Eric Stinton: How We All Survived A Semester Of Zoom Classes - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.


If you held a Chromebook close to your ear on Friday afternoon, you would’ve heard the quiet roar of teachers across the state breathing a collective sigh of relief.

It’s a natural phenomenon known to occur annually, but this year it reached an unprecedented volume and duration. A brief exhale reportedly swept through the islands, but abruptly ceased once we all remembered to inhale again.

Winter break will mark the end of one of the strangest and most challenging semesters in recent memory. In a decade of teaching, I can’t recall being this exhausted this regularly, except for maybe my brief stint teaching kindergarten. Just thinking about what it must have been like to teach 5-year-olds these past few months makes me want to nod off into a yearlong hibernation.

Much of this exhaustion was the result of speaking into a computer screen for hours on end every day, but that’s not the only reason. Since the end of July, we’ve all been in a perpetual state of agitated readiness, unsure of what plans will come next and how comfortable we should get with the current ones.

A common commiseration you’ll hear on campuses is how even hardened veterans of the classroom feel like first year teachers again. Time-tested lessons have been diluted and dulled by their digital delivery; favorite activities have been rendered unusable.

Robillard, desk, school, distance learning, The New Classroom, education, Hawaii

Distance learning has been a challenge for both teachers and students.

Courtesy of Adrienne Robillard

For me, coming back to teaching after a year away felt like returning to Kailua to find a volcanic crater bubbling in the middle of town: it still mostly felt like home, but with some startling differences that required immediate adaptation.

One of those adaptations has been rethinking what really matters for students right now – content or connection. In the past, this wasn’t something I had to wrestle with. Connection emerged organically from the content, and relationships developed as a natural byproduct of spending time in the classroom together.

Now, it requires deliberate effort to make time to connect with students and have them connect with each other, possibly stealing time that could have been spent doing something academic. Since distance learning necessitates moving at a slower pace, we’ve had to pare down the actual content we’re teaching this year, too. I’m not sure if we trimmed fat off our curriculum or mutilated it.

As data reveals the extent of the widening learning gaps during distance learning, as well as the social and emotional tolls it’s taking on students, it feels like I’m shooting the strait between Scylla and Charybdis.

A lot of these challenges were both expected and inevitable. What was harder to predict, however, was the mental fatigue and its attendant demoralization.

I’ve cultivated skills over the years that I haven’t really been able to use this year. The things I’m good at as a teacher – being in front of a class of students, delivering lessons in an entertaining and educational manner, keeping students’ attention and getting them to produce work – have been substantially nullified by technological problems, home distractions, and unaccountable independence that allows students to simply turn off their cameras during class and walk away.

It’s not just a blow to my ego, though it is also that. It’s a suffocating, sinking feeling that I’m letting my students down, and that there’s not much I can do about it.

But I don’t want to indulge in my own despair too much, because there have been more bright spots and silver linings than I could have possibly anticipated. I’ve been inspired by the camaraderie and flexibility of my coworkers. Perhaps because we all feel like beginners again, we’ve all had each other’s backs in ways that we probably wouldn’t have in normal circumstances. Necessity breeds cooperation.

I’m also happy to report that my preconceptions about students were way off. I thought I’d have to deal with issues like cyber bullying and chat room delinquency, but I’ve experienced the radical opposite. Students have opened up and let themselves be vulnerable around each other more than I’ve witnessed in any of my previous years teaching.

Digital classes have removed a lot of the awkwardness and intimidation of speaking up and communicating your feelings. You don’t feel like everyone is watching you, so it’s easier to speak honestly about being frustrated or lonely or upset with your family. And when students have expressed those feelings, the responses from their peers have been deeply moving.

Without prompting and without exception, my students have gone out of their way to sincerely encourage each other. They have willingly stopped working on their own assignments to help their friends who have fallen behind. They stayed in our online classrooms during recesses and lunches to hang out and talk story and make the same weird middle school jokes they’d be making if we were in normal times.

It’s a suffocating, sinking feeling that I’m letting my students down, and that there’s not much I can do about it.

They’ve handled the challenges with effortless grace and a generosity of spirit that has powered me through my most trying days. They’ve exemplified the strength that I need to cultivate within myself, and on days when they’re struggling, I know how to be there for them, because they’ve showed me.

When I decided to return to teaching earlier this year I knew that I wouldn’t know what I was getting into until I was in it. I try to remind myself that one day I’ll look back at this as an adventure – my year (knock on wood) of teaching through a pandemic! That optimism may very well be delusional, but sometimes delusions are as necessary as they are unreasonable.

With budget cuts and blended learning ahead, things will only get weirder and crazier. But when I walked to my car for the last time before winter break, through the silence of empty hallways in the yawning warmth of the fading afternoon light, it wasn’t just relief that rose within me. It was also gratefulness, resilience, clarity, hope.

If anyone asks me over break how distance teaching has been, I’ll say it’s been challenging and rewarding, frustrating and heartening. Which is to say, the same as teaching has always been.


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About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.


Latest Comments (0)

Appreciate your perspective and it's been tough for both teachers and students.  Unfortunately, the kids are getting the worst of no being in the classroom and as much as we have all had to learn to work differently, it gets me that HSTA and Cory Rosenlee continue to whine about furloughs.  At first it was we don't want to go back under any circumstance and that may have been true for some, but I think many teachers would have preferred full in person teaching versus being on screen all day.  Secondly, private schools figured out how to do it, so it is/was possible.  Now, because the state and Ige decided to put the private sector out of work and crush small businesses.  It logically follows that state revenues fall off the cliff and result in furloughs for all state jobs, but the HSTA wants to file suit.  You kidding me, HSTA didn't want anyone to go back to school, unfortunately, but not unexpectedly those proclamations and orders we all had to deal with come back and bite not just the teachers, but again, more importantly, the kids and result in further learning days.  

wailani1961 · 1 month ago

Mr. Stinton i know what you mean by connection.  it's when the group of people become a "class", YOUR CLASS. from then on you have "them", teaching comes easy.  as old geezer retired public school teacher i really feel for you, the "connection" is essential. aloha.

dork · 1 month ago

This is probably something you should know by now. Are the children meeting educational standards or not?I know I am a frequent critic of remote learning, but I would like to acknowledge publicly the time and effort teachers have put in to adapt and innovate these past three quarters. I hope that you all have a nice break. I would also like to acknowledge that the collective "Friday afternoon sigh of relief" you described included students and parents across Hawaii. It has been a difficult three quarters! 

See_Jane · 1 month ago

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