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Rob Anderson: On The Frontlines Of The Pandemic As A Teacher In Springfield

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Rob Anderson
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Rob Anderson teaches science to middle school students at Reed Academy in Springfield.  He spent six years in law enforcement and said he "hated every minute of it."  

During a short stint as a substitute teacher, Anderson fell in love with teaching.  So, while continuing to work in law enforcement, he took classes and earned a second degree, this time in education.

He's been teaching for 16 years, but this school year is different.

How has COVID-19 changed things in your classroom at Reed?

"Dramatically.  The first part of the semester when we were doing the split schedule, I had as few as two students in a class. At one point I actually had one of them under quarantine, so I had only one student in the classroom at a time. And then on the other days I would have 10 or twelve. Not only that, there's been a significant amount of extra work...we just completed a lab today, for example, and I had to make sure I had enough equipment for every team to have unique equipment. I have to know who was on every team—so who touched what and sanitize it afterwards, you know, making sure that I have enough of all the materials for not just groups, but each group to have their own unique set of materials. So, that took a lot of extra planning.

I was going to say that had to take a lot of planning to be able to be where you need to be once you're actually in the classroom.

"Very much so. And the scheduling has also been interesting. I have always scheduled two or three days in advance. I like to see where my students are and then, you know, plan beyond that. With the split schedule, I had to plan a full week in advance and sometimes two full weeks in advance because I would see, you know, one group on Monday/Tuesday and then a different group on Thursday/Friday, and then back and forth. Well, trying to plan lessons that would carry over through that time period and also teaching the same lesson four different times was definitely a stretch."

Is it easier now that classes are back four days a week, everybody together?

“The stresses are different. I have a class of 26 students, and I'm in 100-year-old building. So, you know, when we're in our desks, we literally fill the room. I'm teaching physics, and so we're trying to do labs. I have enough students that if we're standing, we fill the room. So, keeping everyone distanced is impossible. Keeping everyone with their masks on is difficult because we're human beings and it's irritating. And it's--we're also 14, which makes it even harder. But over the extent of the time, the kids are handling it really well.  It is difficult. It is taking a lot more effort, but I think we're working our way through it.”

How have the students been doing as far as keeping their masks on and trying to stay socially distant? You're right, they’re 14-years-old.

“I would say 90 percent of them are doing a fantastic job. They're wearing their masks. Everybody gets reminded once in a while. There's a couple of them that we have to remind daily. We have a lot of nose peekers, you know, 'pull your mask up, pull your mask up, pull your mask up.' One of the big issues is, you know, being again, being 14, they find ways to rebel. They figured out that if they're eating, they can take their mask off. So, we've had a number of them that have made it their intent to walk through the halls with a candy bar. That way they're eating. So they take their mask off.”

So, there’s a lot of extra work for you as far as not only the planning and making sure everything's clean before another student touches it and all that, but there's a higher degree of discipline it sounds like.

“There is.  I am impressed at how well most of the kids have done most of the time, but it has definitely taken more of us. You know, we're in the halls every hour.  We are with them at lunch. And, you know, we have to keep an eye on them. It's stressful to them, which means it's stressful for us to police.”

How has the pandemic impacted your ability to teach the way you would like to be teaching?

“It's very difficult. My class of 26 right now, today, I only had 10.  And I have to maintain the same rigor. I have to maintain the same standards for the kids that I have this year as the ones that I had last year. So, for the 10 that were in the room, it was great. We did the lab exactly as I intended.  For the 16 that were out either on quarantine or sick leave today, I'm going to have to come up with an alternative assignment to give them the same information.”

Anderson had the option to receive a stipend to teach virtually as well as in person, but he decided, for his mental and physical health, to opt out.

"I have pangs of guilt because a lot of my colleagues are doing both, and they're under a lot of stress.  They're under a lot more stress even than I am because they're doing this eight, 10 hours a day and then they're going home and doing two or three hours of the digital also. And part of me feels guilty for not taking on that role. Part of me looks at the situation and says, ‘no, I did this to protect myself. I'm doing the best I can for the students I have.’"

Back at the beginning, you know, schools closed down in the spring, and so you didn't have to worry about the pandemic so much then. But then as the school year approached in the fall, how concerned were you about returning to the classroom?

"I was terrified. My wife is immune compromised. She's a teacher at Missouri State, and she chose to teach virtually only. I seriously considered that. And the two of us had a lot of heart to heart time. And what we decided is that as long as one of us was home, the other one could be out. So, we're doing something very similar to what she heard from a doctor friend of hers. When I get off work, I go straight into the back bathroom. I strip entirely and shower, clean up before I ever come into the rest of the house.  I change my shoes when I get to work, and I put on different shoes when I go home, trying to make sure that nothing that I take with me goes into the main part of the house."

Because you're around so many different people on a given day.  How many students do you interact with if they’re all there?

"If they’re all there I have 130, but I also have hallway duty--so one third of the school. I could easily come into contact with 250 students in about five minutes."

They just recently changed the quarantine rules. You know, you don't have to quarantine if you both were wearing masks if you're in contact with someone, for students anyway.  How do you feel about that?

