Can you hear me now?

by Verena Schäfers Sutherland

“Hello Ahmed, can you hear me?” I half-shout into my laptop, which is precariously balanced on two couch cushions. Our geriatric mutt, Tucker, is gently snoring in the background, only his two grizzled ears visible against the red and black blanket. I see Ahmed, a mustachioed elderly man with kind eyes, through the ubiquitous Zoom app, looking down at what I presume to be his phone, waving at me, smiling, but no sound comes. Well, fuck. I take a look at the participant list in our conference call, which happens to include just the two of us and happens to also reveal the answer: Ahmed does not have his audio connected.

Ahmed, one of the seven beginning-level students in my English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Level 2 class at the local community college has suddenly been pushed into an online learning modality that I, a veteran teacher of ESOL for fifteen years but now robbed of many of the skills I was so fluently able to apply in the classroom, find similarly confounding. Being an older man from Iraq, he finds the technology aspect of this new reality daunting. He has a laptop, he says, but he doesn’t know how to use it. I ask him to show it to me over Zoom. The screen remains a matte black, no matter which button he pushes. I suspect it may be out of battery power and ask him if he would like to speak to a translator about this. He shakes his head, no. Definitely not. It hurts his pride that I asked.

Ahmed is one of seven beginning-level English learners braving this sudden onset of online learning together with me, and it feels like we are all making it up as we go along. As always, my group of students is diverse. No one-size approach will fit these individuals.

There is Nadya, who is very shy on our first call, but extremely studious. She prefers written feedback and asks her questions via email. Gmail, Zoom, WhatsApp, Google Drive, YouTube videos – you name it, she can navigate it all. She doesn’t know what the “be” verb is, but she can run circles around me technologically. Over the course of the term, I meet George, her young son. When we study, she keeps him busy with movies, or on WhatsApp calls with her family in Belarus. He is shy about the camera but shows me his Paw Patrol watch in my second office hour. Nadya is the only student who joins me regularly for conversation practice, and she now smiles more during our conversations, whereas before she would frown in concentration. I know she is one of the lucky ones. She is going to be ok–the be-verb will come.

Besa, from the Kosovo, finds this world harder to exist in. When talking to me becomes overwhelming for her, she puts her husband on the line. On our third call, both the husband and I are feeling frustrated. I can tell that I’m no longer being as kind and patient as I think of myself as being. We’re all stretched thin. I ask to talk to Besa again. I show her the “be” verb again. Damn the “be” verb, I think. I just made a YouTube video about it. But she does show up to our online classes, and she assures me she’s learning. The words of our department chair echo in my mind: engagement over content. I’m beginning to understand what she means.

Being deaf and visually impaired, remote learning comes with a very different set of challenges for Fenglian, who arrives with a team of four amazing American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters who quietly attend our Zoom calls, signing to Fenglian what I and the other students are discussing. During group work times, when the others are in breakout rooms, I chat with Fenglian.

“Everything ok?” I type. She signals “yes,” her hand a fist rocking back and forth on the screen. She taught me that this means “yes,” right after she taught me how to sign her guide dog’s name, Cruzer. I know that Cruzer loves to chase balls.

These students are my success stories. It’s not easy teaching them, and I often feel lost. But I also feel free. I can make things up as I go along. Nobody is telling me to be in a classroom at a certain time. There are no rules about which learning modalities I need to use. A sense of freedom and chaos prevails as I recklessly photograph pages from the copyrighted book and put them online. The library is closed, after all, and how else would I make books accessible to those students of mine who can’t afford to buy one? While that is a positive aspect of this new way of teaching, the inequality of the system is put into sharp focus for me as well. Our department chair is scrambling to devise a system that allows students access to Chromebooks for the duration of the term, but it is not finished when the start of the term rolls around. Toward the end of the term, I find out that I could have ordered a Chromebook for students that need one. How did I miss that memo? A quick peek at my 526 unread emails tells me that it wasn’t the only memo I missed.

My initial thirteen enrolled students quickly dwindle to seven, and it becomes clear to me: this is a supply problem. An email crosses my feed: a hard-fighting Level 3 teacher asking again about those Chromebooks for her students. It sounds like they never arrived. I’m suddenly feeling extremely ineffective, and even more tired. During a normal term in a Level 2 class, I struggle to support students who lack basic literacy while balancing them with those who already have academic degrees, without causing frustration to either party. Of course, this is my desire, but it is at the best of times nothing but a pretty story I tell myself. I know both ends of the spectrum are frustrated, and I’m aiming for an imaginary middle, often knowing I’m missing the mark.

