The Sutton house in Highland could be called the model home for education, circa 2020: Two teachers in different schools, two young children, one house. If anyone really gets the chaos, the contradictions, and the strange intimacies of education at this strange moment in history, it is the Suttons.
Our conversation zigzags through the many dimensions of the issue: personal and professional, physical and virtual. Through it all, the family has maintained its sense of humor and a profound feeling that, as the four of them hunker in a house in the woods lit up by connected devices, they are among the most fortunate ones in this time of teaching from quarantine.
Tim Sutton is a media teacher at the Woodstock Day School. Catherine Sutton is a sixth-grade science teacher in the Arlington district.
Everyone seems to have a dramatic story about the final days of the old way. How did it go down for you guys?
Tim: It is hard to even remember it seems so long ago. We [Woodstock Day School] weren’t going to close, but once Kingston closed, it was like “oh, man.”
Catherine: It was Friday the thirteenth. At Arlington, we knew it was going down on March 12. That’s when everything was shutting down.
Tim: I was at work just wrapping everything, backing up all my kids’ movies. It was like a scene from a film where you had to get out ahead of a disaster. We were told that once we leave, that’s it. We can’t come back
Catherine: We had a babysitter that night because we were going to go see Mason Jennings at Colony in Woodstock, which was canceled. We kept the babysitter and went out for one last normal dinner.
Tim: it was like the last meal before the apocalypse.
Catherine: It felt very weird.
How quickly did your schools come up with an online transition plan?
Tim: I have always been a big Google Classroom guy. Every single one of my classes has one. I was ready. It was a seamless transition. We were up and teaching the next week.
Catherine: Our roll-out was very different. We knew there would be a closure but it came a day sooner than we thought. That Friday we wrote up things for kids to do and gave out textbooks (which we don’t normally use), but we really thought they were going to come in on Monday and get a bunch of stuff to take home. Most kids had what they needed but had some left things and their lockers and couldn’t come back for them. We were not up and running with online teaching right away. We were anticipating maybe a two-week closure?
How are the systems working for you? Teaching, scheduling, staying in touch with kids?
Tim: as I mentioned, I already had all my assignments and everything on Google Classroom. The big thing I added was Google Meet. We mobilized quickly. The staff met as we were packing up and then transitioned to staff meetings to online, figuring out how to teach and to assess, and how to ensure kids could still have and meet goals.
Now I teach live, five days a week, photography, filmmaking, blogging, graphic design. Big senior projects and presentations are all on schedule. I think as a smaller private school staff, we had a big advantage. We could be more agile.
Catherine: We’re not only talking private versus a public school; we’re talking about a completely different scale, numbers-wise. The entire staff of Woodstock Day could meet on Zoom. Arlington on the other hand is a massive school district. A of people had to be consulted: administrators, a huge staff and student population. It took longer to make decisions because they had to be the right decisions for everybody.
I think we did a great job once we transitioned to online learning. All the science teachers in my building were already Google Classroom and are all tech-savvy So the students were already used to it too. We do not do live teaching necessarily. It would be forbiddingly hard to schedule that with so many teachers and so many students. There’s no easy way to make that happen. So a lot of us have been scheduling Google Meets with kids, not necessarily to do formal teaching but more of a casual check in to keep kids engaged in their learning.
People have gotten comfortable fast. But there is absolutely no replacement for teaching in proximity, engaging and questioning in real time, hands on experiments and labs. We’ve made the best out of a super-weird situation.
How are your students taking to this new model of school? How are they handling this major life disruption?
Catherine: For the most part, I’ve been very impressed by the way kids have adjusted. In science, it is tough. No lab work or hands-on instruction. “Go to this website, and do this thing.” The first couple weeks were tough going. Some kids got right into it while others had trouble just logging on and getting the programs to work. The ones who struggled at first have been able to figure it out. We were able to get Chromebooks out very quickly to kids who needed them, so no one has been left out.
When I talk to them, they tell me they’re fine. They’re bored. They miss their friends. But they are hanging in.
Tim, you are dealing with graduating seniors. They must be feeling robbed of a lot ritualized closure and pomp, and the whole emotional, community experience of transition.
Tim: Some kids are having a really hard time with this, missing the socialization. The majority are showing up in class and engaging, and the dynamics of the class have transferred over to the virtual world.
Kind of like how enemies and rivals all accept each others’ friend requests as they reassemble the whole social structure of school online?
Tim: I think most kids are over it now, eyes glazing over a bit more. But the work — movies and photographs, video journals — is some of the best I have seen in my whole career, and a lot of it addresses quarantine directly.
But the seniors are sad. They lost the prom, all these things. They don’t want to hear, “You’re part of history. You’ll never forget this time.” They don’t care. They don’t want to be the social-distancing generation. But they are still doing the work. They are motivated. And it has been decided that we’re having our graduation at a drive-in movie theater up in Greenville. So that’s kind of neat. In what I teach, I get to use a lot of humor. Also, in a private-school setting I get to know all my students really well.[Tim and Cat proceed to get into a friendly argument about knowing their students]
Do you think kids are developing better skills at self-guided independent work? Is that a possible silver lining?
