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What I learned watching my girlfriend teach math from our St. Paul apartment

Sasha, a 29-year-old St. Paul math teacher, is embarking on the weirdest year she's ever tackled.

Sasha, a 29-year-old St. Paul math teacher, is embarking on the weirdest year she's ever tackled. Hannah Jones

Sasha, 29, is a math teacher in St. Paul.

Her students are a mix of middle schoolers and high schoolers ranging from algebra to "calc 2." She has not seen them in person since she, masked up and a little emotional, handed out yard signs to graduating seniors at the end of last school year.

She’d hoped she might get a little class time with them at the end. It didn't work out that way.

Her classroom is now just the main area of our two-bedroom apartment. She shares this space with two dogs, who spend the entire day lounging and napping when they’re not muttering at the occasional passing car. The class pet, a tortoise, sits despondently in a terrarium on her desk. As far as he is concerned, his circumstances have neither worsened nor improved.

On Tuesday, she sat down to her second day of the strangest school year she’s yet to encounter. She’s seen years buried in snow days, and weathered a semester interrupted by the burgeoning pandemic. Now she’s facing a year of uncertainty as Minnesota's schools ponderously navigate distance learning, hybrid models, and the constant spectre of disease.

Classes may resume in person, at least partially, in late September… and they may not. At this point, it could go either way.

Sasha confesses she’d much rather know the outcome now than hold out hope in suspense. She’s a person who likes to plan her entire year at the outset. She could normally tell you when the high school kids are going to take their Chapter 7 test, down to the day, and when she has flex days built in for light lessons, or catch-up as needed.

This year, nothing can be taken for granted. Not even the weather.

At the top of the morning, she reluctantly turned off the air conditioning unit, which is only moderately effective and sounds a little like a semi idling a few yards away, rendering everything else inaudible over Zoom. She left it off during her 8 a.m. staff meeting and back-to-back five-minute check-ins with her students. The apartment got hotter and hotter.

She has taken care to warn her superiors to be lenient about student dress code in the days ahead. What might ordinarily be deemed “inappropriate” clothing may now be a decision made out of necessity. One never knows how hot or cold a student's home is. "Appropriate” and “inappropriate” are a matter of context.

Her students filed in, virtually, for five-minute introductory meetings. One-on-one calls are usually more reliable and easier to manage, though they can’t be taken for granted. On the morning of the first day, Zoom experienced an international outage, throwing a wrench into teachers' plans -- but not Sasha's, who had conveniently scheduled her calls for later in the afternoon.

One student still choked and sputtered into silence when his internet couldn’t keep up. Sasha showed him where he could type out chat messages instead of relying on his voice and gave him a thumbs up when he found it.

On the first day, the only thing she assigned her students – more for the sake of proving they could use Google Classroom than anything else – was a short questionnaire. She asked, among other things, for preferred names and pronouns, and what they were nervous about this year.

The most common answer right off the bat was being afraid of “falling behind.”

Not in the broad sense, she explains. Her students, unlike worried adult spectators, really don’t give a damn about standardized tests or national averages, or whether their generation will be academically prepared for the future, whatever that means. They’re just worried the virtual format will make it harder to keep track of all their assignments.

When asked what she’s nervous about, she replies, “keeping up momentum.” The weekend of work she did in advance bought her some time, but she still doesn’t have a lot to spare.

Around noon, she finally turned on the air conditioning unit, sighed in relief, and ate a bowl of cold pasta salad she managed to throw together the night before.

Distance learning does have its perks. Later on in the afternoon, she would have to help an older colleague with technology issues over the phone, but by the end of this year, every single teacher is going to be tech savvy enough to post videos to YouTube. Kids don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn if they don’t want to. Neither does she. But best of all is the canceled standardized tests – the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments – “like it was nothing.”

“And, like, maybe it is nothing,” she says over a bite of shell pasta and tomato. She’s often wished for more time to teach the way she wanted to, not to the test. If any changes remain after the pandemic, she hopes this does.

She thinks her students, for the most part, “get it.” They’d rather be in school. So would their older siblings, stuck at home when they should be taking their first classes at the University of Minnesota.

So would she.

But she teaches because she loves the people in her community, she says. If they went back to school right now, some number of people would almost certainly catch coronavirus. get sick, even die. She can’t accept that.

“I can want something and be annoyed I don’t have it and still not expect it,” she says. It’s a skill she and her students are all learning together, the hard way.

The rest of the day proceeded quietly. There were, conservatively, a billion emails, that tech support call, and more prep to do for tomorrow. More motion in the service of momentum. The afternoon got hotter, and she thought briefly about the possibility of cooler weather in a couple of weeks. The possibility of a return to semi-normalcy. The less-than-satisfactory reality of the present.

Then she went back to work.