While these realities of ESOL are acknowledged in department meetings and conversations between tired evening teachers, not much is done about them. We are told that we are doing the best we can, but is the college doing the best it can? The already impossible-to-bridge chasm has now widened considerably and suddenly includes technology access and user skills – an issue that had thus far been reserved for Levels 6 to 8. Not only are those less tech-savvy left behind, but they are also not even given the opportunity to show up.

All of us teachers know and have discussed openly that some students would not be able to participate. Nala, a student with a scholarship and full institutional support, received a Chromebook, but her family has no Internet. She is signed up for class, and the scholarship has paid her tuition, but now her advisor tells me she (the advisor) is considering buying a Comcast account for the family. I don’t hear back from the advisor for a week, and Nala herself is too flustered even to answer a text message from me. She never does join my class. I have no idea if she now has Internet access. She is not alone in her struggle. Many of my students use the expensive data on their phones to connect to class on small phone screens initially, and then decide it’s not worth it. I share my screen during our meetings, knowing full well that not everyone is able to see what I’m typing. I want there to be a better way, so I post notes and record meetings. I dream of a world where free universal Wi-Fi is the norm, a world where pleas for Chromebooks don’t go unanswered.

So many are dropping out. The seven left standing become four. Each of the four students has access to two things: Internet at home and a laptop. Where does this leave people who don’t have these resources? What could I have done to support them? While I try hard not to lay blame on myself, some do feel like personal failures on my part. Like Maria. When we had our first full class meeting, she had attempted to use an outdated Zoom link to connect to the class. While I was having a blast, talking with the students together as a group for the first time, doing what I do so well, sort of, Maria was desperately messaging me through every channel available to her, stuck outside our little Zoom room. She later texted me saying, “I don’t know if this will work for me.” I thought, same, Maria, same. A few days later she had dropped the class. I talked to my department chair about this during a meeting. After an abortive attempt to joke about this – yes, this is what is has come to, she smiles sadly and says, “We can’t keep them all.” I nod and think, but we should try harder. I should try harder. I truly think that, and at the same time I know that nobody is paying me for this emotional labor – or all the extra work of putting materials online.

On the other hand, I am truly impressed with the support the college provides through disabilities services. Fenglian is a Chinese student who has severe visual impairment in addition to her being deaf. Her first language is ASL. The initial interview with Fenglian is a ninety-minute ordeal of missed connections and attempts to make this situation workable for her, her interpreters, and for me. In the end, we reach a point where Fenglian can read what I share, see the ASL interpreters, and can kind of see me. It’s the best we can do.

One time, one of the ASL interpreter’s kids runs around on screen, just as I return from breaking up a fight between our resident shepherd and my fearless tuxedo cat. Kids running on screen, mothers – always mothers – scrambling to contain them while maintaining a smooth, professional facade. I see it crack, sometimes, that facade. Someone tiredly eating a breakfast bagel and sipping coffee at 10 a.m. during class. A quick reach for the mute button a few seconds too late to conceal the noisy fight between siblings. Nadya shouting something in Russian over her shoulder and then turning back to the camera, a slight embarrassed smile on her face, saying, “Sorry, just one minute.” We all smile in solidarity: this is our life now; this is what it looks like.

But I’m feeling ok, I think. I’m fine. This is fine. I can do this. Never mind the overwhelmed, worries about my family in Germany (though they are probably and rightfully more worried about me), technological glitches, and desperate messages from my department chair. Never mind that I was given this class four days before it started, and I didn’t want it, but I had to take it because – money. I should be grateful to have a job; isn’t that how it works? It’s not supposed to be this way. Never mind that there is a revolution going on, and everyone is strained and stretched thin.

The department tries to support us in this time. Full time employees are tasked with drumming up resources, which result in offerings such as weekly Zoom support groups (on Zoom of course), an avalanche of Google Docs with teaching ideas and links to helpful sites, and even a virtual cocktail hour. While I don’t participate much, I at least feel an effort has been made to help us teach. We are being thanked at least on a weekly basis. Look at all those teachers scrambling. “You all are amazing” is the catch phrase. Somewhere in there I can’t shake the feeling that educators, students, and administrators alike are being asked to handle an almost impossible situation with very few resources, though.

