Mr. Michael Podlesney is my wonderful biology teacher at the Downingtown Stem Academy, a high school in the Downingtown Area School District near Philadelphia. Mr.P, as we call him, teaches us through interactive learning and discussion, which has really made his class feel like a hangout over a lecture. To honor this, here is a discussion/interview we had where we talked about online schooling, the pandemic, and life in general. Please take a look!
Shreyas: As a teacher, what were some of your initial emotions/reactions when the school closed down? What were some of the things you missed right away, and what were some of the things that you realized later down the line?
Mr.P: I will tell you that March is a particularly trying time as a teacher. You’re in the heart of the third marking period, and it’s exhausting coming out of winter and trying to get to spring. My first thought when I heard that we were going to be out of school was, “This might be nice! I could rest and relax and sleep in for a day or two!” That thought lasted for a day or two until I realized that this was not a snow day. This is virtual teaching that I have no training for. Some people have spent years learning how to be an online teacher, but I had no training. So, trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t was very difficult last spring. Also having 2 kids of my own that were at home with me was extremely daunting, because I was learning how to teach online, but then I also had to learn how to teach my kids at home, as, in the spring, we were not zooming with students. I was sitting there going through workbooks with one kid and then I was sitting there building projects with the other kid, and then I was thinking about the 120 students that I teach and making sure that they were ok. It was alright, and there some participation in what we did because I got to spend 6 months with these kids beforehand. They knew what I expected of them, and they did the work because they had respect for me. I would say that I started missing the upperclassman very quickly. There is a hole in my heart from not being able to say goodbye to the seniors because they would always stop by my classroom and talk, and we got robbed of the college excitement and sharing their new paths with me. I did not get to hear the excitement in their voices as they found out what was going to happen in the next step. I feel like I have been robbed of that experience. I don’t know if I will ever get to say goodbye to those students. I tried reaching out to some of them, but time was limited last year, and it was hard to reach more students. I could not say good luck, and tell them that I was proud of them, and wish them luck on their new journey.
S: I feel like teaching is such a personal connection, and I did not think about that aspect. Seniors immediately went home and were robbed of the entire experience, especially since the school emails expire right after graduation.
P: That is true, a lot of seniors don’t realize that if they don’t reach out to us, then we cannot reach out to them later on. Since the IB ceremony most likely won’t be happening in the winter like it usually does, I don’t even know if I will see those kids again. There is a piece that is always going to be an unknown.
I also missed a lot of things with my sophomores, because things slowed down a little bit as we came into the spring. We started on my favorite units of ecology and evolution, and we go outside and we start to be able to breathe a little bit. Even though not being in school in March was ok, not being there in April and May was quite difficult. I feel like there is a bonding that happens with a teacher at the end of the year, that we could not experience due to the pandemic. I never got this with my sophomores last year.
S: What were some positives about the lockdown summer period for you? Were you able to spend more time pursuing hobbies and spending time with family? I know that you are a long-distance runner. Were you able to dedicate more time to that?
P: I will say that I suffered from the lockdown less than some other people did because I consider myself to be an introvert. People think that introverts don’t like to be around other people, but that is not true. An introvert just really gains power from being alone. You can be an introvert and be a teacher, and you are in control of the classroom. When I would leave school and go to the gym, that was my alone time and I would regain my power there. I enjoyed the beginning part of the lockdown because I didn’t mind just being with my family. I also loved the fact that I had more time to run. I started a pushup challenge where I was doing 300 pushups a day for a month. There were all of these physical challenges and I was happy that I had the time to do them. I would say by the end of the lockdown, moving into June, I was starting to go crazy. As much as I liked being alone, this was too much of being alone. However, I would say that I got a lot more physical activity being alone. I also got into remodeling, I have taught myself how to retile my swimming pool, how to do wiring on outside lights, and I painted my family room twice. I have done so many home improvement projects, that my house does not even look the same. I do appreciate the time I was able to get to do that. The thing I loved the most was that I have been at home with my kids since March. I get to see their personalities a little bit more. I got to know them differently because I don’t know who they are in school, but now I do, since they do it directly from home!
However, sometimes it can be a double-edged sword. It is great to be around family but my gosh they are going to drive you nuts when you are around them all the time. You have to carve out space. That is one thing I have learned is that you need physical separation. We are now remodeling the basement to create some physical separation because my oldest daughter is going to be 12 years old, she isn’t going to want to be around us all the time. It is nice to have someplace that you can retreat to for some while.
S: The pandemic has been tough for everybody, and everyone has their internal struggles. Was there something that helped you get through hard times, and look to the positive? Could be a quote, activity, or object; anything that helped you during this time.
