Friday, October 2, 2020

Checking In: How Are You?

Over the life of this blog, nearly five years now, I have kept a relatively consistent schedule with posts.  A few blips here and there, but for the most part, I have published a post, on average, about once every two weeks.  Sometimes I write a post in less than an hour and publish, sometimes I have three different posts going at once, writing a little bit at a time and publishing them over the course of a week or two.  But now, as of this writing, I haven't published any writing in several weeks.  My last post was published on August 11, 2020, which was in the middle of a three week period of training to prepare for the new school year. I love to write but have not had any desire to write or had much motivation to do so in the last few weeks.  And while I cannot speak for everyone, I would bet that if you are reading this, you are having a similar experience.  

I have never been so tired! After hours in front of my computer, when the end of my school days comes to a close, I close every tab, shut it down, and walk away until the next day.  Wash, rinse, repeat until Friday.  When Friday rolls around, I shut down my computer and don't go near it until Monday morning.  Teaching from my home in a 100% virtual environment has sapped any desire to do anything outside of my contracted school work.  That means that I have not written a new blog post, I have not prepped a training or presented at a virtual conference, that means that I have not participated in any Twitter chats, webinars, etc. The thought of doing those things nearly makes me tired just typing this out! The only thing that I have been consistent with is recording episodes of my podcasts, The BeerEDU Podcast, The Podcast by Sons of Technology, and my latest venture, The Battle Born Digital Learning Podcast (all of which are available on your favorite podcast apps).  

In conversations that I have had with colleagues, podcast guests, and in brief interactions with educators on social media, we all have our own story as to why we are so taxed on a regular basis.  For me, I could list dozens of reasons, but I will narrow it down to a few key things that are exhausting and stressful.
  • Starting a New School in a New(ish) District: After leaving my previous position in Northern Nevada and moving back to Las Vegas, I returned to the district in which I worked for 13 years but started at a new school, a school where I only knew 3 people going into. Meeting my colleagues has been difficult and working with students virtually is even more difficult.  
  • Special Education Procedures: In my previous district, I learned how to conduct special education procedures in a specific way. By the end of my second year, I had the procedures down to the point where I rarely had to ask a colleague a question about how to do things. My new school and district do things a little differently.  Some things are easier, some are more cumbersome, but I am finding myself seeking out help to do "simple" tasks on a regular basis, which means things are taking longer.  I have joked with my special education facilitator that I am going to drive her crazy, but she has been very gracious and helpful throughout my transition.  
  • Revisions to IEPs: My district mandated that all students had to have a revision made to their IEP to address distance education.  The revision required making some changes to instructional minutes, dates, etc.  Rather than a formal IEP meeting where all members of the team are required, we simply needed to call parents/guardians to discuss the changes, note any concerns, and make the revision.  However, more than half of my parents do not speak English, making communication tougher (Google Translate is my best friend!) and with some parents, I have not been able to make contact at all for a variety of reasons.  
  • Co-teaching: First off, let me preface this with the following: I love the four teachers that I get to work with every day. I get to do three sections of US History, one section of World History, and three sections of algebra.  But working virtually with four teachers is cumbersome. And algebra is a course that I have hadn't taken in 20 years, let alone taught it.  So I am learning how to teach algebra on top of everything else that I need to do on a daily basis. It is getting better and those math skills are coming back, but it was certainly tough in the first couple of weeks.  
  • Canvas LMS: My district transitioned to Canvas for this school year. I have completed courses as a student in Canvas and a few years ago, I attended a training on how to use Canvas but had not used it much as a teacher in the time since.  While I have learned the ins and outs of Canvas relatively quickly, that doesn't mean that it works seamlessly all of the time.  And while I don't mind helping others out, because colleagues are struggling to learn the program, I tend to get a lot of emails about how to do certain things.  
  • Social Media in General: I have nearly shut down my social media accounts.  I haven't done a lot of scrolling through and I certainly have scaled back posting in the last few weeks with the exception of posting when new episodes of the podcasts are available.  The obvious answer is political: I'm sick of it! There doesn't seem to be any sense of respect and etiquette when people post about politics. And it's even more frustrating how topics of human rights, social justice, and science are politicized.  But even educators are guilty of the lack of decorum, arguing like children about the validity of things like Bitmoji classroom.  I am already stressed out, avoiding social media has lessened my stress.  
  • Family: A few weeks ago, I found a very inexpensive flight to my hometown.  I hadn't been back in over four years.  I decided to go for a couple of days to see my grandpa, who will be turning 97 soon. Because I wanted the trip to be about seeing him, I kept it secret that I was going, with only a handful of people knowing that I was going to be there.  Traveling during a pandemic is tough and I quarantined myself for several days leading up to leaving to lessen any risk and not expose my grandpa or uncles.  I left there with a promise to my grandpa that I would be back soon, but not knowing when. Little did I know, my grandmother (no relation) would pass away two weeks later. I found myself going back to my hometown again for her funeral.  While I was able to see my grandpa again (I made him a promise and I came through!), as well as family and friends, some of which I hadn't seen in 25+ years, it was a sad and stressful time, especially for my dad.  I am a few days removed from the funeral of my grandmother and I am thinking about her often, but I know she wouldn't want me to dwell and each day is getting easier. 
As I am wrapping this up, I already feel a lot better just getting these words down.  There is light at the end of the tunnel with my caseload, as I have wrapped up my IEP revisions and have completed several annual IEPs, and my students are starting to get the hang of distance learning (even though they still don't like to turn on the cameras or mics to participate in class).  The weather is starting to finally cool off some, as most of September was still in the triple digits.  But I am also concerned about you! How are you doing? What is stressing you out? How are you coping with that stress?  What are you looking forward to and what is currently bringing you joy? Remember to take a step back, take care of yourself, and do something that makes you happy!

