it doesn’t mean] I’m not knowledgeable. It means I feel very inexperienced, and with that inexperience comes a lot of learning. The amount of time for me to have transformed my entire class into an only digital platform has been exponential. I’m grading more than I ever have on the weekends and after hours. I’m prepping way more than I ever have ever have. Because it’s a full new platform, [I have to] transform everything and with that takes time.
And it’s not a complaint; it’s just a fact. It’s just the way it is. No one wants this to be the case. I don’t blame any one person per se, or the district, school, or state. It’s just part of the times. The good thing about this is that it’s really forced teachers to rely on each other. There’s the most collaboration I have ever seen and I’ve ever experienced in my time of teaching, and I’ve been here almost two decades. Mr. Valcorza and I are on the phone for sometimes two and a half hours a night, trying to figure out how we’re going to test or what we’ll do because we want to keep our curriculum consistent.
But I do think that staying home at this point is essential. It’s necessary. I don’t know what everybody else believes about the pandemic, but for me personally, I have a family with underlying health conditions. It’s necessary, so I have to do what’s required in order to maintain that kind of safety.
Tiger: How is distance learning now compared to the spring?
Pearson: It’s exponentially better. For me personally, some good things have come out of distance learning. With less time in class and more time to do other things. I’m letting go of some things I probably should have let go a long time ago. I actually like my Zoom meetings with my classes and here’s where I might be kooky and weird and different from the average teacher. I like it. I honestly don’t believe that my curriculum is all compromised because it’s an online platform.
I don’t think that I’m doing a perfect job. But remember it’s maybe because my bar was low in my mind. I love seeing the faces of my students. I’m still trying to have a positive environment. I am still developing relationships with my students. I still think that I’m able to do the type of outreach that I seek to do within the classroom setting beyond the curriculum. To be quite honest, there are elements that I absolutely think are very difficult and are not optimal. But as a whole, I think especially compared to the spring, it is remarkably better.
Tiger: How are you keeping students engaged?
Pearson: I think it’s the everyday conversations [that] are kind of difficult to have with this platform. Some classes are a bit more outgoing than others. [I try to] just simply ask my students, “How’s your day?” and vary assignments [so] it’s not just the same thing every day.
I try to remember what if that was me sitting on that end of the computer. Is this necessary? Is this going to help me develop as a student? Is this going to nurture critical thinking? And ultimately, holistically, does it benefit the student? So I think just just creating assignments, maintaining a dialogue, and somehow delivering to students my personality are some things that I tried to [do. I have to] do that on an everyday basis so they can [understand] me because what Zoom does: It makes something very intangible. It makes it very one-dimensional. How do you create these relationships via a phone, via video, or via a screen? It’s difficult.
Tiger: What’s your format of each 80-minute class?
Pearson: I would say the first five to 10 minutes is generally housekeeping business. So I give announcements. I always like to tell students ahead of time what they’re doing that day. So the first 10 minutes is kind of building that rapport, the class environment, additionally giving any sort of information that maybe they missed because this is a digital platform. Then, there’s about 40 or 50 minutes of some sort of direct instruction, whether it’s power pointing or going over a document. Additionally, I might give an activity that piggybacks off the previous day.
The last part of the day, I find that breakout rooms seem to work really well in terms of creating that community within the class. I I think it’s good for them to be on screen with people that aren’t me. I do breakout rooms often and I visit them so then I can actually put faces to names versus a gallery view of pictures. I can address them by their name and make sure I’m learning names and having conversations with students that maybe have never unmuted themselves in a classroom setting. We engage in that dialogue. I know that sometimes breakout rooms might be awkward, especially if all people involved either don’t know each other or are very quiet and timid. But I find that at the very least I can have kind of a more private conversation for anything, whether it’s questions, asking, clarifying, answering. So I really like breakouts.
I typically take roll at the end of class. That’s only because I know that there are lots of technical difficulties. A kid can get on and get kicked out of Zoom, so I just don’t want to have to deal with that in the beginning. I feel like it’s kind of a lot of wasted time; I would rather do it at the end. And then I often just put them back together in the main room. And then I call them one by one and I say goodbye to them as they leave. There have been times where I’ve used all 80 minutes or there are times where it seems to be a nice clean break in the 60 minutes.
