Photos by Keith Birmingham | Text by Ariella Plachta
When doors to Southern California schools closed in mid-March, public school teachers were given anywhere from a couple days to a few hours of preparation for “distance learning” amid the burgeoning pandemic.
They photocopied and stapled packets of schoolwork in a flurry, many with no idea just how long they would be away from their classrooms. With students’ education interrupted, methods have varied from one virtual classroom to another.
For students, a persistent “digital divide” between those with and without access to technology at home threatened to deepen educational inequity. Education experts warn of long-term harm to students dealing with isolation or home troubles as job losses continue to mount.
School leaders, after planning for online graduations and virtual summer school, are now warning that a fall return to campuses can’t happen safely without more state and federal funding in the wake of coronavirus-spurred budget cuts.
All the while, teachers rolled with the punches. They started teaching Zoom lessons from the park, carved out work space on the porch or in the bedroom, and in some cases helped their students’ families buy food.
Photographer Keith Birmingham was eager to snag portraits of a few of these educators in their home-teaching environments. Here’s the result:
Mira Katz Smeltzer
Long Beach resident | AP Language / 11th grade English teacher | Wilson High School, Long Beach
Smeltzer sits every day at a school desk plucked years ago from the Long Beach Unified warehouse, a relic from which she teachers in a corner of a bedroom.
She called all 175 of her students to discover that many were working to supplement their family income in the the wake of pandemic-spurred job losses.
“We know that they can’t be on that Zoom call at 9 a.m. because they’re at work, so we’re trying to get them the education in any way we can,” she said. That means recording every video call, posting every which direction and sending reminders.”
Pasadena resident | 3rd grade teacher | Dayton Heights Elementary, Glendora
Working from her half-office/half-nursery, Daley said she’s struggling to teach while caring for her 1-year-old and 5-year-old. She’s also making herself constantly available to parents stuck on an assignment.
“Last night, I had parents texting me, asking me to do things for them at 11:30 at night. In the mornings it starts at 5, 6 a.m.,” she said.
Daley’s baby got so jealous of her students getting all the attention on Zoom one school day, she peed on the couch and took off her diaper to poop on the floor in protest.
Whittier resident | 2nd grade teacher | 92nd St. Elementary, Watts
The pandemic has made Cardenas realize how impossible teaching is if students don’t have the resources. Even after L.A. Unified distributed laptops, some of her students — living predominately in Watts — still don’t have internet access.
“Just because schools closed doesn’t mean learning has stopped. But yeah, it’s tough,” she said. “A lot of my students have parents who are immigrants that have lost their jobs, and don’t have food. I donated money to families. I’m not gonna let my students not have food.”
Pasadena resident | 6th grade teacher | McKinley School, Pasadena
Partma’s students had a fairly easy transition to online learning, thanks to heavy use of web platforms before the shutdown. About 85% of her students are actively engaged on Google hangouts. Her assignment for students to create their own meal recipe and cook dinner for their family was a hit.
“They seem to be really flexible and handling it well,” she said. “One of my families surprised me on Teacher Appreciation Week and came by to bring all these treats and say hello from afar.”
Palos Verdes Estates resident | STEM teacher | Palos Verdes High School
In a class usually full of “aha” moments when a pre-calculus or engineering concept clicks with a student, Loh-Norris laments the inability to tell whether a student is catching on via video chat. She feels like she’s simply feeding them the material instead of helping them discover it.
“A lot of the time, the kids’ box (on Zoom) will just have their name on it, and not turn their camera on,” she said. “But when they turned their cameras on it made me really emotional because I miss them and won’t get to see them or say goodbye.”
Shaina Joy Montiel
Whittier resident | Special Education teacher | Jordan Elementary. Whittier
Montiel teaches students with auditory and visual learning disabilities or mild autism, mostly belonging to monolingual Spanish speaking families and without home internet. She said she’s aiming to balance efforts to keep students from regressing without putting too much stress on them during a difficult time.
“At first it was pretty confusing, just to try and make a schedule so all the kids can meet,” she said. “One of the biggest challenges for me personally has been not really getting to meet one-on-one with the kids because some are not accessing classrooms at all. They’ve just kind of gone MIA.”
Palos Verdes Estates resident | 3rd grade teacher | Silver Spur Elementary, Rancho Palos Verdes
From the makeshift virtual classroom she set up in her bedroom, Gagnon said about a third of her students are finishing all their assignments and another third are struggling.
“I’ll tell you, in the Zoom, it’s very funny — they act in the same way as they do in the classroom. I have to keep muting the same children,” she said.
Indu Dara Afandalor
Fontana resident | Special Education teacher | Stanton Elementary in Glendora
Teaching new material has been difficult in Afandalor’s class, with a wide range of student ability and engagement. Time will allow teachers to figure out how to “do online learning with more integrity,” she said, but the hardest part has been being apart.
“Missing this last part of the year, you didn’t get to say goodbye to your kids and you get so attached to them. I know that sounds funny — they’re not my kids,” she said, becoming emotional. “It’s a weird thing and it’s a sad thing. I think the hardest part of this isn’t the teaching part, it’s getting ahold of yourself.”
Carrie Wade Peck
Hacienda Heights resident | On special assignment | Nelson & Sunset elementary schools, La Puente
What better place to do a water displacement lesson than from inside an inflatable boat? That’s what Peck asked herself before she bought a boat and filmed herself delivering a density lesson in her backyard pool.
