Mrs. Langley had no idea when she woke up on Monday, May 4, that it was Teacher Appreciation Week. Oh! she thought. What a lovely surprise! For the next five days, her Facebook feed would surge with cute memes that acknowledged teachers’ endless patience despite meager paychecks, their flawless grammar and fail-proof techniques for mesmerizing crowds of fidgety children. In fact, maybe she would even see tweets from celebrities or YouTube videos by dads who would normally be working at the office instead of the dining room table if it weren’t for this pandemic. Mrs. Langley liked those the best. Cheers of “Teachers are superheroes!” and “Teachers should be paid one billion dollars a year!” or “Teachers are irreplaceable!” from the internet had been making her feel all warm and fuzzy since school had been canceled. It was a shame that teachers needed to wait for a deadly virus to come around before gaining this level of recognition on social media, but that was okay. She understood.
With the friendly presence of Teacher Appreciation Week patting her encouragingly on the shoulder, Mrs. Langley settled down in front of her laptop, ready for another week of remote learning.
Google Meets with scratchy audio and students shoveling cereal into the black holes of their hoodies, Donald Trump and SpongeBob avatars and cats stepping across keyboards.
Dozens of emails to parents, guidance counselors, and assistant principals about kids who hadn’t passed in the latest assignment, expressing concern for their emotional and mental well-being—because Mrs. Langley really did care about them.
Simplification of activities to reduce student stress…but also invention of more complicated activities to incorporate virtual sharing, discussions, and peer feedback.
Pretty, color-coded schedules, a unique one for each class.
Hours typing up short stories from paperback anthologies.
Uploads of assignments, due dates, and office hours to three different web-based learning management systems for five different courses so that students could access the resources they needed.
And, of course, Mrs. Langley was on call to assist her own middle-school children with their remote learning (Um…I turned in my math assignment on Google Classroom but then I realized that I was supposed to watch a video first and so I did the problems wrong and now I don’t know how to get the assignment back so I can fix it and I’m going to fail but it’s not my fault because the video wasn’t in a good spot and my teacher is horrible and doesn’t explain anything and the video was, like, SEVEN MINUTES LONG.)
Mrs. Langley was ready. She sat at the desk in the study and opened her school email.
She had briefly forgotten, during the two short hours that she was now sleeping at night, that she was embroiled in an ongoing dispute with the mother of one of her upperclassmen. And here was a new email from the mother, the seventh message in a week. The mother had even cc’d Mrs. Langley’s principal. Awesome. Mrs. Langley’s heart puckered with anxiety. It was a familiar sensation these days.
“Mrs. Langley. You say that we can’t take a time machine back to Quarter 1 and change Rupert’s grades. But we wouldn’t need a time machine if you had responded to my concerns eight months ago. Now, Rupert’s entire future is ruined because of that C minus. And even though he hasn’t submitted a single assignment on time since February 6, he now needs special dispensation so that he gets full credit for each and every one of those Quarter 3 assignments that he hasn’t passed in yet. Otherwise, that C minus during Quarter 1 that you did nothing to fix will bring his year grade down so much that no one will have any idea of his actual capabilities. This situation MUST be addressed immediately. Sincerely, Mrs. Rodo.”
Mrs. Langley placed a finger on her chin in thought. She wasn’t sure where the time machine reference had come from, as she didn’t recall using that terminology. All the same, she paused to imagine herself, Mrs. Rodo, and Rupert with his eye-shielding curtain of blond hair boarding a capsule that looked something like the kind of rocket you would find on a five-year-old’s wallpaper. Also, she didn’t recall Mrs. Rodo’s writing to her eight months earlier with concerns about Rupert. Just to make sure, though, Mrs. Langley searched through her email. Her inbox count was up to 31,919, and though her friends made fun of her, she knew the precious value of electronic paper trails in the teacher world.
She was right. The first email with Mrs. Rodo’s name on it was from December. The email was actually from Mrs. Langley to Mrs. Rodo. Mrs. Langley had reached out to Mrs. Rodo to let her know that Rupert was missing a number of assignments and seemed reserved in class. “Is there anything I should know about his situation?” Mrs. Langley had asked. “Please let me know any steps I can take in the classroom to support your son.” Mrs. Rodo had, indeed, responded to this email. Mrs. Rodo had responded to it seven weeks later, on January 19, right before the end of the first semester:
“Mrs. Langley. Rupert and I have been looking over his grades for Quarter 2 and we do not understand where these zeroes have come from. Could you please explain the following?
Huck Finn Working Thesis Statement: 0/5
Huck Finn Topic Sentences and Quotations: 0/15
Huck Finn Essay Outline: 0/10
Huck Finn Quotation Analyses: 0/20
Huck Finn Personal Rant: 0/20
Huck Finn Essay Introduction: 0/10
Huck Finn Essay First Draft: 0/20
Huck Finn Essay Final Draft: 0/100
Huck Finn Small-Group Project: 0/50
Huck Finn Unit Reflection: 0/15
There are also no comments from you next to these zeroes in the online gradebook, so it is impossible for us to understand why each assignment was not completed. Both Rupert and I have asked again and again for clarification and explanations and have received nothing from you. Now the situation is dire. Sincerely, Mrs. Rodo.”
