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Behind the Curtains of Virtual Classrooms Across Nations

It’s September and millions of students are meeting their teachers back in classrooms. This month is also special for teachers back in India as September 5 was fondly celebrated as Teachers Day.

India Currents spoke to teachers across the two countries to understand the challenges they have been facing since being forced into online classrooms in April 2020. While parents have been raising concerns and the government is busy formulating rules and policies on online teaching, the teaching fraternity has been stoically reinventing and upgrading themselves, notwithstanding personal hardships.

“First of all, the pandemic forced us, teachers, into technology. It was very difficult – especially for the senior ones – to take that path, but there was no choice,” says Mohua Gupta, primary school teacher, BD Memorial International School, Kolkata, India. 

Her peers agree. “It is one thing to know how to operate a computer and another to be able to systematically use it to teach an entire class of 25-45 students when you’ve never done it before,” shares Ms. Shobha Rani, a Biology teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, Greenbelt, Maryland. Ms. Rani has taught students of all grades for the last 21 years in America, and for 11 years in India before that.

18 months down the line, even senior teachers have become fluid on platforms like Google Classrooms, Zoom meetings, downloading and uploading images to mark corrections, making powerpoints and videos on all subject topics. They say it wasn’t as much the absence of chalk-and-blackboard or desk-and-chairs or pen-and-paper that caused the biggest difficulties in the first place.   

Ms. Mohua Gupta, a primary school teacher at BD International School

“I missed the children. The physical absence of children was a huge challenge because I was used to it for 24 years,” observes Ms. Gupta, with a hint of dejection. As if that wasn’t enough, many students couldn’t (and still cannot) attend online classes due to the unavailability of either device or internet connectivity issues. 

“Ma’am has become abracadabra!” exclaimed one child when the teacher lost connection during my daughter’s online class. She was explaining ‘magical mathematic tricks’ when the internet snag happened!

Carrying on, away from the tinkle of classrooms and beaming faces of students, teachers faced the double-edged sword of learning new e-tools for teaching age-old lessons online. They couldn’t share its emotional impact with their students or parents, but shockingly, grappled from within.

“Our lesson plans had to change suddenly to suit online teaching. It was a lot to learn in terms of online classroom tools and process everything quickly and impart students the same. I was not confident initially,” admits Ms. Rani, who at present is teaching Grades 9-12.

As large classrooms with expressive faces gave way to thumbnail size icons on gadgets during online classes, many students switched their videos off. Yet, others started chatting with peers on the classroom chat-box! Teachers wouldn’t understand whether their labored lessons are seeping in. 

“We cannot force students to keep their cameras on – County rules were passed against it, as some students feel conscious, or have backgrounds they don’t want to show… As a teacher, I had to encourage them, motivate them with games-oriented lessons, music, and even extra points,” says Ms. Rani.  

Navigating between classes is an enriching exercise for most during school hours. But online, it turned a woe. “From having anything between 5-7 hours of interaction time daily at school, now we had only 1.5 hours online for the primary children. Some children are extroverts, talking too much, while some are too shy to speak – I had to think about how to cope with them all. We cannot miss anyone,” shares Ms. Mukhopadhyay, primary school teacher of Mathematics from a reputable school in Kolkata, requesting anonymity. 

To tackle it all, teachers turned bedrooms/living into soundproof appealing virtual classrooms where concepts could be floated and shared. But is the child doing his bit of the work independently? “After getting the assignments, in many cases, teachers are left in the lurch to figure if parents have done the assignments, their tuition teacher or the child himself!” exclaims Ms. Mukhopadhyay. 

Grappling with these, on one hand, getting constructive feedback is what the teachers are longing for on the other. “It is demoralizing if you’ve worked hard and get negative feedback from students/parents. On the other hand, if there is no feedback, guilt sets in – maybe I’ve not done well enough to explain,” reflects Ms. Mukhopadhyay.

Ms. Mona Kothari, pre-primary teacher, Hitchcock School, Scarsdale, New York, had an experience of another kind since she taught online only for 3 months when the pandemic hit. “Fear wasn’t on my mind when we started in-person classes for our 2-5-year-old children from September 2020. Masks were mandatory for all and parents were not permitted at the school compound among other things. Surprisingly, all the children followed the rules. Not one child or staff fell ill during the entire session ending in June 2021,” she shares. She’s looking forward to the upcoming new session too thus, though many others fret of consequences otherwise.

But in the 3 months of her online classes, she also admits to having faced an immensely increased workload. A job that often started in the morning used to end by late afternoon in normal times. But now, has stolen precious hours of family and relaxation time. 

“Though we are not making as many videos compared to last year, we are regularly creating educative-cum-fun online quizzes for children to gauge how much of each topic have they understood. Numbers of online classes have increased this academic year starting in April 2021 (in India). There are reinforcement classes, query phone calls and assignments pouring in for correction after the classes are over. We are working from home for about 16-17 hours on every working day even now,” shares Ms. Mukhopadhyay. 