Catherine: It’s really individual. Some kids are good at taking something and running with it. Others need more support.
Do you find some kids who struggle with the school environment actually thrive more in this makeshift current system (still looking for silver linings here)?
Tim: Oh, yeah. Some kids who weren’t doing as much at school are just knocking it out of the park now with their creative projects. On the other side, I see a lot of depression and anxiety, kids for whom it is getting harder and harder to wake up and just get on a computer.
Catherine: Most of my kids love the fact that they get to sleep in. But they want to come back to school. They want to know what it is going to look like when this is done, and when it is going to be done.
Tim: At home, we try to make sure our own kids understand how different the situation can be for other people, kids who don’t have a house and a lawn with chickens. Maybe you live in a city on the tenth floor and you have one computer to share as a family.
Have either of you been involved in any discussions about what is going to happen in the fall, or is that completely mysterious at this point?
Catherine: Lots of conversations, lots of professional development to be ready for anything, but nobody has that information. Our administrators told us there isn’t a secret plan. The guidelines are coming out in July. It is hard for a district to have a plan until we know what the guidelines will be.
Tim: We have task force committees, which I am not privy to. What it will look like is hard to say — a combination of virtual and physical? How do you socially distance kindergartners? There are a lot of questions, but I believe we’ll be open come September. We need to hear more from the Health Department.
Two teachers at different levels and schools, two small kids learning at home. The Sutton Family is ground zero for education 2020. What is it like for your kids?
Catherine: Otis is five and in pre-school, and Elliot is nine and in third grade, both at Woodstock Day School.
Tim: Our kids are doing well. We’re not really afraid that they are falling behind, which is a fear I hear from a lot of parents but it is not a fair comparison because we’re both teachers.
Catherine: We’re both at home. It’s pretty chaotic with all four of us here and working on devices. It has moments where it feels gloriously peaceful, and moments where it feels epically messy.
Tim: It’s like The Jetsons meets Little House on the Prairie. We have breakfast outside together and feed the chickens, and then we all sign on for classes. Other times it’s more like The Shining meets The Empire Strikes Back.
Both of those movies provide pretty interesting models of fatherhood.
Tim: When a kid says no, I’m not doing that, you’re like a deer in the headlights. I’ll be teaching a class live, and a kid will come in and say, “Mom says I can’t watch a show.”
Catherine: If we both have to be in meetings where we can’t be interrupted, it is pretty impossible with two little kids.
Tim: We really can’t complain. How is a single parent doing it?
Catherine: There are plenty of people who are continuing to work through this, and the kids are home alone trying to navigate. It is very tricky. I can’t even imagine how much harder it would be if one of us were working outside the home.
Tim: I see a lot of parent shaming going on social media, this pressure to be a perfect parent, and to make the most of this time, make it special. As parents and teachers, we just need it to make it so they are not living in fear, and are continuing to thrive and grow. I don’t know how we would do it if we weren’t both here.
Does Otis at five feel like he is in school? Is he engaged?
Catherine: He has a circle time at 9:15 with his classmates and his teacher.
Tim: They ring the bell.
Catherine: They have some songs they sing. There’s some kind of science or social-studies lesson. Story time is later in the afternoon. The teacher sends over different practice sheets, art projects, other supplements.
Tim: He also gets a one-on-one with his teacher once a week. He walks around the yard with his iPad and shows his teacher the chickens, and talks about his thoughts about Star Wars.
Catherine: It gives his teacher a chance to assess where he is at with certain skills.
Tim: He plays hide-and-go-seek with his friends. On an iPad. It is kind of ridiculous.
I can’t picture it.
Tim: But there are incredible apps teaching him to read. And we encourage a lot of outdoor exploration, another way in which we are super-fortunate.
How about nine-year-old Elliot?
Catherine: He usually starts some independent work as soon as he wakes up. He has some morning meetings, then an online math program and a different live lesson in one subject every day.
Tim: Tomorrow he is doing his report.
Catherine: It’s on costume design in the original Star Wars movie.
Tim: How they were influenced by Russian and German military, and samurai. He’s also learning some violin, on Zoom.
He’s practicing violin while you guys are teaching?
Tim: Yeah, it’s insane, dude.
Where are they on the stir-crazy scale?
Catherine: It is harder for Otis. Socialization is such a huge part of what five-year-olds are supposed to be learning at school, those interactions, working out problems. Thank goodness the boys have each other, but they only have each other. Otis is not getting a wide variety of relationships to work through.
Tim: Whereas Elliot is playing Minecraft every day with four friends, Face Timing each other while they are playing. It’s a way to connect with his dudes.
Catherine: It’s something, at least.
Tim: When this first happened, the weather was beautiful and everything was idyllic, we hiked more. And then it got really cold and rainy and everyone crashed. There is something even still about the natural environment. Its influence on learning and attitude is still profound. We have woods, a trampoline, a pool, chickens. Elliot and I have been running every day. It’s a good time to focus on nature.
Catherine: And again, we are really, really fortunate in that way — to have a yard, to have outside. It’s the perfect escape from the bubble of four people in a small house, all on devices.