Mrs. Langley could not help but think that if Mrs. Rodo had responded to her email at the midway mark of Quarter 2, there potentially would have been half the number of zeroes to make up than if Mrs. Rodo had waited until the end of the quarter to write back.
Mrs. Langley scratched her head. “Both Rupert and I have asked again and again for clarification and explanations.” This claim was particularly haunting, as Mrs. Langley could probably count on one hand the times since school began that Rupert had opened his mouth and uttered anything at all.
Mrs. Langley checked the annals of her emails again. And again. She tried different phrasings in the search bar—Rupert’s name and his school email address, the family’s last name and the mother’s email address. Still, the first email correspondence between her and Mrs. Rodo had been in December, when Mrs. Langley inquired about Rupert’s well-being. And really, it wasn’t correspondence, because the “co” in correspondence indicated an equal exchange between at least two people, and Mrs. Rodo hadn’t responded for seven weeks.
Yet, a dark stain of self-doubt was spreading through Mrs. Langley’s chest. Maybe this really was her fault.
The three days per week that Rupert came in late to class…instead of simply calling him out on his tardiness and marking that tardiness in the attendance log, should Mrs. Langley have left the classroom to look for him? She would have had to abandon the other 24 students for a short while, but perhaps she should have withheld her lesson from them in order to make sure that everyone was present, even those kids who spent a little too long at lunch or stopped by the bathroom for a vape.
The time that Rupert wasn’t ready to give an oral presentation, and Mrs. Langley allowed him to push off that presentation until the following class, and then when it was almost his turn to present during the following class and he left the classroom for twenty minutes so that she had to skip over him and move on to the next presenter…should she have given Rupert a third opportunity to not be ready? Had she been unreasonable?
And Mrs. Langley’s offers to Rupert since school had closed due to the pandemic to take as much time as he needed to make up the twenty assignments that he had not turned in during the first half of Quarter 3…should she have just waived those requirements? She must have done something wrong to not inspire him to complete his work.
At this moment, Mrs. Langley’s fifth-grade son trotted into the study.
“Mom,” he said. “I need to get my math homework back. Remember, I told you? I didn’t see the video? I did the problems wrong? Help me!”
Mrs. Langley removed her reading glasses. “You do realize that it was your responsibility to read AND follow all of the directions on Google Classroom, right?”
Her son bowed his head. “Yes,” he said. “Even though the video was almost invisible.”
“No,” Mrs. Langley said. “The video wasn’t invisible. You decided not to watch it. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes,” her son mumbled.
“Okay,” Mrs. Langley said. “So from now on, you are going to carefully read the instructions that your teacher spent time to write, and watch the videos that your teacher spent time editing and uploading, and even rewatch the video if you have trouble trying to complete the corresponding math problems, and take a moment to double-check your work before hitting the ‘Turn In’ button?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Good,” Mrs. Langley said. “Now, open up your email on your phone and I will tell you what to write to your math teacher.”
“Okay,” her son said.
Mrs. Langley cleared her throat. “‘Dear Mrs. Median. I am so sorry for the inconvenience,’” she said.
“Okay,” her son said. “How do you spell ‘inconvenience’?”
Mrs. Langley spelled the word for him. “Now moving on,” she said. “‘…but I must confess, Mrs. Median, that I did not watch the video I was supposed to watch, which means that I did not do the problems correctly. I was in a rush and turned in the homework before taking the time to learn the skill that you were trying to teach me.’”
These lines took her son a few minutes to type. “Got it,” he said. “What now?”
“‘If there is any way that you might allow me to redo the math problems, I would appreciate it very much,’” Mrs. Langley said. “‘And if you can’t, I completely understand.’”
Her son nodded, fingers flying, the tip of his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth in concentration.
“Now,” Mrs. Langley said. “What do you think you should say next?”
Her son looked at the ceiling. “Well,” he said. “I guess I should say that I will be better about following directions in the future.”
Mrs. Langley closed her eyes, relieved. “Yes,” she said. “That would be great.”
“And,” he said, “maybe I should say, ‘Thank you for your time.’”
“Yes!” Mrs. Langley said.
“And then,” her son added, “‘I hope your family is doing well.’”
“You’re killing it,” Mrs. Langley said.
In the time that it took her to assist her son in writing Mrs. Median the 5th-grade math teacher a polite and contrite email, Mrs. Langley had received yet another message from Mrs. Rodo. Her stomach folded. It was only 9:17 a.m. on May 4, 2020, the first day of Teacher Appreciation Week.
“Mrs. Langley. I have included a screen shot of Rupert’s gradebooks since September 5. There are 88 assignments. Please describe the reasoning for each and every score. We demand that you send us your list of explanations within the hour, as it would be a waste of time for Rupert to complete any of his current work if he does not understand your teaching philosophies, and he cannot move on with his education until you do your job. We have reached out at least once a week since the beginning of school for your rationale, and have not heard from you. Now it is May, and you have allowed an irreversible catastrophe to develop. Sincerely, Mrs. Rodo.”
Mrs. Langley wasn’t expecting an Amazon gift card or anything for Teacher Appreciation Week. But maybe the next parent email in her inbox would say “Dear Mrs. Langley.” That would be nice.
Mrs. Langley swallowed against the lump in her throat and double-clicked.