Wonderful World – Not by
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Didn’t learn about history,

Didn’t learn biology,

Didn’t learn about a science book,

Didn’t learn about the math I took.

In short, American kids have been robbed of more than a year of education by the coronavirus and the failure of the previous administration to even try to control the pandemic.  It has been frustrating for the kids, for their parents, and for their teachers.  And it has been very frustrating for me, as a substitute teacher who actually cares about helping kids to learn.

Prior to mid-March of 2020, I usually worked five days a week, at three different high schools in the Wilmington, NC area.  I teach math, all the way up through calculus, chemistry, and physics.  I also have become the French sub of choice, based on the one year of French I took in college in 1967-68, and am quickly becoming the Spanish sub at one of the schools, now that I have some 320 days of Duolingo on my record.  But all in-school education came to a screeching halt in New Hanover County, NC when it was announced that the covid crisis was a pandemic.  For the remainder of the spring semester of 2020, all education was conducted online and no subs were needed.  The success of the online education was, well, underwhelming.

For the fall semester, the state allowed school districts two options, either to continue full online education or to go to a hybrid plan, in which the students would be divided into two groups that attended in person half a week and then online the other half, and a third, optional, group that continued full online education.  New Hanover County Schools opted for the hybrid system, with one group of students attending in person on Monday and Tuesday, a second group on Thursday and Friday, and everyone tuning in online for support and tutoring on Wednesday.

I got a call in mid-September asking me if I would consider taking an “extended” sub assignment to replace a math teacher who had moved to the county where he grew up.  The assignment was to be “extended” rather than “long-term” because my provisional teaching certificate is in science rather than math.  (A long-term sub job pays at least beginning teacher salary, while an extended job pays only $103 per day.)  The fact that I am the only sub at that school that can actually teach math did not really matter.  I nevertheless agreed to take the job, for the sake of the kids, but I made it clear that I would not do lesson planning, grading of assignments and tests, dealing with parents, or any of the paperwork that comes with the job.  They really needed me, however, and agreed to have me work with three regular teachers as “mentors”, who would be the “teachers of record”.  While I was subbing, they would continue to try to find a full-time teacher to take over the class.

The hybrid plan began on October 12 and I was there in the classroom to meet my students.  My first block class had a handful of students on M-T, and another four or five on Th-F.  A few of the students were there on all four days because they had been identified as “exceptional children”, and there was an EC teacher assigned to me in addition to my mentor.  (I learned early in the experience that there were at least five autistic students, although as a sub I was not told which students were on “the spectrum”.)  My “mentor” was a former EC teacher who had been drafted the year before to teach math, because she had taken enough math classes in college to qualify for a math certificate.  For the first week, she dropped in a few minutes each day to check on me, but it soon became apparent to both of us that my math teaching abilities far exceeded hers, so she suggested that I bring my students to her classroom for team teaching.  For the rest of the semester, I would sit near her desk while she worked with a document camera, a projector, and a Zoom connection to teach our in-class kids and our “virtual” students.  When she made a mistake or failed to mention an important concept, I would whisper to her what she should have said, and she would make the correction.  For a really difficult topic, she would simply invite me to come to the front of the room and teach in her place.  She was not at all upset about my correcting her but welcomed the chance to learn more about the math that she was responsible for teaching.  To this day, when I pass her room, I look in at her and say, “Hey Boss” and she giggles.

My second block mentor was a guy who had decided to let a software product called “Edgenuity” do all of the instruction.  My only task was to be in the classroom and online with my document camera and Zoom to provide support for students who were not getting what they needed from Edgenuity.  Because I was a sub, however, I did not myself have access to the software.  From time to time, he would print out paper copies of the Edgenuity lessons for me.  I quickly concluded that the software was really bad – it had errors in the explanations and also prevented students from progressing to a new topic until they had completed the previous topic, which meant that it was impossible for me to stay in sync with them.  I only had one student who regularly came to class.  I would just let him work and then answer any questions he might have.

Third block was planning.  My fourth block mentor was the calculus teacher, with whom I have had a great relationship for seven years.  She provided me with great plans and assignments, and the students in the class worked hard to succeed.  My greatest accomplishment was working with a young lady who told me that the only time she had been successful in math in the past was when I was the sub for a few weeks in a previous year.  She really struggled, but she was there either in class or online every day, and she was always there for my tutoring sessions on Wednesdays.  (Because she was usually my only Zoom client, I had to get permission from her dad to do one-on-one Zoom sessions with her.)  She ended up getting a curved 83 on the end-of-course exam, which thrilled both of us.

We are now in the second semester and I am back on the regular sub list.  I still work almost every day, but I don’t necessarily know where I will be on any given day.  Last week, I was there four days for the calculus teacher, whose son, a defensive halfback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, took the entire family on a vacation to Disney World.  One day, as I was going through a particularly difficult presentation of using parametric equations to find the area of an ellipse, I told the students that I was going to use the double-angle formula for the cosine to perform an integration.  They said “What’s the double angle formula?”  When I pointed out to them that they should have learned the double angle formulas in pre-calculus, they said “Oh, pre-calculus was last year, we didn’t learn anything in that class.”

