‘Are you listening?’
The struggle to reach students you can’t see
For first-year teachers in Louisville, Ky., the challenges of remote learning go far beyond the screen.
By Bracey Harris
Illustrations by Bianca Bagnarelli for NBC News
March 9, 2021
This article about new teachers was published in partnership with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
On a hot Friday afternoon in late August, Amia Bridgeford stood outside of the chain-link fence bordering Western Middle School for the Arts, an imposing brick building with arched windows in western Louisville.
It was four days before the beginning of a new school year. Amia, then 21, a first-year teacher, would spend the next few hours passing out workbooks at the school’s drive-thru, where parents could pick up packets with their child’s schedule and coursework.
As the sun bore down, she hoped to see the faces of the students she was now responsible for. Her seventh grade social studies class, like every other in Jefferson County Public Schools, the largest school district in Kentucky, would be online.
Amia had time to share little more than her name as families made their way through the line. In a few cars, she spotted some of her students. It was the last time she would see most of them in person all year.
“I’m really stressed,” she said the night before the school year began.
Generations of educators can remember the nerves that accompanied their first year in the classroom, when inevitable missteps feel like crises and burnout pushes some out of the profession altogether. But this school year, for newcomers like Amia who are launching their teaching careers from cramped apartments, kitchen tables and living rooms, the challenges are even more acute.
Teaching from home means there’s no veteran colleague nearby to poke their head in and offer help when a class won’t settle down. Online, teachers lose the natural camaraderie that comes from planning periods spent in the teachers lounge.
Before the pandemic, the first year of teaching was known for the “phenomenon of tears,” said Elizabeth Self, an assistant professor at the Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University, describing the pressure that new educators are under as they figure things out.
The worst scenario, Self said, would be for the isolation to cause more turnover among this year’s new teachers.
“Higher numbers of brand-new teachers could leave, if they’re feeling that sense of disconnectedness,” Self said.
Brittany Johnston, an instructional support coach at Western Middle, said part of the learning curve that teachers face in their first year is building relationships. That means making sure kids know they have a space to disclose anything that’s going wrong.
But building trust with children in Louisville’s underserved communities, harmed by the vestiges of discrimination, poverty and trauma, takes work. And middle schoolers, already navigating a host of emotional changes, can be even harder to reach.
This year was particularly difficult, as students faced pandemic-related disruptions to their families’ routines, as well as the uproar over the police killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency room technician whose death last March sparked months of protests in Louisville.
The students Amia was about to meet online were particularly vulnerable. At Western Middle, 60 percent of the roughly 700 students are Black, 11 percent are Hispanic or Latino, and 70 percent are considered economically disadvantaged. All are groups that researchers worry will bear the fallout of disrupted learning during the pandemic.
Western Middle students have recently outperformed the district’s average test scores. No one wanted to see the students fall behind now.
The first month: ‘I was talking to dots’
Even before the pandemic, schools across the country have struggled with growing teacher shortages, and Kentucky is no exception. Almost 1 in 10 of the state’s educators left the classroom from 2010 to 2018.
Jefferson County, among the 30 largest school districts in the nation, has scrambled to hire enough certified teachers. More than 100 positions were unfilled at the start of the 2019-20 school year.
The nonprofit Teach Kentucky has tried to fill this gap by recruiting recent college graduates to work in the district’s schools for two years while earning a master’s degree in education. Many of the program’s participants have no teaching experience, so the organization tries to prepare them quickly with a two-month boot camp during the summer.
Amia, a St. Paul, Minnesota, native, studied Spanish and history at Marquette University in Wisconsin. She was still thinking about what to do after graduation in late 2019 when a recruiter with Teach Kentucky approached her about teaching in Louisville. During her junior year, she had contemplated adding an educational studies minor. The idea of being in the classroom was appealing.
Last summer she arrived in Louisville, as part of a cadre of 48 recruits from across the country.
Normally, they would have gathered in person for the boot camp, but this year the training was held online.
