‘I feel powerless’: CHHS teacher adjusts to online instruction

By the time Jade Dickerson closed the guest room door and settled at his desk, the Spanish teacher had been awake for nearly four hours. His computer monitors hummed to life and he flicked on his lamp, illuminating his face just enough so it could be seen on Google Meet.

His makeshift home office in Durham, where he now spends most of his weekdays, is cozy and dark, with tree branches blocking the sunlight from streaming in and catching “The Lady of Shalott” painting on the wall behind him.

If things were normal and he were back at Chapel Hill High School’s recently-renovated campus, Jade would have been in a new classroom with new desks and ample wall space for colorful decorations and posters with Spanish phrases. His twin five-year-old sons would be at kindergarten, singing and sitting cross-legged on a circular carpet. The Dickerson family would be working, learning and making friends without fear of contracting COVID-19.

But this school year has been hasn’t been normal.

At 9 a.m., with the sounds of tiny footsteps padding across the floor below, the teacher of 16 years turned on his camera.

“Hola clase,” he said to the screen, greeting each student individually before starting their bi-weekly lesson.

Social Isolation  

Now a few weeks into school, the twins, Xander and Graeme, are more comfortable with class. They can type in the access codes for their four daily meetings by themselves and can sit still for most of the instruction. They have their own space by the dining room to do their work with whiteboards, counting circles and dice. Cuddly, a small white teddy bear, accompanies the boys to school most days.

Still, either Jade or his wife Karyn, an instructional literacy coach at CHHS, has to stay nearby to resolve any problems.

There have been good days and bad days, according to Jade. But the bad days can be excruciating.

“There’s a lot of tears, a lot of yelling, hurt feelings, thrown iPads, resistance to any suggestions or any motivation to do what’s necessary,” Jade said.

No matter how many games they play or how much drawing they do, Xander and Graeme know this isn’t what school normally feels like. In a typical kindergarten classroom, interaction is almost constant. If Xander wanted to share an idea, he could get his teacher’s attention immediately. He now has to wait for his teacher to see his tiny hand raised in a tiny box on a tiny screen. Then he has to figure out how to unmute his microphone.

As is the nature with twins, the boys have a built-in playmate – but that doesn’t make up for the social interaction they’re missing from being stuck at home.

“What if when we go back to school no one likes me?” one of the boys asked their mom.

Watching the twins get nervous and frustrated with their online setup weighs on the parents.

“I have no way of explaining to my sons why they should be doing this.” Jade said. “I’ve run out of excuses for them.”

Adapting to the Virtual Classroom

Jade is fighting a similar battle in his own online Spanish I and Spanish III classrooms. Though the attendance rates in his synchronous classes are relatively high, at least half of his students keep their cameras turned off. Only about 20% are completing any work outside of class.

Jade can’t tell whether his students are focused on the work in front of them. Some kids are playing video games while being logged into class. Others turn on their audio to answer a question and reveal sounds of cooking, television shows or siblings fighting in the background.

He knows his students are struggling; the transition to online learning, a lack of silent study spaces and no ways to interact in-person with their classmates can be particularly difficult for teenagers.

“I feel powerless, in most cases, to meet their needs, even on the educational level,” Jade said. “There’s just so much I can’t do.”

In an attempt to provide his classes with some sort of normalcy, Jade has relied heavily on breakout rooms. Learning Spanish, he said, requires connection and interaction.

Adam Trusky, a 14-year-old freshman in Jade’s Spanish III class, said the breakout rooms help him meet his classmates, but he doesn’t feel like he’s making new friends. The coursework can also be difficult – he hadn’t practiced much Spanish since school went online in March and classes now only meet twice a week.

“I feel like it’s not really enough,” Trusky said. “It would be much more helpful if we were doing it every day.”

Family Time

By the end of the school day, Jade and Karyn are exhausted from juggling meetings, class and home responsibilities.

They try to focus all their attention on their boys, enjoying the opportunity to just be their parents and enjoy family time. Finding work-life balance is especially difficult when work is at home.

Christen Campbell, a fellow CHHS teacher who’s on maternity leave through November, said she considered taking time off she couldn’t afford before her baby was due because adjusting to virtual school while caring for a young child sometimes felt impossible.

“A lot of teachers feel like they’re dedicating time to other people’s kids and aren’t able to support their own kids as well,” Campbell said.

The three educators have found solace and support in their colleagues and friends, albeit virtually. Teacher group texts and frequent team meetings provide a space to share the highs and lows of educating the public, while also educating their own children.

For the Dickersons, it’s the moments alone, playing with their sons at the end of a long day that melts some of the stress from their shoulders. Five-year-old giggles and family movie nights watching Frozen 2 for the hundredth time can make it feel like their home is just that – a home.

But once the boys are in bed, Jade and Karyn turn back to their computers, already preparing for the next day of class.


Edited by Ryan Heller