Hybrid Lessons

Spring 2021

By Jill Donovan

The years teach much which the days never know. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

I remember it feeling warmer than 61 degrees that afternoon. Perhaps because there were no clouds in the sky; perhaps because after several days of overcast and chilly weather, the campus was flooded in sunshine; perhaps because we were just 26 hours away from our 2020 spring break; perhaps because we were all starting to pay attention to the early pandemic realities out of Europe and the West Coast. Whatever the reason, as soon as seventh-period lunch ended that Wednesday, a handful of students hanging out in the still damp quadrangle became a giddy throng of nearly 30, 40, 50 deliriously playful teenagers—tossing Frisbees, chasing down footballs, shedding their jackets to laugh and romp like the little kids they once were. Did they sense that the world was about to tilt in crazy ways? Did they have any clue what was coming as we circled up on the cement apron alongside the STAR building during eighth period to tell stories and discuss spring poems?

My own gut had already been knotted for weeks. Because our then 20-year-old son, Liam, was leaving for his semester abroad in Germany on March 1, I had been obsessively monitoring the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard for more than a month.

“I won’t be going to Italy,” I told my husband, a full week before my school announced the cancellation of that scheduled spring break trip.

“There is nobody in this airport,” I noted, after we hugged Liam goodbye and turned to leave the eerily quiet international terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare.

“I feel as though we’re sending him into the middle of a hurricane!” I told my sisters, as we watched the COVID cases tick up in North Rhine-Westphalia, the exact location where Liam was heading.

“Get him out of there,” my colleagues said 10 days later, as college after college shuttered their doors and pulled their students out of Europe.

When we arrived on the Grinnell College campus the next day to collect our younger son, Keegan, and all of his belongings, college officials in neon orange vests told us we could “not enter the dormitory” and that we “shouldn’t even be standing on the grass.”

And so it began: the surreal launch of this truly surreal year. What follows are lessons I’ve learned along the way, grouped (as my young creative writers would be delighted to know) acrostically.


I’m teaching Alan Gratz’s novel Refugee for the first time this year. My seventh-grade students and I spent some time last week discussing the pivotal moment when Mahmoud, the young Syrian boy who prefers to stay invisible, helps his entire family survive a desperate middle-of-the-night moment in Turkey by boldly asking a stranger for help. This year, perhaps more than most, has taught me the importance of asking for and receiving help.

April and May 2020 involved steep learning curves for all teachers and students—figuring out how to teach and learn via Zoom, mastering the previously ignored nuances of Canvas, navigating the much murkier boundary between home and school, pivoting in multiple ways from in-person to virtual platforms, dealing with the thrumming undercurrent of uncertainty and weirdness. Truthfully, we all needed help. Looking back on those months, I think about the endearing ways my seniors encouraged me. On days when our overloaded home internet froze, on days when I had no idea that they could barely see or hear the scene I was attempting to show them, on days when my failed attempts to reach my stunned and restless seventh graders had left me in tears, those seniors helped. They smiled, they made jokes, they sent me notes, they bolstered my confidence. They also completed all of the reading I assigned and wrote lengthy and truly insightful posts on the Canvas Discussion Boards. After 30 years of teaching, I was a first-year teacher all over again; that crew buoyed me, and in so doing, became as dear to me as my very first students.

As we finished the year and moved into June, help streamed in from colleagues. The more technology-proficient teachers spent hours making instructional videos for the rest of us to watch; my seventh- and 12th-grade teammates and I spent days exchanging emails detailing our curriculum plans and book orders; our administrators spent weeks charting the nuts and bolts of the school’s hybrid protocol and sent biweekly updates to the faculty about what to expect. The Development Office bought every teacher a bottle of wine, Jason and Joy drove books over to my house, a neighbor sent over my first cloth mask, one of the directors at our church put a “This home is loved by Old Orchard” sign on our lawn. Once school started, our tech guy, Matt, helped me so frequently that we both nearly cheered the first time I made it a full week without issuing a plea for assistance. It was a bizarre and turbulent set of months, made better by this spirit of camaraderie and collaboration—this willingness to step into the gaps and help each other.

I have long been a proponent and practitioner of “gathering” my students when they arrive in class, and the hybrid year has made that practice vital. Because half of my students have been in the room and half Zooming in from home; because those of us in the room are positioned six feet apart and wearing masks; because points of contact are limited to body language and cheery waves and vocal tones and eye contact; and especially because I am managing a laptop, a microphone, a camera, an Apple TV, and five cords while teaching every lesson—greeting and collecting my students as human beings has never been more important. I think it’s largely this practice that has kept all of us in the game.

“How are you, Katie?” “I love your virtual background, Jack.” “What did you make for lunch today, Lilly?” I am real with them, goofy with them, kind to them—and they are likewise kind to each other.

“Here are your people!” I remind them, as I switch to the webcam and tilt it around the room. “Can you hear?” I ask the Zoom crew constantly, as I position and reposition the room microphone. None of this is easy, and when the cords come loose, or I forget to switch mics, or something glitches, I have at times felt less like an English teacher and more like a rookie audio engineer, but one of the most important lessons I think we’ve all learned this year is that reading and discussing and writing about literature requires first saying, “Hello.”

Teaching in a temporary space this year—the double conference room near the elevator on the second floor of the library—has been a complete blessing. Occupying the same building as six wonderfully kind professionals—librarians Kate, Sorsha, Kelly, and Kristin and veteran colleagues Mark and Bob—has involved several dozen meaningful “hellos” each week. Mark and I trade observations about politics and movies and spectacular sunrises; the librarians and I chat about books and family and school news; we have shared advisory tips and birthday cupcakes, Christmas cards and Valentine notes, outfit compliments and goofy Jazzercise moves. In sum, we’ve become an ad hoc community, another saving grace that has kept all of us in the game.


