See Related: Susan Estrich

My son's longtime girlfriend (her students call her "Miss") teaches physics in an inner-city charter high school. She is, happily, back in school; doing labs online with students, slowly sipping coffee outside at McDonald's as their internet connections come and go, makes teaching law on Zoom look like a snap.

But wait. That's physics. Yesterday, during her "free" period that is never free, she had a chemistry class.

Note my choice of language: She didn't teach a chemistry class; she had one.

In a happy coincidence, "Miss" is credentialled to actually teach chemistry, but it doesn't matter. She wasn't teaching it. The students in the room -- not the class, the room -- were taking chemistry online. There was no actual class or teacher. They were all at different points in the software. Miss wasn't in a position to jump into a course she had not designed, with students she was meeting for the first time, all of them at different points in the course, and she was there only because of the schedule changes for teacher conference week. Otherwise, she might be standing in front of a room full of students taking American history, which she isn't credentialled to teach; or Spanish, which she doesn't even speak.

As every parent has learned in the last almost two years, planting a child in front of a computer -- even at a well-lit desk, in a quiet place, with reliable Wi-Fi, healthy snacks and no one crying -- is not the same as sending them to school with a real live teacher who actually knows them. Sees them. Listens to them. Is teaching them something he knows something about. Knows how to teach the subject.

That's the little secret about teaching. It's not enough to know what you're talking about. That, in truth, is the easy part.

It's knowing HOW to talk about it. How to teach. It's a lot easier to teach things you don't know -- you actually can learn along with your students -- than to try to talk about things you know about but don't know how to teach. In college, students are expected to wade through what it takes to get to the kernel of genius. In a word, it's their job to find it. But even there, the great teachers stand out.

And in high school? It's actually much tougher. You really do need to teach. And if you don't? Or can't?

By and large, independent learning is independent. It is not, by any measure, at the high school level or below.

And what the people at the front of the room are doing is not, by any measure, teaching. It is proctoring. Sit still. Look down. Do not consult other sites. If you can even limit that kind of cruising. Otherwise, the students at the desks are on their own.

I used to spend long days in court sitting through a fairly endless trade-secret trial. I shopped. I expect many of my students date during my lectures. Every once in a while, I would get a text from the general counsel, who sat behind me: "Buy the Mac," he would say. "I'm paying for it," and he was. Sit for an hour, buy the entry level.

There are certain things you can do while staring at a computer screen and pretending to do something else. Shopping, for instance.

But let's not pretend at our children's expense. Learning isn't one of them. If this is what it will take for us to start respecting teachers more, then that may be the only lesson to be had here.

Susan Estrich can be reached at

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