Until next time...  

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

When Things Don't Go As Planned

The alarm was set, but I didn't need it. I beat the alarm by nearly 30 minutes and there was no way I was going back to sleep; I was too excited. I grabbed a quick shower, poured a cup of coffee, and started getting my things together. The morning was already hot, but a scattering of thunderstorms in the area brought a little bit of relief compared to previous days. But rain or shine, nothing was going to ruin this day!

This picture could be any number of things. In the past, this easily could have described the first day of school, but not this time. This time, I am describing a camping trip with my family. We had planned this trip for over a month, four nights in Williams, Arizona, a temporary home base from where we would explore the Grand Canyon, Bearizona, the small towns along Route 66, Sedona, and Flagstaff. This trip would be the last before returning to school at the end of the month for my wife and me (yes, after two years, my wife would be returning to work!). 

The trip to Williams began rather uneventfully. A stop for drinks at 7-Eleven and a quick check of the tires and lights on the camper and our Dodge Durango and we merged onto I-11, crossed the O'Callaghan-Tillman Bridge over the Colorado River dividing Nevada and Arizona, and then through about 80 miles of the Mojave Desert toward Kingman, Arizona and Route 66, the road less taken that we would use to get to Willams instead of I-40 that bypassed the highway decades ago.  So, a stop in Kingman for breakfast and gas and we would be on our way, or so we thought...

After getting gas and starting the vehicle back up, the temperature gauge instantly went to the top. Normally, the gauge hovers around the middle, even when towing in the heat, so I knew that something was wrong. My fears were confirmed when I opened the hood and saw radiator fluid spewing out of the bottom of the vehicle. Luckily, a repair show was down the street, so I carefully guided us there with the vehicle screaming at us the entire time. 

My hope was that the shop would be able to look at it, make a repair over the next few hours, then we could be on our way. Unfortunately, that was not going to be the case. The shop was booked until the next day, other shops in the area were also full, and my insurance company would only cover a tow for 20 miles. So very quickly, it was determined that our planned camping trip would be no more. And when I said that nothing would ruin this day? I was mistaken...

So as a family, we began to go over options. We could find a motel in Kingman, but without a vehicle, what would we do? So then the thought was that we could rent a car so we could do something. But nothing against Kingman, there isn't a whole lot to do around there, at least that we knew about. Out of frustration, we thought about renting a car to drive the 100 miles back home, return the car there (for a significant fee), and drive back in our other car once the Durango was fixed. Regardless of the decision, none of these sounded appealing. 

