The cellphone lights up on my desk. I glance at it: my colleague from down the hall has a question. I type in “I’m on the phone” while I continue to “mmmhmmm” my way through a conversation with a parent.
I don’t have any students assigned to me this quadmester. My colleagues are muddling their way through a convoluted teaching schedule that involves teaching one class for 225 minutes per day (plus a 75 minute at-home work period) for one week during which half the students come one day while the other half are online; then the two cohorts switch. As if that weren’t enough, teachers must deliver both synchronous and asynchronous instruction for the students at home while remaining masked and socially distant from the students in the room. Then the next week they do the same thing with a different class. And then they start again. While all of that is happening, I have been assigned to Spec Ed, and I am on the phone.
We have about 225 students at our school who have IEPs. Usually, we send forms – thorough, if impersonal – home to parents to ask for input; I would guess we average about a 25% rate of return, maybe a little more. Usually, we meet face-to-face with every student. We sit with them for five or ten minutes and look at their IEP, showing them what accommodations they have, asking what works, what needs tweaking. Usually, the Spec Ed room is full of kids coming in to pick up a Chromebook, get some extra explanation, figure out how to study more effectively. Usually, I interact with my partner, EAs, other teachers and guidance counselors every day. I squeeze in the occasional phone call and respond to email as quickly as I can, but usually my focus is on the students in front of me. Usually Spec Ed is the kind of job that asks me to juggle a knife, a fire stick and a teddy bear while standing on a beach ball. But 2020, as we all know, is not a usual year. So I am on the phone.
My partner and I are calling every family and every student about their IEP. We call on the days when the students are in the cohort that is working from home. We cross our fingers that we aren’t interrupting their parents’ workday, that we aren’t waking the student up. We leave messages, send emails and, most of all, we talk on the phone.
This is a completely different way to support students. I am simultaneously lonely and overstimulated. I find myself exhausted from listening – really listening – to the way each family and each child is experiencing our education system during this crisis. They are thoughtful about their needs, their child’s needs. They are alert to what changes have happened this year, how their students have responded, what might come next. They are hopeful and fearful and mostly they just want things to be good enough. Mostly they are hoping to muddle through. Almost always they are surprised, delighted, impressed that we are calling – as if this is entirely unexpected amidst the chaos of the school year. Most of the parents are kind. Most of the kids are upbeat. Almost everyone understands that we are part of a team that works best when we work together.
Of course, it takes time to build those teams, and right now I’m spending that time on the phone. I jot down notes as I listen, little memory jogs to help me remember what information to email teachers, when to call my administrator, when to give Guidance a heads’ up. I give out my email, my phone number again and again. I say, “don’t hesitate to call as soon as you sense a problem; this year classes are moving very quickly.” I say, “If you’ve tried to get in touch and I haven’t gotten back to you, please send me a gentle reminder. Sometimes I just get overwhelmed.”
I’m overwhelmed. I long to be in the classroom, juggling through the chaos of the class schedule created for us. I long to be reading and writing and talking with students as I try to convince them that their voice matters. I miss the physical presence of people in a room, of my colleagues and my students. I imagine that sharing their overwhelm will feel better, more present, than these voices on the other end of the phone.
But I am on the phone. And I am convinced that their voice matters. “I know this year looks different; please call or email right away if you’re struggling. We can work together to fix just about anything.” I listen for the silent nod on the other end of the line. I say goodbye. I hang up.
Then I turn to the computer and pull up another IEP. I read through the assessments, the accommodations, the transitions. I find the student’s timetable. Deep breath. I look at the student’s picture, call up a memory of the child from years past, hold tight to that connection, and then I pick up the phone. “Hello, this is Amanda Potts, calling from Canterbury High School. I’m your child’s Learning Support Teacher this year. Is this a good time to talk about their IEP?”
The cellphone lights up on my desk. I type “I’m on number 8. You?” and continue to “mmmhmmm” my way through a conversation with a parent.