Rhode Island · School Talk

A Teacher and His Hats

I noticed (and was enjoying) on Facebook that David Upegui, a high school science teacher in Central Falls, Rhode Island, had developed an interesting ritual as a teacher now instructing from his home. So I asked him about it.

Why the hats?

When we asked students amass to switch their schooling experience and rely exclusively on virtual learning, we inadvertently asked teachers and students to enter into each other’s personal spaces. Some students may feel hesitancy to participate in video conferencing due to many factors including the anxiety of feeling judged by others and in particular their teachers. I remember feeling embarrassed about the decrepit apartments where I lived as a child and even lying about exactly where I lived. An additional stressor for students may be the worry about the clothes they are wearing or the way they look early in the morning. Lastly, not being physically able to connect, students find it difficult to connect with adults outside of their homes.

So I decided to wear the hats.

They serve several purposes but none more important than reminding students of our shared humanity. One of my strengths as a teacher is my ability to connect with my students, and I had to think of ways to let my students know that I am still here for them and that they can count on me even during this challenging time. The hats lower the risk of being judged by what we wear and also encourage students to show up on time to our virtual meeting to see what is in store for that day. Some students have even begun to show up to our meetings with their own hats, creating a larger sense of community.

What has been the hardest part of the shift to remote learning (and in your case, teaching) and has anything positive come out if that has perhaps surprised you?

For me, the hardest part of distance learning and teaching has been adjusting to the fact that I am not physically able to interact with individual students. I know that some of my students have challenging conditions at home and not having the physical separation where students can step away from their circumstances and into our sacred classroom space (which I refer to as a dojo of the mind), has been a frustrating reality. Moreover, another area of adjustment is the enlarged amount of time I am spending creating lessons/activities. And, like with everything else, there have been some great moments of joy and learning. For example, there have been truly wonderful interactions as was the case with the very first day we saw each other —it was clear that we missed each other and we were glad to have a way to continue learning, collaborating, and sharing. Similarly, some students have found some of the online resources highly engaging and useful (resources that I would not have otherwise used).

Lots of states have not gotten their remote learning up and running yet — what advice do you have for them?

The most important advice I can give (with my limited experience) is to ensure that the work provided for students is meaningful, productive, and limited in scope/time. Namely, I think that as teachers we have a tendency to try to “prove” to others that we are working diligently (given the modern vilification of teachers) and therefore, we may feel the need to provide extraneous amounts of work to make a point. In this case, students may have a tendency to disengage if the work is too challenging and/or tedious. What we must do is find work that encourages the students by engaging their curiosity, builds on their interests and explores different modes of expression. Lastly, I think it is tremendously important to provide students with room to reflect often about the current experiences and their learning.

What do you think?

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