“I often feel like adrenalin is the only thing getting me through my classes”: A Toronto high school teacher on his classroom experience so far

“I often feel like adrenalin is the only thing getting me through my classes”: A Toronto high school teacher on his classroom experience so far

Joseph Galiwango is the head of the English department at Cedarbrae Collegiate Institute, a high school in Scarborough. We spoke to him about the chaotic back-to-school process during the pandemic, the technological challenges of online teaching and why some marginalized students might not be getting enough support. 

As told to Andrea Yu

“I grew up reading hip-hop magazines and I wanted to be a magazine writer, so I went to York to study English. During my undergrad, I volunteered at a middle school in North York, helping kids with their homework. As a Black male who has done well academically, I’ve always wanted to have a presence in schools to show kids, ‘Hey, we’re here and we can succeed.’ After graduation, I went to journalism school at Ryerson but I had trepidations about whether I could make a living as a freelance writer. So I applied to teacher’s college at York. I graduated in 2007 and worked first at City Adult Learning Centre, then the West End Alternative School, teaching English, art and social sciences. In 2017, I was hired at Cedarbrae Collegiate Institute in Scarborough as the head of the English department. I teach all grades, from nine to 12.

The school is full of creative, bright, funny, smart and hard-working students. But it’s also a community with low incomes, low graduation rates and low test scores. A lot of the parents are immigrants, and they’re often busy working and so they might not have time to advocate for their children or support their academics. There’s a large South Asian population, and more than half of our students have parents who do not speak English as a first language. We even have a translation committee that helps communicate at parent events.

“I try to develop a connection with marginalized students so they feel supported and seen. I’m keenly aware of the kids who are having a rough time at home, and school is where we try and help. We develop relationships with them, improving their self-esteem and encourage them to keep moving forward.

I had one student who was in Grade 10 still taking Grade 9 English because he was struggling. But I found out that he loved football, so we would joke about the New York Giants in class. That got him excited and made him feel welcome in the classroom. I have another student who used to skip class sometimes. I’d be teaching another class and I’d see him in the hallway. I’d pull him into my classroom in the middle of a lesson and call the teacher of the class he was supposed to be in. It was my way of saying, ‘I see you. I’m paying attention to you, and I’m not just going to let it slide.’ I help run a leadership and mentorship club for Black boys once a week. We have a Black Students’ Association, but Black boys don’t have much membership in it. They choose not to participate. So we wanted to create a space for them to develop leadership skills.

“When the Ministry of Education announced that March Break would last for three weeks, I was excited to spend more time with my wife and two daughters. But then we got an email from our principal telling us to prepare for virtual learning. I went back to school to get my computer, some files and books. It was challenging at first. Technology is a good tool, but it doesn’t replace the atmosphere of the classroom, where it’s easier to figure things out with students and attend to their learning needs.

“Shortly after Covid began, the ministry decided that student marks couldn’t go down. So students realized, ‘Hey, I don’t have to do any work and I can still pass. Cool.’ We had to try to contact the students and their parents, but sometimes we couldn’t get in touch with everyone. There are some students I still haven’t seen since last March, and I’m worried about them.

“Students who were already marginalized struggled the most. Before Covid, school was where teachers could try to help these students out. But suddenly they were stuck at home. Their parents might have been struggling for a number of reasons, or they had a lot of siblings, or they just didn’t have enough support. In my experience, support is what separates a successful student from an unsuccessful student.

“There were also challenges with getting all of our students online. The board collected laptops and tablets in the school so that they could distribute them, and teachers were tasked with calling up parents to make sure students had access to a device. If they didn’t, we’d send their names to the vice-principal so the board could get them a device. In some cases, the student might be one of five siblings but they’re all sharing the same computer. This semester, one of my students was using an iPad, and it was hard for  her to navigate Google Classroom. We were able to get her a laptop.

“The teachers really came together to help each other out. The more tech-savvy teachers were helping the rest of us how to figure out Google Classroom and get comfortable with contacting students online. We had to figure out how to transfer or format student mark files so we could access them from home. I was calling my principal and chatting with other teachers on Google Meet often so we could support each other.

“In the summer, there was an announcement from the ministry that high school would be half online, half in the classroom. I was shocked and worried. If we were in the classroom, who was going to be teaching the online part? But by the end of August, the TDSB had put out a four-day quadmester timetable where the morning is three hours and 45 minutes of in-class teaching and the afternoon is an hour and 15 minutes of online teaching. Students would be on a four-day cycle, so I would see them once every four days. I was worried about my ability to develop a relationship and support them. Some students could opt out of classroom teaching and go completely virtual. We also had teachers who wanted to teach virtual because of health concerns or other reasons.

“Teachers at my school went back to work to plan on September 2. We met with other teachers in the library where we could all space out. We had some professional development slides to go through on our own too, about anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. And we were getting training on the digital learning platforms like Brightspace and Google Classroom.

