Teaching synagogue school classes on Zoom reminds me of the terror of my early weeks of teaching last September, as if I’m balancing on a thin rope five hundred feet in the air. It took months for that feeling to dissipate in the first place, but Zoom brought it right back. Part of the problem is that I have to use Mom’s laptop, instead of my familiar desktop computer, because my computer doesn’t have a camera or microphone. But more of the problem is that I’m afraid I will bore the kids, or run out of things to say, or accidentally end the Zoom when I only mean to share my screen. I hate the idea that I could put so much work into it and still fail.
My first attempt to teach a class on Zoom was harrowing – not so much while it was happening, but in the aftermath, when I could hear my own thoughts again. I was asked to do the first Zoom as an experiment, to see if more kids would come to a Zoom than to lessons on the website. Since this Zoom would be for all sixteen kids at once, instead of broken into two classes, I planned it as a get together, give myself time to get used to the technology, and focus on reconnecting with the kids. About half of my students showed up, plus my teacher’s aide, and five dogs, and I lost track of the hand-raising and muting pretty early on, but they all stayed engaged for more than an hour, and shared their stories from the shutdown. So, of course, once the Zoom was over, I spent the next few hours beating myself up for not planning a real lesson, and then wondering why the rest of my students didn’t come and worrying that they must hate me.
For days afterwards I felt like I was having a low grade heart attack, because of the Zoom itself and because now I knew I’d have to do a second one.
In the second Zoom I planned to teach both of my lessons for the week (one Hebrew and one Judaic Studies), which meant I’d have to share my screen, and manage the hand raising and muting, so I asked my teacher’s aide, a brilliant teenage girl otherwise busy writing research papers on game theory, if she could co-host the class with me, and she agreed. Thank God. Teacher’s Aide is the wrong term, actually. We use the Hebrew word Madricha, for her role, and I’ve seen it translated as counselor or guide, so maybe Teacher’s Guide is the best way to describe her.
After some serious outreach by the principal of the Synagogue School (my boss), more of my students came to the second Zoom. We did Show and Tell at the beginning of the session, to give the kids a chance to share objects that had helped them through the shutdown (dogs were a popular theme), and they all participated. But when I tried to start the actual lesson, with a list of Hebrew words on our shared screen, kids started to fill the chat box with “No, no, no, no, no, no, no,………!” They continued to complain for the rest of the hour, though they still did the work, which made me feel like we were back in our classroom, on familiar ground.
I still felt like there was a rip in the time/space continuum after the second Zoom was over, though. I was pretty sure that the computer’s camera was following me around the living room, critiquing what I ate for lunch, and tsk-ing when I changed back into my pajamas. I got back to work as soon as possible, sending out the next set of emails to my students and their parents, and typing up a schedule for the next Zoom, just in case my boss was watching me somehow, from somewhere. I had to rely on big doses of chocolate and pasta to finally reduce my anxiety level to a more manageable (EEEEEEEK!!!!) level, so that I could take my afternoon nap.
The third Zoom had big technical difficulties. First, we couldn’t log in for the first fifteen minutes, and then videos refused to play, and words were cut off of various documents. But I stayed calm, strangely enough, and managed emails with the parents and phone calls with my boss, and I even taught everything in my lesson. One of my straggling sheep was clearly unhappy to be back in class, and another one’s father had to keep pushing his rolling chair back to the computer, and even though I’d seen fourteen of my sixteen students I was still worried about the last two. Were they okay? Were their families okay? Did they hate me? Because I thought they liked me! WAAAAAHHH! But then, towards the halfway point of the class, one of my last two sheep straggled in, and smiled at the camera, and laughed at my jokes, and the world felt like a sweeter place.
Of course, I was still anxious after the third Zoom, worried that I’d forgotten too many details from my lesson plan, and failed to call on all of the students, and maybe I was too strict, or too lenient, or too something else I couldn’t think of yet. I was also wondering where my sixteenth student could possibly be, though a tiny part of me felt like, maybe, I’d accomplished something good.
By the fourth, and final, Zoom in two weeks, the kids had hit their limit of relatively good behavior and started begging to leave early, clamoring for games instead of lessons, and complaining that there was no candy coming through the screen. But, my sixteenth student came to that final Zoom; and we all made it through the lesson plan (with some judicious editing). The kids even let me say goodbye to them, and wish them well.
We still don’t know what will be possible, in terms of large gatherings and classrooms and such, come the fall, so I’m going to have to keep practicing my Zoom skills in case I need to run classes without the help of my genius Teacher’s Guide. And I’ll have to plan for both in-person and Zoom versions of everything, just in case. But, I did it. I survived, and not just the Zooming, but the whole year of teaching synagogue school. I didn’t really think this was something I could do, or something I would enjoy so much. I really, really liked spending time with the kids; I liked getting to know how their minds worked, and figuring out how to teach them and motivate them to learn. I wish we could have ended the year in our classroom, with chocolate chip cookies and art projects and singing and dancing and utter chaos. But maybe that’s something to look forward to next year.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?