“It felt like we were driving toward an unknown destination in some ways,” said Kate Porfilio, a lead trainer for the nonprofit.
Veteran teachers tried to recreate the experience of virtual instruction by having participants do practice lessons of 20 to 45 minutes. The coaches mimicked scenarios, like frequent interruptions, that the new teachers might encounter.
A few weeks later, on a Tuesday morning at the end of August, Amia sat at the desk in her bedroom and logged in for the first class of her first school year as a teacher.
Dressed in a geometric print cardigan, black shirt and slacks, with her hair pulled back, Amia went over her expectations for the year and asked students to type their favorite movies into a chat box. She gave her 117 students their first assignment, a “Who Am I” project where the class could decorate a digital locker, or take a selfie sharing something about themselves.
For some students, it was the only schoolwork they would turn in for the semester.
Her lessons those first two weeks focused on exploring what makes an event, or figures, historically significant.
In the evenings, Amia tried to reach the dozens of families whose children hadn’t shown up for class or turned in assignments. She made calls and then sent emails, cautious of sounding judgmental. “Hi, I’m Amia Bridgeford, your student’s social studies teacher. I haven’t seen them. Are there any tech issues?”
Some parents replied that they would work on getting their child to show up. Others never answered.
Amia’s evenings were also filled with remote classes at the University of Louisville, where she and the other Teach Kentucky participants worked toward their master’s. In any other year, they would have gathered for pizza to celebrate their first month. But this year, even though there were some socially distanced meetups, not everyone felt comfortable attending.
Twelve miles south of Western Middle, at Stuart Academy, another middle school in Louisville, eighth grade math teacher Louis Redd was beginning to grasp how much his students were struggling.
Louis, then 22, who is in the same Teach Kentucky cohort as Amia, was also new to teaching in Louisville’s public schools, though he had worked in a private school in California the year before. Little of that experience seemed to translate to his new post. There were concepts, like plotting points on a graph, that the middle schoolers didn’t fully understand. He’d have to reteach material from the previous year, before he could start with the geometry lessons he’d planned.
The lost ground was troubling. At Stuart Academy, students scored lower in math, reading and science during the 2018-19 academic year compared to other middle schools in the district. Thirty-five percent of students were suspended last school year. That same year, 60 percent of the school’s teachers had less than four years of experience. Almost a third were on an emergency or temporary license, meaning they weren’t fully certified by the state to teach. Teach Kentucky participants receive a temporary license for three years.
Most of Louis’ students kept their cameras off for the duration of class. He spent hours with nothing but a PowerPoint and a grid of circles with students’ initials on the screen in front of him, trying to distinguish between students’ voices.
“I was talking to dots,” he said.
Not seeing students makes it harder to pick up on cues: slumped shoulders or dozing off during lessons that can let a teacher know something’s wrong. When a student’s camera is off, it could mean a spotty internet connection, but it could also mean they’re caring for siblings in the background, or hiding a bruised face. It’s hard for educators to know if the student doesn’t feel comfortable opening up.
Louis had to work around the gap by listening for awkward pauses, or delayed responses in the chat when he asked a question.
What would have been unremarkable in person, like seeing students’ faces or hearing them say they understood a new concept, were now rarities.
He counted it as a small victory when a student he had trouble nudging to participate called out one day: “Mr. Louis, we can’t see your screen.”
Fall: ‘I don’t know how I can tell my students they are safe and loved’
Louis and Amia are Black educators in a district with a thorny, and at times painful, history of desegregation efforts that even the district’s superintendent said “isn’t equitable.” And they work in a city haunted by a history of redlining, overpolicing, gun violence and entrenched poverty. Before the pandemic, the eviction rate in Jefferson County rate was double the nation’s average, with many of those losing their homes in Louisville.
And in a year that had taken so much, the killing of Breonna Taylor seemed one of the cruelest blows. White Louisville police officers fatally shot Taylor in March after they stormed into her home while executing a search warrant. The shooting sparked months of protests, and on the first day of fall, there was an unease in the city as residents and the nation waited for a grand jury to decide on whether to charge the officers involved.