“It felt good to see my colleagues and talk to them. I realized that I had it pretty good over the summer. I got to spend a lot of time outdoors with my daughters. Back at school, I was hearing about colleagues whose family members were sick or passed away from Covid. Our numbers were dwindling too. Every day, more and more teachers seemed to be switching to virtual learning. It was a weird emotional experience because it got me thinking, Are they making a better decision than I am? Should I be leaving too? About a quarter of our teachers opted for virtual teaching. But I decided to stay. I knew that being in the classroom was the right decision for me.

“The first day of school at Cedarbrae was September 17. Most teachers at my school didn’t get their timetables until September 15, so they didn’t know what they were teaching until two days before the start of school. Some of my colleagues got subjects that they haven’t taught in decades. I have a colleague who specializes in ESL but got a history class out of the blue. Luckily, I was assigned all English classes, which I was familiar with. I would be teaching in the classroom in the mornings and online in the afternoons.

“In my classroom, I have 30 desks. Every other desk has yellow caution tape on it. I expected 10 students on my first day of teaching Grade 9 English, but only seven showed up. I had one student who was quite shy and withdrawn in class, but he opens up more with one-on-one conversations. And I can tell that he’s a strong reader. I have another student who’s one of five siblings, but she’s struggling. I’ve only seen her in class twice when I should have seen her five times by now. I started off the class with some journaling prompts, and the kids wrote about difficulties visiting family abroad, and wearing masks as fashion statements. Then we went on a walk around the school for a break and returned to the classroom to read a short story. I played jazz on the radio to create a soothing atmosphere.

“Teachers get a pack of N95s each week. One kid said he wasn’t wearing his mask because it was too small, so I gave him one of mine. I have another student who shares a laptop with her younger sibling and is helping them with their schoolwork because their mom is busy at work. She’s the first in her family who’s university-bound, so she’s feeling a lot of pressure to succeed and get high marks. I’m trying to take the pressure off by giving her more time to complete assignments.

“The long classes are exhausting. I try to break up the time by mixing up the activities so I’m not just talking for almost four hours. We have independent reading time. I’ll get them to talk with a friend about what they just read. We’ll also have journal-writing time. I often feel like it’s adrenalin that’s getting me through these classes. There’s more pressure: before, if a student was having an off day, I know there was always tomorrow to try again. But now there’s pressure to make sure we cover everything we need to do because I won’t see them again for four days. And because we had a late start to the school year, I need to make up for that first week too. At the same time, it’s nice to teach a class of just eight or 10 students instead of 25 to 30. I feel like I have to use all my teaching skills to keep them engaged. It’s more satisfying and rewarding than online teaching.

“The atmosphere in the school is a lot quieter than usual. A little gloomy. Our high school is normally packed with around 1,300 students, and now there are just a few hundred. The students seem happy to be back, but the mood is definitely different. They miss hanging out with their friends at lunch or between classes. Now they just come to school in the morning and go home at lunchtime. Then it’s just teachers doing online classes in the afternoon.Things are still a little rushed and hectic. Last week, I finished planning an online poetry lesson just 10 minutes before the students logged on. We had to cancel our mentorship club, but we’re trying to figure out a way to bring it online.

“In late September, a school just down the road from us, Mason Road Junior Public School, was shut down after a Covid outbreak. They had one student and three staff members with positive tests. One of my students asked me, ‘Do you think we’re going to go into lockdown?’ She lives close to that school. She’s worried about her safety and that she might get Covid if she keeps coming to school. She told me that she didn’t want to come back to school and wanted to go virtual, but she can’t because she’s already registered to be in school for the first quadmester. I told her that I didn’t think we would go into a lockdown like we did in the spring. I think schools will just be shut down periodically. That’s going to be the new norm.

“I felt sad to see a student of mine so worried. And she’s right—we’re all at risk, and there isn’t much we can do about it. I know I’m at risk too, which sucks. Some teachers were talking about whether they change their clothes when they get home. I thought, Oh, man, I don’t do that but I probably should.

“A week into school, I had a kid in my class who got a nosebleed. I was like, Oh geez, here we go. I had to put on my game face. I wanted to make sure the student was taken care of but also that he didn’t get blood on the floor, or on me. Even though I knew that nosebleeds aren’t a normal symptom of Covid, I still thought it might be dangerous. I called the office, and they sent a safety monitor to escort him out of the classroom and take care of his nosebleed. The safety monitors are employed by another union. Usually, they keep the hallways clear, make sure students aren’t skipping class and break up fights if they happen. But now they’re helping escort students who might be feeling sick. My student came back after about 30 minutes, and he was fine.

“I’d be disappointed if we had to go back to full online learning again. Teaching in front of a computer feels disconnected. Getting back in school was such a painful, ridiculous, complicated process, and I don’t want to have to do it all over again if schools are shut down.”