When home-work doesn’t work

Credit: Caroline Jacoby

Credit: Caroline Jacoby

Sarah Mittleman

When the news first broke that school would continue online for the next two weeks, sounds of joy and excitement echoed across campus. Students lugged their textbooks home, eager for a much-needed break. Now, in hindsight, we all recognize that this was false hope. Clearly, quarantine was not a two-week-long novelty. Online school has not been the restful alternative many of us imagined; rather, classes have been more mentally exhausting than ever before.

It is not uncommon to hear the grumbling of teachers describing their disdain for Zoom classes. Technology issues have wreaked havoc on many a lesson, internet problems sometimes find teachers locked out of their own classrooms and that pesky mute button seems to have a mind of its own. The problem comes in the contradictory assumption that, even though these problems are widespread, they don’t affect students severely.

Online school is drastically different from what we’re used to. However, that doesn’t make it any less rigorous. Just like before, students are being assigned challenging work, waking up early to complete it and facing mental health problems from excessive stress. The only distinction is that students are doing all of this inside their homes.

Tests and assignments are just as academically rigorous as before.

For some students, online school means spending all day in an environment that isn’t conducive to work. Not everybody has a household with swift internet access, spacious rooms and a quiet ambiance. Requesting that students move to an area of the house with a different background, for example, may seem innocuous; however, it can actually be unintentionally hurtful or embarrassing. When demands pile up, soon students are being asked to purchase new headphones, fix their wireless router and remove their background noise. Because we are not on campus, we have to make do. We cannot seek perfection, and we especially cannot expect everybody to provide it.

It can be easy to lose concentration during Zoom meetings. Assuming that students will produce the same quality of work online as in-person is wishful thinking––there are too many distractions at home to expect constant, razor-sharp focus. Students cannot spend an entire 75-minute period taking notes, especially without a break. Similarly, assigning multiple long homework assignments negatively impacts students’ mental health. Online school may seem easy, but when every class has the same high expectations, the work gets overwhelming.

Zoom meetings cannot be as productive as in-person classes.

When students face family and mental health issues, they may not reach out for extensions for fear of unsympathetic responses. Although many teachers encourage students to come forward, others can be unforgiving. Either way, no student should feel obligated to describe their situation in detail to receive these accommodations.

Teachers occasionally discuss mental health with their classes through polls and surveys, which give them insight into the mindset of their students. When paired with a change in the curriculum, this can be a fantastic way to help. However, there is a recurring phenomenon in which the teacher displays sympathy and then continues assigning rigorous and imposing work. The fact of the matter is that discussing students’ mental health issues in class is not extremely helpful unless teachers choose to take action. Asking students to describe their feelings, being met with words such as “exhausted,” “sad” or “stressed” and then immediately discussing an upcoming project benefits nobody.

Teachers should show that they care, and conversations about mental health can be valuable. Worse than ignoring students’ responses is ignoring the topic altogether. But as it stands, these polls may be more of an attempt at virtue signaling than a way for teachers to understand their students. After receiving this feedback, teachers should take initiative; for example, some teachers have already elected to assign more asynchronous work. Others have been trying out podcasts and audiobooks to mix things up. With these small changes, classes become less burdensome and more interesting. Actions always speak louder than words; instead of simply discussing mental health broadly, teachers might give rest days and allot time to do homework in class—things that significantly help a student balance their time.

Re-formatting classes and assignments is a great way to help students.

Teachers must do more than be understanding: they need to facilitate change. It’s not enough to express sympathy if the words are void of meaning. Some classes have come close to mastering this, with teachers altering the class schedule every once in a while. For others, the disconnect is still there. Of course, assignments can’t always be changed at the drop of a hat, especially when they’re planned out weeks in advance. This school will always be challenging, and students do not expect teachers—especially those who teach Advanced Placement and Honors courses—to completely alter their classes. All we ask is that, alongside the sympathy that so many teachers have given, change is made when it’s necessary. A key factor in discussing is also listening, and students’ voices deserve to be heard.