School is Not a Building

School+is+Not+a+Building

Alexandra Marum, Junior Class Editor

If you were told to close your eyes and describe school, what would you picture? 

 

If you had asked me last fall, I’d have no trouble answering. The image of red bricks, heavy double doors, and white tile floors are as familiar to an American student as our very own homes. One photo of a linoleum hallway and I could tell you exactly how long it’d take to reach Madame Harrison’s French class. Blindfold me and I could judge the distance from the cafeteria by the strength of the funky basement smell. From elementary to middle to high, there is a familiarity that each and every school carries–a familiarity that every student will know for the rest of our lives. 

 

However, ask me to describe school nowadays, and the “sameness” that has persisted throughout the majority of our educational careers has vanished. There’s no more chatting with our friends in the hallways before class, no more throngs of slow-walking students to navigate. That funky smell is no longer there. Instead, we spend our days in front of a computer. Zoom calls are often filled with awkward silence. A misclicked grade can lead to panic-writing your history teacher one too many emails. 

 

In all of the change though, one thing has remained true: the presence and role of teachers. If virtual learning is a jarring shift from what we as students know, then it might as well be the onslaught of a new Techno Revolution for our educators. Not only did they grow up with a similar school environment, but they willingly returned and contributed to it. For this reason, I sought out several of my teachers to gain a better understanding of how they’re faring in the absence of school. 

 

In an environment of black screens and muted microphones, the conversations I had were refreshingly personal. Many began with the same question: had they experienced any noteworthy Zoom moments- be it funny or uncomfortable? 

 

Unsurprisingly, “uncomfortable” moments seem to be synonymous with education at this current time. Most initial answers devolved into the unfamiliarity of Zoom and the unreliability of the internet. Chemistry teacher, Ms. Evans, recounts being stuck in a breakout room for half of a period; Social Studies teacher, Mr. McDonald, experienced a pre-class panic due to an internet outage; Theater teacher, Mrs. Bellido, has devised a way to sync the favored Google Classroom with her Canvas page. Each teacher has experienced their own set of problems within the first few weeks. 

 

Despite the technical difficulties, the biggest learning curve seemed to be what the change of environment entailed for the interpersonal relationships of students and educators. English teacher Mr. Lowman explained the challenges of adjusting to new norms and “Zoom etiquette.” Ms. Evans described how online school has taken away the personal and informal interactions that made up a large part of what teaching is: “A huge thing in teacher education is building relationships with students… that means being at your door to greet them… checking in with them; more informal interaction.” With only an hour or two of in-class time a week, the informality that promoted close bonds has all but vanished. 

 

Ms. Evans is far from alone in valuing these casual, day-to-day engagements with her students- as a matter of fact, it was the most common (and stressed) response from all four teachers interviewed– which leads me to my next question:

 

What exactly makes a teacher? 

 

For starters, teachers require formal education in their respective field. Beyond that however, teachers have developed a level of human understanding that can foster hundreds and thousands of students. Teaching is an art; and as it turns out, that art has often failed to translate to the digital screen. “My energy and enthusiasm comes from the energy of the people in the room. Relationships are not the same, because at the end of the hour, for the most part, people are gone. So you have to build relationships in different ways,” Mr. McDonald divulged, sharing the value of building relationships and the challenges of doing so virtually. 

 

Being a theater teacher, it’s no surprise that Mrs. Bellido shares a similar sentiment, “It makes me really sad and uncomfortable to sit staring at black screens… You can’t connect as well when you can’t see people’s faces; when you can’t see people smiling.” Although having been reminded time and time again that turning on our cameras made teaching “easier,” it was not until I had been presented with the importance of building relationships in teaching, did I truly take it to heart. Empathizing with teachers drove me to try harder to be a positive force to them. Unsurprisingly, being a “positive force” is something that comes naturally to many teachers.

 

While discussing less than ideal circumstances, every teacher individually, both prompted and unprompted, was able to identify the benefits of the significant change provided by the pandemic. Ms. Evans explained some of the most joyful moments of online school to be the occasional intrusion of pets and stray siblings, describing it as, “an insight into the personal lives of students that we don’t normally get to see in school.” 

 

Mr. McDonald raised a fascinating point, especially to students with plans of college ahead of them: “This experience is more like the college experience than anything Jordan has done.” Even Mrs. Bellido, who is less than a fan of online education, ended our interview on a hopeful note: “I think it’s a process of learning as you go, and I think every day, I’m getting a little bit better and every day I’m trying something new.”

 

The teachers who are capable of enduring hardships right along with us; the teachers who see the joy in the awkward and uncomfortable; the teachers who can find the benefits in a time of struggle- there is one lesson, one takeaway that I have come to realize.

 

School is not a building.

 

We all know the structures, the parking lots, the cafeteria food; but now- in the absence of the physical, void of that educational environment- education itself persists. And this is because the value of our education is not dictated by the presence of red bricks or lockered hallways; it’s not decided by the cozy classrooms or even the predictability of the school days. School is the teachers. It is the educators who put their students before themselves, who ensure, with all of their power, accessible knowledge to young and growing minds. School is the individuals who make the most out of an impossible situation for not only themselves, but for their students. 

 

For teachers, school is us. “For a lot of us the reward is getting to see the students grow and thrive and watch the lightbulb go off over their head when they figure something out,” Mr. Lowman mused as a final thought on the topic. “Oh my gosh, yes!” Ms. Evans exclaimed after being asked if she missed her students. “Those smaller interactions with people… those are the things that fill your bucket with good things. Those are the things that I really miss a lot.”

 

If you had asked me to close my eyes and describe school before the pandemic, I would detail the different buildings at Jordan. I would describe the layout of the trailers, the color of my history classroom, and the smell of the gym. However, ask me now and I would name my teachers. A common theme that arose while interviewing was the need to strip down content and materials to their core functions; and likewise, when you do the same to education as a whole, you discover what it really is: the sharing of knowledge, the fostering of creativity and work ethic, and the gifting of advice from one individual to another–to many others.