Getting silly overlooking the
rim of the Grand Canyon!

So my wife suggested the following: rent a car in Kingman, transfer our stuff from the Durango to the rental car, drive two hours to Williams, get a motel room there, and still go to the Grand Canyon, Bearizona, and other places over the span of the couple of days that it would take to get the vehicle fixed. No, it wouldn't be the four we initially planned in the camper, but we could salvage something of a vacation. While she called to reserve a car, I found a motel and called the campground to cancel our reservation (and after explaining why we wouldn't be coming, the incredibly sweet woman on the other end of the phone refunded our entire reservation that we had prepaid, thank you Circle Pines KOA in Williams, Arizona!). An hour later, we were back on the road sans travel trailer to have some family fun!

So, what happened to the Durango? The thermostat failed, causing the radiator to overheat. When the radiator overheated, it failed completely, explaining why it lost fluid. While the parts to replace a radiator aren't much (surprisingly, only about $250), the labor is very intensive because of the way vehicles are designed now. When the shop called to tell me that the total bill for the fix would be nearly $1100, you could have knocked me over with a feather. But in the end, while the trip ended up costing us a lot more money than we had intended, it was still a great time! 

This kind of a situation is exactly what our school year is going to be, what could happen at any moment in our classroom, and what could happen after spending the summer prepping materials only to learn that the tools, subject area or grade level, or something else has changed. NOT EVERYTHING GOES AS PLANNED! Sometimes, it is something minor, like the student information system going down when you want to input grades or attendance, waking up to a two-hour start delay due to weather, or the fire alarm that sounds right in the middle of the best lesson that you ever taught.  But this year, the 2020-2021 school year, is a beast that we have never encountered and no amount of successes and/or challenges in the spring during the initial shutdown can truly prepare us for what's coming. 

Outside of the continuation of distance learning or the challenges of returning to a face-to-face or hybrid model, what are some of the other challenges that you are going to face, things that you certainly did not expect six months ago? For me, there are several challenges. 

First, I will continue to co-teach classes, namely United States history and world history, courses that I have taught and co-taught before. However, I will also be co-teaching three sections of algebra. I haven't taken a math class in 20 years, let alone ever taught it. However, after learning that it would give me the opportunity to interact with students on my caseload more frequently by having them in my class and knowing that I will be working with an excellent math teacher, I am more confident that I can be successful as a co-teacher in a course in which I have no experience. 

Second, my district is moving toward implementing Canvas for all teachers and students. In the past, many teachers used Google Classroom, but after a directive came from the Nevada Department of Education mandating a common learning management system, it is now up to teachers to learn how to build courses in Canvas. I have used Canvas as a student and a few years ago, I completed a training in Canvas, but have not used it much outside of that. Luckily, my district has provided several training modules (on Canvas!) to prepare teachers, my school has created a technology team to provide training (a team that I was asked to contribute to), and I found a wonderful course, Canvas Educator, through TCEA that was only $29 and included a one year membership to the organization. As a result, I have been able to learn the basics of Canvas very quickly, but I know there are going to be numerous educators that are going to struggle with the stress of virtual teaching and learning an LMS at the same time. 

Lastly, I have my own children and their education to consider. I was looking forward to the first year without paying for childcare in a very long time, but with my district moving to fully online learning, I had to consider childcare once again, with many reservations. Because so many others are also going to need childcare, a large organization like the Boys & Girls Club was not even considered as I do not feel comfortable sending my kids to a place like that in a pandemic. Hiring a "nanny" to come to my home was cost-prohibitive. And keeping my kids engaged at home while I worked with my own classes, while a last ditch option, was something I wanted to avoid as well. After conversations with other educator friends, we were able to arrange for a school counselor that would be working from home and an educator that typically works as a substitute to have my children and four others at their home where they can complete their online classes, interact with some other children their age (two of the kids are family friends), and have some free time throughout the day to play games, swim, etc. 

Think about the challenges that you are facing going into this school year that you did not sign up for when you became an educator. What are you options when facing these challenges and how are you going to tackle the challenges head on? Know that you have the supports of your colleagues and millions of educators, students, families, and communities around the world and that we will get through this together! 

Until next time...