Down South House & Home just released a T-shirt that says, “Southern Teachers Have More Class.” I want you to meet a totally classy teacher today — and to learn what her year has been like since the pandemic began, and what she hopes for over the next 12 months.
Sallie Kight, one of Stacy’s cousins, has taught math to juniors and seniors at Newnan High School, about an hour southwest of Atlanta, for the last 15 years. Sallie herself graduated from Newnan High. Over the years, Stacy and I have enjoyed many family gatherings at the home of Sallie and her husband Jim, not to mention their two wonderful daughters, Claire Lynn and Quinn. The first thing I realized when Sallie and I got on the phone yesterday was that I had not heard her voice in more than a year.
I had told her that I wanted to talk to her about how her life as a teacher had changed thanks to the pandemic. What I learned was that it had changed in almost every way you could imagine.
By last fall, Sallie told me, the Coweta County School System, of which her high school is a part, had managed to put students back in classrooms.
“We teachers were back in the building at the very beginning of the school year, but with no students. And then students came in mid-September,” Sallie told me. “They were taking a limited approach, where half the students who wanted to come came one week and then the other half came the next week.”
So Sallie taught in a regular classroom, but with no more than about 15 students wearing masks, while teaching virtually to her other calculus and pre-calculus students. Teaching this way changed almost everything about how Sallie planned for and taught her classes.
“It was absolutely, completely different,” Sallie said. “I have students who are face-to-face, and I have students who are virtual students. So they’re all joining in on Google Meet, right? That’s every day, every class. So now I’m recording every class, I’m putting all of those recordings into Google Classroom. I have to put note sheets in there, with links to everything I need my students to see. Everything is having to be turned into a PDF.
“Before, you know, I didn’t have any of that,” she continued. “I mean, I went to the copy machine and printed off 30 copies of everything. And then, on top of all of that, you have students who are turning in things electronically. What did I do the year before? I just said, ‘Pass up your papers.’”
Here’s the point: To keep educating their students, our teachers have had to master a host of technologies that were never part of their work before.
As we talked, I thought back to my years as a high-school student and how certain teachers inspired me, how I felt a connection to them. So I asked Sallie how teaching in this new way had affected the connection she feels with her students. There are no such connections anymore, she told me.
“I don’t know my students anymore,” she told me. “I was fortunate in that I teach pre-calculus and I teach calculus. So the kids that I had in pre-calculus last year, I have some of those in calculus. So I already had a relationship with them that was normal. But the other ones, the kids that are in pre-calculus, I don’t know, you know? And if the student is always virtual, I really don’t know them. They’re just an icon on my Chromebook. I don’t know them at all.”
What about the kids who do come to class in the school?
“They’re wearing masks, so they don’t want to talk,” she said. “They don’t want to say anything. So I don’t know them either.”
And after all the change wrought by the pandemic, Mother Nature changed Sallie and her students’ lives again last month when an EF4 tornado ripped through the city of Newnan and did severe damage to Newnan High. Now, it’s unlikely that Sallie will see any of her students in the classroom until 2022 rolls in. Everything, in the meantime, will be virtual.
One of the things I’ve always loved about Sallie is her optimism. Having read what she’s gone through over the past year, you might think Sallie had lost that. But she hasn’t.
“This has had lots of silver linings,” she told me. “When the pandemic first hit, all the time that I got to spend with my children, with my family, was fantastic.”
And she’s already thinking about how she will keep using some of the technologies she had to learn, after things get back to normal. “It’s made me have to rethink how to do things, and I’ll probably continue to do a lot of those things. I think I had kind of gotten in a rut. I’ve taught for 15 years. This is my 16th. And I’ve been teaching the same thing the same way for a long time. And so having to kind of get me out of that rut and do something different, you know, I’ve learned some really good things that I probably will continue doing.”
If you know and love teachers, that means you probably don’t know a soul on Earth who has had to adapt to so much change so quickly than they have.
I’d love to tell you to run out and hug your favorite teacher’s neck. It’s still probably too risky for that. But there is absolutely nothing to keep you from picking up the phone and telling them how much you love them.