That is, when I give myself time to feel and process. I feel like I’m in survival mode all the time now. I’m trying hard to keep up with the many messages from administration coming my way that seem to amount to us teachers being told to hold it down and make it up as best we can. In week four I pretty much stop checking my emails. I know our department chair will text me if I miss something important, an act of kindness I’m deeply grateful for. When I look again in week eleven, I see that I missed something, sure, but there is so much noise. How can we filter the noise?

Taking attendance has been up to my discretion this term too. I look at the shared Google doc and put in three hours for Monday for everyone who submitted their homework, no matter whether they checked in with me or not. I can make this choice on my own, I have it in black-on-white pixels on my email screen, one of the twenty-five tabs currently open in my browser as I try to simultaneously record a YouTube video, add the correct hyperlink to my WebEasy page, that lowest of high-tech options the college offers, organize the folder with audio files for listening activities, and keep my cat from puking on the sofa. Of course, two hours later I receive a text message from a student telling me I linked to the wrong page in the book. I apologize and fix it. And then I realize – I’m late entering attendance again. Usually, I would have an email about this now, or a text. But nothing. Silence. I realize I am not the only one who is overwhelmed.

I am, of course, not at all the only teacher going through fatigue currently. My fellow Level 2 teacher Sue and I half-heartedly exchange phone numbers, try for a Zoom meeting a couple of times, tell ourselves we really should be reaching out, until we give up. We tell each other there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Let’s just share materials. A great idea in theory, but in practice even just creating a shared Google folder and annotating documents to make them usable for someone else seems overwhelming. In the end, I just send her to my WebEasy page and tell her it’s all there. I have no idea if she looks at it. I know others are much more successful in their efforts to share the load, and toward the end of the term, I finally feel like next term, I might be up for a more collaborative effort. But I do not get a class for summer term, which does not come as a huge surprise.

I wonder what’s wrong with me that I struggle so much to connect now, and then I realize that it is because the effort to do so is put on the teachers’ shoulders. I’m feeling numb. But I do feel alive when things go well when I feel like I’m actually teaching. My partner, now suddenly privy to my teaching, says (is that awe in his voice?), “I think you’re a really good teacher. There was definitely learning going on.” Somehow, this brings tears to my eyes. There are so many threads, so many individual stories. I struggle to gauge if learning is going on. But the final exam, posted on Google Docs and proctored through my laptop camera and, of course, Zoom, shows me: there is. On some level, I have been able to get through more materials and cover more ground than ever before. On another level, I know this is because the students self-selected, which means I have reached far fewer people.

“Okay, Ahmed, can you hear me now?” I say, well-knowing that he can’t. The Zoom app clearly shows that his cell phone audio is not connected. In an abortive attempt to fix the issue, I accidentally kick him out of the call. I hold my breath and swear. I’m swearing a lot these days. Quickly, I open tab twenty-six in my browser, Google Voice, to text him, “I’m so sorry. Click this link to speak to me.” Will I ever see Ahmed again? Is he going to drop the class as well? Just a few minutes later, he is back, smile turned to frown, but without sound. A sudden brainstorm has me waving my own phone at the camera. He nods. I’m not sure what we’re saying, but we’re communicating. I connect my own phone to the Zoom call, which causes a terrible screeching in the system, but fortunately my student can’t hear it. He looks a bit confused because he can see me double on his screen. I hold the phone up to the camera, very close, and show him where to turn on the sound. He shrugs, looking mildly desperate now. It’s not working. I click through some settings. Oh. There. “Disconnect audio,” it says. That seems like a very reasonable button to click when audio is the only thing you understand. I click the button. I show Ahmed my phone again. He nods, with me now. I show him how to reconnect the audio. I smile, then I show him again. I smile, and I wait. About a minute later, Ahmed’s face crunched up into a focused frown, I hear a crackling on my computer.

“Hello, can you hear me?” I say, again, as if that’s the only thing I can say anymore.

“Yes, I can hear you, teacher,” Ahmed says. We both smile. After we hang up, I know, I hope, I think that Ahmed can do this online education thing–another success story. Until he drops out in week eight.


Verena is an animal trainer as well as a recovering teacher from Portland, Oregon. When she’s not outdoors with dogs or horses, she spends her time learning punk classics on the ukulele, exploring fantastical realms of all sorts both in books and through role-playing games and snuggling up with one of her many pets.  

All names have been changed to protect the privacy and identities of students.


This essay first appeared in the Power issue of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, available here!