A Detroit Educator’s COVID-19 Diary: Supporting Poor Kids and Teaching in Uncertainty

Editor’s Note: Dorothea Williams-Arnold is a teacher at Cass Technical High School in Detroit. A 14-year veteran of public education, she explains in this column written for The PuLSE Institute, why she went into teaching and how the coronavirus pandemic has altered the realities for many teachers. She takes us chronologically through some of the lived and vivid experiences of many teachers who are now using digital tools to meet the demanding academic needs of their students in a crisis that spells so many uncertainties for the future of public education. The Detroit Public Schools educator discusses the need to fight for poor students while holding power accountable to support public education. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson, the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute at info@thepulseinstitute.org

By Dorothea Williams-Arnold

Like most teachers, my first experience working in the classroom was a milestone of radical growth and change. It was a time when my commitment to the field was solidified by the newly acquired responsibility of working with kids who grew up much like I did. Poor. This commitment did not emerge without a measure of disillusionment and frustration, and like many teachers who enter the profession, I was a victim of highly romanticized notions of helping save somebody’s child from the restricting forces of poverty and marginalization. I was going to do my part to help young people who I had more in common with than not. Except that I had not yet moved beyond the idealism that forms when one encounters theoretical principles that speak to one’s altruistic notions and the naivete that accompanies inexperience.

Most teachers have a pedagogical hero or two (mine were Frantz Fanon and Paulo Freire).  We all enter the classroom equipped with an arsenal of stored wisdom from those who came before us. Many of us began this journey ready to “confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled.” But we were often not prepared for the challenges that came with working in underserved, poor, urban or rural districts.  We were not fully cognizant of the ways in which deeply ingrained systems of poverty, low expectations, centuries of collected anger, and apathy and disenfranchisement negatively affect processes and outcomes, and sometimes our confidence.

At the end of the day, we become teachers because we want to make a difference.  During this coronavirus pandemic, it has become clear that in order to cope with the added stress of teaching our students “remotely” – outside of the shared physical space where learning and healing can naturally occur, we must now lean on our guiding ideals and each other as sources of solace, strength and motivation. Moreover, it is times like these that call for all of us to reflect and summon the inspiration that originally brought us to our calling. 

In some ways, COVID-19 has served to level the field in teaching, no matter the size or wealth of the district.  For example, teachers across America have been charged with practicing their profession in their homes around makeshift walls of strategically stacked books in an effort to enhance the image of a classroom.   Our classrooms have now become a shared virtual space where our students and children, barking dogs, and families all converge and collide from the corners of screens. While sharing in the experience of teaching in environments where human connection is stifled by the fickle nature of the internet, it is a little easier to forget about our differences – geographic, demographic and economic – and instead allow our shared struggle to bring us closer together as educators. 

In these unusual times, it is often healing to engage in conversations that allow us to put socioeconomic and cultural differences aside and focus instead on what we have in common right now, like what it feels like to attempt to engage what often seems to be the uninterested, faceless images of our students on our computer screens.  It feels good to share laugh, engage in a conversation with a colleague who, too, is struggling and working awkwardly through this new normal of online instruction to seemingly uninterested teenagers who are in the struggle as well. When our differences seem less pronounced, it allows us the freedom to spend more time reflecting on why we teach and how much we miss being in the classroom with our young people.   

We are two months into this COVID-19 quarantine now, and the shared experiences are beginning to show themselves for what they are:  Our collective way of coping in times of uncertainty and fear.  After the last pandemic-fatigued participant of the Zoom cocktail hour and chat has logged off, we all should be encouraged to reflect on these new shared experiences because we still have to get back to the respective realities that we face in our own homes and in our own districts. This is where the blur on the drive home from this collective experience begins to transform to a more focused image:  from the romanticized rows of neatly manicured lawns and realized American Dream for some, to the reality of abandoned homes, desolation and fading opportunities among the disenfranchised, speckled with a reawakened sense of hope afforded to neighborhoods that are trying to emerge from the ashes of Detroit’s worst days.

If the pandemic has brought us anything it is the fact that we were called to this field for reasons we must never forget.  The only way teachers will get through challenging times like these, is if we lean on each other for support, inspiration and solace.  When it seems as though we are fighting forces that interfere with our ability to meet the needs of our kids because our flawed system prevents us from doing so, we must hold the powers that be accountable.  We must remind our struggling districts that lowering expectations and standards for our poor kids is not constructive, since the message this sends to our kids is a self-defeating one. We must also reflect on our shared experiences so that we as teachers become allies in the fight for equitable public education.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.