P: I would guess the thing that helped me was a sense of comradery. Seeing other people and talking to other people and seeing how it was a struggle for them too. Sometimes it is nice to hear that you are not in something alone. Whether this is through the news or social media or some other platform. One of the things that made me happiest was the reunion of the Goonies, which is my favorite movie of all time. Josh gad brought all of the living Goonies back together on Zoom, and they had an online reunion. The first time I watched it I was crying real tears because it just made me so happy to be able to see something like that. That would have never happened if it weren’t for the lockdown. Especially at the start, where our entire society comes together. I have been very fortunate to grow up in the era that I did. We did not have any world wars, this is the first pandemic that I have seen, we did not have an economic depression. There has been a lot of good things when I grew up, and this is one of the first real challenges that we have seen. We also saw 9/11 and it was the same kind of thing. Our society came together to overcome something, and so it was nice to see that again.
S: Yes, for sure. You spoke of the Goonies returning, Josh Gad also reunited the lord of the rings, and that was a super cool moment too. There was not any type of reunion before that, so that was super cool to see.
S: Closer to the end of summer, there were talks of returning to in-person school immediately. What were your feelings regarding this? Were you concerned about the safety of the situation? Were you somewhat excited about returning?
P: I will say that my initial reaction was kind of like the initial reaction I had when we first left school when I thought ” Gosh I could use a few days at home”. My initial reaction this time was “Gosh I could use a few days at school.” I could not wait to get back and see the kids. In the morning, I always have a group of kids I call the breakfast club that changes every year. I have always had a good group of kids that come in and say good morning and talk, and it’s just a nice start to my day, and I miss that interaction.
I think as it got closer. and we started to look at where cases were and what was going to be done to get kids back in school, I started to realize that it was not going to look the way I wanted it to look. Masks, social distancing, only half a class at a time. I could not even hand out a test, or a piece of paper to the class. I feel like your class lost a lot from this. At the start of the year, there are so many activities that involve the shuffling of papers and looking at molecules, and this tactile stuff that you just cannot do now. I started to get apprehensive about the experience, and I am still apprehensive about it. I don’t think hybrid is going to be what everyone thinks hybrid is going to be.
I’m scared that it’s going to be zooming in person. Where I am sitting at the computer on my desk and you are sitting at your desk on a computer and I ask ” anyone have any questions?”, and I am looking around in person as well as on the zoom, flipping through the different pages. I think that is going to be closer to what it is. I will not be able to walk around the classroom and check what work you are doing, and the interactive portion of the entire experience is missing. so it is not much different than what we have in the online learning model right now.
I am concerned though. I have 2 parents, one of whom is immunocompromised. Will I have to stop seeing her after we go back to school? That thought has been plaguing my mind right now. I am worried about my kids. My kids attend two different schools, one is in elementary and one is in middle school, which means in my household, we have got a high school, a middle school, and an elementary school, across districts, as I do not live in Downingtown. That is a lot of exposure. So, there is a terrifying piece, especially considering Thanksgiving is coming up. Also, what am I going to do with my kids when we are hybrid, and I need to go and teach 5 days a week, but my kids only go into school two days a week? What happens the other three days? There is a lot to wrap my head around. I was initially excited about it, then I was a little bit apprehensive, but now I am concerned.
S: That would be difficult. Some people in front of you, and some people in the class, I don’t think that would be worth it. Why risk interaction?
P: Exactly. Are we just rushing to come back when the situation is going to be the same? But then I look back and realize, it’s one thing for high school kids and high school teachers to say that. But then I watch my first grader. She can’t sit still. She cannot learn on zoom, and her teachers can’t control everybody in the classroom the way she could if she was in class. I would love for my kid to be in school so she could learn to be in that environment. She missed a marking period of kindergarten, and now a marking period in first grade. Those are developmental times and it’s tough for her teacher. But I also don’t want to be the one to tell her teacher, “you have to come back to school”.
S: Yeah, it is such a tough situation. My brother is in 4th grade, and I have noticed some similar problems. I feel like elementary school is somewhat more difficult to manage than middle and high, because the kids are still kids, and they are still silly, and it is a lot more difficult to gather the class’s attention.
S: You have mentioned this in class before, but what are some of your frustrations regarding this new online learning model? Are there any positives to teaching from a distance that you may have not realized before?
P: I would say the number one positive of teaching from a distance would be the safety, we are not exposing each other to anything. I have not even had a cold yet. It’s rare when I am in school because usually the first two months I am so run down and getting a cold, but now I am not exposed to anything or anybody, so it’s not a big deal.