“I’m a little bit crazy, I like to do things that kids will remember even if they won’t remember everything they learned,” she said. “Shapes can appear to be the same size — like a watermelon and a bowling ball — but which one is going to float and what molecules will cause it? Next week, I’m going to take them to the arboretum and hang out with peacocks to learn about pollination.”
Altadena resident | Assistant Principal | Roybal Learning Center, Los Angeles
After getting a little stir crazy on the kitchen table, Sandoval set up a four-person tent in the backyard so she can get work done every day along with her 4-year-old and 8-year-old children. To people who think teachers have it easy teaching online, she said, think about their training.
“Teachers are trained in a very specific way to teach, and these teachers have not necessarily learned how to teach online instruction so they’re basically learning a whole new way of teaching this semester,” she said. “It’s just like anyone’s first year at a new job. It takes more time to get your own systems, practices and procedures in place.”
Covina resident | Spanish dual language Kindergarten teacher | Manzanita Elementary, Covina
From her home office at the kitchen table, Hernandez posts daily lessons for students and meets in a virtual classroom with her dual language students twice a week. She said out of her 24 students, 90% connect with her on a daily basis.
“It’s been interesting to add things to spark their interest and keep them engaged with reality here at home, like the life-cycle of a butterfly. I did my lesson outside with caterpillars,” she said. “That’s what I would do in the classroom, bring reality in and then add vocab to it. Now they’re just seeing it but we’re not engaging in it together like we used to.”
Pasadena resident | 5th grade teacher | Dayton Heights elementary, East Hollywood
With her paperwork on one arm of her lawn chair and coffee on the other, Burgos has been leading her 5th graders on fun and engaging virtual field trips.
But her teaching savvy online didn’t come easily. Her first Zoom call was a mess, with students chatting away and paying her little attention.
“I was like ‘Who can hear me?’ and no one listened. I just couldn’t handle it, it was so overwhelming that I ended the meeting and started crying,” she said. Things ran more smoothly once she learned to mute everyone but herself.
Irvine resident | AP Calculus and integrated math teacher | Irvine High
Teaching six classes via three periods a day, Chang uses Google Meet in between conferences. He’s getting emails from students dealing with issues at home, like taking on a job to help their parents or seniors who have already “checked out.”
“The relationships are harder to build,” he said. “I can’t easily check on a student. Sometimes I see a student in the hallway and ask how they’re doing, but now I don’t have that luxury. I can’t see what they’re going through.”
Deuwertje “DJ” Kast
Chino resident | Science teacher | Joint Educational Project, USC
As part of a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program at her school, Kast is doubling down on her grocery-store science methods, like creating buoyancy lessons out of bowls of water, aluminum foil and a penny. Come campus re-openings, she’s excited to rev up the 3D-printer to make protective masks.
“Being a teacher is very inventive and I’m seeing a lot of that now,” she said. “I’ve seen teachers take their students on virtual field trips, doing all kinds of Zoom demos. I think it shows how resilient our teachers are.”
Riverside resident | 4th grade teacher | Avalon Elementary, Riverside
As McJunkin teaches from home, she has tried including her son in assignments that she’s leading with her students, striving to balance both responsibilities.
“No matter how engaging a lesson can be or how fun you are as a teacher you can’t control their environment, so you have to be flexible,” said McJunkin. “I have several kids who’ve been feeling very lonely, and their social/emotional needs are not being met.”
Long Beach resident | 2nd grade teacher | Lincoln Elementary, Lynwood
Every so often, Nguyen walks around with her students (virtually, of course) at the park down the street from her house. She wants people to know teachers are working hard to think outside the box when their long-established routines have fallen apart.
“I just kind of walk around with the kids outside for an outdoor scavenger hunt, or sometimes I just sat there with my school stuff because it was a little more exciting than my living room,” she said. “We’re learning all these new technologies to find something uplifting, something different, something cool, rather than let this be a negative thing.”
Highland resident | AP calculus and honors math teacher | Carter High, Rialto
“I’ve been teaching for 24 years, so finding ways to switch things up has been a challenge,” Stewart. “But it’s also been fun.”
While most virtual meetings you see these days include a white wall or the inevitable bookcase in the background, Stewart’s one-of-a-kind backdrop includes the bright pink paint job of her stepdaugther’s room with a smattering of her sons’ hockey parapernalia tossed in.
“You know how most Zoom meetings have those neutral backgrounds?” she asked, “Well, with mine, you see hot pink.”
Stewart has enjoyed mastering the technology, creating asynchronous lessons that students could complete at their own pace and schedule. She found that some students who struggled in the classroom at 8 a.m. proved to be successes at 1 or 2 a.m.
“I would love to be back in the classroom, but we do what we’ve to do,” she said. “That’s our job. We reach kids with what tools we have — for me, it was a computer, a document camera and inegnuity.”
Sherman Oaks resident | 4th grade teacher | Andres & Maria Cardenas Elementary School, Van Nuys
Gomez-Quinonez’ kitchen is teacher central. Across the breakfast table sits her husband, Alejandro, who teaches 6th grade.
“Once we figured out our schedule, it worked out well,” she said.
“As the environment got more stable,” she said, “virtual learning has brought the students a lot of consistency and comfort.”
Her advice to fellow e-teachers: “Be kind to yourself — it’s a new strategy and we are all learning together.”