"I'm terrified. You know, the numbers seem to indicate the students are doing OK. They're not getting and passing the disease. I find that problematic. I don't understand the science well enough to know why they wouldn't be passing the disease. But the people that are in charge are telling me that that's safe. I am very uncomfortable with that. But, you know, I'm here to teach kids. I do my best to stay as far away from them as I can in a room where we're all standing next to each other."

What about dealing with the emotional stress of it? First of all, let's talk about the students. How are they dealing with it?  Are they talking to you about their anxieties and concerns?

"Some.  I've had to pry a little bit. I do daily questions that are responded to privately. And every now and then I'll throw one in, usually it's, you know, curriculum related, but I'll throw one in every now and then about emotional state. And I do get some responses. Most of the kids, they're either oblivious or they're choosing to be oblivious to kind of , ‘like it's not a big deal.’ You know, they don't they don't see a threat, really. And then there are a few of them that are in absolute panic. I've had some of them say that that they're having nightmares. I've had a couple of students who skip several days. You know, they just had the parents call in sick for them. And they've told us flat out that, you know, they're afraid to be here."

How do you help them deal with it? You said something about private messaging. Talk a little bit more about that.

"It's part of our Canvass system. I do basically a bell work question. I call it a question of the day. But once a week or so, I throw in a social/emotional question. And last week, one of the questions was, how has the pandemic affected you? And a lot of students were pretty honest and said it really hasn't affected them. They just got to have some more time off school. A few students said that they're stressed. And I've had a couple of students say that they were absolutely terrified--that they're having nightmares and they're, you know, they're concerned about getting it. They're concerned about giving it to their elders. And, you know, so these are real stresses."

How do you deal with the stress of teaching in a pandemic?

"Partially…self care. I made a point of not taking on extra duties. I have not started any clubs this year, which normally I do. I miss that, but that's something I've had to let go. I am planning on coaching archery, but we will do that very carefully and distancely.  Specifically, my wife and I have been taking drives. She loves to travel. We go two or three plane trips every year, and we haven't since last October. So, on the weekends we get in the car and find someplace on the map we've never been, and we don't usually get out of the car until we get back home. But we go drive through the country and see the small towns and places we've never been. And, you know, it gives us a chance to talk without screens in our faces, and we get away from everything else."

What is a typical day like for you at Reed?

"Well, I'm up about 5:30 and doing my usual morning stuff so I can be here before 7. We have students in the building as early as 7:25. They are not allowed actually into the building until then, but they'll be sometimes waiting outside well before that.  By 7:40, they're in my classroom.  We have breakfast available, so they are actually eating in the classroom, which means, you know, no masks for that period of time. And then by eight o'clock I start my first class. I've got two classes back to back and then a team meeting, which means all of the adults on my team get together, and we talk about whatever the business of the day is.  Three more classes in a row with no break. And then--the end of the day is my conference time. So, I'm sitting here now talking to you."

Being in a packed classroom with students who have their masks off to eat can be anxiety-inducing for teachers, including Anderson.

What do you do during that time and how do you keep yourself safe?

"I keep my mask on. I do not eat here. I ask them to separate as much as possible. Again, they're 14.  They’re social creatures, and there's nothing more fun than sitting down with your friends and having a snack. So, that is a bit of a stressful time. Fortunately, my first hour classes are small, and so those that do eat tend to separate off by themselves, and everybody else goes to the other end of the room. I monitor the hallway, so I'm sort of in the doorway in between the classroom, in the hall, and I keep my mask on."

It's got to be hard. I mean, you go into teaching because you love kids, you love teaching. You want to, you know, impart knowledge to these young people and shape them as they're growing up. And then this pandemic comes along and throws this big wrench into it. How frustrating is that for you?

"It's horribly, horribly frustrating. You nailed it on the head. I love teaching. I love kids.  That that aha moment is what got me out of law enforcement and into the classroom. I have seen students discover a fraction and understand what a cell does. And those moments when they truly comprehend something is the most passionate thing in the world that I've ever experienced. And I love it. And this pandemic has reduced that. Now, I'm still getting it. I still have a few kids. I still have a few moments--just not as many. And there's a lot more of the other stresses also."

What else would you like people to know about you and teaching in a pandemic?

"Teachers are under a lot more stress than people think they are.  One of the things that has really impacted me personally and I think probably a lot more teachers than they realize is there is a culture of toxic positivity. Yes, we’re teachers.  We’re positive people. We love what we do. We love our kids. But we're also human beings, and we're fathers and husbands and wives and sisters and everything else. And, you know, we're under a lot of stress to make sure that our kids are safe.  We're under a lot of stress to make sure that our families are safe. And, I can't speak for anybody else, but I can definitely speak for myself. I have been in panic mode for an extended period of time. I'm controlling it day to day. I make a point of taking my personal time, and I've slowed down my lessons a little bit.  I make sure I spend time with my pets and my wife and talk to my kid on the phone. So, you know, it is stressful."

There are nine teachers on Anderson's team at Reed, and only two have not had COVID-19 or had to quarantine because of exposure, and Anderson is one of them.