By Devin Browne
I’m a bit of a (metaphoric) cheerleader for my school, so let me give you some context.
I teach Russian (and sometimes French) at Brashear High School, one of Pittsburgh Public’s largest and most diverse schools. We are rich with diversity in terms of race and ethnicity, religion, and language of origin. Additionally, we have a visible and active population that identifies as LGBTQ (plus many visible allies), many of whom are members of the school’s Gender & Sexuality Alliance (GSA). In addition to teaching Russian, I’m also the advisor for the GSA.
From what I read about and hear from other teachers, what’s happening at Brashear reflects the situation in diverse urban schools across the country. Students not showing up. Students failing. Students struggling with mental health issues.
And students who are Black or Brown, students who are queer, students who are English language learners — these students are especially vulnerable. They are more likely to be affected by joblessness, housing insecurity, and increased exposure to Covid. Our kids at Brashear are facing some of the toughest circumstances in the country right now.
So when someone asks me how teaching during the pandemic is going, I’m honest: It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. Trying to engage with students who are actually there — but almost always with their cameras off — is challenging. I can’t tell if they get what I’m saying to them in Russian, I can’t tell if they understand the assignment, and I can’t tell if they are laughing at my corny jokes.
Trying to engage with students who have cameras off and don’t answer right away — or at all — can be downright demoralizing.
In the back of my mind, I vacillate between frustration and sympathy. I know that many of my students have more pressing issues than their Russian class. Some of my Uzbek students are working to help support their families, as many of their parents have lost jobs or have seen their work hours greatly diminished. Some of my LGBTQ students find themselves in situations where they are closeted 24 hours a day, with no freedom to be their authentic selves anywhere right now. I worry about anxiety and depression becoming the norm for these kids, and worry that we’re not raising children in our society to be strong enough to persevere through online school during an unprecedented global crisis.
All that said, it’s spring at last, vaccines are here or around the corner, and there have been some moments that uplifted my spirts when I really needed it. Six or seven students who were failing — I was convinced these kids would be held back an academic year — have pulled it together and are working hard to re-engage and catch up (knocking on wood as I type this; please keep it up!!). Three parents this year went out of their way to contact me and tell me that their kid loves my class (and that’s even after they learned a new alphabet). And more importantly, historically rigid institutions have bent and stretched to try to meet the needs of our neediest kids.
Brashear’s leadership team put several initiatives in place to support students (office hours on Wednesdays; shout-outs for hard work; calling hundreds of homes weekly, and trying to ensure the call is made by people who speak the same language as the family). Teachers call, email, message at all hours of the day, accepting late work, resetting that test so a student can retake it, doing that speaking test one-on-one over a Teams call.
Persad and Proud Haven and Dreams of Hope, important institutions in the Pittsburgh LGBTQ community, have reached out and shown up to support struggling queer students. And Pitt’s Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies bought and delivered supplies for my Russian students who were interested in learning about about traditional folk art and cooking. We’ve painted matryoshkas and wooden spoons, we’ve cooked Uzbek plov, all together over Zoom.
Our common struggles keep bringing us together. Teachers are working hard to support our students. And administrators and local organizations are working to support us.
And thank goodness. How else could I have gotten through this year?