As the school year winds to a stop, the world of “Zoom learning” as the only option for students is gradually becoming a thing of the past. Especially when looking at how many schools in the country are closing out the school year offering hybrid or fully in-person learning. However, the road to this destination has not been a smooth one, as battles between teachers’ unions, school districts, parents and city governments made headlines across the country.
Not only was reopening a contentious issue for many parents, it also came with mixed feelings for the individual teachers who would be in the classroom carrying out reopening plans.
Chicago is one city which faced disagreements between the teachers’ union and school district over heading back in person. But after coming to an agreement, public high school students in Chicago are finishing the school year learning on a hybrid system.
Samson Widerman is a 12th grade Chicago public school English teacher, who also runs a TikTok account where he explains social and teacher issues. YR Media asked him to explain his experience through the reopening process, his involvement in the Chicago Teachers Union and the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on him as a teacher.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Emyr Oritz: How has the pandemic impacted your students’ learning?
Samson Widerman: There was a time maybe in late November or December, where it seemed that I was getting an email maybe once a week from a student, letting me know that either they had caught COVID, a family member had caught COVID or [they were] mourning the loss of a family member who had passed away because of it.
So there has been a lot of communication from my students about how the pandemic has directly impacted them and their families. And the community where I work on the southwest side of Chicago was especially hard hit by the pandemic at that time.
EO: Seeing the impact that the pandemic has had on your students and on the community, do you think that your school was ready to reopen at the time that it did?
SW: I think my school was ready, and I think my school was exceptional in a lot of ways. I’m really thankful that we have a strong teachers union that was able to ask the tough questions — in particular to ask, “Is now the right time to reopen?”
I’m grateful that I’m part of this coalition that works hard to protect teachers and their families and students and their families. But I also knew that the decision would not directly impact me until plans were made to open high schools. [Chicago public elementary schools] opened at least a month earlier than we did, so by the time high schools opened, I think we were ready.
EO: You’ve mentioned the importance of the teachers union in this entire process. How do you think the district handled the reopening and the concerns given by the union?
SW: Of course, there are districts all over the country that have no union, where teachers had no voice in deciding when to return. With that said, it was not a smooth bargaining process by any means between the union and the district here.
Understandably, the district was under a lot of pressure from parents, who don’t just rely on schools to educate their students, but also in terms of child care. So that they themselves can feel comfortable going back to work. So the city of Chicago, and I’m sure districts around the country, saw reopening schools as step one in a much broader reopening; if kids can go back to school, parents can go back to work.
EO: There are still teachers and districts who are hesitant to go back to the classroom. As somebody who’s gone through this reopening process, do you feel that reopening is worth it?
SW: I have tremendous respect for those teachers, and I think that their fear is totally warranted. COVID-19 is scary. I personally have been wanting to get back into the classroom, but I know I have a lot less to lose than some of those teachers who are really concerned. And throughout union negotiations, I was always ready to stand up and take action on behalf of those teachers.
Even now, a lot of students and parents don’t feel ready. It was a much smaller percentage of students who ended up choosing to come back than I think the district had initially planned for.
EO: Given all the challenges that you’ve overcome and are still working to overcome, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve taken away?
SW: I’m really lucky that a lot of the students I teach this year, I taught already as freshmen or sophomores. Even though I don’t see them [all in person], at the very least I know who they are, their interests [and] what they care about.
It’s been a lot harder to connect with students that I never met in person, especially in large size classes — which for me are between 22 and 34 students. Those opportunities for real conversations have been really limited. So lesson number one of this year is that effective teaching is always going to be personal — that learning in a school setting requires an emotional connection and a personal connection.
EO: What kind of advice would you have for teachers who are trying to advocate for themselves, or even the other teachers unions that are having a hard time being heard by their district?
SW: I would say anyone who knows that teachers at their school might be interested [in forming a union] should investigate and start talking to labor advocates and learn what kind of laws exist in their state and in their jurisdiction that might allow for a union to form.
There’s always power in numbers when you can coordinate teachers and collaboratively convey your ideas. There’s power in that. And I think teachers everywhere shouldn’t be afraid to speak up. Because we’re on the ground, we’re talking to students, talking to parents. We’ve got a perspective that needs to be heard.
EO: Is there anything else that I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to add?
SW: One thing I’ll add is that Chicago is the exception, not the rule. We have a strong teachers union in Chicago that has fought hard in many battles and has a really strong voice as a result, and it can lead to conflict. And sometimes that conflict is not productive, but oftentimes it elevates teachers’ voices. And most districts in the country don’t have that. A lot of the teachers who commented on my TikToks did so not to just show support, but to express a desire to have that strong teacher advocate in their communities and their districts. So I hope that they get the opportunity.