Lansing teachers work from home uncertain about jobs, education

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Sixth-grade teacher Mikaila Davis of Lansing poses for a portrait outside her home, Wednesday, May 13, 2020. She has had to finish the school year teaching her students at Sheridan Road STEM remotely. (Photo: Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal)

Mikaila Davis wanted to be the teacher she didn’t have as a second grader. 

Most of the teachers at her majority black school in Mississippi were white. As the only white girl in her class, Davis noticed her teacher treated her better than her black peers. 

Davis vowed to become a teacher who built relationships with all students while treating them equally.

But these days, she’s facing the challenge of building relationships with students online as effectively as she did in person. She’s also worried about equal education for those who can’t speak English well and those without internet access. 

She is now a sixth-grade teacher at Lansing’s Sheridan Road STEM Magnet School, where two-thirds of the students are immigrants and refugees. 

“There is talk of online education next year and how we are forgetting a whole group of people who don’t have access to those resources,” Davis said. “It’s sad we had to have a pandemic happen to discuss equity in education.”

She’s already seen that not every student joins in online or has the ability to do so. Reaching all parents hasn’t been easy. Students who freely shared their lives and traumas have become tight lipped. And ascertaining who is understanding concepts and who is struggling has become difficult.

“I don’t have children of my own,” Davis said. “They feel like my kids. Not being able to reach them is terrifying. This time is so challenging.”

Students who are offline

CheyennePeters misses the relationships she had with students at J.W. Sexton High School. She cried when schools closed in March. 

“It was heartbreaking,” said Peters, an Algebra and personal finance teacher. “I assumed we’d be out for six weeks and pick up where we left off. Granted, I will see some of them, but I won’t see the seniors.”

Peters teaches 200 sophomores and seniors. Not everyone is participating online, she said. 

She already knows some of the 30 students in her first-hour class don’t have access to computers, something the Lansing Public School District’s new remote learning plan is meant to remedy, though at least one parent told the Lansing State Journal it hasn’t always been possible. 

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“At least a quarter didn’t have a computer,” Peters said. “A majority had internet access.” 

Students often text and email her at odd hours, depending on when they’re doing school work. Sometimes Peters answers the late-hour correspondence just to maintain connections.

“I have to mentally tell myself ‘It’s 8 p.m. Shut it down’,” Peters said. “That’s a challenge — learning to not keep working all day and night and set boundaries. It’s (related to) not having that physical interaction with students.”

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Difficulty building community online

Teaching online has changed Davis’ relationship with her 28 students. 

Many of the students shared their personal stories, including their traumas. Now there is silence.

“Everyone is going through different things,” Davis said. “It’s hard to connect with students and get in contact with them.”

Her mentoring role as a teacher and a soccer and basketball coach has lessened as she spends more time speaking with parents and providing them with resources.

“I strongly believe if the relationship is not there, academics don’t matter and won’t come,” Davis said. “I worry about moving forward if we are online and how will I build connections (with new students) without having been in person.”

Teachers are required by the Lansing Public School District to check in with students twice a week on Zoom.

To build community online, Davis offers a daily Zoom check-in at 2 p.m., where students can do fun activities, such as scavenger hunts. 

Only 10 to 15 students participate, she said.  

Cuts to education in Lansing

Davis is not only worried about her students but the overall future of public education. 

“There are rumors of funding being cut legislatively,” she said, “and how that could affect our jobs.”

K-12 education could see a 25% state cut to its funding as a result of the pandemic, state Sen. Wayne Schmidt said on Tuesday. Schmidt, who chairs the senate’s education budget subcommittee, said he believes the cuts are unavoidable.

The Lansing Public School District interim Superintendent SamSinicropi believes cuts are coming. He’s just not sure how much. 

“I don’t know what the percentage decrease is going to be, but I’m certain there will be a decrease of some kind,” he said. “It will affect us in a lot of ways, such as our ability to do the things we’re doing now. Because of the school closures, we knew it would be difficult to put something together.” 

Davis has decided to focus on the things she can control. That includes providing help to students whose families don’t speak English. 

“I have a(Swahili-speaking) student who was having issues enrolling in seventh grade,” she said. Sheridan Road serves students from fourth to sixth grade only. “I reached out to our two (English-language learner) teachers to help walk him through the steps. Sometimes it’s hard to reach out to families because they don’t have translators. We are lucky to have translators.”

A tough time for teachers 

Working remotely has required changing how Peters teaches math to students. 

Many of them are visual learners, so she uses Microsoft Whiteboard and Show Me on her iPad and an Apple pencil to demonstrate math problems during video conferences. 

“When a student is lost, I’m able to see it on their facial expressions,” Peters said. “Since I can’t always see their faces, I don’t know when they are confused. I’m rethinking all the physical cues I’m used to and am having to navigate teaching without them.”

As teachers work from home, they’re doing it without the usual in-person support from their fellow teachers.

“This time for teachers is hard,” Davis said. “We are used to being around each other and talking about hardships in teaching. We are trying to help students learn, but we don’t have each other to connect with as well.”

Detroit Free Press and Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact LSJ reporter Kristan Obeng at KObeng@lsj.com or 517-267-1344. Follow her on Twitter @KrissyObeng.

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