The thing I miss the most is not being there to help you manage your distractions. Some of you are much better at managing that, but you are still only in 10th grade. I love teaching 10th grade because you are like little kids in big kid’s bodies. You are just trying to figure out it works. No-one would ever have a phone or computer out in my class. There, you are not allowed to type notes, you must write to them. I wish I could say: ” Sit still. You are not paying attention. Look here I’m dancing, let me snap my fingers at you. Or come over and make you laugh. It’s tough. In your class, I have 16 kids. The class after you has 27, so I have to cycle through screens to be able to even see everybody. I want everybody to know that I see them. You never want to treat a class as a class. You want to treat a class as a group of individuals. If I can see you on the screen I can say something like ” someone’s starting to yawn again…., or he doesn’t think that’s funny at all, ok.” I want kids to know that I see them as individuals so that they feel comfortable and valued. Anybody needs to feel valued. I wonder how difficult it is for kids, to be able to understand, that we see each one of you. We see your personality, we are learning who you are. It happens much faster in real life, but we are still learning it.
S: I feel like in your class specifically, it’s somewhat of a community, and a group, instead of a class. I started to feel that soon after school started.
P: I will tell you though, not everybody talks. That does not happen in my classes. It’s usually that I need to stop people from talking. It’s almost like a fifth-grade class because everyone is so excited. So it is tough right now, its deafeningly quiet when I teach. I sit in this office and I talk, and no one talks back, and it is a very lonely feeling. I have not felt so lonely during the pandemic, as I have felt, teaching the last couple of months. It has hammered it home that I am alone here. Teaching was one of those things where I am never alone. I have had kids following me to the bathroom asking me questions and I am just like ‘I need to go to the bathroom kid!” I’m never alone. During my lunch, people are in the room. As soon as I get to school at 6:45, somebody is there. I go to the gym after school and I have three people come there and ask me questions. I’m never alone, and now I am always alone.
I know that if I am feeling that way, it must be the same for you kids. when I throw you in a breakout room, it is probably the first time you have talked to a student all day. Otherwise, you just do not have that social interaction, and that is hard.
S: Yeah, and I feel like that aspect is one of the most fun parts of the school. Talking to people, engaging in meaningful discussion.
P: And now it’s just content. I am so proud of the teachers at STEM, the stuff that we have tried to do. Whether we fail or succeed, we are celebrating that and helping each other.
S: What were some of the meaningful lessons that you learned during the pandemic? Are there any that you try to implement when teaching?
P: I would say that the pandemic was a real wake-up call for me because I love a routine. I love waking up at the same time every morning, I love making myself the same breakfast every morning, I will have the same things every single day, and the pandemic just has no regiment. The first couple of months, I was eating lunch at dinner time, I was eating breakfast three hours late, I was not having coffee. It was just a mess. I think I have gotten more comfortable with not having a routine. Allowing myself to be flexible, and adapt to the situation. I also learned to be in tune with my students, and when they have just had enough. It has taught me to be adaptable, and resilient. This is my ninth year teaching, and I am just not used to failing. I am down to a science. I knew when to tell a laugh, I knew when to tell jokes, I knew when my physical actions needed to take place. It made sure that everyone was engaged every single time because I knew when to push different people. That is gone. I am not there with you. You respond differently. I feel like I lost that, and I am failing a lot more often. I got to roll with it. Usually, I would spend three days after something like this and would wonder why my students would not like the lecture. Now I have learned that failure is not only ok but expected during this situation. There are times when I will just hide everyone’s faces because my confidence in my teaching style has faded due to the lack of response. I guess I am getting more used to what it is like to fail.
S: I think that a lot of the times when we do laugh at your jokes, we are on mute, so you cannot even know. A lot of the times people also have their cameras turned off.
P: I hope that when I come back I will have taken things away from this. I guess that is something we can all hope for. If we can walk away from this with something new and something value, that is all we could ask for. I found something that I enjoyed, I learned somethings that I hate, I learned how much I loved being in the classroom. Even though I am an introvert, I miss interacting with my students. If nothing else, this tells me, without a doubt, that I am meant to be a teacher. That is what I miss the most.
S: I also realized how much I missed the social interaction and small things that made up a normal day. If I was told that the pandemic was to happen, I would have guessed that I would have missed to the teaching material and schedule, but I would have never guessed that I would have missed talking to my friends before the school day started, listening to music on the bus, or the cafeteria food in the mornings at lunch. When you have something taken away from you, I think you start to understand what it truly means to you.
P: It is stress relief. Whatever it might be, it’s this pause on your day, and those pauses give you a chance to take your breath.
S: To conclude, what would be your message to the community, state, or nation as we continue to struggle through this situation?
P: I want to say that when this is all over, we can walk away with an appreciation of what we had. These small things that we were robbed of for the last six months. maybe we will enjoy them a little bit more. Maybe a handshake will mean something different than it did before. We will start to realize how much that means.
P: When you are in the summer you miss the cold, when you are in the winter you miss the sun. When you are robbed of it, you realize how much it meant. Maybe we will walk away from this saying that we love people. It will help us come together a little bit. The one thing that we would need right now is community.