Bryant Estrada compares the early days of the pandemic to the stages of grief. “You start off with denial, and I know for me and for our kids, there was that sense of denial. Like OK, we’re starting our vacation a little earlier than usual, but we’ll be back soon.”
He’s referring to his 10th– to 12th-grade students at Blackstone Academy Charter School in Pawtucket, where he teaches mathematics. “We started doing asynchronous teaching, but after about a month and a half, I was like this is actually a real thing. I was in denial not just about teaching, but also socially in general.”
He wasn’t satisfied with the asynchronous format. “It’s totally the opposite of what my pedagogy looks like. It wasn’t me teaching; it was me assigning videos and work.” Someone else noticed, too. “My dad has always pushed me to do my best. He told me, ‘That’s not the way to teach; that’s not the way you do it.’ Kind of like, ‘I expect more from you. We expect the most of you so why are you not doing it?’”
Things got much better for him when he started teaching live classes this spring, but he had to make some policy changes, especially when it came to grading and flexibility. “I know before I used to teach with equity in mind and I need to teach even more with equity in mind. I’m not going to have this semester be the one that sinks them.”
His school is full distance learning this fall but students can be in the building at least twice a week. “It’s one of our ways to best combat the equity issue and serve the learners with the most needs – intellectually, emotionally or needing a separate space,” he said.
Estrada is in a classroom by himself, with a laptop and camera and a Chromebook connected to a TV monitor so he can see his students’ faces. He’s not teaching with slides; he’s actually solving problems on the board with them.
“The part of the job that brings me the most joy is being in the classroom and it hurts that I can’t do my job the way I want to do my job. The more I think about it, I get emotional because I miss my babies,” he said. “I tell them that at the beginning and end of each class. It’s hard; my practice when I come to teaching is very much strong on the aspect of mentoring, relationship-building and full of love.”
Assessing students’ understanding is challenging via distance learning. “Testing right now is weird for all of us,” he said. “A lot of teachers probably say, ‘What if my kids cheat?’ Integrity is a thing for me. If you ruin that, it’s you. That’s your diploma that you don’t deserve. I say if you get to the point where you reach a problem and you feel that you need to cheat, don’t do that problem. Get in touch and we’ll work through a similar problem together.”
He also implemented a feedback forum survey they receive after a test, asking whether they liked the format and had enough time. “What could I have done better to prepare you. What you could have done better to prepare? What do we need to go over a bit more? Students’ feedback is absolutely necessary if we want any positive shift during this time,” he said.
The Central Falls High School and Brown University graduate said the reasons urban communities are hardest hit are not because of the demographics, but how the communities are set up. He compared Burrillville, with about 17,000 residents spread over 57 square miles, to Central Falls, with nearly 20,000 residents in 1 square mile. “Central Falls has multigenerational households. If one person is affected, so are seven more people. You’re not going to see that in Burrillville, where houses are more separated.”
Students in urban communities face compounding variables that make the equity situation even worse, he said. “A student might not be submitting work not because they don’t care, but maybe they’re taking care of siblings because mom is working. We need to be understanding of those things and be a lot more lenient about things, whether that means giving a student an extra week to complete a basic assignment or tracking down a student who stopped attending classes to find out what’s happening.”
Estrada said he would tell aspiring teachers to stay optimistic that things will be better soon. “I hope that their true ability and potential to teach is fully realized and their love for teaching is reaffirmed. You’re going into teaching because you know you’re made for it. Keep thinking that you’re made for it.”