So much of what has made these six months of hybrid teaching challenging has involved the ongoing recognition that things are not normal. No part of the school day looks the way it used to: Morning assembly is different, class is different, lunch is different, clubs are different, athletics are different, the common spaces are different, the energy all over campus is different. The first assignment I gave to my seniors back in August was to write a personal reaction to Emily Dickinson’s “I Dwell in Possibility,” and while I’m amazed daily by just how resilient and creative we collectively have been in finding ways to make our current system work, every single one of us is simultaneously dwelling in a hoped-for better future—When we’re all back—When everyone is vaccinated—When we’re doing less Zooming—When we get to go to Drey Land [our school’s wilderness camp in the Ozarks]—When we’re all in the same room together—When things go back to normal. My students are conscientious, good-natured, and smart; my colleagues are brilliant, indefatigable, and dedicated. Those are the reasons that we have been able so consistently to say “yes” to this bizarre year, while fervently reaching toward the “yet” of the next one.


“You’re muted.”

Hearing that phrase, especially near the beginning of the year when I was still mastering my complicated tech setup, never failed to make me wince. Those words, particularly when delivered in a slightly annoyed or deadpan tone, came to stand for everything I found frustrating about hybrid teaching. I needed new contacts, my neck muscles ached, I grew weary of reminding students to turn their cameras on, and I was tired of staring into a computer screen all day long. Into that mix, autumn 2020 gave us vicious partisan politics, the punishing noise of social media, and the wildest election season most of us have ever lived through. No wonder it all felt like a burden. Still, we kept showing up.

“We’re doing the best we can,” I kept announcing to all of my classes, repeating it on some days like a mantra. On top of hybrid teaching this year, colleagues have lost parents, gotten sick, and dealt with a crazy menagerie of altered family schedules. On top of hybrid learning this year, students have gotten sick, have felt dispirited, and have no doubt grown weary of the endless cycle of disappointments. But we have kept showing up—kept doing the best we could—a discipline that has offered all of us a glimpse into the depths of fortitude and strength we carry within.


“You should paint like a man coming over the top of the hill singing.” — Robert Henri, American painter

I have long loved this Robert Henri sentiment, but it has never seemed more relevant as a life lesson than during this past year. Hybrid teaching has asked us to climb a steep hill, so it has seemed essential to find ways to rest (for me: reading, playing flute, baking, taking screen breaks), while continuing to move forward (swimming, jogging, walking, learning new things). Finding ways to keep wrestling with challenges, while also stepping away and recharging, has felt like wisdom. As poet Seamus Heaney once said, “Getting started, keeping going, getting started again—in art and in life, it seems to me this is the essential rhythm not only of achievement but of survival.”

Locked down and home for most of 2020, I read more novels than I ever have. Getting enough sleep, lingering at the dinner table with our grown sons, building fires in our rarely used fireplace, really noticing the seasonal changes in the woods behind our house—the past year has helped me (as I’m sure it has for most of us) to drill down on my priorities, my core values. I teach an Honors Senior Seminar called “The Holy Now,” but it has taken this wildly dislocating year to help me recognize how much of the “now” I’ve been missing—watching the little children play in the cul de sac in front of our house, chatting with our neighbors, shopping for and mailing Valentine gifts to my four sisters, exchanging newsy emails with my mom-in-law, taking walks with our college sophomore who has spent most of this year taking his classes from his bedroom. I’m baking more, I’m beating myself up less, I’m wearing tennis shoes more, I’m worrying a bit less. Paradoxically, the collapse of known rhythms has helped me establish better ones of my own.


As anyone who studies corporate trends no doubt knows, system-wide disruption—while stressful and challenging—can lead to incredible innovation. “How has this year altered teaching?” a parent asked me back in December during a sixth-grade family interview. “Well,” I answered, “the faculty as a whole has learned several years’ worth of tech strategies in six months.” I think about the fact that we’ve figured out new ways to do just about everything, while also retaining many of our core traditions. Consider a partial list of events the school has hosted, all in completely reinvented ways: seventh-grade camping/kayaking trips, multi-grade hide-and-seek, movie nights, dodgeball and Ping-Pong tournaments, bowling, hikes and bikes, a new ninth-grade student lock-in, advisory games, community service events, an ongoing array of virtual programming for parents—everything reimagined, everything vetted for safety. During arguably the oddest year on record—a year in which everyone has been put to the test—the magic that is John Burroughs School has persisted.


“What isn’t given to love is so much wasted.” — Guillaume Apollinaire

A few weeks back, Jaclyn stopped by and gave me several sheets of heart decals that she had picked up over the weekend at the Dollar Store. I immediately spent a few minutes affixing red clingy hearts to my classroom windows and whiteboards. Long a torchbearer for the compassionate “gift economy” at this school, Jaclyn is pure sunshine. She reminds me and everyone she touches that there is so much more to teaching than curriculum goals and gradebooks and software demands and rules. When I ponder Allison’s contest essay about her reverence for reading, or listen to Gavin’s impromptu explanation of the Hubble Telescope image depicted on his virtual background, or hear about Nathaniel’s selfless act of heroism on the cross-country course, or feel tears coming in last Monday’s morning assembly, the first attended in person by most of the senior class, I am reminded that teaching well is a vocation not just of the mind and intellect but of the heart. It is, in that sense, sacred, and no amount of craziness in our world will ever alter the tender beauty of human beings devoting time and care to teaching one another how best to live.
Jill Donovan

Jill Donovan ([email protected]) teaches English at John Burroughs School, St. Louis, MO.