I think that response would be widespread in any class on any subject where the students were asked to learn online.  These are young people who, for the most part, have not developed the ability to self-regulate their behavior.  It was clear that in many cases, they would sign on to a Zoom session in order to be counted present for attendance, but then would go off and do something else rather than attend to the Zoom presentation.

I almost feel like we should just write off the last year and a half and have a do-over.  In terms of real learning, it was a waste.


Profile photo of Jeff Gerken Jeff Gerken

Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    JEFF! WOW, thanks for bringing your first-hand perspective to our Retro group about the calamity of Zoom teaching (or “substitute” teaching). You’ve had the patience of a saint and sound like a wonderful teacher, but it seems like an almost impossible situation. I give you high grades for hanging in there, doing your best and really caring. I have wondered aloud to many people how any parent could try to manage their own lives and their kid’s online learning (particularly if they were very young). I think you gave us the answer. I think you demonstrated how the nations’ children did miss an entire year of learning. There is a ground swell here in MA to not require the standardized testing this year, as most educators know the children did not receive the proper education to able to get passing scores.

    And I love your use of the Sam Cooke song. Not only did I love him, but that song remains a favorite. I don’t know if you’ve seen the recent Netflix movie, “One Night in Miami”, a fictional telling of a meet-up between Malcom X, Cassius Clay (just before he converted to the Nation of Islam and changed his name), Jim Brown and Sam Cooke. The four men actually all were in Miami that night, but there is no proof that they were together, so this isn’t history, but interesting, nonetheless. It is directed by Regina King and tackles interesting topics.

  2. Thanks for this, Jeff. It’s good to hear a frontline account of what’s happening, as troubling as the news is. My younger son taught high school math for several years, well before Covid. Of late he has said over and over again how glad he is not to have to deal with all virtual or hybrid teaching. Kudos for the damage control that you do.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    “The success of the online education was, well, underwhelming.” I totally agree with this. While some families felt it benefitted their children, it was a disaster for kids with learning issues, IEPs, and those whose families were unable to provide supervision and support. My granddaughter, who did her freshman year of high school remotely, said that very few kids turned on their cameras. Who knows what they were doing but, as you said, their attendance counted. By next school year, teachers will be vaccinated and there should be no excuses for not being fully open. School districts have had ample time to prepare.

    • Jeff Gerken says:

      Unfortunately, the teachers next school year will be dealing with students who were passed without having thoroughly digested the material from a previous course. This might be just fine in a history class – it is possible to learn American history without having learned world history. But it will be very difficult to get Spanish 2 if you were simply passed through Spanish 1. And math? Math is cumulative from kindergarten on. So those students who never learned how to use trigonometric identities will be lost when they need to employ them in an integration.

  4. Marian says:

    This is an eye-opener, Jeff, for those of us who don’t have a direct connection to school-age children. You so eloquently point out the deficiencies in the system and how they are amplified by Zoom learning. Having had difficult experiences with math teachers, I can empathize with the students. My father helped me get through algebra 2 and trig in high school, but then I wimped out. It was only in my 30s, when I was studying statistical process control, that I gained a new appreciation for math and calculus.

  5. Suzy says:

    Happy Pi Day, Jeff, and thanks for this enlightening story! It confirms the stories I have heard from friends who are HS teachers and are being driven into retirement by online teaching.

    Of course I love your song as a title. The Herman’s Hermits version has always been a favorite of mine, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know Sam Cooke had done it first. So thank you for introducing me to Sam’s version.

  6. It’s great to have such a detailed and vividly described narrative of what was going on “on the front lines” of pandemic education. I have also gotten a lot of those front-line reports when I was teaching teachers as the pandemic broke out last spring. I would say most of our schools have better leadership than what seems to be the case there, but still, a very challenging and unsatisfactory situation.
    Thanks for taking the prompt in this direction. I went a different way, toward dark humor.

    • Jeff Gerken says:

      Am I correct in thinking that you are teaching people who do their student teaching in schools in Massachusetts? If so, they are seeing school systems that have high expectations, the key to effective education. Here in North Carolina, the focus is on high passage rates and not pissing off parents.

      • Right, Jeff. I retired in June but yes, I was teaching educators pursuing their Master’s degrees who were already in the classroom, as well as aspiring (not yet working) teachers. Primarily in MA but also a substantial number, given our location, from VT and NY. The educators in those two states, based on my experience, were dedicated to promoting learning, sometimes even in the face of administrators who were more focused on test scores.

      • And to be clear, I wasn’t dissing the teachers from MA: I was putting the ones from VT and NY in their same league, as distinct, I gather, from NC.

  7. You’re so right Jeff, it’s pretty obvious that in general this year of distance learning has earned a failing grade. My former teaching colleagues and other educator and administrator friends have been pulling out their collective hair and have given me an earful of what’s happening or not happening in their schools.

    But those lucky students who had you as their teacher, Mr Gerken!

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