Tiger: The biggest difference between regular school and online for you personally?
Pearson: I think I probably alluded to it one of the other answers, but I think it is the added effort to create relationships. It’s something that I find is very important. I think that’s the biggest piece that’s missing is the human aspect. It’s the same reason why we’re all dying to get back to things. For human beings, [we] need to socialize.
This is the best alternative. It’s the safest. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else right now. But I do think it is harder and more challenging for me to create the rapport. And on top of that, I’ve been doing some research about Zoom fatigue. I’m actually sleeping more than I ever have as a working adult. And I’m more tired at the end of the school day after five hours on Zoom. And so I keep thinking, “What’s the missing piece here? I shouldn’t be like this.” I feel drained. I feel like energy is physically sucked out of me. But the initial reading that I’ve done suggests that there are certain elements to Zoom that are really forcing us to have a physiological response.
For example, one of the things that really drains you and what adds fatigue or whatever is the fact that we look at ourselves all day long on camera. We’re not used to that. The fact that we are looked at. You’re looked at all day long in the classroom. Everyone’s eyes theoretically are on you all day long. There’s something very physiological in that. I also think there are stressors. I think about students in general and the threat of someone walking into your Zoom call in the background and people are anxious about it.
These are actual responses — whether it’s conscientiously or in your subconscious — that are kind of draining. I think things like that I think we’ve taken for granted being in the classroom.. And I haven’t been in many Zoom classes so maybe that’s not fair for me to say, but at least I’ll say it for the people that I know I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish. I’m willing to do this work, if it means that we will all be safer, and this pandemic will end sooner.
Tiger: How are you making sure students don’t experience Zoom fatigue?
Pearson: At certain periods of time, when it’s not like a breakout, when I’m not taking roll, or when I’m not need feedback from them, I allow them — if they would like to — to turn off their camera. Again, I think it reduces the stressors and anxiety. It may or may not reduce the blue light because they’re still staring at the screen.
And I asked them at the end for their feedback, and they probably liked it because they’re off camera. Some of them have said that they really do think it’s better, and that they are able to focus more because they’re not worried about their hair. They’re not worried about someone staring at them. They’re able to strictly focus on the actual content at hand. So far, the response has been good. We’ll see how long this lasts.
We’re going to try things and some things are going to fail miserably and some of them will work great. And it’s just gonna be a matter of finding what works and what doesn’t. So, what we do today, I’m going to try to keep as much consistency as possible, but what we do today might be different from what we do tomorrow.
Tiger: Teachers were pushing for a wellness day. Do you still think that is still necessary and how are you trying to make space for that with the current schedule we have?
Pearson: I mean, it would have been great. And I don’t know how much of this is beating a dead horse whether or not the school district can change the schedule in the middle of a school year.
Clearly, I was on the side of advocating for one. I was just talking to my former students about this. One of my students said how she was annoyed that her teachers aren’t responding fast enough to her emails. She was saying, “Look, I have a question on my homework or a project that’s due over the weekend. [The teacher] doesn’t get back to me over the weekend. How am I gonna do that project?”
And I said, “Okay, so here’s where [the wellness day] would have been nice. Can you imagine if you would have Friday off and I would have to work? But imagine if I happen to have two hours of office hours. So at any point in time, anybody from any classes and ask me questions, or take a makeup quiz or ask for clarification or get more tutoring, right. What if we had been given that wellness and I didn’t care if it was Friday or Monday or Wednesday?”
It’s a lot of work transferring this curriculum onto the digital platform. I’m already spending hours of time after the fact. And I do still have a family and I do still have to eat and shower and go grocery shopping. So where do I find the time to do everything? That’s what we’re advocating for.
Something that is really important is some of the most recognized teachers and the best teachers on campus [are doing it too.] There’s the other [Elizabeth] Pierson for bio and Mr. [Ben] Ku, who has dedicated his entire life to teaching. If they’re heading this project, it’s not just the teacher that just wants to get by and get the day off. This is a legitimate concern. We need time. I don’t know if there’s any possibility in us getting it. Clearly, if the board can snap your finger, that would be fantastic. But considering the fact that they unanimously voted against it was very telling that they didn’t really understand what distance learning was really going to entail.