Ms. Shobha Rani, a Biology teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School

“At a personal level, although we were all working from home, we were loud enough to shut our doors in different bedrooms. My husband thought I was over-working, not paying attention to the house… You get distracted a lot – something is on the stove… let’s take the dog out for 10 minutes… now we have got used to it,” shares Ms. Rani.

In America, like in India till recently, most teachers were exclusively in the online classroom until March 2021.  As schools in America started experimenting with the hybrid model in April 2021 – where parents had the choice of sending their children to school or opting for online classes only, the teaching scene became further complicated. 

“From April-June 2021, we had very few students coming to school on select days of the week in the hybrid model, while most chose to continue online. I was teaching virtually simultaneously from the school premises as I taught the students present in class. Concentrating on and managing both is a big challenge,” explains Ms. Rani. 

Commenting that the world has a lot to learn from Finland, where the teaching community enjoys high respect and status, Ms. Rani sums up: 

“What is a teacher feeling? We are the last ones to be worried about even though we voice ourselves the most… It would boost the morale of all teachers – the future makers – if parents and students speak up and share one good thing their teacher did for them during the pandemic.”


Suruchi Tulsyan is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata, India.    


 

Our New Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy Brings Us Together

Loneliness is like a cold hand resting on your heart. It can tighten your chest, and make you desperate with longing for company and support. I have certainly felt it on many an occasion: while new to a place, recovering from a loss, a death, a fractured friendship. You may have too. It can only be shaken off by the warm hand of a friend, a loved one, or sometimes, even a stranger.

Vivek Murthy’s book Together, The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World was written before the COVID-19 pandemic and was published in April 2020. Many of its observations, however, have a heightened bearing in the pandemic. In an interview published in the LA Review of Books, Murthy defined it eloquently: “Loneliness exists in that gap between the social connection we need, and the social connection we feel is available to us.” In the book, he calls loneliness “the great masquerader” as it can appear in different forms such as “anger, alienation, sadness, and a host of distressing emotional states.”

Vivek Murthy comes across in this book as a gentle soul, deeply understanding of the feelings of loneliness from his own life experiences. This understanding, coupled with his medical training, scientific bent, intellectual curiosity, keen powers of observation, and obvious commitment to public health makes this a very readable, thought-provoking book.

His tone, sincerity, and story-telling skills reminded me of another physician and author, Abraham Verghese, whose book The Tennis Partner is a beautiful account of friendship, addiction, and loneliness.

Murthy starts by laying out the different types of loneliness identified by research: 

  • Intimate, or emotional, loneliness – the longing for a close confidante or intimate partner;
  • Relational, or social, loneliness – the yearning for quality friendships and social companionship and support;
  • Collective loneliness – the hunger for a network or community of people who share your sense of purpose and interests.

All three dimensions are needed for us to thrive; one may have fulfillment in one or two areas but still feel lonely.

Murthy makes the case for how loneliness has evolved, the scientific, neurological underpinnings. Throughout history and evolution over millions of years, humans have depended on community for survival. Together, humans were stronger and better able to withstand dangers, such as attacks by other groups. When one strayed or was separated from the group, one’s very life could be at risk. Hence, the importance of community is practically hardwired into us.

The science underlying loneliness, along with the implications to one’s health, is well researched by Murthy and presented with the requisite references. Dr. John Cacioppo, one of the founders of the field of social neuroscience, first likened loneliness to hunger and thirst, as an important warning signal with biochemical and genetic roots, calling it “a biological and social imperative rooted in thousands of years of human evolution.” The work of Dr. Julianne Holt-Lundstad, a health and social psychologist, showed that weak social connections can be a significant danger to our health.

There are fascinating accounts of research into brain activity during the times we are engaged with others. One of the most striking findings for me was to learn that the same part of the brain that responds to physical pain also responds to emotional pain. Connecting the dots, Murthy makes the connection clear: that people in emotional pain and despair often reach for a numbing drug or drink, as they might for physical pain. This is particularly insightful for the opioid epidemic, from which society is currently reeling.

Murthy’s relates several examples of how people’s lives have been affected by loneliness: children, young, middle-aged, and older adults, both men and women. His account of his own childhood, being bullied for looking and sounding different, will strike a chord with many who have struggled with fitting in and felt they didn’t belong. In a section of friendships among middle school girls, I paused to remember my own daughter’s deep sadness when a close friendship broke off. So many children go through this in middle school, a critical period in their social and emotional development. Support and love are essential to help them tide over such times, until they feel more secure in themselves.

Some of Murthy’s accounts of children subjected to toxic stress (from neglect and or abuse) were heartbreaking. He said studies that have shown, mercifully, that all it takes is one caring adult to prevent and reverse the effects. He gives the example of  Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America,  a non-profit which matches children with supportive adults in one-to-one mentoring relationships.