On the afternoon of Sept. 23, Amia was teaching a lesson on Hispanic Heritage Month when news broke that the panel had decided not to charge the detectives with Taylor’s death, though one former officer was charged with wanton endangerment for allegedly firing blindly into a neighboring apartment. Amia started texting another Western Middle educator while trying to keep her composure. During a training later that afternoon, she turned her camera off to cry.
Amia wanted to address the decision with her students. The next morning, she told her homeroom class that she was there to listen to whatever they had to say. Inside, she was reeling.
“I don't know how I can tell my students they are safe and loved and wanted in society,” she said.
Across town, one of Louis’ students questioned the lack of charges. “If I do something bad, I get in trouble,” the teenager argued.
Covid-19 didn’t pause for residents’ outrage. As community members grieved over the grand jury’s decision, the risk of infection remained omnipresent.
In Jefferson County for much of September, 11 to 25 residents out of every 100,000 tested positive for the coronavirus each day, according to the state. Both Louis and Amia had students who contracted the virus. They also worried about changes in their students’ home lives, as families across the country struggled to find work, food, child care and health care.
On a Friday afternoon in September, Louis was in the middle of a geometry lesson on how the dimensions of shapes can transform when a student apologized for showing up late. The middle schooler said he had to help his younger siblings before he could log in for his own studies.
Louis paused. He wondered how many of his students were going through the same thing.
“How many of you have younger siblings at home?” Louis asked. “Put a ‘1’ in the chat.
“How many of you guys kind of need to help them out first before you can hop on?”
Several 1s appeared on his screen.
That fall, one student explained their parent’s instructions to Louis: “You need to help them first, before you can do yours.” Another confided that he sometimes missed classes to help his elderly grandfather move around the house.
On another day, a student apologized for leaving class early, saying his parents were fighting. The middle schooler had to break it up.
Louis asked, “Was it physical?”
The student assured him it wasn’t.
The challenges students face in Louisville predate the pandemic. On average, 84 percent of them graduate from high school, just shy of the national average. But at a handful of the district’s high schools, only 1 in 5 students receive a diploma. For some on the verge of dropping out, this year was enough to tip them over the edge.
For one of Louis’s students, this was his third time coming through eighth grade. In late October, he stopped showing up. Louis reached out to the middle schooler’s grandmother for help, but she couldn’t persuade him to stay. Later in the fall, another teacher told Louis that the student had dropped out and was working in construction.
It bothers Louis that they never met in person.
“Maybe, if I was able to see him,” he said.
Late fall: ‘Am I equipped to handle this?’
In 2020, Louisville witnessed its highest homicide count on record, with 173 deaths. One morning in October, a few minutes before class began, Amia asked students about their weekend. One shared that a family member had been killed by gun violence.
“Am I equipped to handle this?” Amia said. “It was hard to hear. In my head, ‘I don’t know how you’re here after going through that experience.’ It was really hard not to be able to see her.”
Her best option was to email a counselor and ask her to follow up.
At least every other week, Amia sends a survey to her students asking how they’re holding up. She was flagging responses she wanted to address in early November when she read the following: “I’m terrified if I have to fight for my rights at 12-years-old.” Another wrote: "Im great, but at the same time im scared that trump might win."
Asked if there was anything Amia needed to know, a student replied: “not really the majority of the time but sometimes I might not be able to be in your class cause my mom needs some help with stuff and work.”
As the semester wound down, Amia felt resigned that there were some students she would never reach. She worried that the time she spent trying to find missing students meant losing further ground with the ones struggling in plain sight.
She had repeatedly called the parents of kids who rarely turned in work, or showed up for class. Sometimes their attendance would bump up for a week or so, only for them to disappear again. Amia offered to work with students in the evenings, but few signed on. Short of physically joining them in their living rooms, she didn’t know what more she could do.
“I feel like I have students — I can’t log in for them, or be there for them,” she said.
