High School at a Distance:
On the Importance of Finding Remote Connections
Nick Ripatrazone Talks to Jasmine Lane
The first year—the first day—can define a teacher’s career. There’s nothing like the first bell’s long ring and the heavy pause that follows. Planning finally gives way to doing; the classroom is no longer a hypothetical. The kids want to see what you are all about.
Sixteen years ago, my first day of teaching was at a high school with over 3,000 students. As a graduate student, I took over three sections of AP Language, and two sections of Creative Writing. It was a maternity leave assignment, but I ended up staying on for good. The most important thing I learned that first year was what it means to teach students, and not merely to teach material. Passion and knowledge are important, but connection is essential. Years later, I’ve tried to remember that lesson.
Jasmine Lane is a first-year high school English teacher at Columbia Heights High School in Minnesota. She was told to “just survive” her first year, and like all of us in classrooms across America, never imagined that metaphor would lose its figurative connotation during the pandemic. But when I first spoke to Jasmine earlier this year, “just survive” really meant just make it through the year, but she wants to do more—and knows the importance of routines. Lane’s experience and perspective are valuable to both novice and veteran teachers: if we better understand and reflect upon how teachers start their careers, we can sustain communities of educators for the future. Teachers at all levels of their careers are in this together.
Located in an inner ring suburb of Minneapolis, the Columbia Heights district is home to over a thousand students. Lane “wanted to work in a school where I could be a reflection of the diversity of my students.” She is the only black teacher in the district—“and one of very few non-white staff”—and although she doesn’t “make my race the basis for my connection with students, I know that it helps students to feel that they can be themselves.”
Much of Lane’s experience in the classroom comes from K-8 settings. She knows the difference between instruction and learning can be large, and feels she is able to “plan and prepare for what my skills or knowledge sets my students may (or may not) come with” when they reach her classroom. Her previous work as a paraprofessional showed her “that explicit instruction and small steps for new knowledge helps everyone succeed.”
High school students are a skeptical bunch, and they are especially critical of early-career teachers. You’ve got to earn their trust. The best way to do that is through knowledge and compassion—kids can sense a genuine soul in the room. Lane teaches sophomores and seniors, and says one challenge is that many kids “have already made up their minds about school and who they want to be (or who they think they can be).” That sense of apathy can freeze many early-career teachers, and Lane tries to not “[take] the apathy personally and [feel] like a failure as a result.”
Instead, Lane hangs on to the positive experiences; when kids discover they can accomplish more than they thought possible. She thinks her “success as a teacher is less about ‘do kids like me?’ and more so ‘do they feel like they can be successful academically?’” She believes high standards—coupled with teacher support—breeds confidence in students.
A former chemistry major who switched to cultural studies and comparative literature, Lane knew that she liked working with kids, and believed in the importance of books. Despite the challenges of teaching, Lane stays in the classroom because she thinks “every child should receive the type of education that allows them to decide what their future looks like, rather than having it decided for them because they struggle academically.”
Lane believes that begins with—and is sustained by—a focus on fundamentals. If students “never learned how to write a topic sentence, don’t know what a run-on is, or have lagging reading fluency, I can’t just ignore those issues and hope they figure it out themselves.” She loves to talk about books with kids, but knows those free-ranging discussions need to be complemented with hands-on, practical instruction to help kids articulate their views.
With that growing skill and confidence, kids can dig into texts as active readers. Her sophomores were exasperated during Macbeth, and her seniors have been debating what redemption means in Othello and the complex moral questions of The Kite Runner. Other students are synthesizing Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Achebe’s own 1975 essay on Conrad’s novella. “It led to a really great discussion of what makes something a ‘good’ text, and a bunch of students going ‘dang that’s deep’.”
When I had spoken to her earlier this year, Lane had advised other early-career teachers that “in order to maintain your happiness and sanity, keep planning simple and develop your reading, writing, and discussion/questioning routines.” Those routines vanished in mid-March, when all Minnesota schools closed due to the coronavirus. “Making the switch was harder than I thought it would be,” Lane tells me. At first, she thought the closures were temporary—and that the jarring shift to remote instruction for teachers across America created months of online planning that would prove useless upon our return to the classrooms.
On April 2nd, Minnesota’s governor announced that all schools in the state would remain closed for the remainder of the academic year. Lane says she then “went from annoyance to where I am now, which is primarily worry for my students—academically and mental-health wise.” She worries when she hears other teachers dismiss the significance of the shift to remote learning; those who say “the students will be fine” are “speaking from an immense place of privilege. For students with disabilities, students learning english, or those who are two or more years below grade in reading and math, they are not just going to be fine.”
Lane feels the “novelty” of remote learning—what for some students probably felt like an early spring break—“has worn off.” When I spoke with Lane earlier this year, it was clear that she is a teacher who treasures the space of the classroom—the unique way educators can change lives up close. She laments the loss of that experience: “Knowing that my students are completing my work with minimal guidance and far less frequent feedback than normal, and then having them tell me how they are really struggling—I just can’t unsee that.”
Questioning, pacing, feedback: the hallmarks of great classroom teaching are ruptured by remote teaching. The kids “really just want to see their friends and come back to school.” I am buoyed by Lane’s continuing care for her students, but am saddened that she and other first-year teachers across America have had to experience this seismic shift during a formative moment in their careers.
Yet I think back to something Lane told me earlier this year about how skill instruction is essential, but that reading books still matters. “Focus on the story and the knowledge of the text,” Lane says: “the books tell you what to teach.” That’s a comforting and empowering thought: we are surrounded by the stories we need to survive. Teachers and students across America are living a story they will never forget. Let us find solace, and even strength, in the stories we read and share.