'Nightmares' of Black Zoom Boxes: A Day in the Life of an Oakland Remote Learning Teacher

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Whitney Dwyer at her home office in Oakland on Jan. 29, 2021, where she teaches Oakland Unified School District students through Zoom classes. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Jan. 27, 2021 ...

6 a.m. Whitney Dwyer wakes up to a text from one of her students. The storm has knocked his power out, so he may not make it in. He probably won’t be the only one. No electricity, no computer, no Zoom ... so no class.

Whitney’s been teaching at MetWest High School, in Oakland, for a decade.

She’s been teaching out of her home, also in Oakland, since March.

She looks at the news, in case something comes up in class. Like another Oakland homicide. Sometimes she reads those stories just to make sure it’s not anyone she or her students know.

With two-and-a-half hours until start time, maybe a run to the grocery store — she can’t bring her three kids with her, and it’s less stressful if they’re still asleep so her husband doesn’t have to keep track of them.

Out she goes. Breakfast is a slice of leftover pizza in the car. On the way home she makes a list in her head of the stuff she has to do before 9 a.m.

Wake her kids, get them dressed, feed them — cereal — and make sure Maxwell uses the potty. He’s 2.

8:30 a.m. Time for Brenden, 9, and Grayson, 7, to get on their computers for school. Maxwell gets blocks and puzzles from her husband. Whitney heads to the guest room, her new office. She sets up two screens and the half-dozen browser tabs she needs to teach. Google Classroom, Drive, Pear Deck — the various tech tools that keep her virtual classroom going. At first, she had a hard time adjusting; after all, she’d never even heard of Zoom before March.

When class starts, she texts each of the 17 students who have shown up for class. Four are no-shows.

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9 a.m. It’s go time, so she musters as much enthusiasm as she can.

“So our agenda for today: We are going to review with a lightning round,” she says.

She throws in a sound effect: “Pew! Pew! Pew!”

Nobody has their camera on.

“Your participation credit goes up if your camera is on,” she offers. “I’m feeling a little lonely.”

Nothing.

She does get tired of sounding desperate. Like, can someone just turn their camera on? It doesn’t even have to be aimed at your face — it could be pointed at a window.

More silence. Another thing she’s had to get used to. Classroom chatter is reduced to text shorthand: lol, lmao, omg, ty, yw. And of course: ?

Answers to her questions arrive by chat, too, often in private messages.

“Thank you, Leilani,” she says in response to an answer only she can see.

Silence.

“Oh — I don’t know about all that.”

Silence.

For everybody else, they're hearing half a conversation.

Today’s topic is Venn diagrams — using them to compare and contrast the agriculture of the Aztecs and Mayans. That means learning a new digital tool, so Whitney toggles between describing ancient farming practices and troubleshooting.

Teach, group chat, private chat, text. Teach, group chat, private chat, text.

When the topic of slave labor among the Mayans comes up, something almost like a normal class discussion begins. Almost.

“Imagine being dependent on slave labor —”
“I mean one could argue —”
“There are really low wages —”
“People in jail are basically slaves —”

Zoom keeps cutting one person off when another one starts talking, so it’s all jumbled and fragmented.

Conducting class this way has robbed Whitney of almost everything she enjoys about teaching. For one, she no longer gets to see the confusion in her kids that’s often followed by light bulbs going off. What's left are nightmares of black boxes.

10 a.m. “Bye y’all! Have a nice rest of your hump day.”

Class is over, but 16-year-old Memo Martinez stays on to get advice. He even turns his camera on. At MetWest, all students are expected to take on internships. Memo’s having a hard time picking one.

“Let’s just say I have one interest and then I’m like, ‘Oh! Why don’t I do this?’ he says. “And then after that, another interest happens. What if I go into cooking? Then I’m like, ‘Yo, bro, I don’t wanna.’ Then I thought, what if I work in automotives?! It’s just a bunch of what-ifs. I dunno ...”

Whitney says, “That’s great, that’s wonderful, it’s beautiful. Don’t ever change; it sucks to just have one interest.”

Yeah. This is what she misses most about teaching. She loves how teenage brains work.

10:28 a.m. Just two minutes to get to the bathroom before her teacher planning meeting. Where she can get professional and emotional support for colleagues, where crucial collaborations on lessons and strategy-sharing take place. Not to mention a healthy dose of commiseration.

“I only had two brave souls today that were down to read out loud,” she tells her colleagues.

“It’s harder than in school, it's surprising,” says another teacher.

“It’s like pulling teeth!" says yet a third. "We were quiet for a good 30 seconds.”

This is the closest thing Whitney has to the staff room these days.

11:30 a.m. Time to take over parenting so her husband can go back to work. That means lunch, homework, and bathroom time for Maxwell.

“It’s time to go to the potty,” she informs him.

Oakland Unified School District teacher Whitney Dwyer grades student's work in her backyard in Oakland on Jan. 29, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“I’m going poop.”

“Even better!”

She checks her phone. Twenty-six text messages, plus a bunch more spread over 11 different Slack channels. Some of the messages are about students who didn’t come to class.

Usually, most of Whitney’s students do show up. Some are doing well, and their grades and reading levels have improved since school went virtual. But others are taking care of siblings, or don’t have stable housing. One student, she’s lost track of altogether.

And then there’s her own kids’ academic progress. They’re doing OK, but she needs to find the time to keep them on task with homework.

12 p.m. Brenden is back in Zoom class. Whitney bounces between watching Maxwell and helping Grayson with his homework.

“Come on, you got this. You do this every day,” Whitney tells her 7-year-old, who today is not cooperating.

“I don’t do this every day!” he says. “I read it with my teacher usually.”

Whitney is losing patience. “Stop pretending to stab yourself in the neck with your pencil! Not funny. Not funny at all.”

This is the hardest moment, the hardest part of distance learning: knowing some students need more than she can give, and that her own kids may, too.

2:45 p.m. After putting Maxwell down for a nap, Whitney pleads with her sons to keep quiet so she can meet with school leaders over Zoom.

“Brenden! What did I tell you? I don’t know what’s going on, but Grayson is crying and that’s not OK.”

“OK,” Brenden replies.

Now she’s presenting a proposal for teachers to get more training on how to support students and parents who are dealing with trauma.

Because it does feel like death is all around.

As hard as it’s been to adapt — new tech, reduced teaching time, a new way of relating to kids — it’s the world students face outside her classroom that’s the biggest problem. That’s the thing she hasn’t been able to troubleshoot.

Her students have a stronger relationship with her than with anyone else on staff, so it's difficult to imagine who is going to provide that support. If not her, who?

So what’s the solution? More financial resources for families? Better mental health services? She’ll keep exploring these questions with her colleagues. Even though it’s just one more thing.

4 p.m. Meeting over. She takes the kids for a walk around the neighborhood. Back home, she needs to make sure their homework is done.

5:30 p.m. Dinner.

9 p.m. After making the meal, after reading with the kids, after putting them to bed, Whitney sits down.

To send work emails.

At her computer, she falls asleep.

One more thing pushed to Sunday night, when she’s regularly up until 3 a.m., catching up on the week’s work.

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