Despite her exhaustion, there were bright spots. She joined a program called “Justice Now” dedicated to empowering students to organize projects around social justice issues important to them. Some of her seventh graders kept their cameras off during class, but called out goodbye when the hour ended. Others joined her once a week for a virtual lunch to play online games.
“I know most of their personalities now, even though I don’t know what half of my kids look like,” Amia said.
She had a chance to see a few of her students when she dropped off goodie bags filled with candy at some of their homes, before the start of winter break. The treats were rewards she had promised for the winners of one of those lunchtime games.
January: ‘We’re over it’
Returning from winter break, Amia sensed her students had finally hit a wall. She shared a question about the Medieval period on her screen and asked her classes to respond in the chat. But there was little participation.
“Are you still here?” she asked.
“Are you still listening?”
Growing desperate, Amia pleaded that she needed “some semblance of you being alive in the chat.”
The monotonous nature of online learning had taken its toll.
“We’re in the dead of winter,” she said. “It’s gray and gross outside. There’s nothing to look forward to. There’s no change. Students are just stuck at home all day long. And it just sucks. We’re over it. We want human interaction and not to be glued to our computers all the time.”
As Amia struggled to keep her class engaged, Louis’ Christmas trip home to Rialto, California, where Covid-19 infections were surging, had deteriorated into a family crisis.
He had self-isolated before leaving in late December and took precautions while he was with his family. He planned to fly back to Louisville on the first Saturday of the New Year.
But when the date arrived, his mother felt sick. Before the end of the day, she was in the hospital. She had contracted the coronavirus. Louis’ grandmother had it too — she died on Jan. 8, the day after Louis’ mother came home. Louis’ grandmother had worked as an educator in West Virginia and the U.S. Virgin Islands alongside her husband, laying the groundwork for Louis’ own career. She was 86.
Louis tested positive for the coronavirus as well, but he was determined to teach during his quarantine, as his mother and grandmother battled the virus in the hospital. He initially requested only two days off.
On Jan. 6, a Wednesday, he barely muscled up enough strength to teach for an hour. His voice went in and out. At times, he shivered. Winded, he decided to take the Covid-19 sick leave offered by the district. He resumed teaching from California on Jan. 15 and finally flew back to Louisville in mid-February.
Amia had a scare of her own after a potential exposure to the virus in late January forced her to quarantine for two weeks. In February, she received her first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.
Late winter: ‘I want to continue’
Amid the vaccine rollout, a local teachers union began gauging members’ comfort with reopening school buildings. In late February, the district’s school board approved a plan for middle school students to have the option of returning to classrooms part-time starting April 5.
Amia felt excited and nervous about the possibility. On occasion, her students pepper her with questions about when they’re coming back. With so much uncertainty, she had tried not to get their hopes up.
Louis has mixed feelings, too.
“It would be nice to put actual faces to names, or should I say dots,” he said. And he knew that for some teenagers, school was one of the few places they felt safe.
But he worried about what an in-person return would mean for students like the one caring for his grandfather. A potential exposure in class could put that student’s family at risk. Black and Hispanic Americans have been hit hard by the pandemic, eroding confidence in the ability of schools to keep their children, and by extension their families, safe.
There’s another question of “what comes next” that both teachers have to consider — whether they’ll stay in the classroom after this difficult year.
Louis is unsure whether he’ll keep teaching middle school, but he wants to stay in the profession.
“Teaching has always been around me,” he said, reflecting on his grandparents’ careers as educators. He’s long wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids who look like him.
“Teaching and education is the real way I can do that,” he said.
In a normal year, there are moments that can make even the most confident rookies question whether they’ve made the right choice. Amia has cried. She strained her voice hoping to hold the attention of middle schoolers she may never meet in person.
But she wants to keep teaching at Western Middle. She’s already started thinking of new material she can incorporate into the classroom next year.
“I want to continue doing it,” she said. “I haven’t taught in person yet. I have no clue what that looks or feels like.”