Sean Means, a history teacher at Westinghouse Academy 6-12, checks messages from high school and college students from a makeshift office in his Shadyside apartment on March 5. Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource.

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A great lesson starts off with a plan — a sequence of steps methodically followed and strategically simulated with an end goal in mind.

Sometimes, these lessons are nationally mandated. Other times, they’re crafted by an academic coach or dictated by district curriculum.

In my opinion, as an 11th- and 12th-grade U.S. history and social justice teacher at Pittsburgh Westinghouse, the classroom teachers are best suited to create such plans for the children that sit in front of them. They — we — can tailor to our students’ specific learning styles and needs.

But this past year, every educator has been in a constant state of monitoring and adjusting their plans, dealing with the separation anxiety that comes from being away from the students they love while finding their way toward a future that, at times, may seem a bit out of focus.

On March 13, 2020, we found ourselves hustling out of the building, afraid of something we didn’t know or fully understand.

Since then, much of the discussion has surrounded when exactly we’d get back in the buildings. Throughout the nation, school boards, unions, politicians and parents have postured, pointed fingers and made accusations of one group or the other. Everyone has wanted to blame the other as to why schools could or couldn’t reopen sooner and why students were missing out on their traditional education.

You could point to transportation shortages, the vaccine rollout, safety concerns, the federal, state or local governments. No one knew exactly what to do, and no plan would ever be perfect. That said, the most immediate need was health and safety.

When it came to educating in person, no plan could ever guarantee 100% safety for when we returned. There were no easy answers, yet this was a mandated test we all had to take.

Throughout this year of online learning, I have struggled with a sense of guilt. Of course I was working, however, that doesn’t negate the fact that I was at home while many of our students’ parents had to go into work in person. Many of them had already been struggling financially and now had to adjust their work lives to help facilitate virtual learning. My job provided me the luxury of remaining physically and financially safe while others suffered. We weren’t in the same boat.

Sean Means
Sean Means is a teacher at Pittsburgh Westinghouse Academy K-12 and a partner teacher with the Justice Scholars Institute at the University of Pittsburgh. Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource.

In addition to the financial issues our community faced, instruction came with a number of obstacles. Everything was new, and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing at first.

It’s been a challenge to redirect students who aren’t on task or who need a bit of encouragement because I simply can’t see them. They don’t have to turn their cameras on because of privacy rules, so they don’t, which at times, can lead to a black hole in terms of communication. Think FaceTime without faces.

While I respect and understand the theory behind the rule, it has its downsides. Both students and teachers feed off reciprocal engagement.

In the end, despite every effort to recreate a typical learning space in an atypical world, I believe there has been a loss of learning. While no single group is to blame, to deny such a reality would be disingenuous.

Almost all of my students are Black. The African-American community in Pittsburgh has been marginalized before Covid, and this pandemic has only exasperated an already untenable situation. Education has and continues to be a way out of tough situations. However, this year it’s been hard to provide a first-rate product or the non-traditional learning opportunities we love to create.

For instance, I have a senior who is part of our College in High School Program. She’s done everything right and put herself in a position to attend a great university next year. One of the things we’ve tried to do as a program is to make a way for our students to visit the campus of their choice during the fall so they can meet with admissions counselors and walk through dorms and classrooms. This particular senior has recently gotten accepted to Penn State, and we couldn’t be more delighted. Several times, she’s asked our team about visiting the campus. I can tell she really wants to go, but like the rest of the world, we’ve been stuck.

As an adult, I know it’s not safe, so the plans are on pause. But it’s still hard to say no because she and so many of her peers are deserving of those experiences. They’ve missed proms, pep rallies and school dances. Those are coming-of-age events that we can’t authentically recreate virtually.

If asked if there was anything positive that came out of this experience, I would have to say that it pushed district officials to integrate technology to all students in a more equitable fashion. For years, certain more prioritized schools in the district have had computers for every student, while others did not. Although this has been a well-documented issue, the pandemic forced the hand of decision-makers to fix it immediately.

Hopefully we’ll work together to continue to address similar equity matters with the same degree of urgency when we close the door on the pandemic. This is much bigger than computers.

I look forward to the day when we can return safely to our schools. Buildings are just brick and mortar without children. Their silliness keeps us centered and helps us recover after hard days. Their light lifts our spirits and has a way of sustaining our resolve. I imagine that every student, educator and partner will return to our buildings with a renewed sense of purpose, appreciation and perspective as we come closer to the end of this chapter in our lives. I can’t wait!

Sean Means is a teacher at Pittsburgh Westinghouse Academy K-12 and a partner teacher with the Justice Scholars Institute at the University of Pittsburgh. If you want to send a message to Sean, email [email protected].

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