While the physiological underpinnings of loneliness are the same for all, circumstances may vary, and the effective countermeasure depends on individual inclinations, preferences, and reservations people may have. It’s no big secret or surprise that men are typically less inclined to openly share what is troubling them than are women. Their styles of communicating, and hence their preferred ways of seeking and finding comfort and support, are very different. For example, “Men’s sheds”, local non-profit organizations where men gather around a common activity, build trust, companionship, and community, is an initiative that was started in one locality in Australia and has spread to different parts of the world.

In the second section of the book, he speaks of the different ways we can connect with one another to preempt or assuage loneliness, and with that, be on the path to a healthier life and a healthier society. The circles of connection he describes track with the different types of loneliness; the friendship circles consist of:

  • an inner circle of close friends and confidants,
  • a middle circle of occasional companions, and
  • an outer circle of colleagues and acquaintances.

In a beautiful section on the importance of solitary reflection, Murthy encourages us to tune in to ourselves with an analogy to the heart pumping blood: while the heart pumps blood in systole, it is in diastole that the blood is supplied with oxygen. Hence, “pausing is what sustains the heart.” Art, music, reading, and being in nature are all experiences that can be enjoyed in solitude but make us feel connected with others. One shining example for me is that of Andrea Bocelli on Easter Sunday, singing “Amazing Grace” from the Duomo Cathedral in Italy at the height of the pandemic, bringing the whole world together as we all sat apart in fear and worry. I wrote of this and other ways we have been able to come together during the pandemic.

Murthy describes the three-way relationship between service, loneliness, and addiction. He quotes Rabindranath Tagore, India’s Nobel laureate poet, and from the scriptures of Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, all of which have service written into them. I was reminded of a prominent scientist in the bay area, the late Nagesh Mhatre, who would exhort people “If you are feeling down, find someone who is suffering more and help them. You will both feel better.” The very act of helping someone makes one feel more needed, less lonely, adds a feeling of self-worth.

There are several inspiring examples of individuals, a college freshman named Serena Bian, for one, who surmounted her feelings of loneliness and depression. Even with these inspiring anecdotes and observations, the second section doesn’t hold together as well as the first. There are newer problem statements: connecting kids in the digital age, seeking support from one’s community during parental crises. Parents struggle with childcare. When anything goes awry, a carefully constructed day can fall apart in minutes. While this book was written in pre-pandemic days, parents’ struggles have only become greater. Being responsible for months for children’s schooling from home has stretched many a family to breaking point. Those who must work outside the home have sometimes been forced to make a choice between work and caring for their children. Most of the time, the burden falls on women. The economics are sobering. There have been articles stating that in the workplace, the pandemic will set back women by decades.

While the last two chapters are filled with inspiring anecdotes, I am left wondering how all this can be formalized, how scalable the approaches are without a coordinated nationwide initiative. It requires effort, work, to build community, and it might take more energy than many have when they are burdened by their circumstances or depression.

In America, we live in a deeply individualistic society. Murthy seems optimistic of the ways in which we can build community even with everything that keeps us apart. I find myself less hopeful: since this book was published, we have had the most sobering, divisive period in American history since the struggle to end segregation. Building community seems harder now than ever. On the positive side, we have a new administration, of which Murthy is an important part, and perhaps there will be change for the better.

Towards the end of the book, Murthy’s states surprisingly that “as hard as we may work… the future will depend on our children. It’s up to all of us to teach them how to build a more connected and compassionate world.” Indeed it is, we must strive to be good parents. But are we to just kick the can down the road to our children? I was reminded of Greta Thunberg’s outrage at the 2019 UN climate summit when she exclaimed to the adults who had left things to her generation: “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back at school on the other side of the ocean. You come to us young people for hope. How dare you?”

This book presents an important concept that leads to a policy focus on child development. How about assuring social-emotional development at the national level, instead of relying on countless non-profit organizations to pick up where schools and society have dropped the ball? 

In Amanda Gorman’s powerful words, delivered at the inauguration of President Joe Biden.

“…our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation.

Our blunders become their burdens.

But one thing is certain:

If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our

legacy and change, our children’s birthright.”

Vivek Murthy has used his pulpit to shine a light on a key contributor to our health and well-being. This book explicitly callout loneliness as a critical contributor to much of what ails us, our physical health as well as the health of our society. If the purpose of the book is to increase awareness and understanding, it has succeeded. If it is to show a clear path forward, it falls short. A diagnosis is the first step. A remedy must follow. In the UK, in 2018, an initiative to combat loneliness was started at the ministerial level. It is not clear what progress has been made. Perhaps the US needs to follow suit.

Dr. Murthy is in a position to chart out the role the government might play, now that he is starting his second stint as Surgeon General, this time in the Biden administration. With his deeply realized perspective on loneliness and health, perhaps we can expect to see more work on this front.

All the best, Dr. Murthy, and Godspeed.

Upcoming Silicon Valley Reads book events are shown here.


Raji Pillai lives in the SF Bay Area and writes at www.rajiwrites.com where this article was originally published.